What The Bible Tells Us About Creation,
And Whether This Is In Conflict With Modern Science

                                                              

 

Peter Engholm

Monash University, June 2000

 

 

 

ABSTRACT:

This paper aims to look at this relationship between modern science and modern theology in the issue of creation, and it does so by first looking at what the Bible teaches about creation and how Christians should interpret this today. It shall be argued that Christian theology has nothing to fear from science (or vice versa) as both disciplines are concerned with finding different kind of truths, and can learn and benefit from each other.

 

KEYWORDS:

Bible, theology, creation, science, scientific creationism

 

FULL TEXT:

The twentieth century has seen a growing knowledge in the scientific discipline of pre-human history - ranging back to include the history of the solar system, the expansion of the universe and the formation of galaxies, and finally what appears to be the very birth of the universe in the so-called ‘Big Bang’. Fossilised micro-organisms, or microfossils, have in recent times been isolated and studied so that most scientists today agree upon that the oldest relics of life date back to 3,500 million years ago, and that a possible beginning of all things (the outcome of ‘Big Bang’) can be dated to about 15,000 million years ago[1].

Since Darwin published his book The Origin of Species in 1859, scientists have also tried to unfold the organic evolution of the human being by using his theory of ‘natural selection’ as a guiding principle, arguing that variability in molecular biology causes living organisms to develop and change, both within the organism (micro-evolution) and from one organism to become another (macro-evolution; for example ape to human).

Such theories of how the universe came into being (cosmology), and theories of how the first life came about (abiogenesis), all have in common an attempt to explain the origins, or the creation of human beings and the world. Browning argues that the subject of creation is important because “how we got here” is one of the most fundamental questions a human being can ask, together with “why we are here”. How we answer these questions for ourselves provides the basis for how we think of the world - it defines our “world-view”[2].

Christian theology has throughout the centuries also claimed to be able to provide answers to questions about the creation, and has traditionally relied on the Bible for this purpose. The question then arises what legitimate role a Christian creation theology has in the light of modern scientific theories of creation: Do they conflict, or can the teaching in the Bible support modern scientific findings?

Hayes writes that two of the major concerns of theology have been to provide a relatively coherent understanding of faith for the community of believers, and to mediate religious meaning and values to the culture at large. But in as far as the experience of the believers is deeply conditioned by the categories of the culture in which they live, the implementation of both these tasks is possible only to the degree that the world of faith is willing to speak in terms of the world of meaning present in the culture. In other words, at some level theology must take up the task of speaking about faith issues, such as creation, in terms of the concrete world of ordinary and scientific experience in a given cultural situation[3]. He states that the question of the relation between science and theology is “a question of the possibility of theologizing in reference to a fundamentally changed worldview, within which the question of biological evolution is only one question among many”[4].

This paper aims to look at this relationship between modern science and modern theology in the issue of creation, and it does so by first looking at what the Bible teaches about creation and how Christians should interpret this today. This is a huge topic and can only be slightly touched upon in a short paper like this, but it shall nevertheless be argued that Christian theology has nothing to fear from science (or vice versa) as both disciplines are concerned with finding different kind of truths, and can learn and benefit from each other.

In Biblical revelation, the very first line introduces the theme of creation (Genesis 1:1). The creation theme recurs again and again in the prophetic and wisdom literature, in the Pauline epistles, and in the Gospels. Finally, in the Bible’s last book we find a hymn in praise of the creator (Rev. 4:11). Yet there is no consistent or recurring creation theology in the Bible. As seen by Clifford, given the diversity of the various texts of creation in the Bible it is more appropriate to speak about a biblical creation faith, which is a broad canvas against which can be seen God’s dealings with humanity[5].

There is among biblical scholars a universal agreement that the two existing creation narratives in Genesis (1:1 and 2:4b) are products of two different traditions respectively, the Priestly and Yahvist tradition, and that the authors of these narratives received an existing tradition and shaped what they received into a new form; forming a product that expressed Israel’s belief in God that reflected its own concerns and needs peculiar to its own situation.[6] The authors derived their material from existing written and oral sources that were readily at hand, such as the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish and the Mesopotamian story of a ‘worldwide’ flood, and wrote the accounts to explain to the Jewish people who they were, how and why they were chosen as God’s people, and what God expected of them. Thus, the accounts were not composed as history for its own sake (to be read literally) but as history whose purpose was to communicate religious messages[7].

