Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy by Gavin Ortlund (IVP Academic, 2020), 264pp, $30.
Back in the ’90s, my friends and I were zealous about the creation-evolution debate. We would sit around at lunch hour, pointing out logical fallacies in our high-school textbooks about evolutionary theory. My youth group devoured a set of VHS tapes about dinosaurs, creation, and evolution, and we came to believe that anything other than a literal/historical, six-day creation of twenty-four-hour days in the precise order given in Genesis 1 that occurred approximately 6000 years ago was liberal Christianity that promoted atheism and undermined the authority of Scripture. This final concern, this theological aspect, was the most important part for us. It wasn’t merely youthful zeal, nor, as some characterise this sort of debate, were we simply driven to be “right.” We were concerned for orthodoxy, and it seemed to us that a rejection of this part of the biblical narrative would undermine the rest; that undoing Genesis 1 would undo everything else, right up to the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead.
In my early twenties, I read St Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine reframed my approach to the whole debate. In Book XI of Confessions, I discovered that the greatest Latin church father embraced a symbolic, allegorical view of the opening chapters of Genesis, but that he did not preclude what we today would call a “literal” reading of the text. Moreover, he held his reading of the text lightly. What mattered for St Augustine was whether a reading of the text was in conformity with the catholic faith, whether it promoted charity, whether it upheld the authority of Scripture, and whether it was a logically valid reading of the text or not. If someone disagreed with St Augustine on the interpretation of Genesis, he was willing to live with that, so long as their reading did not undermine the catholic faith. What I discovered was humility and a willingness to live with difference on matters of secondary importance—and the precise interpretation of Genesis was a matter of secondary importance.
What St Augustine’s Confessions did for me, I hope Gavin Ortlund’s book, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, can do for a wide audience as well. Ortlund focuses mainly on what Augustine has to say in Confessions and his commentaries on Genesis, but he also draws on City of God, De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine’s sermons, and other works from the vast Augustinian corpus that survives to this day. The result is a generous, broad-ranging engagement with the West’s most prominent Church Father that addresses an ongoing contentious issue in evangelical theology. Ortlund’s approach to the topic is to imagine Augustine joining the evangelical conversation about creation and to ask what he would contribute. No doubt each of us has his or her own particular piece of the science or exegesis of Genesis into which St Augustine speaks in a way either challenging or refreshing. However, Ortlund does not begin with these nitty gritty points. Wisely, he shows us that bringing St Augustine into our conversation begins simply to reframe the questions and the foundations on the one hand, as discussed in Chapter One, and our own posture on the other, as demonstrated in Chapter Two. Only then, in Chapter Three, does Ortlund begin to apply Augustinian exegetical and theological insights to the contemporary questions. Chapter Three analyses Augustine’s “literal” reading of Genesis 1, particularly in light of the question of the age of the earth; Chapter Four considers animal death in Augustine’s thought; and Chapter Five looks at the question of the historical Adam and evolution.
In Chapter One, Ortlund elucidates the foundational realities that Augustine’s exegesis brings out of Genesis 1-3, and these are realities that anyone who submits to the authority of Scripture can agree on, whether they embrace young-earth creation, old-earth creation, or theistic evolution. First and foremost is the ancient Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Augustine, along with the majority of ancient Christian theologians from Irenaeus of Lyons (d. c. 185) onwards, teaches that God created the universe out of absolutely nothing—pure nothingness, not even some kind of unformed matter or energy as proposed by Plato’s Timaeus, or the so-called “nothing” that balances the equations of physicists. The results of creatio ex nihilo can be framed in terms of divine priority and creaturely contingency. In the work of Augustine, there is an ontological gulf between created beings and God. The whole created order is contingent upon God, not merely as creator, but also as sustainer. For Augustine, these two realities are bound up together. God is the creator of everything out of nothing as the first cause, but He is also the creator of everything through “natural” means and causes—God created you and me through gestation in our mothers’ wombs as much as he created Adam out of mud. Without God, we do not exist. Without God, in fact, we tend towards nothingness, turning away from life and the life-giver back into the nothing from which our forebears originated.
Here we have one of the most important lessons of Genesis 1-2. Personally, once I internalised this lesson from Augustine’s Confessions, along with a conversation with my brother (an Anglican priest and also a young-earth creationist as a teenager), the other questions remained interesting, even important, yet their urgency diminished, so long as conversation partners subscribe to the full transcendence of the beautiful God who created out of sheer love. God did not need to create. God did not need any pre-existent matter or energy to form the world. God spoke, and creation was. God, then, being perfect love and also perfectly complete and omnipotent, is a God we can rely on. This reality, ultimately, is of greater pastoral value for us than determining if dinosaurs walked the earth with humans, as interesting as it may be.
