Science-minded people today may find it surprising to learn that a person who lived 1,600 years ago offers sensible insights on creation, but such is the case with Augustine of Hippo (354–430). St. Augustine is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside the biblical authors. According to historical theologians he has influenced Protestant theology nearly as much as Catholic theology in his overall prodigious imprint on Western Christendom.
Augustine had much to say about the Christian doctrine of creation in his many writings. Here are three specific areas of thought.
1. On the Creation’s Origin
In his most famous work, Confessions, Augustine seems to foreshadow modern cosmological understanding:
Therefore you must have created them from nothing, the one great, the other small. For there is nothing that you cannot do. You are good and all that you make must be good, both the great Heaven of Heavens and this little earth. You were, and besides you nothing was. From nothing, then, you created heaven and earth.1
Augustine lived more than a thousand years before the seventeenth-century scientific revolution in Europe that gave birth to modern science. Yet his study of Scripture led him to conclude certain things about cosmology that parallel scientific thinking today. Augustine argued that God created the world ex nihilo (Latin for creation literally “out of nothing” or “from nothing”). This means that God created the universe without recourse to anything but his infinite wisdom and awesome power. There was no preexistent matter, energy, or some other “stuff.” Only God existed, and he alone created the universe (including matter, energy, and time). Augustine’s fifth-century cosmological thinking derived from Scripture concerning the universe’s origin seems strikingly similar to big bang cosmology.
2. On the Creation of Time
Also from Confessions, Augustine’s view of time appears to resonate with contemporary science:
You are the Maker of all time. If, then, there was any time before you made heaven and earth, how can anyone say that you were idle? You must have made that time, for time could not elapse before you made it.2
Drawing on Genesis 1:1, Augustine came to the powerful insight—which even modern cosmologists accept today—that “the world was not created in time but with time.”3 In other words, even time had a beginning with the origin of the universe. Cosmologist Paul Davies has acknowledged that Augustine’s view of the creation of time is consistent with what physicists basically think today.4
3. On the Genesis Creation Days
Here’s Augustine from his classic work City of God:
What kind of days these are is difficult or even impossible for us to imagine, to say nothing of describing them.5
Augustine believed God had created all things, including time, from nothing. Yet he was perplexed as to how to rightly interpret the Genesis creation days. He addressed the issue of creation in several different places in his extensive writings (of more than five million words), speculating in various ways on the meaning of the six creation days. However, he remained noncommittal on how to best understand the specific creation days. Augustine finally came to the tentative exegetical conclusion that God created only one day (an instantaneous moment), but that single creation day was presented in Scripture as recurring seven times.
Some biblical scholars later criticized Augustine for not placing creation within the biblical parameters of what Reformer John Calvin called “in the space of six days.” However, it is important to understand Augustine’s approach to the issue. He insisted that, given the profundity of the topic, believers should avoid dogmatism and be cautious in proffering novel interpretations of these seemingly unique days. But he also remained open to the possibility that a more reasonable and plausible interpretation of the creation days would emerge and could replace his own.
In light of the factors that caused Augustine’s cautious ambivalence to interpreting the early chapters of Genesis, it is not surprising that evangelical biblical scholars today hold a number of different interpretations of the creation days. We may disagree with Augustine’s specific interpretation of the creation days yet still learn from his reasoned reflections and prudent handling of controversial theological and apologetics issues.
Reflections: Your Turn
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- Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), Book XII, Section 7, 284–85.
- Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book XI, Section 13, 263.
- St. Augustine, City of God (New York: Penguin, 1984), Book 11, Section 6, 436.
- Paul Davies, “Physics and the Mind of God: The Templeton Prize Address,” First Things, August 1995, https://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/08/003-physics-and-the-mind-of-god-the-templeton-prize-address-24.
- St. Augustine, City of God, 436.