Many Christians assume that the church’s long tradition of faithful biblical exegesis has always treated the biblical creation accounts as straightforward historical accounts of how everything came into being. In fact, things are rather more interesting. One of the most respected early Christian biblical scholars, Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) interpeted Scripture a thousand years before the “Scientific Revolution” or our modern period and fifteen hundred years before Darwin’s Origin of the Species. He set out to intepret Scripture on its own terms, faithfully and carefully. The important thing was to let Scripture speak for itself.
Augustine wrestled with Genesis 1-2 throughout his career. There are at least four points in his writings where he attempts to develop a detailed, systematic account of how these chapters are to be understood, including his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis which was written between 401 and 415 AD. Augustine discerns the following themes in his reading of Scripture and weaves them together into his account of creation. God brought everything into existence in a single moment of creation. Yet the created order is not static. God endowed it with the capacity to develop. Augustine uses the image of the dormant seed to help his readers grasp this point. God creates seeds, which will grow and develop at the right time. Augustine asks his readers to think of the created order as containing divinely embedded causalities that emerge or evolve at a later stage. Yet Augustine has no time for any notion of random or arbitrary changes within creation. The development of God’s creation is always subject to God’s sovereign providence.
Augustine argues that the first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:3) cannot be interpreted in isolation but must be set alongside the second creation account (Genesis 2:4-25), as well as every other statement about the creation found in Scripture. For example, Augustine suggests that Psalm 33:6-9 speaks of an instantaneous creation of the world through God’s creative Word, while John 5:17 points to a God who is still active within creation. God created the world in an instant but continues to develop and mold it, even to the present day. This leads Augustine to suggest that the six days of creation are not to be understood chronologically. Rather, they are a way of categorizing God’s work of creation. They provide a framework for the classification of the elements of the created world so that they might be better understood and appreciated.
Certain biblical passages, he insisted, can legitmately be understood in different ways. The important thing is that these interpretations must not be wedded to prevailing scientific theories . Otherwise, the Bible becomes a prisoner of what was once believed to be scientifically true.
In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it.
So what are the implications of this classic Chrisitian interpretation of Genesis? One point is particularly obvious. Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis shows that a “faithful” or “authentic” interpretation of the biblical texts concerning creation does not necessarily demand a six-day period of creation. The opening chapter of Genesis must, Augustine argues, be set in context – initially, in the context of Genesis 2, and subsequently in the context of Scripture as a whole. For Augustine the big question is this: what way of articulating the doctrine of creation makes sense of all the biblical statements on the matter and not simply the first chapter of Genesis? Above all, Augustine stresses the importance of weaving the total witness of Scripture into a coherent doctrine of creation and not limiting this to Scripture’s first few dozen verses.
Augustine does not limit God’s creative action to the primordial act of origination. God is, he insists, still working within the world, directing its continuing development and unfolding its potential. There are two “moments” in the creation: a primary act of origination and a continuing process of providential guidance. Creation is thus not a completed past event. This two-fold focus on the creation allows us to read Genesis in a way that affirms that God created everything from nothing, in an instant. However, it also helps us affirm that the universe has been created with the intended capacity to develop, under God’s sovereign guidance. For Augustine God created a universe that was deliberately designed to develop and evolve. The blueprint for that evolution is not arbitrary but is programmed into the very fabric of creation. God’s providence superintends the continuing unfolding of the created order. Where some might hink of the creation as God’s insertion of new kinds of plants and animals ready-made into an already existing world, Augustine rejects this as inconsistent with the overall witness of Scripture. Rather, God must be thought of as creating in that very first moment the potencies for all the kinds of living things to come later, including humanity.
Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis shows that a “faithful” or “authentic” interpretation of the biblical texts concerning creation does not necessarily demand a six-day period of creation. For Augustine the big question is this: what way of articulating the doctrine of creation makes sense of all the biblical statements on the matter and not simply the first chapter of Genesis?
The image of the “seed” implies that the original creation contained within it the potential for all the living kinds to subsequently emerge. This does not mean that God created the world incomplete or imperfect. This process of development, Augustine declares, is governed by fundamental laws, which reflect the will of their Creator: “God has established fixed laws governing the production of kinds and qualities of beings, and bringing them out of concealment into full view.”
I must emphasize at this point that neither Augustine nor his age believed in the evolution of species. There were no reasons at that time for anyone to believe in this notion. Yet Augustine developed a theological framework that could accommodate this later scientific development, though his theological committments would prevent him from accepting any idea of the development of the universe as a random or lawless process. For this reason Augustine would have opposed the strict Darwinian notion of random variations, insisting that God’s providence is deeply involved throughout, directing a process in manners and ways that lie beyond full human comprehension.
Augustine’s approach to creation is neither liberal nor accommodationist, but is deeply biblical, both in substance and intentions. It needs to be taken into account when Christians reflect on the themes of creation and evolution. Sloganeering and grandstanding will not help us at all here. Examining the long Christian tradition of biblical exegesis will.
Adapted from Augustine of Hippo on Creation and Evolution (Ch9) of The Passionate Intellect (Alister McGrath, 2010). This book is also published in the UK/Australia under the title Mere Theology (2010).
Prof McGrath is currently undertaking research for his latest book project, a new biography of C. S. Lewis, which will be published in 2013, marking the 50th anniversary of his death. He is maintaining a blog, detailing the work carried out to date, and the approach adopted. Further details here.