RPM, Volume 13, Number 40, October 2 to October 8 2011

A Brief Exposition of
Augustine's Thoughts on Creation's Goodness

By Russell Powell

Russell C. Powell is a Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. A Presbyterian and environmentalist, Russell's academic work focuses upon mining the resources of the Reformed tradition on issues like care for the environment, the creation's goodness, theological aesthetics, and humanity's relationship with the natural world.

Perhaps Christianity's most influential thinker, Augustine of Hippo prolifically touched upon myriad theological subjects. However, in his propensity for conjunctive thought, Augustine's work reflects tireless attempts to bridge the yawning gaps he found between differing viewpoints in the theological discourse of his time. As a result, Augustine's own perspective is occasionally difficult to apprehend amidst his delicate efforts to both adequately represent the opposing opinions of any theological debate, and discretely overcome them with his rhetorical prowess.

Augustine's assessment of the created world and its supposed "goodness" are not impervious to his unique methods of reasoning. Indeed, in florid prose Augustine encountered the issue of the created world's natural integrity by directly engaging the various ways that classical philosophies had done so before him. Perhaps not surprisingly, Augustine's own beliefs on the creation are often difficult to specify. Hence, in this brief essay I will attempt to provide a brief exposition of his understanding of the creation's goodness. In lieu of focusing upon Augustine's direct encounters with rival worldviews on the topic, I will instead endeavor to identify the most salient claims of his argument, illuminating the intricate theological tapestry he wove in his justification of the creation's wholly "good" character.

To begin, Augustine's evaluation of creation seems to hinge upon two foundational features of his thought: (1) the vision of God as the supreme Good, from whom creation's goodness flows in superabundance, and (2) the existence of a vast and comprehensive hierarchy of being, which has its roots in the creative will of God and epitomizes beauty in its divinely validated integrity. As I will elucidate below, the picture that emerges from these two features illuminates Augustine's understanding of creation as both intrinsically perfect and unambiguously complete.

God is the timeless, unchanging One according to Augustine, and as such is the inexhaustible source from whom all created being emanates. Indeed, all that exists apart from God is God's veritable creation. 1 Building upon the Neoplatonic notion of God as the utterly transcendent ground of all reality, Augustine seems to formulate his understanding of God's relationship to creation not upon the idea of an idle deity, as if God were some unmoved mover. Rather, Augustine works from the notion that God is an artificer who embraces all created things in abiding relational constancy. Augustine adds to this his belief that all things not only come into being through God, but they also depend upon God's enduring governance to sustain them. 2 Principally, through God's lasting relationality with the created world, God providentially maintains it, holding all things together and gracefully preserving the motion of the cosmos. 3 In this way, "the God that Augustine points to is one whom […] he can liken to an ineffable composer of a universal symphony." 4

As the creative force of all existence, God, therefore, is "the one sole Good," 5 or the "the highest good, than which there is no higher." 6 Through God's overflowing benevolence, the material world sprang forth ex nihilo in effulgent beauty. 7 By leaning heavily upon the concept of God as the supreme good by which all other goods are created, 8 Augustine thus bases his argument for creation's goodness upon a syllogistic logic: God is the highest good to whom nothing is contrary save what does not exist; nothing exists except that which was created by God; therefore, all that exists is good. 9

As the highest and supreme good of the universe, God's creative and providential will is seen in the elegant consonance inherent to the structural order in which all things have been placed. 10 For instance, according to Augustine, the realm of the heavens is nearer to God, and therefore understood to be much more beautiful than the visible aspects of the world; whereas the seemingly formless matter of the earth is a much lesser thing, lower than any plant or animate creature. 11 Augustine refers to such a hierarchy as the "mode of being" through which God created animate things to be above the inanimate, sentient beings superior to the insensitive, animals as higher than trees, and so on. 12 With God as the supreme and ineffable good poised atop the great hierarchy of being, each living entity on earth possesses its own divinely coordinated rank in the larger cosmic organization. 13

