'Creation' ‑ how do we picture it?

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The biblical doctrine of creation has often been very hastily defined and as a consequence is widely misunderstood. The naivete of the language of Genesis is opaque to minds accustomed to buzz words and studied profundity. True profundity can afford to be simple, and for the sake of effectiveness prefers to be. Faced with a problem in understanding, a useful strategy is to seek a suitable model in terms of which to think, and one is proposed to illustrate the biblical doctrine. It appears that the idea of evolution may easily find a subordinate place within the Bible's overall teaching.

Darwinism in particular, and evolution in general, are subjects which continue to provoke a continuous stream of comment, some scholarly and some not. A recent example by an able writer on the secularist side 1, illustrates an all‑too‑common failing of such: the hasty assumption that the biblical doctrine of creation has been adequately grasped and so could be confidently criticized. Thus R.W. Clark refers to the Victorian belief that "living things ... were, as Genesis maintained, a pyramid of immutable species" with man at the top, 2 the phrase I have italicized evidently from his later remarks representing his own view and not merely that of the Victorians. The tendency to assume that the Genesis account is so simple and artless that anyone can comprehend it at first glance appears to be very widespread; probably even Darwin himself erred in this direction. It certainly seems probable that compared with the vast amount of time, concentration and devoted energy he gave to the problem of the origin of species, the effort he gave to understanding the Bible was small. In later life he wrote: "...for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have tried lately to read Shakespeare and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music".3 These are disturbing words from a man whom many moderns regard as having unearthed the ultimate clue to man's nature! What had happened to this very gentle and loveable man? The answer seems to lie in a remark of his own: "The habit of looking for one kind of meaning I suppose deadens the perception of another" 4. For unless we happen to have confidential information that, beside the scientific one, there are no other meanings worth bothering about, this remark of Darwin's may be taken as indicating an insidious attitude of mind, ever threatening the dedicated investigator. Great man as he was, Darwin I believe fell a victim to it.

It is one of the theses of this essay that the biblical doctrine has been widely misinterpreted by both believers and unbelievers. Particularly has this been so on the level at which it seems prima facie to have implications for science. The understanding of the 'six days' and of the phrase 'after their kind' are outstanding instances of this. Why has it been so? There are doubtless more reasons than one 5. But one is particularly influential at the present time, when buzz words are in vogue and simplicity of speech is not: the style of Genesis is very naive. God works on six days and rests on the seventh. He forms Adam from dust, and plants a garden of lovely and appetizing trees for his pleasure. Adam gives names to the animals; Eve is tempted by a snake and takes the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve are ashamed when they discover their nakedness and try to hide it with an apron of fig leaves, and so on. Even to a child the narrative evokes vivid and immediate pictures. Now we live in an age when there is an explosion in communication. More writers than ever have something they want to say, and to say publicly. Means have multiplied for doing so, from books and periodicals to photocopiers and the Internet. Unfortunately not every writer has something worth saying, or can say his piece well, or is free from motives of self‑advertisement in saying it. These things, as much as any have resulted in the spread of the style sometimes referred to as 'gobbledegook', rich in buzz words and phrases, exaggerations, suggestiveness, ill‑conceived generalities, and bogus profundity; much public material fails here. There are similar phenomena in art and music. But writing for children is different. Children who listen are eager to understand; writing for them must raise pictures in the mind. So children's books must be plain and vivid; 'user‑friendly' is the apt term. Now put these two circumstances together: adults often finding themselves faced with important matter too pedantically expressed to convey quick understanding; and children revelling in what is expressed with charming simplicity. Is it any wonder that the idea has got about that what looks naive must be child's stuff, or, if written for adults, suitable only for primitive society? Or that it constitutes a serious challenge for modern thought, or a call to re‑evaluate our very existence? Surely not. Yet that this is so is an idea damagingly prevalent ‑ and often quite false.

This is a sad state of affairs. The truth is, that when an author has something vital to say, the more clearly he can say it the better; and the more masterly his grasp of his subject, the more competent he will be to do so. Add to these qualifications a complete disinterestedness ‑ a lack of desire to impress or to build a reputation ‑ and the result is almost a foregone conclusion. This is the clue to the 'naivety' of Genesis, as it is to the 'naivety' of those incomparable words of Jesus, Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Consider the lilies of the field . .6. Both discourses are far‑reaching in their theology, and all‑embracing in their significance for life. Their very naivety is an index of their greatness and gravity; the influential scholar Gerhard von Rad saw things like this 7.

