St. Augustine (A.D. 354–430) is one of the most brilliant and influential Christian scholars in history. Yet he was perplexed as to how to rightly interpret Genesis’ creation days.
Augustine addressed the issue of creation in several different places in his extensive writings (of more than five million words), speculating in various ways as to the meaning of the six creation days. Drawing basically on Genesis 1:1, Augustine came to the amazing insight accepted today even by modern cosmologists that “the world was not created in time but with time.”1
Augustine of Hippo, Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne
Augustine advocated the view of “instantaneous creation,” believing God had created all things, including time, from nothing (known as the doctrine of creation ex nihilo). However, he remained noncommittal as to how the specific creation days are best understood. In his classic work the City of God he wrote: “What kind of days these are is difficult or even impossible for us to imagine, to say nothing of describing them.”2 Augustine finally came to the tentative exegetical conclusion that God actually created only one day (an instantaneous moment) but that single creation day was presented in Scripture as recurring seven times.
The esteemed church father was later criticized by some biblical scholars 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. Given the profundity of the topic he insisted that 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 be set forth 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 have come to a number of different interpretations of the creation days (see Interpreting the Creation Days sidebar). Christians may disagree with Augustine’s specific interpretation of the creation days and yet still learn from his reasoned reflections and his prudent handling of controversial theological and apologetics issues.
- St. Augustine, City of God (New York: Penguin, 1984), book 11, chapter 6, p. 436.