The dialogue between Christianity and modern science is, to say the least, a muddled one. Advances in modern science have forced evangelicals to make sense of the newly available data in light of the creation account of Genesis 1. Perhaps the most treacherous and confusing part of this discussion is the one that hinges on the theory of evolution. At first glance, these two circles (modern science and Christianity) seem to be telling conflicting stories. Evolution seems incompatible with the story that Genesis tells. Our present aim is to discover if this tension needs to actually exist. Are the claims of modern science—specifically its claims concerning the theory of evolution—actually incompatible with a serious reading of Genesis? What does the Old Testament really say about creation and how ought this inform the discussion presently taking place? My contention is that a better understanding of creation in the Old Testament will lead to a healthier dialogue between the two circles mentioned above. Indeed, the tension that exists between the two “conflicting” stories is, as we will see, an unnecessary one. We will go about our task by tracing the theme of creation through the Old Testament, stopping at a few key texts along the way, in order to develop a biblical understanding of the theme. From there we will apply our findings to the discussion that is presently taking place.
The Theme of Creation in the Old Testament
Creation in the Pentateuch: Genesis 1
We begin our examination of creation where the Scriptures themselves begin: Genesis 1. A brief introductory comment must first be made if we are to properly understand what this passage is communicating. It is generally accepted among modern scholars that the Old Testament reached its final form during the Babylonian exile (Brueggemann 74). Earlier sources were most definitely used during this exilic editorial process but questions concerning original authors and dates lie outside the scope of this work. The implications of this preliminary observation will become clear as we get into the text itself.
A comparison of translations reveals that this passage is wrought with controversy. Verse 1 is typically translated, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NIV). This translation harkens back to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo—the idea that God created all that exists out of nothing. The NRSV, however, renders verse 1 differently: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” or even (as the NRSV footnote renders it), “When God began to create….” It is this latter translation that is to be preferred for multiple reasons (Brueggemann 153). First, there are obviously negative theological implications that come out of the thought of Yahweh creating a world that is dark, formless, and void. Translating the passage so that the watery chaos already exists makes much more sense from a theological perspective. Indeed, this way of translating the verse (“When God began to create…”) communicates the fact that Yahweh is at work with the chaos that characterized the world prior to his creative activity (Brueggemann 153). The focus, then, is not creation ex nihilo but rather an ordering of the “stuff of chaos” which is presupposed by the text. Bruce Waltke agrees. When the curtains open in verse 1, what the reader is faced with is not an empty, dark space but rather an earth that is covered with chaotic waters—an earth that is formless and void (Waltke 173). How this “stuff of chaos” arrived on the scene we are not told. Israel, much to the chagrin of many moderns who are (overly?) concerned with the origin of matter, has no concern for a description of where the chaos came from. Secondly, if this text did indeed reach its final form during the exile then it logically follows that Israel would speak of Yahweh ordering the watery chaos since this is the very context that Israel finds herself in during the exile. Herein lies the key to understanding what is being communicated in Genesis 1: it is more a story about Israel than it is about the origin of the world (Pauls). To be clear, Israel’s understanding of Yahweh as the Creator of heaven and earth was central to their worship. However, the story that Genesis 1 tells would have been music to the ears of wandering exiles for reasons other than the fact that it tells of a God who caused the universe to be. What the exilic community would have heard from this passage is that they worship a God who speaks into chaos and brings order. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, “On this reading, the chaos already extant in v. 2 represents the reality of exile—life at risk and in disorder. The effect of the liturgy is to create an alternative world of ordered life, made possible by Yahweh’s powerful word and will” (153).
We shall conclude our examination of this magnificent text by saying that for Israel creation was inextricably linked with redemption. While in exile, Israel longed for Yahweh to do for them what he did for the earth which was formless and void prior to his creative word. This truth will become even clearer as we examine creation in Israel’s poetry. It is to the poetry texts that we now turn.
