Some say Yes and some say No. Strident voices are heard on both sides. Strident-voice-folks often have small ears. For those with ears, the question in the title to this post is a real one. No one today has written more fairly about this topic than Denis Alexander, Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund s College, Cambridge (www.faraday-institute.org), where he is Emeritus Fellow.
I am happy to announce he has edited and revised and updated (to the tune of 35,000 more words) an already well-read book, and it is now available as Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Monarch Books). I met and heard Denis Alexander this summer at the BioLogos event in Oxford, and I have been looking forward to this second edition since I heard about it there. He is the right person to write this book. Why? Because he is both a scientist and a serious Christian thinker about the Bible and theology. As he puts it at the end of the 2d preface,
Pitting faith against science is both a scandal and a tragedy of certain segments of the contemporary church, just as serious in its consequences as the efforts of the new atheists to pit science against faith (20).
Because, with Dennis Venema I received a grant from BioLogos to do research and writing on the human genome project and how those conclusions challenge or confirm biblical studies about Adam, I want to work through this book — slowly no doubt — to get some of this discussion going on the blog. Chapter by chapter. RJS is the go-to voice on this blog for such discussions and she’ll keep an eye on these posts, but as she has ventured into some theology so I venture at times into science.
“All Christians are, by definition, creationists.”
So he opens chapter 1 with a stunning observation. He goes right where you expect:
Now of course there is the slight problem that in common usage the term ‘creationist’ is attached to a particular set of beliefs held by some Christians, as well as by some Muslims and Jews, and these beliefs relate to the particular way in which it is thought that God has created. For example, some creationists believe that the earth is 10,000 years old or less. Other creationists believe that the earth is very old, but that God has intervened in a miraculous way at various stages of creation, for example to bring about new species. Since words are defined by their usage, we have to accept that this is the kind of belief to which the word ‘creationist’ refers. But this should not mask the fact that in reality all Christians are creationists in a more basic sense – it is just that they vary in their views as to how God created (21).
Reading the Bible’s creation narratives requires interpretation, and interpretation requires sensitivity to how meaning-making in the ancient near east works. A challenge for all of is our past:
Those who have been reading the Bible for a long time will also tend to interpret texts almost automatically according to the type of literature being read. Others just starting out might need more help (of course commentaries can be useful): but all of us need to be on our guard against reading one type of biblical literature as if it were another. This point becomes clearer when we consider that the types of literature used in the Bible include prose, historical narrative, poetry (in many different styles), prophetic writing, parables, apocalyptic writings, correspondence, theological essays, biography, genealogy, legal discourse, census data, hymns, descriptions of dreams and visions, and much else besides. We can be seriously misled if we treat one kind of narrative as if it were another, missing the main point of the passage altogether (27).
That’s general. Here’s a more specific, and exceedingly important, observation:
Western readers, in particular, are not very practised at reading ancient literature and have a tendency to interpret with a wooden literalism. This is because scientific literature has become so dominant in our culture, influencing the way in which we instinctively read even those texts that come from a pre-scientific age. This can be a significant problem when we come to the biblical text, not only because of its antiquity, but also because it is set in cultures with which we may not be familiar (29).
After a nice sketch of the meaning of bara, one of the major words for “create” in the Bible, Alexander discusses four major themes in what he calls the “biblical doctrine of creation.”
1. God is transcendent in relation to his creation: “Implicit in God’s transcendence is the concept that he creates out of his free and unfettered will. There was no necessity in God creating the universe. He did not have to create it. His transcendent being is all-sufficient. ‘The Lord does whatever pleases him’ writes the psalmist, ‘in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths’ (Psalm 135:6)” (36).
2. God is immanent in his creation: “God is intimately involved in continued creative activity in relation to his universe. All that exists only continues to do so because of his continued say-so. The properties of matter continue to be what they are because God wills that they should continue to have such properties. God’s faithfulness is constantly displayed by that continuity and consistency in the properties of matter. It is what makes science possible” (37).
This checks the notion of “nature”: “Once we grasp the Bible’s powerful teaching about the immanence of God in his created order, we will become suspicious of terminology such as ‘Mother Nature’. In truth ‘nature’ does nothing, but the whole material world has been brought into being by the Word of God, and continues to be sustained moment by moment by his powerful Word. The notion of ‘nature’ itself, for us as for Boyle, has been demythologised by biblical creation theology” (41).
3. God is personal and Trinitarian in his creation: God is not an abstract designer or distant manager; God is a person (the Trinitarian relations) and relationality and personhood are inherent to creation because God is personal.
4. The three tenses of creation: past, present and future.
I wrap this post up with an observation about his about creation: God creating the world is not called a “miracle” in the Bible but the backdrop for all God does in this world, including miracles.
Science is based on observed regularities and logical induction to unobserved regularity. The secular scientist assumes that everything works in a regular, reproducible kind of way because that is what science has always found to be the case so far. The scientist who is a Christian agrees, but in addition believes in a rational basis for that order, the creator God who faithfully endows the universe with its regularities and intelligibility.
There is something paradoxical about the suggestion that miracles can be regular or even predictable events in God’s general work of creation. The whole point about miracles is that they are unexpected, irregular events, particular signs of God’s grace, so my suggestion is that Christians use the language of miracle with this biblical understanding in mind (48).