‘In the beginning were created only the germs or causes of the forms of life, which were afterwards to be developed in gradual course.’
So runs one account of the origins of life. But these are not the words of Charles Darwin or some modern biologist. They are the words of the great North African theologian and bishop, Saint Augustine, written sixteen hundred years ago.
Augustine was obsessed with the question of where life comes from. He returned to the subject time and again, and wrote three different commentaries in which he tried to make sense of the biblical book of Genesis. Against some of the thinkers of his day, Augustine believed in creation ex nihilo, in which both time and space were created simultaneously. But he didn’t believe that organic life sprang into being instantaneously.
Instead, Augustine argued that God created the world with a latent capacity to develop life over time. The analogy he used was that of dormant seeds waiting to sprout from the ground. Insects, for example, did not simply appear as though by magic, but, by virtue of the potentialities built into creation, emerged naturally, generated from putrefied material: literally, out of the slime.
Rather than creating life directly, Augustine’s view was that God arranged for life to emerge gradually on earth in accordance with fixed laws. As a result, for Augustine, the six days of creation talked about in the bible should be seen as a logical framework for helping us understand the process of creation, not as a specific period of time. It’s not exactly the modern theory of evolution. But it’s not a million miles away.
Significantly, Augustine regarded all this as a ‘literal’ interpretation of Genesis. (His most important book on the subject was actually entitled ‘The Literal Meaning of Genesis’.) He was not engaged in a desperate rearguard action to reconcile the bible with the awkward findings of modern science, but simply trying to understand what he saw as the original intention behind the text. Believers and non-believers alike who assume today that traditional Christianity was committed to a six-day creation, or a fundamentalist understanding of the bible, are hugely mistaken.
Long before the development of modern science, Augustine emphasised the need to read the bible with flexibility, intelligence, and an openness to learning from elsewhere. He believed there is plenty about the heavens and the earth that can be known with certainty by anyone using reason and experience alone. So when the apparent meaning of scripture stood as odds with the science of his day, Augustine took this as a sign to think again about how he interpreted the bible, and he did not mince words when he described as ‘disgraceful’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘embarrassing’ the way some Christians make ‘idiotic’ claims about the natural world, because they think in misguided fashion they are being faithful to the bible.
The relevance of Augustine’s warnings for contemporary disputes between religion and science is clear. A hundred and fifty years after Darwin, we are still caught too often between the shrill voices of religious fundamentalists on the right, and dogmatic atheists on the left.
A plague on both their houses. Here’s what we need: good science and good theology.