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).

The Good Book

ABC Radio National’s Encounter program recently featured a piece titled The Good Book. The program looked at how the Bible is understood today as both literature (‘a good book’) and Scripture (‘The Good Book’). Among those interviewed were myself (George Athas) and some of my students from Moore College (Dan Wu, Tim Escott, Tom Melbourne, John Hudson), Cheryl Exum (Sheffield), Robert Alter (UC Berkeley), Lori Lefkovitz (Northeastern), and John Carroll (La Trobe). The range of contributors present an interesting collage of views about the Bible. If you’d like to take a listen, you can click one of the links below. The program is 54 minutes.

The Good Book (listen now online)

The Good Book (download mp3)

The Good Book (transcript)

Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 2)

A second widely held view about the restoration of Israel is what might be termed the ‘Replacement’ perspective. This view states that the Church has replaced Israel in the purposes of God and has taken over all the prerogatives that Israel once enjoyed as the people of God. In other words, the Church is the ‘New Israel’.

There are some significant implications that stem from this view. For example, the actual ‘Promised Land’ (what is today the State of Israel and the territories of the Palestinian Authority) is no longer of any theological consequence in the scheme of God’s plans. Rather, biblical statements about the physical land are spiritualised either to refer to any place where God’s people meet, or to heaven, or to a recreated earth after the Day of Judgement. Also, if the Church is the ‘New Israel’, then spiritually all Christians are ‘New Jews’. However, this is where I believe the view comes unstuck. Let me explain.

Galatia

The Gentile churches in Galatia that Paul had founded during his journeys faced a significant problem after Paul left them. Apparently, Jewish believers came to them and demanded that they be circumcised (Gal 6.12). The point of this was to turn these Gentile Christians into Jews and, thereby, make them part of the covenant people of God, who alone had access to the special salvific blessings God had bestowed. After all, Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. This ‘Judaising’ view initially seems quite in line with the classic promises of God in the Old Testament, which were made specifically to Israel. However, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul was at pains to demonstrate to these Gentile Christians that they had already received God’s Spirit as Gentiles and, as such, were already party to the fullness of salvation without the need for becoming citizens of Israel (Gal 3.1–5). Now, the Judaisers, who were demanding a change of ethnicity in these Gentiles through circumcision, were not claiming that the Church had replaced Israel. They were, in fact, implying that Israel was the Church. However, in critiquing this ‘Judaising’ view, Paul also effectively critiques the Replacement view, for he denies that there is any ethnic (racial or spiritual) dimension to salvation. On the contrary, anyone who believes in Jesus, whether they are Jewish or Greek, male or female, slave or free, are saved children of God (Gal 3.28).

Artistic Reconstruction of the Roman Forum

Paul effectively faced the opposite problem with the Gentile Christians in Rome. Most of the Jews in the imperial capital, as throughout most of the Roman Empire at the time, did not acknowledge Jesus as Israel’s long awaited Messiah. In the eyes of Rome’s Gentile Christians this was just another sign of Israel’s continued history of obstinacy towards their God. They believed that God had finally abandoned Israel once and for all and now offered salvation to Gentiles. In other words, they believed Jews were a lost cause, and that to be a Christian was to be non-Jewish. Paul corrected this view by pointing out that the Jesus-centred gospel was actually for the Jew first, and then for the Greek (Rom 1.16). He urged Rome’s Gentiles to become living sacrifices (Rom 12.1) who would give up their legitimate freedom in the gospel (Rom 15.1–2) in order to serve the circumcised, just as Christ himself had done (Rom 15.8). In other words, Paul wanted the Gentile Christians of Rome to live in a way that attracted Jews to the gospel and helped them to recognize Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. In so doing, Paul states that Israel is still very much within God’s grand plans. God had not abandoned Jews (Rom 11.1–2), but rather was using their ‘hardening’ as an opportunity for bringing the gospel to Gentiles who, in turn, could then take the gospel back to the Jews (Rom 11.11–27).

What all these things show us is that God does not see saved Gentiles as a part of Israel, nor does he see the concept of ‘Israel’ replaced by a new concept called ‘Church’. The reality of ‘Israel’ continues into the ‘Church’, and yet Gentiles are not actually part of ‘Israel’. They are Gentiles! There is, in other words, a very clear distinction between Jews and Gentiles in the Church, and the distinction is such that the Church cannot really be viewed as a ‘New Israel’. In fact, the term ‘New Israel’ never appears in the New Testament. The earliest cognate we have for the term, as far as we can tell, is from Justin Martyr in the mid-second century AD in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. In this ‘discussion’, Justin, a Gentile Christian from Samaria, tells a Jew named Trypho that, because Jews had rejected Jesus, what had once belonged to Israel was now the preserve of Christians alone. For Justin Martyr, the Church had replaced Israel and become the ‘True Israel’ (Dial. Trypho 123; 135). I have little doubt that the Apostle Paul would have strongly objected to Justin’s view had they been contemporaries, since Justin’s view smacks of the elitism that Paul sought to correct in Rome a century earlier.

So where do we go from here? Hopefully, a way forward is beginning to suggest itself. But we’ll save a discussion of it until the next instalment in this little series.