HomeHistoryFive examples of good science in the 5th-century writings of Augustine (Reflections on Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’ #3)
November 20, 2019
Five examples of good science in the 5th-century writings of Augustine (Reflections on Augustine’s ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’ #3)
In a previous post (#2) I promised to show how Augustine’s 5th-century text On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis has some remarkably good science in it about the earth (not flat!) and about the cosmos.
I would like to give five examples of his good science below. Amongst those who like to spend their time composing atheistic memes it is a commonplace to regard modern-day Christians as the spiritual descendants of the credulous and gullible people of ancient times. But were they really so credulous as we sometimes assume? Not so when one reads Augustine!
In the previous post I showed that Augustine very clearly did not regard either the earth or the heavenly bodies as being flat. Here are some more examples of the good science we find in this work.
Example #1. He knows the year is 365 days… and a quarter
“Augustine is aware that a year consists of 365 days and six hours. For this reason, he notes, the Romans inserted one extra day, known as an intercalary day, every four years.”
In book 2, chapter 14, he is writing about the setting of lights in the heavens on the fourth day of creation — and yes, he’s well aware that, in our understanding of day and night, you couldn’t have them without these lights in the heavens — to separate the day from the night, and to serve as signs for seasons and for days and for years:
And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years…” Genesis 1:14
Whilst it is true that he believes that the sun revolves around the earth — that widely-held belief wasn’t refuted until 1543 — Augustine is aware that a year consists of 365 days and six hours. For this reason, he notes, the Romans inserted one extra day, known as an intercalary day, every four years — the origin, of course, of our leap year.
Example #2. He knows the moon is spherical even when it appears as a crescent
Augustine is also well aware that the moon remains spherical even when it appears to us as a new moon, a crescent, and so on.
So, again in discussing in what form the moon was originally created, he says plainly that its appearance sometimes as a new moon or as a crescent is only because the part of it which is fully illumined by the sun is not facing the earth. It is, in fact, always spherical, but we see it differently according to how much of its illuminated surface is facing towards us.
Example #3. He discusses the theory that the stars are of equal brightness to the sun, but farther away
“When Genesis speaks of God establishing ‘the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night,’ Augustine readily accepts that this could be understood as the two ‘great lights’ simply as they appear on the earth.”
Augustine then goes on to discuss a theory held by some, which states that many of the stars in the night sky are as large as the sun, or even larger than it, but that they appear smaller on account of their greater distance from us.
While he doesn’t go on to endorse this theory as such, nevertheless he certainly regards it as possible and not in conflict with Scripture. After all, when Genesis speaks of God establishing
the two great lights — the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night,
he readily accepts that this could be understood as the two ‘great lights’ simply as they appear on the earth.
Example #4. He is aware that moist air condenses to form water
In discussing, by way of a brief diversion, the Flood, Augustine mentions moist air condensing to form water. He also discusses the different forms in which water occurs: either as a liquid, or as water vapour in the air.
Example #5. He is aware that air density decreases as you ascend
In book 3, chapter 2, Augustine shows he is aware that air density decreases the higher you go. He speaks of men who have climbed Mount Olympus not finding there the denser air to breathe to which they are accustomed at lower altitude.
* * *
“Before we dismiss Christian theologians of the Late Roman Empire as being credulous and gullible, we should consider how familiar Augustine was with the scientific theories of his day.”
I have here shown five examples where the scientific theories either endorsed or mentioned by Augustine in his On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis have been shown to be correct by later science. The scientific discoveries he mentions were all without the benefit of modern inventions such as the telescope, steam-powered travel or space travel.
Perhaps, then, before we dismiss Christian theologians of the Late Roman Empire as being credulous and gullible, we should consider how familiar Augustine was with the scientific theories of his day, and that many of those theories have since been proved to be correct.
Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis (ISBN 0-8091-0326-5; 0-8091-0327-3) is available in two volumes from Newman Press / Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.
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e.g., In book 1, chapters 10—11 he states very clearly that we can’t understand ‘day’ and ‘night’ in the conventional way prior to the creation of sun and moon. Augustine and John Hammond Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers, No. 41 (New York, N.Y: Newman Press, 1982), 29–32.
 It is true that in this chapter he goes into a somewhat strange diversion into the stars “moving backwards,” as if checked by the rays of the sun. This is surely an effect of the ancient observation that the stars appear to make a strange motion in the night sky, a phenomenon only properly accounted for by Copernicus’ discovery that the earth moves around the sun as discussed earlier.
 Book 3, chapter 2. Augustine and Taylor, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1:75.
 Book 3, chapter 3. Augustine and Taylor, 1:77.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.