Augustine and creation: How theological tradition influenced acceptance of evolution
Augustine’s preoccupation with Greek philosophical interpretations eventually led to a reinterpretation of the biblical account of origins and opened the door to other future possible replacements.
Ever since Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, the biblical doctrine of creation has been increasingly under attack. More and more, science has promoted evolution as a plausible explanation for the origin of life on earth, believing this evolutionary process over millenia eventually resulted in human life. So sweeping is the influence of evolutionary theory that the biblical doctrine of creation – that God created life on earth in its multi-variant forms in seven days of 24 hours – is no longer accepted as real by many Christians. Indeed, it has become common for many churches to hold that the Genesis creation account shouldn’t be taken literally; rather, it should be viewed symbolically, as an account given “for us” in “our human language” of a reality that is far beyond our understanding.
With the theory of evolution establishing its ascendancy within science as an explanation of origins, a great number of Christians reacted to this theory by trying to harmonize it with the Christian doctrine of creation. The process led to the view that the biblical account proceeds from a spiritual or theological perspective, whereas science proceeds from a material spatiotemporal perspective. Such a Christian stance would suggest that the biblical affirmation that God created life on earth is a faith statement, and that the role of science is to show how life was formed and evolved from simple to complex forms over millions of years. The Catholic Church for many years now has accepted the position that the claims of faith and evolutionary theory are not contradictory, but complementary – a view that is embraced by most other Christians as well.
How did it happen that Christians came to believe that the biblical report represents just a language referring to a spiritual immaterial realm but not to the spatiotemporal historical realm? How did it happened that Christianity came to think that creation didn’t actually occur the way the biblical texts say it occurred – that is, through divine action performed in the spatiotemporal realm?
A possible answer to these questions should be located not just in scientific advances and development of evolutionary theory as an explanation of origins, but also in the long process of Christian theological tradition as it attempted to deal with questions arising from the doctrine of creation. While a detailed study of this historical development of Christian theology is not possible here, let us consider the most influential theologian of the early church, Augustine, and how his views influenced the varied explanations of origins in Christian theology. Although there were other Christian thinkers before Augustine (for example, Justin Martyr, Origen, etc.) who read the biblical text as referring not to the temporal realm but to the spiritual one, the great church father from the fourth and fifth centuries was the outstanding figure who, with his prominent theological and ecclesiastical authority and influence, opened the door to a new reading of the biblical report of creation that later made it easy for Christians to accept the modern evolutionary theory. Although Augustine’s interpretation of biblical creation was not included in the official teaching of the Catholic Church, it contributed to the formation of the Christian traditional mind, in both Catholicism and Protestantism.
As we will see, Augustine’s interpretation of biblical creation does not fit the biblical report, but submits it to certain principles of interpretation that in his reading determined the meaning of biblical expressions. These principles of interpretation consist especially of the Augustinian concept of the being of God and of His relationship to the temporal world. In order to understand Augustine’s interpretation of the biblical text, we should first present his principles of interpretation.
Augustine’s basic principle of biblical interpretation
Although conflict marked the attitude of the early church fathers toward the suitability of using Greek philosophical concepts, most of them accepted and introduced these concepts in presenting Christian theology and doctrine. Augustine overtly used the Greek distinction between the spiritual-immaterial-timeless tier of reality and the corporeal-material-temporal one. The former was considered the realm of truth and knowledge, and the latter was viewed as the realm of appearances and changing opinions. Augustine thought that biblical writers assumed this distinction in speaking of the eternal God and the temporal world. Let’s see how this works in Augustine’s biblical interpretation in general, and how this determined his interpretation of biblical creation in particular.
Augustine maintained that in the understanding of God’s being, we must deny everything corporeal and spiritually mutable, and agree with the “Platonists” that God is absolutely perfect and immutable.1 Whereas all corporeal is mutable, God is immutable.2 The human soul is not corporeal, but is mutable, so we have to leave it to define God. Thus, what is denied of God is not only corporality, but also mutability. God is the only one not experiencing any kind of change.3 “… There is only one immutable substance or essence, that is God ... consequently, only he who doesn’t change nor can change is, without doubt, truly the Being.”4 Augustine thought that in conveying the revelation of God’s being in Exodus 3:14 (“I am who I am … say unto the children of Israel: I Am hath sent me unto you”) the biblical writer was assuming the idea that what characterizes God as the One who “is” truly the Being, is His immutability.5
For Augustine, the immutability of God implies His eternity: “He is also true Eternity, as he is immutable, without beginning or end, and therefore incorruptible. To say that God is eternal, immortal, incorruptible and unchangeable is to say the same thing.”6 However, in following Greek philosophy, Augustine claims that God’s eternity is not an infinite temporality: “nothing temporal may be in God,”7 “God must be conceived as eternal ... without time;” “within the pale of the sovereign Trinity, who is God, there are no time intervals.”8 God does not precede temporarily to time; in God there is no temporal succession at all; God is an eternal today, an eternal present without distinction between past, present and future.9 In God there is no time, no change.10 Influenced by the Greek mind, Augustine emphasized that if there was time and change in God, there would be no true eternity.11 Therefore, God’s immutability and timelessness imply each other.
