09. Genesis 1-2 part 9

I. A. 2. continued

f) The System of Physical Law (Genesis 1)

In modern terms, Genesis 1 describes God establishing the laws of physics and biology, the pattern of causes and effects, which would govern the way things work. A biblical view of science sees the physical laws that scientists discover and formulate as expressions of God’s interaction with the world. Far from the picture of the Divine Watchmaker winding up the creation and letting it run, it is more like setting up the rules before the game begins, after which we each go to our positions and commence the play. By understanding the laws of science as the provisions of a covenant, we are admitting God as a player in the game rather than as a spectator.

This suggests that there is a certain amount of arbitrariness in the rules, the scientific laws, themselves, and that seems to me to be very clear. Not only was the universe unnecessary, but the sort of universe we live in could have been different in character. In fact, Christian theology has always maintained that the rules of the game were very different in Eden than they are now in New York, and they will be different yet again in the New Jerusalem. God was free to set up the rules just as He chose, and is equally free to change them whenever and however He wishes. In fact, the physical laws apply right now only because God enforces them. This makes it sound as though the physical order of the universe stands on God’s whims and that is exactly what I do mean. This also makes the activity of the scientist sound rather precarious, but so it is.

Unfortunately, the times being what they are, these two chapters of Genesis virtually demand some discussion of the Evolutionism/Creationism debate. The issue of the theory of evolution has become so emotional and deep in some circles as to preclude real thought. First, let me say that I personally reject both alternatives. On the one hand, though I am not a biologist, I am a trained mathematician with a strong background in the sciences. As such, I do not feel obligated to be in awe of the current theories of scientists. A theory is merely the best guess, at the present time, of the truth about various physical phenomena.

If I were a practicing biologist my feelings toward the theory of evolution would probably be quite different, but it has long seemed to me that the theory of evolution is neither very convincing, nor very good as a best guess. The theory of evolution lacks the two essential ingredients that make a theory convincing: it does not seem to make predictions that can be experimentally verified, and it does not seem to be open to falsification by experiment. These are all matters for the philosophers of science and the biologists to iron out; I am merely giving my non-professional opinion. I have no problem with someone who is convinced of the truth of evolution, except that I cannot share the conviction.

But as to the philosophical or theological thinking that arises from the theory of evolution, my antipathy goes deeper. The fundamental problem with the theory of evolution, that seems to me to be a fatal flaw philosophically, is that it is committed to understanding every biological phenomenon as a result of the struggle to survive. The theory of evolution gives us a view of the world that is ultimately as dog-eat-dog as one could fear in his worst nightmares. No longer can we enjoy a symphony or take pleasure in the beauty of nature without the lurching realization that somehow it must make us better competitors, better survivors, better killers. To thoroughly and seriously believe in the theory of evolution is ironically to simultaneously become less human. This is the price of survival?

These two aspects to the theory of evolution – the scientific theory itself and the theological uses to which it is put – must be kept carefully distinguished. There is one glaring way in which these chapters of Genesis do seem incompatible with the science of the theory of evolution. In the biblical account death played no part in the creation of the animals, and the “survival of the fittest” is out of place in these chapters. This has caused some to think that death, at least of animals, and the food chain as it now exists, are not evil in themselves and were a part of the original scheme of things. Some are confused enough that they try to rationalize death itself into being good in some sense. Others take this as a clear indication that the Bible and the theory of evolution are irreconcilable enemies. My own position on this issue is neither of these, but it is best to explain my thoughts on the subject in a future section when I discuss the Fall. For now I can only say that I do not accept death and the law of competition as part of the original creation, and I do not regard the theory of evolution as relevant to the question of origins. I hope I am being provocative enough to lure you into reading more of these pages.

When we turn to the various attempts to reconcile the theory of evolution with Christian theology, there is at least one line of thought that does it in an illegitimate way. The idea of “emergent evolution” does violence to the Christian understanding of God.  However it seems more coherent to put off discussing emergent evolution until the next page on the doctrine of creation, and so I will put off discussing this idea for the moment.

