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Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science, Part 1

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January 31, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's entry was written by Robert C. Bishop. 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.

Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science, Part 1

This is the first post in a series taken from Robert Bishop's scholarly essay "Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science", which can be downloaded here.

In teaching at an evangelical liberal arts college that holds firmly to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, I find most of my students think the biblical doctrine of creation (DoC) is limited to two points: (1) God created out of nothing (ex nihilo) and (2) God created the world in six days (whatever they think “days” is supposed to mean!). My students are fairly representative of contemporary evangelicals’ understanding of the DoC. This contemporary understanding is problematic, however, because it is much narrower than the full doctrine as it was developed by the Patristic fathers. Given that the DoC is perhaps one of the most helpful pieces of theology for thinking about science, it’s worthwhile recovering it in all its glory. What follows over the next few parts of this blog is a brief tour through the elements of this amazing doctrine.

Two preliminary comments to get started. First, we have a tendency to cut up doctrines into chunks like the DoC, the doctrine of providence, the doctrine of salvation, the doctrine of eschatology, etc. Nevertheless, we need to realize that this is somewhat artificial on our part as we strive to understand one grand doctrine of God and His activity. All of these doctrines interpenetrate and inform each other as can be seen in what follows (e.g. much of God’s ongoing work of creation is continuous with His providence in creation; likewise, if God hadn’t created, there would be no providence, salvation or sanctification).

Second, all of the elements composing the DoC have been hard fought, won and then lost over and over in the history of Christian thought. If many of the following elements seem surprising or new to you, that’s largely because since the eighteenth century the DoC has suffered significant decline such that contemporary Christians usually only have a very atrophied version of the doctrine in mind when they think about creation, God’s work in creation, and science.1

Creator/Creature Distinction

Let’s start with the creator/creature distinction, something that is familiar to us and that we recognize as part of the DoC when we think about it. This distinction actually has some important yet often missed implications. For example, the distinction implies that God intends for creation to be something different from rather than similar to Him. God didn’t make creation with the same infinite being or nature as Himself. Creation’s being distinct from God implies it is to be distinctly itself, literally to become uniquely what God calls it to be in Christ.

Moreover, the creator/creature distinction implies that all of creation is valued—it has the kind of nature and functionality God intended it to have. After all, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31), is a proclamation of His valuing all of creation. The Hebrew term in Genesis 1 and 2, tob, often translated as “good,” has a variety of meanings in different contexts including moral goodness and craftsmanship. However, it is commonly used in the OT in the sense of functioning properly. For example, “It is not good [tob] for the human [adam] to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him” (Gen. 2:18). The man isn’t fully functioning without a sustainer appropriate to his created nature. So the repeating refrains of “good” in Genesis 1 and 2 primarily mean value, as in properly functioning or working as intended, fulfilling assigned purposes. From the beginning, God is telling us that creation does—and will do—what He intends.

Moreover, we see God’s valuation of creation especially in Jesus’ incarnation: what higher affirmation could there be of the value of the material order than the second person of the Trinity taking on the material nature of creation and inhabiting its order, an order that Jesus Himself established and blessed in the beginning?

A final implication of the creator/creature distinction is that creation has what theologians call contingent rationality. Creation is contingent in two senses: (1) it is utterly dependent on God such that if Christ ceased sustaining creation it would disappear instantly and (2) God could have made any kind of creation He wanted but chose to make this particular creation. God didn’t need or have to create anything. He was under no compulsion or necessity. Rather, being a loving communion of three persons, out of the overflow of that love God brought into existence a particular kind of creation for His glory and for its own sake. Furthermore, creation has its own rationality, its own particular order, structure and functionality, which is at least partially intelligible to us.

The creator/creature distinction has implications for science as well. First, since creation is so valuable to God, its study is a worthwhile human activity. Second, the contingent rationality of the created order is what science seeks to uncover and understand (whether or not scientists realize that both this order and its intelligibility are good gifts from God).

Ex Nihilo Creation

That creation was made ex nihilo—literally out of absolute nothing—is implied by the creator/creature distinction. The Patristic fathers inferred the ex nihilo nature of creation from this distinction and various passages like John 1:1-3, 1 Cor. 8:6, Col. 1:16, Heb. 11:3, Rev. 4:11 in their struggle with ancient Greek natural philosophy (the latter maintained that matter was eternal). This element of the DoC was not easy to achieve and required the Patristics to “think away” what was false from the Greek philosophical ideas that so permeated their world and their education.