Creation Reiterated: Israel’s Poetry
For the sake of space we will have to limit our examination of Israel’s poetry to the Psalter alone. The doctrine of creation as it appears in the Psalms will, however, be enough to prove the point that we began to articulate above, namely, that creation in the Old Testament is more about redemption than it is about the creation of the universe in its own right.
We begin with Psalm 136. It is here that we find a litany of praise to Israel’s God, Yahweh. The Psalm could be split into three distinct segments: vv. 1-4 as introduction, vv. 5-9 as a recounting of creation, and vv. 10-26 as a recounting of Yahweh’s acts within history. One will quickly notice that the transition between v. 9 and v. 10 is rather abrupt. The doctrine of creation and the doctrine of redemption stand side by side here, related in a seemingly unknown way (von Rad 55).
We notice something similar happening in Psalm 148 as well as Psalm 33. In vv. 6 and 9 of the latter we find the following: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth … For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.” The picture that is painted here is of a powerful sovereign who issues commands from his throne, bringing about change by merely uttering what he wills (Brueggemann 146). More interestingly, however, is the fact that this psalm does not linger on creation long. Rather, the psalmist moves on to describe Yahweh’s powerful acts in history: “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples … Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh” (vv. 10, 12). Creation, in this light, seems to be only ancillary for the psalmist, his main concern lying in the fact that Yahweh is the God who saves (von Rad 55).
There are indeed two Psalms in which the theme of creation seems to appear as the main concern of the psalmist. Psalms 19 and 104 both speak of creation as bearing witness to God (von Rad 60-61). The origin of these psalms is highly contested but even if one grants that they are indeed wholly original to Yahwistic belief, they serve as exceptions to the rule that when creation is spoken of in the psalms it is done so in the context of Yahweh’s redemptive acts (von Rad 61).
In sum, Israel’s poetry testifies to the truth that creation, within the Hebrew worldview, is inextricably linked with redemption. Why the two themes are linked is not explained much in the Psalter. To discover this we must turn to the prophets.
Creation in the Prophets: Deutero-Isaiah
There is no other place in the prophets that the theme of creation shows up as frequently than in the latter half of Isaiah (Isa. 40-66). In chapter 40 we read the following: “Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary…” (vv. 27-28 italics mine). Here the doctrine of creation is not mentioned for its own sake but rather in order to bring confidence to an exilic community who may be doubting God’s ability to bring about gracious restoration (von Rad 56). The same thing occurs in chapter 42: “This is what God Yahweh says—he who created the heavens … who spread out the earth with all that springs from it…. I, Yahweh, have called you…” (vv. 5-6). It becomes clear that, although the doctrine of creation shows up frequently throughout Deutero-Isaiah, it serves as a foundation for faith rather than the main concern of the prophet. This is made clear by the fact that the prophet happily passes over the particular acts of God in creation in order to highlight the manifestations of Yahweh’s acts in history which are the focus of each passage (Isa. 40:21ff; 44:24ff; 45:12ff) (von Rad 56).
There is one final text that deserves our attention. In Isaiah 44:24-28 we find echoes of the creation account of Genesis 1, bringing us full circle back to where we began: “I am Yahweh, who has made all things, who stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth myself … who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited,’ of the towns of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,’ and of their ruins, ‘I will restore them,’ who says to the watery deep, ‘Be dry, and I will dry up your streams…’” (italics mine). The prophet likens the state of the exilic community with being caught in the “watery deep.” Here, clearer than we find anywhere else, the doctrine of creation is fully incorporated into the doctrine of redemption. It is Yahweh, the God who creates, the God who brings order out of chaos, that promises to restore the fortunes of his people. Von Rad says it well, “Yahweh, the Creator, who raised up the world out of chaos, does not leave Jerusalem in chaos; he who dried up the elemental waters will also raise up Jerusalem anew” (57).
Conclusions: A Developed Old Testament Theology of Creation
It may come as a surprise to many that we have devoted our whole project thus far to examining the theme of creation in the Old Testament and have yet to discuss what many modern evangelicals tend to discuss when it comes to matters of creation. Instead of finding texts that answer metaphysical questions concerning a young earth, dinosaurs, and a literal six day creation, we have found stories that tell of a creative God who brings life where there once was death (Waltke 174).
It is imperative, then, that we understand what kind of texts we are dealing with when we encounter the theme of creation in the Old Testament. Many today have approached these texts assuming that they were written to answer questions that modern science has asked concerning the origin of the cosmos. As we have discovered, however, to approach these passages in such a manner is to ask questions of the text that they simply are not attempting to answer. What we find in Genesis 1 and the subsequent creation passages that we have examined is not science but rather theology articulated by means of story. We must come to terms with the fact that ancient Israel, in writing these texts, had a very different agenda than we have today in our pursuit of scientifically understanding the origin of the universe. As Brueggemann makes clear, “Israel has no interest in bearing testimony to Yahweh as the one who creates [like, I would add, we do], except as Yahweh can be linked to the practicalities of living faithfully in the world” (153).
What creation meant for Israel was that they worshiped a God who, by his very nature, was a redeemer. The stories of creation told in the Old Testament were stories that offered hope to a people without hope. Yahweh was powerful enough to bring light to a dark and formless world which meant that he possessed the power and strength to, in a sense, reenact Genesis 1 for Israel, a scattered nation in need of ordering.
Creation and Modern Science in Dialogue
The Shape of the Present Conversation
As we noted in our introduction, the discussion that is taking place between the Christian faith and modern science hinges primarily on one hot-button topic: evolution. Evolution is not a peripheral concept in modern science but rather, the primary narrative underlying most modern scientific inquiry (Wilson). It will serve us well to understand, then, what is actually being said about evolution from a scientific perspective. According to the University of California at Berkeley’s website on the issue, evolution is defined as “descent with modification.” The central idea of evolution is that all of life on Earth shares a common ancestor (Berkeley). Over the course of billions of years the process of descent with modification leads to the great diversity of species that we have on Earth today (Berkeley).
There are a number of premises that must be true in order for the theory of evolution to stand up to scrutiny. Two of them are worth noting for our present purposes. First, the theory requires the earth to be billions of years old. Given the complexity and diversity of species on the planet today, it logically follows that the process of evolution has been happening for a vast amount of time. The dating of fossils are said to confirm such a hypothesis (Berkeley). The thought that the earth is billions of years old begs the following question: how did it all begin? This leads to the second premise worth noting. The origin of the universe is often explained, just as the theory of evolution itself is explained, in natural terms. It is at this point that we encounter such theories as the Big Bang.
Our modern obsession with origins has led many modern evangelicals to approach the Bible in search of a response to the claims of the scientific community. Creation texts, indeed, the very texts we examined above, are read with the strict agenda of answering the question of origins—where did this all come from? It is often purported that a plain reading of these texts forces one to reject the theory of evolution. God created the world, many would say, in six, twenty four hour days. Species are understood to be distinct rather than sharing a common ancestor. The genealogy of Genesis 5 allows us to calculate the age of the earth which, according to young earth creationists, ends up being no more than 10,000 years. Approached from this angle, the claims of Scripture and the claims of modern science are simply irreconcilable. One is left to choose one side or the other.
It is for these reasons that the present dialogue is tumultuous. The Bible and science are said to tell two stories that are clearly incompatible. We must ask, however, if this need be the case. Is the tension between modern science and orthodox Christian belief really a necessary tension? How can the theology of creation that we developed in the first part of this work inform us as we seek to make sense of the scientific data? It is to these questions that we now turn.
Moving Forward: The Dialogue in Light of Our Findings
There is an obvious flaw to approaching the creation texts of the Bible in order to answer the questions that modern science is asking about the origin of the cosmos. As we discovered above, the Israelite community, whose Scriptures we read as apart of our canon, was simply not concerned with answering metaphysical questions about how the universe came to be. Approaching the creation texts, therefore, in order to respond to the claims of modern science leads to a gross misreading of Scripture. Treating the Bible as a science textbook is simply a category mistake.
Instead of treating the creation texts of the Old Testament as if they are intended to answer questions coming out of the modern debate about origins, we have discovered that a better approach is to read such texts as primarily theological in nature. The theological truth that is communicated through the recounting of creation in the Old Testament is that Yahweh is a God who speaks into a world that is formless and void in order to bring about order and fullness. The doctrine of creation, therefore, contributes to the Christian’s understanding of God in ways that are not traditionally considered.
Entering into the dialogue with this understanding of creation, one is faced with the reality that the theory of evolution and the doctrine of creation as revealed in the Old Testament need not be pitted against each other. The tension between the “conflicting” stories of Scripture and modern science is, as I have contended from the beginning, an unnecessary tension. It is an unfortunate reality that the church has invested a great deal of time and energy into the endeavor of combating the claims of modern science in order to maintain a “biblical” understanding of the origin of the cosmos. It is high time we recognize that much of the church’s contribution to this dialogue has been misguided. We have made the Scriptures say something that simply does not stand up to contextual or theological scrutiny.
What is more, because the theme of creation in the Old Testament does not attempt to answer the question of origins we are forced to reexamine the scientific data concerning the theory of evolution. Rejecting the theory as contrary to what the Scriptures teach is, in light of our findings, no longer an option. Might I propose, then, that the theory of theistic evolution—the belief that asserts that the classical understanding of God is not incompatible with the theory of evolution—is the position that makes the most sense of the scientific data while, at the same time, remaining faithful to what the Scriptures hold to be true. There are a great deal of questions surrounding such a position—questions that, unfortunately, cannot be answered here. For now, we will have to be content with saying that a proper theological understanding of creation in the Old Testament opens the door to alternative explanations of how God has been at work in creation. Allowing for a more diverse range of explanations will, I propose, lead to a healthier dialogue between modern science and the Christian faith.
It has become clear that using the doctrine of creation to combat the claims of modern science is a good way to miss the full and robust meaning of the very texts that we are attempting to do justice to. The dialogue must be re-framed around a proper understanding of this Old Testament theme. Creation is about redemption. To say that such an understanding of this classic doctrine denigrates Yahweh is to prop ourselves up on our proverbial modern pedestals and arrogantly point our fingers at the forefathers of our faith, those who articulated creation in such a way that it had relevance for them in the context of their exile. Perhaps recapturing this understanding of creation will allow us to apply the doctrine to our own context in ways not previously imagined. Is our need, after all, much different from the needs of Israel at the time this doctrine came to full maturity? It does not take long to realize that we, ourselves, are in a state of wandering exile. The world is not as it should be. Disorder and chaos seem to have won the day. But, as Genesis 1 resoundingly reveals, all is not lost. We do indeed still worship the Creator God—the God who brings order out of chaos. May the story of Genesis 1 become our story just as it was Israel’s and may Yahweh speak a fresh word of life into our present darkness—bringing hope where there is despair, order where there is chaos, and life where there is death. Amen and amen.
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Advocacy, Dispute. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997. Print.
Pauls, Jerry. “Creation as Narrative Theme.” Old Testament Theology Class. Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford. 10 March 2011. Lecture.
University of California, Berkeley. “Understanding Evolution.”<http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/home.php>. Accessed 13 April 2011. Web.
von Rad, Gerhard. “The Theological Problem of the O.T. Doctrine of Creation.” Creation in the Old Testament. Edited by Bernhard W. Anderson. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. Print.
Waltke, Bruce K. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Print.
Wilson, Ken. “Science & the Evangelical Mission in America.” Qideas. <http://qideas.org/essays/science-and-the-evangelical-mission-in-america.aspx>. Accessed 13 April 2011. Web.