St. Augustine on Three Aspects of Creation

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

How important is the doctrine of creation in terms of the Christian worldview?

Endnotes

  1. Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961), Book XII, Section 7, 284–85.
  2. Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book XI, Section 13, 263.
  3. St. Augustine, City of God (New York: Penguin, 1984), Book 11, Section 6, 436.
  4. 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.
  5. St. Augustine, City of God, 436.

  One thought on “St. Augustine on Three Aspects of Creation

  1. July 30, 2019 at 8:35 am

    Hi Kenneth,

    Grace and Peace from God.

    I have been an avid reader of your blog. I got to know all major authors from your 101 series.

    This time I wanna tell you about a small initiative I have started. This is called AUGUST IN AUGUSTINE.

    I just named it because it was cool in rhyme and I challenged people on Instagram to “Tolle Lege” Augustine’s Confessions this month of August.

    Will you please consider reading it again this August?

    I get nothing, no personal glory, nothing. Just a joy that I have shared with a brother and sister of mine a joy of celebrating reading book this August.

    So, please let me know if you have taken up this challenge by just replying to this email.

    “Fulfill ye my joy.”

    Tolle Lege, Samuel. Love and Peace be yours in Jesus Name. Amen.

    • July 30, 2019 at 9:58 am

      Samuel:

      I read the Confessions at least once a year.

      I’ve written a new book which contains a chapter on St. Augustine entitled Classic Christian Thinkers.

      Ken samples

    • July 30, 2019 at 1:03 pm

      Appreciate the link.

      Ken Samples

  2. chuckgafford
    July 30, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    This blog post is very insightful and certainly St. Augustine was way ahead of his time indeed.

    • July 30, 2019 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks, Chuck.

      Ken Samples

  3. Bob Sherfy
    July 30, 2019 at 5:51 pm

    Personally, I think young earth creationists inadvertently make it harder to communicate the gospel to people with a scientific background. I once believed it myself, but have been persuaded by old earth creationism thanks to RTB.

    • July 30, 2019 at 5:54 pm

      Thanks, Bob.

      Ken Samples

  4. Nimrod
    August 3, 2019 at 11:32 am

    The days don’t trip atheists as much as a talking serpent. One should see the big picture and understand this was the way that God spoke to uneducated people thousands of years ago. Learn the lessons that are in the creation days whether they be short or long.

    • August 3, 2019 at 11:42 am

      Nimrod:

      It depends upon the atheist. Some are troubled by the talking serpent and others are troubled by the creation days being 24-hour periods which they equate with young earth creationism. And of course some are bothered by both.

      Thanks.

      Ken Samples

  5. David Farney
    August 3, 2019 at 9:04 pm

    Time was given to us through God, and as a result of our mindfulness to create a measure of our earthly existence, we use it to identify moments within our linear perception. These could be defined in any particular way, depending on our accepted definition. However, for God, Peter clearly indicates that whatever we might define those increments as, God is not subject to them: 2 Peter 3:8 (LEB):  “Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that one day with the Lord is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day.“ Once we can be mindful of this feature, I think we can understand that precise definition within God’s understanding cannot be fully known within this earthly existence. For example, within the universe, time and space are essentially incomprehensible. Speaking in terms of our sense of time, how can we really understand or even comprehend the idea that a particular galaxy is 400 million light years away or took 5 or 6 billion years to form? How do we get our heads wrapped around those numbers? Thus, for our measure, these concepts are essentially as unknowable as the spacial infinity of the universe. When we remove the human constructs of time and space, we can become open to the likelihood of definitional differences existent between human concepts and those concepts of the Creator.

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