The Discovery Institute gives David Bentley Hart a spanking

May 10, 2011 • 9:59 am

Last week we all watched a video of Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, whose picture, I hear, is used to illustrate the entry for “pompous” in Webster’s Dictionary.  As you’ll recall, Hart argued, in his diatribe against Gnu Atheists, that none of the fathers of the Christian Churches ever meant for the Bible to be read literally: it was to be, and always has been, read allegorically.  Of course several readers pointed out that this was completely fatuous: the Bible has been taken, and taught, as literal truth for millennia.

But now this argument has come from an unexpected source: the intelligent-design consortium of The Discovery Institute.  Over at their website Uncommon Descent, they take Hart apart for his “sophisticated” theology in a post by “vjtorley” called “Misreading St. Augustine.”  They show, through direct quotation, that Augustine very often took the Bible completely literally, even in some of its more unbelievable and ludicrous tales.  The DI does this, of course, for reasons different from mine: they want to dispel the notion that Augustine’s writings, misconstrued as denigrating Biblical literalism, can serve as support for an evolution-friendly view of religion.

Nevertheless, if their quotations are correct (and I’ve checked a few of them), vjtorley takes down Bentley pretty hard.  I was particularly pleased to see that the august Augustine took the Biblical story of Elisha’s bald head, recounted in 2 Kings 2, literally.  You may remember that when a group of children mocked the prophet Elisha’s bald head, God sent a pair of she-bears out of the woods to slaughter forty-two of them.  Sure enough, St. Augustine sees this not as allegory but literal truth, as shown in his Exposition on Psalm 47:

When God’s Prophet Elisha was going up, children called after him mocking, Go up thou bald head, Go up thou bald head: but he, not so much in cruelty as in mystery, made those children to be devoured by bears out of the wood. 2 Kings 2:23-24 If those children had not been devoured, would they have lived even till now? Or could they not, being born mortal, have been taken off by a fever? But so in them had no mystery been shown, whereby posterity might be put in fear. Let none then mock the Cross of Christ.

Torley (or whatever his/her real name is) gives many other examples of literalist readings, most from Augustine but some from Tertullian. Torley concludes:

St. Augustine is often cited by theistic evolutionists (see here) as a theologian whose mindset was hospitable to the modern neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Unfortunately, theistic evolutionists who make these claims are guilty of the same carelessness as Dr. David Bentley Hart: they haven’t read St. Augustine’s own writings on the subject. Instead, they’ve read essays and scholarly commentaries instead of sitting down and reading the texts themselves. If they did that, they would discover that St. Augustine expressly taught that the world was 6,000 years old (City of God, Book XII, chapter 12); that creatures of all kinds were created instantly at the beginning of time; that Adam and Eve were historical persons; that Paradise was a literal place; that the patriarch Methusaleh actually lived to the age of 969; that there was a literal ark, and that the Flood covered the whole earth; and that he vigorously defended all of these doctrines against skeptics in the fourth century (yes, they existed back then, too), who scoffed at them. The curious reader can confirm what I have read by consulting St. Augustine’s City of God Book XIII and Book XV.

Now I’m no expert on Augustine’s prescient and sophisticated theology, but at least some of his quotes, and my own readers’ comments, show that he was not only a Biblical literalist but also someone whose morality, by present standards, is horrific and repugnant.  I do wish that those accommodationists who cite him with such approbation would pay attention to other things he said.

It’s odd that I’m on the side of the Discovery Institute here, but, hey, right is right.

114 thoughts on “The Discovery Institute gives David Bentley Hart a spanking

  1. What I always find baffling is that Christians feel the need to go back to the 4th Century as rebuttal to current evidence. I find this really odd. I wonder if the thinking is that this person is really old so it must be true. I don’t understand it.

    1. Well, if you want to completely dismiss someone’s arguments, what better way is there to do so than to say “Not only does no-one with any sophistication believe that today, no-one even without sophistication has believed that in the whole course of human history”? The bigger the straw man one is seen to attack, the more irrelevant one’s arguments become.

    2. That is part of the thinking. Downthread, Rick mentions the argument from antiquity, and explains that some find it compelling because “x has stood the test of time.” I think that’s a fair observation (although what is meant by “standing the test of time” is ambiguous. Many ancient theories have survived – that is, been passed down – yes, but have also failed test after test after test over the centuries.

      I think another, perhaps stronger factor is that ancient stuff has a mystique that fuzzy thinkers mistake for veracity.

