The “evolution versus creation” debates are a tired, worn-out, unproductive subject. Those who like to take sides and fight it out tend to portray the opposing view (and sometimes their own) in simplistic, monolithic terms, turning it into a straw man before demolishing it. However, those who study science in any depth know that it is richly textured, highly nuanced, and awe inspiring. Different scientific disciplines—such as paleontology and genetics—examine different kinds of evidence, apply their theories in a variety of ways, and arrive at a range of conclusions, all of which make for exciting banter at conferences and in academic literature. Evolutionary theory, in whatever discipline you encounter it, is a fun and lively topic.
On the other hand, the creation of the world described in scripture is commonly regarded as brief, superficial, and inflexible. Once they’ve read the first three pages of the Bible, most people think they’ve understood it. But if we were to give any scientific topic the same cursory treatment, it would be laughable to think we could draw any conclusions from it.
To make any sense of scripture beyond a crass caricature, one needs to examine it with the same patience and tenacity that one approaches science. It also helps to have a highly developed intellectual toolset: knowledge of ancient languages, ancient history, archaeology, and philosophy. Few people these days have mastered these academic domains, which is partly why we hear such wildly differing claims about creation. While it’s true that some messages of the Bible can be understood by a child, other parts remain opaque unless we are willing to conduct some intense inquiry.
Obviously, most of us don’t have time to learn Hebrew and Mesopotamian history. But neither do we have time to study partial differential equations and quantum mechanics, and that doesn’t stop us from learning and appreciating modern science. For complex topics, we turn to experts who share with us the results of decades of research.
Scientists are skeptical of biblical scholars who are woefully ignorant of contemporary science. If they have such an impoverished understanding of nature, what reason do we have to trust them in spiritual matters? The best response to this challenge is for scholars to become versed in both natural science and theology in order to speak the language of their audience and earn their respect. Professor William P Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary has taken this path in his new book The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. He puts the scientifically-informed reader at ease by revealing his understanding of modern science and his fascination with its discoveries. Then he proceeds to impart his knowledge of antiquity to make sense of highly contentious passages in scripture.
In addressing the subject of creation, Brown contends that there is not one story but seven contained in the sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The books of Genesis, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah each provide unique perspectives of the natural world. Together, they offer a dynamic, robust depiction of the natural world, one filled with awe and wonder. What follows is a brief taste of each.
Since this narrative appears first in the Bible, it is the most common and well-recognized creation account. Very austere in its tone, it reveals a transcendent God who stands separate from his works. But even here, the cosmos is not a static, passive receptacle made from purely supernatural causes. Instead, waters “produce swarms of living beings” and the earth “brings forth living beings”. Here, God is not a magician performing tricks, but one who empowers a productive, dynamic world.
In contrast to the transcendent God in the first account, this one is like a gardener and potter who shapes a “drama of dirt”. The narrative focuses on “an inhospitable field of clay”, in which God is a responsive participant in his creation. The Adam in this account is made from dirt, as are the other “wild animals and winged creatures”. Made from the same basic substance as his fellow animals, this Adam—in addition to bearing the Imago Dei—also reflects Imago Terrae, the image of the earth.
More than Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible, the book of Job provides the longest account of the natural world. And nowhere does it mention man’s dominion. God gives Job a tour of creation—wild, diverse, and powerful—and Job discovers that the world does not revolve around him, or even around humanity as a whole. Instead, God tells Job, “Behold Behemoth, which I made with you,” and also says that Behemoth was the “first” or “best” of God’s works. Brown draws an intriguing parallel between Job’s journey and Darwin’s tour on the Beagle, in which both of them encountered creatures that filled them with awe.
This psalm provides a vibrant, celebratory account of the interplay between God and nature. Like in Job, humans play a marginal role in the narrative. Absent is any sense of human dominion—God himself continuously cares for creation. The natural world depicted here is fully good, with one exception—ourselves. Of all the species described here, humans are the only species that the psalmist wishes would “cease from the earth” and “be no more”.
A central theme in Psalms and Proverbs is the acquisition of wisdom, a process that is open-ended, ongoing, and never finished. Wisdom is a fundamental tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition and is one reason why Christian intellectuals have been a part of modern science since its very beginnings. Proverbs 8 makes clear the priority and importance of wisdom in God’s world. In fact, wisdom existed prior to the creation of the cosmos: “Before YHWH made the earth abroad, and the first clods of soil, when he established the heavens, [Wisdom] was there” (v26-27). Could wisdom actually exist prior to the inception of the physical universe? Certainly not within a purely materialistic philosophy, but according to scripture, “[Wisdom] was YHWH’s delight day by day, playing before him every moment, playing with his inhabited world, delighting in the offspring of Adam.” In the order of creation, wisdom comes first.
Ecclesiastes resonates well with 20th century existentialism and the somber predictions of science. Rather than describe the origin of the cosmos, Ecclesiastes focuses on the futility of life and its inevitable end: “the sun darkens, even the light, as well as the moon and the stars” (Ecc 12:2). Humans toil like animals and die, returning to the dust from which they were born. Chance and random events appear to govern life: “The race does not belong to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor the bread to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful, for time and accident befall them all” (9:11-12). According to the author, the highest goals that people can aspire to are “to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him” (5:18), something that you would never expect to hear from a religious text. On the other hand, it is a very accurate description of what we often experience on our planet.
Isaiah contrasts sharply with Ecclesiastes. Whereas the latter admonishes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” Isaiah tells Israel that God has not abandoned them, and that he continues the process of creation:
I will open rivers on the bare heights, and foundations in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the pine
I will set in the desert the fir tree, the plane and the cypress together. (41:18-20)
This is not the work of a distant God who only “intervenes” in supernatural displays, but an active God who shapes the world through natural forces and enables it to blossom and thrive. This God values not only life itself, but its great diversity. The seven different trees in this passage—from the desert acacia to the mountain cedar—represent dramatically varied species and habitats. In Isaiah, creation is not just a six day event, but a continuous process of renewal.
Now we have completed William B. Brown’s tour of the seven models of creation found in scripture. Alone, each is incomplete and subject to misinterpretation, which we frequently hear in popular discourse. But together as a whole, these biblical accounts of creation present a remarkably rich depiction of the physical world, and an even richer depiction of human history and identity. If there is going to be productive dialogue between scientific and religious communities, it requires us to sit down and learn about topics with which we are unfamiliar. Brown’s book offers the reader an opportunity to learn about the richness of scripture itself, as well as see how modern scientific research can enhance, rather than detract from, our understanding of creation accounts.