Implications of a functional Genesis for evolutionary creationism

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.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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18 Responses to Implications of a functional Genesis for evolutionary creationism

  1. James Penman penman says:

    For me the problem with many BioLogos contributors is that they are either (a) professional scientists getting out of their depth trying to be theologians, or (b) they just aren’t sufficiently rooted in classical Christian theism & its concept of providence (let alone the robust Augustinian/Reformed version thereof).

    Or both.

    The result is the woeful process/open theism, quasi-gnostic meanderings about the free, creative cosmos & its poor-God-not-responsible awfulness.

    The mirror image problem among Young Earth types is a woeful ignorance of science.

    On a slight tangent, I remember being annihilated on BioLogos by a certain active poster for daring to think that Genesis 1 might not teach creation ex nihilo, but was more about cosmos-out-of-chaos. So you’d better take out your fireproof jacket just in case.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi penman

    On your last point – any problems, I’ll direct him/her to John Walton.

    I’m sort of getting to understand the influences on so many TE leaders – the sadder thing is how few Evangelicals there are posting in reply on an Evangelical website… see the critiques of Walton there on the basis that he’s committed to the authority of Scripture, whereas they all know that “Evangelicalism” means being committed to no authority (but being open, free and creative, just like God!)

    You kind of wonder whether it’s the churches – maybe the Proclamation Trust needs to be exported to the US.

    I note that after I posted somewhat heated replies to three defenders of “creative creation” on BL yesterday none has seen fit to defend it, or even clarify it. Maybe they’re just gathering all the evidence from Irenaeus for one big push.

  3. James says:

    penman:

    Can you provide a link to the BioLogos column you are referring to?

  4. James says:

    As usual, Jon, I agree with your overall argument.

    I like the point about “Let the earth bring forth …” I’ve noticed the “evolutionary” use of those passages before as well. The TEs lash out against “concordist” theories (like OEC and ID, in their view), but then they yank out verses that could be taken to be describing processes in a modern scientific way, which is a bad move if their message is that Genesis is not meant to teach scientific truth.

    There is much theoretical incoherence in TE. Some of it, I think, is accounted for by muddy thinking, lack of philosophical training, ignorance of primary sources in Christian thought, etc. But I also think that most of the TE leaders are inhibited by the fact that they attend American (in some cases Canadian or British, but mostly American) evangelical churches in which the congregation is more conservative on Biblical and theological questions than the TEs are, and the vaguer they can be about how to read the Bible, about divine action in evolution, etc., the safer they are. To take a couple of responses from well-known TEs as examples, both a Lutheran clergyman and a Bible scholar who had taught at a major Calvinist-inspired seminary, when asked point-blank, refused to answer the question whether Jesus actually walked on the water. They either weaved and bobbed, or simply remained silent. And what motive could they have for concealing an affirmative answer? Yet the cost of a negative answer, in terms of congregational life, home life, and even employment, might be too great for a frank answer. So silence, or a vague answer, becomes the best policy.

    I don’t see any long-term solution for these problems. I think that TE/EC will never be a theoretically clear position until the TE/EC leaders say exactly what they think about Genesis, providence, omnipotence, real randomness, miracles, open theism, etc., without fear or restraint. But I don’t think that is going to happen, because I think that most TE leaders are liberals with a guilty conscience about being liberals, and until they can get over that inner struggle and know what they are, and be proud of it, they won’t be able to offer the church or the world a coherent theology. They will just keep blathering about the freedom of nature and free will and co-creativity and Genesis not being scientific (except when it happens to sound evolutionary), and they will keep on saying that maybe God determined evolutionary outcomes and maybe he didn’t.

    We live in strange times. In the Enlightenment, we had agnostics and liberals with a good conscience — Voltaire and Lessing — who could, out of that good conscience, offer an alternative to traditional Christian theology — either an infidel or heretical alternative. They did not try to represent themselves as saying just what Augustine and Luther and Calvin had meant all along. They made no bones about the fact that they were rejecting some of the past, and that any version of Christianity they accepted — if they retained anything of Christianity at all — was something new, not something old. But in modern liberal Christianity, we get all kinds of devices to paper over the Enlightenment, all kinds of ways for Christians to conceal from themselves, by a form of self-hypnosis, that modern Christianity is *not* the Christianity handed down from the first apostles, but is substantially different. This kind of dishonesty is disastrous for faith. I see TE as just one symptom of a more general problem, i.e., that Christendom has not come to terms with the fact that it no longer has its original convictions. TEs do not know what they believe, because the Christian world generally no longer knows what it believes. TEs aren’t the cause of this problem — though to be sure, they exacerbate it considerably, by concealing from their readers and listeners the fundamental issues at stake.