      1. Yes, I think that’s correct. I wonder too if they are appealing to the lack of contemporary familiarity in the text as a means to win a rhetorical point. That would probably render it an appeal to authority (if they are misplacing Augustine’s conclusion relative to the live question and are simply “name dropping”). I don’t find many conclusions about reality worthwhile from people who choose to believe any scripture has phenomenological warrant. But I am a naturalist who respects evidence.

    3. It’s probably because, in religion, older ideas are thought of as closer to the original revelation, and therefore purer, less likely to be distorted. After all, if the only real truth humanity needs to know was revealed to us millennia ago, wouldn’t you want to go as far back as you could to be closer to the source?

      1. I can understand that thinking from the religious point of view but from a rational one it seems odd to me.

    4. It so happens I am an expert in the theology of Augustine, and to call him a literalist is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard of.

      He was a Neoplatonist. That means that for him scripture is literally true, also speaks to a higher moral dimension through allegory, and finally has a deeper theological meaning that is to be revealed through further alleroresis. In the bears passage you cite above, he is talking about the moral allegory embedded in the text. Can’t you read?

      Fundmentalist literalism means that the text is accepted as literally true, while all allegorical meaning is rejected. This begins with John Wesley and doesn’t really kick in until the 20th century and almost exclusively in the US. Theologians like Tertullian or Origen, or Abelard, did not necessarily deny that a passage like the bear story was true in a historical sense (but then almost no historical writing is ‘true’ in the way we would mean it), but the allegorical meanings are always more important.

      To see what Augustine thought of literlaism, you have to look no further than the talk origins website:

      “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 in 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 learnt 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 assertion. With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the Book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. I have thought that each one, in keeping with his powers of understanding, should choose the interpretation that he can grasp.”

      In other words the Text has to be interpreted allegorically–then, among other things, it will reveal the same meaning as science.

      1. I could care less if you are an expert in Augustine. I don’t think he is a sound source for understanding what we know to be real today. He might be worth reading to understand where our human psychology might venture to invent explanations for the unknown but “revealed” knowledge means nothing to me. If one reads myth literally or allegorically with the purpose of making it some sort of reality deciphering heuristic I pause equally and consider that person engaged in advanced wishful thinking. That’s the point of my original post. It is baffling to me that anyone would point to someone operating within a privileged religious bent as an expert on anything universal or useful to anyone outside that privileged religion.

        1. Where did I say Aug. was an expert on anything related to the real world? I merely pointed out a few of the utterly false tings said about him in the original post.

          1. Read the original post that you hijacked to announce your “expertise”. My original point has nothing to do with how Augustine interpreted his Holy fairy-tales.

      2. Golly, that was a mouthful!

        Unfortunately, Chuck’s comment (to which you’ve replied) has nothing to do with whether Augustine viewed scripture literally or metaphorically.

  2. The average person in the pews may or may not consider Augustine an authority (even if they have ever heard of him), but it is hard to argue against literalism when jesus himself says the following in Luke about some Genesis stories:

    17:26 And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.       
    17:27 They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.
    17:28 Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
    17:29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.          
    17:30 Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
    17:31 In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.
    17:32 Remember Lot’s wife.

      1. Want to know what the text from Luke means:

        The decisions that one makes about how to live life slowly accumulate towards a personal disaster, until finally one has become the wrong kind of person (tyrannical, drunken, debauched), and then it is too too late. So one has to be vigilant about how one acts and thinks.

        It has nothing to do with the literal truth of some old fairy stories that he cites as illustrative examples.

        There is plenty of evidence that Jesus existed. Any other position can only be described as denialism. But many people are confused over the propositions’Jesus existed’ Jesus had sound moral teachings’ and “Jesus’s moral teaching’s were the same as the early church’s or the contemporary church.’ They are not the same thing at all.

          1. The reference in Josephus is enough (I don’t meant he 4th century interpolation, I mean the original mention of James that occasioned the interpolation). The New Testament is overwhelming evidence. There is no way to explain the genesis of those texts and the early church without an original Jesus movement, and hence Jesus. He is as well attested as someone like Diogenes of Sinope.

            If you want to argue that Jesus didn’t exist, then explain he origin of the NT (and try not to be too fantastic). You can’t claim, for instance, that he was a figment of Paul’s imagination, because the Jesus of the movement that eventually produced the Gospels is nothing like the Jesus of Paul.

          2. It’s completely impossible for the legends of Hercules and Orpheus to exist unless Hercules and Orpheus were both real. They must be extra real, because the Hercules initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries is quite unlike the dumb muscleman Hercules of other legends.

            Honestly, you’re not even trying.

