Taking Physicist Stephen Barr to Task Over St. Augustine (Edited)

(Originally posted in February of 2011) In a recent interview by Dinesh D’Souza (President of Kings College at the time, as well as being a favorite author of mine) of physicist Stephen Barr (Professor of Particle Physics at the Bartol Research Institute and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware). What was otherwise a good interview and overview of philosophical naturalism’s metaphysical positions in contradistinction to true science and religion’s metaphysical outlook, took a historical turn for the worse when Augustine was used as defense in the “old-earth/young-earth” debate.


(Thank you for Uncommon Descent’s link to my story!)


In this next portion you will hear the portion of the interview I wish to weigh in on. We pick up the conversation as it happens coming in from the break:

The problem with Dr. Barr’s summation is that he has failed to take into account that people’s views on matters change over time. For instance, R.C. Sproul (evangelical scholar, professor, and President of Ligonier Ministries) mentioned that through most of his teaching career he accepted the old-age position. However, late in his career he changed his position to that of the young earth creationists.

For most of my teaching career, I considered the framework hypothesis to be a possibility. But I have now changed my mind. I now hold to a literal six-day creation, the fourth alternative and the traditional one. Genesis says that God created the universe and everything in it in six twenty-four–hour periods. According to the Reformation hermeneutic, the first option is to follow the plain sense of the text. One must do a great deal of hermeneutical gymnastics to escape the plain meaning of Genesis 1–2. The confession makes it a point of faith that God created the world in the space of six days. [emphasis in original, indicating these words are part of the Confession] (pp. 127–128).[1]

Similarly, Augustine, early in his life, was very allegorical[2] in his attempt to interpret and define Scripture and events in it. Later however, he changed his position in much the same way Dr. Sproul did. Therefore, to quote Sproul or Augustine as old-earth creationists supporting the views of professor Barr would not do the position justice.

As his theology matured, Augustine abandoned his earlier allegorizations of Genesis that old-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists have latched onto in an attempt to justify adding deep time to the Bible. Furthermore, he always believed in a young earth (painting by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480)

An example of Augustine’s allegorical uses comes from the journal Church History by way of Mervin Monroe Deems (Ph.D., past Samuel Harris Lecturer on Literature and Life at Bangor Theological Seminary, Maine) in which he points out Augustine’s use of allegory in interpreting “paradise” in Genesis:

But let us get back to the Paradise of Genesis. As Augustine put it, “. .. some allegorize all that concerns Paradise itself”: the four rivers are the four virtues; the trees, all knowledge, and so on. But to Augustine these things are better connected with Christ and his Church. Thus, Paradise is the Church; the four rivers, the four gospels; the fruit-trees, the saints; the tree of life, Christ; and the tree of knowledge, one’s free choice. And he closes the paragraph thus:

These and similar allegorical interpretations may be suitably put upon Paradise without giving offense to anyone, while yet we believe the strict truth of the history, confirmed by its circumstantial narrative of facts.[3]

To put this closing remark in slightly updated English, it reads as follows:

No one should object to such reflections and others even more appropriate that might be made concerning the allegorical interpretation of the Garden of Eden, so long as we believe in the historical truth manifest in the faithful narrative of these events.[4]

To be clear, Augustine was still holding to the literal meaning in the Genesis narrative even during his use of allegory in rendering extra meaning to the idea of paradise in Genesis. Again, professor Deems:

Augustine’s approach to the scriptures was gradual. At the time that he came across the Hortensius he turned to the Scriptures, only to turn away again, for in his estimation they could not compare with the writings of Cicero. Later at Milan following the advice of Ambrose he started to read Isaiah but found this too difficult and turned to the Psalms. The period of retirement and the months immediately following, which produced the philosophic treatises, were devoted to the classics rather than to the Bible. But increasingly Augustine studied and meditated upon the Scriptures, with the result that his writings are filled with Scriptural quotation and references…. The use of allegory by Augustine was not only a means of making Scripture say something, it was also a technique for bringing Scripture down to date, by forcing ancient words to minister, through prophecy, to the weaving of present patterns of behavior or through the summoning to higher ideals. But it was also dangerous for it came close to making Scripture say what he wanted it to say (through multiplicity of allegories of identical Scripture), and it prepared the way for Catholic or Protestant, later, to find in Scripture what he would.[5]

And this is key, as Professor Benno Zuiddam (Benno Zuiddam is research professor [extraordinary associate] for New Testament Studies, Greek and Church History at the faculty of Divinity at North West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa) points out,

As Augustine became older, he gave greater emphasis to the underlying historicity and necessity of a literal interpretation of Scripture. His most important work is De Genesi ad litteram. The title says it: On the Necessity of Taking Genesis Literally. In this later work of his, Augustine says farewell to his earlier allegorical and typological exegesis of parts of Genesis and calls his readers back to the Bible. He even rejected allegory when he deals with the historicity and geographic locality of Paradise on earth.[6]

The professor points out as well that from Augustine’s City of God, we can begin to see this literalism in the evolution of his responses to pagans. Dr. Zuiddam asks:

3) Isn’t it obvious from his City of God (De Civitate Dei) that Augustine believed that God created Man 6000 years ago?

