Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"Creation and Causality" - Jaroslav Pelikan's reflections on the Christian response to Darwin's Origin of Species

Kiran sent me this paper while I was on long service leave recently, and I have only just had the chance to have a good look at it. It is an old essay by Jaroslav Pelikan of blessed memory, published in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 40, No. 4. (Oct., 1960), pp. 246-255. It offers some good insight into the Science vs Religion debate as it relates to the question of origins.

Pelikan asks why, of all the issues to get hot under the collar about in the last 100 years (well, 150 now), Christians should have chosen evolution. He proposes some "thoughts" arising from the history of the development of Christian doctrine on the matter of Creation, noting that "there is, unfortunately, no [published] history of the Christian doctrine of creation" (surely that lack must have been rectified in the last 50 years, but never the less, Pelikan makes a good go of giving an overview in these few pages).

He points out that in the Scriptures, the verb "to create", in both Hebrew (bara) and Greek (ktizein), are used only of God, but the only two places where the idea of "creatio ex nihilo" appears in scripture (Rom 4:7 and Heb 11:3), the verb "ktizein" is not used. Thus Augustine declares that "to make concerns what did not exist at all, but to crezte is to make something by bringing it forth from what was already existing."

Pelikan points to the process whereby, over time, the tables were reversed so that "to create" came to mean "to bring forth from what did not exist at all", and that the entire doctrine of "creation" as such came to refer to this. He brings forth examples, both Catholic and Protestant, which show that another word came to be used for God's ongoing creative work, namely "providence".

Thus, when Darwin wanders up and suggests that all God's creation has "evolved" from "previously existing things", Christian dogmatists saw this as an attack on the Christain doctrine of God as Creator.

That's a potted account - read the whole article for yourself, it isn't long.

But a couple of observations:

1) Pelikan points out that our growing scientific knowledge has not always been taken to be in conflict with our religious faith in God as Creator. He points to Psalm 139:13ff, anc comments that "the aquisition of obstetrical information does not dispel, but only deepens, the mystery of which the Psalmist is speaking". Why then have we been unable to see the new scientific understanding of origins to be a "deepening" of the mystery already expressed in Scripture?

2) Pelikan posits a possible connection between the particularly Protestant insistence on God's Creation as an event that happened at a distinct point in historical time (eg. in 4004 BC) with the Protestant rejection of the popular Catholic understanding of the Mass as "repeating" the sacrifice of Calvary. The Death and Resurrection of Christ happened "once and for all" and cannot be repeated, even in a sacrament. The six day creation as described in Genesis was also seen as God's "once and for all" work, which he finished and did not continue beyond the "evening and morning" of the sixth day. By this suggestion, it is not surprising that the Protestant establishment reacted so violently to Darwin's suggestion of an "ongoing" creation. My only thought on this is that this does not explain the fact that Catholics also had difficulty with Darwin's theories initially (and to some extent still).

3) Personally, I see a connection here with the whole "Tom Wright and the New Perspective on Justification" thingy (yes, I know that I keep on going on about that - forgive me - I am obsessed). By pointing out that the verb "bara/ktizein" is never used in Scripture to mean "creation out of nothing", and that Augustine actually understood the words "create" and "make" in completely opposite ways to us, shows that it is indeed possible for doctrinal tradition, both Catholic AND Protestant, to lose its Scriptural moorings. This is what N.T. Wright has claimed has happened in the debate about "Justification". If what Pelikan suggests - that a renewed reading of the doctrine of creation in Scripture and the early Fathers could set us free from the interminable debate on creation and evolution - is right, why then might not it be possible to hope that a scripturally and patristically renewed reading of Justification can achieve the same thing?


At Wednesday, August 05, 2009 5:24:00 am , Anonymous Matthias said...

Rev Dr Rowland ward of the Presbyterian church of eastern Australia in his little booklet on the Westminster Confession of Faith,makes a comment at the back that evolution should be considered as one of the possible processes that God used.

At Wednesday, August 05, 2009 8:19:00 am , Anonymous PM said...

Aquinas would maintain that God as final cause can (and indeed mostly does) work through secondary causes (formal, efficent etc) without being any less present and active. God is the doing of all being, as one of Thomas's modern expositors puts it. Seen in that light, most of the so-called opposition between science and faith turns out to be a gigantic non-problem.

I might add in passing that this is also one of the most liberating elements of a Thomistic spirituality - we should not see God as ultimately a rival to our our own nature and capacities - though sin will often make it seem that way - but as their source and fulfilment.

At Thursday, August 06, 2009 1:48:00 am , Anonymous Matthias said...

It is interesting that many Evangelicals see that if one accepts evolution then they cast doubts upon a person's belief in the Incarnation and Atonement,thus they see Thomism as being evidence of the Catholic Church's complicity in watering down the Gospel (only in their worldview).

At Thursday, August 06, 2009 3:33:00 am , Anonymous Kiran said...

The thing I haven't worked out is why denying God the power to create a certain type of universe makes him more powerful...

At Thursday, August 06, 2009 6:26:00 am , Anonymous PM said...

Just a quick PS to agree re intelligent design - it is bad theology as much as bad science.

I might also add that the charge that Thomas is 'unscriptural' is another furphy. His three-step approach to language about God - affirmation, negation, eminence - has roots in Scripture; 'how rich are the depths of God...', as Paul wrote to the Romans.

At Friday, August 07, 2009 12:26:00 am , Anonymous Kiran said...

A caveat: God does act in the world, both naturally and miraculously, and God did create the world. The question is whether the creation of the world is miraculous. I think, with Thomas writing on the eternity of the world, that this question is one of faith, not of reason.

At Friday, August 07, 2009 2:41:00 am , Anonymous An Liaig said...

There is alos a broader issue here. Both Dawkins et al. and the evangelicals agree on the interpretation and purpose of Genesis. Both agree that it is an attempt at a scientific account of the formation of the world. That it was recognised in the Church as early as Augustine that this could not be so is ignored by both parties. This allows Dawkins' radical reductionists to proclain that Scripture should be rejected because it is bad science and this fits nicely into their argument that religion arose as an attempt to explain the operation of the natural world: that religion began as a kind of pseudoscience. Their argument falls apart if religion is (and always was) about man's relationship to God and the references to the physical world are used to explain and illustrate this. This is not just a Christian problem. The Australian Aboriginals find their dreamtime stories relagated to the category of quaint creation myth instead of being seen as a living testament of their relationship with the land. The reductionists know that if any religion can be cast a simply bad science then it can be discarded.


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