Gavin Ortlund
 on August 14, 2020

7 Reasons Augustine Can Enrich Our Understanding of Creation

Wrestling with the doctrine of creation? Augustine’s life and work might be more relevant and timely than you’d think.

forest of trees with a dirt path in the middle

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by God’s creation. Here in California, some of my happiest moments have been hiking amidst the redwood trees, or playing with my kids on the shores of the beautiful Pacific Ocean. When we lived in St. Louis, we regularly went to the zoo, and I often found myself moved to worship because of the animals. Only Someone very wise and very good could have made peacocks, aardvarks, turtles, and scorpions!

I’ve also found creation to be fascinating theologically. At the same time, studying and writing on creation, especially as a pastor, has sometimes felt like navigating a minefield. It’s very controversial. In fact, I have often thought of creation as perhaps the most controversial and simultaneously most neglected doctrine in all of theology—an area we tend to avoid unless it’s in relation to the contested points.

For many, the doctrine of creation is nothing other than a position on how old the world is, and by what means God chose to create. Unfortunately, such a focus can be divisive and polarizing. More than that, it often minimizes reflection about the deeper meaning of createdness. I wonder if this is part of what leads us to neglect other topics in the church—like the arts, vocation, culture, and embodied existence. Too often, we think in terms of being a sinner, or being a Christian, but forget to think in terms of being a human being.

In my engagement with creation, I’ve found it surprisingly helpful to approach this doctrine from a historical angle. Sometimes engaging voices from the past can provide helpful perspective on the current controversies of the day, moving us beyond polarization into constructive dialogue and rapprochement. In particular, I have come to the conviction that St. Augustine, the great church father and bishop of Hippo (354–430), has much to say to the contemporary church about creation, both shoring up neglected areas while also calming and directing the contested areas.

Here are seven facts about Augustine that show why his work might enrich our understanding of creation:

Augustine portrait by Philippe de Champaigne from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  1. Augustine’s perception that Genesis 1 was out of alignment with the most sophisticated intellectual trends of the day was a critical factor in his conversion to Manichaeism. But his awareness of alternative, less “literalistic” interpretations of Genesis 1 was a critical factor in his return to orthodoxy. Had he not heard Ambrose’s allegorical preaching on Genesis 1, perhaps he never would have found his way back to the church. This seems to relate to common patterns today (aside from the Manichaeism, of course).
  2. Augustine continued to struggle with the early chapters of Genesis all throughout his theological career, writing five distinct commentaries on them and engaging them widely in his other works and sermons as well. Creation became central to his entire thought. As I put it in my book, risking overstatement, “creation was to Augustine what justification was to Luther, or divine transcendence was to Barth.” In all this, Augustine engaged creation at the deepest existential level. For him, it was the key to understanding the deepest longings of the human heart.
  3. Augustine engaged creation in dialogue with non-Christian beliefs of his day, so in his doctrine of creation you gather a sense of how Christianity as a whole made sense to him. In engaging Augustine’s doctrine of creation, you see him doing his own kind of “apologetics.”
  4. Augustine’s views on creation were recognized as authoritative in his lifetime, and his commentaries on Genesis were unrivalled among the church fathers. His views on creation continued to exert a massive influence on the church in subsequent eras, particularly in relation to the rise of modern science. Galileo Galilei, for example, quoted from Augustine’s commentary on Genesis more than 10 times in defense of his theories.
  5. Augustine adopted a kind of framework interpretation of Genesis 1, vigorously rejecting the idea that the days there are 24-hour periods of time. This view, and the three main reasons Augustine leveraged in favor of it, was enormously influential on the medieval church.
  6. Augustine vociferously affirmed the goodness of animal death prior to the fall, in opposition to the Manichaean criticism that animal death is evil. He was particularly fascinated with insects and carnivorous animals, and spent a great deal of time reflecting on why God made them as a part of his good creation.
  7. Augustine considered whether Adam and Eve were symbolic figures, and developed a nuanced and literarily sensitive approach to this question. His conclusion defended their historicity but acknowledged a high level stylization and symbolization in Genesis 2-3. There are striking parallels between his approach and various positions in the current discussion of evolution, Adam and Eve, and the fall.

There is much more, but hopefully that gives you a sense of his incredible relevance.

The simple fact is this: the greatest theologian of the early church, perhaps the most influential theologian in all of history, anticipated nearly all of our current anxieties about the doctrine of creation. And no one can reasonably write off Augustine as unimportant, or as liberal. Nor can any of his views be disregarded as capitulations to scientific discoveries, since he lived a millennium-and-a-half before the scientific revolution.

Too often, we think in terms of being a sinner, or being a Christian, but forget to think in terms of being a human being.

Gavin Ortlund

I suggest that Augustine’s voice needs greater hearing in the current discussion. I hope that my book will be useful to this end for professors, pastors, seminarians, interested lay Christians, and others who want to see us make progress on this contested but vitally important doctrine. As I wrote in the opening of the book,

“Imagine a young man in his late teen years. He has recently moved to the city to go to school. In the course of his study, he becomes convinced that the Genesis creation account is inconsistent with the most sophisticated intellectual trends of the day. He rejects the Christian faith in which he was raised, giving his twenties to youthful sins and worldly ambition.

Eventually, he encounters Christians who hold to a different interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, and his intellectual critique of Christianity is undermined. He enters into a time of indecision and deep angst. His mother continues to pray for him. Finally, after much personal struggle, he has a dramatic conversion experience.

This is the testimony of St. Augustine (354–430), who is arguably the greatest of the church fathers and the most influential Christian theologian in the history of the church. But, in its broad outline, it is a story that seems to replay itself again and again today. The details are different, of course. For instance, our threat today comes from naturalism, while Augustine’s came from Manichaeism. But the overall scenario is only too familiar to us—particularly because today, stories like this often lack a happy ending.”

It is my earnest prayer that a fresh look at Augustine’s life and insights will help many today who can relate to his story.

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About the author

Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. He is the author of several books, including Retrieving Augustine's Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom For Current Controversy.

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