Are Science and Faith at Odds? Insights by Augustine

The relationship between science and faith is one of the most important, and yet controversial subjects of our day. Are science and faith opposed? Do they support one another? Do they threaten one another? Or do they address entirely different “magisteria”, as Stephen Jay Gould famously suggested.

It is important to get the relationship between science and faith correct, for as David Kinnaman has pointed out in his book You Lost Me, the perceived conflict between them is one of the top reasons young people disengage the church. While there are many good books on the dynamic between science and faith (See, for instance, Where the Conflict Really Lies by Alvin Plantinga), sometimes the best wisdom comes from the past.

In his book On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine gives some helpful advice for how to approach science. Long before the Scientific Revolution, Augustine was well aware of the supposed conflict between science and faith. His advice is worth heeding today:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens…and this knowledge he holds to as Are Science and Faith at Odds? Insights by Augustinebeing certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear aChristian, 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…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 on 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” (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 19:39, p. 42).

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:


Free Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

Powered by ConvertKit
3 replies
  1. stephen says:

    I appreciate this. Have always liked the sciences, especially astronomy and biology. These days I feel a bit bamboozled navigating the claims from atheists amidst say the perspective of the folks at Reasons To Believe verses the folks at Answers in Genesis on what the Bible teaches.
    I have to remember, we can assert with good certainty that we can know what the Bible teaches via good deduction. Still is a little shaky as to know where a more “literal” approach is to be taken.

  2. Ben Kissling says:

    I prefer what Paul had to say about such things.

    “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the cmessage preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

    1 Corinthians 1:20-25

    There are others of course.

    “If, however, we cannot discover explanations of all those things in Scripture which are made the subject of investigations, yet let us not on that account seek after any other God besides Him who really exists. For this is the very greatest impiety. We should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit: but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than, the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destitute of the knowledge of His mysteries. And there is no cause for wonder if this is the case with us as respects things spiritual and heavenly, and such as require to be made known to us by revelation, since many even of those things which lie at our very feet (I mean such as belong to this world, which we handle, and see, and are in close contact with) transcend our knowledge, so that even those we must leave to God.

    For it is fitting that He should excel all. For how stands the case, for instance, if we endeavour to explain the cause of the rising of the Nile? We may say a great deal, plausible or otherwise, on the subject; but what is true, sure, and incontrovertible regarding it, belongs only to God. Then, again, the dwelling-place of birds – of those, I mean, which come to us in spring, but fly away again on the approach of autumn – though it is a matter connected with this world, escapes our knowledge. What explanation, again, can we give of the flow and ebb of the ocean, although every one admits there must be a certain cause? Or what can we say as to the nature of those things which lie beyond it? What, moreover, can we say as to the formation of rain, lightning, thunder, gatherings of clouds, vapours, the bursting forth of winds, and such like things; of tell as to the storehouses of snow, hail, and other like things? [What do we know respecting] the conditions requisite for the preparation of clouds, or what is the real nature of the vapours in the sky? What as to the reason why the moon waxes and wanes, or what as to the cause of the difference of nature among various waters, metals, stones, and such like things? On all those points we may indeed say a great deal while we search into their causes, but God alone who made them can declare the truth regarding them.”

    Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter XXVIII, Perfect Knowledge Cannot Be Attained in the Present Life: Many Questions Must Be Submissively Left in the Hands of God, Part 2,~180 A.D.

    But let us suppose that this also happened by chance; the circumstances which follow assuredly cannot be by chance – that the earth should at once flow with milk, and that the temperature of the atmosphere should be equable. And if these things plainly happened, that the newly born animals might have nourishment, or be free from danger, it must be that some one provided these things by some divine counsel. But who is able to make this provision except God?…

    Therefore God, the Contriver of all things, made man. And even Cicero, though ignorant of the sacred writings, saw this, who in his treatise on the laws, in the first book, handed down the same thing as the prophets; and I add his words: ‘This animal, foreseeing, sagacious, various, acute, gifted with memory, full of method and design, which we call man, was produced by the supreme Deity under remarkable circumstances; for this alone of so many kinds and natures of animals, partakes of judgment and reflection, when all other animals are destitute of them.’ Do you see that the man, although far removed from the knowledge of the truth, yet, inasmuch as he held the image of wisdom, understood that man could not be produced except by God?

    But, however, there is need of divine testimony, lest that of man be insufficient. The Sibyl testifies that man is the work of God: ‘He who is the only God being the invincible Creator, He Himself fixed the figure of the form of men, He Himself mixed the nature of all belonging to the generation of life.’ The sacred writings contain statements to the same effect. Therefore God discharged the office of a true father. He Himself formed the body; He Himself infused the soul with which we breathe. Whatever we are, it is altogether His work.”

    Lactantius, The Divine Institutues, Book II, Chapter XII, That Animals Were Not Produced Spontaneously, But by a Divine Arrangement, of Which God Would Have Given Us the Knowledge, If It Were Advantageous for Us to Know It, ~310 A.D.

    “The first formation of the human body could not be by the instrumentality of any created power, but was immediately from God…Now God, though He is absolutely immaterial, can alone by His own power produce matter by creation: wherefore He alone can produce a form in matter, without the aid of any preceding material form…Therefore as no pre-existing body has been formed whereby another body of the same species could be generated, the first human body was of necessity made immediately by God.”

    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 91, Article 2, Whether the human body was immediately produced by God, ~1270 A.D.

