Tag Archives: Genesis

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 1

Kevin Hester

Modern evangelicals regularly engage in robust discussions with naturalists and with Christians who promote other, non-literal interpretations of the Genesis account. Many conservative Christians often wonder how creation has been understood throughout Christian history. As a historical theologian who focuses upon the early church, I am often asked about the early church perspective on creation. Many Evangelicals are initially disappointed when I share with them the nature of early Christian views. Most church fathers don’t spend time discussing the literal historicity of the creation account because they simply assume it. Even Augustine, whose complex views on creation have become a recent battleground, demonstrates this essentially literal approach to Genesis when he dates the ages since the creation of man at 6,000 years (City of God, 12.11) and argues for a literal, world-wide flood (City of God, 15).

Still, when the early church fathers did discuss creation, they were answering different questions and responding to different apologetic needs. The questions they were answering tended to be more philosophical than scientific. That does not mean, however, that the early church has nothing to teach us on the topic. If we understand their context, they can show us a way forward by focusing upon the basic principles they developed of a good God actively creating a good world from nothing, and endowing that world with His purpose and design.

If you hope to turn to the early church fathers and their medieval counterparts for specific answers on modern debates related to evolution, the age of the earth, and the nature of the days of the creation narrative as expressed in Genesis, you will be disappointed. However, that is not to say that such perspectives should not or cannot be informed by the teachings and beliefs of the early church. What I will demonstrate is that the early church posited a purposeful, active creation of all that exists ex nihilo (from nothing). And that they developed this reading of the creation story in a context where the predominant views of the universe’s origin ranged from a disinterested passive creation on the one hand (Neo-platonism) and the eternality of matter working through blind causes on the other (Atomism). Further, we will note that Christianity introduces a concept of teleological purpose and systematic expression in creation that lays the foundation for all of modern science. It is because God is a God of order and He created this world for a purpose that science is even possible. Early theologians believed that reflection on the natural world could reveal truth that would lead humans ultimately to God.

The Philosophical Context of the First Century

There were two major views on the origin of the universe (cosmogony) in the ancient world. One of these was Atomism. Atomism is generally identified with Democritus (370 BC), Leucippus (370 BC), and the founder of hedonism, Epicurus (270 BC). Epicurus developed an ethical theory that defined the goal of life as contentment and he believed that fear of the gods prevented many from achieving this end. In order to relieve his hearers of concern related to the gods, he turned to Atomism which posited a purely materialistic perspective on the world. Atomism taught that matter was eternal and all that happened was the result of blind laws working in a cause and effect sequence. Ancient atomism thus shared similar sentiments with modern naturalism. Humans were simply part of a larger mechanism subject to various impersonal forces.

There was a significant revival of Epicurus’ hedonism and atomism in the Roman world just prior to the birth of Christianity in the writings of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (d. 55 BC). While some aspects of evolution were occasionally used to explain humanity and other aspects of the natural world, the primary driver of this system of thought was that this world was composed of eternal material elements, largely self-governed by laws of cause and effect, in an endless cycle of creation and growth, decline, death, and rebirth. The gods, if they existed at all, were simply higher forms of life that should cause no concern for us as we live our lives.

The other major cosmogony in the ancient Roman world was that of a disinterested, passive, and accidental creator God. As the Greco-Roman world moved away from earlier polytheism, they recognized a higher order than the physical world. The believed contra the atomists that reason and moral virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty though reflected in nature must come from a higher source. The best representative of this view is the Greek philosopher Plato (d. c. 350 BC). Plato believed that the physical world composed of matter, subject as it was to mutability and destruction, could only be explained by a greater and higher existence. He therefore asserted that there was a scale of ontological reality that moved from matter on its lowest extreme to rational ideas (forms), and ultimately the Good (God) which was the source of all other existence. For Plato the Good was the ultimate form of existence. This Good or God, was perfect existence having neither beginning nor end, pure actuality. This Good was so transcendent and its essence (ousia) so full that its very existence, its very contemplation of itself, naturally produced lesser existences like the forms, which then naturally and accidentally produced matter and the world.

