Why Augustine on Creation?


Several people have asked about my book on Augustine’s doctrine of creation, and what kinds of readers might be interested in it, so I thought I’d provide a little bit of context for what the book is about, who it’s for, why I wrote it, etc.

This is a book that came out of our year in Chicago. We spent the 2017-2018 school year living on campus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I worked at the Henry Center as a research fellow in connection with the Creation Project. Basically that meant that my job was to write. It was awesome. It’s amazing what you can accomplish without any administrative work, particularly in an intellectually stimulating environment.

So, why creation, and why Augustine?

First, I’m passionately interested in the doctrine of creation. I think it is simultaneously one of the most controversial and yet most neglected doctrines in all of theology (seems odd that that could be possible, right?). And besides that, it has enormous practical relevance. There are hardly any aspects of life that are not enriched by thinking about createdness, and it’s especially useful for talking about areas that evangelicals have often neglected like the arts, vocation, culture, even things like exercise and diet and sleep. 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.

For me personally, engaging a significant pre-modern theologian like Augustine has been an enormously helpful way to engage the doctrine of creation, both with a view to shoring up the neglected areas as well as with a view to calming and directing the contested areas. For example, here are some of the facts that are so interesting to me about Augustine on creation:

  • Augustine’s perception that Genesis 1 was unsophisticated was a critical factor in his conversion to Manichaeism, and his awareness of alternative, less “literalistic” interpretations of Genesis 1 was a critical factor in his return back to orthodoxy. Had he not heard Ambrose’s allegorical preaching on Gen. 1, who know if he would have made it back at all?
  • Augustine continued to struggle with the early chapters of Genesis all throughout his theological career, writing five distinct commentaries on them and also engaging them widely in his other works and sermons. Creation became central to his thought. As I put it in the 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, for instance, it was the key to understanding the deepest longings of the human heart.
  • Augustine engaged creation in relation to “apologetics” concerns, so in his doctrine of creation you gather a sense of how Christianity as a whole made sense to him.
  • 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 was enormously influential on the medieval church.
  • Augustine vociferously affirmed the goodness of animal death prior to the fall, in opposition to the Manichaean criticism that animal death is evil.
  • Augustine did consider the question of whether Adam and Eve were symbolical, and he developed a nuanced and literarily sensitive approach to this question that defended their historicity but acknowledged stylization and symbolization in Genesis 2-3. There are striking parallels between his approach on the current discussion.

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

So: if you are interested in creation debates today, or if you are interested in Augustine, I hope you might find the book useful. I should warn: this is an academic book. I sought to make it as accessible as possible, with a view to pastors, seminarians, and lay Christians interested in creation debate and/or Augustine, or in patristics, retrieval, etc. But it’s still an academic book. Still, I think that any reader could get the big ideas from reading the introduction and conclusion, and skimming around in the chapters, particularly chapters 3-5.

5324To give a little flavor, here are the first three paragraphs 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 likes this often lack a happy ending.

If you’re interested, you can order the book here, prior to its July 14 release date.

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  1. In my book on Creation, “PURPOSE DRIVEN CREATION”, which I doubt you’ve read, I explicitly address all of the points you raise with St. Augustine. I will send you a free copy if you are interested. In it I cover why God created our material existence, the Days of Creation, death prior to sin, metaphors and symbolism in the Garden and much more. I try to stay Biblically focused and make every attempt to support my arguments with Scripture and sound doctrine, as expressed by many of our Church Fathers. I think I offer a fresh perspective that probably revives and energizes the Creation dialogue. PURPOSE DRIVEN CREATION challenges the complacent and shocks the indoctrinated. I adhere to acceptable rules of Hermeneutics, sticking to a literal interpretation where warranted. While written in plain English for everyone to understand, its perspective, analysis and tenor are philosophical and consistently theological.

  2. Thanks for this Gavin. A very enjoyable read! How are things going for you in California?

    dv, Nicholas

    Sent from my iPhone (any misspelled words, therefore, are to be blamed on my thumbs and not my intellext).