Contrary to the Manicheans' refusal to see beauty in the created world, Augustine stresses the harmonic perfection in the biophysical hierarchy that God devised: "[The Manicheans] do not observe how admirable these things are in their own sphere and in their own nature, their position in the splendor of the providential order and the contribution they make by their own special beauty to the whole material scheme, as to the universal commonwealth." 14 For not only does each creature possess a categorically unique beauty as it was created by God, but also when we ponder God's all-encompassing hierarchical arrangement of the world, the whole realm of existence becomes a cause for intense admiration and enthusiastic praise of our matchless Maker. 15 Such was cause for Augustine to exclaim: "The world was produced in perfection; no addition could have been made to the world as it was created because it was perfect." 16 The sublime ordering of creation was doubtless a reason for Augustine's belief that the world was "very good" indeed, or complete unto itself. 17

Since the event of creation, Augustine says, God's governance of the natural world has endured by an immanent yet universal causality that, based upon the structured order in which the world was created, is revealed to us in its distinctly hierarchical character. To portray the gracious immanence with which God oversees the cosmos, Augustine describes God as hovering over the earth in creative, formative ardor like a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings. 18 In this way God is said to intimately determine creation, from creatures great to small. 19

At this point I have yet to treat the ways in which Augustine deals with the presence of evil and suffering in the created realm, which comprises a large portion of his affirmation of creation as good. As noted above, God created the world out of nothing. In so doing, God fashioned biophysical matter in three concurrent, constitutive dimensions which all material being shares: measure, form, and order. 20 Where these three dimensions are found, which is in everything, Augustine says, we find the presence of goodness. 21 Moving from Augustine's syllogistic logic of goodness highlighted above, such dimensions of material reality simply validate a thing's created nature, from which we can deduce its own intrinsic goodness. 22

Yet according to Augustine, the goodness that comes from being made by God is exceedingly disparate from the goodness bestowed upon that which is begotten by God. Indeed, what is begotten, Augustine says, is equal in nature with the begetter, and therefore unalterable and eternal, just as God is. 23 Hence, the things that are made by God—or every material reality that comprises the created world—are always susceptible to change, though each will always retain their measure, form, and order to some extent, and therefore retain some semblance of the goodness that is intrinsic to their existence. 24

Creation's natural mutability—or corruptibility, as Augustine calls it—ramifies within reality's hierarchical composition. For instance, Augustine treats the issue of putrescence, or the process of natural decay and change, as the diminishing of corporeal form and therefore the lowering of an entity within the larger hierarchy of created goodness. 25 Yet even if an entity degenerates into an ontologically lower form of goodness, it is still wholly good in its diminished state, though merely lower in the larger chain of hierarchical being. Augustine examines this by looking at natural predation. Because he believed that the predatory system of subsistence is governed by God's hierarchical ordering wherein predatory animals kill and eat those lower on the chain of being, he deduced such behavior as both reasonable and beautiful within the larger harmonic order of God's creation. 26 Such animals were naturally created to behave as such—by doing so they merely attest to the eternal wisdom of God to create the world as it is. 27

Yet Augustine also accounted for human sin within his understanding of the world as a beautiful and appropriately ordered realm. Indeed, in early Christian cosmologies contemporaneous to Augustine's, animal suffering and death were often blamed on the idea of humans' culpable transgression of the divine will in the Garden of Genesis 1-3. Yet here Augustine breaks ranks from the popular hermeneutics of his time, which is most apparent in his interpretation of the eighth chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans wherein Paul considers how the whole of creation groans in travail, eagerly awaiting the coming of the glory of God and the subsequent redemption of the cosmos. Surprisingly, Augustine maintains that humanity alone groans for the reign of the Lord. 28 That is to say, merely humankind is fallen, not the larger cosmos: "The fact that sin entered the world does not mean the whole universe is full of sin"; 29 "All of nature's substances are good … they preserve the full existence they have been given." 30