As a non-biologist my opinions regarding the science of the theory of evolution, are surely unimportant. I only insert my suspicions about evolution here to make it more clear what I mean by objecting to creationism. The creationists I know seem to regard this debate as black and white, good versus evil, and they suggest that any Christian who does not stand with them has joined with the Enemy. It seems to me critically important that everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, understand that creationist is not identical to Christian.

Creationism, as it is usually presented, combines bad science with bad theology. Creationism is bad science because it departs at a foundational level from the definition of science. The essence of science is to seek to understand a chain of natural, physical causes and effects leading from one point in time to the next. This is a limitation that science voluntarily assumes and which gives to science both its value and its character. Science excludes miracle and acts of God from its domain, and it is right to do so. This is not to say that miracles do not happen, or even that scientists cannot believe that miracles may occur. In fact, when a scientist does reject the possibility of miracles, it is based on an additional presupposition that is independent of science itself (which I will discuss in a future section). Nonetheless, science is bound to exclude miracles from consideration, to assume that the event it is investigating is not miraculous even if the event is in fact miraculous. The only point of doing a scientific study of an alleged miracle is to try to remove it from the category of miracle and put it into the category of a natural event. To say that we believe in the occurrence of miracles (which I do), is to say that there are events which a scientist practicing science will not be able to understand on any level.

A true miracle is by definition an event which is utterly and always beyond the realm of science; it is God exercising His prerogative as Creator to do what He wants to do with what is His, completely outside of the rules of the game that He Himself set up. For a scientist to admit that an event is a miracle is the same as giving up on a scientific explanation of it and quitting the game. In humility, a scientist should admit that he may be playing a losing game, that there may well come a point at which he is face to face with a direct act of God and no other cause for the effect; but he would never be able to detect scientifically that he was at that point. For a scientist to admit that some event is miraculous is the same thing as giving up on science and I do not believe God lets the scientist off the hook. Even in the face of a miracle, God does not wish the scientist to give up looking for the natural causes because He respects the art of science. Science is an expression of the image of God in us, a way that some of us pursue Him, and He does not want us to give up the chase. Creationism fundamentally is the science of quitters, and I do not think God holds such quitters in high esteem. Only He can ring the final bell (blow the final trumpet?) that signals the end of the game. Creationism either forgets this, or misunderstands it, or denies it.

As to why creationism is bad theology, if I understand creationism correctly it holds that the first chapters of Genesis are a relatively straightforward historical account of specific events and must be interpreted that way. Hence some Creationists, with a possible exception here and there, seem to claim that viewing Genesis 1 and 2 as an historical narrative, believing in seven twenty-four hour days of creation and a young universe, is obligatory to all who intend to submit to scripture’s authority. However the Scripture, and these two chapters of Genesis in particular, do not constitute such an obligation to believers, even to believers who are committed to a conservative view of Scripture. A careful reading of these two chapters, with an attitude and desire to take them literally, leaves me entirely unconvinced of the Creationist position. Though I adopt a covenantal view in my interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, rather than a merely metaphorical view, it seems clear that taking much of this passage as narrative violates rather than respects the Scripture.

First, the structure of chapter 1 is very much like a poem. The first three days describe the creation of three different “spheres” of reality: on day 1, the domains of light and dark were created; on day 2, the firmament, or sky, was established and the waters on the earth were collected into seas; on day 3, the dry land appeared and the vegetation. It does not matter in the least whether these domains of reality are the way we currently divide it or not. These domains were the most natural way to look at reality, not “primitive” but immediate. The last three days then revisited each sphere and established the inhabitants and rulers in each sphere: on day 4, the sun, moon, and stars to rule the light and dark; on day 5, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea; and on day 6, the animals and humans on the dry land. The first three days state three themes, and the second three days repeat the themes in the same order with variations. It is a style that appears to be a poem rather than an historical account, even on a superficial reading. Insofar as this passage is to be taken as a description of God’s activity, it is more faithful to the text to take it as a poetic account of an activity of God that probably can’t be described in literal terms.