          3. Josephus was not contemporaneous and only reported the legends that he heard. His reference to James could have been a citation of someone unrelated to the James of the bible. Paul’s theology is perfectly consistent with the resurrection of the body debate his sect was fighting with the Temple high priests and in accord with a certain apocalyptic eschatology he preferred. It also holds certain syncretic features from surrounding dying and rising god theologies. Jesus of scripture is to history as Paul Bunyan is to the Great Lakes.

        1. Yes please point us to the “plenty of evidence”. Bald assertion don’t fly with me.

  3. This just goes to show how “sophisticated” theology, in the act of bending over backwards to avoid the force of the arguments, breaks its own spine. Obviously not everyone believes every part of their chosen religion literally, but the retreat to post-literalism is an emergency measure and not a reflection of religion as a whole. Meanwhile, what else can an atheist do but take the whole package literally? Picking and choosing entails believing one sect or one end of the spectrum over another, something foreign to the meaning of atheism. What strikes one believer as absurd is holy truth to another, and deciding which is more worthy of criticism is arrogant in its own way.

    That’s how I look at it.

  4. I know of one prep high school school based on St. Augustine Monks does not teach ID and has excellent science teacher and a wonderful curriculum, despite the weekly religion class.

  5. It seems an appropriate time to quote Gershwin:
    Methuselah lived 900 years
    Methuselah lived 900 years
    I don’t call that livin’
    No gal would give in
    to no man lived 900 years

    There are all kinds of reasons to doubt the literal truth of scripture. That even the venerated Augustine could not see what Gershwin saw says much for the intellectual power of the church.

  6. It’s odd that I’m on the side of the Discovery Institute here, but, hey, right is right.

    Just don’t let them ask you to appear as a witness for them in the next Dover Trial, Jerry. 😉

  7. Isn’t using Augustine as an example just an argument from authority? Look somethings he said makes sense others don’t. You can’t take it all literally it must be placed in the context of it’s time yadayadayada 🙂

    1. The argument isn’t that Christianity is right. The argument is that “none of the fathers of the Christian Churches ever meant for the Bible to be read literally.”

      In this argument, Augustine isn’t an authority, he’s a piece of evidence.

      1. Yes. In this narrow context. The next two steps in the larger argument are:

        1)Ergo, we’re totally reasonable.


        2)Ergo, we’re right.

    2. I dare you to show something by Augustine the Hippo which makes sense. Only Thomas Aquinas ever single-handedly produced a bigger load of crap than Augustine.

      1. Aren’t you clever! If that is the best mockery you can accomplish, try some other genre of discourse. And see the quotation of Augustine in my post above.

  8. Please portray the past accurately, warts and all.

    Hear, hear. Speaking of the warts of the Early Church Fathers, my favorite theological argument for the Truth of Christianity is Tertullians’s Credo quia absurdum: “… the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

    At least Tertullian gets his premise straight!

    The best account of the early Christians is found in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall: “The virtue of the primitive Christians, like that of the first Romans, was very frequently guarded by poverty and ignorance. … The Christians, in the course of their intestine dissensions, have inflicted far greater severities on each other than they had experienced from the zeal of infidels.”

      1. Thanks for calling Goren’s Great Green Guts. You perforate ’em, we pull ’em. How may I direct your call?

        …anyway, Tertulian’s Credo is the earliest example I’m aware of of the rhetorical trick that underlies both Lewis’s Trilemma and Goering’s Big Lie. I’m sure it’s not the first, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to find earlier mentions — it’s just the oldest one I’ve come across in my random “research.”

        It’s kinda the ultimate expression of chutzpah. What’s the most outrageous, impossible-to-believe bullshit story you can come up with? Well, it simply has to be true because it can’t possibly be true!

        Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot!?



        1. For God is my witness, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ. (Webster’s xlation)

          1. I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.
            Oliver Cromwell

    1. Except your own link notes that the alleged Tertullian “quote” is false. The Latin word is ineptum, not absurdum, in the Tertullian, referencing Paul’s use of “the foolishness of God” in 1 Corinthians. Phony “evidence” doesn’t help the case you wish to make, except to support more confirmation bias among the “converted” and contribute to the echo chamber here.

      1. Nonsense pedantry.

        Tertullian’s argument, known everywhere as “credo quia absurdum“, is unchanged whether the translation is rendered “absurd”, “unsound”, or “silly”.

        Wictionary for “ineptus”:


        ineptus m (feminine inepta, neuter ineptum); first/second declension
        impertinent, improper, tasteless
        senseless, silly

        1. “[K]nown everywhere”? That’s absurd. Your own link to the phrase calls it “a Latin phrase of uncertain origin. It means ‘I believe because it is absurd’ It is derived from a poorly remembered or misquoted passage in Tertullian’s De Carne Christi defending the tenets of orthodox Christianity against docetism….”

