Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation:
Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy

Gavin Ortlund

IVP Academic

How might premodern exegesis of Genesis inform Christian debates about creation today? Imagine a table with three people in dialogue: a young-earth creationist, an old-earth creationist, and an evolutionary creationist. Into the room walks Augustine of Hippo, one of the most significant theologians in the history of the church. In what ways will his reading of Scripture and his doctrine of creation inform, deepen, and shape the conversation?

Pastor and theologian Gavin Ortlund explores just such a scenario by retrieving Augustine’s reading of Genesis 1-3 and considering how his premodern understanding of creation can help Christians today. Ortlund contends that while Augustine’s hermeneutical approach and theological questions might differ from those of today, this church father’s humility before Scripture and his theological conclusions can shed light on matters such as evolution, animal death, and the historical Adam and Eve.

Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund (PhD Fuller Theological Seminary) is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai. He was a 2017-18 Henry Fellow of the Creation Project. He blogs regularly at Soliloquium, and is the author of several books, including Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals, (Crossway, 2019), Anselm’s Pursuit of Joy (CUA Press, 2020), and Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation (IVP Academic, 2020).


Like almost all the church fathers, Augustine was fixated on Genesis 1–3, which he rightly saw as the key to the Christian worldview. Dr. Ortlund takes us back to the man and his beliefs, at once so distant from and yet so near to our own concerns. Modern readers will be challenged by Augustine's insights, and by entering into dialogue with him, they may find answers to the dilemmas they confront. An exciting book on a key topic for our times.

Gerald Bray, Research Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School at Samford University

We need pastors like Gavin Ortlund, and we need books written by pastors like Gavin Ortlund! His opening chapter on humility sets the stage for a book that is contextually responsible, academically sound, and pastorally motivated. I highly recommend this book as a rewarding and promising retrieval of Augustine's doctrine of creation for the good of the church.

Craig D. Allert, Professor of Religious Studies, Trinity Western University

As debates about creation, evolution, and the historical Adam come to a crucial new juncture among evangelicals today, I can hardly imagine a better discussion partner from the church's tradition than Augustine, with his unwavering commitment to the truth of Scripture, his fearless willingness to pursue difficult questions, and his humble refusal to give rash and hasty answers. Gavin Ortlund gives us a well-rounded account of what Augustine's exegesis of Genesis brings to the table.

Phillip Cary, Professor of Philosophy, Eastern University

This remarkable book offers a finely textured yet accessible interpretation of Augustine's views on creation, at the same time relating his thought to contemporary issues in a way that is creative, responsible, and compelling. I commend this book with enthusiasm to any Christian in search of insight into debates about creation and science, to both scholars and students interested in Augustine's thinking on creation, and to all those who seek a first-rate model of humble, rigorous, and faithful theological scholarship for the sake of the church.

Han-luen Kantzer Komline, Associate Professor of Church History and Theology, Western Theological Seminary

What can the ancient bishop Augustine of Hippo contribute to contemporary debates regarding creation, the age of the earth, and evolution? A lot, as it turns out. Readers will find Gavin Ortlund's masterful study of Augustine's doctrine of creation to be a smart, humble, and immensely helpful exercise of theological reflection on a most vexing question.

Scott Manetsch, Professor of Church History, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

What do we who live in the post–industrial revolution twenty-first century have to learn about creation from a fifth-century North African bishop? As it turns out, quite a lot. First and foremost, Augustine helps us learn how to think, not only what to think. In Retrieving Augustine's Doctrine of Creation, Gavin Ortlund invites us into a conversation with one of the greatest minds of late antiquity to explore together the fundamental distinction between 'nature' and 'creation'; the former being the idolatrous attempt to perceive our reality as independent, while the latter restoring what Ortlund terms 'a holistic framework for how to live as God's creatures in God's world.' This is a book that needs to be read slowly, for neither the topic nor the transformative effect can be rushed. And there is no better interlocutor than Augustine to help us move from our autonomous, self-referential idolatry to the Creator of all, whose image we bear. Ortlund has done us a great favor. Tolle, lege!

George Kalantzis, Professor of Theology and Director of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies

People from all sides of the church's discussion on origins have cherry-picked quotations from Augustine to bolster their views, without digging in to his actual doctrine of creation. In so doing, we attempt to cast Augustine in our own image. Ortlund has done us all a service by presenting a much more comprehensive understanding of Augustine's thought on creation and retrieving his voice from across the centuries. I predict that Ortlund's treatment of Augustine will also be disappointing to different kinds of people—those looking to him merely to prop up their own theories. He gives us a more complex, sophisticated, and surprising Augustine—one that makes me want to read more Augustine . . . and more from Ortlund.

