The Nature of Creation

In the lead up to a seminar on Genesis 1–2 I recently gave, I did some reading about creation in biblical texts and science. One book in particular stood out: Mark Harris’ The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Durham: Acumen, 2013).

This is the most intelligent and theologically consistent treatment of the topic of creation and science I’ve come across. It examines creation texts in the Bible, carefully bringing out what they do and don’t claim. This is done within a carefully articulated Christian theological framework that understand the Bible as authoritative revelation. It looks at the challenge of science, explaining some of the most pertinent ideas affecting a biblical doctrine of creation, such as the ‘Big Bang’ and evolution. It then seeks to bring the two alongside each other, not in a harmonistic manner, nor in a competitive manner. Rather, Harris seeks to explain what each contributes to an understanding of creation.

The book has ten chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Creation According to Modern Science
  3. Creation According to the Bible I: Genesis
  4. Creation According to the Bible II: The Creation Motif
  5. The Framework of Biblical Creation
  6. Creation–creation: How can a Relationship be Described?
  7. The Fall
  8. Suffering and Evil
  9. Scientific Eschatology and New Creation
  10. Conclusions

There are three things that really struck me about this book:

  1. Harris does not gloss over difficulties or try to explain them away. He superbly describes both theological and scientific issues in a way that gives adequate voice to both, thus fostering understanding. He is well placed to do so, being Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He capably brings both theological and scientific expertise to bear on the issues in a very constructive way. The result is an articulation of problems that gives more clarity to the issues than anything I’ve read before.
  2. Harris’ theological method is not proof-texting. He discusses biblical texts with a good eye for their texture, and also how they contribute to an overall theology. In his own words, he ‘explores how the Bible’s creation texts may be integrated into modern discussions in the science–theology field, first by discussing ways of understanding the scientific framework of the biblical texts, and then the theological framework‘ (p.83). He is not trying to align his exegesis to a previously determined conclusion, but rather seeking to survey the theological ‘lie of the land’ before picking the best trail across it. He is guided by a good Christian theo-logic that appreciates revelation, Trinitarian theology, soteriology, and eschatology. His conclusion is that the Bible has many complex things to say about creation and the creator. Each of these complexities needs to be appreciated and understood rather than flattened out into a single homogeneous notion. Only then can we bring the Bible into dialogue with science in a fruitful way.
  3. Harris’ handling of scripture is rational, respectful, and riveting. He knows his biblical scholarship and his theology. And because of the first two points above, his discussion is able to blaze some new trails that are productive and profound. Not everyone will agree with some of the ideas he puts forward, but I don’t think Christians can ignore what he says either. He exposes some key flaws in previous thinking that need to be addressed. Harris pushes into new directions, but not for novelty’s sake. He is, rather, seeking to move in the direction that the Bible itself suggests, and seeing how these new directions intersect with science. He is not being a radical—he’s being reasonable.

Mark Harris

I particularly liked Harris’ exploration of the concepts of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), creatio continua (ongoing creation), and creatio ex vetere (creation out of the old). He sees creatio ex nihilo as a necessary theological conclusion, but not the end of creational discussion. The fact of creatio ex nihilo means that God created a world that is other than him, and therefore not divine. It is, rather, wholly contingent for its being on him. This therefore critiques the concept of Deism (the notion that God created in the beginning, but takes no further part in creation), and necessitates creatio continua—God’s ongoing acts of creation in sustaining and propagating life and the universe. This concept opens the door for a dialogue with evolutionary biology, though Harris recognises that there are difficulties in this dialogue that aren’t easy to digest. Then, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, Harris talks about creatio ex vetere—creating something new out of the old. This is the essential redemptive dynamic involved in framing an understanding of the age to come. Eschatology thus becomes an important factor in considering the nature of creation and should act as a guiding concept in any dialogue between theology and evolutionary science. He does not want to collapse the supernatural act of God into a scientific naturalism, but nor does he want to sideline science. Rather, he sees science as offering valid, though incomplete and constantly updating, perceptions of the world that God has created, sustains, and will ultimately redeem. And though science creates difficult theological questions, Harris’ three concepts of creation provide some good stakes in the ground for focusing the dialogue. For example, the possibility of death and suffering in a ‘good’ world, as proposed by evolutionary biology, should be informed by the nature of life as contingent rather than perfect, and redemption as regenerative. It may not solve all the difficulties, but it certainly moves the discussion beyond an apparent impasse. It gets us to consider the nature of God and the nature of creation, rather than judge the issue purely on how closely it approximates a biblical text.

