In what follows, I want to give a basis for the preservation of the unity of the church as it comes at the issues of science and faith, and in particular as it dialogues over the more controversial areas in this arena. I would suspect this first point is not groundbreaking, new information for most of us, but it is necessary exhortation nevertheless, especially given the disparate opinions of the kind that characterize the Christian church on matters of science and faith. Consider Ephesians 4:1-6:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Let me offer brief comments on this text and its relevance to believers in this dialogue (or any other, for that matter):
(i) The priority of unity
I am always struck by what comes first in Paul’s exhortational or paraenetical section of this epistle. There are five exhortations towards “walking” (peripateõ) and most of us would perhaps assume the first should be about holiness or right living or ethics. But the first is about unity. This reflects the weight Paul places on it, and it is in keeping with the primary theme of the theological section, which is the creation by the reconciling God of a new humanity in Christ.
It is one new humanity, it is one body, it is one temple. In making unity first, Paul is faithfully reflecting the heart desire of his Great High Priest Jesus as that is reflected in John 17. We Evangelicals and Protestants in particular seem to worry least about what Jesus and Paul worry most—unity and catholicity. We readily use our aversion towards organizational oneness and our theology of eschatological oneness in the future to justify our ever-growing multiplicity of unconnected churches, and also the potshots we take at each other in areas such as this one.
(ii) The urgency of unity
This urgency in Paul here is further accentuated by the forcefulness of the exhortation in verse 3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This phrase can be rendered “take pains to keep the unity!”
Markus Barth expresses this very potently:
It is hardly possible to render exactly the urgency contained in the underlying Greek verb. Not only haste and passion, but a full effort of the whole man is meant, involving his will, sentiment, reason, physical strength, and total attitude. The imperative mood of the participle found in the Greek text excludes passivity, quietism, a wait-and-see attitude, or a diligence tempered by all deliberate speed. Yours is the initiative! Do it now! Mean it! You are to do it! I mean it! Such are the overtones in verse 3. Those given the “vocation” to walk worthily (4:1) appear to be urged to race ahead, to meet the deadline, or to receive a “prize.”1
We should not naively imagine that the preservation in earthly practice of the heavenly and organic unity that is Christological and more real will be easy. But pursue it we must. It is inimical to who we really are and it is crucial to our witness that a new humanity has been formed in Christ, and into which all are invited.
But how will this unity be preserved? Preachers are good at the “why” and not often at the “how.” There are two aspects to this “how.” The first relates to personal formation of character. The second relates to the framework for unity—a communal theological basis for unity—one that is asserted positively in an essentialist creed, which is remarkable both for its affirmations and its absences. I will take each of these in turn.
(iii) The personal character required for unity
Verse 2 reads, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” It has often been noticed that the first two of these relate to how we affect others and the last two how we are affected by others. Humble and gentle people can express their opinions and disagree agreeably without offending others. Patient and forbearing people don’t quickly react angrily when others are less than humble and gentle, and they forgive.
You don’t need me to remind you how passions run high around the issues surrounding origins, nor of the arrogance that can just very occasionally (stated ironically) be evident in very bright scientists and even more so in very bright scientists who hold theological convictions. We need a dose of humility especially to admit when we are wrong. We also need humility to ascertain when we have sufficient evidence and when we don’t. And when we don’t, we need humility to expose that our prejudices have taken over. We need humility even about our approach to knowledge given that we are all influenced by presuppositions that influence our reason.
Scientists especially need humility to know that the existence of pure reason or objectivity does not exist! Furthermore, on this pilgrim journey in which the kingdom has come but has not yet fully come, we must have the humility to know that there are some things we may not know until we reach the celestial-terrestrial city! Paul wraps all four of these traits under the head of love. He reminds us of what he says on other occasions, that there is something more important even than knowledge in the economy of God and what he wishes for us… this is love.
The Eastern Orthodox monasteries, which privilege love over knowledge, and silence over noisy thought, can teach us Western theologians a great deal about this. The words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:2 seem timely: “If I … can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
(iv) The communal union with Christ, which is the ground of unity:
Communal unity with Christ is expressed by Paul here in the phrase “keep the unity of the Spirit” (v. 3). This is a reality that sits over every exhortation here. It is the reality that we are one. Paul is building on all he has said in the first three chapters, and late scholarship has suggested particularly the opening paragraph which functions in this lyrical epistle like a refrain in a symphony.