The theological significance of ex nihilo creation is hard to overestimate. For one thing it protects God’s sovereignty showing us that all things in creation are subject to Him. Moreover, it distinguishes God’s creative activity from all other religious creation stories. There is no pre-existent matter giving rise to divinities as in the other ancient Near East creation accounts. Creation is pictured as originating in covenantal love (Jer. 33:25) rather than conflicts among deities. God is never once seen to be struggling to shape recalcitrant matter (a constant theme in other ancient Near East creation accounts).

Another important implication of ex nihilo creation is that there can be no creation out of nothing without purpose. Creation was no accident on God’s part. He has reasons for what He’s doing, one of which is for creation to become what God destines it to be in Christ (more in part 3).

Finally, a creation made out of nothing is particularly fragile! Its tendency is to always fall back into nothing meaning that creation requires God’s constant preserving care. Here, there is a clear connection between God’s creating out of nothing and His general providence sustaining the being and order of creation.

Sovereignty in Creation

God’s sovereignty in creation contrasts with all the ancient creation myths and cosmologies, where divinities are always struggling with each other and with recalcitrant matter. Instead, the Bible pictures God as in control of all things: “See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power and his arm rules for Him” (Is. 40:10a), “He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in” (Is. 40:22b), and

Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all (I Chron. 29: 11-12a).

From Genesis 1 to Revelations 22, God is king and ruler over all! One of the most relevant implications of this for thinking about science: God rules over all natural processes! Therefore, anything a scientist says about processes in creation can only be describing something that is sustained by God and subject to His sovereignty.

Notes

1. Although not his main theme, James Turner’s masterful history, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America, Johns Hopkins University Press (1986), reveals much of the DoC’s decline during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Robert C. Bishop is the John and Madeline McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science and an associate professor of physics and philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois. He received his master’s degree in physics and doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Bishop's research involves history and philosophy of science, philosophy of physics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics. Bishop is the author of The Philosophy of the Social Science and co-editor of Between Chance and Choice: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Determinism.

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Deb in B.C. - #49869

February 2nd 2011

RCB: “...what it means to say that ALL THINGS were create through Christ and for Christ. ...to interpret Gen. 1:1-2 theologically in a way that was consistent with Christ’s role in creation….Given only Gen. 1:1-2 in its historical context the case for ex nihilo creation is ambiguous at best. However, given the totality of the Bible’s teaching about God and creation, we can see Genesis 1:1-2 as implying that matter was ex nihilo created before God began the ordering and shaping of creation.”

But, if creation in Gen. relates to function and purpose (Walton), could not the ALL THINGS mean the specific, functional creation, rather than the actual matter itself? Could not the passages re Christ be consistent with pre-existent matter? I’m not clear why Christ’s role in creation changes/impinges on pre-existent matter.

Help.
Thx.


penman - #49884

February 2nd 2011

Hi Rich
My original post has been removed (it must have been unwittingly horrific!).

I probably said that if one believes in divine sovereignty, common descent with modification should cause no problem, since that whole process was just God’s decree in operation. I know I mentioned James McCosh & B.B.Warfield as “Calvinist evolutionists” of a bygone day.

If that’s what I said, I’m not sure why it’s one-sided. Of course a Calvinist can be anti-evolution; lots are. But it’s due to their interpretation of Genesis, not because they think the general theory is theologically incompatible with God’s sovereignty.

As to Darwin, I won’t defend his theological misapprehensions. As to natural selection, why should that conflict with God’s sovereignty?

As to my distinction between created causes & God’s sovereignty - God can still be sovereign in events that are contingent - maybe it’s philosophically vacuous. But at that point I become a biblicist myself. I think it’s what scripture teaches. How else explain the concidence of God’s sovereignty & human free agency? Eg Acts 4:27-8. Herod & Pilate wickedly crucify Christ; they were not coerced; yet they did “whatever Thy hand & counsel determined before to be done.”


Jon Garvey - #49890

February 2nd 2011

@penman - #49884

“As to Darwin, I won’t defend his theological misapprehensions. As to natural selection, why should that conflict with God’s sovereignty? “

When you consider, Darwin himself presented quite moderate claims, theologically speaking. He gave no mechanism for variation (which has always been an observed fact and which could easily be attributed to God).

Natural selection itself is not a random process, but one highly ordered by the environment.

His contribution was to suggest these two natural (not random) processes could lead to new species, apart from a divine fiat.

It’s only with the Neo-Darwinian invocation of random mutation that chance gets a theoretical look-in, and even then the real power lies in the orderly process of selection.