Augustine’s philosophical interpretation of God as an immutable and timeless being determines his interpretation of God’s relationship to the temporal and material world. He made a fine distinction between God’s being and God’s manifestation. As its essence is invisible and immutable, divinity itself can never appear in the temporal and material world; it can only reveal itself through a created being.12 This bases the possibility of interpreting the biblical text in a way that fits in the philosophical interpretation of God. The separation between the timeless God and the temporal world does not correspond to biblical revelation but to Greek philosophy. Following Greek thought, Augustine thinks that the biblical language about God as undergoing change is only an analogical or metaphorical manner of speaking “for us”: “Nothing can be worthily said of God. Nevertheless, for us to nourish ourselves and to understand the things that cannot be expressed by any human language, are expressed by words we can understand.”13 For example, when Scripture attributes to God something related to time, as in Psalm 90:1, which says: “‘Lord, thou hast been our refuge,’ this indicates no mutation in God, because He always remains the same... .”14 For Augustine, all that Scripture attributes to God as relating to time is only improperly said.15 The reports of apparitions of God appearing to the patriarchs of the Old Testament always express symbolically the presence of God through a mutable creature.16
Let’s see now the way in which Augustine’s interpretation of God’s being and God’s relation to the world determined his interpretation of the biblical report of creation.
Augustine’s interpretation of biblical Creation
As for the creation of the universe, Augustine maintained that God first created what the Bible calls “heaven of heavens,” which he understood as an intellectual heaven, without space and time. This heaven participates in the eternity and immutability of God, but it is not as eternal as God, because it is created.17 Then, according to Augustine, God would have created what the Bible calls “the heavens and the earth,” which is the realm visible to the senses.18 In other words, following the Greek distinction between the timeless realm and the temporal one, Augustine claims that God first created a timeless and immutable heaven, and then the temporal and mutable world we see through the senses.
Regarding the creation of the earth, Augustine distinguished, first, the invisible, formless, and chaotic earth that is not related to the creation days but is referred to in the phrase “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This earth, being formless and chaotic, does not pertain to the spatial and temporal order of creation. Second, Augustine distinguished the earth God arranged, ordering the chaos according to the temporal order of the six days of creation.19 Augustine conceived that the universal, disordered, and mixed matter was created out of nothing and was ready to receive the forms from the creator, in order to give birth to the “world” that consisted of separate and distinct things.20 The biblical story describes that the earth was without form, void and dark, because – says Augustine – it lacked form, which is the essence of things.21 “First, the matter was made confused and formless, so that later it should be made all things that today are separated and formed.”22
This means that, for Augustine, God did not create things during six days, but He placed in the matter the seed of things, which arose later: “If we take the seed of a tree we say that there are the roots, trunk, branches, fruit and leaves, not because they appear already there, but because from there they have to be born: thus, it was said, ‘in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,’ as if it were the semen of heaven and earth, being still confused the matter of heaven and earth. It has been called heaven and earth to that stuff because it was sure that from there had to proceed the heaven and earth we now see.”23 In other words, God created and placed the form of things (the species of beings) in the matter, but in potentiality, so that they could be in actuality later.24 Creation is interpreted, then, as the temporal development of an instantaneous action performed by God outside of time (the creation of forms or species).
