Sunday, June 08, 2014

C2. Everything God created was good.

The theology in bullet points series continues in the section on the creation.
C2. Everything God created was good.

Genesis 1:31 tells us as much: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good."

1. A Christian named Augustine (400s AD) had a brilliant solution to the question of why there is suffering and evil in the world. His answer was because God created Satan and the first human Adam with the freedom to choose evil. God created everything good, but he also created everything with the possibility of losing some of its goodness. Evil, he thought, was the absence of goodness, so God did not create evil, but God created the possibility for us to lose goodness.

Then when Satan and Adam sinned, evil came into the world. In Adam's case, Adam's sin brought a "sin nature" on humanity that gives us a drive to sin and causes us to die (cf. Rom. 5:12; 7:21). But Adam's sin also corrupted the creation. The corruption and decay of the world therefore comes also as a result of Adam's sin (cf. Rom. 8:20). In Augustine's view, there would be no suffering or death if Adam had not sinned, an event Augustine called, "the Fall."

Obviously this brilliant synthesis of themes in Paul and Genesis at least seems to stand in significant tension with the theory of evolution. Indeed, Genesis 1 is not the primary biblical difficulty with the theory of evolution, since it has a somewhat poetic character and was written in dialog with the creation stories of its day rather than to give us a literal account of creation by scientific standards. The primary difficulty with evolution is the way in which it seems to undermine both a key explanation for the problem of evil and suffering and thereby our sense of what the resolution to those problems might be.

And yet it would seem that Christians need to take the theory of evolution seriously, for "all truth is God's truth" (See F2). Evolution would not seem to be some passing theory or conspiracy among a small group of scientists. It is the position held by the overwhelming majority of experts across several scientific disciplines in an area where you make your name by discovering something new, and paradigm shifters are heroes. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of open-minded Christians who go into these fields find themselves accepting the theory the more they study and become experts in these fields.

Of course paradigms do shift, even overwhelmingly held ones. Yes, there are presuppositions involved in science that steer the way one interprets results. Yet from an objective point of view, it is very difficult not to conclude that the overwhelming weight of evidence at this time must surely point to a very old earth/universe and that the complex life we see today has developed from simpler life forms. Perhaps in the end it is not true, but it seems important for Christian theology at least to consider what the implications would be for Christian understanding if it were.

On the one hand, the age of the universe has not posed as much of a problem for Christian thinkers. [1] For example, since evolution first emerged as a theory, some have suggested that the days of Genesis 1 might have been ages lasting long periods of time rather than literal 24 hour days, the so called "day-age theory." [2] Still others from the very beginning have suggested that God directed the course of evolution toward the eventual arrival of humanity. This approach has traditionally been called "theistic evolution," although Christian scientists may prefer to call it "evolutionary creation."

In the theory of evolutionary creation, God stepped into the evolutionary process at various points to miraculously steer it toward humanity. Then perhaps at some point, God stepped in to create Adam and Eve as in Genesis 2-3. Others might say that God chose two humanoids to put a soul into, effectively creating Adam and Eve. This approach takes the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 2-3 somewhat figuratively as well. [3]

2. Our purpose here is not to render a verdict on a particular Christian approach to evolution but to brainstorm a little on what the implications would be for Christian theology if evolution would prove to be true in some form. There is of course the biblical question. Does the theory of evolution undermine biblical authority?

It does require us to take Genesis 1 and probably Genesis 2-3 as somewhat poetic presentations of creation. Yet it can be argued that they were intended to be taken in this way from the very beginning. The real difficulty, as I have suggested, comes rather with Paul in Romans and especially with Augustine's interpretation of Romans.

One observation that may help with Romans is an arguable difference between Paul himself and Augustine's interpretation of Paul. For Paul, sin was a power over the creation, not--as Augustine formulated it--a matter of the new nature of the creation. We have to be careful about building a doctrine out of a single verse anyway, but Paul probably understood Romans 8:20 in relation to the power of Sin over creation rather than a transformed nature within the creation.

The question though remains, if the power of Sin over humanity and the creation entered with Adam, how was there death and suffering before that time? Evolution requires lots of death.

Here Christians who have accepted evolution often note that, at least in Genesis, the default of Adam and Eve's nature was to die anyway if they did not eat from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:22). That is to say, Genesis does not see Adam's disobedience as the cause of his death but as the reason why he was prevented from eternal life. In Genesis, death is the default status of his created physical nature and presumably the default status of the nature of the animals as well. [4]

We will examine Paul's theology of Sin in another place (See S5). For the moment, let us hypothesize that it was spiritual death that primarily entered the world as a result of Adam's sin. Let us further hypothesize that physical death "entered the world" with Adam's sin in the sense that Adam would not otherwise have died, not because his physical nature was originally immortal but because God had offered Adam and Eve the possibility of adding eternal life to their default nature.

Does this harmonization remove the problem of biblical authority? It depends on how rigidly passages like these must be read and to what extent we are allowed to take the ancient worldviews of the authors into account. If we are allowed to translate Paul's argument in relation to its basic point, rather than the specifics of how he makes that point, then we are probably okay. If we are allowed to look at the Bible's thinking as a chorus of voices rather than as individual voices all of which must be harmonized in detail, then we are probably okay.

3. What would be the implications of God creating physical death as part of the creation? If death is part of the creation as God created it, then we must consider death, "very good," at least as concerns the animal kingdom. Such a perspective is probably a significant adjustment to normal Christian thinking. We are prone to think of death as an evil, the separation of us from our loved ones. If evolution is correct, then we must rethink our view of suffering.

Resurrection and eternal life thus become special gifts God wants and wanted to give to humanity as the crown of his creation. Death for humanity becomes part of the Fall because it is not the glory God intended or created us to have (Psalm 8; Hebrews 2), not because death in itself is evil.

Before Augustine created his theological system, there were other Christians who had a perspective more along these lines. Irenaeus, writing in the late 100s, saw suffering as a tool God uses to help us mature morally. Anyone who has been bedridden for a time knows how quickly your muscles atrophy. Athletes are well acquainted with the motto, "No pain, no gain."

In the same way, Irenaeus suggested that the death and suffering of the world were tools that God used to help us strengthen our moral muscles. Without the challenge of suffering and difficulty, we would simply become morally flabby. We would not truly be moral beings because we would never have to make hard moral choices. This Irenaean explanation of suffering is not nearly as satisfying as Augustine's, but it reminds us that there were Christians who wrestled with this issue before the scheme that is now so familiar arrived on the scene.

This component of redemption and salvation then becomes the possibility for us to receive the glory we were intended to have from the beginning. We would no longer die, a gift that God originally intended to give especially to humanity. Christ's death would thus restore our originally intended eternity to us.

4. I will not pretend that the theory of evolution does not present challenges to ways of thinking about death and long held interpretations of the Bible for certain Christian traditions. At the same time, history tells us that interpretations of passages and methods of biblical interpretation have varied widely throughout the course of Christian history. Interpretations often seem obvious to us, not because they really are obvious, but because everyone in our group interprets them in a certain way in our lifetime. [6]

At the same time, scientific theories also change and have changed over the centuries. Christian theology is not a slave to scientific theory, especially when scientific theory is based upon naturalistic presuppositions that bracket out God as a possible element in the equation. Yet we also know that Christians have stood adamantly in the past against science on issues where we now have come to accept those scientific theories and wonder what the problem was. Those in the 1500s who argued against the sun as the center of the solar system took biblical imagery literally too.

It is best for us to give Christian scientists some leeway on this issue, those who do not have naturalistic presuppositions but still think the evidence for evolution is compelling. [5] And it is the task of Christian theologians at least to explore what the implications of evolution might be for Christian theology if it would prove to be true.

Whatever may come of these explorations, Christians affirm strongly that everything God created was good.

Next week: C3: God is in control of everything that happens.

[1] Even fundamentalist Christians like Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and R. C. Sproul do not have significant problems with the notion of a very old earth.

[2] Another theory that was once popular was the "gap theory," the idea that God created everything good in Genesis 1:1, but that Satan fell and everything became disorderly in Genesis 1:2.

[3] For different approaches to Adam and Eve, see Matthew Barnett and Ardel Canaday, eds., Four Views on the Historical Adam (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013).

[4] It is perhaps worth noting here that Judaism, rooted in what we call the Old Testament, has no doctrine of a Fall or of a fallen human nature. Adam plays no appreciable role in the thinking of the rest of the Old Testament.

[5] Two examples would be Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free, 2007) and Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (San Fransisco: Harper, 2007).

[6] Memory studies suggest that we are even likely to overlay our earlier views of things with the views we later came to hold. The implication is that even we ourselves often change in our interpretations of biblical passages overtime without realizing it.


Ken Schenck said...

I thought I would clarify what I mean by an expert on these issues. An engineer or a doctor, or even someone with a degree in physics or chemistry, would not necessarily be more of an expert on evolution than I am. In fact, if their perspective is driven by their understanding of the Bible, they would arguably be less of an expert on evolution than someone like me, who is an expert on the Bible.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ken, your comment seems to belie a primacy on scripture as "truth", apart from approaching "all that is' with empiricism.

Because humans do not delight or desire suffering, theology has to explain suffering in a way that is palatable, and sometimes chosen because of what is "promised" by those that choose "faith" (apart from reasonableness, empiricism). You should know because your dissertation was on Hebrews.

"Faith" presupposes an interventional God OR a God that has set up an 'ordered universe" such that "submission" is imperative. While it is true that we all have certain limitations and have to obey certain laws, regulations to "get along' in the world, the Founders did not impose an authoritarial stance toward religious authority. And Governmental authority was to be limited and balanced by the different branches and their functions and responsibilities.
In this sense, "submission" is anathema to American ideals protected in our Bill of Rights.

Since neither God or evolution can be verified absolutely by observation, it is a matter of choosing to believe that God chose to use evolution, etc., then, what does it matter HOW the world became as it is? Isn't it best to learn how the world works and how that does or doesn't align with one's values to pursue one's interests?

Martin LaBar said...

Let's put it this way: I'm saving this one on my tablet, as well as on our computer.