“Natural” and “Supernatural” are Modern Categories, Not Biblical Ones

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The Creation of Eve, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo

People who reject evolution as a means by which God could have created humans often do so because they interpret Genesis 2:7 as an act of God which, by their definition, rules out or bypasses natural processes. They therefore conclude that, despite some genetic similarities with other animals, human beings could not have evolved from earlier life forms.

This line of reasoning assumes that if the Bible says God was acting, it rules out the possibility that his action was accomplished through what we call “natural” processes. I would propose that such a distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is foreign to the ancient perspective reflected in Genesis. Since we should consider the original intentions of the author as reflecting the authority of God in the text, we cannot claim the Bible says something that makes no sense in the original context.

When people today claim that God’s creative action in Genesis 2 bypassed natural processes, they are assuming that the interests, language, and/or concepts of the ancient Israelite author support a divide between "natural" and "supernatural". Ancient Israelites, however, believed that God is always active in the world in numerous and often undetectable ways; they did not have the categories of “natural” and “supernatural.” The operations of the world that we consider regular and predictable and can be described in scientific ways would have been considered no less the works of God in the ancient world. They believed that when they planted a grain of wheat, wheat would grow. But God would be no less involved in that than if barley grew instead. In the same way, we cannot infer from Genesis whether God created humans naturally (capable of scientific description) or supernaturally (beyond the regular and predictable cause and effect processes) just because God is taking an active role. They believed God always took an active role. Since the Hebrew language does not have words that classify levels of causation the way we do today, the language of the Old Testament can’t be used to confirm or deny our way of classifying cause and effect as either natural or as being purely the result of divine action alone.

When the Old Testament describes God’s involvement in the world, it is not to specify a “supernatural” event as distinguished from the way things normally work or from an event that could be scientifically described. Generally its interests are to identify the events as “signs and wonders.” These stand as demonstrations of God’s power to deliver his people and of his covenantal love for them. At times the text also emphasizes that the God of Israel, not another god, is in control of the events. Think of the plagues of Egypt. These demonstrated that God’s power was superior to the gods of Egypt. The Old Testament focuses on the fact that he could do what no other god could do. This does not at all imply a distinction between “supernatural” events (God bypassing scientifically describable processes) or “natural” events (God acting through natural processes).

God is certainly capable of bypassing normal causes, but it is not safe to infer that he did so just because the Old Testament reports that he acted. Only the logistics of the scenario could lead us to that conclusion. For example, in the New Testament when Jesus turned water into wine, he obviously bypassed natural processes. The wine undoubtedly had a similar chemical structure with “natural” wine but Jesus’ act must have bypassed the usual natural processes. Some insist we should also believe that God bypassed natural processes in the creation of Adam. We could do so if the text or the scenario made it necessary to do so. At the wedding in Cana there is clearly no time for the normal process to have taken place. As such, it is the scenario more than the language of the text that demands we understand that normal processes were bypassed. In Genesis 2 there is neither a distinction being drawn by the language nor a scenario that rules out a scientifically describable process for the creation of human beings.

Today, when we make distinctions between natural and supernatural activity in Scripture, not only do we push our modern categories into the Bible, but we also limit God’s action. Once we designate some acts as “special” or “supernatural” we imply that other events which can be explained by normal cause and effect are not the acts of God. This drifts toward deism (distancing God from the operations of the cosmos) by suggesting that God only acts some of the time. This kind of thinking is responsible at least in part for bringing about the divide between science and the Bible.

The biological origin of human beings was not a concern of the ancient Israelites or any of their neighbors. They did not have categories of causation to differentiate the level of God’s activity in making Adam from the level of his activity in making us. God made Adam; God made all of us. In the Hebrew language, the same verb can be used for both instances, and God is no less involved in one than in the other. Some may claim there is a distinction because we were conceived and born through a nine-month process, while Adam is described as being formed from the dust. Yet the Bible affirms that God is no less involved in each birth (Ps. 139:13). And before we could conclude that this is an intentional distinction of a different type of material origin for Adam than the rest of us had, we would have to determine whether the text is claiming to address Adam’s material origin.

Is the text claiming that Adam was formed from dust by the very hand of God, while the rest of us are born from a woman after a nine-month gestation period? Many assume this is the case. But such a view implies that the text asserts a supernatural theory of human origins for which there is no natural explanation or process involved. Again, the text cannot be making such a distinction, because the Israelites did not think in terms of these competing categories.

Alternatively, I suggest that just as Adam is introduced to us as one formed from dust, so we understand that we are all formed from dust, designed to be mortal and frail (Ps. 103:14; 1 Cor. 15:47-48). The text is not trying to tell us how Adam is different, but to tell us how we are all the same. In Genesis we don’t learn that Adam’s creation was supernatural while the rest of us are born through a natural process. We learn that humankind from the very beginning was created with mortal bodies but that God was going to provide an antidote. I address more of the details of this interpretation in my book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve.

If the Bible does not insist that God bypassed scientifically describable processes in the material creation of human beings (since its authors and its intended audience had no such categories), it should not be used to rule out scientific explanations for material human origins (such as evolution). Both the Bible and theology agree that God is pervasively involved in his world no matter what level of scientifically describable cause and effect we can detect. So it is not inconsistent with the biblical text to suggest that God created human beings over a long period of time through processes that operate according to recognizable cause and effect patterns. As such, evolutionary creationism would be a perfectly acceptable view for Christians who take both the Bible and science seriously. God’s activity is not limited to what scientifically describable cause and effect processes fail to explain; he is engaged in working through all processes.

At the same time, every Christian should affirm that humans are not merely the result of scientifically describable processes. God has made us ontologically distinct beings, regardless of the material processes involved. We aremore than dust; and we are more than any phylogenetic ancestor. Furthermore, this ontological uniqueness cannot be simplified to the imposition of a soul or to the assignment as God’s images. Unique human ontology can't be reduced to anthropological components because it concerns the fundamental nature of our being. We are more than what we are made of, and God is responsible for that.

When BioLogos promotes evolutionary creationism, there is no room for those who exploit science to defend a purposeless and meaningless view of humanity and the world. Evolutionary creationism does not call for minimal or occasional divine attention. It does not intend to remove God from involvement in creation. It does not replace God with science. Taking the Bible seriously means not imposing modern categories on it that can conceivably lead to a misunderstanding of its authoritative message. The Bible cannot be interpreted to specify categorical distinctions it never had, because it cannot be interpreted to say what it never said.

Notes

Citations

MLA

Walton, John. "“Natural” and “Supernatural” are Modern Categories, Not Biblical Ones"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 May 2017.

APA

Walton, J. (2015, April 28). “Natural” and “Supernatural” are Modern Categories, Not Biblical Ones
Retrieved May 29, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/natural-and-supernatural-are-modern-categories-not-biblical-ones

About the Author

John Walton

John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois and an editor and writer of Old Testament comparative studies and commentaries. Throughout his research, Walton has focused his attention on comparing the culture and literature of the Bible and the ancient Near East. He has published dozens of books, articles and translations, both as writer and editor, including his latest book The Lost World of Genesis One.

More posts by John Walton

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