In our fifth and final installment of the Priest and Physicist Walk in to a Bar series, we examine how to frame the Genesis creation story with what we know about our history and the cosmos. Specifically, we examine the difference between dogma, doctrine, and opinion and where questions like “how God created” and “when did God create” fit in to that framework. As has been the theme for the whole series, we explore how faith can go beyond reason, but not against reason.
As we look at what the discussion around the creation story in Christianity has been like over the years, it’s clear there are a lot of ways this conversation has got messed up. For example, many Christians have treated the topic of a literal 6-day creation 6-8k years ago as the theological hill to die on and have thought it’s the job of Christians to defend God against scientists who might say otherwise. As we look at this topic, as well as others, it’s important to remember that not all our beliefs as Christians are created equal. It is helpful to construct a weighted belief hierarchy as concentric circles with those beliefs near the center holding more weight.
At Woodland Hills we put the revelation of God’s true nature and love through Jesus on the cross at the bullseye. Then as we move outward there are dogmas such as the Nicean creed, doctrines about how to apply those core principles to our lives, and then opinions occupy on the outer boundary of the circle. Unfortunately, Christians have historically divided themselves along opinion lines when these should have been merely topics of disagreement. We want to be a people with a hard center and soft edges who are building bridges, not walls. So, when we look at the creation story, we can hold as dogma that God created our world, but don’t need to die on the hill of how or when he did that. Much of that falls in the opinion ring.
For each of the how and when questions, there are many different options of belief that are acceptable and don’t go against the revelation of God in Jesus on the cross, or the central dogma of the Christian faith. Some examples of these are:
|How did God create?
|When did God create?
|1. Creation by fiat – God spoke it and it happened in 6 literal days
|1. Young earth creation – earth is 6-8k years old
|2. Progressive creation – God created original species and they micro-evolved over time to what we have today
|2. Day/Age theory – each of the 6 days mentioned represents millions of years of earth history
|3. Theistic evolution – God worked through the evolutionary process to bring about humans and species we see today
|3. Restoration of the gap – earth is as old as science says it is, but something happened between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 in which corruption entered the picture
|4. Literary framework view – the author’s point was never to answer scientific questions about sequence and when, but rather to teach us about God.
It’s possible, for example, to see God’s role in creation much the same as how Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God. It’s like a seed that starts small but grows over time, or leaven which works its way through the entire bread. The main point of seeing all the different ways in which we could construct the specifics of the creation narrative is to conclude that in the essentials we strive for unity, in the non-essentials we strive for liberty, and in all things, we strive for charity.
The text in Genesis 1 is more topical than sequential. It seems to be poetically getting a truth across that isn’t necessarily literal, or doesn’t have to be read that way, but is no less true. A few key important contextual understandings about Genesis 1:1-5:
- The text is not trying to inform us about the beginning of all time. In the original Hebrew there is not a definite article, so it is not so much “the” beginning as it is “a” beginning.
- The text is not trying to defend ex nihilo (creation from nothing). It rather says the earth was formless and void, it was chaotic, and was in a condition where something needed to be put back together.
- The text is not an explanation of how matter came in to existence, but rather a description of how God takes what is chaotic and puts form and order to it.
The Genesis narrative was one of many creation stories in the ancient near east at the time it was recorded. It has many similarities to these other narratives, but also some key differences. The singularity of God’s rule in the Genesis narrative along with how he ruled are its distinguishing features. Unlike many of the other ancient gods, God doesn’t fight to win and then create out of that victory, but rather God sacrifices and dies to win to have a relationship with his creation. God has breathed new life in to us, just as he did into creation. If we can avoid the seduction of literalness, and see that science and faith are not rivals, but rather answer different questions, then we can avoid division and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as the center of the center. This is where life is, clinging to the one who created without a fight.
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