These concepts would lead to a radical perspective on matter that would plague the church and contribute to a number of early Christian heresies. Plotinus (d. 270 AD), the Roman popularizer of these concepts, would further expand the ideas and add spiritual and mystical components to them dividing the categories into a descending hierarchy including the One, the Nous, the Soul, and matter.

Early Christian Descriptions of Creation

The early church came to understand and define the biblical references to creation against the backdrop of these predominant views. Much of their teaching worked to counteract particular tendencies from these worldviews that the church perceived as problematic.

Over against atomism, the Church taught that the source for the order and structure of creation was dependent upon God’s purposes. They asserted that Scripture taught that matter had a beginning in time and its regularity was part of a pattern established by God. In other words, because God is a rational being, all His works are rational and ordered. At the same time, they understood God’s care in the world to be pervasive. God was transcendent and beyond the material plane in which humanity resided, but from the beginning had purposefully interacted with His creation. God was interested in the world and was working to fulfill His purposes in it.

The early Christian response to the Platonists was somewhat different. Many early Christians adopted a number of platonic and neo-platonic perspectives. Plato and Plotinus had insisted on the existence of one ultimate divine being. Many Christians saw their focus on the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues as higher ideals as a different expression of Christian living. Platonism also underscored the Church’s beliefs about God’s ultimate transcendence, aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, and immutability. Many of the categories used by Plato to describe the Good were adopted or recognized as legitimate categories of ultimate ontology and embraced by the Church as appropriate descriptions of God consonant with the Biblical text.

There were, however, very important differences. Primary among them was the insistence that God was a personal God. God’s purposes in redemption mean that God cares and is intensely interested in the world. God engages in the world to sustain it and ultimately to redeem it. God’s activity and purpose were determined before creation and they describe God’s act of creation as purposeful and intended. Rather than Plato’s passive, accidental creation, the Christian church posited that God actively and purposefully created the world with a goal in mind. God desired a relationship with His creatures and is now working to restore a relationship broken by sin.

Another important distinction from platonic perspectives was the recognition that God’s creation was good. Matter, though it was ontologically less than God, was not evil (contra Gnosticism). In fact, God’s creation of matter and the world was a work of divine ennoblement over which God had pronounced His blessing. After creating the world and humanity God himself had declared it “very good.” In fact, even though the world had been impacted by sin, God’s purposes in redemption were not only spiritual but physical in nature. Paul had presented this concept in Romans 8 and the early church referenced the promised restoration of creation in eschatological terms. Ultimate salvation was not spiritual enlightenment in a heavenly realm, but eternal life in a renewed body on a renewed earth in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of all good things.

Part two of this article will appear next Tuesday.

 

Matthew McAffee’s “Creation and the Role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8”: A Review

Kevin L. Hester

Dr. Matthew McAffee, Provost at Welch College, presented one of the most compelling papers at the 2018 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission for Theological Integrity. His paper, entitled “Creation and the Role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8: What Can We Learn?” was one of two heavily exegetical papers presented as part of the program. In it, McAffee draws parallels between the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8 with the Genesis account of creation. While he recognizes that the primary purpose of the exhortation to wisdom found in Proverbs 8 is not to provide didactic material on the nature and scope of creation, McAffee asserts that there are a number of implications that can be drawn from the text that have important ramifications for the process of creation, the textual criticism of the Old Testament, and the relationship of the Genesis creation account to other Near Eastern creation stories.

McAffee outlines the role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and connects it with the two other speeches from Wisdom in Proverbs including 1:20-36 and 9:1-6. The Proverbs 8 discussion is unique because of its reference to the creation of Wisdom before the foundation of the world. While he recognizes that the purpose of the passage is not to present a holistic theory of creation, he argues that the text’s apologetic argument for wisdom rests upon a particular understanding of creation.

McAffee provides robust lexical analysis on several Hebrew terms used in reference to creation. These are analyzed in their Biblical and Near Eastern contexts to clearly show that the author of the wisdom literature expresses an ex nihilo view of creation. He then demonstrates a number of lexical parallels between Proverbs 8 and the Genesis narrative which indicate the author’s resonance with the Genesis narrative.

McAffee’s interpretation of Proverbs 8 and his investigation of its parallels with the Genesis account of creation produce a revisionist conclusion that rejects, on the one hand, the critical consensus of any documentary hypothesis that views the wisdom literature as predating the composition of the Genesis narrative. On the other hand, his work also provides a compelling argument for distinguishing the Genesis account of creation from Babylonian and other Near Eastern creation stories. Thus, McAffee’s work here leads to three important implications.

First, the traditional canonical order of Genesis preceding the wisdom literature better explains the parallel between Proverbs 8 and the Genesis account. Otherwise, following the critical tradition’s dating of Proverbs prior to Genesis produces a significant anachronism wherein, “the presumed older text (Prov. 8) preserves a purportedly late Hellenistic view of creation, while the assumed younger text (Gen. 1) preserves a much earlier Babylonian one.” (p. 145)

Second, the purpose Wisdom’s pre-existent role in Proverbs 8 shows a vision of ex nihilo creation over against other near eastern creation accounts that image creation as the ordering of chaos or construction from pre-existent matter thus distinguishing the Biblical accounts. The text’s usage of the Genesis account, once established, demonstrates that the author of the wisdom literature is reading the Genesis account of creation as ex nihilo documenting a consistent view of creation that is distinctive and prior to other expressions of cosmogony.

If both the Genesis account and the vision of creation in the wisdom literature are consistent with one another and distinctive from other Near Eastern models, then this conclusion upends the commonly held belief that ex nihilo creation was a later, Greek idea incorporated into Judaism. Rather, God’s creation of all things from nothing seems to represent a longstanding Jewish belief.

Third, once the parallel between the creation accounts of Genesis and Proverbs 8 are established and the consistent view is demonstrated to be distinctive from later Greek expressions, the only remaining potential source for the Genesis narrative of creation is the Babylonian Atra Hasis account. This has been the traditional, critical approach. However, the distinctive approach to creation in the accounts from the Babylonian tradition and especially the ex nihilo reading of the Genesis account by the author of the wisdom literature raises real questions about this critical assumption. Such a position seems hardly tenable. Instead, it is more likely that the Atra Hasis and other near eastern creation models are either dependent upon the Genesis account or entirely separate from it.

Ask a Theologian

by Randy Corn

My first-born son, Benjamin Randal Corn (guess who he was named after) worked for six summers as a counselor at Cumberland Youth Camp.  He once told me of a standard procedure which the camp employed when weather forced them indoors.  They would assemble the students and the support staff (usually area pastors) and have something they called, “Ask A Theologian.”  The students were given paper to submit a biblical or theological question, and these were placed in a box. The pastors would then pull a paper from the box and discuss how each of them would answer the question. Typically, the answers were pretty uniform, with the pastors coming to some sort of consensus on their answer. Disagreement, however, is often more entertaining than consensus. Benjamin realized this and would invariably see to it that the pastors would have to discuss the “sons of God and daughters of men” passage in Genesis 6!

I had not thought about this illustration of my son’s personality until recently when I came across a lengthy discussion of this issue. It is in volume two of Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer (pp. 114-117). For those not familiar with this multi-volume theological work, Chafer often includes long quotes from authors who have insight on some particular issue. This may be either to agree or disagree with the author’s position.

