Christian Theology, the Doctrine of Creation, and Scientific Knowledge
By Matthew Becker
Prefatory comment: In my introductory course on Christian theology, students engage Christian understandings of God, creation, anthropology, evil, sin, and so on. During class discussions participants analyze such issues as God’s relation to creation, the relation of ancient religions to each other, the nature of human beings, the problems of evil and sin, marriage, human sexuality, notions of “family,” the environmental crisis, the relationships among the western religious traditions, theology and the sciences, and issues of personal identity. These discussions prepare students to understand more clearly how Christians understand the divine promises in Genesis 12:1-3, promises which set the plot for the trajectory of salvation that is revealed in the rest of the Bible and that reaches even into the present and beyond.
Many students seem genuinely interested in questions regarding how best to understand the genres, the literary features and the theological meaning(s) of the narratives in Genesis 1-11. For example, they wonder about the similarities and contrasts between the two creation accounts, Genesis 1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4bff, about the formation of Adam from the dust of the ground, about the snake, the expulsion from the garden, the ark, the flood, the tower of Babel, and so on. Typically, a few students argue that these stories must be understood as accurately describing actual historical events (perhaps that occurred in the recent past). Others in the class argue that these texts are best understood as non-literalistic narratives that may (or may not) convey abiding truths about God, creation, and human beings. Still other students think the texts are something akin to fairy tales and thus do not deserve scholarly attention today.
In the flow of these discussions I try to present a number of perspectives on the issues of genre, literary structure, and theological meaning. My most important goal is to explore the theology of the texts and to do so in relation to other religious knowledge and contemporary scientific understandings of reality.
As a way of articulating my own approach to this goal, I prepared an initial outline in the mid-1990s. It was shared with students at Concordia University, Portland, where I taught for ten years. After joining the faculty of Valparaiso University in 2004, I made some significant revisions to the document.
I need to underscore that the present document remains only an outline on the methodological issues involved in the interpretation of the Bible in relation to contemporary forms of religious and scientific knowledge. It has grown out of fifteen years of teaching Christian theology to undergraduates in two different Lutheran universities in the United States. Portions of the outline have served as the basis for sections of an earlier essay, “The Scandal of the LCMS Mind,” also published in the Daystar Journal.
I. The academic discipline of Christian theology seeks to discern and articulate the essential doctrinal content of Christian faith.
II. The task of Christian theology is undertaken by means of a rigorous, critical methodology that seeks to articulate and communicate the essential content of Christian faith in relation to all other areas of contemporary human experience and knowledge.
III. Therefore Christian theology discerns and articulates the essential content of Christian faith in relation to at least “three publics” (David Tracy): (a) the Christian church, including its doctrinal and practical traditions; (b) human societies, including the practical needs and the multiplicity of responses to those needs within given societies; and (c) the academy, including all academic disciplines in modern universities and research centers.
IV. The principal source and only norm of Christian theology are the apostolic writings of the New Testament since these alone provide the authoritative ear- and eye-witness testimony to God’s historical self-revelation in Jesus Christ. While this testimony was originally oral, it is now only available in the literary remains of the apostles who were moved by the Holy Spirit promised to them by Christ.
V. While the apostolic writings of the New Testament are the sole norm of Christian theology, these writings cannot be the sole source of Christian theology. There are at least five additional, subordinate sources of Christian theology: (a) the writings of the Old Testament, especially the prophets and the psalms that provide a clarifying witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and which contain divine communication addressed to every human being and not merely to the ancient covenant people of Israel; (b) the dogmatic decisions of early church councils that articulate and clarify the essential doctrinal content of Christian faith that is grounded solely in the writings of the Old and New Testaments but which is nonetheless insufficiently articulated and clarified in these writings; (c) the history of the reception and interpretation of the biblical texts, wherein church history is a more or less implicit source of Christian theology; (d) the history of religions and cultures that have affected and shaped both the contents of the writings of the Old and New Testaments and the formulation of Christian doctrine in church history; and (e) contemporary human experience, including scientific knowledge and cultural interpretations of human experience, which shape and inform the language and thought forms that are used to articulate and effectively communicate the essential content of Christian faith in particular, temporal, cultural, social contexts.
(a) The normative authority of the Old Testament for Christian theology is dependent upon the authority of the apostolic writings in the New Testament. For Christian theology, the content of the Old Testament is only understandable on the basis of the content of the apostolic witnesses: The God of Israel is the Father of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures of Israel contain promises about Christ. But not everything in the Old Testament pertains to Christian faith, since much in the Mosaic Torah was only directed to the original covenant people of Israel in their historical situation of nationhood.