J. B. Stump, Vice President of BioLogos

Gavin Ortlund's careful interpretive and critical reading of Augustine concerning Genesis and in particular human origins is a remarkably relevant contribution to the current, heated debate concerning the historical Adam. Contemporary investigators will find illuminating and thought-provoking insights in this important study.

William Lane Craig, Research Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University

Book Reviews

Ortlund presents Augustine on creation as calling the reader to wonder and humility before the Creator. Augustine's ancient exegesis and theological prowess is deployed to evoke openness and flexibility on fraught issues. Ortlund wishes to complicate the oversimplified relation of Scripture and science; he wishes to deepen ‘plain reading’, to check contemporary intuitions and to ease present anxieties. This is directed to ‘current controversy’ as the book's subtitle suggests – and the intended audience is very much the United States evangelical, who is already seated at the table and mid-conversation. This is fitting for the Creation Project that facilitated this research and publication. The custom tailoring of the presentation is a strength. However, the targeted nature of the work also means that translation will be required to apply it in other contexts.

Rebekah Earnshaw

Assistant Professor of Theology, Dordt College

International Journal of Systematic Theology 24, no 1 (2022): 122–124.

Ortlund's book will be helpful to all Christians who desire to learn more about the creation-evolution debate, to know how to dialogue with fellow Christians on the matter, and to be equipped to dialogue with secular evolutionary theory from a place from a place of theological conviction. Pastors, university students, and Christians engaged in the sciences will find the book particularly helpful. I would recommend it for small group studies, adult Sunday school discussion, and theological classrooms. Otrlund models nuanced and patient dialogue, a valuable skill for all Christians to practice.

Megan C. Roberts

Professor of Old Testament, Prairie College

Bulletin of Biblical Research 31, no 4 (2021): 536–538.

[Ortlund's] thought-provoking book extracts Augustine's beliefs about Creation from his Confessions, The City of God, and his works on Genesis, in particular those aspects that relate to themes at issue in today's society. These perceived insights are then set beside and/or against those held and debated in, particularly, Christian and non-believer society, no reference being made to Jews or Judaism in the book.

Heather A. McKay

Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 46, no 5 (2022): 159-160.

This work does not offer a dry recital of Augustine’s theological convictions; with pastoral care for the reader, Ortlund collates relevant passages from The Confessions, Augustine’s sermons, The City of God, The Freedom of the Will, and especially Augustine’s three books on Genesis. Ortlund’s approach is judicious, straightforward, humble, and easy to follow. His book exemplifies the evenhanded, thoughtful approach of Augustine.

Ralph Stearley

Professor Emeritus, Calvin College

Calvin Theological Journal 56, no 2 (2021): 335–341.

This text can easily be added into courses on theological anthropology, the doctrine of creation, current issues on science and the Bible, and can serve as a good conversation partner for those wishing to engage in the debate on evolution and historical Adam. While Ortlund does not presume expert knowledge of Augustine’s thought, a proper introduction to Augustine may be a pre-requisite before engaging this text. For the purpose it was intended to serve, Ortlund’s work is commendable and worthy of the reader’s time.

Coleman M. Ford

Assistant Professor of Humanities, Texas Baptist College

Southwestern Journal of Theology 65, no 1 (2022): 143-145.

[This] work has much to commend it: pithy writing, detailed analysis of a major theologian’s work, and a deep missionai engagement with modem issues of interest well beyond the theological guild. Ortlund moves Christians who broadly identify as evangelicals (as well as others) away from the obscurantism of fundamentalist readings of Genesis and toward a deeper understanding ofboth the biblical text and the doctrine of creation that draws upon it. His nuanced view of Augustine’s approach to the “literal” sense ofthe text is helpful as he shows that Augustine was both open to multiple interpretations of a text and willing to imagine that the ancient author intended at least some of them.

Mark W. Hamilton

Professor, Abilene Christian University

Restoration Quarterly 63, no 1 (2021): 54-56

This book will be an immense help for anyone desiring to understand the doctrine of creation from the viewpoint of evangelicalism. Ortlund doesn’t attempt to convince the reader of any particular view between young-earth, old-earth, and evolutionary creation. Instead, he shows how Augustine makes the latter two legitimate possibilities (with theological caveats that he continually brings into the conversation), and thus brings Christian sisters and brothers of various views together to the table with each other, and with Augustine.

Chet Harvey

Southeastern Theological Review 12, no 2 (2021): 112-114.

Ortlund reminds us of the import of bringing an author as influential and seemingly familiar-but really rather distant and difficult-as Augustine to a modern audience and, moreover, doing so without falling into the trap of simply appropriating the audience's ideas. By engaging Augustine's core set of ideas with integrity and appropriate attention to context, Ortlund helps identify and clarify Augustine's and clarify Augustine's contemporary significance.

Stanley Rosenberg

Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 73, no 3 (2021): 188-189.