Chafer quotes extensively from Clarence Larkin’s book The Spirit World as a champion of the view that the “sons of God” were fallen angels who had sexual union with human women.  He derives this view not so much from Genesis 6 as from Jude verses 6 and 7. Chafer comments,

Mr. Larkin draws the conclusion that the fallen angels that are in chains are under sentence because of immoral relations with women of the human race.  The ‘strange flesh’ and ‘fornication’ of Sodom and Gomorrah suggest to Mr. Larkin that the text (Jude 6, 7) aims to reveal that this is the sin of these angels that are bound” (Chafer p. 115)

Chafer goes on to write,

 Whether, as many believe, the reference is to men of the line of Seth cohabiting with women of the line of Cain, or whether it asserts that angels cohabited with women of the earth, as Mr. Larkin and others believe, probably will never be determined to the satisfaction of all concerned (Chafer p. 115).

Now, it is not my purpose to settle this issue in this post.  All I want to do is ask a question about the connection between Genesis and Jude. On the face of it, there seems to be a logical inference that Jude 6, which describes “the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling” might well be guilty of some form of the sin mentioned in Jude 7 where we find the Sodomites “indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” My question is why the sin of these angels must be connected with the illustration that follows their notice as opposed to the illustration that precedes them.

Jude 5 says, “Now, I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” While there was undoubtedly some element of sexual sin to the backsliding of the children of Israel, it would be more accurate to describe them as being in rebellion to God as illustrated by the phrase “those who did not believe” in Jude 5 and the majority of the book of Exodus. If one sees Jude 6 as controlled by Jude 5 instead of Jude 7, then the angels are pictured as being in rebellion against God, like Israel of the Exodus. Jude 6 would then be describing the original fall of these angels by following Satan in his rebellion against God described in Isaiah 14.

Does this simple observation put the issue to rest? Not by a long shot; but it does show that there is a reasonable explanation for not seeing Jude as a commentary on Genesis. I have a feeling more than one theologian at Cumberland Camp will be asked this question in the future.

Adam, Eve, and Maple Tree Leaves

by Kevin L. Hester

I have the privilege of working at Welch College which is nestled in the historic Richland Village neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee. Every fall I am greeted with the brilliant yellows and bright reds of the neighborhood’s American maples. The beauty of this time of year always brings me back to the glory of God’s creation. My Christian worldview understands the beauty, intricacy, and order of this world within the context of God’s creation as outlined in Genesis 1-2. Sometimes I take this worldview for granted. After all, it isn’t the only one, and it certainly isn’t the predominant view in this country.

Modern science has argued for an alternative worldview story of accident and happenstance. Since Darwin, Christians have wrestled with the implications of his theory for Christianity. At times the Church has incorporated the view by reading “gaps” in the Genesis narrative or epochal “days” of creation. Still other parts of the Church have rejected naturalism entirely, preferring the “literal” interpretation of Genesis. This latter view has been the predominant evangelical view until recently. But more and more evangelicals have embraced forms of “theistic evolution” in an attempt to reconcile science and theology. This has led them to reread or reinterpret the Genesis narrative according to a scientific framework.

While many evangelical Christians have done an exemplary job responding to the challenge of Darwin’s thought, others have embraced it. New “advances” in the study of genetics promise to raise similar questions. Recently, Francis Collins and Karl Giberson of the BioLogos Forum have questioned the existence of a historical Adam and Eve as presented in Genesis. Their position was heavily covered both in Christian media and in secular news programs.

The appearance of a book covering this topic in Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series indicates that such thinking is infiltrating a number of branches of evangelicalism. Yet what is sometimes overshadowed or overlooked by these discussions are the implications of the loss of a historical Adam and Eve for the Church, for the Christian worldview, and for the gospel.

I am sure that technical answers from Christian scientists will be forthcoming. Already advances in discoveries about what was previously thought to be “junk DNA” are promising that there is much more to the story of human diversity both in reference to other species and variety in our own (see here).

Those technical answers will not come from me. I am not a scientist. Rather, I am a Christian theologian who knows what it is like to live in a beautiful, broken world. It is the story of Adam and Even that holds the key to the beauty, the brokenness, and the promise of redemption.

