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Thursday, 9 August 2007

Creation: It’s not just about Origins

Last week I stated that it is important for us to reclaim the word creation from Young Earth Creationists so that we can proclaim the message of creation to a fallen world. It is not simply that the scientific evidence conflicts with a YEC view of origins; it’s the exclusive focus on origins that is the problem. The ideas of Karl Barth may be helpful here. Although I have not yet read much of Barth, quotes like the following (which I stumbled across at http://theologyandsnack.blogspot.com/search/label/creation) provide added incentive for me to do so:

[M]ost of the laity believe the doctrine of creation deals with the beginning of the world and its details. As such, the creation-doctrine is a matter for preaching, but also one to which “the latest news from the science front” is also relevant. The average theologian, on the contrary, insists on quite a different understanding of the doctrine, one to which scientific discoveries are simply irrelevant, because the doctrine intends to affirm something that science is not competent to assess.…

The doctrine of creation is thoroughly and completely a religious-theological affirmation.… The affirmation of creation is the form in which the community of faith sets forth its understanding of the world. As it does so, its goal is to permit its understanding of the world to be fully congruous with its belief in God.… “Creation” is a word that refers to the whole of the world when viewed as belonging to God, and the doctrine of creation is an elaboration of how we understand the world when we permit our understanding of God to permeate and dominate our thinking.

I can’t agree with Barth’s (as it seems to me) dismissal of science, but I wholeheartedly agree that God’s creation is more than a discovery or affirmation of how God acted in the past. It is also about the present since God continues to sustain and nurture creation. God’s present and ongoing activity, his continuous interaction with the world, his care and sustenance for all his creatures, these are also creation. And that should permeate all our thoughts and actions.

Although God’s original action to bring the universe into being is an important aspect of creation, creation is not exclusively, or even primarily, about origins. Confining God’s “creation work” to a distant time in the past (whether that be assigned to billions of years ago, or to a single 6-day work week several thousand years ago) is little more than deism. As ASA’s “Statement on Creation” affirms:
1. God is the creator of all things.
a. All things were created through the Word. (Jn1:1-3; Col 1:15-20)
b. God is both transcendent over creation and immanent in creation. (1 Kg 8:27)
c. God continually upholds all of creation. (Col 1:17; Heb 1:3)
d. God is continually creating. (Ps 104:29-30)
and later:

3. God actively cares for His creation.
a. God declares all that He has made very good. (Gen 1:31)
b. The earth is the Lord’s possession. (Ps 95:1-5)
c. All creation praises God. (Ps 148)
d. God sustains and provides for His creation. (Job 38-41, Ps 104)
There is very strong scientific evidence to support biological evolution. For a Christian, there are also strong theological reasons to accept the concept of God’s evolving creation. (See for example, George Murphy’s essay: “A Theological Argument For Evolution”). Certainly speaking about God’s evolving creation seems much more biblical than speaking about creation as a single event that occurred in the distant past. For God is actively involved in the present, he is active in a creation that is not yet finished.


Anonymous said...

great stuff! keep thinking, keep writing!!

David W. Congdon said...


Barth does not think science is irrelevant in general, only irrelevant in formulating a doctrine of creation. Do you still think Barth is wrong about that? If so, why?

Cliff Martin said...

If Barth means that science has no relevance to the question of whether God created, I think all believers would agree. But if he means science has no relevance to the question of how God created, I would take issue with that. And how God created may tell us much about why he created. So I would line up with Steve on this.

And Science has a good deal of relevance in formulating doctrines that relate to creation; e.g., science has helped us to understand that death predates Adam and Eve. That effects how we understand the Fall. Without science, we might have been free to develop a doctrine that all death resulted from man's sin. (Some may still profess this belief, but to do so is to fly in the face physics, paleontology, etc.)

The Creature said...

I guess whether or not a progressive form of creation or a more instantaneous form is correct is really a matter of biblical interpretation and personal opinion. Personally I can't see the progression required for evolution in the biblical text, implied or otherwise. So I would dispute that evolution is the more biblical response.

I guess it comes down to opinion.

Steve Martin said...

DW: My understanding of Barth (admittedly through secondary sources) is that he was reacting strongly against 19th century Natural Theology that thought one could pretty much understand the creator through creation alone. I agree with the rejection of this Natural Theology since, without the revelation of the Word made flesh and the scriptures, I think it would be difficult to view God as loving, faithful, and forgiving However, (again based on my very limited understanding of Barth) I think he may have gone too far with his rejection of Natural Theology. I think our view of God can be further illuminated by our understandings of Science. We need to be careful and view this through the lens of scripture & faith, but input from science can be helpful.

