Augustine lived from 354 to 430. He was easily one of the most profound thinkers who ever lived. His words are relevant today.
Starting off, your and my interpretation of this complex topic is secondary or even below that and is not a test for orthodoxy. Since our interpretations are peripheral, let’s remember this wise statement:
In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things charity (love)
Now let’s get started.
Augustine lived before Modern Science, so sometimes his ideas conform to his age. However, he was right to express his frustration with preachers and interpreters of Genesis who make foolish claims about it and distract intelligent and honest seekers from the eternal truths of Christianity.
From his book The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, (as distinct from an allegorical meaning and commentary) here is his now-famous, long excerpt:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars [note how we have to accommodate him here] and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals and shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such an opinion, and to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertions [1 Tim 1:7]. (pp. 42-43)
To apply this now-famous excerpt to our knowledge today of the natural world, we must stop forcing ancient “science” and modern science to fit together in perfect concord or harmony. Imposing our knowledge of science on Scripture is unfair and anachronistic (bad chronology).
One example today of a silly interpretation of Scripture is young earth creationism, which says that everything was created 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The fact is that the evidence is overwhelming that the universe is about 13.7 or 13.8 billion years old, and the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, which can be tested and confirmed many ways. Paleontology and fossils prove that dinosaurs and other living organisms lived tens and hundreds of millions and even over a billion years ago. Paleontology and genetics tell us that humans like us appeared about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago.
Some readers may point out that Augustine held “silly” (by our standards) interpretations, or he was “all over the map.” However, I said at the outset of this post that Augustine was a man of his times, so he did get some things wrong, by our standards. The main point is that just as silly claims about Genesis circulated in his day, so too silly ones circulate in our times. The clearest example is a young earth.
Augustine was right. If Christians keep promoting these silly theories based only on their ultraliteralist interpretation of Scripture, then honest and intelligent seekers will be scared off from the eternal truths of Scripture, like “the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven.”
Augustine Says No to Silly Interpretations of Genesis
SERIES ON GENESIS 1-11