St. Augustine on Theological Modesty

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I’ve been reading “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” by St. Augustine. Here are a couple of timely quotes from a 5th Century author. (page, chapter and paragraph numbers are added.)

 

“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such as case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side, that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.  That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to with ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” P. 41 (18.37)

“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 cycle 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 in not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the 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 when they themselves have learnt from the experience and the light of reason?  Reckless and incompetent expounders of the Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one if 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 statement, 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.”  P. 42 (19.39)

St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., Newman Press, NY, 1982

 

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