Did God create the world instantly ten thousand years ago? Or did he start the process of evolution in order to create the world?
For several years I led a parish book study, and it was one of the most personally fulfilling aspects of ministry for me. But it was also often quite provocative. One such moment came when we were reading Alistair McGrath’s book Theology: The Basics.
We were reading his overview of the Apostle’s Creed, starting with his discussion of “God the Father, creator of heaven and earth.” McGrath discusses five basic ways that Christians have understood how God accomplished the creation of the world, including young earth creationism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution.
When we got to that point, the room seemed to instantly divide into camps. All of us were fellow Christians, fellow parishioners, and we respected one another. We were also all book lovers. Yet we literally divided physically into camps. I’m not sure how it happened, but it seemed like I looked up and people had actually changed places to be near their group.
One group said that the only way to truly and faithfully read the Genesis account was to believe that God created the world about ten thousand years ago. Another said, no, Genesis is obviously poetic and intended to convey a theology of God, not a mechanism of creation itself. This led to the conclusion that God began the process of evolution. Still another group believed that God didn’t just start evolution’s march, he guided it in a process called Intelligent Design.
The creed was sitting there on the page. It simply read, “God the Father, creator of heaven and earth.” That’s it.
Think about this for a moment. The undivided church gathered in a series of ecumenical councils (there were no separate denominations then). They knew Genesis, they knew Paul’s letter to the Romans. They knew the Gospels. And it may surprise many to know that they knew about evolution too. No, not the modern scientific theory. But they knew about the Greek philosophical schools that had developed a vision of life evolving. And they also knew about Jewish (mostly poetic) readings of the book of Genesis.
So they could have agreed to sacralize one of these views for all time as creed. And yet they didn’t. They were content to simply require all Christians to believe that God purposely created the universe. They left the how outside of what is required for salvation.
We might want to try that today.
That’s not to say that we should stop debating, arguing, and advocating one or the other viewpoint. We should keep on vigorously working and promoting and talking about this, because its important.
Yet rather than advocating the simple creed, and then making space for believers to discuss varies theories, some parishes identify as “Creationist” or “Intelligent Design” or pro “Theistic Evolution.” But our churches shouldn’t be presenting one or the other interpretation or theory as if it is the only authoritative way to understand creation. That’s not the pastor’s job. We weren’t ordained to promote creationism, but creed. We aren’t called to preach evolutionary biology, but to preach Bible basics. Our job is to present God the Father as creator of heaven and earth. Period.
Why? One reason is evangelism.
Here is an example of how staying with the creeds can help evangelism: I got a call from a family member, who said, “I am almost ready to be baptized and become a Christian. But, I can’t because I accept the theory of evolution as proven science. If you can show me that evolution is wrong, I can consider becoming a Christian.”
This was a critical moment. In my past I might have marshaled evidence that evolution is false, hoping to clinch that final argument that would bring him to faith in Christ. At another point in my life I might have argued that God did indeed use evolution to create the world.
But does our faith rest on arguments? Does it rest on scientific refutations? Does baptism require us to first develop a detailed theory of the mechanism of creation? Nope. Just an affirmation of the creed. Period.
So thankfully I was able to say, “Yeah, a lot of Christians wrestle with that. Not a problem. You can be baptized and become a Christian and keep on wrestling with the rest of us Christians. We only require an affirmation that the world is not an accident, or purposeless, and that God the Father is the creator who decided the world would exist and made it happen. He is the source of life.”
So you may be sad, at this point in my musings, to find that I’m not going to try and advocate for one or the other interpretations of Genesis, or philosophies of “death before Adam.” There are many great studies out there on these issues, and they are important questions.
As a priest and pastor, I simply affirm that God created the world. Period. And that is a beautiful, amazing and challenging belief in and of itself.
Photo: NASA, Earth, public domain