q&r: genesis and evolution?

What is your opinion on evolutionary theory vs. creation theory?

I have been apart of a discussion where both sides were argued, the evolutionary theory being that God instigated or created the cellular/atomic structure that began evolution, and that Adam and Eve are the result of the human evolution from cells to animals to primates to people, and the garden of Eden only begins after all the evolving is finished. I had not really heard this theory before, and find it somewhat uncomfortable, as I was a pure creationist at the time, but given that believing either theory doesn’t really change anything in the course of Jesus coming here and dying, I really don’t know what to think.

I’m not sure that anyone really knows what to think. Knowledge is a clumsy beast, though humans seem to think they can completely tame it.

Evolution is far from proven, but according to the majority of biologists it is the best theory (or theories) we have right now. Might it be developed in the future? Yes. Will it be changed? Yes. Will it be disproven? Maybe. Would that “prove” creationism? No – disproving evolution does not prove creationism.

There is a lot I could talk about here, including the false paradigm of debating faith and science, and also issues in modern scientific philosophy. What is my personal opinion? At this point I believe in evolution, inasmuch as it is the best option out there that I know of. Many people will disagree, and that’s fine.

But that is a moot point, since I am no biologist. What is important for me as an exegete is how we read the Bible. The pertinent question is, does the Bible have anything to say about the prehistory of the world and humanity?

Well, it depends on what you mean. If we are talking about history in a modern scientific sense, then I think no – the biblical authors were not interested in modern science since it post-dates them by up to 2200 years.

I am insistent that we must ask ourselves, what is the point of Genesis 1-3? What is the purpose of the author’s rhetoric? Is it to explain the historico-scientific origins of the world? This to me seems unlikely since this concern is quite modern – it was certainly not an issue for scientifically unaware ancient peoples.

The Creation story, it should be said, is not at all unique – it is in many ways very similar to the creation stories present in other cultures, particularly Egyptian, Sumerian and Babylonian.

It seems most likely that Genesis was written during the time of the Exile (6th century BCE). Why? The “Jews” are exiled in Babylon, surrounded by Babylonian culture, symbols, worldview and mythology. Stories like the Babylonian creation narrative (Enuma Elish) portray the world in a certain way, e.g.:

  • Humans were created by the gods (who are highly immoral) to do the jobs they did not want to do
  • The monarchy is ordained by the gods, as is the social hierarchy, and they cannot be changed
  • Babylon is a special city blessed by the gods

Such narratives are not simply stories – they shape the way people see the world, and thus the way in which they live. Other examples might be how religious narratives about Jesus, Muhammad or others shape the lives of their followers.

What then might Genesis have to say in response to the Babylonian creation narrative? Some suggestions might be:

  • God is a good God
  • People were not created for menial tasks despised by the gods, but to co-reign with God in caring for creation (not simply relationship to God, but also relationship to each other, ourselves and the earth)
  • Humans are endued with dignity and value
  • The ideal setting of life is goodness for all creation, not merely a special few powerful people
  • Babylon is not the ideal place blessed by God – the whole earth is; God does not live in a city or a temple

These are just a few noteworthy implications. The point is that Genesis resists a certain narrative, which suggests the world is ordered a certain way, by presenting a subversive narrative that represents an alternative, life-giving way of seeing the world.

Some critics of the Bible point out that the creation story must be false because it “rips off” other creation stories. But that is precisely the point – the power of the Genesis creation story is in its ability to take ideas from other stories and subvert them for its own purposes! It is meant to be that way, in the same way that a Christmas tree, supposedly originally a pagan symbol, has been Christianised to represent new life at Christmas (Christian critics of Christmas trees ignorantly miss the point).*

In the end I’m not saying this is in any way a comprehensive treatment of the creation story. What I am saying is that we must take seriously the reason a text might have been written, rather than imposing our own questions on it and twisting it to make it answer them. The creation story is not at all about how the world was created in scientific terms – the creationism vs. evolution debate must be fought elsewhere.

A great piece to read is an article by Rikki Watts of Regent College entitled Making Sense of Genesis 1; he goes into great detail about some of the things I have only touched on here.

At the end of the day, if people want to believe in creationism, that’s their prerogative. However I don’t think that the creation story in Genesis is a good foundation for this belief given its historical situation. Personally I think to take this text literalistically without regard to its rhetorical purpose or cultural context is to do violence against it. In doing so we take a vulnerable text and twist it into submitting to our predetermined hermeneutical and theological demands. This is how, for example, we end up with a middle class reading of the Bible that is largely uncritical of our lifestyles and powers.

Thanks for your question – I hope my response helps in some way.

MCA


* I’m not even sure that this is true. Apparently pagans used evergreen trees for rituals during the Winter Solstice and this practice was Christianised, though I have never researched this claim.
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Posted on February 27, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Hermeneutics, Old Testament, Q&R and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Matt, you note that “evolution is far from proven”. In fact, the evidentiary data collected over more than a century and a half provides overwhelming support for the theory of evolution. From an immense fossil record to studies of the DNA, the theory has as much support as any scientific theory (probably more than most). Of course science will progress and more data may redirect scientific conclusions, but this will involve developing and nuancing our understanding of the process. If you can accept the scientific data that the world is round you should be pretty confident about the evidence for evolution. while your focus is biblical (and I commend this) we also need to take seriously the implications of other disciplines– including science – for our theology and ethics.

  2. Hi Shane,

    As always thanks for your input. I agree 100% – when I say the theory of evolution is not proven I am only saying that it is not beyond any doubt. Will the theory be further shaped in the future? Yes, of course. Could it be discarded? There is a possibility, but it seems highly unlikely.

    The point of this exegetical exercise was not at all to argue that the Bible is our source of information on the topic of evolution and cosmic origins – in fact it is quite the opposite! The Bible does not address this question in any scientific sense, and as you say we must necessarily appeal to other disciplines, such as science, for our understanding of the “how” of cosmic origins.

    Matt

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