In other words, the manifold statements about creation that occur in all these texts call on the people to declare for the one and true living God as against the gods of surrounding cultures, and as a meaning to strengthen confidence and faith.[8] As explained by Clifford, the Priestly account in Genesis 1:1 wanted to portray God as establishing an orderly cosmos out of chaos to rekindle confidence in that He would “sort things out” for the Israelian people who, at the time the account was finalized, was suffering in Babylonian exile. Similarly, the second account is a literary work of a much earlier generation, attempting to locate and give expression to the causes for the present condition of the people, explaining the rise of sin and need for punishment[9].

Thus, the Genesis accounts did not aim to explain how the world came into being, but that the world did, and that God is the creator. Therefore, instead of speaking of creation in the early Genesis texts as an “unscathed primal condition”, creation is seen as the beginning of a salvation history of the Jewish people[10]. The authors looked back from the present to the distant past in order to make men look forward to what, on the basis of that past, is to come in the future[11].

Hence, the creation narratives are seen as a beginning of a salvation history for the Jewish people, a history in which God continues to create ‘new things’. Other passages in the Old Testament verifies this ‘eschatological orientation’ of the divine act of creation, so that when Deutero-Isaiah speaks about creation[12], he focuses on God’s plan to create a people a ‘second time’; the restoration of the Israelian people. Jeremiah also reminds the people that they will be restored, referring to God’s present creative activity[13]. Hence, creation is not simply an act in the beginning, but rather God’s continual involvement throughout history and is intrinsically linked with salvation and redemption[14].

In the New Testament, creation themes are principally related to the saving significance of Jesus Christ, who is portrayed as the pre-existing agent of God and creation and the new beginning of salvation history[15]. As argued by Hayes, the beginning of John’s Gospel is nothing less than a rewriting of the Genesis creation-theology in the light of the Christ-mystery, so that we in Jesus are confronted with the eternal Word through whom God creates the world[16].

Hence, both the Old Testament and the New Testament reflect an actualistic concept of creation in which God’s creative action is an abiding reality, and is always the pre-condition for salvation. Thus it is a theology of history deeply tied to the gradually emerging future-consciousness of the Jewish and Christian community, and not a theology that attempts to scientifically describe the origins of the world[17].

This view opens up the possibility to see a prosperous relationship between science and theology, because theological statements of creation should then primarily be concerned not with the nature of the world, but with the course of the world from its beginning to its absolute future. In theology, as Schmaus argues, knowledge of the nature of things is required only insofar as it is important for our understanding of the course and purpose of the world[18]. This is particularly relevant when we consider the issue of evolution, and whether evolution theories can be compatible to a Christian theology of creation.

Schmaus states that an accurate account of evolution from the original state of matter to the abundance of forms today over the millions of years of the history of the cosmos is the task of natural science, not theology. Theology has only to establish that there is no contradiction between evolution and creation. Creation is the prerequisite of evolution and cannot be replaced by evolution. If Christian theology adopts the Biblical view of creation, God remains continually immanent in his creation as the power active in history. However, God does not thereby exclude secondary causes, the energies inserted in creation by him. Rather, he actualises them in his universal operation[19]. Schmaus concludes that:

Science can trace evolution and see that man evolved from apes, but can not explain the process of transformation. Theology can, by explaining that these abrupt changes originated in God’s continuous creative activity and creative will[20].

Hayes agrees with Schmaus, writing that while theology depends on science for information on the concrete flow of evolutionary history, science as such can provide no framework for interpreting the ultimate level of meaning[21]. Hence, it could be argued that the Bible provides us with answers to ‘why’ we were created, while science attempts to answer ‘how’, which would lead us to conclude that there is no reason to argue that theology and science cannot mutually interact and benefit from each other. Barbour writes that “God as primary cause works through the secondary causes, which science describes. There are no gaps in the scientific account, which is complete on its own level. But God sustains the whole natural sequence”[22].

