Book Review: Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation by Gavin Ortlund

There are a lot of voices to be heard in the various evangelical debates regarding creation and evolution, yet far too rarely do we find a humble and wise spirit behind them. Much is lost in this setting. Often, we evangelicals, particularly of the American variety, remain stuck in our own web of concerns and controversies related to creation; trapped in our limited perspectives, we rarely breath in our created-ness. So ready are we to defend our own views, whether Scriptural or scientific, that we strike down all opponents as heretics or fools. Genuine listening is unusual as humility and patience are usurped by anger and fear, critical introspection is as far removed from us as Eden. At times like this, we need a fresh voice, a wise guide, a great thinker, and a devout disciple; preferably found within a dead voice distanced from our own circle of concerns who can help to broaden our perspective. It is at times like this when we need full blooded theological retrieval, which is exactly what Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy offers.

Within this book, Gavin Ortlund has put together a very readable, critical engagement with Augustine’s doctrine of creation that can help to expand our own views on all that the doctrine entails and can help to give us light as we ask our own questions relating to science and Genesis. Ortlund organizes the book into five well researched chapters, as well as an introduction and brief conclusion. Ortlund is to be praised for allowing the book to live up it’s name, in that it is first and foremost a retrieval of Augustine’s beliefs and not a presentation of Ortlund’s own views. At times one is left wondering, or is perhaps just curious, as to what Ortlund actually believes. Indeed, Ortlund admits that his evaluations are written “not because I endorse everything Augustine says, but because I am seeking to let his voice echo into current controversies.”1

There are times in the book where it is pretty obvious to hear Ortlund’s voice, particularly in the final chapter’s discussion about evolution and Adam, but overall, the heart of what is developed is what Augustine actually believed and how those saintly beliefs would most likely be integrated with modern knowledge and the current controversies we deal with were he alive today. Such a task is obviously a bit perilous, and by the nature of it, requires much speculation, yet it is by no means baseless conjecture, as Augustine reflected and wrote on creation to such a degree that as Ortlund states “creation was to Augustine what justification was to Luther, or divine transcendence was to Barth.”2 The ancient man dove deeply, both intellectually and existentially, into the depths of creation. In regards to modern conversations, two things ultimately become clear: almost no new question, at a core level, can be asked about creation, and that “Augustine’s views do not appear neatly serviceable to any contemporary creation view.”3

Yet before jumping into the heart of controversy, Ortlund wisely helps us to take a step back from our current, and heated, moment, allowing us to widen our view of creation itself. Utilizing Augustine’s very developed views, the opening chapter serves to remind us, “what we forget about creation.”4 When is the last time we have dwelled on the revelatory majesty of creation’s contingency?5 Or have we ever considered the idea that created beings, apart from God’s sustaining grace, are in a continuous state of returning to non-being due to their very nature of being mutable beings?6 There is much lacking in contemporary reflections about the reality of being a creature, and there is a woeful amount of attention given to the magnitude and glory and splendor of the fact that God is the Creator. Furthermore, much of this is non-controversial in the Church and can indirectly help us in our current moment, as Ortlund puts it, “To the extent that we can focus on our common ground within the church, we may also arrive at greater clarity in what distinguishes a Christian view from various alternatives around us, particularly naturalistic and pantheistic ones.”7 I admit my own slight frustration with having to wait to get to the current debate when I started this chapter, the temptation to skip ahead was real, but engagement with Augustine here is not something that should be quickly passed over, the reader will surely be rewarded with patiently thinking outside our usual box.

