Friday, May 8, 2009

Augustine on Creation

I came across a very interesting article today, written in honor of the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, at Christianity Today's website. The article is written by Alister McGrath, and deals with Augustine's views on the creation account in Genesis.

After reading through Augustine's Confessions recently, I noticed that one of the major hang-ups he had in fully embracing Christianity was a difficulty in believing the "stories" in Genesis. It was a common belief among the intellectual elite of that age (as is certainly, and more severely, the case in our own time) that the Biblical account of creation was simply ridiculous and illogical. There is a lot of evidence that Augustine struggled with the creation account for much of his life, and this article helps to illuminate the results of that struggle - a view on creation that I found very interesting, especially in light of the fact that Darwin's theory of evolution was still more than a millenium away.

I've done quite a bit of study relating to the various current views on the creation narrative, and have become much more open to alternatives to the Young Earth Creationism that I have always embraced. For one thing, many other men who have my utmost respect, and who are very orthodox in their theology, have also shown a willingness to accept the idea that the literal, six 24 hour day creation account may not be the only Biblically accurate interpretation. My own reading of the Genesis account has also led me to be willing to entertain the idea that the six "days" may or may not have been literal 24 hour periods (also known as the "Day-Age Theory").

One thing that I think is very important in this line of thinking is that it was not science that led me to this belief. In other words, I am not trying to fit the Bible into a man-made box by trying to explain the creation account based on what man's current "knowledge" about science tells us. The earth very well may be billions of years old - I don't know. I also do not believe that our current system of carbon dating is as reliable as some "experts" would have us believe. It's important to make the distinction that it is my reading of Scripture, and my study of other respected individuals' writings on the subject of the original language, that has led me to my current postion.

This is not how I usually work. My default position on Scripture is to interpret what I read in the most simple and literal terms, but also in the context of the rest of the Bible. I usually fall back on the idea that we are much safer erring on the side of caution, and not leaving the Bible open to erroneous views that are based only on manmade (hence, flawed and limited) ideas. I firmly believe that the accounts in the Old Testament - all the stories told to me in my childhood about Jonah, Joshua, Moses, and others - are descriptive of real life events that actually happened in time and space. So it's a pretty big leap for me to be willing to say, in a way, that the account in Genesis is, just maybe, not to be taken literally.

So does this mean that I'm stepping outside of long-held orthodox belief. Well, not necessarily. Upon reading this article about Augustine's views on the subject, I find myself encouraged by the fact that he drew some of the same conclusions from Scripture.
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.
Now Augustine is certianly not the only source of knowledge on this subject, and he could very easily be totally wrong. But, I find it very encouraging that he struggled with these very same issues, and that he was willing to admit this uncertainty. Just to be clear, I still believe in the historicity of God's creation of the earth and everything in it - including, as is discussed elsewhere in the article, God's creation of time itself - as well as the real events of The Fall, the flood, and the other events described in Genesis. You certainly won't find me writing here about my belief that the story of Adam and Eve is really just a parable, meant to warn us of our tendencies to stray from God. I just find myself more open to a slightly different translation of the description of a series of events that are well beyond our ability to comprehend.

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