    1. Thanks Nick! All is well here! I hope you are thriving in your ministry in IN. Hope we can catch up sometime.

  3. The thrust of that story deeply resonates with my own, thank God for Tim Keller (my Ambrose lol) and a charitable and patient local church. Can’t wait to read this.

      1. Yeah, it really is a story that gets told quite a bit, and it’s funny how it seems to also lead to an eventual obsession with the doctrine of Creation (It sure has with me!). It’s also one that, at least in my experience, many pastors are ill-equipped to help their flock navigate through. It was amazing how much breadth of perspective was gained from just hearing another interpretation from an orthodox believer.

    1. Hey Greg! Yes, I interact critically with AIG’s view, as well as other young-earth creationist views of a similar nature. Esp. in chapter 3.

      1. Thanks. Of course biographical history is not fact but interpretation. I have my suspicions that your interpretation of Augustine falls in line w Trinity U and their choice to find appeal w mainstream old earth. I sure have no interest to flow w the mainstream. The gospel is quite illogical when compared to human sentiments and logic and i am not surprised that the most reasonable interpretation of Genesis as it finds agreement w the rest of Scripture is quite disagreeable w mainstream as well. I stand disagreeing w mainstream old earth thinking and if folks think im silly, then laugh away. God is my Savior and Judge and before im tempted to leap away from the plain sense of 6 literal days of creation, i hold my hand over my mouth in reverence to Him.

        Blessings sir. I hope Trinity is not taking this baby step into liberalism as the many of the other great Christian institutions now on the heap pile did.

      2. Greg, in defense of Genesis, it is my opinion that no matter who says what, your perspective on Creation is as subject to biographical interpretation and indoctrination as any other. What is Orthodoxy? The fact that many people throughout history have gravitated to a particular interpretation of Creation, doesn’t make it factual. The Biblical message of Creation is clear and indisputable. God Created. The means through which God Created are less clear. What I detect from Christians, is a fear of going beyond the literal to acknowledge an obvious element of allegory in the Creation story. I believe that as we become more aware, grow in knowledge and begin to understand the universe we live in, our understanding of many things in Scripture changes. However, too many Christians are entrenched in an archaic “orthodoxy” that fails the test of historical facts, Science, Logic and Common Sense. Our approach to understanding Scripture, philosophy and theology should not be driven by fear of what God will think or will do to us if we depart from the “established” and generally “acceptable” view of Creation. That said, there is ample evidence in Genesis and throughout Scripture that, at the very least, suggest Genesis 1-3 is not entirely literal. God is driven by His Purpose and Genesis clearly shows that God’s Purpose adheres to specific processes. There is an orderly progression of Creation outlined in Genesis. First, God created the universe. The sequence develops from there, but there is also a natural order of progression revealed in Genesis 2. Vegetation, for example, took time to grow. That simple statement indicates that God is orderly, organized and adheres to the natural processes He Himself has established for the development of the Human Race. So, how long is a Genesis 1 Day? Is it 24 hours? Or are the “days”, in modern parlance more equivalent to Phases of Creation? Phase 1, the universe, Phase 2, organization of the earth. Phase 6, humankind as exemplified by Adam and Eve. Were Adam and Eve real actual characters or mere representations of humanity? In my opinion, they were both. Whether St. Augustine or St. Aquinas or Luther or Calvin or Dr. Barnhouse agree is inconsequential. They didn’t have a lock on truth or Biblical understanding, anymore than the rest of us in the 21st Century Church. That is not to say their input isn’t valuable. But to say that because St. Augustine believed something or reasoned that…, doesn’t make it so. Thought develops. Philosophical thought grows. Our Theological thought also changes. St. Augustine is a good starting point to our 21st Century exploration of the Creation Story. It shows that even he had questions about the order of Creation and the process God used, as outlined in Genesis. Even the writer of Hebrews raises an interesting fact about the 24 hour Creation Day account. Whether the writer did this intentionally or not, doesn’t detract from the fact that it is there. And his statements reveal two important facts about Creation. The first is that we are still, 6,000 years later, in the 7th Day of God’s Creation Day of Rest (cessation from His creative activity). The Second is the significance of the 7th Day and why God included remembering, honoring and respecting that Day in the 10 Commandments. Why the 7th Day? Why not the 1st, when God initiated our material existence? Or the 6th Day when God created Adam and Eve? Why the 7th? Its significance is found, in my opinion, in that God created humankind with a Purpose and that Purpose was Christ. Christians today believe God created men and women for themselves. He created them to enjoy life. But Scripture gives us a different answer. God created all things for Christ. The Bible never says God created things for our enjoyment. It says He created them all for Christ. Hebrews 10:5, God created all things for a body, a human body for Christ. When did God do that. Titus 1:2, before the beginning of time, before all of creation, when the blueprints were set on paper. God’ Creation is Purpose Driven.