          Confirmation bias yet again.

        2. You don’t have an OLD lying to hand? You don’t know what the OLD is?

          Don;t quote the definition of Latin from Wiktionary ever again. I cant tell you how foolish it makes you look.

      2. Oh, for Pete’s…

        Of all the evidence against god(s), that which you’ve “taken down” here is not anywhere near the most compelling and none of us think it is. It’s just a little insight into the silly “reasoning” practiced by theologians.

        Substituting “inept” for “absurd” doesn’t really make the quote any more reasonable, btw.

        1. You miss the (obvious) point — again. Per the Eloquent Atheist: “The idea was that the first Christians would not have believed such palpable nonsense unless it had happened.” It’s important to get it right, especially when accusing Christians that they are being silly and missing what is obvious.

          1. the first Christians would not have believed such palpable nonsense unless it had happened

            Groan. That’s precisely the laughable argument that we’re laughing at. You’re the one missing all the obvious points.

          2. The same argument proves that Sai Baba really could make Swiss watches appear by magic.

  9. How do you “very often [take] the Bible completely literally”? Is it like being a little pregnant?

  10. Its weird to just *hate* a historical figure, but I hate Augustine. I remember reading his conversion story, about how he stole figs and didn’t even eat them. That was his greatest, and most terrible sin, which kept him up at night worrying about his soul, having at one point done the ancient equivalent of a shoplifting. He was one of those people that was super good, and yet terrified that he was going to hell for his imagined crimes. Its no wonder he spent so much time doing theology to try to slack his never ending guilt. And his work feeds in to that never ending Christian habit of pretending to be a terrible sinner while at the same time snidely judging everyone else, like God’s own little snitch.

  11. St. Augustine expressly taught that the world was 6,000 years old…[wrong]; that creatures of all kinds were created instantly at the beginning of time [wrong]; that Adam and Eve were historical persons [wrong]; that Paradise was a literal place [unproven]; that the patriarch Methusaleh actually lived to the age of 969 [unlikely]; that there was a literal ark [unproven], and that the Flood covered the whole earth [wrong];

    Wow, with a record like that, its no wonder that Augustine is held in such high regard.

    1. Whenever people talk about the flood, I cannot help but shed a tear over all those poor drowned worms!

  12. … but he, not so much in cruelty as in mystery, made those children to be devoured by bears out of the wood.


    1. To be fair the Bible only says the bears tore the children. So quite merciful of God really after such appalling behaviour . . .

    2. Ancient version of “going postal”?

      “You mock me and I’ll kill you”!

      Another great example of biblical morality, I guess.

  13. It’s weird to see the Discotute defend stark Biblical literalism — I thought the brand differentiator for ID was that it wasn’t Young Earth creationism, and could accommodate those with more “liberal” religious views on biology (from Old Earth Creationists up to varieties of theistic evolution). If you’re going to defend a literal reading of the Bible, why not go the full Mohler?

    1. ID; it’s Big Tent. A Big, Inconsistent, Distorting, Hypocritical,Twisted Tent.

  14. I’ll see your Augustine and raise you Origen.
    Remember this is the church father who not only said:
    “What man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without the sun and moon and stars?” (De Princ. 4.3.1)
    But who took the following passage so literally he castrated himself!
    ” Matthew 19:12, “There are those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

  15. Augustine often took the Bible very literally indeed. For instance, he took the commandment, Thou Shalt not Kill, ad a condemnation of suicide. The reason? Well, Thou Shalt not bear false witness against thy Neighbour, mentions neighbour, the commandment not to kill does not, so its scope includes the self as well as the neighbour. That’s literalism with umph!

    Actually, Augustine generally reads the Bible literally. Where he does not, it is usually because, read literally, it would not support orthodox church doctrine. In that case, allegorical interpretation is preferred.

  16. whose picture, I hear, is used to illustrate the entry for “pompous” in Webster’s Dictionary.

    I find that hard to believe.

    That’s Berlinski’s spot. I don’t think he’ll take competition for pompous arsehole lying down – unlike how he takes interviews.

    1. No, sorry.

      Berlinski is clearly under the listing for “supercilious” … as in “supercilious twit: see, Berlinski”.

      A man whose nose was created by god in order for him use to look down at the rest of us mere mortals.