Speaking of patience, the next chapter discusses “the missing virtue in the science-faith dialogue,”8 humility. How often do we come across an evangelical interpreter who maintains a high view of Scripture yet understands creation as a “deeply mysterious doctrine,”9 is willing to “avoid taking an opinion” even on “an important question,”10 carries a deep “apologetic burden” that “feels a need to harmonize [the truth of Scripture] with the world of nature,”11 and can bemoan those “tiresome people who persist in demanding a literal explanation,”12 as they display “hermeneutical patience”?13 Perhaps there are a few such modern interpreters14, but for a people who should be known for their humility, patience, and care for the lost, the number is too few. Augustine has much to teach us in handling science and faith with careful consideration and critical thinking, all while being wildly devoted to Christ. Yet, the man is not without rebuke, and though no one is without critique, here Augustine would perhaps have some of his harshest words for some of the sometimes rather creative “scientific” assertions that come from the young earth creationist camp as a result of prior interpretive commitments, or, even worse, those who believe that scientific evidence “requires no reply.”15

So what would Augustine make of the oh so heated question of the age of the earth? Although “The legacy of Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis 1-3 punctures young-earth creationists claim that their views tantamount to that of premodern Christianity,”16 Ortlund takes us through the reasons Augustine arrived to his version of a literal reading. Throughout this chapter we see just how complex Augustine’s views of Genesis were, and how different his understanding of literal was compared to our typical usage of the word. Much of Augustine’s work was designed to support his belief of “instantaneous creation,” yet his methods and exegesis suggest alternative pre-modern ways of approaching the text on its own terms. Generally speaking, he considers accepting factors such as accommodation and a non-sequential interpretation as irrelevant to reading the text literally.17 Furthermore, textual factors such as light appearing before the sun, moon and stars, the different uses of the word “day,”, and the clear use of analogical language, such as God resting18, all develop an interpretation that “suggests a striking level of confidence, even indignation, in his protest against twenty-four-hour- creation days.”19 Although one gets the sense, for I believe it is the author’s intent, that Ortlund’s structure of the chapter, and analysis, are geared to a strong critique of many current young earth interpretations, there is no denying that his extensive demonstration of Augustine’s views, contrasted with some of those young earth claims appears warranted. And in the end, the reader is not left seeing a polemical motivation, but more of an invitation, away from anxiety and debate, and towards admiration and worship.

And a timely invitation that is as the final two chapters set us in some pretty warm waters. Ortlund wisely draws our attention to the fact that once we move beyond “strictly hermeneutical issues… there are consequences” of what those different readings will entail.20 As others have noted, there is perhaps no greater “consequence” that is debated than that of pre-fall animal death.21 Surely this is only a post-darwinian consideration right? Augustine once more shows us that the orthodox path is not so simplistic. Indeed, he “does not envision that Adam and Eve through their act of sin spread death and corruption to the animal kingdom” rather, they “‘contract’ the death that was already present.”22 In fact, Augustine has a great deal to say in regards to the goodness of animal death and the seeming disorder found in creation. Much of his apologetic effort is leveled against Manichaeans, who ironically sound a lot like modern young earthers.23  Two central aspects of Augustine’s argument are the reality of “temporal beauty” given by death that allows for the “beautiful tapestry of the ages [to be] woven”24 and our own “perspectival prejudice” which simply reminds that “God knows how the world works and we do not.”25 Throughout this chapter we see the simple fact that Augustine was awed by creation, was moved to worship the Creator not the creation, and was humble in his approach to seeking to understand the work of God. Towards the end of his discussion, Ortlund finally concludes that additional considerations are needed than Augustine offers in coming to terms with animal death and the goodness of God,26 whereas I found Augustine’s treatment satisfactory and personally one of the most helpful sections of the book.

Yet, did I mention that we are in heated waters? In case we forgot, we are quickly reminded by just the title of the final chapter: Can we Evolve on Evolution Without Falling From the Fall? The term evolution is a highly loaded, often weaponized, and frequently misunderstood term. Interestingly, Ortlund draws our attention to the first two of those descriptions, but spends little time on the third. As this is an IVP Academic book drawing on ancient material for modern debates, it is perhaps unlikely that anyone reading it will need help recognizing just how differently the word evolution can be used. At times are we simply talking about change over time in animal life? Or are we thinking common decent? Including humans? Or are we considering the mechanism of natural selection acting upon random mutation itself? Although Ortlund expresses his own doubts over “the exact extent of the explanatory reach of evolutionary mechanisms,”27 a brief discussion on the general nuances and different applications of the term evolution would most likely have benefited some readers, and prevented further evangelical confusion, particularly for those less familiar with the scientific material.28 Though, I’m assuming because the heart of this chapter is focused on the possibility of human evolution (which seems to answer which version of evolution we are dealing with), he does offer a helpful note in regards to the distinction between hominins and hominids and further reference material.