We return now to the question of understanding the Creation story. Faced with any subject matter outside familiar experience our minds instinctively ferret about seeking for a model in terms of which to think. This isn't necessarily done consciously; sometimes a model springs almost at once to our notice and we hardly recognize it as such. At other times a great deal of laboured thought may go into the process, for a model (as opposed to a metaphor) is designed to incorporate as far as possible everything we know about the 'thing'; a metaphor is only intended to enlighten some particular aspect. A well‑known example of model‑making in science (where models are legion) concerns the atom and its structure. Atoms (it was discovered) can emit electrons, minute particles of negative electricity. This was something out of the ordinary; how should we visualize it? Electrons must, of course, be balanced by a positive charge. How are the two related in the complete atom? First came Sir J J Thomson's plum‑pudding model, with the electrons as sultanas; then Lord Rutherford's solar‑system model, with the electrons as planets; then the Bohr and later models, with the whole thing now highly sophisticated. This was all model‑making realized as such, but it illustrates how our minds habitually work, whether consciously or not. There is a sort of inevitability about it; the unfamiliar must be understood (and described) in terms of the familiar. How else could, we live with it?

The Bible's subject matter is no exception to this tendency. Like that other book of God, Nature, it presents us with data on matters outside everyday experience; willy‑nilly we propose models to ourselves as we think about them. When it tells us, God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light, the imagination sets to work at once. Some may find themselves thinking in terms of 'turning on a switch'. When it says, The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being, they may possibly picture a clay modeller who lovingly kisses the little figure to see if it responds; and so on. But it should be clear that the biblical record intends neither of these two human actions as models, as the plum‑pudding was intended to be for the atom. The plum‑pudding model was dislodged when further study proved it to be inadequate; the surprising thing would be if a model wasn't eventually overshadowed. Metaphors (such as Genesis is using) have an easier life 8.

So we come to the main point of this chapter. Is it possible, while remaining wholly loyal to Scripture, to devise a genuine model which will do justice to our growing knowledge of the event? Let us try. The subject matter is 'Creation', nothing less than the divine action by which the totality of things was brought into being and continues in being. In the Bible the verb 'create' is used only of God and never of man. However, the Bible does tell us, in the very context of creation, that man was made 'in the image of God'. This would seem to encourage us to look cautiously, in our search for something suitable, to what we commonly call the 'creative arts'. Among the creative arts, which shall we choose? The art of the painter or sculptor or architect pass in review, but they seem too static. The art of the composer has obvious movement, but it lacks other dimensions. Perhaps the best would be one we have already used ‑ the narrative of a serious dramatic writer. This seems possibly the best analogy we can find; for such a 'moving' thing results from the employment of language, the mode used to express God's own creative activity (God 'said', Let there be). Language too was a gift expressly and exclusively used with man, at his creation: God said to them(Gen.1.28; and 2.16,19,23; 3.9)9.

Firstly, look broadly at the proposal. The serious dramatic writer and the literary masterpiece on which he is still perhaps engaged: are there any fatal objections to entertaining these as representing in terms we can grasp, the Creator and his on‑going world? Of course, any model must fall short; if it didn't it would be the real thing 10. This one falls short in that the human 'creator' has little more status than his characters, and this clearly limits it. However, it invites no serious objections for the designed purpose, nor does any better one readily suggest itself. So we will use it.

The model illustrates at once the Bible's insistence ‑ emphatic but not always easy to grasp ‑ that the Creator is both transcendent and immanent. This two‑sided doctrine constitutes the difference between theism and the rival ideas of deism (on the one hand) and pantheism (on the other). Transcendence? The author is there, before his narrative begins. He makes up his own mind when to start, and what to write, and how to develop his plot, and when to lay down his pen. If he wishes, he can introduce another story, of a rather different sort. Immanence? At every moment in the narrative. conceived as 'now', the author is there writing, and the story lives and moves only as he works. He holds its world in being as he writes; it is the expression of his animated thinking. He's thought it out beforehand, but how it is going to develop may be very largely unpredictable to an imaginary onlooker; the most unexpected things may turn up (just like the butterfly's wings effect in Chaos Theory).