Had humanity chosen to obey the divine command, thereby holding their insurgent will in abeyance, they would not have fallen, and moreover, would not have begun to experience the existential evidence of their condemnation: toil, sorrow, and fear. 31 In fact, Augustine believed humans to have been originally placed within creation's hierarchy as a mean between the heavenly angels and the lower beings—the animals, or beasts—contained upon the earth. 32 Had the first humans submitted to the will of God, they would have passed into the fellowship of the heavenly angelic community and attained immortality. 33 Of course, they did not, and as a result were condemned to a life lived with the beasts under the sentence of death, slaves to the insidious desires of their wayward wills. 34 Thus, evil, according to Augustine, is not itself intrinsic to any element of the world that God created good, but is rather the result of when the rational will turns to that which is inferior to the supreme good, or God. While the inferior good to which the will turns is not inherently evil, the turn itself is perverse and therefore a punishable offense. 35 But most importantly, particularly in the conversation on Augustine's understanding of the goodness in creation, the punishment for human sin is confined to humanity alone. 36

The features that orient Augustine's understanding of creation—his idea of God as the supreme good and his regard for God as the creative source of the world's beautiful hierarchy of being—suggest that Augustine's comprehension of the natural world ultimately turns on the simple basis of God's goodness. As Augustine states in his magnum opus, City of God, God's only motive in creating was simply goodness qua goodness. Indeed, Augustine writes, "God created because the creation was good." 37


1. Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 11.1.

2. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 4.12.117. See also Scott A Dunham, The Trinity and Creation in Augustine (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008).

3. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 1.4.12. See also Dunham, The Trinity and Creation, 88.

4. H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 60.

5. City of God, 11.10.

6. "On the Nature of Good (Against the Manichees)," New Advent, accessed January 26, 2011, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1407.htm.

7. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.1.5. On creation out of nothing, see Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991), 12.7.

8. Cf. Concerning the Nature of the Good 1—3 in The "De Natura Boni" of Saint Augustine (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1955).

9. "On the Nature of Good," 5. In City of God, Augustine claims that God's only motive to create was because of goodness itself. God therefore created because creation was good. City of God, 11.24.

10. City of God, 22.24.

11. Confessions, 12.7.

12. City of God, 11.16. By my judgment, for Augustine hierarchy in nature does not necessarily imply human hegemony.

13. Ibid., 12.7.

14. Ibid., 11.22.

15. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.3.14.

16. City of God, 11.21.

17. It seems that Augustine believed God's Sabbath rest at the culmination of the Genesis creation account made manifest both the goodness of creation and the completed character of its existence. Confessions, 12.28.

18. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 4.16.2. Augustine here draws an allusion to a trope found in Jesus' own ministry, found at Matthew 23:37.

19. Ibid., 1.5.21.

20. "On the Nature Good," 2. I am unclear as to whether the original language used for "measure, form, and order" are the same as when Augustine speaks of God's according things with "measure, number, and weight" in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.4.3.

21. Ibid., 1.

22. Augustine goes on to say that to somehow annihilate goodness, one must annihilate existence itself, since any existence God creates is good by virtue of its being created. Ibid., 4.

23. City of God, 11.10. Augustine calls God's nature "simple," since it cannot lose any attribute it possesses, and that there is no difference between God is and what God has, i.e. God's triunity.

24. "On the nature of Good," 2.

25. Ibid., 5.

26. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.2.16.

27. Ibid., 1.3.18.

28. Thomas E. Clarke, The Eschatological Transformation of the Material World According to St. Augustine (Woodstock, Md.: Woodstock College Press, 1956), 4.

29. City of God, 11.23.

30. Ibid., 12.5.

31. Ibid., 22.22.

32. Ibid., 12.22.

33. The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.3.18.

34. City of God, 12.22.

35. Ibid., 12.6..

36. Clarke, Eschatological Transformation, 34. Interestingly, Clarke notes how Augustine maintains that Satan is not the lord of the perceived suffering and evil that occur in the physical world, but is rather only the prince of sinful humanity, who have brought suffering upon themselves.

37. City of God, 11.24.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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