  4. Gavin, you identify several interesting things in your book about St. Augustine’s view of God as immutable, that generate questions in my mind. It is by definition that we understand that God is or must be complete in Himself. However, what does change entail? In what sense is God immutable? Is it Function? Form? Or Essential Being? Are there aspects of God that are capable of change without detracting from His Essential Being? For example, we understand that God doesn’t gain knowledge from the things He creates, given that His knowledge is infinite. Who can teach Him anything, God asks Job. Yet, like an amorphous amoeba that changes shapes, without altering its identity or composition, can God change His Form? Would it be fair to suggest that He did in Christ? God became man. God became one with His creation. Wouldn’t that also constitute a significant change in Function? Wouldn’t that add an element to His Being that didn’t exist prior to creation? Did God also change with Creation? Whether creation existed in the mind of God, as St. Augustine would posit, can it be entertained that the actual act of creation changed God, if not in character, in experience? In other words, to use St. Augustine’s example of the clay pot, it is one thing to know all aspects of it a priori, and another to experience the palpable reality of the object a posteriori.

    I ask because I have always wondered why our doctrine of God doesn’t admit or recognize God’s potential to change as He wills. That is, is God limited in Himself to be as He is, or can He decide to alter certain aspects of Himself? I see things in Scripture that support the idea that God is in control of Himself and can change as He wills. What I find from what you have written about St. Augustine so far, is that he believed God created us and is in the process of perfecting His creation. That is, of course, indisputable. But what is missing from this equation? Did God create us for our intrinsic artistic value (our loveliness), or to fulfill a functional, practical and utilitarian goal? Both? Either, Or? Clearly, in Christ we see a Functional aspect of Creation. But was all Creation developed with a Functional intent? Was there a Purpose for Creation? So far, the question St. Augustine hasn’t asked is, “Why”. Why did God create this existence? The answer is implied in his assertion that God created from His Goodness, so that all things would find their happiness, fulfillment in God. But does that go far enough to answer the Why question? And does that raise additional questions about the sense in which God doesn’t change? What I would Call the Basic Premise of Creation is, that God created with a Purpose. God created with a Plan, as opposed to a sentiment of goodness and love. Not that goodness and love didn’t have a seat at the table. But that perhaps, that goodness and love drove God’s Creative Purpose. The question follows, what did God create For?

  5. As I read on (Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation by Gavin Ortlund), he writes that Augustine believed that, “the very purpose of creation is that creatures would share in [God’s] being… Why did He make them?” So they may exist (p. 38). “Existence of any kind,” Gavin writes that for Augustine, “existence of any kind is good”. Now, created things were created of nothing, otherwise they would not be finite. Consequently, if I am doing justice to Gavin’s assessment of St. Augustine, what is created of nothing has a tendency to return to its previous state of non-being. In contrast, God is immutable because He is eternal and self-sustaining. He is eternally unchanging God. His ontological existence will never cease to be an ontological reality. Whereas, created things have no intrinsic, self-sustaining permanence, aside from God. Therefore, to enjoy permanence, they must remain within the permanent sustainability of that which cannot cease to exist, that is, God. More specifically, the God of the Bible. So, for St. Augustine, is it understood that God’s immutability is not of Form or Function, but of Existence? God cannot cease, under any conditions, to exist as God Supreme, above anything and everything outside of Himself, because He is the one in whom all things find permanence. Consequently, all things are created ex nihilo since nothing could have existed at the same time as, or before God. By definition, God is the only ontologically viable being.

