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The Christian Doctrine of Creation: dead duck or saving truth?

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 8 January 2004


It seems to the modern mind that the Christian doctrine of Creation is a dead duck. This follows from the geology of Lyle and the evolutionary theory of Darwin. While the former extended geological time far beyond the biblical time scale, the latter explains the existence of life on earth in terms of sheer chance. The offence to the religious mind of Darwin is not that we are descended from apes but that our presence has come about by accident; there is no grand design, humanity is not at the centre of creation, we are but linguistic animals. Thus the Christian doctrine of creation, which presumes a purposive creator, is seen to be forfeit. This leaves such a wound in the body of Christianity that one wonders if it can survive. For this is no peripheral doctrine, it is central to Christian faith. Any defense of the doctrine of creation cannot rely on the fuzzy logic that tells us that God was a player in the evolutionary process (if He was what did he contribute?), or by pushing the activity of God back to the big bang. Both of these solutions dispose of God.

The solution to our dilemma regarding the competing narratives of creation lies, in part, in the historical analysis of how this came about. A most accessible account of how the medieval world view became the modern can be found in Peter Harrison’s book; The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Harrison traces the change in biblical hermeneutics brought about by the reformers in which the symbolic understanding of scripture, employed by medieval Christianity, was replaced by the literal meaning. Creation, fall, flood and Babel were understood to be not symbols carrying spiritual meaning but historical events. Harrison’s main point is that the reorientation to the literal meaning of scripture prompted a similar reorientation of our view of the world. Instead of objects in the world having symbolic meaning they were seen, as it were, literally, for themselves. This broke with the medieval view that objects in themselves were worthless, what counted, was their pointing to a higher reality. Natural science inherited the change in biblical hermeneutics. The unfortunate aspect of this heritage was that the book of nature was thought to mirror the book of scripture and vice versus. At the time this overlap included resurrection, the damnation of souls and their destiny as well as the origin of all things. While most of these correspondences have been discredited, there is a vestige of this idea in the creationist debate in our own time. Such a conception may be called physico-theology because it assumed a correspondence between nature and scripture. This replaced the late medieval Aristotelian idea of immanent causation and made God a necessary part of the mechanisms of the universe. The consequences of this move are summed up by Peter Harrison:

“The focus on eschatological concerns, however, is perhaps the most interesting feature of these accounts (of physico-theology). Here we see the Christian doctrine of the last things divested of its metaphorical elements and imported virtually intact into the realm of nature. The time table of the last days was explained in terms of cosmological theories, the resurrection of bodies accounted for within the ordinary operations of nature, physical locations were provided for heaven and hell, a geological account given of the formation of the new earth: even the purging of sin and torments of the damned were explained in physical terms.” (p160)

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Speculation was rife as to where heaven, hell, the garden of Eden were located whereas previously these were understood to have a non physical reality. Prominent academics like Isaac Newton spent much time using biblical texts to calculate the date of the end the world. Thus the move to literalism produced a kind of fundamentalism that is evident even now in some churches. It is on this basis that many people of our day, particularly scientists, reject Christianity because they see it as being in error about the nature of the world. The irony is that this face was placed upon Christianity by the founders of natural science. Thus the shift in biblical interpretation that occurred with the reformers enabled biblical texts to speak unencumbered by the overextended symbolic system of medieval scholasticism but the literal interpretation that replaced it was distorted by the current interest in the natural world. When scientists rage against the irrationalism and the superstition of the church, they rage against a straw man that their predecessors were complicit in erecting.

Although the 17th Century scientists located their work within a theological frame-work, it was but a short step to arrive at the redundancy of God in causal explanation. By making God an agent in the universe the stage is set for His erasure. The seeds of the death of God lay in physico-theology. This was worked out with a vehemence by mostly continental philosophers of the later Enlightenment and is the origin of modern atheism as M. J. Buckley has so beautifully illustrated.

If the creation stories are not about the physical origin of the universe, what are they about and why were they preserved? An illustration from practice makes the point. I recently celebrated a family wedding and I chose as my text Genesis 2:18-24:

Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner. "So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

It is unusual for this text to be read at weddings rather than texts from the New Testament that talk of love. But it is a very important text for those who marry to hear. In my sermon I cleaned it up a bit and smoothed the obvious gender bias. It is just as important for the woman to see the man and cry: “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and for the woman to leave her family and cling to her husband.

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The reading opens with a pronouncement “Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone”. Already we are in trouble. Such statements are unacceptable to people who choose to be alone. Here we find a clash with our cultural mores, in the absence of a creator we have become the creators of our own lives even to the extent that we can deny that intimate relationships with another are at the centre of our lives. We can choose to marry or not and can also choose to be childless if we do choose marriage. We hear all the time about lifestyle choice. And we are enraged by anyone who says that there are certain human fundamentals from which we flee to our misery.

As Stanley Hauerwas says “the project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they have no story.” In his usual pugnacious way he has highlighted the impossibility of the project of modernity; we are to create our lives out of nothing. We are to look upon the world and see what we desire and work towards its attainment in the absence of an authoritative community that is formed by a thick narrative of the human. We are to choose the purpose of our lives. It is in the interests of market capitalism to foster this understanding because guess who is waiting to tempt and seduce with a myriad lifestyle choices those who look thus upon the world. We live in a world in which personal choice is a right and is deemed to be value free. If we worry about the ephemeral nature of contemporary culture we may look no further than here.

The story that Genesis 2:18-24 gives to people who marry affirms that it is not good for us to be alone, our lives can only be fulfilled in an intimate relationship. It is that relationship that realigns all other relationships including the most powerful, the family. A boundary is placed around the couple when they leave their families and cling to their partners, this is the fundamental unit of human kind that must be respected by all. Marriage is not just another lifestyle choice but an entering into the promise of a complete humanity. The creation story points to this promise.

The above illustrates how a third move in our understanding of the interpretation of biblical narrative was essential. The move from the symbolic or analogical to a literal reading is completed by a third move; the move to an understanding of the biblical narratives in terms of their original context as being concerned with our identity and place in the world. This has been the task of the historical-critical method in biblical studies for over a hundred years. It has exposed the profundity of the biblical author’s original intention and its relevance to human living. This is what will save us from the shallowness of the times and create in us the peaceable kingdom of justice and compassion. For the doctrine of creation is not only about the creation narratives but about the whole of the Christian corpus. We do not create ourselves but are formed by the Christian story into a new humanity. This is a story that is true because it has its origins in an actual history, that of Israel and of Jesus.

The Christian doctrine of creation will remain a dead duck (apologies to Michael Leunig) as long as we mix it up with the causal theories of natural science. However, having said that, the doctrine must speak the truth about the creature. This is the same creature that the biologists describe, a product of the evolutionary process both in body and in mind. While the biologists understand the delight that the man and women find in each other as an evolutionary bribe, if you like, the Christian sees that delight as a gift and a promise of fulfilled humanity. Both stories are true, the former based on causal theory and the latter on a deep vision of humanity gleaned from the past. But which story should we base our marriages upon? Do the radical biologists like Richard Dawkins honestly base their relationship to their wives upon sound evolutionary principles? My guess is that their hearts betray their rhetoric.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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