Retrieving Augustine's Doctrine of Creation

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Book Review: “Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation” by Gavin Ortlund

Augustine looms large over the course of church history, and he’s frequently enlisted by people on various–and sometimes contradictory–sides of theological debates. Gavin Ortlund, in Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, seeks to show that Augustine’s doctrine of creation has much to teach us to this day about not just the theological underpinnings of a doctrine of creation but also humility in conclusions.

The first question to ask, though, is whether Augustine should be relevant to today’s debates over the doctrine of creation. Often, Christians today (at least in the United States) focus on heated discussions about evolution, death before the Fall, the historicity of Adam, and related issues. Much of the discussion is about science–or what counts as science. What can Augustine have to say to such debates, when he predated them by 1500 years? In one stirring account, Ortlund answers the question:

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…

Ortlund, 1

It’s a powerful introduction to the rest of the book, because as one reads it, it’s clear that it’s talking about a modern youth in college, learning about geology or evolution in depth for the first time. In fact, it’s Augustine, whose story parallels that of many today. His own struggles can help illumine some of the most controversial topics today.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Augustine brings, though, is a deep sense of humility regarding the creation account. Augustine certainly had strong opinions about how it could be read, but he also realized he could be wrong. Ortlund notes that Augustine emphasized the need to “patiently endure different (orthodox) views” and quotes Augustine’s warnings against presumptuousness of assuming one is correct and obviously so (91-92). Indeed, Augustine goes on to argue that “mischievous arguments” made about the meaning of the sacred text regarding Creation goes against the very purpose of their writing, namely, to produce charity in us (92-93). While he notes that there are some certainties regarding the creation texts, he also puts some of the most hotly disputed topics of our day into the “uncertain” category. For example, the meaning of the days in the Genesis text is one thing that he sees as uncertain, and it is clear that no one can rightly charge Augustine with allegedly giving in to some kind of “evolutionary viewpoint” as Christians who note the same today are often charged with (93-94).

Augustine’s patience and humility arises, in part, from a kind of pastoral concern for certainty (or lack thereof) regarding articles of faith. Ortlund writes, “Augustine can be open to uncertainty because he regards the purpose of theological inquiry to be godliness… we do not always know in advance what will lead to godliness, and so there should be an openness and humility in the posture with which we inquire about the doctrine of creation… Augustine[‘s] patien[ce]…. is [due to] his concern for the spiritual consequences of particularly interpretations. Thus, in the Confessions, he asks, ‘How can it harm me that it should be possible to interpret these words in several ways, all of which may yet prove to be true?'” (97, emphasis his).

The doctrine of creation itself is one Augustine wrote much upon and some of it helps highlight forgotten aspects of the doctrine in our own time. Whether it’s a concern for divine priority in creation (28ff) or Trinitarian agency (43ff); whether it’s the place of angels in creation (as the light of creation? see 125-128) or the importance of temporal beauty (154ff), Augustine’s insights will surprise readers at times while also directing potential further studies into the doctrine of creation.

Augustine also had points that are relevant to some of today’s hotly debated topics, though. For example, the question of animal death looms large in our own time due to charges about death before the fall and evolution, but Augustine, over a thousand years before Darwin, saw the death of Adam and Eve as something they “contracted” from the world that was already present in animals (154). This leaves open the possibility of animal and even pre-human death before the fall, so long as one is willing to have some sort of specially created or even made immortal human pair to have as an originating couple. Again, Augustine could not have been influenced by our modern science, so his insights into possibilities related to this and other topics allow us to glean a kind of unbiased view of the breadth of orthodox options in the modern creation debate.

Ortlund turns to questions of the Fall and evolution as well, noting that Augustine’s theology, while not developed to accommodate biological evolution, could certainly be developed in that direction. For example, Augustine argued that Adam and Eve held a “conditional immortality” that was, in part, granted through the tree of life (209).

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation is a work that can change the tone of the modern debates over creation. By asking an ancient interpreter not to weigh in on modern debates, but instead to speak to the doctrine of creation and then asking that doctrine some of the modern questions, Ortlund has presented a fascinating case for carefully reading and interacting with the text. I very highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Christianity and science, historical theology, or theological retrieval.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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