Review: Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy By Gavin Ortlund

It was in seminary that a certain Church history professor (and President of the HRA) taught me about the technical theological distinction between lumpers and splitters. If you are unfamiliar, let me clue you in. There are people who group things together and make a story—lumpers. And there are people who divide things into their parts—splitters. Generally, systematic theologians are lumpers, and historians are splitters. This work is certainly of the latter type, which given the subject matter is quite necessary. As H. L. Mencken notes, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”1 If Augustine fits into your modern creation debate in a neat and plausible way, you might have read him wrongly.

Before overviewing the contents of this work, here is a word about the target audience. This book and its subject matter can get technical. It is not only theological, but a work concerned with theological history. This work is probably of interest to and best interacted with by those who have more than a passing familiarity with church history. For example, familiarity with the Manicheans and their theology will be helpful. The target audience seems to be historians, apologists, and theologians, but also pastors and interested elders who often play the role of the former. The engagement with Augustine and his thought world is far from superficial; it is a weighty task, but it is rewarding.

There is another target audience as well—those exploring their faith in their early adulthood. Ortlund begins his first chapter by describing a young man who leaves his hometown to study in the city, loses his faith because of challenges to Genesis, but eventually comes back around (p. 1). This is not only a modern phenomenon; this is also the story of Augustine. This book aims to deepen engagement with Genesis for such young folk—and this is a book the present reviewer would have welcomed in his college years.

One framing and key idea for this work is what Ortlund calls theological retrieval, the idea of Augustine as a conversation partner. Theological retrieval for Ortlund “concerns bringing historical theology into the realm of contemporary constructive theology” (7). This means “engagement with Augustine will at times focus on description more than evaluation—not because I endorse everything Augustine says, but because I am seeking to let his voice echo into current controversies” (7). In other words, Ortlund brings Augustine to us as a conversation partner. Ortlund imagines Augustine at a conference table with an “evolutionary creationist,” an “old-earth creationist,” and a “young-earth creationist” (7). The question this book seeks to answer is what Augustine might have to say at this table.

Once Augustine has been brought to the table, Ortlund imagines what Augustine might say. As an exhortation near the end of the book, Ortlund writes, “I can well imagine Augustine at the table, holding up his hands in protest, urging caution, listening, and patience—or, to use his terms, calling for less ‘obstinate wrangling’ and more ‘diligent seeking, humble asking, persistent knocking’” (242, citing from De Genesi ad litteram, 10.23.39). Throughout this work, and especially in the second chapter, Ortlund advocates for intellectual humility by observing Augustine’s own humility over a topic with which he had wrestled.

The book can be broadly divided into two parts. The first two chapters survey the breadth of Augustine’s view of creation and highlight Augustine’s intellectual humility. In these chapters especially, Ortlund shows us what we might not expect from Augustine, both in his concerns about creation and his humble posture in approaching difficult issues.

The second part “brings Augustine’s views into dialogue with particular topics of current dispute” (10). These topics are the creation days (chapter 3), animal death before the Fall (chapter 4), and evolution and a historical Adam (chapter 5).

It is in this last chapter that Reformed readers may be most concerned. In it Ortlund outlines three modern positions, or “instincts” in Ortlund’s words (211). The three instincts are “evolution, therefore no Adam,” “Adam, therefore no evolution,” and lastly “Adam and evolution” (211–212). He argues that Augustine leaves the latter two options, which affirm a historical Adam, open.

In Ortlund’s section on this last instinct, Augustine fades into the background. This is explicable because some of this material comes from another paper (234 n. 186). Throughout this discussion, Augustine takes a backseat to others who have harmonized evolution and a historical Adam. While noting that “Augustine can resource those who want to maintain a historical fall,” he also notes that “much in Augustine’s theology is favorable to harmonization efforts in the realm of instinct three (Adam and evolution)” (239, italics original). Ortlund gives insightful critique of those Christians who write in keeping with the first instinct (212–20). Ortlund articulates his own view this way: “I am personally uncertain as to the exact extent of the explanatory reach of evolutionary mechanisms, and I consider it a question outside my training and calling” (220). Nevertheless, Ortlund continues beyond this restraint:

After much agonizing study over this issue, however, I have come to the view that the church needs to evaluate evolution with greater humility and carefulness than we have sometimes exhibited, and I do think that Augustine can be a helpful stimulus to this end. Thus, here I would suggest, not so much that Augustine would oppose the Adam, therefore no evolution view but that he would offer caution to the extent that it is put forward as the only possible option. (220–221)

In brief, some readers may find Ortlund too open to the claims of evolution. But this is exactly who he hopes will engage with the book to consider whether he is correct.

The strengths of this book are many. First, this book is well-cited and resourced. It is quite grounded in the primary source material. One truly gets the impression of being guided into Augustine’s views and not Ortlund’s own views throughout the book. He engages extensively with five of Augustine’s works: On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manicheans; The Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis; Confessions; The Literal Meaning of Genesis; and The City of God (cf. p. 13).2 He also engages throughout with sermons and letters that shed light on Augustine’s thought. Through this engagement a picture of Augustine as a mature, thorough, and restrained thinker emerges.