  17. “… St. Augustine expressly taught that the world was 6,000 years old …”

    How strange; the earth was 6000 years old 1600 years ago and it’s still only a bit over 6000 years old now. I wonder about the translations though; another bit reads:

    “Consequently, if there had elapsed since the creation of man, I do not say five or six, but even sixty or six hundred thousand years, or sixty times as many, or six hundred or six hundred thousand times as many, or this sum multiplied until it could no longer be expressed in numbers, the same question could still be put, Why was he not made before?”

    Six hundred thousand times? Really? It looks like someone has been putting numbers into Augustine’s mouth. Not only that, but Augustine is explicitly poo-pooing a notion of the age of the earth which is hardly even 200 years old. Surely Dog must have told Augustine to say all that? Well, that or the more boring scenario that “newadvent” writes revisionist history – after all it’s not a sin if they’re Lying for Jesus.

    1. “Less than 6000 years” since the creation of man, not the world. Augustine does not talk about the creation of the world in this chapter, rather attempts to answer the question, “why not before?”

      1. However, the rest of the universe was created only a few days before man so it’s a bit silly to argue over whether the Hippo was talking about humans only or the universe.

    2. Mad, you’re way, way out of line to throw around charges of lying. The Latin original is easily available online, and as far as I can tell the linked translation, by a perfectly respectable 19th-century scholar named Marcus Dods, seems accurate. (I’m not enough of a Latinist to say that it’s perfect, but it seems to be clearly in the ballpark.) You’re also wrong to say that the translation has Augustine responding to recent ideas about the age of the earth (or of humanity, as Andrei correctly notes). The large numbers are hyperbole, not a response to anybody’s actual estimate. His point is that any finite number of years, even one so large as to seem absurd, is insignificant compared with eternity.

      1. OK, I bothered to check other sources and newadvent seems to have an acceptable translation. It’s kind of funny to see a “how to respond to people who don’t believe the world is only 6000 years old” text from the 4th century. It is also clear now that they were quibbling over suggestions that humans (and therefore the world) have been around for only a few thousand years more than that, rather than the much more recent suggestion that the earth had been around for at least a few hundred thousand or millions of years (since revised to a few billion). Anyway, my previous reaction just shows how I typically react to bullshit quotes – I tend to go “that’s just so horribly wrong, I’m sure you’re just pulling that out of your ass.”

  18. Biblical literalism is as old as the Bible itself. In fact, it’s the “sophisticated theology” calling for metaphorical and allegorical interpretations that is relatively new phenomenon. It started in the Arabic world around 800 or 900 years after Augustine. Here is how Averroës in “Decisive Treatise” puts it:

    if demonstrative reflection leads to any manner of cognizance about any existing thing, that existing thing cannot escape either being passed over in silence in the Law or being made cognizable in it. If it is passed over in silence, there is no contradiction here; it has the status of the statutes passed over in silence that the jurist infers by means of Law-based syllogistic reasoning. If the Law does pronounce about it, the apparent sense of the pronouncement cannot escape either being in agreement with what demonstration leads to, or being different from it. If it is in agreement, there is no argument here. And, if it is different, that is where an interpretation is pursued. The meaning of interpretation is: drawing out the figurative significance of an utterance from its true significance without violating the custom of the Arabic language with respect to figurative speech in doing so — such as calling a thing by what resembles it, its cause, its consequence, what compares to it, or another of the things enumerated in making the sorts of figurative discourse cognizable.

    The best part is that this approach works well with any Good Book, including Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf.

    1. Really. You mean the Stoics didn’t practice Allegorical interpretation of Homer and Hesiod? That here is no allegory in the Derveni papyrus? That Neoplatonists like Porphyry didn’t know what allegory was (what is the de antro nympharum about anyway, then), that Christians like Origen and Augustine didn’t borrow Neoplatonic allegory to interpret their own scriptures, that Jews and Arabs picked up allegorical interpretation from the Greeks and Christians, and what you;re talking about doesn’t come until after almost 1500 of allegorical interpretation, that my professors were lying to me all those years, and pass my dissertation falsely when I wrote all those same things back to them?

      1. I was talking about “Biblical literalism”. Stoics and others did not have Bible to interpret. I am not sure what your professors told you, you better stick to the original writings of Augustine, Origen and others. Augustine indeed used allegorical interpretations from time to time, but he never dismissed literal ones. He was like: if you want to believe that firmament is a sphere, or a vault, or a disk, that’s fine. If you want to believe that it is really an empty space, that’s ok, too. Same for the waters above and below. As long as you hold to the Truth of Bible, which says there’s a firmament that separates waters above from the waters below, you’re fine.

      2. In any case, which ones of those classical traditions of allegorical interpretation of Homer and Hesiod survived 100-200 years past Augustine?