Moving forward with the chapter itself, after a helpful discussion of the concept of rationes seminales and its relation to slow, but non-inferior means of creation, Ortlund then lays out the rising trend that is shifting away from debating the days of Genesis 1 and towards debating interpretations of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3. He then discusses the “high stakes” involved, which recognizes that “What we affirm about Adam and Eve is foundational to our view of the human need for salvation, and in this sense foundational to the gospel. The age of the universe, and animal death, have no comparable reach.”29 Agreed, and I wish far more evangelicals could see this distinction and would stop distracting the Church by putting forward outrageous claims of supposed “compromise” about matters that do not affect the gospel, no matter how creative one maybe in making such a “gospel connection”. With that said, a refreshing trend of this chapter is that as Augustine’s views are expounded there is a push against multiple modern positions. In Augustine we have warnings against over-allegorization, but also scathing caution against sinful literal interpretations that miss the obvious literary features within the text. Ultimately Augustine’s flexible, yet rigorously interpreted views, will push against most of us at some point.

Ortlund then brings him with us into the modern debate, particularly looking at three typical evangelical “instincts” in regards to evolution and Adam. Ortlund is well studied in all of these areas, and does a fair job of presenting the various evangelical positions. An admirable balance is shown as he cautions the Church to “evaluate evolution with greater humility and carefulness than we have sometimes exhibited,” and yet, in his usual display of balance, reminds us that “Augustine would discourage us from adopting any posture in which the science is playing offense and the Bible defense.”31 One is quickly reminded when reading this chapter, as to how messy Evangelicalism is in regards to various interpretations. Although I don’t follow Ortlund in all regards (we both have doubts about evolution’s mechanism, yet my evolutionary doubts appear perhaps a bit more wide spread than his), I believe he, through much of Augustine’s methods, displays much wisdom in these very rough waters. For instance, recognizing that there is no need to create a false dichotomy between a literary Adam and a historical Adam,32 realizing that the mechanism of Adam’s creation is much less important than his historical existence,33 and perhaps most praise worthy of all, understanding that some of this material is “outside [his] training and calling.”34 Again, there are many reasons why evangelicalism is so messy here, but Ortlund and Augustine are wise guides for helping us to think through these matters, though they offer no definitive escape routes. And I believe this is fair. There are far too many forced historical reconstructions out there that create more problems than they solve, sometimes patience is the preferable route. Yet all of this is to be done with the highest regard and respect for Scripture, allowing theology to talk back to science.

It is clear that Ortlund feels the pastoral burden of young people departing the faith specifically over evolution35, and in this I certainly share that concern36 (despite myself being an Intelligent Design advocate). I believe Ortlund certainly demonstrates that Augustine would share this concern as well. A clear message throughout this book is that it can be important when dealing with controversial positions, and a mark of Christian humility, to demonstrate that some interpretations that we do not hold ourselves, yet that do not effect the core of the Christian story, are possible interpretations, not merely to just advocate one’s own position. One does not need to share all of the conclusions of this book to appreciate the wealth of wisdom it contains. I differ from Augustine in some areas and Ortlund in others (ironically, sometimes by just following Augustine!), and yet I found this book very helpful both because of its content and it’s humble, self-critical, approach. If more dialogue between the differing evangelical camps reflected the attitudes of both these two saints, I believe the Church would be in far better place. Perhaps it is best to end with the words of Augustine himself:

This way is first humility, second humility, third humility, and however often you should ask me I would say the same, not because there are no other precepts to be explained, but if humility does not proceed and accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to lean upon, and behind us to fence upon, Pride will wrest from our hand any good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it… If you should ask, and as often as you should ask, about the precepts of the Christian religion, my inclination would be to answer nothing but humility, unless necessity should force me to say something else.37


