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.