Faith and Faulty Science

Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote one of the earliest “personal testimony” autobiographies that we still have today among our Christian literature.  In roughly 300 pages, he walks through his life from infancy to his present day, detailing the state of his soul, examining how and when and why he strayed from Christ (as best as he could remember), as well as noting both God’s punishments and God’s protection upon him leading to his eventual conversion to the faith.

St. Augustine was one smart cookie.  He was well educated in literature and rhetoric, as well as the rest of the “liberal arts” of classical education.  He held multiple teaching positions in in Carthage, Rome, and Milan in his late 20’s, and was conversant with many of the great Greek and Latin writings of his day.  And yet he was also deeply religious throughout his life.  For most of his 20’s, he subscribed to Manicheanism, a heretical offshoot (or imitator) of Christianity that had grown very fashionable in his day.  But over time, as he learned more from the writings of other philosophers (or scientists, we might better translate in some cases), he found the writings of Mani increasingly lacking when it comes to accurate explanations for natural phenomena.  For example, there was already knowledge of astronomy accurate enough to track and predict the time and location of lunar and solar eclipses, yet the Manichean texts insisted on a mythological explanation for them – that the moon was hiding a celestial battle between light and dark from earthly eyes.

Later, as a Christian bishop and theologian, Augustine continued to pay attention to the discrepancy between the claims of “faith” and the observations of “science” (to use modern terminology).  Unlike in his earlier days as a heretic, he no longer held religious people with erroneous scientific views with contempt, though he was still concerned about false scientific claims made in the name of faith.

When I hear of this or that brother Christian, who is ignorant of these matters and thinks one thing the case when another is correct, with patience I contemplate the man expressing his opinion.  I do not see it is any obstacle to him if perhaps he is ignorant of the position and nature of a physical creature, provided that he does not believe something unworthy of you, Lord, the Creator of all things.  But it becomes an obstacle if he thinks his view of nature belongs to the very form of orthodox doctrine, and dares obstinately to affirm something he does not understand.

As long as the false scientific opinions didn’t get in the way of their faith, or take center stage in their worldview, Augustine figured that was alright.  People get stuff wrong all the time, and as long as we don’t cling too closely to opinions we can’t entirely defend or understand, we’re in good shape.  Nevertheless, he did hope (or perhaps even expect) people to grow over the course of their Christian lives:

But such an infirmity in the cradle of faith is sustained by mother charity, until the new man ‘grows up into a mature man and is no longer carried about by any wind of doctrine’ (Eph. 4:13).

“Mother charity” is simply Augustine’s personification for a spirit of love, particularly in the ministry of the Church and the Christian community, helping people to deepen in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  It only really becomes a problem when people insist on asserting erroneous teachings:

But in the case of that man who dared to pose as a teacher, an authority, as a leader and prince of those he persuaded of his ideas, so that his followers thought themselves to be going after not a mere man but your Holy Spirit, who would not judge that, once he had been convicted of purveying falsehoods, such folly should be detested and put wholly aside?

As he was writings this, Augustine seemed particularly to have in mind Mani, the so-called prophet for whom Manicheanism is named.  That heretical sect taught as religious doctrine things which were patently false, according to the plain observation and study of philosophers (or scientists, as we would say).  But the implication of this warning applies to Christians also.  To use an easy example today, there are people out there who, in the name of biblical Christianity, believe that the earth is flat (or at least a sort of dome).  The earth has edges, corners, boundaries, and (so they claim) the Bible tells us so.  To such people, affirmation of the earth to be a globe is a rejection of the authority of the Bible.  Saint Augustine would have no patience for such assertions.  If someone innocently or passively believes in a flat earth, that’s alright; but if someone teaches it as a religious authority, “such folly should be detested and put wholly aside”.

Augustine also believed that a six 24-hour day creation narrative was also a faulty interpretation of Scripture, though he does not get into that in this part of his Confessions.  He would be tolerant of those who prefer to believe it (which we normally today call Young Earth Creationism), but he would not be tolerant of those who teach it as “the authoritative” interpretation of Scripture.

In short, teachers of religion, preachers, Bible scholars, etc., should take care not to overstep our field of expertise.  It is one thing to hold unconventional opinions on scientific matters, but it is intellectually dishonest and spiritually presumptuous to teach or preach as doctrine something that we cannot properly defend in further discussion.


All three quotes are from the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo, book V, section v (9), which is pages 76-77 in the Oxford World’s Classics edition, 1998.


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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