Augustine, Inspiration, Perfection: A stumbling block to the dialogue between Theology and Science

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Thompson, Geoffrey

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Rankin, David

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On a number of occasions during the last century, the dialogue between theology and science stalled because of unresolved underlying issues between the two disciplines. Despair at the possibility of resolving such underlying issues increases pressure to either abandon the notion of divine action in the world or alternatively to heavily revise the Christian faith. No such revision has received broadly based support across the disciplines. This thesis is about resolving what continues to be one important underlying issue – the question of the nature of divine agency in the world. It is argued that an understanding of divine agency developed out of the interaction of three factors in early modernity. Two factors are already well established as influences, late medieval perfectbeing theology and the early modern application of the notion of the two-books of God’s revelation to the understanding of the natural order. It is argued that the third is the early modern appropriation of the doctrine of inspiration, which contains a description of divine agency in humans which became applied more generally to divine agency in the world. The description of divine agency which developed presumed the existence of the soul and that attributes of a divine perfect-being must be reflected in the natural order. These assumptions while generally accepted in the seventeenth-century, faced serious challenges in the nineteenth. If it is possible to describe divine agency, including inspiration, without implying that perfection or the soul is essential, then this particular underlying issue can be resolved.

The status of this understanding of divine agency will be shown to change from that of unquestioned acceptance among natural philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to becoming a stumbling block to the scientists of the nineteenth-century. Therefore, my thesis proposes an alternative description of divine agency based in the christological notions of anhypostasia and enhypostasia to overcome these problems. This proposal warrants serious consideration if it is theologically coherent and remains plausible while resolving or avoiding a range of known difficulties. The last section establishes this coherence and plausibility.

The proposal sets out to change the relationship between the three factors: inspiration; divine perfection; and, the notion of the two-books of God’s revelation. In early modernity each of these three factors could be expressed without reference to Christology or the trinity. It is argued that failing to refer to who God is, is problematic. Augustine’s description of inspiration and its understanding of divine agency in humans could also be re-expressed without referring to who God is. Augustine’s description can be traced through Tertullian and be shown to draw on Aristotelian and classical medical ideas including those of the philosopher Cleanthes and the gynaecologist Soranus of Ephesus. The Augustinian description of inspiration understands the soul to be a metaphysical element of a human that necessarily is stood aside during the direct action of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, ekstasis is automatic when the Holy Spirit acts. Thus understood inspired action is God’s action and the agency by which God communicates with humans.

Newton extended the Augustinian notion of divine agency in humans to divine agency in the world. Newton believed the mind of God relates to the universe as a sensorium in a manner similar to the Aristotelian understanding of the way the human mind relates to the sensorium of the body – its five senses, as well as the abilities to use memory and to command movement. Moreover, Newton’s analogy becomes complete only if the mind of God by the Holy Spirit stands aside a fictive mind of the universe in the same way that the Holy Spirit was understood to stand aside the human mind in Augustinian ekstasis inspiration. Newton’s analogy was used by others including a physiological description of the nerves developed by Hartley.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Arts

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divine perfection


Nature of divine agency

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