Patristic plagues on popular positions

One complaint people like myself and Eddie Robinson have about writers on theistic evolution is their selective use of the Church Fathers to show that they supported, or would have supported, evolution against Creationism or Intelligent Design. I want to show here that their views on the current scene would probably have been more like “a plague on all your ignorant houses”. How you build an orthodox theology of nature is then up to you!

We begin with Clement of Alexandria, writing in 208:

And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things which exist? . . . That, then, we may be taught that the world was originated and not suppose that God made it in time, prophecy adds: “This is the book of the generation, also of the things in them, when they were created in the day that God made heaven and earth” [Gen. 2:4]. For the expression “when they were created” intimates an indefinite and dateless production. But the expression “in the day that God made them,” that is, in and by which God made “all things,” and “without which not even one thing was made,” points out the activity exerted by the Son.

Much later, in the second half of the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa:

The sources, causes, and potencies of all things were collectively sent forth in an instant, and in this first impulse of the Divine Will, the essences of all things assembled together: heaven, aether, star, fire, air, sea, earth, animal, plant — all beheld by the eye of God…. There followed a certain necessary series according to a certain order … as nature, the maker,
required … appearing not by chance … but because the necessary arrangement of nature required succession in the things coming into being.

Saint_Augustine_of_Hippo_Early_Church_Father_Doctor_of_the_ChurchIf these seem obscure, I’m going to major on the guy who put creation doctrine together in most detail: St Augustine of Hippo. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis he echoes the previous understanding: creation, being a work of the eternal God and including the creation of time, cannot be said to have “a beginning”. In fact, when God creates, outside time, it is the whole universe, not only from “side to side” but from “start to finish” that he makes:

When a builder puts up a house and departs, his work remains in spite of the fact he is no longer there. But the universe will pass away in the twinkling of an eye if God withdraws his ruling hand.

It’s important to realise that, for the Fathers, it wasn’t a case of God setting up creation with its secondary causes, and then (as we might misinterpret the above quote) “keeping it all in existence”. No – the hand in question is also a “ruling” hand, which creates in one single act (in eternity) every moment of creation that passes (in time). And so Augustine saw the order of creation set out in Genesis 1 either as a way of describing the indescribable (an eternal act) in order to teach its spiritual truths to simple man, or at most as the initial unfolding of such an eternal act.

To illustrate this, imagine God “withdrawing his hand” not from the whole universe, but just one part of it, let’s say a lion pouncing for the kill. The lion ceases to exist as soon as he “withdraws his hand” – its existence is therefore not autonomous, though it is has the “dignity” (if that is a valid term) of real existence and powers by God’s will. But let us now look at the single instant just before God withdraws, as we might a thin section on a microscope slide. If we look at what his ruling hand was creatively doing at that instant, the “existence” in question was “a lion pouncing for the kill”, not simply “a lion’s existence”. Likewise, if after his withdrawal, God should then decide to restore his creation, what he brought back into existence would be – a lion pouncing for the kill. So he doesn’t create a lion, which then hunts, but the lion together with its hunting. And so Augustine writes:

Believe and if possible understand that God is working even now, so that if His action should be withdrawn from his creatures, they would perish…. God moves his whole creation by a hidden power and all creatures are subject to this movement: the angels carry out his commands, the stars move in their courses, the winds blow now this way now that, deep pools seethe beneath tumbling waterfalls and mists form above them, meadows come to life as the seeds put forth grasses, animals are born and live their lives according to their proper instincts, the evil are permitted to try the just. It is thus that God unfolds the generations which he laid up in creation when he first founded it; and they would not be sent forth to run their course if he who made creatures ceased to exercise his provident rule over them.

According to Conor Cunningham (I’ve not yet been able to check the citation), in this way Augustine saw even miracles as “natural”, in the sense that they are just a special instance of God’s same, single, work of creation, expressed at a particular time and bypassing the usual patterns of secondary causation (law, chance and choice).