(b) The normative authority of the Antilegomena texts (those texts that were “spoken against,” whose authority was questioned and criticized) remains a problem for today’s church, just as it did for the church of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Because there are legitimate concerns about the canonical character of some biblical writings (e.g., Esther, the Apocrypha, James, Jude, Revelation, Second Peter, Second John, Third John, Hebrews), the traditional Protestant biblical canon as such cannot serve as the “rule and guiding principle” of Christian theology, nor is the totality of this canon “the pure, clear fountain of Israel” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, preface), as Martin Luther’s prefaces to the biblical books also make clear. Not every biblical book or biblical passage is of equal canonical, theological weight. Nevertheless, the canonicity of the majority of the New Testament writings is not in doubt. One needs to underscore that the post-apostolic church did not and does not today determine the canonicity of the New Testament. Rather, the church has always been dependent upon the authority of the apostles, first in their oral teaching and witness and then in their written witness. The church received the canon from the apostles, just as the apostles received their teaching from Christ through the power and revelation of the Holy Spirit. The decisive criterion for canonicity was the intimate bond between the content of a text and its origin: an apostolic text bears authentic witness to Christ and an authentic witness to Christ originated from an apostle.
(c) Church councils have made false and contradictory judgments about the doctrinal content of Christian faith, as have individual interpreters of the biblical texts throughout church history, so every post-apostolic judgment about the essential content of Christian faith must always be tested against the original apostolic witness itself. Indeed, every subsequent event in the history of the Christian church must be evaluated on the basis of this apostolic, normative revelation.
(d) While the apostolic writings of the New Testament are the principle source of Christian theology, and the writings of the Old Testament the most important subordinate source, these Scriptures are never alone. The Scriptures themselves did not arise in a vacuum but are themselves embedded in social, cultural, literary, and theological contexts that inform and shape their normative meaning(s).
(e) Moreover, every listener and reader of the Scriptures is embedded in social, cultural, and theological contexts that shape and inform his/her listening and reading of the Scriptures and that shape the manner in which one articulates and communicates the essential content of Christian faith in given settings.
(f) Finally, it is clear that not everything within the New Testament writings is normative for all times and places, as Paul’s teaching about the eating of food offered to idols and the eating of blood makes clear (in contrast to the statement of James in Acts 15 regarding these practices). The abiding questions about the authoritative status of the antilegomena (“spoken against” texts, e.g., Hebrews, James, Second Peter, etc.) in the New Testament also are relevant here.
VI. While the apostolic Scriptures are the sole norm of Christian theology, and the writings of the Old Testament a subordinate source, these Scriptures are always in need of careful interpretation so that their normative meaning(s) emerges more clearly. Because of the historical and cultural distance between the Scriptures and contemporary interpreters of the Scriptures, there is a need for clear interpretive principles (“hermeneutics”).
VII. The first fundamental hermeneutical principle is “Scripture interprets Scripture” (scriptura scripturam interpres): clearer passages shed light on less clear. The clarity or perspicuity of Scripture does not mean, however, that everything in Scripture is clear and plain to all, only that what is essential to salvation, namely the gospel and faith, are clearly and plainly taught in the apostolic writings. The teaching/preaching of the apostles is always clear witness to Christ and to what he has done for us for the sake of eliciting faith. This is what makes the teaching of an apostle apostolic. This is why gospel passages in the apostolic writings are the “clearest” passages in the NT. The “clearest” biblical passages are always passages of gospel promise/proclamation (Werner Elert).
VIII. The second fundamental hermeneutical principle is “the analogy of faith” (analogia fidei): a passage cannot be so interpreted that it goes contrary to the clear and essential content of Christian faith, that is, faith in the gospel promises of God. Thus, the second hermeneutical principle is a correlative of the first: the analogy of faith is identical to faith/confidence in the clearly promised gospel (good news).