Rich - #49894

February 2nd 2011

penman:

I didn’t think that your original point was wrong—that evolution could be construed within orthodox faith.  Nor did I object to your examples.  But it’s so often that people like Hodge are left out, that I wanted to balance things.  In other words, I was only picking on you because you were handy. 

What Darwin and Hodge both understood is that, at least for a mortal, it’s *logically impossible* to use Darwinian processes to achieve a predetermined end.  And it’s hard to see how even God could do it, *if he limits himself to natural causes*.  God can create *any* initial conditions; but in a Darwinian world, *no* initial condition can guarantee the emergence of man.  So saying that God is sovereign isn’t an explanation.

If your position is:  “The Bible seems to assert that God is the cause of all events, even chance and voluntary ones, and I have no clue how that can be, but I accept it on faith”—I understand.  In that case, I unjustly picked on you as the nearest representative of bad philosophy

For me it’s a non-issue, because I deny that random mutations are the main driver of evolution.  And so in principle could any TE, but for some reason 95% of them are wedded to neo-Darwinism.


Rich - #49900

February 2nd 2011

Jon Garvey:

Your remarks on Darwin are true as far as they go, but they tell only part of the story.

True, he did not speak of random mutations, and he admitted that he did not know the causes of variation.  Nonetheless, in numerous statements he makes it clear that, whatever the causes, they *aren’t* divine tinkering to divert evolution in one direction rather than another.  And if God isn’t tinkering, how can he guarantee any result?  Darwin had no answer to this question, and at least in his self-presentation (which admittedly some say was insincere), he was deeply troubled by it.

I don’t want to get into a debate about the rest here, but I’ll just record my view that natural selection hasn’t nearly the explanatory power you’re giving it.  To put it crudely, it explains the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest.  The origin of novel biological form is still up for grabs, and the younger leaders in evolutionary biology (whom you don’t hear about here) are increasingly critical of Darwinian mechanisms.  I’m with them, and I wish TEs would get on board, instead of digging in their heels to defend yesterday’s theory.


penman - #49909

February 2nd 2011

Rich #49894
=If your position is:  “The Bible seems to assert that God is the cause of all events, even chance and voluntary ones, and I have no clue how that can be, but I accept it on faith”—I understand.  In that case, I unjustly picked on you as the nearest representative of bad philosophy=

That could serve as a crude summary of my position. I’m not a trained philosopher; I’m a trained theologian, & the philosophy-theology interface is endlessly debatable. But I think my position falls pretty squarely within the Reformed tradition. The relationship of God’s agency to the created world (causes, contingencies, freedom etc) is, for me, enveloped in mystery, owing to God’s attribute of incomprehensibility. So I have to confess I don’t know HOW God brings it about that His decree is carried out, without violating contingency & free agency. THAT He does, is I think a revealed datum, pervasive in scripture.

But that leaves me free, still, to explore how God might have worked within the created realm to ensure particular outcomes. So as far as ID goes, I just say, present your arguments! But even if they don’t convince, it won’t affect my belief in the fact of God’s sovereignty, though the mode eludes me.


RCB - #49925

February 2nd 2011

@ Deb in B.C. - #49869

Good question. If Christ created all things, Irenaeus, Basil, Augustine and others reasoned this must include both matter and the principles by which matter is ordered. So to translate into Walton’s terms, Christ would have created matter and the functions as well as been involved in the filling of those functions.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #49947

February 2nd 2011

If God the Father through Christ the Logos and the Holy Spirit created matter and the laws of nature, which God did, then God created evolution which is part of God’s ongoing Creation.  The only problem is the conflict based concept of Darwinism is not consonant with God’s character and is false.  The ecological view of evolution based on mutualism and symbiosis is consonant with the character of God and is true.

There are several ways to translate Gen 1:1.  I prefer “In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and earth, the earth (universe) was dark and without form.”  I think this could mean, At the time God began the process of Creation,  the first step was the creation of matter in the form of a Black Hole which was without light (energy) and form.  Then God said, ‘Let there be Light and energy was created [and the Big Bang took place.]

God created the universe and called it “good,” but God did not create it “perfect.”  Perfection will come at the End of Time after Jesus comes again.  In the meantime God is perfecting the Creation and God’s People until God purpose of God’s Creation is completed.  Evolution as created by God and not as spoken by Darwin is part of this process.


R Hampton - #49950

February 2nd 2011

Jon Garvey,

I would turn it around and say that It’s only with the Neo-Athiests and Biblical Literalists that random mutation has become a force apart from God—bestowing upon randomness a power in opposition to (or at least unaccounted by) divine providence. Now that’s one heck of a theological supposition!


Gregory - #49967

February 2nd 2011

“The only problem is the conflict based concept of Darwinism is not consonant with God’s character and is false.” - Roger Sawtelle

“Darwinism is the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.” - BioLogos


Papalinton - #49973

February 2nd 2011

Hi Roger Sawtelle

“If God the Father through Christ the Logos and the Holy Spirit created matter and the laws of nature, which God did, then God created evolution which is part of God’s ongoing Creation. “

1.  Comment:  Shoe-horning an inerrant concept [religion] into a discoverable concept [evolution/laws of nature].

“The ecological view of evolution based on mutualism and symbiosis is consonant with the character of God and is true.”

2.  Comment:  Fitting a 1 inch peg [character of god] into a 3 inch hole [evolution].

“I prefer “In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and earth, the earth (universe) was dark and without form.”  I think this could mean, At the time God began the process of Creation,  the first step was the creation of matter in the form of a Black Hole which was without light (energy) and form.”

3.  Comment:  The most compelling phrase? - ‘I THINK this COULD mean ..’  All supposition, all speculative + as per Comment 2.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be Light and energy was created [and the Big Bang took place.]

4.  Comment:  As per Comment 2.

“Perfection will come at the End of Time after Jesus comes again.”

5.  Comment:  Andromeda colliding with the Milky Way?

Sheesh


Jon Garvey - #50021

February 3rd 2011

@Papalinton - #49973

“5.  Comment:  Andromeda colliding with the Milky Way?”

Rats! I was promised eternal life and I had to wait 3 billion years for the light show.


Papalinton - #50058

February 3rd 2011

Hi Jon
“Rats! I was promised eternal life and I had to wait 3 billion years for the light show.”

Asteroooooiiiiddd ...........?

Cheers


Roger A. Sawtelle - #50178

February 4th 2011

Papalinton,

Not wanting to be dogmatic it is always best not to be sure concerning the meaning of words in the Bible.  However it does appear to me that this ancient book was quite accurate in its description of the beginning of the universe, if what we know now is true, which is another supposition.  Very interesting, no?

What makes you think that the character of God does not fit into the pattern of evolution?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #50258

February 5th 2011

“Darwinism is the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection.” - BioLogos

Yes, Gregory, I am aware that this is the position of BioLogos and I have no question that Darwinism is formally the dominant scientific position on evolution.  I and others who share my position do not deny the fact of natural selection, but only the manner of natural selection.  However since ecology is just as much a science, if not more so, as Darwin’s concept of Malthusian natural selection, one cannot say that it is not scientific and those who hold it are not thinking scientifically.  This is to distinguish ecological natural selection from Creationism.


Gregory - #50262

February 5th 2011

Thanks for getting back to the question.

“Darwinism is not consonant with God’s character and is false” / “I have no question that Darwinism is formally the dominant scientific position on evolution.” - Roger

Can you please clarify how these two views are reconciled when they seem irreconciliable? Is “the dominant scientific position on evolution…not consonant with God’s character and is false”?

So you are reacting to this dominance by promoting a new ‘paradigm’ or ‘framework’ or whatever you call it?

I can see how saying ‘on evolution’ could move your point (& weaken it) from ontology to epistemology. You bring in a lots of spices, e.g. Malthus. But I don’t see the meat in what you’re saying.

Is it ‘the manner of’ natural selection that you like to focus on, even as non-scientists could do?

To claim “ecology is just as much a science” exposes some psychological features, as if playing the catch-up to becoming ‘as scientific as something else’ is somehow important.

Is ecological natural selection a form of naturalism? Are you promoting Gaia, Roger?

BioLogos’ definition of ‘Darwinism’ seems to be totally un-ideological. Is that possible? Just the ‘pure science’ of Darwinism?


Papalinton - #50263

February 5th 2011

Hi Roger
“What makes you think that the character of God does not fit into the pattern of evolution?”

Even at its most basic, the notion of a god being the ‘uncaused cause’ that brought everything into existence must have existed outside existence.  In other words are there two distinct forms of existence?  Such a proposition relies on the notion that the uncaused cause was an existence that existed before any existence came into being.  Can you not note the gravely inconsistent complication that such a proposition inherently carries?
Roger, your god is a natural god, confined to and inextricably bound to this planet.  A figment and an alluring concept naturally bound in people’s minds.  The strangely sticky sense that god *willfully* created us as individuals, *wants* us to behave in particular ways, *observes* and *knows* about our otherwise private actions, *communicates* messages to us in code through natural events, and *intends* to meet us after we die is the stuff of our earliest ancestors, their attempt at resolving the then inexplicable nature of the world and the cosmos they lived in. 

