Augustine & Creation

Howard J. Van Till (
Thu, 23 Apr 1998 10:54:10 -0400

A few days ago someone expressed an interest in Augustine's interpretaton
of the creation narratives in Genesis. Followng is an excerpt from my
paper, "Basil, Augustine, and the Doctrine of Creation's Functional
Integrity," published in Science and Christian Belief, Vol. 8, No. 1,
(1996) pp. 21-38.


In his work, De Genesi ad Litteram, or The Literal Meaning of Genesis, St.
Augustine provides an extensive commentary on the first three chapters of
Genesis. His goal is to demonstrate a one-to-one correspondence between the
text of these chapters and what actually took place in the creative work of
God; in fact, this is precisely how he defines the term 'literal' in this
endeavor. (note 2) However, even though his reading is bound by the
controlling assumption that Genesis 1-3 is 'a faithful record of what
happened,' Augustine is insistent that the literal meaning thereby derived
may never stand in contradiction to one's competently derived knowledge
about 'the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world,'
knowledge that one rightfully 'holds to as being certain from reason and
experience' (1.19.39). In a tone of voice that leaves no doubt concerning
his attitude, Augustine soundly reprimands those Christians who defend
interpretations of Scripture that any scientifically knowledgeable
nonChristian would recognize as nonsense. 'Reckless and incompetent
expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser
brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions
and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our
sacred books' (1.19.39).

For a number of reasons, Augustine, concludes that God created 'all things
together' in one initial, all-inclusive and instantaneous creative act. The
six-day structure of the Genesis narrative conveys something other than a
succession of temporal periods to be placed on the human calendar. For
Augustine the days represent both a topically ordered set of divine
revelations to the angels (2.8) and a textual accommodation to the limited
intellectual powers of those who would later read the Scriptural account
(4.33.52). Furthermore, the number six has a mathematical significance as a
'perfect' number-a number that is equal to the sum of its factors [6 = 1 x
2 x 3 and 6 = 1 + 2 +3 ] (4.2).

But this reference to the simultaneous creation of 'all things together'
should not be taken to mean that all created things suddenly materialized
in mature form at the beginning. With considerable perseverance, Augustine
developed a rather sophisticated program of interpretation by which he
sought to distinguish the creation of all things together in the beginning
from the actualization of those created things in the course of time.

In the beginning, according to Augustine, God called into being all created
substances and all creaturely forms. At this beginning all created forms
existed both in the mind of God and in the formable substances of the
created world. But in the formable substances the creaturely forms existed,
not actually, but only potentially. Although the creaturely forms were not
initially expressed in visible, material beings, these forms were there
potentially in the capacities for actualization, called by Augustine
'causal reasons' or 'seed principles,' with which the Creator had
originally endowed the created substances.

Reflecting specifically on the remarkable potentialities for actualization
that are present, although not readily visible to us, in the seed of a
tree, Augustine says, 'In the seed, then, there was invisibly present all
that would develop in time into a tree. And in this same way we must
picture the world, when God made all things together, as having had all
things together which were made in it and with it when day was made. This
includes not only heaven with sun, moon, and stars,...but it includes also
the beings which water and earth produced in potency and in their causes
before they came forth in the course of time as they have become known to
us in the works which God even now produces' (5.23.45).(note 3)

On a similar theme: 'But from the beginning of the ages, when day was made,
the world is said to have been formed, and in its elements at the same time
there were laid away the creatures that would later spring forth with the
passage of time, plants and animals, each according to its kind' (6.1.2).
'In all these things, beings already created received at their own proper
time their manner of being and acting, which developed into visible forms
and natures from the hidden and invisible reasons which are latent in
creation as causes' (6.10.17). '...[W]hat He had originally established
here in causes He later fulfilled in effects' (6.11.19). Finally, '...some
works belonged to the invisible days in which He created all things
simultaneously, and others belong to the days in which He daily fashions
whatever evolves in the course of time from what I might call the
primordial wrappers' (6.6.9).

