One would think the creationism/evolutionism debate would just go away, but it hasn’t. I have been surprised at how many staunch creationists still exist. They’re not noisy for the most part, but when they find out I used to be a pastor, they assume that I must be a creationist also. Because of the persistence of this old nineteenth century war between the two siblings of the Enlightenment (Rationalistic Fundamentalism and Rationalistic Scientism), I find myself revisiting again the question of creationism and the Bible.
This essay is a look back at a couple of notable approaches to Genesis 1 in the early church. I also explore a possible reason why the ancient approach to Gen. 1 was so different than it is today. In the next essay I’ll consider the first creation story specifically.
There is a notable difference in the focus of interpretation of Gen. 1 before and after the Enlightenment. In the current approach, there is an attempt to defend scripture. The earlier interpretations, on the other hand, were attempts to describe the majesty of God.
I’ll start with Augustine as someone who neither shared our modern presuppositions nor those of the very ancient Middle East. He was a Biblical scholar, churchman (Bishop of Hippo, a coastal city in the area that would be modern Algeria, in the 5th century) and devout Christian. Today he is best remembered for his little volume called Confessions.
Augustine struggled with the early chapters of Genesis his whole career and wrote about Genesis 1 at least four different times. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (a book which I have not read, although I’ve read at it — it’s an impossibly dense neo-platonic tome) Augustine emphasizes that Genesis 1 cannot be read in isolation. For instance, Psalm 33 seems to describe an instantaneous creation not unlike Gen. 1:1. “By the word of the Lord, the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth … For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (vv 6, 9). But Augustine compares this with John 5:17 (a text we may not necessarily associate with creation). “My father is still working, and I am also working.” From this Augustine observes that God is still active in creation. Adding these texts together, he argues that creation is dynamic and not static. Looking at the instantaneous creation in isolation would tend to reduce it to a static thing which God put in place long ago. Although his argument goes into a great deal more depth, his conclusion is that he rejects the idea of a literal six day creation, largely because of his dynamic view of creation. The text is not describing what happened, but rather is categorizing creation. It provides a framework so that God (the actual subject of Gen. 1) can be better understood in view of the various pieces of creation and parts of the story.
Far to the east in Turkey and Syria and a century prior to Augustine, the burning question was whether the material world was eternal alongside God (or the gods), as in Greek philosophy, or whether the material world was created by God, and thus subject to him. Closely tied to this question was whether the Son of God, who was “eternally begotten of the Father,” was “very God of very God” or on the same side of the divide as the supposedly eternal material world. (This is the philosophical background of the Arian heresy.)
One of the key debaters in this controversy, Gregory of Nyssa, had quite a lot to say about the nature of creation as he defended the divinity of the Son. He rejected the idea that Gen. 1 could be treated literally (in the sense that conservative Christians use that term today). Rather, he implied that we simply have no idea how it all actually got started. Genesis 1 is not a description of the beginning, it is an allegorical reflection explaining how the immaterial God could bring about the material world.
What we see with both Augustine and the Cappadocian Fathers (of whom Gregory is representative) is a common method of interpreting Gen. 1 shaped to meet the needs and challenges of the day. Until modern times the creation stories were used primarily to say something constructive about the true majesty of God in the face of non-Christian systems of thought that either reduced God to manageable dimensions or elevated the material world to something outside of God’s control.
The contemporary creationism/evolutionism debate is rooted in similar challenge, but the creationism side has focused, not on a proclamation of God and his majesty, but on the defense of scripture itself. Scripture has become the object of interest rather than a tool in the battle to maintain a proper view of God. The perspective has changed, becoming increasingly Bible centered and less God centered.
This reflects the epistemology of post-Enlightenment Protestant Christianity (a subject I chew upon in these pages frequently). In the Protestant West, nous is the mind or intellect. [Rom. 1:28, where it is translated “mind,” is typical.] In the Orthodox East, the intellect is part of the problematic passions (along side the will and emotions). In contrast, the nous is the deepest inner being with which God can communicate directly. (This, by the way, was the attitude of both Augustine and Gregory.) If, as most Protestants assume, the nous is the mind, then scripture is the heart and soul of our link with God; its defense is paramount. If the nous is the deep heart, then it is God’s quiet voice of stillness that matters, scripture being a tool in that quest.
Of course, all of this “deep thought” stuff has no place around the water cooler (… yes, my place of employment still has a water cooler! It’s just under the coffee pot …) or even the weekly men’s Bible Study. Instead, when the subject of creationism/evolutionism comes up, I sometimes treat the conversationalist like my Jr High kids in confirmation class many years ago. More about that in my next post.