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?