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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Gregory - #50669

February 10th 2011

Let me just ask first, Roger, what are your qualifications or background training in natural-physical sciences to prepare YOU to have something valuable to say on this? Have you ever taught a biology or natural history class in a non-confessional education setting?

There are far too many people acting as experts on this topic until they are asked @ their education.

Don’t you think it would be ridiculous for you to be telling, say, a professional ethologist, geologist, cosmologist, biologist, etc. how they *should* be defining ‘natural selection’ as a mere amateur on the topic?

A moment ago, you said “the breakdown of Western dualism” is “the real problem.” Now it seems you’d like to rant about ‘natural selection’ & no one is going to listen. Sorry, but you are the one generalising in a confusing & unnecessary way.

You are trying to escape from a ‘western’ framework, yet from still within that very same framework. This is perhaps why you’ve come up with some new fancy, but ultimately fruitless metaphors, like ‘ecological natural selection.’ Who, except those that sit in your pews, would ever adopt this fancy-dancy vocab into their professional work?


Gregory - #50672

February 10th 2011

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

“BioLogos says that Darwin’s Theory is the scientific concept of evolution.  ” - Roger Sawtelle

These are not the same claims.


Papalinton - #50685

February 10th 2011

Hi Roger
“If enjoyment of life which is full of trials & problems is the result of escapism, as you are saying, then ecstasy might as well be the illegal drug or be the result of alcohol or many other kinds of escapism.”
Now, you are putting words in my mouth.  ‘escapism’?
“I would be the last to claim that non-believers cannot or do not enjoy life.  They do because life is good, because God made it good. ”  But which god?  Ganesh?  Allah?  Shiva?  Zeus?  Thor?  Cthulhu?  Just curious.

From Comment #50608:
“The big question that divides believers from unbelievers is the question as to whether life has purpose. “
The various sciences are beginning to develop an emerging, consistent and testable narrative about the origins of belief and our propensity to invoke teleological intentionality on even the most mundane of natural occurrences. That humans are ‘made’ with the express purpose of carrying out individual ‘divine’ purposes is the stuff of legends, as you say ‘spiritual’.  Historically, it is what the most ancient of our forebears believed, in the absence of any knowledge [as we are now privy to] about the environment, the world, the cosmos and our relationships to them. We have moved on a great deal since then


Roger A. Sawtelle - #50702

February 10th 2011

Gregory,

One of the pastimes of scientists in this age is to complain about the scientific “illiteracy” of the people who live today.  Now I may not be a trained and practicing scientist, but I am able to read and to research the writings of many who are. 

It seems to me that I am asking a question that any responsible person, scientist or not, should ask, instead of taking Darwin’s and Dawkins’ word for how natural selection works, if anyone can explain their understanding of how it works, so it can be determined whether this view is testable as other scientific ideas are. 

Karl Popper, who most people recognize as an important scientific theorist, said no.  I agree with him and do not see where anyone has proved him wrong.  If you or anyone else for that matter wishes to do so that is what you need to do.  I for one do not feel that I should surrender my mind to those who claim scientific authority without scientific evidence. 

I have given my opinion which is testable and have been proven in my opinion.  If you think I am wrong, you should look at my evidence instead of criticizing my views which have not been presented in full.


gingoro - #50709

February 10th 2011

Roger A. Sawtelle@50702

“I for one do not feel that I should surrender my mind to those who claim scientific authority” -Sawtelle

I agree with your point but on the other hand I tend to ignore some who without expertise and understanding tend to spout hot air.  Not all expertise by any means comes from academic studies although some seem to think it does.  IMO we laymen need to be especially skeptical when scientific authority needs the science to come out “right” in order to support their world view.
Dave W


John - #50720

February 10th 2011

Roger Sawtelle wrote:
“One of the pastimes of scientists in this age is to complain about the scientific “illiteracy” of the people who live today.  Now I may not be a trained and practicing scientist, but I am able to read and to research the writings of many who are.”

It’s not about the writings, Roger. It’s about the evidence. Are you able to examine it for yourself?

“It seems to me that I am asking a question that any responsible person, scientist or not, should ask, instead of taking Darwin’s and Dawkins’ word for how natural selection works,…”

I don’t think any scientist is telling you to take anyone’s word. It’s about the evidence. Do you have sufficient faith to examine it for yourself?

“... if anyone can explain their understanding of how it works, so it can be determined whether this view is testable as other scientific ideas are.”

We don’t test “views,” we test hypotheses and theories. Do you have the faith to test yours against the evidence, instead of pretending that it’s just hearsay against hearsay?


Gregory - #50722

February 10th 2011

Sigh, Roger. I’d suggest you consider looking at T. Dobzhansky’s or R. Fischer’s work & assess it, including their views of ‘natural selection’ (estestvenni otbor) instead of harping on Darwin & your own fixation with Dawkins. Dawkins, imo, is pretty much not worth wasting time on, given his new atheist activism.