Thus, theology cannot reject theories of the ‘Big bang’ or the evolution of human beings, as the Bible is not concerned with how the world was created. Theology can also not reject the possibility of life on other planets, because if the Word (God) is active in continuing creation throughout the cosmos, we can assume that it could also have revealed itself as the power of redemption at other points in space and time, in ways appropriate to the forms of life existing there[23]. At the same time, scientific research may correctly date the origins of the universe, but it cannot provide an answer to the ultimate power behind it all.

This paper has so far argued that a proper understanding of the Biblical material would not justify an argument for a conflict between science and theology. It must be noted, however, that not all theologians or Christians have the same understanding of how to interpret the Bible, and consequently, a variety of positions can be held in this issue. Some of these will now be discussed.

Clifford outlines four broad conceptions of the relationship of theology and science: theology in continuity with science; science in continuity with theology; theology and science as separate realms; and mutual interaction of theology and science. This paper has adopted a stance that fits the latter conception, namely that theology and science raise different questions about creation and therefore cannot contradict. As noted by Clifford, conflict only occurs when the two fails to respect the proper domain of each other, and this view is also held by most contemporary theologians, among them Karl Rahner, who saw the distinctiveness of the two fields in their areas of investigation and methodologies[24].

One of the other conceptions, that of science in continuity with religion, is also a wide-spread conception in many contemporary Christian communities, and is today often referred to as Scientific Creationism, or Creation Science. This view emphasises the literary validity of the Bible and its followers propose scientific explanations for the universe that are compatible with their commitment to the inerrancy of biblical revelation. Strict creationists believe that God created the world in six 24-hour earth days and that the earth is relatively young (some 6,000 years), while other creationists allow for a longer period of creation (millions of years). Among other things, they argue that the belief in a theory of evolution only provides an excuse for people to justify their selfish behaviour as it undermines the importance of God’s continuous creative activity[25].

Problems with this view involve the somewhat naïve treatment of biblical texts. Creationists fail to consider the historical context of their formation, their non-scientific intent, and their symbolic and doxological richness[26]. It has already been argued that these texts do not intent to produce scientific data, but have a much wider eschatological meaning for the Christian believer. The purpose of these texts was not to convince the people of Israel that this was how things actually happened, and, as rightfully acknowledged by Skehan, much less to convince modern people[27]. The creationist view also does not allow for much mutual interaction between theology and science, as it ultimately believes that the Bible serves as scientific reference material, and if there ever is a conflict between the Bible and scientific findings or theories, the latter are rejected.

Barbour even regards creationists to be a threat to both religious and scientific freedom, arguing that: “When absolute positions lead to intolerance and attempts to impose particular religious views on others in a pluralistic society, we must object in the name of religious freedom”[28]. Still, many Christians have been brought up with the belief that the Bible is the Word of God, and hence must be true in every aspect. Creative Science is a dominating force, especially in Northern American Christian communities, but can hardly be said to represent mainstream Christian theology in the world.

The third conception, theology in continuity with science, tends to ‘harmonize’ religious truth with the prevailing spirit of the culture. The progressive development in science becomes the ontological basis for this type of theology, and it proposes that the creation is continually evolving towards ultimate ‘perfection’. Hence, this view does not conflict with modern science, but is implied by scientific theories. The view promotes an overly optimistic view about historical progress and about the rational and moral perfectibility of humanity. As noted by Clifford, this optimism cannot stand up to the test of human experience[29].

The last conception sees theology and science as separate realms, and argues for a dialectic approach to theology, reconceiving the relation of God to the world as discontinuous. Karl Barth shaped this notion of independence of science and theology, arguing that creation cannot be known or interpreted apart from divine action and revelation by Christ. Any statement concerning creation can only be known through faith and is of a unique kind, having no analogue in science or in other forms of knowing. This view reduces the relation of God to the world, and allows for individualized and privatized religions. This, in turn, limits the importance of the Bible as well as scientific findings, and any public approaches to science or theology becomes useless[30].

