Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Creation? or Evolution? – Reynolds


A Meditation on Genesis 1

The old debate about the biblical story of creation (in the first chapter of Genesis) still breaks out occasionally in one form or another, "creationism," or more recently “intelligent design.”
The early part of the twentieth century saw "modernist" and "fundamentalist" in fierce combat on the question whether humanity was a risen ape or fallen angel.  Benjamin Disraeli's testimony was that he was "on the side of the angels" (though Queen Victoria doubtless thought him one of the apes).  And in Tennessee, through that hot July of 1925, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow debated the first chapter of Genesis (and the future of a young teacher who taught the theory of evolution) in what has come to be known as the "Scopes Monkey Trial."
As it seems to be a matter yet unresolved, let us look again at this first chapter of Genesis.  I don't claim to know much about the various theories of evolution, but perhaps I can help some people to a deeper and richer understanding of what the Bible is saying.
The main point to remember is this:  The Bible is not a science book. It's the Word of God. There is a difference.
Often we read the Bible with our contemporary scientific understanding of the universe, and because it doesn't agree with the Copernican revolution or Newtonian physics, we reject the whole book as impossible or irrelevant. If we read the Bible simply as a science book then we do have to say that modern theories of creation do conflict with this primitive world-view.  We simply do not have the same mental picture of the universe today.   But in 2,000 years time, I think our present scientific understanding will seem as strange to people then as this more primitive "world-view" does to us.
The creation story as science
Do you believe the world is flat?  That over the earth is a kind of sheet-metal sky?  And that outside of that "firmament" and under the earth are primeval waters of chaos waiting to break in and destroy?  If you don't believe that, then you don't believe the first chapter of Genesis as science.
Look at what the story is saying about our scientific understanding of the universe.
It tells us that there was, first of all, darkness and "the deep."  The earth was "without form, and void" (Hebrew tohu wevohu), and darkness was upon the face of the deep, swirling waters of primordial chaos.  The salt-water sea continued to be the symbol of chaos and disorder for the Hebrew mind right through the vision of John in the Apocalypse, the book of Revelation.  Remember in his vision of the New Jerusalem, there would be "no more sea." (Rev. 21:1)
Then the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, and God spoke, and the first act of creation was accomplished.  "And God said, `Let there be light!'  And there was light."
Darkness and light are separated from one another, and there is evening and morning, the first day.  (Note there is still no sun or moon, only the light.)
Then God created "the firmament" (the NRSV translates “the dome.”)  As the word also implies in English, the Hebrew word means something quite solid which divided the waters above the earth from the waters below the earth (note Job 26).  The Hebrew word intimates something beaten out, as a metal smith would beat copper into a fine sheet to make a bowl or a plate.  The purpose of the firmament was to keep the waters of chaos "above the firmament," out of this pocket of light and order which God had formed.
And the firmament God called "the heavens," and that was the second day.
Next God caused the waters under the heavens to be gathered together in one place so that the dry land appeared.  This God called "the earth" (Hebrew adhamah).  The seas then were remnants of the waters of primeval chaos.  (If you read the account of Noah's flood, the waters came both from above the earth and below.  ". . . all the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11).
Then vegetation appeared upon the earth.  And that was the third day.
Not until the fourth day were the sun and moon created and fixed in the firmament.  On the fifth, all the life of the oceans and the birds of the air.  On the sixth, God created the animals of the earth, the beasts of the field and forest, and then, finally, "in God's own image," God created "man" -- adham, "male and female." 
And then, on the seventh day, God rested.
Genesis 1 as "the Word of God"
But just as, in other ways and in other places, God uses our fallible words to convey to us "the Word of the Lord," so here God uses this primitive scientific understanding to convey to us certain essential and (I believe) eternal truths. 
Read this chapter again asking not what it says about the world but what it says about God; not how the world was created, but why the world was created. 
First, it tells us that God created.
It didn't just happen.  It was brought into being by "the Creator," One who exists beyond the creation. 
There were other stories of creation in the literature of the ancient peoples of the near east -- Egyptian, Accadian, Mesopotamian.  There are points of resemblance between those ancient stories and the Biblical story.  But in significant ways, they differ.
The Biblical story, which arose out of the Hebrew consciousness of God "the Lord" (Yahweh), is in several ways quite unique.  The Hebrews were the only peoples who saw beyond the creation to "the Creator."
            In polytheism the gods were actually the elements and powers in the world personalized and given names.  The primary setting of divine life was thus nature and the life of nature was the life of the gods. 

