Augustine and Darwin

Alister McGrath (DPhil in molecular biophysics, Doctor of Divinity) has an article at the Christianity Today website: Augustine’s Origin of Species: How the great theologian might weigh in on the Darwin debate.

St. Augustine (AD 354-430) was the bishop of Hippo, in what is now Algeria, but was then part of the Roman Empire. I gave a long quote from his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis back in March.

Here are a few quotes from McGrath’s article:

Augustine draws out the following core themes: 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 a dormant seed to help his readers grasp this point. God creates seeds, which will grow and develop at the right time. Using more technical language, 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. The God who planted the seeds at the moment of creation also governs and directs the time and place of their growth.


Certain biblical passages, he insisted, are genuinely open to diverse interpretations and must not be wedded to prevailing scientific theories. Otherwise, the Bible becomes the 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 was God doing before he created the universe? Augustine undermines the question by pointing out that God did not bring creation into being at a certain definite moment in time, because time did not exist prior to creation. For Augustine, eternity is a realm without space or time. Interestingly, this is precisely the state of existence many scientists posit existed before the big bang.


So what are the implications of this ancient Christian interpretation of Genesis for the Darwin celebrations? First, 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. God is working even now, in the present, Augustine writes, sustaining and directing the unfolding of the “generations that he laid up in creation when it was first established.”

This twofold 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 a capacity to develop, under God’s sovereign guidance. Thus, the primordial state of creation does not correspond to what we presently observe. 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.


Augustine argues that Genesis 1:12 implies that the earth received the power or capacity to produce things by itself: “Scripture has stated that the earth brought forth the crops and the trees causally, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth.”

Where some might think of the Creation as God’s insertion of new kinds of plants and animals readymade 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.

The idea of a creation that is capable of evolving to one degree or another is not necessarily a compromise. St. Augustine argued for it from the pages of Scripture 1500 years ago.

Grace and Peace

9 thoughts on “Augustine and Darwin

  1. chris nahrwold

    New to your blog. Sorry to get off the topic but what are your opinions about the RTB biblical creations model? I am reading the book “More than a Theory” by Hugh Ross and so far it is blowing me away.


  2. geochristian


    Thanks for reading my blog. Certainly Reasons to Believe is an excellent organization, and their Biblical interpretation could be correct. My own position is probably somewhere in between RTB progressive creationism and BioLogos theistic evolution. Like RTB, I leave room (both scientifically and Biblically) for God’s intervention from time to time, such as in the creation of life. But at the same time I am more willing to accept evolution as part of God’s method of bringing new organisms into existence. Sometimes RTB seems as opposed to evolution as the young-Earth creationists, and I don’t see either a Biblical or scientific reason for this opposition.

    I haven’t read More Than a Theory yet, but would like to.

    Thanks again,


  3. Olá,
    Este é um belo sítio da internet. Creio que toda a teoria evolucionista vai sofrer uma radical mudança de perspectiva com a decipração do fator genoma. Abraços. Domingos. Brasil.

    [Google Translate: Hello, This is a beautiful website. I believe that all evolutionary theory will undergo a radical change in perspective with the factor decryption genome. Abraços. Sundays. Brazil.]


  4. Matt Strid

    Geo, We must hold historical theological perspectives within thier time. I think its dangerous (and I’m more than a little shocked that someone of McGrath’s training would do this) to take thier statements out of context to make a point about an issue that didn’t even exist in thier day. I believe that’s a form of straw man argumentation.

    Augustine was arguing against prevailing philosophies that stated that the physical world was evil, could only beget evil, and must be destroyed in order for good to prevail. That’s the context of his argumentation, not literal 6 day creation vs. evolution. So as I understand them, Augustine’s statements are about the created order having good in it because God implanted those good things to kickoff even after sin had entered the world.

    Maybe i’m all washed up…corrections?


  5. geochristian


    Thanks for your input, which I always highly value. I agree that it is wrong to force our modern scientific controversies on Augustine. But it would also be wrong to not mine the depths of the church fathers for their insights into modern issues, rather than just depending on recently published works.

    The accusation is often made that any Christians who accept evolution (or an old Earth, which is a separate issue) are reading something into the Scriptures that isn’t there. One of the main thrusts of McGrath’s article is to show that Augustine—certainly one of the greatest thinkers in Western Christianity—saw a creation that was an incomplete seed at the beginning, and then developed (evolved) into its current state. This is not to say that Augustine foresaw biological evolution; he didn’t. Augustine, like Aristotle, was committed to the fixity of species. But it does open the door for a Biblical interpretation that allows for an evolving creation without being subject to the accusation of accommodation to naturalism.

    I’m not saying Augustine is right. I don’t know anyone who advocates his instantaneous creation idea (i.e. that creation didn’t take six days, it took zero days). But he did allow for development over time, based on passages such as Genesis 1:24: “Let the earth bring forth….”

    Yes, the issues that Augustine was facing were different than what we face now. His instantaneous creation idea may have been posited to counter the Greek concept of an eternal universe. He was concerned to show the goodness of matter as part of a creation by a good God. But in tackling these issues, he touched on matters that are relevant to today’s struggles.

    I’m not an Augustine expert, but this understanding is consistent with what I have read in other works regarding Augustine’s view of creation.


  6. Matt Strid

    I appreciate that, but you are treading a fine line where, should you stray, you could be exploiting words that in no way were intended as you may interpret them. What issue was he arguing for? That is the issue those words were for, not something completely different a millenia and a half later.

    We do this so regularly in our culture today that we dont even see anything wrong with it, but ascribing intellectual property where it doesn’t belong is the same as defamation of character. It is just as wrong as theft of real intellectual property.


  7. WebMonk

    Matt – the more independent a statement is, the more readily it can be validly used outside the immediate subject. The more dependent a statement is on immediate subject, the less valid it is to apply to another subject.

    In this case, Augustine is talking about the general subject of the “goodness” of the material world. While talking about that he talks about how he believes Genesis means an instantaneous Creation, instead of a 6-day-24-hour creation.

    His statements aren’t dependent upon being in the context of the “goodness” of the material world.

    Absolutely we should be very careful about taking things out of context, but conversely it is nonsense to say things are only true in their original topic. If I talk about math while discussing medical treatments, my statements about math are perfectly valid if applied to physics. (assuming my math statement was correct)

    I’ve read through several of Augustine’s writings, including his “Literal Meaning of Genesis”, and there is nothing to suggest that he meant Genesis isn’t strictly 6-24, only when discussing the “goodness” of the material world.

    If you see some statements of his that suggest he only meant his statements to be hypothetical “even if’s” (or something like that) I would be interested in seeing why you think that. His essay, at least to me, seemed to be a pretty straightforward statement of his understanding of Genesis.


  8. rocketman

    I think that Augustine’s original intent might be closer to the modern situation than Matt or many others suppose. Taken the right way, I believe that the doctrine of creation implies that the evidence of nature can be trusted. Nature is God’s “other” book, the general revelation to be set alongside the specific revelation of scripture. This blog, I think, exemplifies that kind of healthy interaction between science and faith. By contrast, the unwillingness of young-Earth creationists to follow the physical evidence demonstrates a radical mistrust of data from the natural world. In their so-called defense of the doctrine of creation, they treat the creation as a source of deceit rather than of truth. They can be likened to Augustine’s original opponents, who thought of the universe and the God who created it as evil and separate from the God revealed in Christ. The explicit theological claims of YEC writers affirm an orthodox view of creation, but their work routinely belies the doctrine of creation.


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