More can be said about these different stances toward science and religion, but the aim of this paper has not been to describe these in detail. Rather, its purpose has been to reveal the meaning of creation in the Bible, and why this meaning does not conflict with modern science. To sum up the argument, Christian theologians and modern scientists can engage in mutual interaction and dialogue as they attempt to explain two different truths of creation. Theologians aim to explain to the human beings why they have been created, promoting God’s role and continuous activity in the world, while scientists aim to explain how the world progresses in terms of natural processes. As Hayes argues: “We can work with the conviction that scientific knowledge can enlarge and enrich not only our understanding of the world, but our view of God and His way of acting as well”[31]. Accordingly, Handy states that:

The knowledge that comes through the application of historical method may be inconvenient and even painful, but to resist it or turn from it may give evidence of our lack of faith; for an unblinking facing of the reality that is disclosed by this method - and it is only one of the ways to face reality, but an important one - may help us to learn more about the ways of the Creator, the creation, and the creatures.[32]

 

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REFERENCES:

Barbour, I. Religion in an age of science, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991)

Browning, J D. “Basic of Creation Versus Evolution”, http://emporium.turnpike.net/C/cs/basics/index.htm.

Clifford, A M. ”Creation”, in Francis S Fiorenza & John P Galvin, Systematic Theology,
Vol 1, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991)

Gascoigne, R M. The History of the Creation, (Sydney: Fast Books, 1993)

Handy, R T. “Christian Faith and Historical Method: Contradiction, Compromise or Tension?”, in C T McIntire & Ronald A Wells, History and Historical Understanding, (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 1984)

Hayes, Z. What are they saying about creation?, (New York/Ramsey: Paulist press, 1980)

Moltmann, J. The Future of Creation, (London: SCM Press, 1979)

Schmaus, M. Dogma 2: God and Creation, Vol 2, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1983)

Skehan, J W. Modern Science and the Book of Genesis, (Washington DC: National Science Teachers Association, 1986)

The Bible, New International Version.

 

FOOTNOTES:



[1] Robert M Gascoigne, The History of the Creation, (Sydney: Fast Books, 1993), 139 & 287.

[2] Jason D Browning, “Basic of Creation Versus Evolution”, http://emporium.turnpike.net/C/cs/basics/index.htm.

[3] Zachary Hayes, What are they saying about creation?, (New York/Ramsey: Paulist press, 1980), 8.

[4] Ibid., 10-11.

[5] Anne M Clifford, ”Creation”, in Francis S Fiorenza & John P Galvin, Systematic Theology, Vol 1, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 197.

[6] Clifford, ”Creation”, 198-199.

[7] James W Skehan, Modern Science and the Book of Genesis, (Washington DC: National Science Teachers Association, 1986), 10-13.

[8] Michael Schmaus, Dogma 2: God and Creation, Vol 2, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1983), 67.

[9] Clifford, ”Creation”, 199-202, cf. Schmaus, Dogma 2: God and Creation, 67-71.

[10] Jürgen Moltmann, The Future of Creation, (London: SCM Press, 1979), 118.

[11] Schmaus, Dogma 2: God and Creation, 72.

[12] See Isaiah 40:28-29, 42:5-9, 43:1-13, 45:12-13, 18-19, 48:12-13.

[13] See Jeremiah 31:35-37.

[14] Clifford, ”Creation”, 203-204.

[15] See Col 1:16; John 1:1-3, 17:5; 1 Cor 15:45-49; Rom 8:18-23; Acts 4:22-30, 14:15; Mt 11:25; Lk 10:21.

[16] Hayes, What are they saying about creation?, 28.

[17] Ibid., 30.

[18] Schmaus, Dogma 2: God and Creation, 91.

[19] Ibid., 123.

[20] Ibid., 125.

[21] Hayes, What are they saying about creation?, 104.

[22] Ian Barbour, Religion in an age of science, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), 181.

[23] Barbour, Religion in an age of science, 147.

[24] Clifford, ”Creation”, 236-238.

[25] Browning, “Basic of Creation Versus Evolution”.

[26] Clifford, ”Creation”, 232.

[27] Skehan, Modern Science and the Book of Genesis, 27.

[28] Barbour, Religion in an age of science, 10.

[29] Clifford, ”Creation”, 225-229.

[30] Ibid., 234-235.

[31] Hayes, What are they saying about creation?, 20.

[32] Robert T Handy, “Christian Faith and Historical Method: Contradiction, Compromise or Tension?”, in
C T McIntire & Ronald A Wells, History and Historical Understanding, (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 1984), 87.