This promise lies in a historical Adam and Eve. Rather than reading Genesis 1-3 according to a scientific preconception of what it must mean, perhaps we should attempt to read it according to the narrative of the book in which it is found. In this case, the Bible is thoroughly historical in nature. Even books that are not strictly historical are set within a historical framework. Some books such as Kings, Chronicles, and Judges are historical in the highest degree. Others like prophecy occur in the context of historical disobedience or punishment. The wisdom literature is tied to historical authors striving to live their faith out in community. Likewise, the Psalms are linked to human authors, attest to human events, and cry out for lived experience in the present and future communities of faith. The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ in historical detail dating the events by Roman rulers. Acts and the Epistles relate the growth of the Church in time and narrate its experience of living out the faith until Christ’s return. The whole scope of Scripture is historical in nature. Why should we expect anything different from the book of Genesis?

Genesis itself reads as a historical narrative starting as it does “in the beginning.” The ordered arrangement of the creation days speaks to temporal flow. The genealogies and events described all function to set the narrative firmly in the historical genre. The author clearly intends the text to be taken as history. Jesus and Paul likewise understood and presented the story of Adam and Eve as a literal event (cf. Rom. 5:12-14).

The events of Genesis 1-3 tell the basic worldview story of Christianity. Christianity is a historical religion. It preaches a historical gospel about a historical Jesus crucified under Pontius Pilate. But the events of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection have no meaning without the creation and fall of Adam and Eve. Paul, in Romans 5, outlines that it was Christ who came to set right all that had gone wrong because of Adam’s sin. The effects of the fall are being undone as we are recreated in God’s image as sons and daughters of God, and it is these effects that will be finally undone at the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth. The Christian doctrine of the atonement, of salvation, and the eternal state–of the Gospel itself–are rooted in the historical Adam and Eve.

The story of Adam and Eve also explains human culture and relationships. According to Genesis 1, humans were designed, we did not simply come to be. Things that are designed have a purpose and this purpose is likewise described in the first few chapters of Genesis. Humans were created in God’s image so that they might have a relationship with God and with all the rest of creation. Genesis 2 points out how Eve was created to govern the world together with Adam and to be his partner establishing marriage and the nuclear family as the basis for human culture. Jesus himself makes precisely this point when he discusses the importance of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. Without the story of such a design, there is no basis for societal norms and no standard for human relationships.

Genesis 1 tells us that what God created was good, but in Genesis 3 we see what humanity has done to God’s creation. Original beauty is marred and relationships are broken by sin. Consistent human experience tells us this is true. We inherently “feel” that something is wrong with the world. Evil exists and we are uncomfortable with it. We recognize beauty, but all too often see the grotesque creeping in around us. But where can such ideas of beauty and brokenness, of right and wrong come from?

The naturalistic worldview has no basis for such categories. In naturalism there is only good and bad for me but human experience consistently tells us that there really are such categories. The story of Adam and Eve, of a good creation corrupted by an evil use of free will explains the categories and promises a way back to the garden.

We need a historical Adam and Eve. The story’s historical reality is confirmed by the literary genre and by its use in Scripture. The historicity of the narrative from Genesis best accords with the historical faith of the Christian Church doctrinally expressed in the atonement as found in evangelical Christianity. It best explains the human desire to love and be loved and the human experience of good and evil, beauty and brokenness. Without Adam and Eve there is no Christianity, and without Christianity there is no hope.

This hope is also promised in the narrative of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:15, in the midst of the curses that came as a result of original sin, there is a promise. This promise shines a glimmer of hope in a dark world broken by sin with the story of the defeat of sin and death. You see this is why I can enjoy those autumn leaves. I know they are dying and will fall. I know that there will be months of cold and days with more darkness than light. But because of Adam and Eve, I have hope. I know that what appears dead and broken can be made new again. I know that a beauty lost can be regained.