  19. I must admit, in the words of captain smug himself, a “secret frisson of pleasure” at seeing him taken down by the Discovery Institute of all things.

    1. Well, Saint Ambrose “miraculously” found the lost graves of a couple of martyrs, along with some other miraculous findings, and was a faith healer too. He’s one of your more revered church fathers. That should give you some idea. Lol.

  20. At least the fundies are honest in they lunacy. Here we are, this is what we believe, this is the truth, believe it or burn. That’s it.

    The sophisticated ones try to look reasonable by making up tons and tons of convoluted bull.

    @Andrei, don’t you think Averroes was kinda accommodationist? I mean with his “two truths” stuff and religion as “another way of knowing”. Isn’t it depressing people are still making the same points 900 years later?

    1. jose:

      Exactly right, he had to be an accomodationist, for fear of being accused of atheism, which was like a capital offense back then. Later in his book he makes apologies for Avicenna and Al-Farabi that were accused of unbelief by imam Al-Ghazali.

      However, Averroes did not invent the “two truths”, it was later invented by some of his Christian followers, called “Latin Averroists”. The world was dominated by Augustinian thought back then: since God has revealed the Truth in the Scriptures, no need to explore the world. So, to make room for philosophy and science they had to resort to a variety of tricks.

  21. Dr Hart never said anything about Augustine’s teachings on the age of the earth. He said, correctly, that the literal sequential creation narrative was not believed by the fathers to be a literal account of how creation happened, because they did not believe God actually acted in time.

    It amazes me that anyone here could be so stupid as to imagine that Dr Hart does not know Augustine’s texts inside and out. Where do you fundamentalists come from?

  22. By the way, since Dr Hart whole-heartedly believes in evolution, why do you care? He was making a general observation, principally about the Eastern Fathers, but also about Augustine that they were not like modern fundamentalists in their literalism. He never claimed Augustine was not a late fourth century man who knew little about the age of the earth. You seem to miss the point.

    1. Why are you arguing with us? Go convince the Discovery Institute they’re wrong. After that, you can explain to all the Biblical literalists that they’re wrong.

      When you and all the other Christians are on the same page, then you can argue with us. But until you all get your story straight, why should anyone else take it seriously?

    2. By the way, since Dr Hart whole-heartedly believes in evolution, why do you care?

      Because we are sick and tired of playing that one-way game: we accept evolution, you accept the rest of our nonsense in turn. Why it’s always us who have to accomodate and show respect for some silly religious beliefs just because some believers accept evolution, yet the same religious believers don’t have to show any respect for atheism?

      He never claimed Augustine was not a late fourth century man who knew little about the age of the earth. You seem to miss the point.

      Correct. Dr. Hart was talking mostly about moral character of the OT God. At the same time he accused Gnus of “ignorance” about an ancient “sophisticated theology”. His point was that all Church Fathers allegorised certain OT passages where God acted as a moral monster. Well, it turns out, he was wrong on both accounts.

    1. And I’d hardly credit Torley’s remarks to the DI, just because he has posting rights on Uncommon Descent. UD is so desperate for content they’ve invited several of the more reliable ID faithful to post. There are still several layers of deniability between whatever TOrley writes and the secret DI command center submerged in Puget Sound.

  23. A couple of thoughts, if anyone is still following this:

    First, Hart really does seem to be saying that none of the fathers took any of the morally repellent biblical stories literally. It’s easy to refute that with examples. He seems to be a little more nuanced in his books, but he’s wrong in the video interview.

    On the other hand, I think Torley goes too far in citing Augustine on the age of the earth and taking the theistic evolutionists to task for claiming him as support for their approach. There’s a distinction between the principle of interpretation that Augustine articulates and the application he happens to make to individual cases, and it’s the principle that the theistic evolutionists cite. Augustine says in his book on the literal interpretation of Genesis that when a literal reading of a passage in scripture is inconsistent with good science, you should look for another way of reading the passage. That’s the principle. The sample application he gives is from astronomy: some biblical passages imply that the heavens have a shape that’s inconsistent with the best modern science, and Augustine, following his principle, says we shouldn’t tell the astronomers that they’re wrong. So far so good. Our ideas about astronomy are different from those of Augustine’s time, but they’re similar enough that we tend to think he’s making the right call. Galileo certainly did, and he cited both the principle and the application in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

    What about the age of the earth? Did Augustine abandon his general principle in favor of some kind of stubborn literalism here? I don’t think so. I think he just didn’t see any major imcompatiblity between a generally literal interpretation of the relevant biblical passages and the best current science. The major alternative to a young earth was the idea that the world was eternal, but that wasn’t a consensus view, and Augustine knew that there were good, non-scriptural arguments against it. Hence, no necessary conflict between scripture and science, and no need to invoke the principle.

