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Saint Augustine

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Saint Augustine

Comments by Dr Ken Smith

Dr Smith holds the following: B.Sc. (1st class honours in Mathematics) from Sydney University, 1954; M.Sc. from Sydney University, 1955; Ph.D. from the University of Queensland, 1975; B.A. (major in Studies in Religion) University of Queensland, 1985; M.Lit.St. (Department of Studies in Religion) the University of Queensland, 1990.  Dr Smith has held the following research and teaching positions: 1954-1955: Research student, Department of Mathematics, Sydney University; 1956-1961: Scientific Officer, Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough and Bedford, England; 1961-1965: Senior Scientific Officer, Royal Aircraft Establishment, Bedford, England; 1965-1974: Lecturer in Mathematics, the University of Queensland; 1975-1997: Senior Lecturer in Mathematics, the University of Queensland; 1997 to date: Honorary Research Consultant, Department of Mathematics, the University of Queensland.

 Apparently Augustine, in his day, had trouble with people who tried to make deductions about the way the world works by assuming that Genesis provided information of a scientific nature.

He devoted some attention to this issue in his massive commentary The Literal Meaning of Genesis (translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J.; two volumes; Newman Press, New York, 1982).

The long section 39 in chapter 19 of Book 1 was quoted, in part, by Galileo, and is worth reproducing in full (from pages 42 and 43 in volume 1).

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 and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, 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 opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.  If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they 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 learned from experience and the light of reason?

Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold 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".
[The last 14 words here are quoted from Paul's First Letter to Timothy, chapter 1, verse 7.]

Augustine's cautious attitude towards matters which should be settled by scientific investigation, rather than by dogmatic theology, is further shown in chapter 9 of Book 2.

This is entitled The Shape of the Material Heaven, and in it he discusses some of the ideas which have been put forward by theologians. Three of the sections of this are quoted below.

From the way Augustine responds to various questions which have been put forward, there is a clear implication that many people in his day (around AD 400) thought that not only the earth but also the heavens were flat.

It is also frequently asked what our belief must be about the form and shape of heaven according to Sacred Scripture. Many scholars engage in lengthy discussions on these matters, but the sacred writers with their deeper wisdom have omitted them.   Such subjects are of no profit for those who seek beatitude, and, what is worse, they take up very precious time that ought to be given to what is spiritually beneficial.

What concern is it of mine whether heaven is like a sphere and the earth is enclosed by it and suspended in the middle of the universe, or whether heaven like a disk above the earth covers it over on one side?

But the credibility of Scripture is at stake, and as I have indicated more than once, there is danger that a man uninstructed in divine revelation, discovering something in Scripture or hearing from it something that seems to be at variance with the knowledge he has acquired, may resolutely withhold his assent in other matters where Scripture presents useful admonitions, narratives, or declarations.  Hence, I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail for their salvation.

But someone may ask: "Is not Scripture opposed to those who hold that heaven is spherical, when it says, 'who stretches out heaven like a skin?' " Let it be opposed indeed if their statement is false.  The truth is rather in what God reveals than in what groping men surmise.  But if they are able to establish their doctrine with proofs that cannot be denied, we must show that this statement of Scripture about the skin is not opposed to the truth of their conclusions.  If it were, it would be opposed also to Sacred Scripture itself in another passage where it says that heaven is suspended like a vault. 

For what can be so different and contradictory as a skin stretched out flat and the curved shape of a vault?  But if it is necessary, as it surely is, to interpret these two passages so that they are shown not to be contradictory but to be reconcilable, it is also necessary that both of these passages should not contradict the theories that may be supported by true evidence, by which heaven is said to be curved on all sides in the shape of a sphere, provided only that this is proved.

Our picture of heaven as a vault, even when taken in a literal sense, does not contradict the theory that heaven is a sphere.  We may well believe that in speaking of the shape of heaven Scripture wished to describe that part which is over our heads. If, therefore, it is not a sphere, it is a vault on that side on which it covers the earth; but if it is a sphere, it is a vault all around.

But the image of the skin presents a more serious difficulty: we must show that it is reconcilable not with the sphere (for that may be only a man-made theory) but with the vault of Holy Scripture.

My allegorical interpretation of this passage can be found in the thirteenth book of my Confessions. Whether the description of heaven stretched out like a skin is to be taken as I have interpreted it there or in some other way, here I must take into account the doggedly literal-minded interpreters and say what I think is obvious to everyone from the testimony of the senses.

Both the skin and the vault perhaps can be taken as figurative expressions; but how they are to be understood in a literal sense must be explained. If a vault can be not only curved but also flat, a skin surely can be stretched out not only on a flat plane but also in a spherical shape.  Thus, for instance, a leather bottle and an inflated ball are both made of skin.

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