'Special Creation' ‑ and Chance >>back home

It cannot be maintained convincingly that the Bible teaches what is commonly understood by the term 'Special Creation'. It does, however, recognize the category of 'Chance' and itself uses it. But it does so in a way that in no sense limits its doctrine of universal divine sovereignty. Even the outcome of the throw of a die is divinely ordered.

This chapter will deal in a preliminary way with two topics, not closely related but both of the greatest relevance to the current debate: 'Special Creation' and 'Chance'.

What is meant by 'Special Creation'? The subject is an emotive one, for the words have been almost a battle cry (especially in the USA) for a school of conservative interpreters who believe ‑ as I do myself ‑ that the Genesis account is God‑given 1. The phrase is not always unambiguously defined however, so its meaning must be made clear. It is commonly used by those who wish to deny that all living things have descended 'naturally' from one or a few primitive forms, i.e. to deny what is commonly understood by 'evolution'. Life on earth, they believe, started off with many different 'kinds' being created 'from scratch' (presumably as adults), and that these kept more or less true to form as they bred generation by generation. These original 'kinds' were thought by many to be what would now be called 'species', but many 'creationists' suggest they corresponded to present animal 'families' and plant 'genera' 2. Their identification is thus a little fluid, but the essence of the 'creationist' belief is this: our present life‑forms have not all come by natural descent from one or a few very primitive forms, even though all now share a common DNA code; they were created as advanced forms akin to what they are now. A good exponent of this position is the biologist Arthur Jones, and to be fair to it I will quote from a thoughtful book edited by him 3;

"It is on the basis of a long tradition of biblical exegesis that creationists conclude that, in all essentials, the created kinds have always been as they are now. Hence they assume that if processes of variation occur to allow adaptation to changing conditions, then these will operate within clear limits which are never transgressed".

Again,

"Present classifications of animals and plants are partly shaped by evolutionary assumptions, so creationists can give no exact equation of equated kinds4 with a particular taxonomic grouping. However, with that proviso, it seems that for animals, created kinds generally correspond to families in current schemes of classification (e.g. the horse, dog and cat families are the horse, dog and cat kinds). In plant classifications it appears that what are now known as the genera are usually the created kinds (e.g. the rose [Rosa], buttercup [Ranunculus], and cabbage [Brassica], genera are the rose, buttercup and cabbage kinds). Historically creationist scientists have been in general agreement on this for more than 200 years."

I hope I have been fair in selecting these passages; they represent views widely held among 'creationists'. However, I wish to argue that they cannot be insisted on as a necessary (or even reasonable) conclusion from the biblical data. What are the biblical passages that are appealed to in defence?

First, there are the general statements in Gen.1.11‑12, 20‑30 (supplemented perhaps by the Flood story, Gen.6.19‑20; 7.8‑9,14‑16; and 8.17,19). Second, there are more particular accounts about man and land animals in Gen.2.7,19, and of woman in Gen.2.21‑23. There is little else in the whole Bible which directly bears on the issue. How firm is the biblical basis for 'Special Creation' then? The answer is, very weak: and in support of this verdict it is worth looking at the RV of 1884, which though not so pleasing as the older KJV, aimed at being as close to the text as possible. Here is the relevant passage in the first chapter of Genesis:

9 And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth: and it was so.

12 And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind, and God saw that it was good.

13 And there was evening, and there was morning, a third day.

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and 1et them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years:

15 and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

16 And God made the two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

19 And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.

20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life [margin, swarm with swarms of living creatures], and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven [margin, on the face of the expanse of the heavens].

21 And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kinds, and every winged fowl after its kind: and God saw that it was good.

22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.

23 And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.

24 And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind, cattle, and creeping thing and beast of the earth after its kind: and it was so.

25 And God made the beast of the earth after its kind, and the cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the ground after its kind: and God saw that it was good.

26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

27 And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

28 And God blessed them: and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

29 And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat:

30 and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life [Heb a 1iving soul], I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.

