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Old-earthers claim Augustine as support for figurative interpretations of Genesis 1. But what did Augustine really say?
Augustine of Hippo—famous church father, early theologian and . . . old-earth creationist?
In the video series The Great Debate (watch | buy), AiG’s Ken Ham, Jason Lisle, debate astronomer Hugh Ross (of Reasons to Believe) and Bible scholar Walter Kaiser (of Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary). Both of the latter are Christians who believe that the creation is billions of years old. The debate series was hosted by old-earth proponent John Ankerberg on his television show in early 2006.
On AiG’s DVD release of the debate, AiG historian of geology Terry Mortenson offered extensive commentary from a young-earth creationist perspective. The following article is rooted in Dr. Mortenson’s commentary on Ross’s and Kaiser’s appeal to Augustine in defending old-earth ideas.
Drs. Ross and Kaiser are just two of the many old-earth proponents in the church today who try to use the Christian theologian Augustine (AD 354–430) as a support for their belief in millions of years. But the idea that Augustine believed that is a myth. At first glance, this use of Augustine may seem to belong solely to the obscure domain of ancient church history or niche creation circles. However, the myth extends beyond that. For instance, Jim Manzi, writing in National Review Online in 2008 (and quoting a previous article he authored in National Review), passed the myth along:
Dealing with evolution places us back in the company of Augustine and Aquinas, who were both forced to figure out how to reconcile powerful proto-scientific ideas with Christianity. They described God as acting through laws or processes. In about the year 400, Augustine described a view of Creation in which “seeds of potentiality” were established by God, which then unfolded through time in an incomprehensibly complicated set of processes. . . .
Neither Augustine nor Aquinas was some kind of a pre-Darwinist. Augustine, for example, thought species were immutable and were not the product of common descent. What is striking about both of them, however, is their insistence on understanding and incorporating the best available non-theological thinking into our religious views.
Relying on this deep intellectual heritage, most major denominations in the Western world have accepted evolution as fully consistent with theism. Thoughtful conservatives would be wise to agree.
There are several problems with this view. To begin with, during the years AD 389-417, Augustine wrote three commentaries on Genesis and discussed the early chapters of Genesis in The City of God. His thinking changed in some ways in the process, and his writings are confusing, even somewhat contradictory, at points. Over the years he fluctuated between allegorical interpretations and literal views.1 But there is plenty of evidence that Augustine wasn’t an old-earther. Rather, he believed that God created everything in an instant and that He described it for us as being completed in six normal days for the sake of our understanding. He wrote,
Perhaps we ought not to think of these creatures at the moment they were produced as subject to the processes of nature which we now observe in them, but rather as under the wonderful and unutterable power of the Wisdom of God, which reaches from end to end mightily and governs all graciously. For this power of Divine Wisdom does not reach by stages or arrive by steps. It was just as easy, then, for God to create everything as it is for Wisdom to exercise this mighty power. For through Wisdom all things were made, and the motion we now see in creatures, measured by the lapse of time, as each one fulfills its proper function, comes to creatures from those causal reasons implanted in them, which God scattered as seeds at the moment of creation when He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created. Creation, therefore, did not take place slowly in order that a slow development might be implanted in those things that are slow by nature; nor were the ages established at plodding pace at which they now pass. Time brings about the development of these creatures according to the laws of their numbers, but there was no passage of time when they received these laws at creation.2
Furthermore, Augustine believed the genealogies given in Genesis to be literal chronologies and that the pre-Flood patriarchs lived to be around 900 years.3 He also stated, “Unbelievers are also deceived by false documents which ascribe to history many thousand years, although we can calculate from Sacred Scripture that not 6,000 years have passed since the creation of man.”4
Since Augustine believed that the original creation happened in an instant of time, there is no basis for thinking that he believed millions of years of time transpired before Adam.
Furthermore, Augustine believed that Genesis 6–8 describes a global Flood. Once again, this distinguishes him from old-earthers like Hugh Ross who believe the Flood was a local catastrophe in the Mesopotamian Valley (modern day Iraq). Augustine spent five pages answering skeptical objections about the Flood covering all the highest mountains, the Ark being big enough, Noah having the ability to build it, and the feeding of carnivorous animals on the Ark.5
Some claim that Augustine and other Christians of the past only believed in a recent creation and a global Flood because they didn’t have contemporary old-earth and evolutionary theories to consider. (Indeed, some throw out the origins beliefs of all pre-19th century Christians on these grounds.) Yet, early 20th century evolutionist Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, wrote the following:
When I began the search for anticipations of the evolutionary theory . . . I was led back to the Greek natural philosophers and I was astonished to find how many of the pronounced and basic features of the Darwinian theory were anticipated even as far back as the seventh century BC.6
Augustine therefore had alternative “scientific” theories about earth history in his cultural context, but he refused to merge Scripture with such ideas.
