Augustine denies natural world corrupted – official

One of the virtually axiomatic doctrines of modern Christianity is the corruption and fall of the natural world along with man’s moral nature. Natural evil is accounted to be a result of sin, not only in the sense that men suffer and die from disease or disaster, but also in the sense that these exist in the natural world at all.

In the controversy over origins, this is a stumbling block to Biblical literalists, one of whose arguments is that if mankind was born into a world already long-established in the business of death and decay, it is a denial of the original goodness of the creation from Genesis 1. It is almost as much of a problem for Christians believing in evolution, or Old Earth Creationists, since there then needs to be another explanation for natural evil in the pre-fall world. Answers range from a rather implausible spread of the fall’s effects backwards in time, to versions of theology in which God is not fully responsible for creation, perhaps through allowing it some kind of freedom of action of its own. Some Christian evolutionists have even considered Intelligent Design blasphemous for implicating the loving God of Jesus Christ in the examples of disease or “poor design” we encounter.

Some time ago, I was struck by how little (actually none) of this doctrine of a fallen natural world is actually present in Scripture. I will explore this in more detail another time, but first will look at just how “fundamental” this teaching is to Christianity, historically. I mentioned in an earlier blog how the framer of the commonest doctrine of the fall, Augustine, was informed by the philosophical problem of natural evil first introduced by Epicurus, after the Old Testament was complete. I mentioned that Augustine’s emphasis was on natural evil as it effects humans rather than nature, partly because his cosmology assumed that the Eden events happened early in the world’ history.

But closer examination of Augustine shows that, in fact, his teaching on nature was nearer to what I proposed in my blog: that our perception of its shortcomings is coloured by our own sin and ignorance, and that God himself does not seem to share our view that it is corrupted. Augustine’s view can be summarised in this quote from Confessions VII [XII]19:

To you nothing at all is evil, not only to you but to your creation at large, because there is nothing outside to break in and upset the order you have imposed on it. But in parts of it some things do not harmonise with other parts, and are considered evil for that reason. But with other parts they do harmonise and are good, good in themselves… Let it be far from me to say: “These things should not be”, for if these were the only things I could see, I should still long for the better, and should be bound to praise you for these alone. [But when I understood from Scripture the praise arising from all things both in earth and heaven] I did not now long for better things because I considered everything.

Augustine was not unique in this. Irenaeus, the only other early Church Father to deal with the fall, also did not consider its effects spread beyond man into the rest of creation. It would appear, then, that the concept of extending the fall to nature developed during later Patristic and mediaeval times, becoming an unconsidered assumption by the time of the reformers Luther and Calvin. It would be interesting for some Church Historian to survey this thoroughly, but suffice it to say here that it was not considered a key doctrine in the first several centuries of the Church’s life, any more than it was in Old Testament Israel.

The way is open, then, in terms of historic theology, for us to be able to recover the truth of goodness of creation as it actually is, and as it always has been, and one hopes praise God for it. I hope to show that it is also open to us from the teaching of Scripture.

Anyone interested in coming with me?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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