In Chapter Two, Ortlund turns to what I would consider Augustine’s other great contribution to this discussion. Chapter One laid a foundation that places God at the centre of reality so deeply that his role is not undermined by evolution or old earths. Next, the posture of the exegete and theologian is revised. Augustine’s primary concern in terms of how to approach Scripture is the need for humility. Ortlund cites and analyses multiple passages to this effect. Such humility before Scripture upholds the authority of God’s word written as God’s revelation. But the humble interpreter knows that his or her interpretations of Scripture may, in fact, be wrong. This results in Augustine offering interpretations of Genesis that he backpedals on or is at least cautious about. It also means he is willing to live with difference—so long as someone else’s interpretation upholds the authority of Scripture. Moreover, even if he is uncertain of which interpretation is correct, Augustine wants to find authorial intent, even when he finds multiple potential meanings. He is simply uncertain that he, himself, is always correct—and sometimes he posits that perhaps Moses had multiple meanings in mind, anyway.
Ortlund also discusses Augustine’s posture towards science (a term that could have used a bit of unpacking) in Chapter Two, and this is, again, very helpful and instructive to us today. He is concerned about arrogant, unlearned Christians who eschew the findings of natural philosophers and reject any science that does not conform to their own personal interpretation of Scripture. Augustine is quite willing to revise his own interpretations in the light of logic and science. He is also unimpressed with Christians who quail before the arguments of unbelievers and are either timid about what they believe or reject the catholic faith in light of these challenges. These groups do not do justice to sacred Scripture and they make Christianity a laughingstock amongst unbelievers. Augustine writes from experience, for it was the Manichaean interpretation of Genesis that was part of why he adhered to that sect. I feel that in the ’90s, many, like myself, fell into the category of the arrogant. However, I also feel that many of us today, as I was in the early 2000s before reading Augustine, fall into the second category. And some who feel ashamed of their young-earth creationism but who believe it is an essential component of true, evangelical Christianity, begin a process of rejecting the Christian faith when young-earth creationism is challenged by the ongoing findings of the natural sciences. Augustine can help both groups grow humble about themselves and strong in faith in God through his own approach to the Bible.
Of the last three chapters on specific topics in the debate, the one that struck me most powerfully was Chapter Five about the historical Adam. Ortlund begins with Augustine’s concept of rationes seminales, the idea of seeded principles in God’s original creation that contain the potentiality of more things. They are the principles that help determine the outworking of creation in “natural” terms, allowing that creaturely contingency means that God is still intimately involved in the fulfilment of the potential found in the rationes seminales. This idea obviously lends itself to evolutionary theory, but that is to be understood as a modern appropriation of the theology rather than something inherent in Augustine’s teaching. Ortlund then tackles Adam. There are three options available vis à vis Adam and evolution:
- Evolution, therefore no Adam.
- Adam, therefore no evolution.
- Adam and evolution.
While Augustine does allow that readings of Genesis that allegorise Adam at the expense of his historicity are not necessarily heretical, he affirms a historical Adam, and there are good theological and exegetical reasons for the historical Adam. Even if we embrace allegorical and spiritual readings of the text with Augustine, we find ourselves drawn to acknowledging a historical Adam. Whether Augustine would go for option 2 or option 3 is, of course, unknown, but Ortlund gives a helpful outline of some of the literature available to those who support the idea of the compatibility of a historical Adam with evolutionary theory.
Overall, this book does not solve any problems, and that is one of its strengths. Instead, it gives new perspectives and old foundations to current debates that should help all of us be humbler and refocus our hearts on God. With this book’s Augustinian perspectives, hopefully more evangelicals will be able to engage in spirited but charitable debate and better understand one another while upholding the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture. I do not think that someone with the attitude I had as a teenager would countenance this book or even finish it, but I do think that whether young-earth creationist, old-earth creationist, or theistic evolutionist, someone with a teachable heart who wants to engage with others graciously will find this book helpful, if at times unsettling. And perhaps we should be unsettled in some of our ideas so that we can find rest where it truly is to be found–not in science or precise theories about cosmology, but in God, as the most famous passage in St Augustine’s Confessions says: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
Dr. Matthew Hoskin is a Visiting Fellow at both Davenant Hall where he teaches ancient and medieval Christianity, and the Ancient Language Institute where he teaches Ancient Greek and Latin. He has a PhD in the history of Christianity from the University of Edinburgh with expertise in ancient Christianity, and he will be teaching “The Church in Medieval England” for Davenant Hall in the Trinity Term of Spring 2022.
Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy is published by IVP Academic, and is available now. It can be purchased here via Bookshop.org. If you purchase via this link, a small commission goes to The Davenant Institute. Purchases via Bookshop.org also support independent bookstores.