    Torley implies that Augustine was like a modern fundamentalist, determined to stick with a 6000-year-old earth no matter what the scientific evidence shows. I think that’s clearly wrong. I think that theistic evolutionists have every right to cite Augustine, for whatever his authority may be worth, in support of the principle that you should adapt your interpretation of scripture to make it compatible with good science. Good science now says that the earth is billions of years old, and Augustine’s principle would have us accept that, no matter what he “taught” about the age of the earth based on what he happened to know at the time.

    Disclosure: I am not now and have never been religious. I do think Augustine is immensely interesting, both as a person and as a writer, and admirable in many ways. I am no fan of theistic evolution; I just think Torley is wrong to say that the theistic evolutionists misunderstand Augustine. If you want to criticize them, find a better argument.

    1. Augustine says in his book on the literal interpretation of Genesis that when a literal reading of a passage in scripture is inconsistent with good science, you should look for another way of reading the passage.

      Nope, he says nothing of the sort. The general principle of interpretation set forth by Augustine in “Christian Doctrine” bk 3 ch 10:14 goes like this:

      Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbor; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor.

      It’s doctrine, not science.

      Multiple interpretations of the same passage are ok for as long as they comply with the principle stated above — bk 3 ch 27:38

      Obscure passages are to be interpreted by those which are clearer — bk 3 ch 26.

      It is safer to explain a doubtful passage by other passages of scripture than by reason — bk 3 ch 28:39

      Explaining biblical passages based on good science “is a dangerous practice”. It is a lot better to explain dubious passages using the Bible itself.

      Augustine is faithful to these principles and rules in “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”. When he provides an allegorical interpretation, he usually does not fail to provide a literal interpretation as well.

      The “good science” pops up only when Christians are confronted by knowledgeable heathens, in which case they must not use the authority of the Bible as an argument.

      At the same time they are discouraged from pursuing knowledge about the Universe because it is not necessary for salvation, and in fact consumes valuable time which is better be spent on spiritual things.

    2. Augustine says in his book on the literal interpretation of Genesis that when a literal reading of a passage in scripture is inconsistent with good science, you should look for another way of reading the passage. That’s the principle.

      No, it’s Galileo’s interpretation of Augustine, most likely based on averroistic thought. Augistine himself sets forth quite different general principle in bk 3 ch 10:14 of “Christian Doctrine:

      Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God 561 and one’s neighbor; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor.

      It’s doctrine, not science.

      “Obscure passages are to be interpreted by those which are clearer” — bk 3, ch 26

      “It is safer to explain a doubtful passage by other passages of scripture than by reason” — bk 3, ch 28:39. Interpreting Scripture based on science “is a dangerous practice”. It is a lot better to interpret dubious passages by other passages of the Scripture itself.

      “One passage susceptible of various interpretations” — bk 3 ch 27:38.

      Augustine is faithful to these principles and rules in “The Literal Meaning of Genesis”. The “good science” pops up when Christians are confronted by learned heathens, in which case they must not use the authority of Scripture as an argument.

      At the same time he discourages good Christians from engaging into learned discussions about the motion of heaven and such:

      I have no further time to go into these questions and discuss them, nor should they have time whom I wish to see instructed for their own salvation and for what is necessary and useful in the Church.

      — “Literal Meaning”, bk 2 ch 10:23

      When he presents an allegorical interpretation, he usually presents a literal one as well, like when discussing He established the earth above the water in bk 2 ch 1:4. The allegorical interpretation is: “heavens” refer to the tranquil understanding of truth, while “earth” is the simple faith of children, not a doubtful and deceitful thing based on mythological speculations… the faith that is made firm by baptism. He goes on to say

      But if anyone insists on a literal interpretation of this verse, he might plausibly understand the earth above the water to be the promontories that tower over the water, whether on continents or on islands; or again, the roofs of caverns that rest on solid supports and overhang the waters below.

      The precious little of science in his interpretations is found precisely in literal interpretations. Now, speaking about godless heathens:

      When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that it is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt.

      Sure, the theistic evolutionists can make a good case by cherry-picking Augustine’s ideas, but so can creationists and the Discotute. Perhaps even better.

