Two episodes of an excellent audio presentation by John H Walton have been posted on BioLogos, laying out his position on the understanding of Genesis 1-3, to which I have frequently alluded before (search on “Walton”). He was particularly good in the first episode in showing how the Egyptian cosmogony, full of figures of gods and goddesses, did not lead them to expect that one could throw a stone at the earth god or see the figure of the sky goddess in the heavens. The ANE conception of reality was functional, not material. But I think it is time to develop some implications for the current agenda of theistic evolution, or since we are talking about the BioLogos “Evangelical” version, let’s use their term evolutionary creationism.
In BioLogos’ struggle against Young Earth Creationism, the main use of Genesis 1 has been to point out the “ancient science” in it and how that cannot possibly be accommodated to a scientific understanding. Peter Enns has been most forthright in calling this “error”, and drawing all kinds of far-reaching conclusions from it. But being, as his friends tell us, an orthodox Evangelical he still sees God’s inspiration at work in the text, and like other ECs he seems to reduce the meaning of the text to a minimalist idea, that God, rather than the pagan gods, made the Universe.
At the same time, it’s interesting how some details of the text are relied on heavily, despite their unreliability, in EC theologising. For example, “man in God’s image” is very popular, being applied variously to a vague “calling” by God of an intelligent hominid, to “creativity” (attributed by one BL poster to Dorothy Sayers), to man’s free-will … in fact, to more or less whatever one fancies. Despite the text having been rejected as mythological, the giving of this image is allocated to various stages in prehistory without anybody apparently noticing that they’re reading modern science into an ancient text just as much as any YEC – Moses was not writing about palaeolithic Neanderthals.
God’s pronouncement that creation is “good” is also taken at face value and agonised over because the general feeling is that creation is quite bad, really. The writer of the oxygen article I wrote about explains about God’s delight at having made a world that was free to be creative – though the text mentions nothing remotely like that, it is still used to justify it. Curious exegesis – and a good example of the “I like to think that God…” method at work.
Quite detailed concordance arguments are made for surprising details of the text. For example I’ve seen stress laid on the land “Let the earth bring forth…” in vv 11 and 24, suggesting it hints at God’s delegating creation to evolutionary processes. Yeah, OK. That was certainly in the mind of the ANE author, just like the vapour canopy the YECs talk about.
Walton’s stuff cuts right through all that, and deeper than one might think. If, as he argues, these chapters are functional accounts describing the cosmos as sacred space, then even the default “God, rather than the gods, made the Universe” is a materialistic imposition on the text. It actually teaches that God, not the gods, made the universe function, which is quite different. Bara, creation, has to do with God’s unique power to bring order from the tohu/bohu primal state of disorder. And that view of creation as the imposition of order on chaos was the common currency of the ANE.
Even the Sumerians saw their gods’ work as bringing the order of the agricultural cycle, the city-state, kingship and proper worship out of the disorder of the wild world. God’s order is comparable, but higher. It is the establishment of the entire cosmos as a temple for his worship, orientated towards his representative ruler and priest on earth, mankind. His sabbath rest is his peaceful government of the world. His human image is, as it were, his ikon or representative authority – the image in the temple, or perhaps the image kings used to set up in far-flung vassal states. On earth, God’s order is orientated towards the coming of mankind, in some cases overtly. For example, the heavenly lights are “signs to mark seasons and days and years” – in other words to give pattern to the human agricultural and ritual cycle, as Walton points out in his writing. Similarly the animals are divided into wild beasts and livestock, even before mankind is formed.
This message makes sense of the passages themselves, of the setting of the stories in Genesis, and in the Pentateuch – and also, given a Christian acceptance of Scripture’s inspiration, in the whole scope of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, where the cosmic temple is finally re-established in spiritual glory. It is a sophisticated theological message that, unlike both accommodating and de-mythologising interpretations, is unarguably relevant to a Christian understanding of the world.
The implication is that ECs ought to be committed to a view of creation that has specific, anthropocentric and worship-orientated teleology at its core. If creation is evolutionary, it is goal-orientated evolution, with mankind as the goal. But is that scientific?
It doesn’t actually matter a hoot whether it is or not, because Christians are supposed to have more in view than science. There is theism in the theistic evolution, and creation in the evolutionary creationism. In today’s climate it is not, of course, scientific because teleology is forbidden by methodological naturalism. In mediaeval times, though, science had not excluded formal and final causation, so once it would have been perfectly scientific, though somewhat light on efficient and material causes.
But through being wedded to a materialistic worldview, even in their Christian faith, it seems to me that nearly all current TEs’ understandings ride roughshod over this thoroughly valid approach to Genesis. The emphasis is on creation given freedom to evolve by the Creator, and even when that is stressed less, God’s aims are subordinated to the rather broad-brush abilities of evolution as currently conceived. God sets up an experiment, taking the risk of “letting evolution occur” and rejoicing in whatever it turns up, though in many cases full of errors. One then has to beaver away at a theodicy to justify the errors – and again, the virtues of cosmic autonomy and democracy govern the theology.
Mankind is selected for glory basically because we were the first rational being to turn up – the dolphins might easily have got there first, and Christ would then have been incarnated as a porpoise and judicially beached to save them. God’s priorities are letting go of his control (that’s kenosis!), making a world in which even the humblest cyanobacteria can experience the thrill of freely participating in God’s creativity, free-will and creativity being what God values most (though unfortunately he forgot to mention the fact anywhere in the Bible – Peter Enns is right about the human errors, then). Or at least, for these views to reveal the real nature of God’s involvement in the world, Genesis must be theologically completely off the mark, because it paints a picture of a ruling God bringing about his realm in a planned and purposeful way. There is a real, and deep, conflict of belief here.
Tom Lehrer, introducing his song “It Makes a Fellow Proud to be a Soldier”, satirically noted that the US Army of his time did a wonderful job in its recruiting of refusing to discriminate on the grounds of race, creed … or ability. And we’re aware now of even more blatant attempts to elevate democracy over functionality. For example here in the UK there are great pressures to admit underachieving poor students to equalise opportunity. But the universities often resist on the grounds that they’re about academic excellence, not social engineering: the sociological priority damages the very raison d’être of the institution.
Genesis, similarly, clearly states that God’s goals in creation were not universal freedom, or co-creation, but the establishment of sacred space under the immdeiate supervision of mankind formed in his image. Introducing the freedom for nature to make mistakes for some kind of egalitarian reason simply detracts from the business of establishing a functioning world which God himself governs, ably assisted (before the Fall) by humanity.
If BioLogos-style Evolutionary Creationism is going to be authentically Christian, it’s going to have to address the dysjunction it currently has with Scripture’s foundational text, properly understood.