Friday, 28 October 2005

Reading the Genesis creation stories

“The expositor [of the creation narratives] must move knowingly between two temptations. On the one hand, there is the temptation to treat this material as historical, as a report of what happened.... On the other hand, there is the temptation to treat these materials as myth, as statements which announce what has always been and will always be true of the world.... Our exposition will insist that these texts be taken neither as history nor as myth. Rather, we insist that the text is a proclamation of God’s decisive dealing with his creation. The word “creation” is controlling for such a view. The whole cluster of words—creator/ creation/ create/ creature—are confessional words freighted with peculiar meaning. Terms such as “cosmos” and “nature” should never be carelessly used as equivalents, for these words do not touch the theocentric, covenantal relational affirmation being made.... The text, then, is a proclamation of covenanting as the shape of reality.... This theological affirmation permits every scientific view that is genuinely scientific and not a theological claim in disguise.”

—Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation Commentary; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 16-17.

8 Comments:

Ken said...

It also makes the specific declaration that God created this world; he is its author, designer, and initiator. He predetermined its design; he called it forth into existence; and he shapes and actively sustains all that is in it. Certainly, this is a theological confession, though not without its scientific implications. Still, I would agree with Brueggemann that this confession of the biblical text "permits every scientific view that is genuinely scientific". No debate on that point.

However, Ben, you have argued that God is not the creator in any physical or material way. This goes far beyond anything in the excerpts you've posted by Brueggemann and Barth. You have explicitly avowed that God is not an intelligent designer and that, in fact, the evidence of the natural world inveighs against identifying the God of the gospel as the creator of this world. I don't see Brueggemann or Barth coming remotely close to that. Indeed, notice that Brueggemann explicitly rejects science that makes a "theological claim in disguise." In other words, he correctly recognizes that a biblical perspective does preclude any claim against the existence of God and his role as the ultimate author and arbiter of creation.

Now that I think about it, your position on this issue seems to have gnostic or Marcionite echoes to it.

Ben Myers said...

"Gnostic or Marcionite echoes..."

Hi again Ken. Of course, I have never meant to suggest that God is not the creator of this real physical world. This physical world is precisely the world that God created (what other world could there be?). My point is only that "God created the world" is not a scientific statement. It is a theological statement about the relationship between God and the world. I'm sorry that you find this distinction so baffling and so disagreeable! -- but the distinction in itself really isn't novel or uncommon.

If anything, the distinction is aiming at the very opposite of any kind of Gnostic dualism: it aims to let the world truly be the world, precisely because God has made it so. This is one of the ontological implications of the doctrine of creation: the world has its own proper independence and existence, its own creaturely autonomy and contingence, so that it can be studied and understood on its own grounds and terms. In other words, the scientific enterprise has its independent value and meaning precisely because God is the free and gracious creator of this physical, observable world.

On the other hand, if the terms "creator" and "creation" are used to describe the scientific and physical processes themselves, then the scientific enterprise is in fact undermined or even (in principle) rendered impossible.

I'm not trying to convince you of any of this, Ken, and I can see that (as Gadamer might say) our "horizons" here are very different. I'm just trying to clarify my own point of view in the interest of understanding and meaningful dialogue.

Ken said...

If this comment were your only one on the matter, I'd be in complete agreement with you. There's nothing in this comment that I would find disagreable, though I might quibble some that you can't avoid the scientific implications of the theological statement but probably not enough to have bothered to post a comment.

However, this is not all you've written on the topic. Rather, you argued previously that God is not the intelligent designer and you supported this by appealing to phenomena in the natural world. As clear as day you denied that God could have created this world.

Let's revisit those statements. You wrote, "If there is an Intelligent Designer, then It has to be the Designer of all aspects of the natural world. Might not the Intelligent Designer therefore be a cruel tyrant or an omnipotent demon? Certainly It would not be the God and Father of Jesus Christ. And this means that, strictly speaking, the Intelligent Designer cannot be identified with what Christians mean by “the creator”—for Christians confess that the “Maker of heaven and earth” is “God the Father Almighty,” i.e., the Father of Jesus Christ."

This seems clear to me: If God designed the world then he designed it all and as some aspects of the world are evil, this suggests that the designer would be nearer to a tyrant or demon than the God of the gospel. Consequently, God is not the designer of the world.

But now, you write, "Of course, I have never meant to suggest that God is not the creator of this real physical world. This physical world is precisely the world that God created."

Which is it Ben? These are mutually exclusive statements.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this thoughtful reply, Ken. I can see why you feel that these are mutually exclusive statements. The basic reason why they are not mutually exclusive for me is this: for me, the most basic insight of the doctrine of creation is that we know God as creator only through faith.

The world itself does not disclose God the creator. It might disclose a prima causa or an "Intelligent Designer" -- and I don't deny that, in principle, it really might disclose some such "cause" or "Designer". But this "cause" or "Designer" would never be God the creator. In fact, based on what we can observe about the world, there is just as much reason to suppose that this "Designer" would be a demon or a capricious tyrant or merely a nasty schoolboy.

In contrast, in spite of all that we observe in the natural world, Christians confess faith in God the creator. In spite of the cruelty of "nature red in tooth and claw", in spite of the ambiguous and demonic aspects of nature, we confess that God is creator and Lord. This is faith in the strictest sense: it is a struggle against the way things appear; it is (to use a Pauline antithesis) "faith" as opposed to "sight"; it is a confession of "Nevertheless" which sets the world in an entirely new light.

As Heb. 11:3 says, it is "through faith" that we understand that the worlds were made by God. And thus the Creed does not begin with the words "I perceive", but rather (and this makes all the difference in the world) "I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth." And then the creed immediately identifies this "creator": he is the Father of "Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord." (For more on all this, the best discussion is Barth's CD III/1, which argues at length that "creation" can only be an article of faith.)

After all these comments we've been exchanging, Ken, can I still dare to hope that some basic clarification is possible? Of course, I blame the lack of clarity only on my own inability to communicate clearly. Anyway, as an expression of hope and goodwill, let me offer this (admittedly crude and simplistic) summary of my basic point of view:

Did God create the world?
Yes!

Is God the "first cause" or "Intelligent Designer" as perceived by scientific observation?
No!

How then can we know that God is the creator?
Through faith!

And what is the understanding of creation grasped by faith?
That the Father of Jesus Christ is the world's one true Lord, and that he is my Lord, granting me existence and all other things by sheer grace alone. Or, to put it still more starkly: God the creator is the God of the gospel.

Ken said...

So then, how do you address passages in Romans 1, Psalms, and Job that testify that God can be perceived in creation?

I can appreciate much of what you are saying but, imo, you take it too far. Certainly, the God of the gospel is not apparent through creation alone and a personal relationship and knowledge of the God of the gospel requires revelation. But, to move from that to say, "this 'cause' or 'Designer' would never be God the creator" makes your argument incomprehensible. Because by faith, you are declaring that God the creator is indeed that cause or designer. To me, as read your latest posts, you simply assert that the means to this knowledge is not natural observation but faith. Agreed. If this indeed all you are saying, then you are not in disagreement with ID. Because ID does not claim that the God of the gospel is revealed in nature. It only argues that scientific observation testifies to design and as such, science ought to consider asking a different set of questions. While ID developed among people of a Christian faith, it is actually remarkably agnostic in principle.

curious servant said...

Not only does that make sense to me, but I feel it is rather clear that the point of the Word is divine, not literary.

Ken said...

Then by all means, please explain curious servant... How can those two statements be reconciled? If on the one hand a person believes by faith that God is the creator but on the other hand asserts that because nature reveals itself to contain evil God is not the intelligent designer... this makes zero sense to me.

Fat said...

When God had created the world he looked at it and behold - it was very good.

Perhaps it is then our lack of understanding of what is good and what is not that is flawed rather than that which we observe.

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