What is its emphasis? That all believers in Christ are just that: in Christ. They are that by the pre-mundane electing covenant of God the Father in the Son who is both the electing God and the elect human for us (1:4; 3-6a); they are that by the redemptive reconciling work of the Son (1:6b-12); they are that by the regenerating and sealing and earnest and incorporating work of the Spirit (1:13, 14). These ontological realities are crucial to Paul’s and to my exhortation towards unity of all who profess to be believers in Christ.
Pertinent to the theology/science interface, then, we are:
- United in the Christ of creation and redemption. We are united by the desire to honor that Christ who is the Alpha and the Omega of creation: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty‘” (Revelation 1:8);
- Fearless in our pursuit of truth in all aspects of science, for nothing can ever transcend the One who is the Alpha and the Omega of creation;
- United in the desire to participate in the redemption and reconciliation of creation (Colossians 1:15-20):
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
We are also united, irrespective of our positions—Creation Science, Progressive Creation, Intelligent Design, or Evolutionary Creation—in the endeavor of rescuing the church from latent dualisms, helping them affirm a theology and praxis of creation, helping them to see that Christian salvation is not salvation out of creation but of and for creation.
(v) The communal confession that is the framework for unity
We read in Ephesians 4:4-5:
4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
This seems to have been an early creed of the Christian church, either one before Paul or perhaps written especially for this letter. It is remarkable for what it contains and for what it does not contain. It is Trinitarian in structure. It is minimalist in terms of content. It is salvifically oriented or kerygmatic in its intent.
It does two things: first it unites us around the core essentials of the faith and thereby minimizes and relativizes our differences with respect to secondary issues. For example, it speaks of baptism but says nothing of its mode or timing. It defines our Christian hope without specifying whether it is premillennial, amillennial, postmillennial or pan-millennial (it’s all going to pan out in the end).
But secondly, it also provides some limits to unity. We cannot be in Christian unity with those who cannot affirm the Trinity and these essentials of triune, Christian faith. This early creedal statement, and creeds which developed from it in response to clarification of heresies and new cultures which the gospel encountered, is the guideline for our unity. In particular, the Apostles’, Niceno-Constantinopolitan, and Chalcedonian creeds are sui generis in that there is nothing else like them as widely-agreed narrative and/or propositional summaries of key points of Christian doctrine.
United in the faith
We are, I trust, united theologically in the main things that are the plain things—that is, around the essentials of the faith which are developed and more fully expressed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381), which includes the affirmation “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” without saying how!
That God created must unite us as we dialogue over how God created.
There is much diversity in the history of the church as to how the world was created. Augustine, for example, believed in fiat creation, but was convinced that Genesis 1 could not be literally interpreted for the simple reason that a twenty-four hour day was too long. Why would God need twenty-four hours to create the animals if they were created ex nihilo or even out of other dust?2
It may come as a shock to many in the Reformed tradition that the theologian best known for his defense of the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures may also have been open to creation by means of divinely supervised evolution.3 I am speaking of B.B. Warfield. To make any viewpoint as to the “how” of creation a matter for determining Christian fellowship is frankly divisive and sectarian or uncatholic.
Whilst we may be convinced we have the best theory of origins at present, and whilst we may be convinced that we are the most intellectually honest or scientifically rigorous, or that we understand the genre and history and authorial intent of Genesis 1 most appropriately—important as these factors are—I venture that the level of certainty due to the nature of the science and the hermeneutics and the theology in this field, is a level of magnitude below that of the creedal assertion that God created and that he in his providence is sovereign over and at work creatively and redemptively in creation.
We Protestants have enough divisions and schisms as it is—we don’t need another one based on the speculative matter of how God created. Rather we must unite on the basis of the fact that the triune God is the Creator. There isn’t a viewpoint represented in the dialogue on origins that doesn’t have some problems associated with it, problems that need to be worked through. Acute curiosity, robust research and careful scholarship in these areas are consonant with the creational or cultural mandate and the command to love God with our minds.
Dialogue between persons of different persuasions is healthy and good—in fact necessary for advancement in the field. But it requires an irenic and peaceful spirit along with an inquiring mind. I feel a particular need to exhort against accusations in the midst of this dialogue that disparage a person’s integrity with regard to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. These “how” discussions between serious minded evangelical believers are not about the authority and inspiration of Scripture, but on appropriate interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures are authoritative as and only as they are properly interpreted.
Borrowing terminology from Jamie Smith4, another way to say this is that we must distinguish between theology type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is confessional theology, which is pre- and supra-theoretical and which must inform all the disciplines of knowledge, including science. Theology type 2 is more theoretical and speculative.
The first is the rich and unambiguous confession of the church’s faith down through the centuries, expressed in creeds like Ephesians 4 and the ecumenical Creeds rooted in the revelation of God in His Word and affirmed by the historic church. This theology should shape Christian theoretical investigation of the world, including science, and indeed theology type 2. It is when Christians elevate their work in the theology type 2 area to the type 1 category that damage is done to unity and catholicity and therefore the mission of the church. Of course theology type 2 will always be interacting with, shaped by, and subject to theology type 1.
One of the reasons why I devote time to this issue is that it is a very important for missional reasons. First, because our unity in Christ, as the body of Christ around essential issues, is hugely influential for our mission, as Jesus expounds it in his great prayer in John 17, and as I have stated, I feel compelled to call the church to unity on the essential tenet of Christian faith that God is Creator and that he created the universe. There are times when I am tempted to write off others of a persuasion that seems to me unscientific and/or hermeneutically naïve, but I cannot.
The rub here is that commitment to cherished principles comes into conflict when this happens: on the one hand, a commitment to a process of seeking knowledge in this area through the use of fearless reason and research, albeit grounded in faith and tempered by faith and creedal commitments; on the other hand, a commitment to the unity of the body of Christ grounded in the essentials of the historic, orthodox, Trinitarian creeds of the church. This latter principle must win for the serious scientist Christian.
Of course, that immediately distances us from the secular scientific community, who often may not understand that they too have faith commitments that influence reason. It will certainly distance us from evolutionism as an ideology or completely dysteleological (goalless) evolution.
We cannot be one with people of this persuasion in an ecclesial sense, though we will still engage lovingly and humbly with them as image bearers and scientists. We must also see them as people designated by God for the new humanity in Christ. But we are speaking here of an organic and creedal basis for unity that on the one hand includes every Christian devoted to Christ and the essentials of the faith, irrespective of their views on Genesis 1, and that, on the other hand, delimits perspectives outside of this relationship and these commitments.
On these grounds, I would suggest the following very practical exhortations for maintaining the unity and advancing Christ’s mission through his church:
- Terminating the positions of professors of colleges or seminaries who express perceived problematic views on origins whilst still committed to the authority and inspiration of Scripture and these Creeds, and indeed to the denominational or widely evangelical distinctives of these, is sectarian;
- Establishing schools where teachers or even students are required to profess one view in this arena is counter to the mission of Christ and therefore sectarian;
- Accusing opponents of compromising the Deity of Christ publicly on the Internet because they may differ on origins of creation is malicious and a move that grieves the heart of our Great High Priest and his desire for his church to be one, that the world might know him through it. It is after all intended to be the one new humanity, the harbinger of the kingdom of God—the community in which persons can dialogue well and even agree to disagree about non-essential matters.
- Caricaturing the position of others or falsely representing them is grievous to the Spirit, and inhibits the mission of the church.
- Uninviting preachers who are committed to evangelical orthodoxy because we discover they hold one of these views in this arena of secondary theology, grieves the Spirit also.
But there is a second concern of a missional kind. It has to do with how we present the gospel. Making literal six-day creationism a condition for saving faith or conversion is adding to the gospel in a way that has possibly been the greatest stumbling block in the way of thinking people for over a century since this viewpoint became popular in American evangelicalism. The Church has all too often buried its head in the sand with respect to scientific reality and we can ill afford a repetition of the crisis that occurred in the wake of the Galileo affair.