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

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation by Gavin Ortlund The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

Yesterday concluded my reading of ‘Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation’ by Gavin Ortlund with friends, Paul Pavlik and JP Chavez. We all three listened through it together, separately, then sent voice messages back and forth over Signal as we went.

From the outset, this book made me curious to read Augustine’s fuller commentary on Genesis for myself, knowing especially that for over 1,500 years he has been quoted by all sides in the big debates of Christendom. In the meantime, however, between now and when that is accomplished, I feel strongly about Gavin Ortlund writing his treatment of Augustine and Genesis from a certain apparent bias against Young Earth Creationists.

Being a Young Earth Creationist myself, taking some umbrage is obligatory. And so I want to take exactly the right amount of umbrage – no more or less.

Where Ortlund cautions general humility in debates about the meaning of Genesis 1-3, for instance, he comes back often to Young Earth Creationism adherents especially. Does he really believe organizations like Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research lack humility more than their rival equivalents? If so, what leads him to such a conclusion?

Perhaps humility is not quite the right word, since Ortlund is not just referring to humility before the text, or humility before God – though that is what Augustine would have meant about humility here. He is saying also that we need more humility before the claims of Positivist Scientists and how those should moderate or mediate our humility before God and His Word.

This makes perfect sense from a certain angle. After all, the unbelieving world in academia holds in derision Young Earth Creationists especially. Anytime Christians generally, on Origins or anything else, talk back to or question the godless men and women in white lab coats, we are sneered at. The whole lot of us are called “anti-Science” and other dumb things. But a special place in Atheist Hell is reserved for those who believe the Bible is literally true in the way we commonly say “literally” to mean “actually” and “physically as well as spiritually.”

I will confess a kind of defiant frustration which creeps into the rhetoric of some Young Earth Creationists when engaging in these debates. We should definitely work on that.  

Furthermore, in facing the Positivist Scientists especially, I can see how Ortlund might want to prescribe more of what might be called “humility” to reduce friction and improve dialogue, or at least make it more congenial and less contentious.

But since Ortlund is enlisting Augustine of Hippo to make his case about that, it is worth noting the whole tone, tenor, and paradigm of City of God. My familiarity with that work from reading it last year leads me to believe Augustine would be more circumspect than Ortlund is being about where we find ourselves today.

Were Augustine actually to walk into a room where a Young Earth, Old Earth, and Evolutionary Creationist were debating Genesis 1-3, the 4th century bishop would surely pay more attention to the slippery slopes which some balance precariously at an angle on, even as others go gleefully sliding down on their butts with reckless abandon, excited to see what lies at the bottom.

I think Augustine would recognize, for instance, how being overawed by the godless men in white lab coats makes citizens of the City of God vulnerable to a push for Global Communism. He would spot the trick when we are told to “trust the Science” as Lake Mead and Lake Powell in the United States are said by the United Nations to be approaching “dead pool status.” He would call it out as the spokespeople for this kind of Science proceed from a brief survey of the facts to asking us for a greater share of our money and power, even as they tell us to expect less food, water, and energy for our families while they fight Climate Change.

Similarly, I think Augustine would take note of how the World Health Organization has appointed a long-standing member of the Communist Party, Professor Susan Michie, to a recently formed “Nudge Unit” tasked with figuring out how governments around the globe can better manipulate humanity into making what the WHO considers better decisions about health, money, and environment. And he would remark at least in passing about how this too is lumped in as part of the “Science” Christians are being told to trust.

Ortlund is right to call for more humility on the part of hold-outs. We all are tempted by virtue of our fallen humanity to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, to be haughty rather than associating with the lowly. Young Earth Creationists are no exception. We all, as we gain knowledge and understanding, must actively resist the temptation to be wise in our own eyes. And of course that includes the folks at Answers in Genesis, as well as the fellows at the Institute for Creation Research.

In all sincerity, I think mainstream academics are still further from the kingdom by default. Just look at their fundamental presuppositions. And where their de facto scorn for those who take the Bible as being literally true translates into not associating with the lowly, as they see us, perhaps there are other kinds of humility needed here besides just humility before the world and its priests of secularity.

Nevertheless, someone will argue that it is beside the point whether mainstream academics are farther from the kingdom. Christians of all stripes need humility regardless.

That we would be humble before God and His Word must translate into genuine humility when relating to other saints, and even the outside world, even when the outside world is not humble itself at all.

But so also, I would shout from the rooftops that confidence in God’s Word should not be mistaken for a lack of humility, even where it provokes still more vehement criticisms, and even overt hostility, from the naturalists and materialists, as well as their apologists in the American Church.

We all should admit, irrespective our interpretation, to a mysterious quality to Genesis 1-3. That is humility, and that is how Augustine related to questions about Creation as well as many other topics. And just as he spent decades exploring the many combinations of possible meanings and implications for what is in the text of the first three chapters of the Bible – believing it was true, yet not always being certain what that means – we also should not be overhasty to compromise with the claims of mainstream science in our day.

The conversation between the Church and Science should not be regarded as a one way street, where we do all the listening and the Positivists do all the lecturing and brow-beating. The men in white lab coats cannot be allowed to dictate to us what of our Bibles we can believe or not as they see fit, especially when a goodly number of them would have us throw the whole thing out.

Let us do as Ortlund says Augustine would bid us, then. Create two categories into which we will put those who engage in the debate about the Creation account in God’s Word. We will put those who deny that the Bible is true in one category, and we will want nothing to do with that sort, just as Augustine wanted nothing to do with them. That is what Augustine not only would do, that is what he did do.

In the other category, let us put those who debate what to make of Genesis based on our conviction that it is true, whatever it means. And let us be respectful and patient with one another in this group, conversing with not only a genuine humility and toleration, but a genuine brotherly affection.

Yet even while we do this – making these two categories, relating to both differently based on their character and merit – we will have to admit that it is not always easy to tell who should belong in one versus the other given our circumstances.

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