    The answer, in my view, is to force Christians back to basics. Let’s have them read Augustine and Aquinas and Luther and Calvin, and let’s have them read Bacon and Hobbes and Spinoza and Voltaire and Bertrand Russell and Nietzsche. Let’s let them see that there are clear intellectual positions, so that they develop a distaste for vague, muddy, political compromises, and for unclear and ambiguous writing. If the mainstream seminaries would teach books by the authors listed above, instead of the lightweight Anglo-American pap they teach students these days, the Protestant clergy, and subsequently, through teaching, their congregations, would eventually learn impatience with evasions and weak reasoning and claims unsubstantiated by traditional texts. This would take away the natural audience for the TE writers. No one trained in rigorous philosophical or theological thinking could endure Collins, Giberson, Falk, Ken Miller, etc. for more than a few pages. After reading them, anyone theologically educated will immediately want to erase the unpleasant memory by reaching for a volume of Calvin or Aquinas — or for a stiff drink.

  5. James says:

    Jon:

    I meant the old BioLogos column where penman was attacked over creatio ex nihilo. I wanted penman to give the link for that.

  6. GD GD says:

    This is not directly relevant to interpretations of Genesis or on TE, but I thought it is useful to consider.

    The message in Genesis, and indeed the entire Old Testament, includes the unique position of Israel amongst the nations. I found some notes I had saved well over 10 years ago, of the religious view in regions such as Babylon, Greece, Persia, and others. I was again struck by the violence and brutality depicted in these accounts. I think Cronos ate his children because some-one predicted one of them (Zeus) would overthrown him. The Babylonian God who became prominent had to do a lot of slaying and destroying, and needed the help of other gods. The ancient Persians described good and evil, victories of the gods, and the exploits of heroes and fabulous supernatural creatures (frogs, asses, and lizards, are mentioned). The first animal was the uniquely created bull, white in colour and as bright as the moon. According to Zoroastrian tradition it was killed by Angra Mainyu, the evil spirit, and its seed was carried up to the moon. Once purified, this seed produced many species of animal. It also sprouted into plants when part of it fell to the ground. Gayomartan, whose name means “Mortal Life”, was the first mythical man. Described as “bright as the sun”, he was a large and impressive figure who was created out of earth. Gayomartan was slain by Angra Mainyu but his seed was purified by the sun after his death. Forty years after being returned to the earth, his seed became a rhubarb plant, which developed into the first mortal man and woman.

    This confusion and one might say, sheer madness, may have been recognised by the prophets and priests of Israel, and as often shown; the prophets spoke against adopting these hideous practices and idol worship. What I find unique is beyond the contrast of the one true God as creator and carer of the earth and humankind, but also the way Abraham became faithful in such a world, and all that followed. The story of Israel shows that religion as faith in God is way beyond the religious impulse found in all races and civilisations. The contrast of a faith that seeks the good of the individual, amongst the good of the community, and a teaching that puts our outlook towards God on a similar footing to our outlook of a neighbour, is, and has been profoundly different to what human beings would achieve without the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit.

  7. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Good insights GD and James.

    It probably is significant, GD, is that when serious natural theology has been done by the Aristotles and Aquinases of the world, they end up with the First Mover rather than the pantheon.

    James, do you not think the Nietsches and Volataires were clear in their views because they had a handle on what worldview commitments they were rejecting? In particular, their positions follow in various ways from one simple change: “We’re no longer going to accept the word of the God who calls us to obey him, but decide for ourselves.”

    In that light the quasi-Evangelicals both inside and outside TE (and “Christians” more widely) want to retain a Christian commitment whilst insisting on living by the new, autonomous, dictum. So even the traditional liberals retain Christ: it’s what he actually does and says that must be explained away. That, to me, is where the incoherence comes from rather than simply being confused.

  8. James says:

    Hi, Jon.

    Your point in your last paragraph is too subtle for me, I’m afraid. It strikes me that someone who tries to hold together the contradiction *is* confused.

    Or are you saying they are not confused, but rather, are deliberately picking and choosing incompatible things, so that the problem is not intellectual, but of the will?

    If the latter is what you mean, I see the point, but then does that still not indicate a “confusion” — if not of an intellectual type, at least of an existential type? But certainly we can agree on “incoherent.”

    As for individuals, I think the analysis has to be thinker by thinker. Lessing appears to have considered himself a Christian of sorts (though some accuse him of deception on that front, and suggest that he was an atheist); but if he was a Christian, his Christianity was progressive; he thought earlier forms of Biblical religion — Israelite, Jewish, early Church, etc. — were less advanced spiritually than later types (especially the modern Enlightened type). He made no bones about the fact that some doctrines of Christianity, including some teachings of the Bible, had been superseded. Neither the Bible nor the Christian tradition was ever wholly true, and much that is savage or crude in the Bible and tradition is now rightfully left behind. I think that this progressive doctrine is what many of the leading TEs, in their heart of hearts, believe — but there are hardly any of them who are brave enough to say it to the evangelical congregations back home, for whom all of the Bible must be regarded as equally true.

    As for Nietzsche, I doubt most of the columnists at BioLogos have ever read a line of him. They certainly show zero awareness of the analysis of the modern world that Nietzsche presented, and their sunny harmonization of Darwin with Christ would have invoked Nietzsche’s scorn. But yes, I agree with you that Nietzsche and Voltaire knew what they were rejecting.