Now, lest one be tempted to infer that Augustine is thereby proposing a
macroevolutionary scenario in which these emerging life forms are
genealogically related in a continuous line of descent with modification,
we must hasten to note that he does not in fact suggest any historical
modification of the created 'kinds'. Consistent with the world-picture of
his day, Augustine envisions each unique 'kind' of creature to have been
individually conceptualized in the Creator's initial act of creation and
independently actualized in time as the causal reasons functioned to give
material form to the conceptual forms created at the beginning. Standing in
the heritage of thought in which it was common to picture the world as a
hierarchically structured cosmos populated with fixed species of creatures,
Augustine had a basis in respected tradition for envisioning an independent
creation and formation of each living 'kind.' And without any knowledge of
genetic variability or of the temporal succession of life forms over a
multibillion-year time span Augustine had no basis for questioning either
that tradition or the concept of spontaneous generation. Augustine made
appropriate use of the epistemic resources available to him at that time.

But we are not living in the fifth century. Following Augustine by more
than fifteen centuries, we must take into account a vast amount of
additional information as we attempt now to portray God's creative activity
in the conceptual vocabulary of our time. Nevertheless, although the
particulars of our modern picture will differ substantially from
Augustine's, I am convinced of the continuing relevance and fruitfulness of
one of his fundamental conclusions regarding the character of the created
world: the universe was brought into being in a less than fully formed
state but gifted with the capacities to transform itself, in conformity
with God's will, from unformed matter into a truly marvelous array of
physical structures and life forms. In contrast to both ancient paganism
and modern Special Creationism, Augustine appears to have envisioned a
Creation that was, from the instant of its inception, characterized by what
I have called functional integrity. Every category of structure and life
form and creaturely process was conceptualized by the Creator from the
beginning but actualized in time as the created material employed its
God-given capacities in the manner intended by the Creator from the outset.
(note 4)


In his work, On the Trinity, especially in Book III, Augustine also speaks
of his vision regarding the natural world as God's Creation and regarding
the relationship of natural phenomena to divine action. Central to
Augustine's perspective is the understanding that the ultimate cause for
the very possibility of any sort of 'corporeal change,' whether it be some
familiar 'natural' phenomenon or some relatively unfamiliar event, is the
will of God.

He begins his argument with an appeal to common experience. We observe in
the natural order, he notes, a diversity of physical processes by which
material bodies, both animate and inanimate, undergo change. Some of this
changeableness (like the rising or setting of the sun), because it occurs
within a relatively brief period of time, has become very familiar to us
and 'by reason of its unbroken continuity has ceased to cause wonder'
(III.2.7). Other natural phenomena (such as eclipses or earthquakes),
because they occur much less frequently, are more likely to attract
attention and wonder. In both cases, however, Augustine presumes that these
corporeal changes can, by careful observation and reasoning, come to be
'understood by those who inquire into the present world' in terms of
'proximate causes.'

The question that immediately arises, both then and now, is this: What if
all creaturely phenomena do in fact have explanations in terms of proximate
causes? Would that leave God with nothing to do? Has the apologetic case
for the reality or necessity of divine action then lost its strongest

Not at all, according to Augustine. As the articulate and forceful
proponent of a wholly theistic worldview he is emphatic in reminding his
readers that any explanation in terms of proximate causes alone-even if it
be a true explanation at that level-is categorially incomplete. All of
these processes of changes and all of their associated proximate causes
must, from the theistic perspective, be understood as phenomena that serve
'the bidding of God.' Those 'philosophers' who speak as if an explanation
in terms of proximate causes alone constituted an exhaustive explanation
are, by Augustine's measure, persons 'who are not able to see at all the
cause that is higher than all others, that is the will of God' (III.2.7).