Secondly, this model stresses that the Creator inhabits a sphere dimensionally richer than the one he has created (and now, incidentally, holds in being). Something similar is true of a human artist. In painting a picture of a landscape say, one of the three dimensions of his own living and working space is surrendered. The 'distance' dimension his viewer must supply by unconscious suggestion. An author writes a book; the reader this time, in a similar way supplies the dimensions of space and time to the static printed text. At this point we may further add that the space and time in which the narrative's action moves bear no necessary relation to those in which the author was actively at work; science fiction should have made that plain enough. To change to a musical analogy: Mozart wrote his last three symphonies in six weeks, but this period bears no relation to the time of their actual performance.

All these things taken together seem to allow that we are not compelled to interpret the 'six days' of creation as necessarily periods of everyday time or even of cosmic time long or short, though we may still choose to do so if that makes the best sense. It seems to the present writer that the 'six days' ceases to be an insuperable problem once this 'creative artist' model is accepted as a reasonable one.

Thirdly, the author model makes sense of creatio ex nihilo. For a human author, to be sure, such creatio is only doubtfully possible. Man can (arguably) create only from materials drawn from his own given experience, but even so his creative powers ‑ witness mathematics and music ‑ are wide enough. But we need suppose God subject to no such limitation. In the sense in which the term is used in biblical theology, creatio ex nihilo is certainly not a nonsensical idea.

Fourthly, the model we are discussing seems to do a considerable degree of justice to the biblical notion of time. The world is neither static, nor is it something cyclically never‑ending. It manifests a historical process; time has an arrow on it; things are moving to a consummation. It is, in fact, a 'story'. Further, without reverting to the cyclical idea, it provides that the world can still be a created thing even if it is infinite in time, and in both directions. There is no reason why the eternal Author should not have always been writing, or should ever intend to stop. On biblical grounds one might say that he has started a story which he will bring to a climax, and then begin a sequel in a new setting; but the point I wish to make is that the analogy shows that the biblical idea of creation does not stand or fall with the triumph of a theory like the Big Bang Theory of Gamov (1946) over one like the Steady‑State Theory of Bondi, Gold and Hoyle (1948). God remains Creator whatever sort of theory is finally validated. This is a conclusion which (anachronisms apart) was long ago emphasized by Thomas Aquinas (c.1225‑1274). One other important consideration relevant to time remains: the Bible's teaching that God both finished his creative work and yet continues it. Clearly, we can accommodate this by supposing that our author first sets the scene and introduces the dramatìs personae; after that, the story (that is, history) may proceed.

The final point of correspondence between the author model and the biblical doctrine is an important one. It concerns the impropriety of speaking of a 'mechanism' of creation 11. We saw that the Bible never does so. It does not associate the act of creating with any material process in space‑time. In so far as it is right to speak of a mechanism or process associated with creating, everything must be regarded as taking place within the divine Mind. Then comes the Word, and the Creation is there. What better illustration of this could we possibly have than authorship?

So we come to apply our model to ourselves: how did mankind arrive on this earthly scene? Was it by evolution or by creation? For concreteness, we may think of our favourite novel, maybe GONE WITH THE WIND, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, or DAVID COPPERFIELD. We open the book at (say) page 291. We encounter the principal character, mature and purposive. How did he get there? For answer, we turn back the pages one by one till we find him uttering his first infant cry. Then we retrace the vicissitudes by which he grew up into manhood, the absorbing story of his adventures, his development as a character, and there we have it. But there is another approach beside this, one that is really more fundamental. He was conceived by an author, he developed in a fertile mind, he became the central figure in an on‑going story. Our hero is an author's creation, wherever we meet him 12, from his first appearance to the climax. That is clearly the ultimate answer to the question: Where did he come from? Were it not for an author, and for the act of writing, there would be no story, and no hero to enquire about.

Does this help? Turning back to our main concern, I put the question to the man or woman who cannot ignore the biblical testimony, and yet who in honesty feels that Darwin has a case. I think it does help; in fact, I believe that the 'author model' solves completely the relational antipathy between the biblical account on the one hand and the findings of science on the other. Naturally, its success turns on there being a divine Author, One possessing 'dimensions' of existence inaccessible to His creatures: If we believe in the God of the Bible this means that there is, and everything we have been discussing makes sense.