      1. Your last quotation seems to support Galileo’s interpretation quite well. When confronted with fact, you find a compatible way of reading the scriptural text. If you’re only facing a theory, you can ignore it. I haven’t checked the Latin text, so I don’t know what word of Augustine’s is translated here as ‘theory.’ but I think his point is that a lot of what passed for science among the ancients was just oracular assertion. Christians aren’t obliged to pay that any attention. But there are some things where the pagans know what they’re talking about — mathematical astronomy, for example — and there you have to give them their due.

        1. Your last quotation seems to support Galileo’s interpretation quite well.

          It supports Galileo’s opponents such as cardinal Bellarmine even better. “Evidence? What evidence?” Besides, remember, it is said about godless heathens, those who try to defame our Holy Scripture.

          In the letter to the Grand Duchess Christina you’ve mentioned Galileo quotes from a source I could not identify:

          For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge.

          It is clearly not Augustine, for whom human knowledge was “yet another form of temptation still more complex in its peril” (Confessions, bk 10 ch 35). It’s more like Averroes:

          Since this Law is true and calls to the reflection leading to cognizance of the truth, we, the Muslim community, know firmly that demonstrative reflection does not lead to differing with what is set down in the Law. For truth does not oppose truth; rather, it agrees with and bears witness to it.

          No wonder Galileo’s defence did not impress the “sophisticated theologians” of the time.

          1. According to Stillman Drake, the quote is from the Spanish Jesuit Pererius (Benedict Pereyra, 1535-1610), who was the main source for Galileo’s patristics. Since you mention this section of Galileo’s letter, it may be worth mentioning the next bit, in which Galileo picks another nice little cherry from Augustine’s 7th letter to Marcellinus: “If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpre­tation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.”

            As for Bellarmine, sure, you can always jack up your demands for evidence, and some people will never admit that you’ve provided enough, but that doesn’t change the principle. Bellarmine’s famous letter to Foscarini illustrates this very well. He grants the principle that scripture should not be interpreted in such a way as to contradict “true demonstration,” but then expresses “very great doubts” that such a demonstration can be provided. “[I]f there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until is is shown me.”

            Again, it’s the principle that matters. The theistic evolutionist already agrees that there is enough evidence that the earth is billions of years old.

          2. Galileo picks another nice little cherry from Augustine’s 7th letter to Marcellinus

            Is this letter available somewhere online? I’d like to see the context in which it was said.

            Again, it’s the principle that matters.

            Yep. And the principle is: Doctrine is everything, science is nothing. Of course, if scientists manage to provide some irrefutable evidence, we’ll interpret. Too bad all scientific theories are falsifiable. Uncertainty is evil, certainty of the Christian Doctrine is good (The City of God, bk 19 ch 18)

          3. I don’t know whether the letter is available online. It may take some digging even if it is. Drake’s footnote calls it the 7th letter to Marcellinus, but the letters may be numbered differently in different editions. Online versions tend to be old editions that are out of copyright. I did look it up once, and if I recall correctly, the context is a discussion of the origin of the soul, or something like that, not natural science.

  24. this is almost embarrassing in its ingnorance of both david hart’s thought and of augustine’s.

  25. So much for those solecistic,sophisticated sophists of wily,woeful woo! They, like other creationists,ignore the fact that teleonomy-mechanism-causalism- rules, and thus He has nothing to do with Nature, and thus cannot be that Primary Cause, and besides violating the Ockham with His convoluted, ad hoc assumptions, thus contradicts science rather than supplements and complements it per Lamberth’s the teleonomic argument.
    Theistic evolution, that obfuscatory woo,presents the case that theistic evolutionist reek of creationism in the wide sense!
    And the atelic argument notes that supernaturalists beg the question of teology- wanted outcomes!
    No intent menas no referents for Him that square circle!

  26. I’m sorry, but I really believe that quoting the discovery institute’s critique of DB Hart is rather telling of your rather myopic understanding of the Christian interpretation of scripture. It’s not the issue whether in certain places Augustine seems to take a ‘literal’ interpretation of scripture (of course its evident that what the early fathers meant by ‘literal’ is quite different than we do now) but it its the entire hermeneutical framework the fathers work from in their interpretation and the purpose of ‘literal interpretation’ within the entire process of intellectual and spiritual appropriation of the scriptures. Reading a classic text like Henri de Lubac’s “Spiritual Exegesis” will help you on this point. When one understands the theological framework out of which Augustine works then one can see that calling him a ‘literalist’ is not only inaccurate, its deeply anachronistic.

    1. Correction: It was late and I was annoyed. I realized that that led not only to lazy grammatical mistakes, but also to providing the wrong title to Henri de Lubac’s classic, which is called “Medieval Exegesis” not “Spiritual Exegesis.” My apologies.

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