Was St. Augustine a Fundamentalist?

When the topic of the compatibility of science with religion comes up, almost always someone will bring up the quote from De Genesi ad Litteram:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the 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 holds 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.

But recently there has been a bit of a push back against characterizing Augustine as pro-science using this quote. Indeed, some have even gone so far as to say that, when all his writings are considered, Augustine comes very close to a modern fundamentalist.

Stewart James Felker has argued for this. Now, fundamentalism can be defined many ways. Felker chooses to use James Barr’s definition:

What fundamentalists insist is not that the Bible must be taken literally but that it must be so interpreted as to avoid any admission that it contains any kind of error. In order to avoid imputing error to the Bible, fundamentalists twist and turn back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretation.

Consequently, Felker says Augustine fits this definition so well that he can rightly called a fundamentalist. Augustine, we are told, emphasized scriptural inerrancy to the point that he claimed (in the City of God and De Doctrina Christiana) that there could never be errors in the Bible and it should be understood non-literally if a literal interpretation seems to say something false. Felker continues:

Augustine’s commitment to inerrancy extended as far as to deny that the gospel authors could have even gotten Biblical names mixed up—for example, coming up with far-fetched apologetic explanations to explain away verses like Matthew 27:9 (“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah…”), where the prophet Jeremiah may have been mistakenly cited instead of Zechariah.

I will focus on specifically this claim here, because I think considering only this we can answer the question in the title of this post. What he is talking about is The Harmony of the Gospels, 3.29-31. But what he says here is simply wrong. St. Augustine offers three explanations for why the Gospel of Matthew seems to wrongly refer to Jeremiah instead of Zechariah: (i) perhaps a scribe accidentally changed it from Zechariah to Jeremiah, (ii) perhaps St. Matthew mistakenly wrote Jeremiah at first, but when he realized the error, he was directed by the Holy Spirit to keep it, maybe to suggest that all prophets preach essentially the same message, (iii) St. Matthew deliberately chose to write Jeremiah instead of Zechariah, because even though the prophecy strictly speaking refers to Zechariah, there is a related prophecy in Jeremiah to which he wanted to draw our attention.

Explanation (i) St. Augustine dismisses, essentially using the principle of lectio difficilior potior. But he allows both explanations (ii) and (iii). Neither one is particularly far-fetched, and (ii) is especially interesting:

For it may have been the case, that when Matthew was engaged in composing his Gospel, the word Jeremiah occurred to his mind, in accordance with a familiar experience, instead of Zechariah. Such an inaccuracy, however, he would most undoubtedly have corrected (having his attention called to it, as surely would have been the case, by some who might have read it while he was still alive in the flesh), had he not reflected that [perhaps] it was not without a purpose that the name of the one prophet had been suggested instead of the other in the process of recalling the circumstances (which process of recollection was also directed by the Holy Spirit), and that this might not have occurred to him had it not been the Lord’s purpose to have it so written. If it is asked, however, why the Lord should have so determined it, there is this first and most serviceable reason, which deserves our most immediate consideration, namely, that some idea was thus conveyed of the marvellous manner in which all the holy prophets, speaking in one spirit, continued in perfect unison with each other in their utterances.

Note that Augustine allows that St. Matthew might have genuinely mixed the names up while first composing his gospel and decided to leave that error there for the sake of expressing a different truth. Compare this with the solution of AnswersInGenesis (an exemplar of modern fundamentalism) which does not suggest this as acceptable.

So it is not at all clear that St. Augustine was interested in “far-fetched apologetics.” And far from bending over backwards to “avoid any admission that [the Bible] contains any kind of error,” or denying “that the gospel authors could have even gotten Biblical names mixed up,” he does the opposite of both! For these reasons I conclude that St. Augustine is wrongly called a fundamentalist.


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