In the context of our present day concerns regarding the nature and
manifestation of divine creative action in the course of the Creation's
formative history, it is especially noteworthy that Augustine does not here
present us with an either/or choice between proximate natural causation and
divine action. On the contrary, from Augustine's theistic perspective God's
effective will is the necessary prerequisite for and ultimate source of the
entire economy of proximate natural causes. (note 6) Scientific
explanations in terms of proximate or 'creaturely' action may be quite
useful, but the very existence and fecundity of such creaturely phenomena
can be explained only by appeal to a higher level of causation-the will of
God. Thus we are called by Augustine not to make a choice between either
natural action or divine action, but rather we are challenged to establish
the habit of recognizing that all creaturely action-whether it be some
familiar everyday phenomenon or some past process or event beyond our
empirical reach-is made both possible and fruitful only by the continuing
and effective action of God's will. In Augustine's words, 'pray, could
there be, I say, any other cause of all these visible and changeable facts,
except the invisible and unchangeable will of God' (III.3.8).

Contemporary natural science, though it now knows much more regarding
proximate causes-that is, regarding the functional and developmental
economies of the physical world-than was known in the time of Augustine,
must nevertheless admit that many interesting natural phenomena remain
beyond its present epistemological grasp. Some of these unexplained
phenomena (numerous physiological processes, for instance) may be occurring
at the present time and be readily accessible to empirical investigation;
others (episodes of evolutionary development, for example) may have
occurred in the empirically less accessible past. Clearly there are, and
will always be, gaps in our knowledge regarding the functional and
developmental economies of the Creation.

The status and significance of these gaps continues, at least in North
America, to be an issue on which Christians have strongly differing
judgments. Are these merely temporary epistemological gaps of the sort that
could, in principle, be filled by continuing scientific investigation in
the manner that many similar epistemological gaps have been filled? Or, on
the other hand, are some of these epistemological gaps likely to be
permanent because they are indicators of profoundly significant gaps in the
very economy of the Creation-empirical evidence, that is, for the necessity
of special (miraculous) divine action?

If we follow in spirit the example of Augustine we will, I maintain, have
no desire whatsoever to employ the natural sciences in a search for gaps in
the functional or developmental economies of the universe-gaps into which
acts of special creation could be strategically inserted and placed in the
employment of an interventionist apologetic. An apologetic strategy based
on gaps in the Creation's developmental economy would, it seems to me, put
the Special Creationist in the most awkward position of rejoicing, not at
the wealth of capacities that are, by God's generosity, present in the
Creation, but instead at those gifts which the Creator appears (by the
measure of one's inability to discover proximate causes) to have withheld
from it.


1. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (trans. John Hammond Taylor),
vol. 41 and 42 in the series, Ancient Christian Writers, New York: Newman
Press (1982). Subsequent reference to this work will be identified by book,
chapter and section numbers.

2. Although I find many of Augustine's theological perspectives fruitful, I
would be so bold as to suggest that, given the nature of the text, this
particular goal may be unattainable.

3. In De Trinitate Augustine expresses a similar sentiment in the metaphor
of pregnancy: 'For as mothers are pregnant with unborn offspring, so the
world itself is pregnant with the causes of unborn beings' (III.9.16).

4. Augustine went so far as to argue that even miracles (like the
transformation of water into wine) should be seen, not as divinely imposed
violations of causal reasons, but as manifestations of material substances
exercising-albeit in an unusual manner-the powers originally given to them
by God. To Augustine, it appears, the idea that water had been given the
capacities to transform itself, upon divine command to do so, into wine
seemed no more extraordinary than the idea that mud had been given the
capacity to produce eels. We might also note here that the exegetical goal
of Augustine-to formulate a one-to-one correspondence between the text of
Genesis 1-3 and the historical particulars of what took place-becomes
especially difficult to square with his concept of Creation's functional
integrity when he deals with the text regarding the formation of Eve from
the rib of Adam.

5. Augustine, De Trinitate (trans. William G. T. Shedd), in Nicene and
Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. III, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans
Publishing Co. Subsequent references to this work will be identified by
book number, chapter number, and numbered section.

6. Vernon J. Bourke, reflecting on Augustine's approach to matters of
causality, concludes that, 'Most distinctive of Augustine's teaching is his
emphasis on primary causality. As the first cause of all events, God is the
primary agent in all causal series. Far from denying the existence of
secondary, proximate, created causes, Augustine simply insists that their
efficiency is quite derivative.' Augustine's View of Reality, Villanova,
PA: Villanova Press (1964), p. 127.