Some further quotable quotes:

If the science-religion dialogue has proceeded with little engagement so far with Scripture then that is perhaps because Scripture’s cutting edge has not been brought to bear with sufficient accuracy (Heb 4:12). [p.9]

 

These texts [in Genesis] may be controversial in our modern times, but they are of enormous significance to the Bible, since they set out basic features of its worldview…If we fail to appreciate this point, and unthinkingly impose our own worldview on the text, we will quickly misunderstand them, along with their claims about key worldview issues such as cosmology, (ancient) science, and the human condition and its relationship with the Creator and other creatures. Without awareness of this point, we will learn relatively little from the texts. [pp.56–57]

 

[S]cience has played an important part in renewing appreciation of biblical ideas of creation, even if it is unable to shed much direct light on these ideas themselves. Ultimately the texts say rather little about the physical makeup of the world, but much about God’s creative relationship with it and about who God is. [p.186]

In short, this book is profound and intensely thought provoking. Any Christian discussion of creation and science should be engaging with Harris from now on. It’s not always an easy read, because the subject matter is complex. However, it is a very worthwhile read. I particularly recommend that Christians read this book immediately after reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).

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9 thoughts on “The Nature of Creation

  1. As Mr Athas doesn’t cite the most pertinent passages of this radical book, let me cite (copied from the Amazon review), this passage:

    Citing Henri Blocher, he suggests that the key interpretive question is whether the apostle Paul regarded Adam and the Fall as historical or not, and whether his theology of atonement requires it. The problem is that, contrary to popular belief, Genesis 2-3 does not say that Adam’s sin actually introduced death into the world. He mentions Augustine’s reliance on a faulty Latin translation of Romans 5:12, reading it as “in whom all sinned,” rather than ”because all sinned” as in the original Greek text. Harris suggests that it might be simpler just to say that all humans have sinned since their beginnings, and that “the Fall is the theological name for the onset of consciousness (and especially of conscience) in humankind.” (p. 145)

    Says it all.

    • Berend, that’s not really an engagement with the material. I’m happy for you to disagree with Harris (I had a few reservations myself), but this kind of tokenistic opposition smacks of tribalism rather than theological interaction. Please feel free to reply with a substantive critique of Harris’ position.

    • Berend, the way you characterise Harris’ argument above, with appeal to an Amazon review, is actually misrepresentative. I think you’ve completely misunderstood his point. Let me explain. The review gives a quote from p.145 where Harris entertains the possibility of the Fall as a theological name for the onset of consciousness in humankind. However, it fails to quote from the very next paragraph: “Straightforward as this model of the Fall may be, and possessing the added advantage that it does not clash with evolutionary biology, it still suffers from a number of disadvantages.” He then lists three shortcomings of it and concludes: “Hence, while this evolutionary model of a historical Fall solves the scientific problems of the traditional picture, it appears to make Christ rather superfluous.” In other words, he weighs the model and finds it wanting. I dare say the Amazon reviewer has taken his argument out of context and made him appear to argue for something that he actually thinks is theologically inadequate.

      By all means, Berend, critique Harris. This is what we must do as part of standard scholarly evaluation. But please understand his arguments first, and then engage with them in a substantive rather than tokenistic way. This will involve reading the entire book.

      Just to get the ball rolling, here’s a quote from p.142:

      ‘Paul may well have believed that Adam was a historical individual, but Paul’s argument rests on the representational importance of Adam; Adam represents the sin and death which all humans experience, in contrast to the obedience and life which Christ offers (Rom. 5:17–19)… Importantly, Paul refers explicitly to Adam as a “symbol” (a type; Rom. 5:14)… For sure, Paul sees Adam as the originator of sin and death (Rom 5:12), but every succeeding generation has shared fully without exception in sin by means of their own deeds. Therefore, in setting up Adam as a type in contrast to Christ, Paul is seeking to draw out the significance of Christ as a universal, not to historicize Adam as a particular…’

      Berend, do you think Harris’ exegesis of Romans is wrong? If so, where and why? Do you think the Augustinian view is right? If so, why is it better than Harris’ explanation? Why is his critique of the Augustinian view weak? I’d appreciate your thoughts if you care to offer something substantive. Harris’ contribution is, I think, significant, even if we might disagree over certain points. But this is why substantive interaction is so necessary.

  2. Thanks, George. I’ll have to get this book. I taught Genesis last year, and Walton was one of sources I used. I assume Harris takes the same accommodation approach as Walton (vs. concordism)?

    • Yes, it is more like accommodation, but Harris’ argument is much more theologically sophisticated than other treatments. Walton will, I think, position the reader well to appreciate some of the complexity of the arguments. And given he is both a scientist and a theologian, he is able to do justice to both sides of the debate. Whether you agree with him is another issue, but he is certainly thought-provoking in a fresh way. His contribution cannot be ignored.

  3. ‘Immediately after’? Oh well, I’ve failed by 2 years then. On a more serious note, does this book build on John Walton’s, or take it in a different direction, etc?

    • Haha! No, it doesn’t exactly build on Walton. It’s an independent work. But I think Walton would prepare the reader well by covering some issues that brings the reader ‘up to speed’, as it were.

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