‘This ancient book’ is just that, an ancient book. Nothing more, nothing less.


Cheers


Roger A. Sawtelle - #50353

February 7th 2011

“Is ecological natural selection a form of naturalism? Are you promoting Gaia, Roger?”

Gregory,

Thank you for your questions.

If science is about nature and I am advocating a scientific view of life, than it follows that ecological natural selection is a form of naturalism.  On the other hand if naturalism means that the physical is all there is to nature and life, I do not agree with that definition of naturalism.

If you equate Gaia with ecology, then I promote Gaia in that it is an organic interrelated view of life and reality very different from the atomistic, haphazard view promoted by the Darwinists. 

The question is not which point of view is scientific, because they both are accepted as scientific.  The question is which point of view is more accurate in accounting for the known data, and I would be glad to point out how the ecological view is better, and indeed the Malthusian view is not supported by the facts.


Gregory - #50374

February 7th 2011

You’re welcome. Glad if the questions provoke you! = )

“If science is about nature…” - Roger

Some sciences are ‘about nature,’ while others are ‘about nature+’ e.g. culture, society, language, religion, politics, etc. Anyone who suggests ‘science’ *cannot in principle* study ‘non-natural’ or nature+ things is acting as ideologue, not as scholar.

Sadly, many Christians have been lured into the position that says ‘science’ (as if demarcation game was already won!) studys *ONLY NATURAL* things. How do you address these people, Roger?

“If you equate Gaia with ecology…” - Roger

No, I don’t, since ‘Gaia’ is a Greek goddess in its original meaning.

“I am advocating a scientific view of life” - Roger

Are you also advocating an artistic, musical &/or physically active (e.g. sports) views of life, Roger, or do you include those along with ‘a scientific view of life’?

There is definitely an ‘integral or holistic knowlege’ vein in the ecology approach. Unfortunately, few people in this ‘new’ movement (Time magazine deemed ‘Year of Ecology’ in smth like 1968!), seem to have yet moved far enough outside of themselves to define this important term: ecologism. Does it mean much to you, Roger?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #50386

February 7th 2011

Gregory,

Since ecology and not Darwinism is the driving concern behind the problems of climate change and global pollution, ecology has shown that it is a discipline worthy very serious attention.  It is a pity if you and or BioLogos are anti-ecology.

You have not demonstrated why ecological natural selection cannot be the basis for the scientific understanding of evolution.  Where are the experiment5s or studies that justify Malthusian natural selection?

As for your question about science and nature, the question is, What is the nature of nature?  Is humanity a part of nature, or are we super or sub natural?  Darwinism seems to say humans are a part of nature.  Does BioLogos concur?  If so we must expand the concept of Nature to include the human, which means it must include reason and purpose, the intellectual and the spiritual.


Alex - #50273

February 6th 2011

Papalinton - #50263 asks “are there two distinct forms of existence?”

Aquinas would have answered yes.  We are familiar with contingent existence—things which are, but which once were not, and which might not have been.  Aquinas argued that if everything were contingent, then the universe as we know it could not have developed. This led to the development of an idea of necessary existence, which is not incidentally a definition of God—that is, something which is, has always been, will always be, and could not be any other.

The distinction between contingent v. necessary existence is pretty basic to Christian theology, and if there is a contradiction it has not been apparent to the generations of philosophers and theologians that have relied on the distinction.

Re: the second half of your post, our God isn’t a natural God—Christians are pretty clear that the Lord of the Universe is pretty darn transcendent.  Your problem is that we also hold Him to be a personal God, a God who cares.

Finally, Christianity is constantly driving me out of my own comfort zone, directing me to love my enemies, pick up my cross, etc.  And even if an idea offers some sense of comfort, that doesn’t automatically invalidate it.


Deb - #50306

February 6th 2011

Thanks, Alex. Well said.


Jon Garvey - #50323

February 7th 2011

@Alex - #50273

Even in the atheistic worldview there needs to be the distinction you mention. “Existence” in the Universe is compliant with the physical laws of space and time, and therefore investigable by science.

But most cosmologists consider those laws to be themselves the product of the big bang. Whatever existed at that moment, or exists beyond it, is of a different manner of existence. Either existence just happened (which is completely different from our own existence as the result of prior causes), or it resulted from some eternal form of existence - it’s a matter of debate whether the most parsimonious form of that is one invisible God or an infinite number of invisible Multiverses.


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