1. United in the faith
We are, I trust, united theologically in the main things that are the plain things—that is, around the essentials of the faith which are developed and more fully expressed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (AD 381), which includes the affirmation “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” without saying how!
That God created must unite us as we dialogue over how God created.
There is much diversity in the history of the church as to how the world was created. Augustine, for example, believed in fiat creation, but was convinced that Genesis 1 could not be literally interpreted for the simple reason that a twenty-four hour day was too long. Why would God need twenty-four hours to create the animals if they were created ex nihilo or even out of other dust?11851-1921. Influencial Calvinist theologian and prominent professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, known best for his intellectual defense of the inspiration of Scripture
It may come as a shock to many in the Reformed tradition that the theologian best known for his defense of the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures may also have been open to creation by means of divinely supervised evolution.2 I am speaking of B.B. Warfield. To make any viewpoint as to the “how” of creation a matter for determining Christian fellowship is frankly divisive and sectarian or uncatholic.
Whilst we may be convinced we have the best theory of origins at present, and whilst we may be convinced that we are the most intellectually honest or scientifically rigorous, or that we understand the genre and history and authorial intent of Genesis 1 most appropriately—important as these factors are—I venture that the level of certainty due to the nature of the science and the hermeneutics and the theology in this field, is a level of magnitude below that of the creedal assertion that God created and that he in his providence is sovereign over and at work creatively and redemptively in creation.
We Protestants have enough divisions and schisms as it is—we don’t need another one based on the speculative matter of how God created. Rather we must unite on the basis of the fact that the triune God is the Creator. There isn’t a viewpoint represented in the dialogue on origins that doesn’t have some problems associated with it, problems that need to be worked through. Acute curiosity, robust research and careful scholarship in these areas are consonant with the creational or cultural mandate and the command to love God with our minds.
Dialogue between persons of different persuasions is healthy and good—in fact necessary for advancement in the field. But it requires an irenic and peaceful spirit along with an inquiring mind. I feel a particular need to exhort against accusations in the midst of this dialogue that disparage a person’s integrity with regard to the inspiration and authority of Scripture. These “how” discussions between serious minded evangelical believers are not about the authority and inspiration of Scripture, but on appropriate interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures are authoritative as and only as they are properly interpreted.
Borrowing terminology from Jamie Smith3, another way to say this is that we must distinguish between theology type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is confessional theology, which is pre- and supra-theoretical and which must inform all the disciplines of knowledge, including science. Theology type 2 is more theoretical and speculative.
The first is the rich and unambiguous confession of the church’s faith down through the centuries, expressed in creeds like Ephesians 4 and the ecumenical Creeds rooted in the revelation of God in His Word and affirmed by the historic church. This theology should shape Christian theoretical investigation of the world, including science, and indeed theology type 2. It is when Christians elevate their work in the theology type 2 area to the type 1 category that damage is done to unity and catholicity and therefore the mission of the church. Of course theology type 2 will always be interacting with, shaped by, and subject to theology type 1.
One of the reasons why I devote time to this issue is that it is a very important for missional reasons. First, because our unity in Christ, as the body of Christ around essential issues, is hugely influential for our mission, as Jesus expounds it in his great prayer in John 17, and as I have stated, I feel compelled to call the church to unity on the essential tenet of Christian faith that God is Creator and that he created the universe. There are times when I am tempted to write off others of a persuasion that seems to me unscientific and/or hermeneutically naïve, but I cannot.
The rub here is that commitment to cherished principles comes into conflict when this happens: on the one hand, a commitment to a process of seeking knowledge in this area through the use of fearless reason and research, albeit grounded in faith and tempered by faith and creedal commitments; on the other hand, a commitment to the unity of the body of Christ grounded in the essentials of the historic, orthodox, Trinitarian creeds of the church. This latter principle must win for the serious scientist Christian.
Of course, that immediately distances us from the secular scientific community, who often may not understand that they too have faith commitments that influence reason. It will certainly distance us from evolutionism as an ideology or completely dysteleological (goalless) evolution.
We cannot be one with people of this persuasion in an ecclesial sense, though we will still engage lovingly and humbly with them as image bearers and scientists. We must also see them as people designated by God for the new humanity in Christ. But we are speaking here of an organic and creedal basis for unity that on the one hand includes every Christian devoted to Christ and the essentials of the faith, irrespective of their views on Genesis 1, and that, on the other hand, delimits perspectives outside of this relationship and these commitments.
On these grounds, I would suggest the following very practical exhortations for maintaining the unity and advancing Christ’s mission through his church:
- Terminating the positions of professors of colleges or seminaries who express perceived problematic views on origins whilst still committed to the authority and inspiration of Scripture and these Creeds, and indeed to the denominational or widely evangelical distinctives of these, is sectarian;
- Establishing schools where teachers or even students are required to profess one view in this arena is counter to the mission of Christ and therefore sectarian;
- Accusing opponents of compromising the Deity of Christ publicly on the Internet because they may differ on origins of creation is malicious and a move that grieves the heart of our Great High Priest and his desire for his church to be one, that the world might know him through it. It is after all intended to be the one new humanity, the harbinger of the kingdom of God—the community in which persons can dialogue well and even agree to disagree about non-essential matters.
- Caricaturing the position of others or falsely representing them is grievous to the Spirit, and inhibits the mission of the church.
- Uninviting preachers who are committed to evangelical orthodoxy because we discover they hold one of these views in this arena of secondary theology, grieves the Spirit also.
But there is a second concern of a missional kind. It has to do with how we present the gospel. Making literal six-day creationism a condition for saving faith or conversion is adding to the gospel in a way that has possibly been the greatest stumbling block in the way of thinking people for over a century since this viewpoint became popular in American evangelicalism. The Church has all too often buried its head in the sand with respect to scientific reality and we can ill afford a repetition of the crisis that occurred in the wake of the Galileo affair.
1. St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J.; 2 vols.; New York: Newman Press, 1982), 1.125-50.
2. In his class lectures, Warfield comments, “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution. The sole passage which appears to bar the way is the very detailed account of the creation of Eve … We may as well admit that the account of the creation of Eve is a very serious bar in the way of a doctrine of creation by evolution.” Warfield was clear that the origin of the human soul could not be accounted for by evolution. His position in sum seems to be that he did not consider evolutionary theory convincing but stayed open to the possibility that it might be true. “The upshot of the whole matter is that there is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law & wh [??]. does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, &c) will entail a great reconstruction of Xian doctrine, & a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the occasional [crossed out, sic.] constant oversight of God in the whole process, & his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new ie, something not included even in posse in preceding conditions, — we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Xians in the ordinary orthodox sense.” Warfield, Lectures on Anthropology (Dec. 1888), Speer Library, Princeton University. Quoted in David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 118.
3. James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).
- "For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." -- I Cor. 13:12
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