IX. Another hermeneutical principle states that a text must be interpreted in accordance with the type of literature (“genre”) to which the text belongs. The genre of a text only becomes clear in relation to other kinds of writing that are similar in form and content to the text that is being interpreted. For example, most adults instinctively make interpretive adjustments when they move from reading history to poetry, or from reading a parable to reading a novel, or from reading a trial transcript to reading a comic strip. People learn to recognize genres and to interpret them accordingly. By sensing similar features from one text to the next, one is helped to understand the nature of the text and the nature of the truth claims a text is making. Clear thinking about genre keeps the interpreter focused on the truth(s) of the genre. Clear thinking about genre keeps the interpreter from taking interpretive routes that force the text into a genre that is foreign to the text. To misunderstand the genre of a text is to misunderstand that text. To avoid such misunderstanding, extra-biblical sources of knowledge help to eliminate false and inadequate understandings of the genres of the biblical texts. For example, the genres present in the first eleven chapters of Genesis become clearer as the stories contained in these chapters are compared with other, similar stories from the ancient Near East. These other, related stories include the Babylonian epic of creation (Enuma Elish), the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh (e.g., flood, serpent, tree of life), other Akkadian epics and myths, Ugaritic myths and epics, Sumerian epics (e.g., speaking snake), myths of primeval time among African peoples (including the Egyptians), Greek tragic mythologies, and other ancient Near Eastern myths and legends.
Discerning the genre of a text in Genesis 1-11 keeps the interpreter of this text from forcing it into a genre that is foreign to it, e.g., thinking about it as “pure myth” (as in “false story”), or as “historical report,” or as modern “scientific treatise.” The texts in Genesis 1-11 make profound claims to truth without necessarily being understood as either “false story” or “pure historical description” or “scientific treatise.” When confronted with a genre like “story of origin,” people might be tempted to identify the “truth” of a text that fits that genre with a literalistic-historical reading of the text (perhaps because they never thought to read it any other way or perhaps because that’s how they were taught to read it in the first place). But the potential truth of a story of origin is not found on the literal-historical level of the story.
X. Because the literary history of the texts and stories in Genesis 1-11 is more recent than most other, related stories from the ancient Near East, it is apparent that Genesis 1-11 has been shaped and informed by the language, symbols, and knowledge of nature embedded in these other, older stories, myths, and legends. The language and narrative pattern of Genesis 1-11 draw on ancient Mesopotamian life and culture, as even the Concordia Self-Study Bible indicates.
XI. By comparing the biblical stories within Genesis 1-11 with other, strikingly similar stories from the ancient Near East, one not only understands the genres of the biblical texts, but precisely in knowing the genres contained in Genesis 1-11 one is in a better position to understand the utterly unique theological emphases and truth claims in these texts. For example, contrary to the biblical texts, other ancient Near Eastern texts sanction a particular political hierarchy and government and their accompanying religious fertility and agricultural rites. Likewise, these other ancient Near Eastern texts have a different understanding of time and history, of the value of the material world, of good and evil, and of the “divine.”
In Israel’s stories of origin, the Creator is the giver of all life. The LORD God cannot be manipulated, certainly not by means of fertility rites, as were commonly practiced among Israel’s cultural neighbors. The LORD can only be thanked for the blessings given, especially when people follow the LORD’s command “to be fruitful and multiply” (e.g., the birth of Seth in 4:25; the offerings that Noah offered after being rescued in 8:20; cf. 9:1, 3). Genesis 2:23-24 defines the Israelite view of marriage and reflects the Israelite law regarding the limits within which sexual activity may take place. Implied here is a prohibition on incest, bestiality, and prostitution. Moreover, the Lord promises regular seasons, seedtimes and harvest, etc. (8:22), so there is no need for religious rites to try to manipulate God to give crops. Behind the prohibition about the shedding and drinking of blood (9.4-7) may be the Canaanite ritual of child sacrifice, again for the sake of manipulating God for the purposes of fertility. (It is significant that these prohibitions occur in a section that is all about “being fruitful and multiplying,” 9:1; 9:7.) The sin of Canaan against his father, Noah, in 9:24ff. may also have involved sexual transgression (possibly homosexual incest) and is likely directed against Canaanite licentiousness in the time of the text’s transmission.
XII. In harmony with the best scientific knowledge of their day, but in subtle polemic over against other, competing religious texts from the ancient Near East, the stories contained in Genesis 1-12 uniquely affirm that:
1. There is only one God who creates all that is
2. God is separate from that which God creates (God is not a thing)
Creation has a beginning and an end
Creation is not God
3. God is free over against creation
God is personal
God is in control but allows for human freedom
God responds to human need (prayer)
4. God creates out of love (That God is love is the reason there is something and not nothing)
5. God creates all things good and orderly (e.g., the universe is orderly and intelligible)
Order comes out of chaos
Creation is intelligible (there’s a correspondence between human brain and external matter)
Some suggest that modern sciences develop within this biblical understanding (why do the
sciences emerge in the west and not elsewhere?)