31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

This is clearly in very general terms; it is quite uncommitted about the physics and biology, the materials and life‑processes. On these it could hardly have said less, though the repeated refrain (there was evening and there was morning of the RV and NIV, and evening came and morning came of the REB and JB) suggests that the divine activity was continuous and progressive, and this is rather suggestive of an evolutionary scenario 5. It expresses however with indisputable clarity at least two great principles governing created existence. The earth and its fertility are not to be deified or worshipped; rather, they are subject to God's sovereign creative Will. Again, something easily overlooked through mere familiarity is that like begets like (note the refrain, 'seed and fruit after its kind', 1.11,12); sowing wheat seed yields wheat, not rye grass. This is not just from logical necessity, for it could be otherwise. It is something contingent, dependent on God's 'say so', the Bible declares. Paul later uses this weighty circumstance to stress a fact men often forget: when they sow their wild oats they collide not with the laws of logic, but with God's decree (Ga1.6.7).

With these things so clear and important it is a pity that this majestic and comprehensive statement has not been accepted simply as it is, for it is surely semantically untouched by Darwin's theory. How has the doctrine of the 'fixity of species' then become such a matter of fierce disagreement? Some reasons may be suggested.

Aristotle (d. 322 BC) had taught that the cosmos had no beginning. Owing to his immense prestige, this became more or less the established view for centuries after; so the Bible's account had fairly naturally long been taken as in harmony with it. Then after some unconvincing suggestions about an evolutionary origin came Darwin's of  'natural selection' (1859). This of course challenged the teaching of Aristotle, and so, many doubtless thought, of the Bible. As a result conservative religious opposition was readily aroused, though it was by no means universal. There were strong evangelicals (such as Benjamin Warfield) who thought otherwise; they saw no problem for Genesis 6. Hadn't the same sort of challenge once faced our understanding of the solar system? Yet no one still thought that the Bible was wrong because it mentioned the rising of the sun and its setting (Ps.113.3)! Others remained unconvinced however; Darwin's theory threatened the foundations of biblical faith. So the battle began and still continues.

What biblical support is claimed for 'Special Creation' then? The most obvious answer lies in the use of the phrase 'after (or 'according to') its kind' (Gen.1.11,12,21,24,25). However, in its first occurrence (Gen.1.11,12) a plain enough ('user‑friendly') meaning was that plants would bear seed or fruit that led to a new generation like themselves; it is presuming on the text surely to stretch this to mean what the 'creationists' want ‑ 'like themselves to all following generations in perpetuity'. The meaning suggested is clear and unpretentious. It leaves the question of 'special creation' untouched. The second group of occurrences (vv.21,24, 25) is a little different in that a propagative function is not noted at once. However it would be natural for the first unsophisticated listeners to take the revelatory statement (about the plants) as meant for the animals also, and to understand that God had created them to have offspring like themselves. Cats were to have kittens and dogs puppies. Did He not immediately command them (v.22) to 'be fruitful and multiply'? This everyday understanding seems an entirely natural one to the present writer. It would have embraced the experience of every hearer.

However, the phrase 'after its kind' probably has another use too. Take such a usage as is found in the food regulations in Leviticus (11.13‑23). Certain birds are to be regarded as 'unclean' and not fit for food. The RSV mentions for instance the eagle, the ossifrage the osprey, the kite, the falcon according to its kind, every raven according to its kind. The REB has for the last two, every kind of falcon; every kind of crow; the NIV, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven. The meaning is uniformly 'every sort' of, 'in all their varieties'. There seems no reason why the same sense should not also be read into the passages in Gen.l; these would be immediately intelligible:

And God said. Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every sort., in all their varieties (Gen.1.24 modified),

The references to Noah in Gen.6,7 and 8 really add nothing significant to this conclusion.

The Creation of Man

We come now to the creation of man described in further detail in Gen.2.7,19 and 21‑23; the passages are from the RV:

7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

8 And the LORD God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of 1ife also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed [had formed NIV] every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them: and whatsoever the man called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

20 And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for man there was not found an help meet for him.

21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh thereof:

22 and the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

The immediate impression this passage gives is that man's origin had no connection with that of the lower animals; but that would be a hasty conclusion. The verb 'formed' in Gen.2.19 may legitimately be translated as 'had formed' (pluperfect 7), so that man was formed onthe same day as the animals, and of 'dust from the ground' as they were. But certain great differences do nevertheless appear. What are they?