            Since there was nothing outside the world to create it, thought about the origin of the world could not reach behind the primordial static chaos.
           (G. Ernest Wright, An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology, p. 1)
How do you think this Biblical story came to be written?  Do you think someone sat down one day with pen in hand and said, "OK God, tell me what to write!"  I have a different conception. 
I believe that this story developed over the years, perhaps over centuries of years.  See them, this primitive people, gathered around their fire at night, their Bedouin tents circled about them, the eyes of the children wide with wonder.  And the head of the family, or the family's story-teller, would repeat again the familiar words:
            In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.   And the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters . . . .
Over the years, this particular people, wooed by the Spirit of God, developed a sense of One who is beyond creation, who was the Creator, One whom they came to call Yahweh, "the Lord." 
Second, in the Bible story, creation is "by the Word of the Lord."  -- “And God said, `Let there be light.'  And there was light."
This is no coincidence.  Several times the Bible reminds us that it was "by the Word of the Lord the heavens and the earth were created."  (Psalm 33:6-9, Hebrews 11:3, II Peter 3:5-7, John 1:1f.)  God spoke, and it was so.
Here there was no struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness as in the pagan stories of polytheistic peoples:  the dragon Tiamat against the prince of the Gods, Marduk, in the Mesopotamian epic, Re against the dragon of darkness in the Egyptian story, Baal against Leviathan the sea monster in the Canaanite myth.  In Biblical understanding, God is omnipotent.  God had only to speak, and it was so.
This phrase "the Word of God" has particular meaning in the Bible.  A person's spirit or soul was seen to be in their breath.  (The same Hebrew word, nephesh, means both breath and spirit.)  A word is a puff of breath, an expression of our very being, our soul or spirit.  So "the Word of God" is the outgoing expression of God's Spirit, seeking to accomplish God's purposes.
So we refer to Jesus Christ as "the Word of God" -- the expression of God's purpose for humanity, of the very "Spirit," the Person of God.  Remember how the Gospel of John begins,
            In the beginning was the Word.  And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.   All things were in the beginning with Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. . . .
 Third, God looked on what has been created and "saw that it was good."
Again and again, the chapter repeats it, as if to beat this truth into the mind and consciousness of the people.  And finally, on the final day of creation, God looked on all that had been made, "And behold, it was very good."
The things which God created are not evil in themselves.  Again, most of the world's religions tend to see the physical as evil and the spiritual as good.  It's an ancient dualism that runs through much of human understanding and has infected the life of the church again and again. 
But the Bible says that the physical world, as God created it, is good.  We are given the use of it in freedom.  So we may use the things of the world for good or for evil -- fire, money, power, a pack of cards.  Even liquor and all forms of drugs, though they are exceedingly dangerous, are not evil in themselves.  It is our use, or abuse, that makes them so.
Fourth, God climaxed the creation with the creation of "man,”
Adam (Hebrew adham) is humanity, male and female, created in "the image of God."  And this, it appears, was a unique and special part of God's creation.
"Created in the image of God."  This phrase has occasioned a lot of thought and discussion in the history of Christian thought.  Let me suggest, for us today, that it may be taken to mean that God has created our humanity for responsible relationship with God and with one another. 
In the Babylonian myth, "man (sic) was created as the slave of the gods to do the menial work of the earth."  In the Biblical account, "man possessed dignity and worth because he was given the freedom to be a responsible being." (Wright, pp. 2 & 5)
And God gave to our humanity a tremendous responsibility -- responsibility for the care of the earth, for the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle and all that moves upon the face of the earth!
The intimation is that the human race will have a certain power, an authority over the natural world.  But it is also true that the Bible never separates authority from responsibility.  Here and throughout the bible, the intimation is not that humanity is an owner who can use the world for his or her own profit, pleasure and satisfaction.  Rather we are "stewards," trustees, managers, to whom the things of the earth are entrusted.  And we must some day give an accounting to the Creator for our use of the things entrusted to us.
The “three-storied universe” of the Bible is not heaven, earth, and the fires of hell beneath, but “the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth” (Deuteronomy 5:8, Exodus 20:4). 
So many people become confused when they study contemporary scientific theories of how the created order came to be. Evolutionary theories and the Big Bang theory seem to contradict the biblical account. Creationists assert an understanding in defiance of current scientific theories. Actually, the whole debate between evolution and creationism is irrelevant to what the Bible saying.
(Reading the Bible for the Love of God, pp. 62-63.)

7 comments:

Peter Black said...

Alan, as always, you provide much to stimulate the mind and apply the mental mandibles to chew on. You have again accomplished that, helping to challenge long-held assumptions, serving to strengthen faith in God and His Word. Thanks!

Diana Dart said...

Food for thought, for sure. A few questions for clarification...

You mention that "this particular people... developed a sense of One who is beyond creation." This insinuates that God was at a distance, an idea formed in their minds. But what about Adam and Eve, their children and the generations that followed? They (A&E) were in God's presence in the garden of Eden. Their loss of fellowship would have been acute and likely passed on through the generations. Would "this particular people" not have an eye witness account outlining part of Creation (at least the seventh day, as well as the naming process)?

The idea of reading the Bible to find God, as opposed to uncovering scientific fact, is important. Your thoughts are gently presented and well thought out. You've certainly provided fodder for discussion in our house :)

(Sorry for the long comment)

Andy Doerksen said...

(Response part 1)

Brother Reynolds:

Thanks for your article, but I feel compelled to gently (I hope!) take you to task for your handling of Genesis-vs-evolution. I'm convinced you actually don't grasp what's at the heart of the issue, despite your claim near the beginning about what "the point" is.

