Augustine: young earth creationist1
—theistic evolutionists take Church Father out of context
Published: 8 October 2009 (GMT+10)
As his theology matured, Augustine abandoned his earlier allegorizations of Genesis that old-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists have latched onto in an attempt to justify adding deep time to the Bible. Furthermore, he always believed in a young earth (painting by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1480).
1) How did St. Augustine read the first chapters of Genesis and why?
Augustine read the first eleven chapters of Genesis as God’s revelation. For that reason he took what is described there quite literally.
2) Was he ambiguous, to such extent that both sides in the evolution debate might refer to him for support?
Augustine was not vague about the age of the earth, the historicity of Adam and Eve as our first ancestors, or the events in the Garden of Eden and the worldwide flood later in Genesis. However, his doctrine of creation was complex. All matter, according to him, was created on the first day. Subsequently God created pregnant ideas that Augustine called rationes seminales, which were imbedded in creation. Some only came to fruition afterwards, even, it might be argued, after the Fall. Augustine thought that God could even have catered for the eventuality of the Fall of man into sin and the subsequent curse. But, all speculations set aside, Augustine did not teach a process of one kind changing into another. As a result of his rather philosophic view of creation he took the word “day” in Genesis as symbolic. “Hooray”, cry those who hold the day-age view of Genesis one. This optimism is unwarranted. Augustine’s symbolic use did the very opposite. He wanted a period that was actually shorter than six earth days. In Augustine’s mind, God would have created all matter as well as the seminal ideas in the blink of an eye. The material expression of those ideas followed later. We have to combine his instant creation theory with his literal reading of other events in Genesis. Adding his belief that the world is about 8000 years old makes it extremely hard to call on him to support Darwinian evolution of any kind or deep time.
3) Isn’t it obvious from his City of God (De Civitate Dei) that Augustine believed that God created Man 6000 years ago?
Not quite, but a young earth definitely. Augustine wrote in De Civitate Dei that his view of the chronology of the world and the Bible led him to believe that Creation took place around 5600 BC [Ed. note: he used the somewhat inflated Septuagint chronology—see Biblical chronogenealogies for more information.]. One of the chapters in his City of God bears the title “On the mistaken view of history that ascribes many thousands of years to the age of the earth.” Would you like it clearer? Several pagan philosophers at the time believed that the earth was more or less eternal. Countless ages had preceded us, with many more to come. Augustine said they were wrong. This goes to show that theistic evolutionists who call in Augustine’s support do so totally out of context. All they allow themselves to see is his symbolic use of “day” in Genesis, and a very difficult philosophical doctrine of creation with ideas that develop. “Wonderful!” they think, “Augustine really supports our post-Darwinian theories!” It takes a superficial view of Genesis and Augustine to arrive at such conclusions. His instant creation, his young earth and immediate formation of Adam and Eve rule out Augustine’s application for this purpose.
4) Is there a development in Augustine’s view of the days of creation?
As Augustine became older, he gave greater emphasis to the underlying historicity and necessity of a literal interpretation of Scripture. His most important work is De Genesi ad litteram. The title says it: On the necessity of taking Genesis literally. In this later work of his, Augustine says farewell to his earlier allegorical and typological exegesis of parts of Genesis and calls his readers back to the Bible. He even rejected allegory when he deals with the historicity and geographic locality of Paradise on earth.
5) Some say that one of the reasons for Augustine taking the days of creation less literally is that he did not have a great command of the Hebrew language. They also question his knowledge of Greek. He would have been misled by a bad Latin translation of Genesis 2:4 that suggested that Creation took place instantly, giving rise to his particular theory. Is this correct?
Augustine was not a Hebrew scholar, nor exactly an expert in Greek. I would be inclined to say the basis for his theory was in one of the deutero-canonical books. He used an old Latin version when he quoted from Jesus Sirach 18:1 (“He who lives eternally has made omnia simul”). Augustine interpreted the Latin words omnia simul as “everything at the same time”. He consequently thought that God would have created everything instantaneously. That is why he came up with the theory that Creation should have been shorter than six earth days. He was comparing Scripture with what he saw as Scripture, not editing the Bible with Darwinism. There is a profound difference. His conclusion, however, was based on a wrong interpretation of the Latin, which doesn’t do justice to the Greek original. The Greek says that God made all things together (panta koinee), or “the whole world”. The New Revised Standard Version translates it that way, for instance. This history contains a warning for today’s theologians: know your Greek! It might help you to avoid speculative theories that people take seriously because you are a well known church leader.
6) What was Augustine’s view on the relation of faith and science? Is there a conflict?
There is no conflict between faith and science on the data, or the facts. Sometimes faith and science clash on the level of interpretation and theorizing. We see this particularly in our time, now science in the post-Christian West has embraced worldview presuppositions that are incompatible with Christianity. Augustine’s main aim in writing his Commentary on Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram) was to show that there needn’t be any conflict between the Genesis account, even if this was to be taken literally, and science and philosophy. If one cannot come up with a scientific explanation that supports the Scriptures, one should still accept that God’s Word is true and trust that we will find out later. Augustine takes this attitude, for instance, when he writes on the waters above the earth (Gen 1:7).
7) Would you give a short overview of the doctrine of Creation over the last two thousand years?
Early Church leaders like Origen, Augustine and Basil were young earth creationists. This view was commonly held within the Church until the 19th century (including Aquinas, Bede, the fourth Lateran council in AD 1215 and Pius X). The Catholic2 Church of all times and places embraced the traditional doctrine of Creation from the day of Pentecost until the Enlightenment. In the Roman Catholic Church this even continued until the Great War. But after the Enlightenment, darkness reigned. Miracles disappeared. Divinity became part of the humanities. Divine revelation was doubted or outright denied. Human religiosity was the new object. Theology became a science that explained the Bible as if there never was Divine intervention in history. Mythology, comparative religion and egalitarianism were the new keys of interpretation. There was no revelation, but a democratic process where earliest Christianity produced ideas about Jesus and decided what to think about God, creating a god after our likeness. The seeds were sown in 17th century philosophy and the political changes of the French revolution. The implications become fully visible in the 19th century. Especially from the early part of that century onward the natural sciences started to filter out God as a relevant factor. We observe a similar move in continental theology around the same time.
- The full text of an interview of which a summary in Dutch appeared in Reformatorisch Dagblad (Reformed Daily), 15 April 2009. Return to text.
- “Catholic” in the sense of universal, not Roman Catholic. Return to text.