On the specific quote above: Since the “Goal [of the doctrine] of creation is to permit its understanding of the world to be fully congruous with its belief in God”, I would think that science can (and does) have an impact on that doctrine. It does not impact (as Cliff notes) the central feature of the doctrine ie. That the world belongs to God, and has its origin in God. However, since our understanding of the world through science is rapidly changing, so too does our understanding as to its origins. Maybe I’m missing what Barth is saying here. Can you elaborate?

The Creature: re: the form of creation implied in the biblical text – yes I agree it’s a matter of interpretation. From my viewpoint though, the purpose of the bible is to affirm God as creator & not provide details on the “how” of origins – ie. I think it implies nothing in as to the creation process. What the bible does affirm however is that God is continually involved with his creation, continually creating, continually interacting with and molding his people. The idea of an evolving creation is certainly compatible with how God interacts with his creation, and with the patience required.

Maybe the most important thing for me is that other Evangelicals see that an acceptance of biological evolution can be compatible with a Christian faith. I have no problem that other Christians cannot accept that biological evolution is the best explanation of the scientific evidence (Hey, one doesn't need to agree with quantum mechanics either). As part of God’s family, we disagree on many non-essentials. However, I do have a major issue with those who refuse to accept evolutionary creationists as brothers and sisters in Christ, or if they do, as seriously misguided siblings that need to be persuaded to abandon their heresy.

Cliff Martin said...

Re: comments of the creature

In the end, you are correct. Ultimate questions of origins will be a matter of opinion. And I respect yours, having held it for most of my adult life.

My perspective, however, is different from yours in the area of how to weight biblical interpretation and the iterpretation of scientific evidence. I will remind you that up until the time of Galileo, and (sadly) for hundreds of years following, most Bible scholars could find no reason to reject flat earth geocentricity "in the biblical text, implied or otherwise". So they disputed (with good reason, I think) that heliocentricy "is the more biblical response". Of course, now we have no difficulty at all in accepting Copernicum cosmology as being scientifically established, and we have found ways of making it compatible with the biblical texts.

I submit that if most of the church took your position that correct cosmology "is really a matter of biblical interpretation and personal opinion" we'd mostly be flat earthers to this day.

~ Cliff

Anonymous said...

As long as creation is put in perspective (the principles matter more than the details) I don't see how believing in YEC or theistic evolution is significant.

Historically, Christian have had widely different views of cosmology and it hasn't mattered.

Since science is mutable and the principles of creation aren't, I don't see why there's any emphasis on specifics.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Starving Econ Grad,

Over the centuries, Christians have indeed held very different views of their world. And, as you point out, the actual scientific belief hasn’t mattered that much to the message of redemption. However, when that belief no longer matches the scientific evidence of the day, I think we have to change our outlook. That’s not to say we are “right”; we almost certainly have lots of things wrong as well (and our great-grandchildren will probably laugh at what we believed when we were young). However, there is no point in hanging on to wrong scientific ideas since they are absolutely inessential to the message of redemption. In fact, I believe that we can actually damage the gospel by encumbering it with nonsensical scientific baggage.

Anonymous said...

Well, there's an undefined "we" there.

While individuals ought to attempt to reconcile their faith and their knowledge, I think Churches ought to remain silent on such issues.

The unity of the Church is strengthened when the Church limits its beliefs to those of the Gospel.

Perhaps I'm just reacting to the spirit of formalism and schism present in the Church today.

Steve Martin said...

Ok. Now I see what you are saying. I agree that Church unity is important. Jesus was very concerned that his followers would be unified so they could spread the news of the kingdom. When we allow non-essentials (like scientific ideas of origins) to distract us from that task, yes that's a problem. But balancing church unity vs. dangerous additions to the gospel (eg. YEC view of of biblical interpretation is essential for salvation) takes great discernment.

Cliff Martin said...

I couldn't agree more with Starving Econ Grad.

The trouble is, many YEC leaders do identify Young Earth and Special Creationism as cardinal doctines, foundational to all of Christian truth, as they understand it. Their fear is that if they become tolerant of other views of origins, the whole of Faith will come tumbling down.

Sean Babu said...

Hi all,

Thanks for the link!

BTW, this quote is not from Barth but from P.J. Hefner in Christian Dogmatics, an American Lutheran collaborative systematic theology.

The main point of the quote is that a doctrine of creation is not very concerned with many of the controversial questions being asked, but is concerned about some important things perhaps not being discussed as much, namely God's ongoing relationship with his creation.



Steve Martin said...

Oh, boy, you are right. That's pretty embarrasing. For penance, I will chant "Thou shalt read the post very carefully" 1000 times.