    “After these statements, Celsus, from a secret desire to cast discredit upon the Mosaic account of the creation, which teaches that the world is not yet ten thousand years old, but very much under that, while concealing his wish, intimates his agreement with those who hold that the world is uncreated. For, maintaining that there have been, from all eternity, many conflagrations and many deluges, and that the flood which lately took place in the time of Deucalion is comparatively modern, he clearly demonstrates to those who are able to understand him, that, in his opinion, the world was uncreated. But let this assailant of the Christian faith tell us by what arguments he was compelled to accept [this].”

    Origen, Contra Celsum, Book I, Chapter XIX, 248 A.D.

    And then there’s Augustine himself:

    “They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.”

    St. Augustine, City of God, Book XII, chapter 10, “Of the Falseness of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the World’s Past”, 426 A.D.

    One wonders if Augustine would have allowed that science, which is supposed to be based on observable, reproducible events, should take superiority over Genesis in matters of history.

  3. edwardtbabinski says:


    “They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed [since the creation of Adam and Eve].—City of God, Book XII, Chapter 10, On the Falseness of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the Worldʼs Past

    “…those antediluvians lived more than 900 years.” —City of God, Book XV, Chapter 14


    Genesis speaks of the firmament (Gen. 1:6-7) as that place that divides the earthly waters from the heavenly waters. Augustine offers a lengthy allegorical interpretation of the firmament in his Confessions (book 13)—seeing it as a symbol of Scripture and its place between the earthly and the heavenly—but the presence of an allegorical interpretation does not mean that he also rejects the literal existence of a firmament.

    When some philosophers of Augustineʼs day argued that the waters would be too heavy to stay in the sky, Augustine replied, “If God ever wished oil to remain under water, it would do so.” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 2.2).

    The “term ‘firmament’ does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven,” says Augustine, “we may understand this name as given to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is a solid and that it constitutes an impassible boundary between the waters above and the waters below” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 2.10.23). And while he appears later in life to question his confidence in the exact nature of the firmament (Retractions 2.6.2), he continues to hold to its literal existence. —Brandon Withrow, Augustine, Genesis, and “Removing the Mystical Veil”: Part 2

    Augustine mentions that “…[in Genesis 1] the firmament was made between the waters above and beneath, and was called ‘Heaven,’ in which firmament the stars were made on the fourth day.” [City of God chapter 11.5-9] In that same chapter Augustine cites Psalm 148:3-4 that states the “sun, moon, stars and heaven” praise the Lord along with “the waters above the heavens,” which assumes waters exist above the stars. Augustine adds, “Whatever the nature of the waters [above the firmament], we must believe in them, for the authority of Scripture is greater than the capacity of manʼs mind.”

    AUGUSTINE On the Absurdity of Believing that Men Exist on the Other Side of the Immense Expanse of Ocean

    “As to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth [Augustine is poo pooing the idea that human beings will be found on the opposite side of a spherical earth, not a flat one], where the sun rises when it sets on us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, there is no reason for believing it. Those who affirm it do not claim to possess any actual information; they merely conjecture that, since the earth is suspended within the concavity of the heavens, and there is as much room on the one side of it as on the other, therefore the part which is beneath cannot be void of human inhabitants. They fail to notice that, even should it be believed or demonstrated that the world is round or spherical in form, it does not follow that the part of the earth opposite to us is not completely covered with water, or that any conjectured dry land there should be inhabited by men. For Scripture, which confirms the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, teaches not falsehood; and it is too absurd to say that some men might have set sail from this side and, traversing the immense expanse of ocean, have propagated there a race of human beings descended from that one first man.”
    —City of God 14:9

    AUGUSTINE’s Belief in Human Giants Based on Bible Passages Combined with Finding Large Bones in the Ground

    “…the size of menʼs bodies was larger then than now… the large size of the primitive human body is often proved to the incredulous by the exposure of sepulchers [in this case, buried bones], either through the wear of time or the violence of torrents or some accident, and in which bones of incredible size have been found or have rolled out. I myself, along with some others, saw on the shore at Utica a manʼs molar tooth of such a size, that if it were cut down into teeth such as we have, a hundred, I fancy, could have been made out of it. But that, I believe, belonged to some giant.” —City of God, Book 15, Chapter 9

    AUGUSTINE On Godʼs Re-Creation of Animals Directly from the Ground in Distant Lands Right After the Flood

    In The City of God (16.7), Augustine discusses Noahʼs Ark and how it was that animals were present on distant islands so soon after the great flood: “[I]t is asked how they [various wild animals] could be found in the islands after the deluge … It might, indeed, be said that they crossed to the islands by swimming, but this could only be true of those very near the mainland; whereas there are some so distant that we fancy no animal could swim to them … they were produced out of the earth as at their first creation … this makes it more evident that all kinds of animals were preserved in the ark, not so much for the sake of renewing the stock, as of prefiguring the various nations that were to be saved in the Church.”

    AUGUSTINE On the Location of Hell

    “It seems to me that in the twelfth book I ought to have taught that hell is under the earth rather than to give a reason why it is under the earth, since it is believed to or said to be earth, as if it were not so.” —Retractations, written near the end of Augustineʼs life

    Also see Augustine
    On How the Sexual Organs Functioned in Eden
    On Women
    On Abstinence Being More Important Than the Continuance of the Human Race
    On His Advocacy of the View that Slaves Ought to Love Their Masters
    On the Wickedness of Giving Presents to Friends
    On The Damnation of Infants That Die Without Having Been Baptized


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *