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God's Creation Through Evolution and the Language of Scripture

Joshua M. Moritz

Joshua M. Moritz

Joshua M. Moritz, PhD, is Lecturer of Philosophical Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Francisco, and Managing Editor of the journal Theology and Science.

Reproduced with the permission of the editors of 'Theology and Science'.

Originally published in 'Theology and Science': 'God's Creation Through Evolution and the Language of Scripture', Joshua M. Moritz, Theology and Science, Volume 11, Issue 1, 2013 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14746700.2013.750958


Central to the current cultural debates over evolution versus creation is the question of how God actually creates. Many modern Christians argue that the Bible teaches that God created plants, animals and especially humans through direct "special creation" without mediating such creation through any so-called natural causes. "Special creationist" Christians hold that the idea of God's "indirectly" creating through "natural processes" is a concept entirely foreign to the witness of Scripture.

According to these believers, Scripture unambiguously confesses that human beings (both as a species and as individuals) are in particular created by exemplary supernatural "events" that are distinctive from the processes whereby God creates the rest of the natural world. But is this in fact really the case?

In this essay, I will examine the language describing creation in Scripture and contest this common assumption of many contemporary Christians by showing that:

  1. Scripture affirms the idea of God's creating through process;
  2. the distinction between direct 'special' creation and 'indirect' creation through natural law is a false and unscriptural dichotomy; and
  3. the context and usage of various Hebrew terms describing God's creative activity affirm an understanding of God's creating plants, animals, and even humans through non-instantaneous processes.

According to one recent Christian commentator, the first "crucial way" in which "the Darwinian account sharply differs from the biblical account" is that it "removes God from being directly involved in much of creation by utilizing natural processes instead, while the biblical account presents God as directly involved in the details of creation, both in the beginning and throughout history."

Laws of nature

The issue raised here is essentially the question of how God's creating activity relates to the so-called "laws of nature." To reflect on this matter in our current scientific context, we can ask whether Scripture ever speaks of God creating certain things "in nature" that we also know a lot about through science.

In other words, are there any phenomena "in nature" that God is said to create for which we also have a good scientific knowledge of how they physically (or "naturally") have come into being and continue to come into being?

Scripture is full of examples of God "directly" creating phenomena that scientists would now consider to occur "naturally." Three examples from the inorganic world include God's creating of lightning, snow, and stars.

In Psalm 135:7, we read that the Creator "makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he creates (Hebrew asah) lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses."

In Psalm 147:16, we similarly read of God's direct activity in creating as "he makes snow like wool" and "scatters the frost like ashes."

Scientifically, we know something about the processes through which lightning and snow are made, and we can even simulate these within a number of contexts. Does our knowledge of these "natural" processes of origination imply that the God of creation is no longer directly involved in creating meteorological phenomena?

Or does it conversely imply that our scientific knowledge about the origination of snow and lightning must be false? Or could it be, perhaps, that the "laws of nature" are indeed physically observable expressions of the very will of God for his creation and that in seeing these "laws" in action we are actually witnessing the creative power of the one true God in action?

The same questions might be asked of God's creation of the sun and other stars. In Genesis 1:16, we read: "God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also."

Again, the Hebrew word here for "made" or "created" is asah. Similarly, in Psalm 8:3, we read: "You have set your glory in the heavens. . . the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained"; and in Isaiah 40:26: "Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created (Hebrew bara) these stars. . ."

Physical constants

One might ask how science says the stars came into being. According to science, there are a number of physical constants or fundamental numbers in nature (such as the speed of light, the size of the electric charge of the electron, the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron) that determine the properties of the elementary components of the natural world and make the general size and structure of almost all of its composite objects inevitable.

Scientifically speaking, the size and structure of stars (and planets) are not random, but rather are manifestations of the different strengths of the physical constants.

As Cambridge physicist John Barrow explains, "the sizes of all the astronomical bodies from the scale of asteroids up to stars are determined by the relative values of the fine- and gravitational-structure constants alone."1

The interactions of these constants (or "laws of nature") give us a precise scientific description of how stars (and our own sun) come into being, develop through time, and eventually pass away. Does scientific knowledge about the origin of stars preclude the creative activity of God in their formation? Does it conflict with Scripture to see God as directly creating the stars through the physical constants of nature? Or can the physical constants of cosmos be seen as a direct expression of God's sovereign will for the stars?

Theological perspectives

For some theological perspective on these questions, it might be helpful to consider the thoughts of Jewish writers before Christ, and those of the early church fathers. Consider, for example, the second-century BC Jewish scribe Jesus ben Sirach's understanding of the relationship between the Creator God and his works:

"When the Lord created his works from the beginning, and, in making them determined their boundaries, he arranged his works in an eternal order, and their dominion for all generations. They neither hunger nor grow weary, and they do not abandon their tasks. They do not crowd one another, and they never disobey his word" (Sir. 16:26–28).

The first-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr likewise perceived the regular, law-like, and rationally describable activity of the natural world as a direct expression of God's will, and Justin beheld "the cosmos" as being "permeated by seeds of the Divine Word (Logos)."

Later, Augustine (c. 354) would powerfully articulate this widespread view of early Christians as he wrote of the development of the cosmos and everything within it being "governed by fundamental laws which reflect the will of their Creator."

According to Augustine, "God has established fixed laws governing the production of kinds and qualities of beings, and bringing them out of concealment into full view."2 For the authors of Scripture, and for early Jews and Christians, the concept of "natural laws" or "regularities" was just one way of referring to the efficacy of God's will.

Since God is the one who ultimately, directly, and perhaps even continuously ordains and creates such "decrees" or "laws" for creation (or nature) to follow, there can never, for these early Christians, exist some fundamental dichotomy between the "direct" action of God and the "indirect" action of God as "mediated" through the regularities observed in the realm of nature.

God's creative relation to the organic

What about God's creative relation to the realm of organic things? Does the Bible provide any examples of God's directly creating living phenomena where scientists would now describe such origins via "naturally occurring" processes?

Within the realm of living things, the Bible speaks of God directly orchestrating the events whereby each individual human being comes into existence. In Psalm 139:13–16, we read: "You knit me together in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (asah). . . My bones were not hidden from you, When I was being made (asah) in secret."

Again, Isaiah 44:24 declares: "Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and the one who formed (yatsar) you from the womb"; Isaiah 49:5 says: "And now says the Lord, who formed (yatsar) me from the womb to be His Servant," and Isaiah 44:2: "Thus says the Lord who made (asah) you and formed (yatsar) you from the womb."

The Hebrew word "made" (asah) used in Isaiah and in the Psalms to describe the process of God creating or forming babies in the womb is the same word Scripture uses to describe God's creating or forming of lightning, the sun, and the stars. But, we might inquire, does God really directly create babies and form them in the womb? Do we really believe that God directly created each of us in our mother's womb?

According to science, the development of a human being in the womb is an exquisitely intricate and delicately organized phenomenon of which we know numerous details. "Development from zygote to embryo to fetus to independent animal is a dynamic and carefully orchestrated phenomenon that involves numerous simultaneous processes that occur in specific sequences and at particular times."3

Developmental biologists have uncovered many of the extremely complicated particulars of this process (called ontogeny) through which two single cells join and develop to become an extraordinarily complex multicellular organism called a human being. According to science, the formation of a baby in the womb is a process and not an instantaneous event.

As everyone knows, fully developed babies are not created ex nihilo (out of nothing) at the moment of conception. If we believe that this developmental process described by science is how each human comes into being, and if we also believe that God directly creates each human person, then it would seem that God directly creates each individual human person through the biological process of ontogeny.

Through the eyes of faith, we affirm that God is at work in every detail of this process—even though we can describe it with the help of science.

Having explored the language that Scripture uses to describe the ultimate physical origins of the things that science knows something about, we may go on to ask about the language that Scripture uses to describe the origins of things which occurred without leaving a directly observable record either in the present (e.g. ultrasounds of a developing embryo) or in the past (e.g. starlight from distant ancient galaxies).

Origins of plant life

How did God originally create plant life? We read in Genesis 1:11: "Then God said, 'Let the earth produce vegetation, plants yielding (asah) seed, and fruit trees bearing (asah) fruit after their kind, with seed in them, on the earth"'; in Genesis 1:12: "And the earth made (yatsar) vegetation, plants yielding (asah) seed after their kind, and trees bearing (asah) fruit, with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good."

Notice that the same Hebrew words (yatsar and asah), which are used to describe the process of a baby being formed in the womb and a star being formed, are used here to describe God's creation of plant life.

If we are to interpret Scripture with Scripture, then this would imply that God created plant life through a process of some length rather than in an instantaneous event. Notice also that the grammatical subject in Genesis 1:12 that does the actual "creating" or "making" of the plants is the "earth."

This is not a novel observation, but one that goes back almost 2000 years into interpretive history. For example, Basil of Caesarea (c. 330) understood these verses as saying that God gave the very earth the power to create (yatsar) plant life.4 For Basil and other early Christians. God created creation to be creative and bestowed it with a good degree of autonomy.5

Nature, says Basil, once created and put into motion, evolves in accordance with the laws assigned to it without interruption or diminishment of energy; and he compares the regular laws and cycles of nature to a spinning-top that continues in motion after the initial twist. Interpreting Genesis 1:11 literally, Basil says, "it is this command which, still at this day, is imposed on the earth and, in the course of each year, displays all the strength of its power to produce herbs, seeds, and trees.

Like tops, which after the first impulse continue their evolutions, turning upon themselves, when once fixed in their center; thus nature, receiving the impulse of this first command, follows without interruption the course of ages until the consummation of all things."6

Origins of animal life

How then, according to Scripture, does God create animal life? In Genesis 1:24 we read "And God said, 'Let the earth make (yatsar) living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.' And it was so. God made (asah) the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good." And in Genesis 2:19: "Out of the earth the LORD God formed (yatsar) every beast of the field and every bird of the sky."

Here, the same Hebrew words (yatsar and asah) which describe the 9-month-long process of development from two single cells to a fully formed human being is used to describe the earth's creation of the different types of animals in direct response to God's command. Again, in the phrase "Let the earth make living creatures" (Gen. 1:24), we may ask: What is the grammatical subject of yatsar? What does the actual creating? According to Basil of Caesarea, God literally empowered (and continues to empower) the very Earth with the creative ability to produce such animals.

Basil compares God's command to Earth to a ball that continues to roll down an inclined plane without further assistance. And he even describes the spontaneous generation of animal life from earth as a response to God's command: "God who gave the command [to the Earth] at the same time gifted the Earth with the grace and power to bring forth. . . even unto this day, some creatures, like insects and frogs, are produced spontaneously from soil."7

From a consideration of Scripture alone, then, it would seem that there must be something in the original creation of plant and animal life that is akin to the development of an embryo in the womb.

The fossil record

We might wonder whether a scientific survey the evidence of Earth's past reveals any hint that the development of plant and animal life is analogous to the embryological development of an individual human being. Are yatsar and asah the scientifically appropriate ancient Hebrew words to describe God's creation of babies, plants, and animals?

Scientifically speaking, the overall picture we get from the fossil record is that the emergence of plant and animal life happens through a sequence or a process where there is at first no sign of life, then single-celled organisms appear (prokaryotes—without nuclei), then eukaryotic organisms, and these are followed by more complex multicellular creatures (plants and animals).

Under conditions that have existed on Earth for at least the last billion years, all living organisms appear to have arisen from previously living organisms in such a way that the present complex living forms have developed by an unbroken and continuous process from the simplest living forms of the pre-Cambrian era.

In other words, in the emergence of plant and animal life through earth history, we find the same general trajectory as in the formation of an embryo in the womb: first single cells, then multicellularity, and then more complex organisms. yatsar and asah, then, would seem to be the best words in Hebrew to describe the empirically observed process through which complex plants and animals are directly formed by God through time.

Differences between humans and animals

A second objection that is frequently raised against the concept of God's creation through evolution as it relates to the Bible is that the Darwinian account blurs the distinction between humans and other animals, while in Scripture humans are a distinctive and special creation.

Is it true that Scripture portrays God as creating human beings in a way that is "more direct" and distinctive than the way God creates animals? Is the language that the Bible uses to describe God's creation of the human species categorically different from that used to describe God's other creating actions?

Describing God's creation of human beings, Genesis 1:26 says: "then God said, 'Let Us make (asah) humans in Our image, according to Our likeness"'; Genesis 2:7 reads, "Then the LORD God formed (yatsar) man of dust from the ground"; and Genesis 5:1 declares, "He made (asah) them in the divine likeness."

In these passages (and also in Gen. 2:18 and 6:6), the exact same Hebrew words (asah and yatsar) that describe God's forming of embryos in the womb, and God's forming of plant and animal life, are used to describe God's forming of the human species.

The use of these words implies (or at the very least, does not rule out) that God's forming of humankind was a process and not an instantaneous event.

Does the Bible distinguish humans from animals? Yes and no. God's creation of humans is not distinguished by any specific Hebrew terms that are not also used to God's Creation Through Evolution and the Language of Scripture 5 describe the creation of animals.

Even the Hebrew word "bara" is used at different places to describe the creation of both humans and animals (and stars). Thus while "God created (bara) humans in His own image" (Gen. 1:27), it is also the case that "God created (bara) the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves. . . and every winged bird after its kind" (Gen. 1: 21).8

In Scripture, humans are never distinguished from animals at a biological level. There is also no clear distinction between humans and animals at the ontological level of "souls" or "spirits." Both humans and animals are described as "living souls/living beings" (nephesh), and the word used here implies a certain kinship (for animals, see Gen. 1:20, 1:30, 2:19, 9:4 and for humans, see Gen. 2:7, 9:5, 12:5). The word "spirit" (neshama) is also used in reference to both humans and animals (Gen. 6:17, 7:22).

Other biblical Hebrew terms also reflect this similarity between humans and animals. The phrase "spirit of life" (ruach hayyim) is used for both animals and humans without distinction (for animals see Gen. 1:20–24, 2:19, 9:10, 15; for humans, see Gen. 2:7, 9:5).

The word "flesh" (basar) includes both humans and animals. The expression "all flesh" (kol basar) literally means "all living creatures, animal as well as human." In Scripture, there is only one designation that humans unequivocally have and that animals do not: humans, unlike animals, are said to be created "as the image and likeness of God" (imago Dei).

Some Evangelical Christian commentators have recently argued that the imago Dei in humans is a unique non-material component (i.e. the soul) that non-human animals lack.

Whether or not one holds this view based on a particular theological or philosophical tradition, it must be stressed that this is not an understanding of the imago Dei that emerges directly and unambiguously from Scripture.

Conclusion

I have discussed at length what the "image of God" designation likely means within both its Scriptural and Ancient Near Eastern contexts, and I refer the reader to this material.9 It will suffice to say, however, that the broad consensus of current biblical scholars is that in Scripture, the divine likeness is not defined via reference to any particular human behavioral capacities, biological qualities, or physical characteristics (that animals lack).

The biblical context of the designation, "image and likeness of God," makes it plain that its theological significance is in the place it gives to humans within the created order, and not in any physical or moral attributes of the species, in either its present or "original" state.10

Given the fact that (1) both Scripture and the early church fathers clearly understand "natural" law and processes as God's direct action in creation and (2) that Scripture's view of the close relationship between humans and other animals does not de facto rule out an evolutionary understanding,11 there is no reason to suppose that the creation langue of Scripture is unambiguously juxtaposed to the idea that God creates through evolution.


Endnotes

  • 1 John D. Barrow, New Theories of Everything (Oxford, 2007), 127.
  • 2 For a discussion of Augustine's views of the laws of Nature, see Alister E. McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (WJK, 2009), 103.
  • 3 Ronald D. Hood, Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology: A Practical Approach, Second Edition (New York: Informa Healthcare, 2005), 154.
  • 4 Basil, Hexaemeron 8:1.
  • 5 See Christopher Kaiser, Creation and the History of Science (Eerdmans, 1991).
  • 6 Basil, Hexaemeron 5:10.
  • 7 Basil Hexaemeron 9:2; Lactantius (c. 240–320) likewise did not discount the possibility that some animals could be spontaneously generated.
  • 8 In Eccl. 12:1, bara is used for God's creation of individual people. In Ps. 104:30, bara is used for God's creation/renewal of animals of the earth and sea.
  • 9 Joshua M. Moritz, "Evolution, the End of Human Uniqueness, and the Election of the imago Dei," Theology and Science 9:3 (August 2011): 307–339. See also http:// biologos.org/blog/chosen-by-god-part-1.
  • 10 Phyllis A. Bird, "Theological Anthropology in the Hebrew Bible," in The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible, ed. Leo G. Perdue (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 262.
  • 11 For more on how animals relate to humans in Scripture, see Joshua M. Moritz, "Animals and the Image of God in the Bible and Beyond" Dialog-A Journal of Theology 48:2 (2009):134–146.