    That said, two question must be asked about God’s Purpose for Creation. Did God merely create just so things might exist? And is existence of any kind, in and of itself, as Gavin points out in P. 38, good? My short response to the latter is in the form of a question. Is existence apart from God good?

    To the first question concerning God’s Purpose for Creation, Gavin has shown that St. Augustine believed that God created so all things could find their ultimate purpose and permanence in Him. My concern is that that doesn’t properly deal with the problem of Good and Evil. We know that God and the Angels (also created beings) were conscious of good and evil. They knew the difference. Their knowledge is sufficiently broad to make that distinction. But when God created mankind, He didn’t create them with that knowledge. Why did God not endow Adam and Eve with the knowledge of good and evil, given that He created them in His likeness? St. Augustine would argue that Adam and Eve were not immortal, on the grounds that all created things, which were created from nothing, are trapped in a process of deterioration that ultimately results in either their decomposition into their original state of non-existence, or into the eternal sustainability found in God’s Rest. So God created mankind with an inclination to seek that sustainability in Him.

    So where is the conflict? It begins with the Basic Premise of Creation. As I mentioned before, the Premise is that God created with a Purpose. As I see it, St. Augustine places the burden of finding God’s Rest on the individual. But a more comprehensive Biblical perspective places the burden on God to bring reconciliation to mankind and creation. Hebrews 4 calls us to heed God’s call to find our rest in Him. But is that the Purpose of Creation or a consequence of the Fall?

    If as St. Augustine claims, there is no existence or goodness apart from the sustaining help of God, something that is clearly revealed in Scripture, then how does St. Augustine explain the presence of Evil? That is, if the existence of things that perpetrate evil depend on God’s sustenance, why does He sustain them? If Evil exists, although not as a thing in itself, but as a condition dependent of things that exist, what good purpose does Evil serve? And if it is argued that Evil serves a good purpose, then is Evil good in that it promotes a good which would not be possible without it? Some argue, for example, that Evil develops character. Were it not for Evil, the character of moral beings would be deficient. Consequently, if all existence is good, God created this existence just so it could exist, and Evil serves a good purpose for what exists, the logical conclusion is that Evil is good. Some might think that Creation and Evil are separate and independent issues. However, since because of the act of creation Evil finds a foothold in existence, the admission that they are inseparably intertwined, follows.

    The problem of Evil is inexorably integral to creation. Without creation, there is no evil. Is it inconceivable that in His omniscient wisdom, God created with the knowledge that Evil would affect His creation? But why would God create a deficient existence, aware of the fact it would be tainted by Evil? Is it because evil is good to develop character? While Evil is not the focus of Gavin’s book, the subject should not be omitted from any discussion of St. Augustine’s views on creation. In fact, Evil is central and of primordial importance to understand the ‘Why’ of creation. It isn’t clear if St. Augustine deals with evil as separate from creation or as an adjunct of creation. That is, did the Potential for Evil in any way inspire creation? Or was evil an unforeseen consequence of creation that appeared after things were created? Greg Koukl, founder of Stand to Reason, states, in reference to St. Augustine’s analysis of evil that, “God would not have accomplished a second purpose. He not only wanted free creatures; He also wanted plenitude, that is, the greatest good possible. Plenitude—the highest good, the best of all possible worlds—requires more than just general freedom; it requires moral freedom, and that necessarily entails the possibility of evil.” My interest at this point is not whether evil is the product of a corrupted will, which I affirm, but the of its necessary inclusion in the creative intent. Simply stated, God created with evil in mind. More specifically, God created to eradicate evil.

    You might ask, “How do you justify such a great leap from, ‘God created aware of the potential for the corruption of creation which would entail the manifestation of evil’, to ‘God created to eradicate so much as the potential for corruption in creation, that would manifest what is perceived as Evil’? The solution is in the question itself. If God is aware and He creates knowing Evil would not just be a potential threat, but a manifest reality, and being God-Good, who does not tolerate evil, then it follows that when God drew up the Plans for Creation, it must of necessity have included the eradication of the corruption that makes evil a manifest reality. Consequently, Titus 1:2 tells us that, “in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began,”.and Romans 8:20, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

    So here we see that God created, at least in part, to liberate creation from its potential and manifest bondage to corruption, decay, death and evil. In fact, Paul tells us that God subjected, relegated, placed creation under the weight of corruption, so He could liberate it from it. But when did God subject creation to bondage, suffering, pain, decay? Was it before creation? Was it at the Fall? Or was it sometime in between?

  6. In PURPOSE DRIVEN CREATION, page 184, I write that, “…while we can agree that God created out of His intrinsic goodness, because of the nature of His beneficent and creative persona, His ultimate purpose, finis operantis, for creation of the world has to be the elimination of the potential for corruption that taints, distorts and otherwise damages the things He creates (Daniel 9:24). With that in mind, it is clearly Scriptural to say that all things are done for and to the glory of God, given that He does a marvelous work in creation to rid it of corruption. Consequently, His finis operis would have to be the redemption of creation, to allow all created things to subsist in incorruptibility in the presence of God for all eternity.”

  7. St. Augustine’s belief that God’s secondary purpose in creation was for humanity to find its eternal subsistence in Him, is complimented by the assertion that that has to be through Christ. And it is for Christ that Scripture tells us all things were created (Colossians 1:16). But exactly what does it mean for things to have been created for Christ? If St. Augustine is right, which I think he is, and God’s creation was limited, imperfect and subject to corruption, the logical conclusion is that God created all things so that He could become part of His creation as a human being. Psalm 40 and Hebrews 10:5 reveal that God prepared a body for Christ. We can only conclude that the writer of Hebrews is speaking of a human body. The following question should be, “When did God create a body for Christ?” If it was at the time of the Fall that God determined to enter the human race, as the Sacrificial Lamb, Hebrews 10:5 takes on a different meaning. If God’s decision to prepare a human body for Christ was prior to the Fall, the significance of Hebrews 10:5 is a explosive revelation of God’s Purpose for Creation. If we admit that the Plan of Redemption, meaning God entering creation as Christ the man to save mankind and all of creation from eternal destruction, we would have to question St. Augustine’s first premise that God created things for their own benefit, for themselves, for the sake of their own existence (Gavin’s p.21). The indisputable reality is that God created with a Purpose. That Purpose was Christ. If we allow that God created for the benefit of the things created, that is, their happiness or the function for which they were created (for example: to be human), we would have to admit there was no forethought about creation, by an omniscient God. In other words, God would have to have created without giving evil a second thought. Fortunately, Scripture gives us a glimpse into God’s creative purpose in 2 Timothy 1:9. God created specifically for Christ to enter this existent creation. And He created this existence so Christ could eradicate all manner of corruption, evil, sin, decay, death and the devil. Problem for St. Augustine was that the devil had not even been created when God came up with the Plan of Redemption. Ergo, if God determined to create an existence to sustain the incarnation of God in Christ, prior to all of creation, then God’s Purpose for creating all things could not have been for the happiness (well-being, or Aristotelian final end) of the thing created. Furthermore, given that Christ was the object of creation, and Christ came to put an end to sin and corruption, the eradication, annihilation of Evil was perhaps a principal consideration for creation. Therefore, with respect to the problem of evil, a good, almighty God created to end evil. Evil didn’t infiltrate His creation and He reacted to the impact and damage. God created everything that exists outside of Himself for the specific purpose of destroying so much as the potentiality of corruption, sin, evil, and thereby usher in Perfection (Daniel 9:24, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15).

    Feel free to comment.