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    We like Gus

    Icon of Augustine of Hippo, provenance unknown. Image source: allmercifulsavior.com

    Recently, Our Man in Kentucky* Al Mohler posted an article on his blog explaining just how important it is that all Christians reject evolution outright, without exception or qualification. His reason? Evolution contradicts scripture. He writes,

    I am willing to accept the authority of science on any number of issues. I am fundamentally agnostic about a host of other scientific concerns — but not where the fundamental truth of the Gospel and the clear teachings of the Bible are at stake.

    Parenthetically, it must be said that it is very difficult to reject one branch of science — evolution, say, without destroying significant parts of others — nuclear physics, say. Anyway, Mohler’s concern is that those who reject a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 are guilty of a wholesale rejection of Christianity itself. He says that those who adjust their interpretation of scripture to conform with science are turning their backs on the theological truth of the matter, writing,

    There is every reason for Christians to view the [ancient and aged] appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin.

    Hm. We at psnt.net choose to ignore every reason. We accept the risks.

    Mohler also emphasizes the severity of this conflict between religion and science, going so far as to compare it to the Reformation in its urgency and scale. If he had gone back another 1100 years, he might have discovered the following, written by St. Augustine in the early 4th century in The Literal Meaning of Genesis.

    It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation… 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 these 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.

    De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20

    But wait, there’s more:

    With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.

    De Genesi ad literam, 2:9

    Our point is that the idea of adjusting one’s interpretation of difficult texts in the face of compelling physical evidence is as old as the Christian tradition itself. When we here at psnt.net decide that a certain passage of scripture must be recast because of scientific advances, we are not playing fast and loose with the Bible, nor are we merely “picking and choosing,” as some non-theists would like to think. Instead, we are merely following a centuries-old tradition of orthodox Christianity.

    Al can do what and say what he wants. On this issue, though, we like Gus.

    *Another strike against the fair citizens of Kentucky, alas.

    Comment Pages

    There are 10 Comments to "We like Gus"

    • Jessica Nettles says:

      “There is every reason for Christians to view the [ancient and aged] appearance of the cosmos as graphic evidence of the ravages of sin and the catastrophic nature of God’s judgment upon sin.”

      How can he even make this statement and expect to be accepted as sane? By his logic, anything in nature that is ancient and aged in appearance should be used as evidence for the ravages of sin and God’s judgment. That is ridiculous. I believe in sin, I believe there are consequences for sin, but to say that the entire cosmos reflects sin and punishment and nothing more sort of negates the grace that is preached in the New Testament by Jesus. Our universe is about more than sin and God’s eternal grumpiness about that sin. Our universe does amazing things, like changes to make way for a better way of living. This change is reflected in our ability to adapt in different locations, and in the change in God’s covenant with man. Jesus is an evolution of the way we relate to God. I’m not sure why it is important to cling to an ancient interpretation of things we don’t understand (creation). I love the story of creation, but it is not the cornerstone of my belief in God.


    • Andrew says:

      I like Gus too. And Paul, you carry on in his best traditions!


    • Todd says:

      I, too, like Gus. After all, the most famous theological argument made by a scientists trying to simultaneously defend science against religion and also religion against science (Galileo’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”) was essentially a repetition of Augustine’s position (which Galileo was quick to point out). I find Augustine’s approach to science and scriptural interpretation to be very reasonable, particularly for the 4th century. At times it makes me sad that we have seemingly regressed since then.

      But I realize that I’m too quick to jump to that conclusion. First of all, Augustine was surely not a typical Christian in his day. I doubt the average practicing Christian of the 4th century reached the intellectual and spiritual heights of Gus. So taking Al Mohler as representative of the 21st century and Augustine as representative of the 4th is pretty unfair to our current age.

      Second, the scientific issues facing today’s Christians are undoubtedly more complex than those facing Augustine. The concepts of a spherical Earth and spherical heavens might have seemed to be at odds with the most obvious interpretations of the Bible, but you didn’t have to stretch to far to make them fit. They certainly didn’t strike at the core of the faith. But if humans have evolved from animals through random chance mutations over time, if our sun is one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies in a universe that may be but one of an infinite (?) number of universes, it gets a little harder to see how to interpret the scripture in a way that doesn’t contradict science or trample core pieces of the faith.

      I think this is a daunting challenge, though one that is not necessarily insurmountable. But in the face of this challenge, a challenge greater than that faced by Augustine, some folks choose to stick to scripture and reject science, regardless of the ridicule it may bring “by these who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books” (as Gus puts it).

