I saw an instance yesterday of how much the church scene over origins seems to differ between the US and the UK. We had the first full all-day rehearsal for a modern oratorio in which I find myself playing electric guitar, classical guitar and, bizarrely, detuned bazouki. But there’s also a full orchestra and choir. That mix itself was quite amusing: as I played one of the power-chord parts marked in the score as “Who-ish“, an old male pro on 1st clarinet in front scowled at me, while the young female amateur on second clarinet gave me a solid thumbs-up. Who would I rather please? But lunchtime was what raised the subject of this post.
Walking into Honiton to buy a pastie, I happened to fall in with a flautist, who turned out to be a retired Anglican vicar. In conversation it emerged that he’s broadly Evangelical, is a member of A Rocha and is a good friend of Sir Ghillean Prance, who had been his parishioner before he moved to a Baptist church. The ex-vicar has no more particular interest in origins science than any other pastor might need in dealing with a normal congregation, but he said he’d found Dennis Alexander’s book useful in giving him an overall position to work with, and had also had found some talks by John Polkinghorne useful when he was at Oxford.
It was clear from our brief chat (before we returned to apply our noses to the music stand) that he has no problem with evolution, but that nevertheless his main concern is the glory of God as Creator. I also picked up enough to think that we might have some debate about God’s self-limitation in creation. I never got the impression that these working assumptions had caused him any friction either with his clerical colleagues or with his flock. That matches my own experience, so I venture to say it’s widespread over here.
So you’ll maybe appreciate why I find the apparently typical US story, “Once I was in the thrall of Creationism, but then I saw the Light of Science” (or occasionally the reverse) to reflect an unhealthily polarised situation. At the same time you’ll know, if you have read anything I’ve written here on The Hump, that I think the issues matter – and would matter even in the less heated atmosphere over here.
I’m pleased to count both creationists and evolutionists among my close friends (and atheists, for that matter – though that’s a different issue spiritually). Yet I don’t believe it’s enough to say that ones views of origins are simply “non-essentials” of no great significance for faith. Rather, I suggest that creation doctrine is one of the central anchors of the Christian gospel – though it’s one that, strangely enough, I believe those on both sides of the creation-evolution divide can get substantially right, or substantially wrong. Why, though, should it matter?
In a journalistic life that now seems an age ago but was actually only five years, I’d have been far more likely to be writing about the excesses of Charismatic revivalism than evolution. Many in this country were disposed to be doubtful about some of the extremes of many such “moves of the Spirit”, but to shrug and say, “Still, we’re all brethren, and who’s to say what God might be saying to some particular leader.”
I (perhaps you’ll have guessed) was a bit more skeptical of the human condition – and of the risks of spiritual extremism, having read Jonathan Edwards and met some damaged people myself. In that case the dangers are obvious: exploitation of vulnerable individuals, financial fleecing, emotional manipulation … and in the spiritual arena failure to offer sound teaching, thus giving a false idea of both salvation and of God himself. Satan’s best reward in all this is, of course, disillusion – the person who is spat out at the end is more likely to be a cynic than a saint.
Having a true idea of God is no less important – and probably more in the spiritual economy – than “being saved.” We were created to praise and serve God as he is: salvation only became necessary because we failed in that function. The laws given to Israel, especially those hanging on the first three commandments, were about worshipping God as he is, rather than as he isn’t. “Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern I have shown you here on the mountain” (Exodus 25.40) is far, far deeper than the authorised design of religious artifacts. It is an expression of the fact that if we do not worship God as he has revealed himself to be, we do not worship him at all, but some fictional deity of our own. There are many graven images called “Jesus Christ”.
As Jesus said, “God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth”(John 4.23). That passage could be a vague platitude,and is not infrequently made to be such, but the context shows that Jesus had a specific content of “truth” in mind – his own teaching distinct from what went before, his own unique gift of eternal life as Messiah, and the spiritual heritage of the Jews as opposed to that of the Samaritans. Attitude is important – but it’s attitude in relationship to these distinctive truths.
How then, does that play out in the variants of creation teaching? I’ll try and avoid my own specific viewpoints here, because I want to focus not on what matters, but why it matters. To BioLogos, one main issue seems to be that clinging to Young Earth Creationism is anti-scientific, and therefore exposes young believers to disillusionment when they study science and throw out the gospel baby with the bathwater of Genesis literalism. That’s a genuine concern – at least as real as mine over Charismatics who bandon God altogether, fed up with their non-healing being attributed to their lack of faith, or with financial prosperity mainly seeming to benefit the appeal-making pastor.
But as moderate Charismatics say, the cure for abuse is not disuse but proper use. And just as Scripture can instruct us in the truth about spiritual gifts or money, so it can (and must) guide our thinking on creation, in all its aspects from conservation to natural morality, besides origins. As I said above, Creationists and Evolutionists can differ on their interpretation of the Bible (in the sense of genre, historical or otherwise) and yet agree on the central truths of God’s sovereignty, wisdom and providence (and our own responsibility and accountability).
The believer who swallows modern Fundamentalism as absolute truth is not only blind to the richness of creation doctrine itself from neglecting it outside Genesis, but in danger of disillusion when he finds out his error. But the person who bases their theology on current science (and remember, science is not nature, but a culturally-related human interpretation of nature) is in at least as great a danger – with the additional risk that he has downvalued God’s scriptural revelation altogether. “The pattern shown you on the mountain” was not, remember, the geology of the mountain, but the spiritual revelation of God which, amongst other things, taught Israel what mountains in general were about.
More specifically, to sideline the scriptural teaching on creation to make room for a view of God more comformable to modern science (and its metaphysical assumptions) is to dishonour God as he is, which is as serious as abandoning faith altogether, as far as spirit and truth goes. The same is true, it should go without saying, if the actual teaching of Scripture is doctored to suit a Creationist viewpont (it happens), an ID view of a designer, or anything else dear to our hearts. God wants us to worship him as he has revealed himself to be, and not as we would like him to be.
Confirmation bias is as much a failure in faith as it is in science. And it matters more.