    I see the BioLogos folk (or the majority of them) as the spiritual heirs of Lessing rather than of Nietzsche and Voltaire. Lessing’s position seems, on the surface, like a reasonable approach that can preserve the best of religion and science in a non-warfare model. You can be Christian and still scientific, as long as you abandon a “primitive” model of Christianity. The difficulty is that Lessing’s principles actually provide no clear stopping-point which would allow one to get rid of only the “primitive” elements; eventually the core doctrines must come under critical attack as well. This is what happened with Van Till, who adopted a “fully gifted nature” position (in which the cruder elements of Biblicism were dropped in order to accommodate modern natural science), but then eventually moved away from even a faint approximation to orthodoxy. Those of us who have studied the history of ideas were not surprised; Van Till’s personal movement merely mirrored the general religious movement of the Western world since the Enlightenment.

    You can achieve secularization by revolution (Voltaire, Feuerbach, etc.) or you can achieve it by baby steps away from orthodoxy (Locke, then Lessing, then Schleiermacher, then Hegel, then Renan, then Bultmann). Simple believers (and even some people with Ph.D.s in biology can be simple believers when it comes to theological knowledge) are smart enough to detect revolution, but they are rarely alert enough to see the trajectory of baby steps until it’s too late. Even when those baby steps have already been enacted historically before!

    I don’t mean to say that all TEs today will eventually lapse into apostasy. The habits of a lifetime of prayer, hymns, Bible study, Reformed confessions, etc. will provide protection for most. But the next generation of TEs, instead of having been raised in conservative evangelical homes (with Reformation assumptions and commitments) and having become TEs midway through life, will have been raised in TE homes (with liberal Protestant/Enlightenment assumptions and convictions), and many of them will go the route of Haught, Van Till, Ayala, etc. midway through life.

  9. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    James

    I probably wasn’t very clear! My main point was that the divergence of viewpoints through all these people started at one essential “decision node”, to put man rather than God at the centre, so in one sense they are “the development” rather than “developments”.

    As for confused TEs, I guess I see a largely unwitting and futile attempt to live by both paradigms. The “Promethean” paradigm not only comes through science but in ones mother’s milk. At the same time, the churches have retained to a greater or lesser extent, and more or less (in)consistently, the echo of God’s primacy: and for those with a personal conversion story, there is an individual commitment to obey Christ as Lord.

    When the two worldviews collide, there can be unconscious fudge, conscious rebellion against aspects of one or the other or, at the lowest level, playing to the sensibilities of one gallery or the other (I mustn’t upset my church – but I can’t displease my professional peers).

    But in the end it’s serving two distinct masters, and therefore incoherent in any language. The root has to be identified, and painful choices made.

  10. James Penman penman says:

    Hi James
    The creation ex nihilo discussion is in the comments for the essay http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-and-our-theological-traditions-calvinism-part-4

    As I said there, I do believe in creation ex nihilo, but I’m not sure we should insist dogmatically that Genesis 1, standing alone, unilluminated by later teaching, asserts it. The primary emphasis, certainly, is the progressive emergence by divine sovereignty of cosmos from chaos. Or at least I’m certain of it.

  11. James Penman penman says:

    The editor has removed the link!!! Jon Garvey, exterminate these gremlins!

    It’s the essay Evolution And Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism. Part 4.

  12. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    I think I’ve restored the link (but you have to find the right pages!). Ah yes – good old Martin Rizley at one end, and Peter Enns at the other. Those were the days…

  13. James Penman penman says:

    >>>I don’t mean to say that all TEs today will eventually lapse into apostasy. The habits of a lifetime of prayer, hymns, Bible study, Reformed confessions, etc. will provide protection for most. But the next generation of TEs, instead of having been raised in conservative evangelical homes (with Reformation assumptions and commitments) and having become TEs midway through life, will have been raised in TE homes (with liberal Protestant/Enlightenment assumptions and convictions), and many of them will go the route of Haught, Van Till, Ayala, etc. midway through life.

  14. James Penman penman says:

    The editor deleted my comment. Is this a conspiracy? Have YECs infiltrated the CIA & found me out?

    The comment was “Hopefully that’s the miracle-shy, quasi-deist, process theology TEs who seem to haunt the rebellious colonies overseas, & not the miracle-robust Augustinian ECs who confess a historical Adam, among whom I move in the British Motherland.”

  15. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    If the CIA have sussed you, penman, we can expect your rendition to the US and your return in an orange jump-suit reciting Clark Pinnock. What a dirty business war is…

  16. James says:

    Hi, penman.

    Yes, I did mean the American TEs, primarily, although it seems to me that at least some British TEs (Denis Alexander, and a few others I heard on an old panel discussion) sound an awful lot like their American counterparts, albeit with better manners in most cases.

    Thanks also for locating that old debate on BioLogos. It was a substantial and intense discussion, and after reading the whole thing, I almost felt as if I had been present there. Yes, I thought you had a moderate position, and I thought that Martin was reading too much into your position. And Gregory as peacemaker! All fun. I’ll say one thing for Enns: whatever one may say against his conclusions, he did manage to stimulate good discussions, and he did interact with people, even occasionally yielding points, unlike Giberson and Applegate, who would generally post and then hide their heads in the sand when criticism came their way.

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