Sunday, March 18, 2012

Augustine on Knowledge and Ignorance

"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 cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold 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 is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of 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 and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? 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 those 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."

— St. Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram (The Literal Meaning of Genesis) Vol 1 Ch 19


dgfisch said...

An honest question, after having read Augustine's quote several times:

Is it possible that a young earth creationist (YEC) could be welcome at the round table of apologetic discussion as an equal partner?

Brian said...


dgfisch said...

Thank you Brian for your quick, concise response. But I may need a little more elaboration on this subject.

At what point would the written expression of a person who would hold evolutionary theory to be an inadequate explanation of origins be taken as the intellegent advancement of honest dissent rather than the rantings of some Mad Jack?

And does Augustine's dissertation on Genesis offer some insight on this issue?

Brian said...

One way to look at it might be this: if you dissent from a view—while showing that you completely misunderstand and cannot represent adequately the view from which you are dissenting from—then that would be inviting others to call you ignorant in some way.

However, if you can show that you fully understand the view, yet still dissent and can offer plausible alternative models, then at least you show a carefulness of thought, perhaps the willingness to follow the evidence where it leads, etc.

At the same time, some people are going to think you foolish no matter what! But if we can avoid actual ignorance or displaying a sort of unthinking dogmatism, that would be ideal. Whatever view we hold, being fully informed, being able to display a good understanding of the opposing views, and then being able to give good reasons to consider an alternative model—to me, this is preferred.

Leslie said...

Brian that's a great thought you just gave - I will surely be quoting that in the future!

It's easy enough to dissent - in fact I'd say humans are prone to dissenting from things they don't understand or otherwise make them uncomfortable. And perhaps that wouldn't be so bad, but often dogmatism accompanies this and from that point it's just negative for everyone involved.

Anyway, thanks again for a well-put thought on the importance of serious apologetics.

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