Order, unorder and the boundary between

In my last post  I explored the theological concepts of order, unorder and disorder in creation, as outlined in John Walton’s book The Lost World of Adam and Eve. The concept is a useful one in making sense of much biblical teaching, as well as in the general sense of showing how it is not biblically necessary for everything in the universe to be perfectly optimal in order to be part of God’s “good” creation. Indeed, the Bible itself suggests that such perfection was always a future intention.

Walton is a specialist in ANE studies in relation to the Old Testament, and it is to his credit that he has seen, and promoted, the contribution his findings have to make in the scientific origins discussion. He is not a scientist, and does not pretend to make detailed application to science – in fact, his main thesis is that the Bible says nothing about which science could justly disagree. He is even chary of endorsing any particular scientific theory beyond well-grounded generalities like common descent.

Nevertheless, his book tentatively mentions some applications of the “unorder” concept in the question of “natural evil”, a subject which he has no choice but to raise in order to distance “natural evil” from “sin” via the concepts of “unorder” and “disorder”.

But some of the implications of these applications are problematic, and I want to attempt to explore this further here. For instance, Walton writes in his Proposition 16:

This initial ordering [of the cosmos as sacred space] would not have eliminated natural disasters, pain or death. We do not have to think of these as part of the ordered world, though they are not beyond God’s control, and often they can be identified with positive results…

In this sort of thinking, pain and death do not have to be considered part of what is “good” (=ordered). These are aspects that have not yet been fully resolved into a fully ordered world. The world before the fall was a combination of order and non-order with a strategy launched to continue bringing order…

The general theological and biblical thrust of this thinking I endorsed in my previous post, but on the face of it it leads to some strange conclusions, especially if we stick closely to those Genesis creation categories of “ordered” and “unordered”. For although the functional description of creation is important (and refreshingly teleological in a materialist age), to some extent it must necessarily deal with the material creation or be irrelevant.

At various stages in the Genesis 1 account, God creates sky and sea creatures, the beasts and man himself. At times in his writing Walton seems to favour the idea of a literal seven-day process, occurring somewhere near the origin of human self-awareness, when this “functional creation” occurred. Now, if we assume that, consistent with the usual scientific account, no detectable material changes appear to have happened at that particular stage in history, clearly God did not suddenly cause biological categories like “livestock”, “birds of the air” and so on to evolve by saltation.

Instead, he must have designated existing species for the uses they would have within the sacred space to be occupied by mankind. This is quite hard to envisage as an actual change in anything other than human, or divine, perception. Other interpretations are compatible with the “functional view”, of course – that the seven days of creation describe God’s teaching mankind how he had ordered the universe for him, or that, as in the “framework view” it is a literary description of the same world we experience, only viewed functionally rather than materially, the seven days being purely representative of the ANE perceptions of temple inauguration.

In all these cases, though, the material distinction “on the ground” between what God has ordered for mankind, and what is the unordered “leftovers”, is not actually possible to delineate. Most of the plants and animals used by man were on the scene as wild species before man, except for those we ourselves have been able to domesticate by God’s provision – in what way were they more unordered before?

More troubling still for Walton’s division, the biological processes that enabled the earth to bring forth these creatures “after their kinds” did not simply fail to exclude “natural disasters, pain and death,” but depended on them utterly in order to work at all. That’s surely the justification for the term “evolutionary creation”: no succession of forms, no creation of life. If there had been no vulcanism or asteroid strikes, life would still be Ediacaran. If there were no death, there would be no evolution – indeed, there could be no life along the pattern that God has given this world. “The serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made,” and all snakes are strictly carnivorous – the order gave to the serpent involved the taking of life (if not that of Adam and Eve through deceit).

Even ID biologist Ann Gauger, who doubts the evidence for human common descent, at least, is clear in a recent article that death is even essential to individual life, as selective cell death is involved in many of the processes that shape bodies.

I’ve pointed out many times before that the first 1500 years of Christian theology did not regard the existence of parasites, fierce carnivores and so on as anything less than the expression of God’s ordering wisdom in creation. We now labour under the legacy of the later and unbiblical view of a sin-corrupted creation that introduced all these things following the Fall of Adam. That has been one reason for the pathetic struggle for theodicy in views that accommodate evolution.If natural evil is not from sin, than how does God escape responsibility?

On The Hump we’ve repeatedly critiqued one of the most common answers to this in TE circles, that of an autonomous creation. In this, God is distanced from the “nasty” things in creation by suggesting that evolution has been left to do its own thing at some remove from God’s ordaining will, and has got blood on its hands in the process. This accounts not only for “immoral” consequences like parasitic wasps and cunning virus stratagems, but also “bad designs” like the human back, the appendix, and the giraffe recurrent laryngeal nerve (even more “incompetently” manifested in the Diplodocus – though its ubiquity in land vertebrates over geological time seems to have done them no great harm).

One of my criticisms of this has been that there is just no way that one can unpick the living world to give God due thanks for the useful, the beautiful and the magnificent, whilst tut-tutting at autonomous processes for the useless, the ugly or the distasteful, especially as they are often both at the same time, from our perspective. The world cannot be a curate’s egg that’s “good in parts”. But the same criticism applies equally to Walton’s description, at least as he has stated it in the passages above. It may be theologically useful to view the serpent or the whale as a “chaos creature” from the desert or the wild ocean, but biologically a snake is just an evolved reptile and a whale (if Dennis Venema is to be believed!) an adapted ungulate. They’re all part of balanced ecosystems and none of them is any more or less a wonder of God’s wisdom and creative skill.

Regarding the age to come, it’s quite possible to imagine ways in which creation will be transformed wholesale as Christ was at the resurrection (though probably not the right way, which is beyond imagination). But trying to identify the specific bits that are “unordered” from those that are “ordered”, even in the biblical examples, is like trying to pick the butter out of a cake.

Does that mean, then, that Walton’s biblical categories have no relevance to the “real” modern world and should be seen as purely symbolic or ritual, if not erroneous? I suggest, rather, that they are actually robust, even in our more material mindset, provided that one does some further work on the concept of “unorder”, which, you will remember, derives for the tohu wabohu of Genesis 1.2. If, as Walton has established pretty well I think, the Genesis account is specifically anthropocentric and theological – that is, it describes the ordering of sacred space for mankind – then we should understand the prior state, the “uselessness and emptiness”, as being not chaos, but that which God had ordered towards some different prior, partly incompatible, goal.

On this understanding, “the earth was without form and void” would simply mean that it was not yet a humanly-orientated world. But that would in no way mean that God had not previously ordered it as, say, a terra-forming assembly line (to put it crudely), nor even as a world orientated towards the well-being of the particular life-forms of a succession of ages. That God has, in these end times, given the earth as an inhertence to the (human) meek does not forbid him from having made it for lesser creatures in the past. The seas of the Cambrian, the swamps of the Carboniferous or the glades of the Cretaceous were no less divinely ordained and organised than is our own world. They just weren’t organised for man in relationship with God through Christ, its final goal.

So one could truly regard what is left over from that world, and not fully enfranchised in the world of God and man, as theologically “unordered”, whilst recognising them – including even physical death itself – as being in every way the wise and deliberate work of God. One could even, perhaps following the intended footsteps of Adam – bring them closer within the sacred space of God by recognising his handiwork in them, as we also recognise his handiwork in trilobites, tiktaliks and tyrannosaurs. Yet the temporary nature of those things would still be recognised in the hope that, in the age to come, somehow pain, death, dark and deep will all be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and all things find their fulfilment in him.

And one can still recognise that, because the change is so long overdue because of our sin, all creation groans as in childbirth to experience it.

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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