Second, the author himself displays intellectual humility. Rarely intruding and skillfully guiding the reader, Ortlund will, as evidenced above, inform the reader of his biases and goals. But he also greatly trusts the reader to make up their own mind about Augustine and how to use him constructively.

Lastly—and perhaps a less sympathetic reviewer would differ—to this reviewer, Ortlund goes out of his way to fairly represent views with which he disagrees. Since this is not the major purpose of the work, the sections where this is relevant are in the introduction and especially in the section of the concluding chapter on the three instincts regarding Adam and evolution. Often, Ortlund will quote directly from major proponents in order to present their views in their own words.

Potential weaknesses are minimal, but some things to consider are the following. First, this work seems best placed in the hands of the theological student. Since the aim of this work is theological retrieval and to bring historical theology into contemporary theological construction, the intended audience is people who engage in these areas. Ortlund does a fine job presenting Augustine’s views, but these views will likely seem foreign and complex to some. Thus, this work is not best suited for the average small group or Wednesday night study.

Second, as already noted, since many of the denominations in NAPARC have study reports, affirmations, or other statements on creation views, Ortlund’s openness to evolutionary creationism will likely not be a welcome view in officer candidates in many of our denominations.

Lastly, and this is a concern taken up in the book (107–109), there may seem to be in Ortlund’s humility a lack of conviction. Some issues must be addressed by Church communions and in ordination exams and thus are beyond the purview of this book.

To close, this book is a great resource for the theology student, whether seminarian, pastor, or professor. Augustine is given a platform from which to speak, or rather a seat at the table of the modern discussion. But the strength of this book is letting Augustine speak his own words at the table, rather than using him as a puppet. If you want to hear the towering Western theologian speak about creation, this book is a good place to start.

Notes

  1. H. L. Mencken, “The Divine Afflatus,” in Prejudices: First, Second and Third Series (New York: Library of America, 2010), 242.
  2. Latin titles respectively: De Genesi contra Manichaeos; De Genesi ad litteram liver unus imperfectus; Confessiones; De Genesi ad litteram; et De Civitae Dei.

©Luke Gossett. All Rights Reserved.

Gavin Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy (Westmont IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2020).


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Posted by Luke Gossett | Thursday, May 9, 2024 | Categorized in Books, Reviews. Luke Gossett. Bookmark the permalink.

About Luke Gossett

Rev. Luke Gossett (MA Westminster Seminary California, MA and PhD Candidate, Catholic University of America) is Associate Pastor at Christ Reformed Church (URCNA) in Washington, DC, where he has been a member since 2017. The Council of Christ Reformed DC has begun the process of sending Luke back to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, to plant a church in the URCNA. He dissertation focuses on the linguistic functions of the Hebrew word for “now.” Luke has been married to his wife, Jennifer, since 2014, and they have two wonderful children.

3 comments

  1. I’m curious, does Ortlund discuss Augustine’s instantaneous view of creation or mainly focus on applying him to current controversies?

    Thank you for the review.

    • He does go through Augustine’s views on creation extensively in the first chapter, as well as instantaneous creation and how Augustine understands creation days in light of this in the third chapter.

  2. I think we should attempt to discern what is truly meant by “evolution.” What is claims, what is can’t do (unassisted) and what it can. Unless we are clear on what is specifically meant by these terms, we won’t be able to clearly discern.

    Evolution is typically defined:
    A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form.

    Change in the genetic composition of a population during successive generations, often resulting in the development of new species. The mechanisms of evolution include natural selection acting on the genetic variation among individuals, mutation, migration, and genetic drift.

    For further consideration…
    “Charles Darwin hardly ever used the word “evolution”. He chose the phrase “descent with modification”. He did not coin the term “survival of the fittest”. He did not suggest that evolution was a form of progress. For him, an amoeba in a puddle of water was just as suited to its environment as a duck on a lake or a preacher in a pulpit. ….”

    “ Gregor Mendel’s 1866 study of garden peas, which was to become the foundation of modern genetics, was published in German, in a Moravian journal, and was not widely known until the beginning of the 20th century. DNA was identified during the second world war, but its role in the replication of life and the transmission of traits was not known until 1953. Both pieces of research confirmed the Darwinian argument that all life had descended, with modifications, from a common ancestry, and that natural conditions tend to favour useful variations at the expense of handicaps.

    If detailed scientific confirmation appeared so long after Darwin’s death, why did so many people accept his logic at the time? Because so many things – anatomical likenesses, skeletal similarities (the domestic dog, the farmyard animal and the garden vegetable, to name a few) – made it obvious that there had been some changes in species over time. Half a dozen great scientists, including Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, had already proposed some form of evolution. What Darwin did was assemble, with a mass of evidence and close reasoning, the best argument for believing that it had happened by the action of natural selection on random mutation. When he first read this argument, his friend and supporter Thomas Henry Huxley is supposed to have clapped his head and said: “How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!”

    Why does Darwin’s theory matter now? Because it is the basis of modern biology and much medical research; because it provides a tool with which to understand the natural world; because it offers a deeper, if imperfect, understanding of our behaviour, about where we came from and where we might be going. The philosopher Daniel Dennett once called it “the single best idea anybody ever had”.- Evolution and Darwin, The Guardian

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