6. God creates humankind for relationship with himself (religious dimension of human existence)
All human beings are special to God, created “in his image”
All human beings are related to each other because of the fundamental unity of all human beings
The most complex creatures so far discovered in nature are human beings
Human beings are creative
Human beings to praise and pray to God
7. All human beings are responsible to God and to one another (human freedom and moral responsibility)
Human beings have dominion over against creation
This is both a problem (because of sinful dominion) and a responsibility (human’s can act in ways other creatures cannot)
Human beings are to care for God’s creation
8. Creation is ongoing and not merely something God did in the past (Creatio continua)
God preserves creation
God allows for novelty within creation
God calls human beings to be creative (e.g., parents)
9. Evil is a disruption of God’s good creation (hence a “fall” from grace), affecting all relationships
God is not the cause of sin/evil, although the conditions for its rise are inherent within creation
Sin and evil are not original to creation
Evil affects God, individuals, family, human community, nature
10. Human beings are “intended for good, but inclined toward evil” (Ricoeur)
11. Genesis 1 is radically “antimythological,” since all of the ancient mythic symbols of power and fertility
(e.g., sun, moon, stars, animals) are radically “de-mythologized” as creatures of the one God.
12. Criticized are all fertility religions and, by extension, economic, social, and personal exploitation of sex
13. The world and its time are directed toward God’s future/goal (i.e., history is linear and purposeful)
14. God’s fundamental intention toward the human community is one of blessing and not curse (i.e.,
Genesis 12:1-3, which for Christians comes to fulfillment in Jesus, “son of Abraham”)
XIII. The normative meaning of a scriptural text only becomes clear in relation to the language and narrative structure that give shape to the text. For example, the creation narrative in Genesis 1:1-2:3 follows a distinct literary schematic pattern: The first three days are days of “forming” and the second three days are days of “filling.” The first day (creation of light) has its infilling on the fourth day, the second day has its infilling on the fifth day, and the third day has its infilling on the sixth day. A Jewish understanding of the work week is also structured into the text: God the Creator in Genesis 1 is like a Jewish worker who works for six days and then rests on the seventh. Another example is the literary pattern of “good creation, sin, judgment, mercy (second chance)” that not only structures Genesis 1-3 but is fundamental to all subsequent “sin narratives”: Cain/Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Still another example of a literary schematic are the “vertical” genealogies (Genesis 5 and 11:10ff) which are ten generations each. Finally, the overall structure of the narratives in Genesis 1-11, including the genealogies, is selective, compressed, and representative. As a whole, these narratives set the stage for the great promise to Abram (Genesis 12:1-3) which, according to the NT apostolic witness, provides the fundamental theme to the entire Scriptures. (For additional details about the literary structure of Genesis 1-2, see Walter Wegner, “Creation and Salvation: A Study of Genesis 1 and 2,” Concordia Theological Monthly XXXVII [Sep 1966]: 520-537.)
XIV. As noted above, the normative meaning of any scriptural text is only discerned in relation to the rest of Scripture (“Scripture interprets Scripture”). Thus, the initial biblical context for understanding the doctrine of creation includes Genesis 1:1-2:4a (a distinct creation account), Genesis 2:4b-3 (a distinct creation account that is older than Genesis 1), and Genesis 1-11. Collectively one may speak of these stories as Israel’s “stories of origin.” A larger context for understanding the doctrine of creation is the literary structure of Genesis as a whole, centering on the relation of Genesis 12:1-3 to Genesis 1-11. An even larger context for understanding the doctrine of creation within the Old Testament is the Torah as a whole, centering in the promise to Abram (Genesis 12:1-3) and its unfolding in the historical events recounted from the time of the patriarchs/matriarchs to the time of the exodus from Egypt and the re-settling in the promised land. The largest context in the Old Testament for understanding Genesis 1-11 would be the statements in the psalms and prophets that speak of creation and new creation, including such passages as Psalm 8, Psalm 104, Psalm 139, Job 28, Isaiah 43, Isaiah 45, Amos 4:13. The largest and most important biblical context is the apostolic witness of the New Testament, which includes such passages as Romans 5, Romans 8, 1 Cor. 15, Colossians 1, John 1. Here the promise to Abram reaches its ultimate fulfillment in the new creation inaugurated by Christ. So in light of these larger contexts, Genesis 1-11 is a preliminary, secondary, witness to the central biblical witness to God’s promise to Abram, to the reception of this promise in the period after the exodus and exile (the time that these Genesis texts were finally edited), and to the re-articulation of this promise as “new creation” through the messages of the prophets. In this view, Genesis 1-11 serves to confess that the Lord who made promises to Abram acted faithfully to fulfill those promises in the history of Israel and in Israel’s future. The God of Israel is indeed the Creator of the universe, the one who will create the heavens and the earth anew. So the theological sequence is from history (Abram and Israel) to creation (Genesis) and new creation (New Testament).