That claim told me immediately where you were going, because it's a line oft-repeated by those who do not take the early chapters of Genesis as real history, but merely as symbolic. You stated, "The main point to remember is this: The Bible is not a science book."

That assertion has been used countless times to jettison Scripture from the table of discussion about human and cosmic origins--so I knew that's precisely where you were headed.

At the same time, however, you're technically correct: the Bible isn't a science book. The Bible is pre-science: it sets the worldview-stage for how science ought to be conducted. Science is never conducted in a philosophical vacuum; there are always nonempirical assumptions that precede it. If one is committed to the worldview of naturalism, then one will necessarily arrive at some version of the evolution of all things from scratch.

Andy Doerksen said...

(Response part 2)

However, if one begins with theism, then it is possible to conduct theistic science--i.e., based on the broad outline provided by Genesis regarding Creation Week (and the Flood).

One of your errors is to assume that Genesis reflects a "primitive" view of origins. It's apparently never occurred to you that the "primitive" view of origins may, instead, reflect what really happened. You write, "There were other stories of creation in the literature of the ancient peoples of the near east -- Egyptian, Accadian, Mesopotamian. There are points of resemblance between those ancient stories and the Biblical story. But in significant ways, they differ."

One way to interpret this situation between the various origin stories (including Genesis) is to assume they're all just versions of a human understanding--Genesis being different only in that God gave the Hebrews some theological insights, but nothing literal that impacts science. But we could just as easily and logically interpret this as reflecting what actually happened, with divine revelation eliminating the pagan errors when Genesis was written.

Andy Doerksen said...

(Response part 3)

Both Babylon and Egypt, for instance, subscribed to the notion that the world and its creatures emerged from an original watery matrix. Why could that not be a cultural memory, garbled over time, of the actual Creation account handed down from Adam and Eve, who got it from God? The Genesis account, then, would provide the accurate rather than distorted version.

Where Genesis sets the record straight, in re. to the Babylonian and Egyptian views, is to reveal that Yahweh was actually behind the watery matrix out of which everything else arose, rather than the pagan view that the water-realm was first. Instead of the pagan scenario, God first created a vast body of water, then formed the Earth (and possibly other planets) out of that water. Much later, the apostle Peter affirmed that this is what happened: "by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water." (2Pet. 3:5)

It's very obvious that Peter interpreted Gen. 1 literally--and there's no reason whatsoever that you and I shouldn't view it the same way. No, the Bible isn't a "science book"--but it doesn't logically follow that what it does tell us about Creation isn't literal or has no bearing on science.

Andy Doerksen said...

(Response part 4)

The same principle--historical statements having a bearing on science--applies to the Flood. Genesis 7:11 tells us that "all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened." Contextually the "great deep" in 7:11 is the same (or at least related to) that mentioned in Gen. 1:2. In other words something momentous occurred on the sea floor at the commencement of the Flood, the same sea floor out of which God had originally raised the continents. Now if Gen. 7:11 is actual history--and there's no reason to take it otherwise--then that should affect our understanding of at least some aspects of geology. It should be no surprise whatever that scientists have discovered the network of deep oceanic ridges wending their way around the globe--surely evidence of Gen. 7:11. The violence of this upheaval would also have given rise to at least some mountain-building, and this too helps us interpret certain topological features that have existed since that time--despite the fact that Genesis isn't a "geology book."

But you go on to reveal why it is you don't take the Bible's Creation statements at face value: "How do you think this Biblical story came to be written? . . . I believe that this story developed over the years . . . . [T]his primitive people, gathered around their fire at night . . . . And the head of the family, or the family's story-teller, would repeat again the familiar words: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . . Over the years, this particular people, wooed by the Spirit of God, developed a sense of One who is beyond creation . . . ."

These lines imply a couple of things: (a) We can't trust what the Bible tells us because it's a mixture of human ideas and some input from God at various stages. And (b) we should put more stock in what Alan Reynolds theorizes about how the Creation account originated, than in what that account itself tells us (along with commentary by such biblical writers as Peter).

What you've inadvertently done here, then, is to undermine Genesis as a reliable foundation for building the Christian worldview.

Andy Doerksen said...

(Response part 5)

Ironically, the theological lessons about the character of God, the purpose of creation, and so forth, which you derive from your reading of Genesis, are in fact true. I affirm those. However, they're only true because they're what Scripture actually teaches--just like the same Scripture actually teaches that God formed the Earth "out of water and by water"--literally.

And no, the Bible does not teach that "the earth is flat," or that the Sun revolves around our planet, and other antiquated notions. You appear unwilling or unable to differentiate between places where the Bible uses face-value language, and places where it uses figurative language. Genesis 1 is not figurative. There is absolutely no scientific discovery that has ever overturned the literal understanding of the Creation account. And in fact the Creation account provides us with a thought-foundation for conducting proper science, rather than the naturalistic foundation that predominates today in the scientific establishment.

What your article does, then, is acquiesce to, and lend a hand to, naturalistic thinking rather than biblical thinking. I urge you in Jesus' name to rethink the whole issue.

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