Of course, my argument hasn't proved that there is a Creator God. I gladly acknowledge the strict limitations of being human; the Bible itself declares that the just shall live by his faith (Hab.2.4). But then neither can the opposing view be proved; Dawkins, Atkins and Dennett would, I expect, agree that their confidence lies rather in the faith that the human mind is the measure of all things (see e.g. THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, pp.14, 316f). "We can understand our cosmic existence well enough without the hypothesis of God", I can hear them saying; "it is 'superfluous' [sic] so why introduce it?" (main quote mine). Up to a point we can agree; our cosmos is absorbingly interesting and it can occupy us full‑time without our bothering about an Author; with most of our best stories the author is dead and gone. But at this point our analogy leaves us in the lurch. For we are not merely readers of the story, able to examine it as complete outsiders; we are characters in it, and the Author of the story, the Bible says, made us for Himself, and has revealed Himself to us in it in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth. From heaven He now addresses us. We may turn a deaf ear if we can; but in the end we shall have to appear before Him. Is this a point of no importance to which we can calmly reply "I couldn't care less; the story makes perfectly good sense to me already"? 13 Hardly. A book comes to an end with its last page; if the Bible is right, our existence, as individuals or as a creaturely race, doesn't. We shall all appear before the great Author, for it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement 14. That is why the issue we have been discussing is such a momentous one.

The analogy of an author will be carried further in the next chapter.

Postscript

It is worth quoting the opinion of a great German Professor of Theology 7 about the Genesis account of the Fall of man; 

"As regards the creative genius of the Yahwist's narrative there is only admiration. Someone has justly called the artistic mastery in this narrative one of the greatest accomplishments of all time in the history of thought. Wonderful clarity and utter simplicity characterise the representation of the individual scenes". "This is anything but the bluntness and naivete of an archaic narrator. It is, rather, the candour and lack of hesitation which is only the mark of a lofty and mature way of thinking". . "Its simplicity, however, is not archaic, but rather the highest command of every artistic means." (see chap. III ref. 36, pp. 25,26,98)

['Yahwist' is the name given by liberal scholars to the presumed author of this part of Genesis. Prof von Rad could not be accused of being a 'raw fundamentalist'!].

NOTES

1     Ronald W Clark, THE SURVIVAL OF CHARLES DARWIN (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985)

2     op.cit., p.5

3     Autobiography, p.114

4     Quoted in a letter written (1884) after his death, by Frances Julia Wedgewood to his own son Francis Darwin ‑ see R.W. Clark, op.cit. p195

5     For instance, the widespread acceptance of the notion of the fixity of species probably owed a lot more to the influence of Plato and Aristotle than to the Bible ‑ see Michael Denton. EVOLUTION: A THEORY IN CRISIS (Burnett Books, Hutchinson, London, 1985

6     Matt. 6:26ff; cf. also Luke 10.21

7     Prof. Gerhard von Rad died in 1971. Extracts (see Postscript) are from Eng. trans. of his Commentary on Genesis (London, SCM Press, 1961)

8     The Bible does speak of the potter and the clay (in a different context, Isa.6.48; Jer.18.6), but again as a metaphor , not as a model. A metaphor remains limited in its scope; a model is designed to accommodate as much as possible of its object. That is why the model (unlike the metaphor) must 'grow' as knowledge grows.

       It is worth remarking that the same verb (yasar, form, Gen.2.7) is used as a metaphor for the divine activity in Amos 7.1, where God is 'forming' locusts, apparently out of green leaves by the normal processes of biology.

9    The reader will find many suggestive thoughts in Dorothy Sayers, THE MIND OF THE MAKER (Methuen, 1942).

10  As would a full‑scale operative model of a locomotive.

11   If the idea of 'mechanism' or 'method' (theologically speaking) belongs anywhere, it belongs to Providence. Biological evolution may be the method of Providence, but it is not that of Creation. See further, Appendix III

12  This phrase is important, cf. Ps.51.10; Ecc.12.1; Isa.4.5; 1Pet.4.19

13   cf Dawkins (Preface, THE BLIND WATCHMAKER, 1986): "This book is written in the conviction that our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries, but that it is a mystery no longer because it is solved. Darwin and Wallace solved it . . ."

14        Hebrews 9.27 AV