K. Popper is recognized first as a ‘philosopher of science’ & not as a ‘scientific theoriest,’ as you suggest. What Popperian ‘scientific theory’ are you referring to?

I’ve read Popper too, as have most people here. There have been people who have moved past Popper to mould the conversation today.

In any case, I assume you are referring to his well-known statement: “Darwinism is not a testable scientific theory, but a metaphysical research program.”

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

Now, here is the question, Roger: are you saying that Popper thought’ natural selection’ was a tautology?


Gregory - #50723

February 10th 2011

John, it seems to me that you are the only one visiting BioLogos who uses the term ‘faith’ as you do.

You have asked several people if they have ‘faith’ to test scientific evidence. Indeed, it seems to me you have mocked people for not having ‘faith’ in science or not having ‘faith’ to test something empirically.

To me, that’s not ‘faith;’ it is more like ‘confidence’ in one’s theory.

‘Faith’ is a higher term than anything that is used in ‘doing science.’

Would you care to clarify why you speak about ‘faith in science’? You have said ‘Yes’ to questions about whether or not you are a religious person. Why do you seemingly seek to suggest that ‘lack of testing’ is the same as ‘lack of faith’? As a religious person, you should presumably ‘know/feel/intuit’ that these are different things.

Thanks,
Gregory


Gregory - #50724

February 10th 2011

“IMO we laymen need to be especially skeptical when scientific authority needs the science to come out “right” in order to support their world view.” - DaveW

Hi Dave,

Could you clarify this statement re: ‘scientific authority’ & ‘their world view’? What were you meaning to imply here? What does ‘their world view’ refer to?

I.e. if one *is* a ‘scientific authority’ then one *must* accept a ‘scientific worldview’ or something like that?

E.g. Dobzhansky & Fischer were ‘scientific authorities’ who nevertheless accepted a non-scientistic worldview.

Gracias,
Gregory


gingoro - #50737

February 10th 2011

Gregory@50724

“Could you clarify this statement re: ‘scientific authority’ & ‘their world view’?” Greg

Rather than world view I would have rather said their religious views where I define religious views to include whatever provides a persons view of ultimate reality, meaning, morals, purpose…, thus atheism would be included.  The reason I didn’t use the word religion was that I did not want to get into an argument over the meaning of religion.  Some seem to equate religion with theism.  AFAIK Fred Hoyle held onto the Steady State theory when it should have been abandoned because accepting the big bang tended to conflict which his world view.  Also I directed the work of 500+ software engineers and learned (from bitter experience) that peoples motivations often had large impacts on what answers I got when I wanted to know if something was possible or not or alternatively some would hijack a project they were assigned so that they could really work on something that interested them. 
Dave W


Gregory - #50738

February 10th 2011

Thanks gingoro.


John - #50747

February 10th 2011

Gregory:
“You have asked several people if they have ‘faith’ to test scientific evidence.”

No, Gregory, that’s gibberish. I have asked several people if they have sufficient faith to test their claims against the evidence. So far, I have no takers. They’ll dig around for hearsay, post complete fabrications, but none have the faith to go looking for themselves.

“Indeed, it seems to me you have mocked people for not having ‘faith’ in science or not having ‘faith’ to test something empirically.”

I’m simply observing their total lack of faith. Moreover, they are the ones falsely claiming that their religious claims have a scientific basis.

“To me, that’s not ‘faith;’ it is more like ‘confidence’ in one’s theory.”

They are intimately intertwined. And, to throw your nitpicking back at you, the evolution denialists here have nothing resembling a theory. They can’t even come up with a hypothesis that accounts for all the extant data.

“‘Faith’ is a higher term than anything that is used in ‘doing science.’”

It’s not faith if it moves someone to desperately place hearsay far higher than evidence. It’s just wishful thinking.


Papalinton - #50758

February 11th 2011

Hi Roger
“If enjoyment of life which is full of trials & problems is the result of escapism, as you are saying, then ecstasy might as well be the illegal drug or be the result of alcohol or many other kinds of escapism.”
Now, you are putting words in my mouth.  ‘escapism’?
“I would be the last to claim that non-believers cannot or do not enjoy life.  They do because life is good, because God made it good. ”  But which god?  Ganesh?  Allah?  Shiva?  Zeus?  Thor?  Cthulhu?  Just curious.

From Comment #50608:
“The big question that divides believers from unbelievers is the question as to whether life has purpose. “
The various sciences are beginning to develop an emerging, consistent and testable narrative about the origins of belief and our propensity to invoke teleological intentionality on even the most mundane of natural occurrences. That humans are ‘made’ with the express purpose of carrying out individual ‘divine’ purposes is the stuff of legends, as you say ‘spiritual’.  Historically, it is what the most ancient of our forebears believed, in the absence of any knowledge [as we are now privy to] about the environment, the world, the cosmos and our relationships to them. We have moved on a great deal since then.