Even then the chronologies of Greek and Egyptian history do not agree; and since the former does not exceed the true number [of the duration of the world] implied in our Sacred Scripture, it may be accepted. Consequently, if this letter of Alexander [the Great] now so well known, is so far from authentic in its chronology, we can trust still less those other [pagan] documents, so full of mythology, which are cited in opposition to the established authority of inspired writings. The fact of the prediction that the whole world would believe and the fact that it has believed should prove that Sacred Scripture has given a true account of the past. Certainly, much that was predicted has been perfectly fulfilled.7
In fact, he very specifically rejected the old-earth theories of some of his contemporaries, describing them in ways reminiscent of the uniformitarian and catastrophist theories of the 19th century:
I shall not dwell, then on the conjectures of men who “know not what they say” concerning the nature and origin of the human race. There are, for example, those who hold the opinion that men—like the universe—have always existed. . . . Suppose the following questions are put to these men: If the human race has always existed, how, then do you vindicate the truth of your own history which records the names of inventors and what they invented, the first founders of liberal education and of other arts, the first inhabitants of this or that region and of this or that island? They will answer that at certain intervals of time, most of the land was so devastated by floods and fire that the human race was greatly reduced in size and that from this small number the former population was again restored; and that, thus, at intervals, there was a new discovery and organization of all these things, or, rather a restoration of what had been damaged or destroyed by the great devastations; and that, in any case, men could simply not exist unless they were produced from man. Of course, all this is opinion, not science.8
Thus, Augustine clearly had old-earth views to contend with in his day—from the Greeks and from other pagans—but he did not accept them and did not try to fit those ideas into Genesis.
That all said, we would be remiss if we claimed Augustine was an orthodox young-earth creationist. Augustine rejected the seven-day creation beliefs of Ambrose, who was instrumental in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity.
We would be remiss if we claimed Augustine was an orthodox young-earth creationist.
Yet Augustine didn’t know Hebrew and only attained a modest knowledge of Greek by the end of his life, after he had written his three commentaries on Genesis (and his book City of God, in which he also commented on Genesis 1–11).9 Augustine based his work on the Old Latin Version (Vetus Latina), a translation of the Septuagint inferior in accuracy to Jerome’s later Latin Vulgate.
At first, this may seem to be a minor difference that couldn’t possibly mislead a reader. However, whereas in modern translations of the Hebrew word beyom in Genesis 2:4 it reads “in the day that”10 (or when 11) God created the heavens and the earth, the Old Latin translation renders it, “When day was made,” God made heaven and earth. This mistaken translation makes it more understandable why Augustine believed God made everything in a single day or a single instant. 12
Additionally, Augustine regarded the Apocrypha—which gives further support to the idea of an instant creation—as inerrant Scripture.13 However, the Apocrypha is clearly not God’s inerrant Word—see A Look at the Canon and Why 66?
Not only did Augustine not support old-earth views; he also rightly considered himself a limited human and regarded his thinking on Genesis to be fallible. In the last book he wrote (about 3 years before his death), called Retractions, he sought to review all his books and make corrections where he had erred. Concerning his final, most literal commentary on Genesis, Augustine wrote, “In this work, many questions have been asked rather than solved, and of those which have been solved, fewer have been answered conclusively. Moreover, others have been proposed in such a way as to require further investigation.”14
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
–Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis
This is precisely the reason we need to be knowledgeable, not only of God’s Word but of prevalent teachings that seemingly contradict it, so that we are able to properly defend our faith as 1 Peter 3:15 commands. See Should We Teach Evolution?
In the aforementioned commentary Augustine also rejected the allegorical interpretations found in his two earlier commentaries on Genesis, though he remained uncertain about his interpretation of the length of Creation Week days.
Whoever, then, does not accept the meaning that my limited powers have been able to discover or conjecture but seeks in the enumeration of the days of creation a different meaning, which might be understood not in the prophetical or figurative sense, but literally and more aptly, in interpreting the works of creation, let him search and find a solution with God’s help. I myself may possibly discover some other meaning more in harmony with the words of Scripture.15
Though insisting that he was interpreting “day” literally, in that last commentary he had tended to regard at least the first three days (before the creation of the heavenly bodies) to be figurative—though he never ventured to say how long these non-literal days lasted. Two years after completing his last commentary on Genesis, Augustine wrote in City of God, “As for these ‘days,’ it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think—let alone to explain in words—what they mean.”16 So his statement in the Retractions indicates that he was still no more certain about the days of creation at the end of his life than he was in his earlier writings. He is hardly one to cite as an authority in support of the day-age view, as Ross and Kaiser (with many others) have done.
Thus, Augustine offers no real support for old-earth views. He admitted his uncertainty and fallibility; he was significantly less educated on the issue than others; and even when he strayed from the Bible’s clear teaching, he only did so to espouse the possibility of creation in an instant—not old-earth ideas of his time, and certainly not the millions-of-years ideas of old-earth creationists today.
We also should keep in mind that the young-earth view has been, by far, the majority view of the church since it has been in existence—for eighteen centuries, whether from a Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox perspective.17 The idea of an old earth—and the various compromise interpretations developed to fit billions of years into Creation Week—did not arise out of the Bible; they are attempts by, on the whole, well-meaning Christians to integrate with Scripture what they believe (mistakenly) are scientific facts. They are thereby unknowingly elevating the naturalism-fueled speculations of secular science over the clear teaching of Scripture. 18 The result dilutes both Scripture’s teaching and God’s character, and it flies in the face of good science.