I finished writing my assignment on Augustine for the beginning of the 9th-grade evolutionary biology course my son will be taking next year. I thought I'd share it freely here, in case any other homeschoolers are interested in using classical authors to put modern science into long-term perspective.
Suggestions are welcome as I won't be assigning it till fall 2014.
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Augustine lived from 354 to 430 A. D. and was one of the most influential early theologians of the Church.
Page numbers refer to readings from The Literal Meaning of Genesis, appearing in the volume On Genesis, ed. by John E. Rotelle, trans. by Edmund Hill, New City Press, 2002.
1. Read Book I, no. 1 (p. 168) for an introductory idea of the multiple meanings of Scripture. List the different kinds of meaning that Augustine thinks Scripture can have.
2. Skim over nos 2-28 (pp. 168-181) to get a flavor of the way Augustine lists questions to establish the difficulty of interpreting Genesis. Dip in here and there and read paragraphs in more detail. Give three examples of problematic questions Augustine mentions.
3. Read closely no. 29-30 (p. 181-182). Why does Augustine believe that it is necessary to list the parts of creation in a certain order? Why does Augustine believe that the scripture uses the words “earth” and “waters” to represent formlessness?
4. Skip ahead to Book II, no. 25 (p. 205), about the creation of plants. Why does Augustine say plants are described as a separate creation from that of the land, but on the same “day” as the creation of land?
5. Read the episode in Book III, par. 12 (pp. 222-223), in which Augustine refutes someone's scriptural interpretation (that a certain language is used of fishes because fishes lack any kind of memory) by pointing out that direct scientific observation of fish contradicts such an interpretation.
What does this episode demonstrate that Augustine believes about the relationship between the interpretation of truth as revealed in Scripture and facts that are learned by observation of the natural world?
6. Read nos. 18-19 (pp. 227-228). (It may help you understand if you begin at par. 16 on page 225.)
Pay particular attention to this:
The reader may also wonder...whether the phrase 'according to kind' comes up again and again just by chance... or whether there is some meaning in it, as though they were already in existence beforehand, though the account of their creation is only now being given... In fact this expression begins to be used about the grasses and the trees, and so on until we get to these terrestrial animals... Is it because these things sprang into being in such a way that others would be born of them and in succeeding to them would preserve the shape and form of their origin?...
This then is the significance of 'according to kind,' where we are to understand both the efficacious force in the seed and the likeness of succeeding generations to their predecessors, because none of them was created just to exist once and for all by itself, whether to continue for ever, or to pass away without none to succeed it.
Does the above passage refer to the possibility of God creating animals that would then produce new ones of the same kind, or does it refer to the possibility of God creating animals that would eventually give rise to animals of different kinds?
7. Read no.s 22-23 (pp. 229-230). Augustine subscribes to the then-current scientific theory of “spontaneous generation,” i.e., that maggots and flies spontaneously come to life in rotting meat. (Never mind for the moment that moderns know the maggots are not spontaneously generated, but come from eggs which are laid in the meat by insects.) What philosophical problem does Augustine say the theory of spontaneous generation creates for those who study creation?
Augustine's answer is phrased as follows: “...possibly there was some natural tendency in all animated bodies, so that they already had seeded and threaded into them beforehand, as it were, the first beginnings of the future animalcules, which were going to arise.” How might we apply this same principle, based on a now-outdated scientific theory, to the more current idea of biological evolution?
8. Read par. 30 (p. 234). What does Augustine say is the defining aspect of humankind, the aspect in which man is made “in the image of God?”
Do you think that the distinctive characteristic of humanness is something we can measure with current technology? Why or why not?
9. Read Book V, no. 12 (p. 282). Does Augustine argue that the act of creation is a single act, or a series of acts? Was there a time before the beginning of the universe, according to Augustine? Tell what you know about what cosmology, a modern branch of physics, says about this question.
10. Read Book V, no. 41 (p. 297; note that it is two paragraphs long). Can this philosophy be said to admit the possibility of biological evolution?
11. Optional: If you are interested in Augustine's mathematical interpretation of why there are six days of creation and not some other number, see Book IV, beginning on page 241.