      I’m convinced that part of the reason some people reject science rather than try to find a way to fit science and faith together, is that they don’t understand science very well. I’m also convinced that in most cases this is not entirely their fault. Too often science is taught as a set of disjoint factual claims. As such, it has no greater authority than any other set of factual claims made by an authority figure. And this approach makes it seem that one can pick and choose what bits of science to accept and what bits to reject. But science at least seeks to be a coherent whole, not a disjoint collection of facts. Different parts of science are intimately tied together.

      Paul, you make this point when you note that rejecting evolution involves rejecting nuclear physics. When people choose to discard certain scientific claims, I don’t think they usually realize that they should also discard a host of other claims as well, because of the intimate connections that exist between these claims and those they are discarding. For example, how can one believe in a universe that is less than 10,000 years old and yet accept that we can look up at night and see the Andromeda Galaxy which is over 2 million light-years away (unless they also reject the finite speed of light, which is directly measured in the lab – so rejecting that means rejecting a whole host of other things!)? When you see science as a big puzzle where the pieces fit together (even if, admittedly, some pieces are missing and some don’t seem to fit at any given time) then it’s much harder to just chuck the bits that you don’t like. But if you’ve been taught that science is a bunch of facts on flash cards, why not just drop the “problematic” flash cards into the trash?

      Anyway, here’s hoping that the people of this Earth (including me) become better educated both scientifically and theologically. Maybe someday we can all aspire to the heights reached in the 4th century….


    • Brice says:

      Andrew, I must compliment you on the flashcard analogy. When the world is viewed through the lens of fact flashcards it helps to control the vast amounts amounts of information input we of the 21st Centruy (and late 20th) have had bombarding us. I think that you were just referring to multitude of science branches, but let’s expand that thought.

      There is the tendency to for folks of all types to sort out and dump the ones that don’t make sense. The flashcard facts also are not very well presorted for us. The source of the flashcard is of a wide variety: opinion, personal experience, hard science, soft science, pseudoscience, religious belief, trusted authority, gut feeling, etc.

      And so we must take a wide variety of the workings and understanding on our world on the faith and authority of others knowledge, but unless we have a pretty good grasp on how they came by that revelation we might be tempted to trash the flash card.

      I have occasionally asked if people believe in cell phones. It is an odd question, no? We have physical evidence for it, but yet the same processes that we came to discover the rules of physics and apply them are the very same rules that we use to up with odd ball stuff like quantum mechanics and evolution and the chemistry of spider silk. The science-sourced flash card is one that should have a higher threshold to toss out. Isn’t this what those in the Enlightenment were going for? A way to share to Truth among people without the trappings that the other methods of “knowing” that produced inhomogeneous results. We today are still wrestling with it.

      Also I am currently unimpressed with how our schools teach the process of science. Too often we (and Yes I’m more a part of the problem than the solution) frame science in facts and subjects. School says: This is the carbon cycle. This how you balance an equation. This how you gain leverage. Lots of flashcard that have little connection.

      There is a movement that encourages students to experience science through investigation of a local problem that they are interested in and explore and solve it. There are downsides to this more experiential approach too but there is evidence that students who experience science this way recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of scientific approach to knowledge. Such knowledge would (hopefully) help them in the process of flash card fact trashing.

      Thanks for the great analogy Andrew!


    • Andrew says:

      Thanks, Brice, but the great analogy is Todd’s! I wish I could take credit for it, as it is indeed excellent. I agree with you about the teaching of science, too. It should be taught as a cohesive whole, keeping in mind that say, ecology is based on biology, which is based on chemistry, which is based on (gulp) physics, as much as it pains me as a biology guy to admit that : ). I think people do themselves a great disservice when they appoint career religionists as subject matter experts in areas of science. Even I don’t think Richard Dawkins is a biblical scholar. He’s not. He’s a scientist. He would tell you the same.

      We all have to decide at some point whether a set of beliefs is credible to us or not, or what part of those beliefs is credible. While I am down with many new testament teachings, at the same time, none of those concepts require Christianity to be valid. Those parts of the bible which don’t square with modern understanding, IMHO, can be safely tossed, and seen for what they are: Bronze age mythology and folklore. Let’s get to the ‘meat’ of the really important questions, I say.



    • Brice says:

      Let me first decide to eat the egg on my face. Thanks for the correction Andrew and I redirect the credit to Todd. I guess I was… (insert your favorite excuse here).

      Andrew, as an ecology guy myself it pains me to have to give so much credit to physics too. I believe I admitted this to Paul some 20 years ago. Yet something about the way life operates, especially as a human but even to point of fungus, seems to exhibit something that in religious terms would be like free will. I’ll have to keep thinking about that.

      Also at this point in my life I am not


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, you have enlightened me as to Augustine’s position as relates to “science” and the Bible (though I believe I may have heard of it sometime in the past). I would first say colloquially, as I did substantively in my recent comment to Andrew as to a previous post: Don’t miss the forest for the trees. That is, don’t let the issue of the “scientific” or unscientific nature of various biblical passages take away from “The Ultimate Thing,” which is, as I see it, what is shown or accomplished by Christ: the Incarnation, the Subsitutionary Atonement through Christ’s death, the conquering over the power of death through Christ’s resurrection, and the ultimate eternal state as shown through Christ’s ascension into heaven. Not being a “Gus” scholar, I suspect, from his revered position in Christian history and theology, that he may well have been making that point.

      As to the issue of the relationship between scripture and science on the merits, I am not a total fan of Al Mohler (for example, he believes in predestination, which I adamantly oppose), and if he is indeed being correctly represented as saying that the “apparent aging” of the earth is a sign of God’s wrath, I can almost go with Jessica in being a bit stunned by that view. If my may put in my two cents, I do however believe that the sin of man affects not only what happens to men IN GENERAL, but also has GENERAL effects on nature. See generally Romans 8:18-23; Genesis 3:17-19. Indeed, in some respects the “wrongdoing” of men obviously has come deleterious effects on “nature,” such as air and water pollution, and the decimation of various animal species.

      Tom Harkins 01/24/2011


    • Todd says:

      Brice: You are very welcome for the analogy! Don’t give me too much credit, though. I probably stole it from someone, but just can’t remember who. Anyway, I’m with you on being unimpressed by the way science is usually taught. We seem to want to cram our students with information, but we long ago passed the point where they cannot possible have all the information they might need in their heads. What they need, then, is a way to sort information from other sources (the flashcards, if you will). To do that, they need to have some idea of how those flashcards were generated. Having students actually do science is one good approach. The pitfall of this is that the science that students can actually do is necessarily fairly minor (because science is so advanced now – it takes years to do almost anything meaningful). The approach I take, inspired by Paul’s work when he teaching here, is to engage students in the history of science (in my case, astronomy and physics). I try to really get them digging into the arguments, controversies, new discoveries, new ideas, debates, disagreements, etc. That way they see how this scientific knowledge was created, while at the same time getting to grapple with some pretty big ideas (heliocentrism, galaxies and our place in the Milky Way, etc). I think this approach works well, but I also think there are many ways to educate students that will do more than stuffing them with information can ever do.

      Andrew and Brice: I don’t think there is any need for physics envy! Physics DOES NOT explain biology. We do expect Biology to be consistent with physics, but there is just no way anyone can legitimately claim that you can derive the functioning of a bacterium (much less an ecosystem!) from quantum mechanics. It may be plausible that it could be done IN PRINCIPLE (though I’m not sure I buy that), but it definitely can’t be done in practice. What we really seek is consistency across the sciences, and consistency is a two-way street. If we find a biological system that seems to contradict laws of physics, then it may be the laws of physics that must be amended, not the biology. Of course, figuring out which (if either) is the problem would take a lot of work and should not be done lightly. But we should not assume some hierarchy of sciences that says if a physics and biology disagree then biology must be wrong. One of the really amazing things about science is that we have these areas of study that grew up largely independent of each other and yet over time we’ve managed to make all of them more powerful (in terms of the explanatory capacity) and at the same time make them increasingly consistent with each other. I think the role of internal consistency between theories (as opposed to the external consistency with the observational data) is not given enough attention in science popularization and science education.

      This may be my fundamental problem with a lot of religion. I want religion to be consistent with our best science, in much the same way I would expect a new scientific theory to be consistent with our best science. That’s why I am much more comfortable with the idea of an ineffable and mysterious God than I am with the idea of a God who pops in to do some miracles every now and then, dictates a book to a group of folks to let the world know about Him, etc.


    • Well said, Todd. A “Deist” sort of God would be a whole lot more plausible to me as well. And our distinctions of scientific disciplines are, of course, arbitrary. There is really only “science”. The more we learn, the more the body of knowledge tends towards cohesiveness. Understanding one discipline is just built on understanding the one before it.

      Driving home last night, I thought that we all are “reductionists” of a sort, even the religious among us. They just like to reduce to “God did it”, “It’s God’s will”, or some such, where we empiricists like to reduce things to their component particles and their interactions.




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