  1. Gavin Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 7
  2. Ibid. 3
  3. Ibid. 220
  4. This is the title of chapter one.
  5. Ibid. 32
  6. Ibid. 32-42
  7. Ibid. 61
  8. This is the title of chapter two.
  9. Ibid. 69
  10. Ibid. 71
  11. Ibid. 74-75
  12. Ibid. 85; quote from Augustine in De Genesi ad litteram
  13. Ibid. 94
  14. Perhaps the best modern demonstration of this delicate balance can be seen in: C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018)
  15. Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, 101; quote from J. Ligon Duncan III and David W. Hall, “The 24-Hour View,” in David G. Hagopian, ed., The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation
  16. Ibid. 112
  17. Ibid. 124-127
  18. Ibid. 131-139
  19. Ibid. 139
  20. Ibid. 152
  21. Consider Kenneth Keathley and Mark Rooker, words, “More than the proper interpretation of Genesis 1-3, the age of the earth, or even the theory of evolution, this is the question that stands above all others: Did animals die before Adam and Eve fell in the garden?” Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2014), 255
  22. Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, 154
  23. Not in the sense of what young earth creationists believe, but the arguments leveled against old earth creationists and evolutionary creationists by the young earth camp do resemble Manichaean thought patterns. For that matter, from my perspective not Ortlund’s, they also resemble New Atheists to a degree in as much as they are telling us what God wouldn’t do or create if he were really loving.
  24. Ibid. 154, 156
  25. Ibid. 166,169
  26. To the best of my knowledge Ortlund continues to favor the “angelic fall hypothesis” (AFH) in helping to understand “natural evil,” though he does not explicitly mention this in this book. See:
  27. Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, 220
  28. Ortlund does mention “evolutionary biology” which would then imply a pretty wide sweep endorsement of the general account of a Darwinian-like form of evolution. Though he certainly seems to believe in possible differences being reflected in the mechanisms and metaphysics involved, but then would evolutionary biology really be what we are dealing with? Consider Keathley and Rooker again: “Often the question arises, “Is there room for God in the theory of evolution?” Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga argues that it is the other way around. Evolution requires God in order to work. If evolution is true, then naturalism must be false… But one wonders if such a model should be labeled “evolution.” Many would identify Plantinga’s and MacGregor’s proposal as a type of progressive creationism.” See: Alvin Plantinga, “Evolution Versus Naturalism,” in The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science, ed. Bruce Gordon and William Debmski (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2011), 137-51; Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2014), 304; For a brief and helpful survey of the different meanings of evolution see: Stephen C. Meyer, “Scientific and Philosophical Introduction: Defining Theistic Evolution” in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, ed. J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem, (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2017) 34-43
  29. Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, 186
  30. Ibid. 212
  31. Ibid. 220
  32. Ibid. 213
  33. Ibid. 224
  34. Ibid. 220
  35. Ibid. 214
  36. Consider the apologetic method described by Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen: “We are suggesting an approach similar to what Francis Schaeffer modeled sometime ago in his work Genesis in Space and Time. As D.A. Carson points out, Schaeffer, rather than getting caught up in the various Christian debates, asks the question: “What is the least that Genesis 1 and the following chapters must be saying for the rest of the Bible to make any sense?” It seems that Christians can and should be willing to say more than this in certain contexts, but if this subject is brought up in apologetic conversations, we suggest that in most cases the wisest course will be to (1) explain the essential elements of what Genesis 1 and 2 are saying and then (2) explain some of the interpretive options that exist within the Christian tradition. This approach gives the person you are speaking to the opportunity to consider the gospel without feeling as if they have to agree with you or immediately make up their mind on certain specifics in Genesis 1 and 2.” Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 166, emphasis added; Carson quote from: D.A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 17
  37. Augustine, “Letter 118, Augustine to Dioscorus,” trans. Wilfrid Parsons, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 18 (New York: The Fathers of the Church, 1953), 282; Not surprisingly sourced from: Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 146


2 thoughts on “Book Review: Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation by Gavin Ortlund

Add yours

  1. So true! “There is much lacking in contemporary reflections about the reality of being a creature, and there is a woeful amount of attention given to the magnitude and glory and splendor of the fact that God is the Creator.”

    Liked by 1 person

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