Furthermore, in his interpretation of the biblical report of creation, Augustine makes a distinction between an intellectual operation and a corporeal one. When Genesis says “and it was so,” Augustine interprets this to mean that something was created “in the reason of intellectual nature.” When the story tells, for example, that “the water was gathered unto one place and the dry land appeared,” it means that the operation was performed corporeally. This distinction reflects the philosophical distinction between God’s timeless being and the world’s temporal being. In other words, the “intellectual operation” corresponds to God’s action that created simultaneously and timelessly the “forms” of things (the “seeds” God put into the universal and chaotic matter); the corporeal operation corresponds to the successive process that, over time, gets these forms to become separate and individual things. For Augustine, God created the timeless essence of things, but temporal, individual, and material things emerged over time.25 God creates all things simultaneously by saying them, although they are made successively.26
This interpretation, based on the Greek philosophical stance, is evidenced clearly when Augustine argued that the human soul was created – along with the angels27 – before the body, since this was created only in the sense that God put in the matter the seeds thereof, whereas the soul, being spiritual, was created on the first day of creation28 and later it “tended willingly to rule the body.”29
Thus, to Augustine, the biblical creation report is presented in a temporal order, not because God really created it that way, but in order that we can understand through the eyes of the flesh – that is, from our temporal perspective. Furthermore, the report presents the divine work temporally because “the temporal nature executed their movements temporally,”30 but “all that is said of God, that begins or ends, in no way is to understand as occurring in the nature of God, but in his creature.”31 For example, “the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” should not be understood as if God moved to occupy a place. In any case, it would have to be understood – said Augustine – as referring to a living creature, in which the visible world was contained, and to which God would have granted the power to perform His works.32
The replacement of the biblical account of creation in favor of a Greek philosophical interpretation goes hand in hand with the Augustinian distinction between the truth “in itself,” and the truth “for us.” Reason (that is, Greek philosophy) grasps the truth “in itself” while the biblical text presents truth as just “for us.” Augustine maintained that Scripture says that God created everything in six days, but it is also in Scripture (Augustine did not identify where) that God created everything at once.33 Consequently, the biblical text is considered as a pedagogical or illustrative way of transmitting successively and temporarily the creation that in God occurs simultaneously.34 For Augustine, there was no contradiction, since Scripture (although he did not identify where it was expressed) presents only to carnal eyes something that has not happened exactly as it presents to carnal eyes.
Expressing his conviction that Scripture understands God in the same way Greek philosophy does, Augustine puts into the mouth of God the following: “What does my scripture say, that’s what I say, but it says it in order to time, while time has nothing to do with my word, which stays with me unchanged in eternity; and so, those things which you see by my Spirit, I see them, and also the things you say by my Spirit, I say them too. But whereas you see and say them temporarily, I don’t say them temporarily.”35 Augustine was very clear in saying that the truth is not as presented in the biblical narrative: “So maybe it was said, ‘and the evening and the morning were one day,’ first as reason understands that could or must be done, but not in the way one works in time intervals... . In God’s operation there are no time intervals, although these are in the works themselves.”36
As can be seen, Augustine put aside the biblical report of divine creation, replaced it with a Greek philosophical interpretation, and opened the door to other future possible replacements. On the one hand, Augustine postulated a distinction between the intellectual-timeless realm and the corporeal-temporal one. On the other hand, he maintained a philosophical interpretation of God’s being, moving him away from the concept of the biblical text. Had Augustine interpreted God’s being as He reveals Himself in the Bible, then he could have interpreted the biblical account of creation as the true revelation of the successive action of God during seven days of 24 hours.
Philosophical, non-biblical assumptions led Augustine to discard the biblical account of creation as the true revelation of God’s action in time. Starting from Greek philosophical presuppositions, Augustine regarded the temporal divine creative action as reported in the Bible as not referring to the proper way in which God created. In Greek philosophy, God is immutable and timeless. For Augustine, Greek philosophy is the “science” that explains the way things really happen, as well as God’s nature and action. Given that God can act only timelessly and simultaneously, Augustine didn’t regard the biblical revelation of God’s temporal creative work as true knowledge. For him, true knowledge can be produced only by the rational “science” (Greek philosophy) of his time. Thus, Augustine and the succeeding great Catholic and Protestant theologians introduced into Christianity the fateful idea that the divine action and revelation in time as registered in Scriptures should be interpreted not as the truth, but just as a symbolic and analogical way to convey a knowledge about the spiritual, timeless, and immutable reality in which God exists and acts.
Following Greek philosophy, Augustine and Christian theological tradition sharply separated God from time. Later, when modern science appeared on the scene, God had already been dropped out of the temporal realm by Christian theological tradition. Thus, modern scientists began to explain the origin of the world and life without considering the existence of the biblical God. Augustine had already taken the same approach, because he explained the origin of the world and life starting not from the Bible but from the “science” of his time (Greek philosophy). Augustine didn’t become an atheist, because this science accepted the existence of a timeless and immutable God.