Gregory - #50762

February 11th 2011

“I’m simply observing their total lack of faith.” - John

So you are suggesting there are ‘people of faith’ that actually have a ‘total lack of faith.’

That makes no sense.


Peter Hickman - #50779

February 11th 2011

The Patristic fathers may have inferred creation ex nihilo from the passages cited, but the grounds for doing so are tenuous.
Take Hebrews 11.3 as an example, ‘Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear’ (KJV) or ‘by faith we understand the ages to have been prepared by a saying of God, in regard to the things seen not having come out of things appearing’ (YLT).

The statement, “what we can see was not made of things that can be seen” is not the same as the statement, “what we can see was made of nothing”.
I could infer from Hebrews 11.3 that ‘what we can see was made of something we cannot see’ and that would not be creation ex nihilo.
In fact, I do infer that God made the visible out of something invisible.


Peter Hickman - #50794

February 11th 2011

My earlier posting seems to have disappeared into the ether, so I will summarise:

Heb. 11:3 does not say that what is seen was created out of nothing; it says that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

The writer could have said, “Everything we see was made out of nothing” and explicitly taught ex nihilo creation, but he didn’t.

I think it is reasonable to infer that what we see was made out of something - but not something that was visible.


BenYachov - #50800

February 11th 2011

@Steve Ruble

>A. Before God created the universe, nothing existed.

Except God.  If nothing existed then as Parmenides showed philosophically “From Nothing, nothing comes” then the universe would not exist today.

>B. If nothing exists, then there are no entities which exist.

God is not an entity in classic philosophical theology since an entity in classic thought would have actuality and potency.  God is Pure Actuality which contains no potency & thus he would be Being Itself not a mere entity. Sure Zeus if he existed would be an entity but classic Theists amoung Jews, Muslims and Christians even if he existed would not count Zeus as Divine since Zeus was never understood to be pure actuality.

>C. God didn’t exist before he created the universe.

What you think constitues God did not in fact create the universe I agree 100%.  But the Classic Theistic God did create it since this argument can’t logically be applied to him.


>I trust the problem is obvious.

Yes, you need to read more Atheist philosophers like Mackie or JLL Smart & less Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennit and or Harris.  But your speculations on Genesis are better arguments.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #50816

February 11th 2011

John,

Thank you for your response.

For some reason you have completely misread what I wrote.  I have looked evidence that disproves my view and have failed to find it.  I am challenging Gregory and yourself to refer me to evidence that supports your view concerning natural selection and challenges mine.  I accept your challenge and hope that you will look at evidence that challenges Darwin’s view of n.s.

For the record, let us look as some evidence that most people are familiar with and see what it supports.  People know that climate change, believed to be caused by an asteroid, led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, which made possible the rise of the mammals. 

Now one thing should be clear from this very important event and that is, it was caused by environmental/ecological change and not by genetic change or competition within species.  The dinosaurs died out because the ecological niches that supported them disappeared.  Mammals and other life forms survived and flourished because they were better adapted to the new ecology of the earth. 

This is what I mean by ecological natural selection as opposed to Darwinian natural selection.   
Please tell me how your view of evolution relates to this evidence.


BenYachov - #50818

February 11th 2011

@Steve Ruble - #49742

>The concept of “nothing” is as unintuitive and difficult as the concept of “infinity” (although it is easier to drop into a conversation).

The problem is modern Atheists fudge the classical definition of nothing which is understood as any and all lack of being and existence.  They include Quantum Vacuums, Naked Singularities and Harte/Hawking States as “nothing” which of course from a classic definition used by all theists historically is wrong.

They also mistakingly believe creation ex nihilo means God created the universe out of some substance called “nothing” which also contributes to this confusion.  That is not the case.

>I know that Christians are not typically dismayed by the possibility that their dogmas contain internal contadictions (Trinity? Hypostatic union?), but I feel compelled to point them out nevertheless.

I could see believing 3 hypostasis in 1 hypostasis or 3 substances/natures in 1 substance as a contradiction but for the life of me 3 hypostasis in one nature as a contradiction escapes me.  Even if I denied the existence of the Divine.  But that is another discussion I just thought I should point it out to you.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #50824

February 11th 2011

Dave,

Thank you for your response.

The problem seems not to come from people, who wittingly or not, spout hot air without evidence, when they should know better, but the people who believe them.  In other words people believe Darwin’s and Dawkins’ views on natural selection because a) They assume that they know what D & D are talking about, b)  They do not want to seem “unscientific,” and c)  Wishful thinking on the part of unbelievers.

Now it would seem that believers would find the nerve to ask, “Where’s the beef?  Where’s the evidence for Malthusian selection?”  but we have not.  I think that this is because of Western dualism, which separates matter from the intellectual and the spiritual (teleological.)  This may the reason why Malthus was not accepted by Russians as Gregory had stated.

Dawkins has said that he has a vested interest in Darwin’s Theory.  That should make weveryone very wary about the basis for his support for it and ask, “Where’s the beef?”


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