Now, Augustine was adamant that Scripture should not be interpreted in a way that contradicts the best “scientific ” knowledge of astronomy or natural history, lest the Bible be brought into disrepute by believers’ ignorance. Hence his lack of serious commitment to a “literalistic” interpretation of Genesis 1. That being so one can see how theistic evolutionists might see in that idea of God “unfolding the generations” that Augustine might warm to evolutionary theory. Some even go so far as to hint he anticipated such a thing.

That’s nonsense on stilts of course – what he had in mind was (a) the known generative powers of life, producing succeeding generations by their inbuilt “potencies” but, very significantly, as an ongoing work of active creation, not merely a delegation of autonomous powers.

And (b) the unfolding of all the world’s changes in general according to God’s same plan, including human history (and histories), not by “guiding” them through occasional or micro-managing interventions, but by the outworking of his timeless creative will within time. He can’t be accused of “interfering” because each moment – each historical moment, with its detailed events – is part of his single, original, act of creation. What he creates is the universe – not the beginning of the universe, plus or minus some additional exertions.

Given Augustine’s willingness to “leave science to the experts”, it’s legitimate to suggest that he’d have found no great theological problem with the idea of evolution in principle. BUT… there’s a big “but” that most of today’s TEs choose to ignore. I’ll come back to it.

But I’ll do it in order, as I suggest how Augustine (and Gregory and Clement before him, and certainly Thomas Aquinas long afterwards) might have reacted to the common alternatives open to Christians nowadays in the matter of origins.

Young Earth Creationism:

“So you take Genesis 1 to recount events historically? That’s well and good, for as I wrote somewhere regarding that chapter, ‘Let each one, then, take it as he pleases; for it is so profound a passage, that it may well suggest, for the exercise of the reader’s tact, many opinions, and none of them widely departing from the rule of faith.’ But beware lest, if you hold that view in contradiction to the best science, you demonstrate ignorance, which is a bad testimony to the intelligent unbeliever. You should also beware that you don’t come to think of God’s creation as beginning on a particular day and ceasing on the seventh, as if he creates in time, for that is to fall into the trap of the materialists who stupidly think that the world, and its events, can continue even for an instant apart from the ongoing ruling providence of God.

Old Earth Creationism:

“I see that you take Genesis 1 figuratively, which is quite acceptable. But like your Young Earth brethren, you fall into the danger of simply exchanging one idea of creation in time with another. Lose sight of the ongoing governance of God’s will and you’ve lost sight of the nature of Creation itself. That’s not to say, of course, that in general God might not bring things into being through miraculous acts within history, for his creation is bound neither to the beginning of time nor to particular secondary causes.”

Evolutionary Creation:

“Dear me – what an unfortunate term you’ve chosen for yourselves! I see no great problem with your scientists’ discovery that the earth is old and that species have changed over time, but how on earth can you say that God creates through evolution, as though creation takes place in time by a mere mechanism? He does not create evolution and “let it act” as you seem to suppose – rather, if evolution indeed occurs, he creates evolving creatures, sustaining and ruling their changes just as he sustains and rules the generation of each kind of creature. In time, creation unfolds from the potentialities already within it in eternity – it is not like an arrow fired from a bow by God into the distance. You sound as if you’re singing from the same erroneous missal as the materialists and the Creationists, believing that God only creates the beginnings of things, and not their ends.

“Worse still, you speak of foolish ideas like “creation free to make itself”, “God not being concerned with each little detail” and “God delighting to see what chance produces”. I see that you learned this from the commonest evolutionary theory, which is usually interpreted to mean that it has no determined ends, but only general trends which even God may not foresee. Do you not see that this is little short of blasphemy to the God who creates all things in heaven and earth in eternity, and brings them to his chosen ends? By insisting on this “one thing causes the next” idea you simply ape the unbelievers’ godless Epicurean philosophy.‘You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. You are badly mistaken.’

I see I’ve missed one out, and I should get Augustine to remedy that, although it’s not properly held to be a theological position:

Intelligent Design:

“It seems that in essence, your project is to bring certainty and precision to the description of the wisdom and order of God seen in creation, to weaken the arguments of the Epicureans that chance alone can bring order. This science of “probabilities” seems interesting and of service, if you can make it work. And you are also right to insist that, as far as chance and necessity are concerned, the means must be adequate to the ends. When we understand that God is Creator, we know that to say that something happens by a “fluke” is no different to saying it is a miracle. In the end, as your best writers say, it is the wisdom inherent in Creation itself that demonstrates the Creator’s wisdom, and not the means he happens to prefer to bring things about.

“But beware that you do not follow those same Epicureans (and I have to say, the majority of the brethren taking the other positions) in seeing creation only as something that began in time, and that proceeds either “naturally” or by “supernatural interventions”. We may look for secondary causes, but must understand that God always works in those causes towards his ends. If this is not the very essence of providence, then there is no providence, and no creation.”

Now I think I’ve represented Augustine as fairly as I can. He in turn represents the traditional Christian creation teaching of two millennia. But I don’t think any of the popular approaches to origins really takes that teaching fully into account.


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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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2 Responses to Patristic plagues on popular positions

  1. Cath Olic says:

    Some thoughts on your reading of Augustine’s mind:

    “That’s nonsense on stilts of course – what he had in mind was (a) the known generative powers of life, producing succeeding generations by their inbuilt “potencies” but, very significantly, as an ongoing work of active creation, not merely a delegation of autonomous powers.”

    I think Augustine would see creation *not* as an *ongoing* work. He would have seen His providential *maintaining* of the completed creation as ongoing (“for `In him we live and move and have our being’” – Acts 17:28).

    Creation was *completed* a long time ago (cf. Gen 1:31-2:3).
    “… if evolution indeed occurs, he creates evolving creatures, sustaining and ruling their changes just as he sustains and rules the generation of each kind of creature. In time, creation unfolds from the potentialities already within it in eternity”

    But if He creates “evolving creatures”, then He really doesn’t have “generation of each *kind* of creature”. There would be no “kinds”, only the temporary verisimilitude of a kind, which would be on the way to becoming something else.
    “… You sound as if you’re singing from the same erroneous missal as the materialists and the Creationists, believing that God only creates the beginnings of things, and not their ends.”

    But the “thing” is *essentially* (i.e. in its essence, in its being) the same from beginning to end. It is not one kind of being at its beginning and another kind of being at its end (i.e. the end of its life).

    [These last two point of mine may be more Aquinas than Augustine.)

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      You’re correct that Augustine saw creation as an instant work, but decidedly not long ago, because outside time as far as he was concerned. That was the main thrust of his argument.In time, he saw that creation outworking, under the immediate creative hand of God, in the unfolding of each generation, and so on. Aquinas is the same – he was even open to the possibility (common at his time) that creation has existed eternally, but said that it would still be God’s creation: he didn’t consider that Genesis 1 clinched it.

      I’m not aware that Augustine put much stress on kinds – although, as a Platonist he would have had some concept of “the forms” that might have given him some issues with evolution as gradual change. Likewise Aquinas, though he certainly wrote about the transformation of forms as being possible by God (and not necessarily if I read him right, by miracle). But in the end one has to be cautious about how they’d react to evolution per se, because it simply wasn’t on the radar then. The one thing we can say is that Augustine was more inclined to see a figurative meaning for Scripture than deny what even scientists of his time said (though of course they were wrong about geocentrism).

      Same considerations for your last point – my aim was not to deal with forms (though I have in the past), or primarily evolution, but the deep doctrine of creation itself that few Christians of any stripe nowadays embrace – indeed, I’ve just today had an exchange with Jim Stump at BioLogos on universal sovereign providence, though with little hope of progress since he’s, apparently, quite happy simply to say the Bible is wrong when it talks of such providence. Under those circunstances there’s no real common ground.

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