What Genesis really teaches about science

Penman and I were discussing John H Walton’s thesis that the Genesis 1 creation account is actually a temple inauguration text, the temple in question being the whole cosmos. That led on to talk about G K Beale’s extensive study of the Bible’s use of temple imagery right through to Revelation. Penman suggested that someone should explore whether this might be a global theological organising principle, in the manner of covenant theology.

The more I think about it, the more I believe he’s right.

I’m a big proponent of covenant theology as a tool for making sense of the whole biblical revelation. The three key components of all the scriptural covenants are the promises of a people, dwelling at peace in their own space, under the blessing of God. The last of these components – blessing – is always closely associated with the presence of God, which is usually represented in terms of temple imagery. That imagery in turn always relates to the concept of the whole Universe as the “real” sacred space of God.

In addition, as I’m only just beginning to explore for myself, temple imagery brings together both creation and salvation in the person of Christ, who presents himself as the true temple of God, and is seen in the New Testament as the source and agent of both creation and salvation. There’s a lot of work to do there.

The whole concept of temple space, of course, has its origin in that Genesis creation account. If scholars like Walton and Beale are right, taking Genesis 1 in its original literal sense produces no problems in relation to science at all. The account is not about the material origin of the things in the cosmos, but about their organisation and designation as sacred space. Specifically, since it is a geocentric account, it is about the creation of a space for mankind, as God’s image, in which to to worship. What that creative process entails for humanity is not spelled out, but it involves at least God’s revelation of himself to all or some of humanity, and the revelation of truths about how the Universe is arranged to serve man as he lives in worship.

That revelation was a specific historic event: the seven day pattern may be primarily symbolic of the ritualism of building and dedicating a temple, which in the ANE is often represented as a seven-day process, but it might equally be a literal statement about the length of time God took to bring about this functional designation and create mankind, or a representative part of it, as a worshipping community (as he later created Israel, Isa 43.1). In other words, the account is about the creation (ordering from functionlessness) of the Universe as a temple-with-worshippers.

In that sense, of course, it has nothing to do with science, modern or ancient. Its use of ancient concepts like the cosmic waters is completely incidental to the real theme, which is how God designates things, not what they are made of. But in another, seldom considered, sense it speaks to the whole purpose of science.

Genesis 1 separates order from chaos, as it were pushing the latter out of the way into the cosmic waters, the oceans, the desert places … indeed everywhere where mankind does not live and reign to maintain God’s order and praise him as Creator. Man is created to rule and subdue the earth, which includes the commission to continue God’s work of bringing tohu and bohu – chaos – to order. More crucially man, as the only rational creature God has placed within his creation, is commissioned to express praise and worship on behalf of the whole of creation, as he appreciates its beauty, splendour and wisdom.

Part of that worship-role is actually the scientific quest. Whatever is not included already within the worship-space of the cosmic temple needs to be brought into it. One of the common themes of the prophets, for example, is that of streams of water irrigating the desert and making it productive – functionlessness becomes order and therefore subject-matter for worship. But such taming might also be intellectual rather than physical – as humans begin to understand the flora, fauna and ecology of that desert, God’s order (present all the time in material terms) becomes known to us – and in that way part of the worship of God. We appreciate wilderness only as it loses its terror and its inherent order becomes apparent (as the Romantic movement proved).

In the same way, the discovery of the prehistoric world in the fossils, in DNA and (most of all) in our imagination brings it out from the marginal lands of chaos into the order of God’s temple – we now have millions of years more of God’s works for which to honour him. You sometimes hear young earth creationists saying that all those ancient worlds were wasted if there was no-one there to appreciate them. But I have to remind them that we are there, through science, and will be so increasingly until that future event, described in Revelation, in which the cosmos is transformed into a new sacred space in which chaos has been completely subsumed in worship.

But in the meantime, there is a pressing need to turn back the de-sacralisation of the world, in which instead of science multiplying worship into previously unseen and unknown areas, it has been subverted to quench worship in even those areas that have always been known and appreciated by people created in, and as, the image of God. The truly great divide in the understanding of science is between those for whom it de-sacralises the creation, and those for whom it makes creation more holy.

Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own; till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world. (Thomas Traherne)

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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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