Augustine of Hippo, the 4th century bishop, is one of the most influential voices from early Christianity. He is often cited by theistic evolutionists as he was known to favour allegorical interpretations of Genesis and gave a famous exhortation for people who made scientific claims based on their understanding of Scripture which would sound mistaken to a non-Christian.
Augustine's views of how creation occurred are often overlooked, except for his belief in an instantaneous creation, however, they provide some useful insight for the modern Christian. Alister McGrath has laid out a useful summary of Augustine's views:
1. God brought everything into being at a specific moment.
2. Part of that created order takes the form of embedded causalities which emerge or evolve at a later stage.
3. This process of development takes place within the context of God's providential direction, which is integrally connected to a right understanding of the concept of creation.
4. The image of a dormant seed is an appropriate, but not exact, analogy for these embedded causalities.
5. The process of generation of these dormant seeds results in the fixity of biological forms.
The first point has significance as Augustine saw it as the only possible interpretation of Scripture, that time was also created by God alongside the material world. This went contrary to many widely held views at the time. This view finds itself concordant with most modern views of the big bang. It can be pointed out that this contradicts the gradual view of evolution if God created all at once, which is why it is important to look at the big picture as Augustine did.
As Augustine's other principles show, there are two acts of creation and not just the original creation of space and time. God's initial act is complemented by His continuous creation, unlocking the potential He gave creation. God's desires for the unfolding, or evolving, of creation, are woven into the fabric of creation, like dormant seeds.
Augustine supports this idea with reference to Genesis 1:12, "Scripture has stated that the earth brought forth the crops and the trees causally, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth."
Augustine's understanding of God's instantaneous act of a creation with built in potentiality is at odds with the standard creationist view yet sits beautifully within a theistic evolution framework. A creationist may wish to point out point 5, that Augustine believed in the fixity of species. They may also wish to point out that creationists usually accept a limited form of microevolution. On the former point Augustine was embracing the common knowledge of the day, for which he found no reason to challenge; it is impossible to say, but if he took his own advice then a modern Augustine would likely accept correction on this. On the latter point Augustine's views better suit a whole universe with potentiality rather than the creationist view of ill-defined "kinds" which can evolve only for adaptive purposes.
Augustine does not give us the answers, but he does give us something to think about. Long before Darwin's publications, Augustine described the acts of creation in a way which requires little alteration in order to fit with the views of theistic evolution.
This blog, and the past two, were inspired by McGrath's essay Science, Faith and Making Sense of Things taken from Real Scientists Real Faith, along with his article Augustine's Origin of Species.