First, after God had consulted within His own person (Gen.1.26), He addressed man and woman as persons themselves ('He said tothem', 1.28). This implied the gift of language; widespread authority and responsibility followed. Second, it implied also what we call 'free will'. Man as fellow‑worker was now under the obligation of obedience8; disobedience became a possibility the animals hadn't known. To those living today these great biblical affirmations are pressed home (often in an unwelcome sense) by personal experience; they explain why conscience is often troublesome, and why civilization's future seems at times too dark and hopeless to think about. Neo‑Darwinism is quite out of its depth here; how does the Bible deal, with our predicament?

The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross had a substitionary character, it declares. He was both God and man 9,10; had he not been so he could not have been man's Redeemer 11. Its witness is very positive (see Mk.10.45; Rom.3.23‑26; 1Tim.2.6; 1Pet.1.17ff: Heb.9.7,12,23ff). His vicarious death was valid precisely because of His descent from a woman (Ga1.4.4f; see also Heb.2.14‑18). Before the Incarnation, atonement had been provided for by instructive but ineffective rituals involving animal sacrifices which served as 'shadows' of something better to come12. These rituals had a palpably substitutionary character. Their vindication (before heavenly onlookers?) as justification for forgiveness to men had to await the cry from the Cross (John 19.30); but before that the rites had to be as didactically impressive as possible. It can be argued that if there had been no actual biological relationship between man and the animals, 'atonement' by their substitution as victim would have failed in this very important respect, i.e. didactically. Man's 'Special Creation' would have meant this: relationship in this biological kinship sense is therefore an Old Testament presumption. I would not wish to press this argument, but it is not without considerable force.

There is a final reason for maintaining that Scripture does not discourage a belief in a link between man and the lower animals. It is drawn from the New Testament and so appeals to the fundamental truth of the unity of Scripture. The New Testament teaches that when a rebel sinner is reconciled to God by faith in Jesus Christ he receives a gift, the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38). This reception, prefigured by the action of Jesus when He breathed on them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit' (John 20.22), recalls vividly the Creator's original 'breathing' in Genesis 2.7, which was uniquely on man. It makes a sinner now a 'new creation' (2 Cor.5.17), but without breaking any biological link. This parallelism would seem to go a long way towards justifying the understanding taken here of the original creation of Adam ‑ a sub‑human was changed by the breathing into his nostrils 'the breath (nesama) of life' (RV) into a true man (cf.Eccles.12.7)13. But for the moment we shall leave this matter till a later chapter.

The Bible and Chance

We pass now from the discussion of Special Creation to that of 'chance' ‑ or rather the biblical understanding of 'chance'. What is the biblical attitude to this tendentious notion? First of all it must be recognized that 'chance' is a category which the Bible itself uses; it is regarded therefore as legitimate, at least in certain contexts. It is important to see what these are. Eccles.9.11 is an illuminating verse in this connection. The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong ‑ necessarily or always that is ‑ but time and chancehappen to them a11. Sometimes, in other words, the unexpected and unpredictable takes place. Man never has total certainty in these things; an element of ignorance always remains. It is this element of human ignorance 14 that is covered by the idea of 'chance'. It should be noted that the writer is speaking of what can be 'observed' ‑ that is, what is 'under the sun' (see REB). In the invisible world of the spirit therefore, 'time and chance' have no foothold; at least, the writer is not here giving them one. Incidentally, since 'observation' is the very basis of the scientific method, 'chance' according to this verse would be a useful concept for science as in the derivation of such results as the Maxwellian distribution of molecular velocities in gases.

Jesus's use of the term in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.31) is similar. By chance, he says, a priest was going down that road. The priest had not known the injured man lay there; otherwise one presumes, he would have altered his itinerary. 'Chance' is here used to betoken human ignorance; and that, in the last resort, is its only legitimate context for the Bible.