Not quite, but a young earth definitely. Augustine wrote in De Civitate Dei that his view of the chronology of the world and the Bible led him to believe that Creation took place around 5600 BC [Ed. note: he used the somewhat inflated Septuagint chronology—see Biblical chronogenealogies for more information.]. One of the chapters in his City of God bears the title “On the mistaken view of history that ascribes many thousands of years to the age of the earth.” Would you like it clearer? Several pagan philosophers at the time believed that the earth was more or less eternal. Countless ages had preceded us, with many more to come. Augustine said they were wrong. This goes to show that theistic evolutionists who call in Augustine’s support do so totally out of context. All they allow themselves to see is his symbolic use of “day” in Genesis, and a very difficult philosophical doctrine of creation with ideas that develop. “Wonderful!” they think, “Augustine really supports our post-Darwinian theories!” It takes a superficial view of Genesis and Augustine to arrive at such conclusions. His instant creation, his young earth and immediate formation of Adam and Eve rule out Augustine’s application for this purpose.[7]

An example of this can be seen here with Augustine himself saying:

“They are also still being led astray by some false writings according to their claim to the history of the times many thousands of years to take, as we do from the Bible to calculate that since the creation of man, not quite six thousand years have expired ” (XII, 11).[8]

Non-literalist Professor James Barr (Professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University and former Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University in England) in a letter to David C.C. Watson, 23 April 1984 wrote this:

Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience; . . . Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.[9]

As one can see from here and following the links to the larger articles, Dr. Stephen Barr may want to revise his position on some of the church fathers and their views in regards to the age of the earth and hence creation. A good resource for reading their thoughts on the matter — the early church fathers that is — can be FOUND HERE.


[1] Tas Walker, “Famous evangelical apologist changes his mind: RC Sproul says he is now a six-day, young-earth creationist,” Creation Ministries International, published May 21st, 2008, found at URL:

http://creation.com/famous-evangelical-apologist-changes-his-mind-rc-sproul

[2] Allegory:

Allegory is primarily a method of reading a text by assuming that its literal sense conceals a hidden meaning, to be deciphered by using a particular hermeneutical key. In a secondary sense, the word “allegory” is also used to refer to a type of litera­ture that is expressly intended to be read in this nonliteral way. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a well-known example of allegorical literature, but it is doubtful whether any part of the Bible can be regarded as such. The parables of Jesus come closest, but they are not allegories in the true sense. The apostle Paul actually used the word allegoria, but arguably this was to describe what would nowadays be called “typology” (Gal. 4:24). The difference between typology and allegory is that the former attaches additional meaning to a text that is accepted as having a valid meaning in the “literal” sense, whereas the latter ignores the literal sense and may deny its usefulness al­together. Paul never questioned the historical accuracy of the Genesis accounts of Hagar and Sarah, even though he regarded them as having an additional, spiritual meaning as well. Other interpreters, however, were often embarrassed by anthropomorphic accounts of God in the Bible, and sought to explain away such language by saying that it is purely symbolic, with no literal meaning at all. It is in this latter sense that the word “allegory” is generally used today.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen Ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), cf. Allegory, 34-35.

[3] Mervin Monroe Deems, “Augustine’s Use of Scripture,” Church History Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), 196. Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Society of Church History (Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3160307) (emphasis added).

[4] Saint Augustine, City of God (New York, NY: Image Books, 1958), 288; or, Book XIII, 21 (emphasis added).

[5] Mervin Monroe Deems, “Augustine’s Use of Scripture,” Church History Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1945), 188-189 (emphasis added).

[6] Benno Zuiddam, “Augustine: young earth creationist — [How] theistic evolutionists take Church Father out of context,” Creation Ministries International, published October 8th, 2009, found at URL (emphasis added):

http://creation.com/augustine-young-earth-creationist

[7] Ibid.

[8] Benno Zuiddam, “Adjust the lighting was dark,” Reformatorisch Dagblad (Reformed Daily), published April 15th, 2009, found at URL:

http://www.refdag.nl/nieuws/pas_met_de_verlichting_werd_het_donker_1_324668

 (will need Google to translate).

[9] Henry Morris, “The Literal Week of Creation,” ICR, found at URL:

http://www.icr.org/article/literal-week-creation/

...POSTSCRIPT

May I remind those who may not understand this critique that it [the critique] has nothing to do with said physicists faith. This is merely a challenge to his understanding of a historical figure and where he [Stephen Barr] separates his understanding of Augustine  and what Augustine believed. We know Augustine, from his later writings specifically, rejected the spiritualistic aspect he once placed on the Genesis account and accepted the plain understanding as paramount. This critique neither places young-earth creationism as a litmus test for faith or some standard one must reach to be “holier” than thee. One may wish to read my footnote #18 to understand my position on this.

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