Individual elements within Genesis 1-11 also need to be explored in relation to other biblical texts that refer to them. For example, Paul argues that “Adam” (Heb.: “Human Being,” “Man”) is the “one man” through whom the many are made what they are, namely, “sinful” (Romans 5:19). “Adam” is therefore something of all human beings, the one for the many. “Adam” is not merely the first sinful human being, but he is synonymous with fallen human nature, a “universal human being.” “Adam” is the one “in whom all are dying” (First Corinthians 15:22; notice: the one in whom all people are still dying) as Christ is the one in whom “all shall be made alive.” “Adam” is “the old Adam” as he is now present in each human being. One needs to underscore that the Hebrew word, “Adam,” is both a proper noun and a generic term for humankind (cf. Genesis 1:27). Thus “Adam” is not merely the first sinful human being, but he is synonymous with fallen human nature. Merely to emphasize Adam as an historical individual so that Adam is understood to be the first in a series of sinners is to minimize (or even ignore) what it is about that “one man” which causes all the rest of us human beings to fall with him. It minimizes the real problem of original sin, which is that Adam is a present reality in each of us individually and all of us collectively. Paul’s purpose in referring to “Adam” is Christological and evangelical, i.e., to demonstrate that Christ frees us from sin and death. Paul’s purpose is not to situate the first Adam historically and geographically.
Because human beings by nature lack true fear and trust in God their Creator, because they are self-centered, because they attempt to control, manipulate, and lord over others to their own advantage, because they are born into sinful, guilty communities (e.g., family, society) which unavoidably shape and condition them toward sin and evil, because human beings try to conquer their “lot” in life, because they fail to act in love toward others, because they constantly try to justify themselves before others, because their own consciences frequently accuse and condemn them as guilty for their decisions and actions and failures to act, because they are ultimately acclaimed guilty under the law of God, because of all that and more: Human beings are sinners who stand condemned under the judgment of God.
At the literal level, First Timothy 2.13ff does not accord with what Paul himself wrote in Romans 5 (which nowhere mentions Eve). Ignored in First Timothy 2.13ff. is Adam’s culpability, that is, humankind’s culpability, our culpability, which is Paul’s central point. Christian faith is only concerned with the origin of sin insofar as it is a present reality and persisting problem for every human being. We cannot fix the origin of sin in time, even as we cannot fix the origin of the first human being in time. We ought not get distracted by such speculations. The problem is that we are caught in the web of sin, that we live “on this side of Eden,” that we have been born into this world as sinners, that we ourselves cannot extract ourselves from our predicament.
Following the insights of Martin Luther and other Christian theologians, one may understand the divine judgment against sinners to be different from the physical, biological death experienced by all living creatures. As Dr. Luther and other biblical interpreters have noted through the centuries, the Creator simply willed the earthly deaths of creatures as an element in God’s good creation. Thus Luther thought that had the first human being, Adam, not sinned, his physical life on earth would still have come to an earthly end. This “coming-to-an-earthly-end,” in part, is what it means to be a “creature”: one is finite, one will come to an earthly end, one will die. This finitude or biological limitation is inherent to being a creature. It was present from the very beginning of creatures, including human beings. So, in a certain sense, had the first human beings not have sinned, they still would have come a physical end, but that ending would have been a kind of translation into heaven. As Luther puts it, Adam would have fallen asleep in the garden (which had no thorns or any other problems, according to his imagination!), and he would have awoken in heaven. Through the judgment of God, however, that earthly, finite end in physical death has been compounded and intensified and become something different from a mere biological ending. Death is now an impending divine threat. The judgment of God has made of that death an even greater problem than the mere physical ending of a creaturely life.
To address this divine judgment God sent forth his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh. Jesus’ Adamity, his humanity, is clearly defined by Paul when he says that God had Jesus be “born of a woman,” “born under the law” (Galatians 4.4). His Adamity, his humanity, is like ours in every respect. And yet his humanity is entirely unlike ours: he freely acts over against all laws, duties, rules and obligations to which all humans are subject. He forgives people their sins. He also acts over against the forces of nature, ultimately over the law of death itself. He acts and speaks like God the Creator. To his adversaries, Jesus’ actions and speech appear as rebellion against God. They think he is acting like “the first Adam”: “Jesus has made himself the Son of God,” “He made himself a king.” But the testimony of the apostles, and of Jesus himself, is that “he knew no sin” (Second Corinthians 5:21; cf. First Peter 2:22; Hebrews 7:26f; “Which of you convict me of sin?”). According to the apostolic witness Judas confessed that he had betrayed innocent blood (Matthew 27:4). Pilate, too, found Jesus innocent. There is a paradox here. Precisely in his unique freedom, Jesus willingly chose to take the sins of all Adams upon himself and thereby become “the worst sinner who has ever lived” (Luther). Though sinless in himself, he was made to be “sin” for the sake of redeeming every sinful Adam, every sinning human being. So the first Adam is also in Jesus, but not in the way he is in every other human being. This human being, Jesus, is unlike all others. His redemptive action makes him “the second Adam.” The good news is, through him, all who trust in him are “born anew”; they, too, are “second Adams!”
Side note: There are very profound theological truths in the genealogy in Luke 3, e.g., that Jesus is related biologically to all other human beings and that his redemption has significance for all, but we ought not to read this as an accurate or complete genealogy of Jesus. As such, it has little significance for Christian faith beyond what is said above. (A comparison of this genealogy with the one in Matthew and the one in Gen. 5. is sufficient to note the incompleteness of and complexities in Jesus’ genealogy.)
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a central element in the apostolic witness to Jesus. This proclamation is based on eye- and ear-witness testimony. While the problem of worldview (3-storey universe) and first-century language and thought forms also figure here, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead marks the start of God’s new creation. As such, it is eschatological and futurist, and entirely a matter of faith, and hence beyond the full scope or compass of the sciences.
XV. The normative meaning of any scriptural text is only discerned in relation to the hermeneutical-theological task of properly distinguishing God’s law from God’s gospel. Indeed, the writings of the New Testament and Old Testament authenticate themselves to the individual human being via “the internal witness of the Holy Spirit” (testimonium spiritus sancti internum), as God’s word of law that reveals that one is a sinner and God’s word of gospel that promise forgiveness, life, and salvation to that same person. The Scriptures in their totality cannot be identified as the truth of the gospel since the Biblical canon bears witness to both the law of God and the gospel of God. These two messages of God must be sharply distinguished from each other in order to arrive at a normative interpretation of a scriptural text. To confuse the law and the promise is to misunderstand and misapply the Scriptures. The divine message of law is a word directed against all sinners, even Christians, insofar as they remain sinners (under the wrath of God) until death. This divine word of law is at work in all of creation, even apart from its explicit articulation by the Christian church. The word of law is God’s alien word and work, and a power that is not good news but divine wrath leading to judgment and death. The other, chief, and central message, God’s proper and final word, is the gospel concerning His Son, whose life, crucifixion, and resurrection are the hope of all creation. Although both messages originate in God and relate to all of creation, the gospel message “contradicts” and “out-criticizes” the other message by means of God’s critical work on the cross of Jesus. The proclamation of the gospel “crosses out” the communication of judgment and invites all the ungodly to trust and believe that they are forgiven and acceptable to God for the sake of Christ crucified.
XVI. The truth of the gospel, which overcomes the truth of the law, is the hope and life of Christian faith and the focal point of the interpretation of Scripture and the discipline of theology. With regard to the biblical doctrine of creation, the new creation inaugurated with the death and resurrection of Jesus from the dead provides the ultimate meaning of all creation. Christ is not only the new human being, but in him creation has its redemption, its goal and its focus. The old creation, marked by the old Adam, sin, and death, does not provide the ultimate meaning of all creation. The focal point of Christian faith is on the future of Christ, not the past of Adam. The end of creation is qualitatively better than the beginning of creation.
XVII. While the Christian church was formed by the creative word of Christ who called the apostles to faith and who promised them the Holy Spirit who moved them to bear witness orally and literarily, the normative meaning of any scriptural text is only truly discerned within the “public” that is the church. The Christian Scriptures are the church’s book. The normative meaning of a scriptural text is therefore partially dependent on the history of the interpretation of that scriptural text within the Christian tradition. With regard to the interpretation of Genesis 1-11, many Christian interpreters in the early church sought to balance a reading that accepted the elements in the narratives as realistic and “historical” with “deeper” theological meanings “beneath” the literal surface. The letters of the text led to deeper figurative, symbolical, allegorical meanings. Moreover, it was precisely these scholars’ knowledge of the science of their day that led them to go “deeper” into the text, beyond the “surface,” beyond merely literal meanings. Significantly, Martin Luther rejected this dominant approach in favor of the literal-historical sense of any biblical text, including the stories in Genesis 1-11. Luther’s historical-realist interpretation of Genesis 1-11, however, was destined to be shaken by each new scientific discovery, including especially Copernicus’ arguments and later, Galileo’s and Darwin’s discoveries. Nevertheless, one has to note that even Luther was troubled by his literal-historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11. For example, he wondered about the sanitary conditions on the ark! Likewise, his “existential” interpretation of creation, as given in his explanation to the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, is more helpful today than his literal-historical exegesis of Genesis 1-11, since the former is less affected by new scientific discoveries in the natural sciences and more faithful to abiding theological doctrine in Genesis 1-3. One would like to think that if Luther, university professor that he was, had known about the other stories of origin from the ancient Near East and about the persistence of contemporary scientific knowledge that impinges directly on a literal-historical reading of Genesis 1-11, he might have approached these first chapters in the Bible differently. In any case, most post-Luther Protestant theologians have returned to the previous exegetical procedure of interpreting these stories in Genesis 1-11 in light of prevailing contemporary scientific knowledge and in view of history-of-religions research into other stories of origin from the ancient Near East. They, too, seek figurative meanings that stem from the biblical texts.
XVIII. The normative meaning of the Scriptures is also conditioned by attention to relevant matters arising from the “public” that is “society.” The normative meaning of scriptural texts relating to the doctrine of creation will take into account social scientific discussions about human beings (anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.). The normative meaning of scriptural texts relating to the doctrine of creation will likewise take into account the environmental crisis and the threat to creation that is created by that crisis, even as it will also engage the religious and secular traditions about “creation” found within all cultures and seek to relate the essential content of Christian faith to these other traditions. This latter task is especially necessary, both for the sake of fostering human understanding and community in view of global crises and for the sake of encouraging inter-religious cooperative efforts to address those crises.
XIX. Finally, the normative meaning of a scriptural text is also conditioned by attention to relevant matters arising from within the “public” that is “the academy.” The normative meaning of a scriptural text, which has cosmological implications, is partially dependent on knowledge of the natural world that arises “from reason and experience” (Augustine). Hence, there is the need to interpret scriptural truth in light of natural knowledge of the cosmos. There is also the need to interpret scriptural truth in light of current philosophical accounts of what constitutes “nature” and “truth.” To limit one’s understanding of the cosmos only to apparently self-evident, literal, simple or commonsensical interpretations of Scripture and to reject natural knowledge of the cosmos (“reason and experience”) is to misinterpret Scripture. See, for example, Galileo’s reinterpretation of those biblical passages that speak of the earth’s non-movement and of the sun’s movement around the earth in light of his observations and discoveries that directly confirmed the truth of the Copernican Theory.
A good scientist is like a good detective. The latter does not need to be present at the scene of the crime, when the crime took place, in order to figure out what happened at the time of the crime. The same is true for the origin of the natural world. There are clues about what has happened in the past of the world and universe. 1000s of scientists over a great deal of time have put their minds to the task of figuring out, on the basis of the clues in nature, what has happened in that past. Any scientific consensus that emerges about that past ought to be considered by Christian theology when that consensus impinges on matters important to Christian theology.
XX. Today there is the need to rethink the doctrine of creation in light of scientific consensus about the natural history of the world and evolutionary theory. Contemporary physics, chemistry, and geology have demonstrated conclusively that the universe’s origin occurred approximately 13-17 billion years ago and that the formation of the earth occurred approximately 4.5 billion years ago. Contemporary geology and biology have demonstrated conclusively that evolution has occurred in the past and is occurring in the present. Contemporary biology affirms that evolution has occurred by means of variation, natural selection, and genetic mutation. Evolutionary theory is a well-defined, consistent, and productive set of explanations for how evolutionary change takes place (though biologists continue to debate aspects of evolutionary change, e.g., the emergence of the theory of punctuated equilibrium). Modern evolutionary theory is the foundational and guiding theory for dozens of contemporary sciences, including biology, medicine (immunology), agriculture, physics, chemistry (biochemistry), and geology.
The insights of much of the best, recent scientific work in cosmology do not stand in irreconcilable conflict with the biblical texts that treat the doctrine of creation, provided the symbolic and figurative language in these texts is not interpreted contrary to genre. Many findings in the natural sciences are consistent with central theological affirmations about the Christian doctrine of creation: The beginning from nothing; the order and intelligibility of nature; the progression from simple to complex; the coming forth of plant and animal life “from the earth”; the unique position of human beings in the world (self-consciousness, self-transcendence); and the intimate relationship between human beings and the rest of nature/universe.
(a) So-called “creation science” articulates neither a true understanding of creation nor of science. “Creation science” is contrary to the Scriptures and the history of Christian theology. To argue for “a young earth” is to go against Psalm 19 and other Scripture passages which call upon people to listen to the “speech” that God has caused the natural world to “speak.” “Creation Science” does not appreciate that God is the giver of human reason and that human reason and the “book of nature” enjoy a positive, productive, and reasonable relationship. Furthermore, “creation science” misunderstands the genres in Genesis 1-11, ignores the historical relativity of Genesis 1-11, ignores the history of Christian interpretation of Genesis 1-11 (in which figurative readings have been dominant), and ignores the task of translating the religious meanings of creation into the terms of modern cosmology. Finally, “creation science” has an incorrect understanding of God. For example, to believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, yet also to believe that it “appears” “old” is to imply that God is deceptive and not trustworthy, that is, that God has purposely made the world to look old even though the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Christian theology does not think God deliberately misleads people in the “book of nature.”
(b) While so-called “Intelligence Design Theory” (ID) is correct to highlight the philosophical and metaphysical assumptions of many materialistic-atheistic biologists, ID proponents do not adequately distinguish the valid science from the philosophical positions of their atheistic opponents. One does not have to be a metaphysical materialist in order to accept naturalistic explanations for processes and realities in nature. “Evolution” does not necessarily equal atheism. ID theory itself, however, is not persuasive on theological and scientific grounds. In terms of theology, the God of Scripture does not intervene in the gaps of scientific knowledge. On scientific grounds, many so-called appeals to evidence of an Intelligence Designer, have been shown to be the result of natural causes. The biblical God is not merely a God who brings order out of chaos, but often novelty and disorder out of stasis and routine. God is involved in complexity, chaos, disorder, and in the flow of life. The cosmos is not merely an “order” but a dynamic “process,” i.e., the universe is still being created (creatio continua).
(c) Where there appears to be a conflict between Christian faith and scientific knowledge there is the need for humility on all sides and the cultivation of respectful, open conversation. Christian theology insists on the reality of God against all scientific models that are completely reductive, e.g., positivistic materialism. Christian theology will argue against all theologies that create false gods, e.g., the false god of “scientific creationism,” but also the false gods of “atheistic materialism.” All the sciences involve metaphysical assumptions that should be explored by theology in humble conversation with the sciences. Unfortunately, many biologists have extrapolated from their scientific investigations an anti-theistic-materialistic philosophy that goes beyond the established facts of their science (e.g., Richard Dawkins, William Provine, E. O. Wilson). Christian theology welcomes the contributions of esteemed scientists and others who provide careful and thoughtful arguments against the anti-theistic metaphysical speculations and presuppositions of others scientists. Christian theology also welcomes the contributions of theologians who provide thoughtful presentations of the essential content of Christian faith that are informed by basic knowledge from within the three publics of theology.
One thought on “Christian Theology, the Doctrine of Creation, and Scientific Knowledge”
1. For having spent a year in a boat in a rock-and-roll storm caring for the only surviving land animals, it would have entirely natural for Noah, in the days and decades after the Flood, to have been exuberant in seeing the flourishing of the new natural world, and its free-to-roam animals.
2. It even would be likely that Noah sang, and composed a song, very much like Psalm 104, as that new world would have been to him like a new creation, the original Creation act having only been told to any human by God.
3. Given his experience of the Flood, and of having had to take care of the animals on the Ark, it would have been far more natural, and far more impulsive, for Noah to have composed a song like Psalm 104 than for any other human at any other point in history.
4. Therefore, to think that Psalm 104 itself did *not* have its origins in a song of Noah, is more-or-less absurd.
The implicit fifth point, therefore, is all too sure to me: that the current standard view on the historiography of Psalm 104 not only is premature, but fails to understand/apply the principle of the hermeneutical gap.
All of this is why the greatest focus being placed on the Hebrew is narrow-minded. It would be like doing that for the entire Bible (the NT with the Greek language, or whatever), and thereby expecting to only-thereby understand its authors therein.