Now man has had, ever since his primal act of disobedience, a sad but understandable reluctance to meet God 15. However, most people can hardly escape being religious at some time; it is something too deeply built‑in. So what does the common man do then? Without any real deliberation he makes his own god, of a sort which won't impose unacceptable demands on him, and which he can quietly manipulate. The mysterious and unseen, of course, must enter into its constitution, or it would hardly be a god. So he thinks around for something suitable, and 'Chance' suggests itself. It accordingly becomes semi‑deified, an active agency in its own right. Something of this sort is castigated by Isaiah as he thinks of the religious reverence given to Fortune and Destiny 16, where Fortune is an idea not so very different from the one we are considering. But the thinking behind all this is futile self‑deception, Isaiah declares 17, and when God arises in judgement all such idols ‑ Fortune, Destiny, Chance, Luck ‑ will be swept away. They can't do anything 18, and in the final reckoning they will be seen for what they are ‑ non‑entities 19.

But the Bible goes further than this. While there are things we don't know, there is nothing God doesn't 20. So there isn't really such a thing as 'chance' for Him. God is the Master of all things, and He disposes even the throw of the die 21. For instance, when the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, it was divided to them by lot, but it was God who decided whose was what 22. Thus Judah obtained Jerusalem, appropriately to the divine purpose that it should be the ruling tribe 23.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the providential ordering of 'chance' events so dramatically asserted as in the story of the death of Ahab, an evil king of Israel. The story is told in 1 Kings 22. Ahab had seized the vineyard of Naboth after Jezebel his queen had procured the death of Naboth by stoning on a trumped‑up charge. This brought to a head Ahab's long career of wickedness, and Elijah was sent to pronounce judgement against him (1 Kings 21.17f). For three years the sentence was delayed. Then Ahab joined his neighbour Jehoshaphat in an attempt to recapture Ramoth Gilead. He was an old hand at the art of war, and when the prophet Micaiah repeated the warning of Elijah, Ahab resolved to go into the battle disguised. The ruse was apparently successful; Jehoshaphat drew the enemy fire and the enemy turned his attention away from Ahab's sector. But, the biblical historian records, a certain man drew his bow at a venture (at random, REB) and struck the king of Israel between the scale armour and the breastplate; and mortally wounded, Ahab withdrew from the field 24. An obscure archer, a random arrow, a small weak area in the armour ‑ what could more vividly convey the sense of the controlling providence of God? Ahab's final ignominious end was exactly as foretold by the prophet 25.

Scripture is, in fact, full of cases where 'chance' coincidences fulfilled God's purposes. Inasmuch as these were often foretold we cannot regard them as merely cases of literary opportunism on the biblical writer's part; God's decisive plan produced the occasion, not vice.‑versa. Thus Joseph was sold into Egypt 26; Ruth became the progenitrix of Jesus 27; and Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem 28. A difference of a few days, or a few yards, in quite small events would have altered the course of history (often prophetically‑foretold history), very significantly.

To the Bible, therefore, the fact that an event can be spoken of legitimately in terms of chance, hap or randomness in no way removes it from the sphere of God's directing providence. The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is wholly from the Lord (Prov.16.33). That is a truth Jesus would have us continually remember. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father's will (Matt.10.29 RSV,NIV).

Summary

Our conclusions therefore in this chapter can be readily summarised. 'Special Creation' (as earlier defined) is a view that cannot be established unequivocally from the biblical data. That the Bible has been incautiously held to teach it is of no more significance than that Psalms 93.1 and 104.5 have been held to teach the motionlessness of the earth in space, or that other (so it is sometimes claimed) references teach that the earth is a flat disc; an intelligent study of the way the Bible uses words in such contexts would have shown that the understandings mentioned were unjustified 29. The same is true, if a little less obviously, of 'Special Creation'. Those who insist on the latter have felt compelled in its defence to try, in a rather contrived way, to distinguish between biblical 'kinds' and what we understand today as 'species'. This is a risky procedure, for by doing so they at once open the door to a considerable degree of evolutionary speciation. Lion and tiger, two species; one kind? Where does one draw the line? Is the whole cat family included in this 'kind'? What about the cheetah then? 30 And so on. The whole idea of the fixity of species ‑ or 'kinds' ‑ seems to derive in some degree from long‑term tradition, possibly from Plato's doctrine of fixed 'Forms' or 'Ideas'. This seems far more likely to have given rise to that of the 'fixity of species' than anything Genesis has to say. If that is so, it constitutes a strong argument in favour of the point being made here.

'Chance'. on the other hand (the Bible allows), is a perfectly valid notion within the context of human ignorance. This is where in fact, science finds it so valuable. Attempts to give it a wider validity than this and to imply that God has so constituted nature that even He does not know the outcome of ultimate events (that is, that 'God plays dice' 31), find no warrant in the Bible. It will be argued in a later chapter that the emphasis in Physics on chance and indeterminacy is not incompatible with the biblical view of all things under the hand of God. For the moment it needs only to be stressed that the 'chance' element in evolutionary theory presents no difficulty to biblical theism. This was realized by conservative theologians like B.B. Warfield and James Orr in the past 32. There is no reason to modify their conclusion now.

NOTES

1     Article 20, Book of Common Prayer

2     SCIENCE IN FAITH ed. Arthur Jones, The Christian Schools Trust 1998

3     op. cit. p.67

4     For the following discussion on the meaning of 'kinds' two valuable papers are P. H. Seely, The meaning of Min, 'kind', Science and Christian Belief 9(1) 1997; and John W. Olley, Further observations on Min, 'kind', ibid. 11(1) 1999; also Appendix 3(ii)

5     I claim no more.

6     See DARWIN'S FORGOTTEN DEFENDERS David N. Livingstone, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1987.

7     There is no separate form for the pluperfect in Hebrew: see NIV

8     i.e. moral law

  • John 1.14; Heb.2.14
  • Ga1.4.4; Rom 1.3,4
  • Heb.2.17,18
  • Heb.10.1-8

13   It should be noted that 'breath' and 'spirit' are translations of the same word in both Hebrew and Greek.

14   Sometimes of a physical cause, at others of a human purpose.

15   Gen.3.8; Job 21.14; Rom.1.18

16   Isa.65.11f  RV, NIV

17   Isa.44.20

18   Isa.41.22f

19   Isa.57.13; Jer.10.11

20   Ps.139.1‑5; Isaiah 40.27,28; Jer.23.24; Luke 12.6,7

21   Prov.16.33

  • Josh.18.10; Psa.16.5,6 (NIV); 47.4; cf. Acts 1.24‑26
  • Gen.49.10. Jerusalem was, in fact, just inside the neighbouring small tribe of Benjamin, closely associated with Judah (1 Kings 11.32: 12.21).
  • 1 Kings 22.34
  • This story illustrates one conspicuous aspect of the Bible's teaching complementary to others: God's activity is not to be thought of as something superadded to the common course of history, or injected into it. Rather, it fills the whole of history (see such suggestive passages as Gen.45:4‑8; Deut.32.8; 1 Kings 11.14: Ps.135.6‑12; Amos 3.6; Matt.26.31 with Zech. 13.7; Luke 22.37 with Isa.53.10,12; Acts 17.26; Rom.9.17; Eph.1.9‑11; and passim. This paradoxical position is illustrated and (as far as meets our need) justified by the analogy of an 'author'; see later chapters.

26   Gen.37.25,28: cf. Gen.15.13f; 50.20

27   Ruth 2.3; cf. Matt.l.5

  • Luke 2.lff; cf. Micah 5.2
  • Compare Pss.112.6 RV; 96.10; Prov.12.3 in the RV (the Heb. verb 'move' is the same as in Pss.93.1 and 104.5 quoted). See also the chapter 'The Primal Creation'.

30   The cheetah seems to have affinities outside the cat family as well.

31   A disbelief of Einstein's in fact. See also chap. XII

32        J.R. Moore, THE POST‑DARWINIAN CONTROVERSIES (Cambridge, CUP 1979)