The work I’ve done on the changed position of the Christian Church regarding the supposed damage inflicted by the Fall on nature was prompted by revisiting the usually cited biblical supports for a “fallen creation.” See here and the several posts following. I concluded that there is a very poor scriptural case for it. Amongst them was the passage in Romans 8.18-27.
Following some conversations with Church Historian “penman” I then chased as many ancient sources as I could, and found that they gave little support for “fallen creation” either, prior to the sixteenth century. However, I didn’t particularly chase the ancients’ comments about the Romans passage, because it seemed only tangential to the matter of the fallen creation.
Prompted by Seenoevo’s mention of the passage on this thread, however, it seemed worthwhile trying to get some idea of how this particular passage was interpreted in old times, bearing in mind that on pretty well all sides nowadays, the “groaning” of the creation in its bondage to decay seems clearly to refer to the results of sin on nature. Such an obvious parallel ought to be evident in at least some of their comments if the doctrine of a corrupted creation were commonplace in the past.
I’ve covered only the Ante-Nicene Fathers in my search as I have a complete set here, with a Scripture index, and have included all who make any relevant references to the passage in Romans. I’ve also included one slightly later dissenting voice in John Chrysostom, who takes something like the modern position, and whom penman drew to my notice. Augustine also gets a look in as his work is widely referenced, though often not available in English, sadly. Lastly I’ve included Luther’s observations in his Romans Lectures, as a voice transitional to the modern era.
IRENAEUS quotes Rom 8.21 in Ad. Haer.V. XXXVI.3 in a discussion of the resurrection of the dead. Ever the conservative exegete, he gives no direct interpretation of “creature”, but goes on to use “creature” twice of human beings in the page or so of comment. It seems clear that he assumes the human creation is the subject of the passage.
METHODIUS, however, does seem to apply the term to the created order as a whole. In his Discourse on the Resurrection VI he speaks of the whole world being ordained to continue rather than be destroyed (in contradiction of heretical teaching that the physical world is temporary). The verse appears in describing the created order’s intrinsic material corruptibility and mortality, and its future transformation to incorruptibility. There is no reference to sin in his treatment.
ARCHELAUS is also dealing with heretics. In his Disputation with Manes he writes, alluding to the passage:
Then the universal creation will be moved and perturbed, uttering prayers and supplications, until he delivers it from its bondage.
By this he clearly implies the rational creation (capable of prayers and supplications), and probably the human rather than the angelic.
ORIGEN is characteristically influenced by contemporary philosophical ideas, and comes at the passage in a rather left-field way from our point of view, though striving, he says, to teach “what is in accordance to the creed of the church.” It is actually quite a favourite text of his, quoted several times. In De Principiis 1,VII.5 he is discussing rational beings, both corporeal and incorporeal. Largely this is to discountenance any pagan tendency to worship the heavenly bodies as gods, on the grounds that they too are created rational beings. He reasons that in Romans 8 “creature” signifies the sun, moon & stars, because they are clothed with bodies, and set apart to the office of giving light to the human race. His point seems to be that Paul mentions them as the greatest of the non-human creation. The “vanity” to which they have been subjected, he suggests, is simply their corporeal nature “as a kind of burden which enfeebles the vigour of the soul.”
In other words, in accordance with one of my suggested interpretations (though from a distinctly Platonic position) the contrast is between the corruptible first creation and the transformed creation in Christ – not between a good creation corrupted by sin and then restored by Christ.
In II.IX.7 the verse is again used of heavenly creatures as rational beings; as it is also in III.V.4, but here Origen clearly spells out the “creature” as descending from the higher spiritual realm against its will to serve in the present creation (so not because of sin) – in it he encompasses the sun, moon and stars as well as the angels and those rational creatures of a lesser, bodily, nature, that is ourselves. This may all sound rather sub-Christian, and is verging on the heretical, but bear in mind how much of Paul’s creation teaching refers to the “powers and principalities in the heavenly realms”, and this is clearly at the forefront of Origen’s mind.
Origen also quotes our passage a little earlier in III.V.1, but here it seems to mean the whole world, again subjected to vanity by its innate perishability. He may well assume his readers would take the “rational” qualification for granted.
The passage is also referenced three times in Contra Celsum. In VIII.5 the application is uncertain, but seems once more to to apply to spiritual beings. In V.XIII the “creature” is again “sun, moon and stars”, and the context avoiding their worship. VII.LXVI has exactly the same signification.
JOHN CHRYSOSTOM’S commentary on Romans, in contrast to the others, suggests that the personification of creation in Romans 8 is a literary technique signifying the lower (irrational) creation’s bondage to corruption because of man’s sin. This he sees, however, as God’s work “intended for our correction.” Questioning the unfairness of this apparently unjust action of God’s, he argues that creation has had no wrong done to it for (a) it was made on our account anyway (b) there is no evil involved to a creation “void of soul and feeling” and (c) it will become once more incorruptible for our sake. You’ll note that even in Chrysostom the modern idea of the Devil’s agency in nature’s change is completely absent. Also note that the “corruptibility” of the whole created order rather than “animal death” is his concern, though that might well be included. If, however, he has in mind the provision of only plants for food in Genesis 1, he does not mention it. It’s hard to see how plants could be eaten if they were incorruptible, or why animals would be any different in that respect.
AUGUSTINE returns to the more common (in those days) interpretation of “creature” as the rational creation, and in his case he means the human creation. I’ve not found English sources relevant to this, but in a modern book by Daniel Patte and Eugene TeSelle, Engaging Augustine on Romans the authors comment:
Augustine understands this verse [8.22] to refer to the entire human being, which includess body, soul and mind and in this sense “all creation”, on the grounds that the text says “ommi creatura”, not “tota creatura” (De diu.quaest.67,5). The former adjective is understood distributively, as applying to all created things which have body and soul and mind, and only human beings meet this definition; the latter adjective is understood collectively, as applying to all created things without restriction. According to this interpretation in its entirety is subjected to vanity, ie to earthly change and vulnerability, but in hope of resurrection (Exp.prop.Rom. 53; De diu.quaest. 67).
In summary, then, the early interpretation of Romans 8 is pretty varied, but refers in most cases (a) to some aspect of the rational creation, rather than to nature and (b) to the corruptibility inherent in our material condition rather than to the effects of the fall, Chrysostom being the only exception.
From a much later age MARTIN LUTHER has a rather ambiguous attitude to the question of a fallen creation, and his Lectures on Romans gives probably his most mixed message about it. Interestingly he starts by saying that most interpreters of the passage take it to refer to humanity as the “creature”. For himself, he prefers to see is as nature, subjected to vanity by humanity. Yet he mainly attributes this vanity not to a change of character, but to the misuse of nature by man (in a rather novel understanding), for he says:
For all that God made “was very good” (Gen 1.31) and is good to this day.
Its redemption he takes to mean a restoration of its proper use by man, which is not inconsistent with the Patristic views we have seen. Yet he also condemns philosophers and theologians for talking of nature’s felicity and not perceiving its mourning and sighing, and fields the idea (admitting it to be without Scriptural proof) that the sun was brighter before the Fall. Yet even this relatively late interpretation is a far cry from the almost universal assumption now that Paul teaches that nature has been rendered evil by the Fall, and is groaning to be purified at the second coming of Christ.