Modern science doesn’t accept God, because He cannot be evidenced by observation and experimentation. But as modern science cannot demonstrate the nonexistence of a timeless and immutable God, many Christian believers harmonize the scientific evolutionary explanation of the origin of the material word with the belief in the timeless, immutable, and spiritualized God Augustine and the Christian theological tradition introduced into Christianity. This can be called a Christian traditional approach, but not a biblical one. Christians who take seriously God’s biblical action and revelation in time may not harmonize biblical creation with evolutionary theory, because the Bible explains the origin of the universe and life by assuming a temporal and historical interpretation of God’s nature and action. The biblical concept of God – as an eternal temporality, i.e. as a being who can act in time without being limited by time – cannot be blended with an evolutionary explanation of the temporal and mutable processes by which the universe and life emerged over time. Only by reading wrongly the Genesis account as being "metaphoric" can evolutionary theory be introduced in Christianity as the explanation of the creative process. But the Bible provides no room for such a metaphorical stance. The whole of the biblical account of creation shows that creation happened as a sequence of actions performed by God in time. Thus, Bible-believing Christians cannot harmonize biblical creation and evolutionary theory, because both are mutually exclusive and contradictory.
Raúl A. Kerbs (Ph.D., Córdoba State University, Argentina) is professor of philosophy at River Plate University, Argentina. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, ed. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), VIII, 6 (henceforth CG).
- Augustine, Concerning the Nature of Good: Against the Manichaeans, The Complete Works of Saint Augustine, tr. Marcus Dods (Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services, 2013), 1.
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, The Complete Works of Saint Augustine, tr. Marcus Dods (Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services, 2013), I, 8 (henceforth CD); On the Holy Trinity, The Complete Works of Saint Augustine, tr. Marcus Dods (Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services, 2013), V, 2, 3; see also V, 4, 5; V, 5, 6; IV, Prol., 1; VIII, 2, 3; XII, 14, 22; V, 16, 17; VII, 3, 5; I, 1, 3; XV, 4, 6; V, 1, 2 (henceforth OHT); The Confessions of Saint Augustine, The Complete Works of Saint Augustine, tr. Marcus Dods (Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services, 2013), VII, 7, 11; VII, 11, 17 (henceforth C); On Free Will, Augustine: Earlier Writings, The Library of Christian Classics, ed. J.H.S. Burleigh (London and Philadelphia: SCM Press/The Westminster Press, 1953), II, 6, 14.
- OHT, V, 2, 3; see also V, 4, 5; V, 5, 6.
- OHT, V, 2, 3; VII, 5, 10.
- OHT, XV, 5, 8; OHT, I, 6, 10; II, 9, 16.
- OHT, V, 16, 17.
- OHT, XV, 25, 45; IV, 21, 30.
- C, XI, 13, 16.
- CG,XI, 21.
- C, 11, 7, 9; 11, 10, 12; 11, 13, 16; 11, 14, 17.12 OHT, III, 11, 26.
- OHT, II, 15, 26; II, 14, 24; II, 18, 35; III, 5, 10.
- Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, The Works of Saint Augustine, Volume 13: On Genesis, tr. Edmund Hill (New York: New City Press, 2002, I, 8, 14 (henceforth RM).
- OHT, XV, 3, 5.
- OHT, V, 8, 9; CD, III, 11; Augustine, Augustine Catechism: Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, tr. Bruce Harbert, The Augustine Series, Volume 1 (New York: New City Press, 1999), 33.
- OHT, II, 17, 32.
- C, 12 9-11, 13; 12, 15, 19-20.
- C, 12, 12, 15.
- C, 12, 12, 15.
- C, 12, 3, 3; Augustine, Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis, The Works of Saint Augustine, Volume 13: On Genesis, tr. by Edmund Hill O. P., New York: New City Press, 2002, 3, 10; 4, 13-14 (henceforth ULCG).
- ULCG, 5, 25; RM, I, 7, 11; I, 4, 7.
- RM, I, 5, 9; I, 6, 10.
- RM, I, 7, 11; see also GLI, 10, 32.
- Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, The Works of Saint Augustine, Volume 13: On Genesis, tr. by Edmund Hill O. P., New York: New City Press, 2002, IV, 33, 51; VIII, 3, 6; IX, 17, 32 (henceforth LMG); OHT, III, 9, 16.
- ULCG, 10, 32, 35.
- C, 11, 7, 9; 11, 10, 12
- CG, XI, 9.
- LMG, VII, 24, 35.
- LMG, VII, 25, 36.
- ULCG, 7, 28.
- ULCG, 5, 19.
- ULCG, 4, 16-17
- LMG, IV, 33, 52; 34, 53, 55.
- LMG, VII, 24, 35.
- C, 13, 29, 44.
- ULCG, 7, 28; 9, 31.