Second, the word “day” does not necessarily mean a period of 24 hours, and in this passage seems unlikely to mean a particular period of time for several reasons. As the account proceeds in chapter 2, the creation of man suggests that the days in chapter 1 overlap. The timing of the events in chapter 2 is unclear and not easy to reconcile with the order of events in chapter 1. In 2:4-8 it is suggested that Adam was created before the green plants; the suggestion in 2:18-20 is that God created the animals after He created the man, and these animals specifically included the birds which by chapter 1 were created on the previous day. In 2:4 it says, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven.” The use of “day” in this verse collects all of the activity of the seven days together and summarizes it as a single “day” and so it can’t be taken as a twenty-four hour day at least in this one verse. Then in 2:17 we read, “but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” The death indicated here is not merely physical, of course; it is meant to convey all the aspects of the human personality that come under the curse of death: emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual. The death resulting from disobedience only began at the point of disobedience, and was not completed for many hundreds of years after that “day”, so in this verse “day” seems to mean the indefinite period of time following a specific event during which it unfolds. This is similar to English usage, just as I might say, “In my day the cold war was going on.”

Furthermore, taking the days of Genesis 1 as being twenty-four hour time periods either forces them to have an unreasonable meaning or else forces them to violate their plain meaning. Exactly what is a “day” in the time before the creation of the sun; what exactly was the “morning” and the “evening” on the first few days of creation before there was a sun to rise or set? To require the word “day” to keep its usual meaning in this context seems to fly in the face of the intent of the Scripture. Further it would be strange if the green plants were created the day before the sun, as if God were an absent-minded Creator not quite remembering to put first things first. Or worse yet, duplicating His own work: for on the first day He separated the light from the dark, but on the fourth day He made the sun and the moon in order to do the same thing He had already done, to separate the light from the darkness. The creationist interpretation seems to me to be not at all a literal interpretation of the scripture, but an interpretation which forces the Scripture to say something the creationist wants it to say, and to answer questions which are alien to its context and intent. Christians must understand that taking the Bible literally does not mean taking it superficially. It is never truly a literal interpretation that forces the Bible to say what it simply does not say.

I believe that the Scripture was given as a revelation of God and of things pertaining to God. In particular, I believe that consistency with science has no part in the purpose of Scripture and furthermore is of no importance whatsoever. But suppose it were. Then exactly which century of scientific progress would we require the Scripture to support? Newtonian mechanics or quantum mechanics? Wouldn’t there have been inexplicable elements in the Scripture to all who read it before the twentieth century if it were required to support the theory of relativity? Or shouldn’t we have to require the Scripture to be consistent with the science of, say, the twenty-third century? After all, we have not arrived at the culmination of science, have we? And how do we know that it isn’t perfectly in harmony with the science of the twenty-third century rather than with our “modern” science? These rhetorical questions are meant to show the absurdity of trying to “reconcile” science with a revelation that was intended for all people through all the centuries of our world.

The issue is not whether scripture is as true as science; the issue is whether a revelation of eternal truths about God should contaminate itself by dealing with anything so weak and ephemeral as scientific truth. I would maintain that science is neither true enough, nor reliable enough, for a revelation from God to bother with. So what if the ancients believed in a three-story universe, with hell beneath and heaven above? Do we seriously think that we do not also believe in things that will seem equally silly in a few hundred years? If we received a revelation right now from God, would we even want Him to straighten out our science to the standards of future centuries? Wouldn’t it just confuse us with irrelevancies if He did? In short the Evolutionist/Creationist debate seems to me to be a waste of time arguing badly about things that should be more carefully discussed in a less emotional way. It is certainly true that God could have created all things in six 24 hour time periods; or He could have created all things in 14 billion years. We are free scripturally to believe either, but we are not free to insist that ours is the only Christian way to think.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: