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Christ, Trinity, and Creation, Part 1

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June 17, 2014 Tags: Biblical Interpretation, Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by Mark Harris. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Christ, Trinity, and Creation, Part 1
Photo credit: Eugenio Hansen, OFS [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In my last post, I began to outline some of the reasoning behind my new book on creation, where I bring science into conversation with biblical scholarship over the subject of nature/creation. As I suggested last time, and now explore in more detail, the key to doing this well is to be unashamedly theological and focus on God as Trinity. While the Trinitarian nature of God is probably the most paradoxical and un-scientific of all Christian beliefs, it also encapsulates the reason that science and faith have such a hard time seeing eye to eye. God-as-Trinity, like nature-as-creation, can only be apprehended from the inside, as it were. Let me explain.

Book cover: The Nature of Creation

Science and faith occupy very different vantage points. The natural sciences, in their commitment to objectivity, seek out the most neutral and distanced viewpoint. Faith, on the other hand, can’t help but see itself as embedded in a created world of wonder standing in praise of its Creator. The long-running debates over the existence of God as Creator, or the case for intelligent design, or creation vs. evolution overlook this point. And yet it’s basic to many of the biblical creation texts outside of Genesis that any distanced consideration of creation automatically becomes an insider perspective, where the only proper response is praise and worship of the Creator. We see this, for instance, in Psalm 148, which calls myriad created things to praise God, regardless of whether they are conscious and rational (e.g. humans), or unconscious and inanimate (e.g. frost and snow). Inanimate creatures feature even more prominently in other texts, such as Psalm 98, where we hear that the floods will “clap their hands”, and the mountains “sing together with joy” in praise to God. Clearly these texts are metaphorical to some degree, but the question is to what degree? It’s one thing to insist that humans should praise God on account of creation, quite another to say that human praise stands alongside the praise of the floods, the mountains, and every other created thing.

One widespread Christian approach to these texts of creation’s praise borrows from the pervasive viewpoint of “deism”, which holds that God’s activity in the material world was confined to its very beginning. In which case, God has been absent ever since, and the natural sciences now hold sway over purpose and meaning. If God can be said to have any influence now, it’s in the spiritual (hidden) dimension. This means that relationship with God (e.g. in worship) must be a purely human activity – cerebral and spiritual – which means in turn that the texts which speak of creation’s praise can only be metaphors of human praise. After all, if in deism God is absent from the physical (non-human) world, then the physical world has no point of contact with the Creator to experience him or praise him. But while this deistic viewpoint may offer the convenience that belief in God has no impact on modern science (and vice versa), it has one great weakness. We may acknowledge the wonders of the non-human world in this perspective, but we must also recognise that we have emptied it of divine meaning except insofar as there might be evidence of “design” (which only humans can appreciate, and that only cerebrally). In fact, the non-human world isn’t even much of a “creation” in this viewpoint; it’s merely the spiritually-featureless expanse in which humans exist. And there’s certainly no sense in which the non-human creation might exist for its own sake to give glory to God, or to be the vehicle of God’s glory (as in the biblical narratives of divine theophany, e.g. the burning bush). Moreover, this anthropocentric approach which arises from deism is deeply problematic in light of the growing ecological awareness of our times, an awareness which is arguably a rediscovery of the more holistic picture of nature/creation in biblical texts.

There’s another way of reading these texts. This approach – known as “theism” – recognizes God as the transcendent Creator since the beginning, but also acknowledges his simultaneous presence in the physical world now, working in it and with it, and continually breathing divine life into it. Such an appraisal of God’s creative immanence features in texts such as Psalm 139 (“Where can I go from your spirit?”), but finds its clearest expression in post-biblical times, in early Christianity’s discovery of the doctrine of the Trinity. As I pointed out last time, it’s important not to impose later categories onto the ancient biblical texts when they in fact speak of ancient ways of thinking (e.g. the ancient mythology/science of Genesis 1), but in this instance Trinitarian language can be said to represent a theistic systematisation of what’s already nascent in the biblical texts, namely the work of God’s Spirit. If so, the biblical texts of creation’s praise speak of the whole of creation as imbued with the presence of the Holy Spirit; they give non-human reality a gifted theological significance of its own (a grace) which it can’t have in deism. Realization of this point has led many working in the science-religion field to identify the immanent work of the Spirit with evolutionary sciences, with emergence, complexity, novelty, and chance in nature. If scientific evidence is growing of the richly-indeterminate processes in the natural world, then there exists a ready theological analogy in the creative work of the Holy Spirit. So if deism was inspired by the science of Newton, with its closed, self-sufficient, and determinate universe, then theism is at home alongside the evolutionary (and more open-ended) science of today. Theism – recognizing God’s immanent presence in nature as well as his transcendent presence above and beyond it – has the added advantage that it offers a more authentic model of the biblical God.

So far I’ve only mentioned Old Testament texts. What about the New Testament? The Spirit features in creation here too, but there’s a significant change in focus, as I’ll explain next time.


Mark Harris, PhD, is Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. His first academic career was in Physics, but after studying Theology as preparation for ministry in the Church of England, he became enthralled with Biblical Studies. He is interested in the ways that modern science has affected biblical interpretation, especially in understandings of creation and of miracle. He is the author of The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Acumen, 2013).

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #85801

June 17th 2014

Mark,

Good job.

I just have one issue.  Generally Jews are called Theists, but if you make the Holy Spirit and Trinity the basis of Theism, then that leaves them out.

The way I see it before Jesus Christ there were basically two world views, the Jewish one based on the Mosaic Covenant focusing on our relationship with God based on the Law and the Greek/Hellenistic one based on the relationship of people to the Universe based on philosophy.

Jesus Christ and the Trinity made it possible to bring the concerns of Jews and Greeks regarding God, humanity, and the universe through theology, philosophy, and science.

That is good, but there are still many who maintain the old Greek worldview in science and philosophy.  There are many who maintain the old legalistic Jewish worldview in religion. 

The Newtonian worldview still dominates the thinking of many, if not most.  The West has have yet to develop a Trinitarian view of Reality, which is inherent in the Trinitarian view of how God works in and through nature that you depict and we need to move forward in our post Newtonian world.  

   


Mark Harris - #85804

June 18th 2014

Hi Roger

 

Thanks for your comment. Yes, Judaism traditionally affirms theistic beliefs, although like modern Christianity people have been influenced by various other approaches (like deism, pantheism, etc). Of course, Jews and Christians share the Hebrew Bible, which has a basic theistic outlook before you ever start to think about Jesus and the Trinity. So I don’t think that belief in the Trinity is required to be a theist. Indeed, Muslims are theists too. But I think that, once you buy into Christianity - most especially faith in Christ - then affirming God as Trinity is the most “natural” way to interpret creation, and what Scripture says about it (although one must be careful of anachronism).

 

Mark 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #85808

June 18th 2014

Mark,

The statement that Muslims are theists indicates a problem with this term.  In a gene4ral way you are right, but Islam is very different from Judaism and Christianity in that Islam is not a covenantal religion.

Because of this Allah does not rule humans using moral law and He does not rule nature using natural law, but arbitrary Ocassionalism.  Thus Islam is not open to deism or theism as you depict them and this is why Islam is hostile to Western science and democracy.     

We can often better understand our own faith by comparing it to the faiths of others.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all monotheistic faiths, but are different in the way they work. 


Mark Harris - #85810

June 18th 2014

Sure, occasionalism has been an important philosophy in Islam. But there is also much discussion of divine law, and natural law. I also know a number of Muslims who work in science, and many more who live happily in Western democracies.

 

My understanding of theism is simply that there is a transcendent God (or gods) who is nevertheless personal and active in the world. I believe that this is fairly uncontroversial as a definition. If so, Islam counts as theistic, although I agree with you that in general Judaism and Christianity are probably closer to each other as systems than either is to Islam. 


Eddie - #85812

June 18th 2014

Mark:

Yes, yours (except for the parenthetical addition of “or gods”) is the standard definition of “theism” as employed by religion scholars and philosophers of religion around the world.  And normally, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all regarded as theistic.

In older writing on religion, “monotheism” was used more commonly than “theism,” and so these three religions were all considered forms of “monotheism.”  There is nothing wrong with that term, though for some inexplicable reason it has gone out of style.

Your terminology is clear and I see no reason for you to alter it.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #85813

June 18th 2014

Mark,

I guess the question is, Is Allah considered Personal? 

Most people would say that if Allah is the perfectly Simple Being as many Islamists say that the Quran claims Allah to be, then Allah is not personal as we understand personal. 

See Surah 112, which says that Allah is absolutely Simple and absolutely unlike anyone or anything else. 


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