1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1-2, NRSV]
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”
Pope Benedict’s first and constant impression of these opening words of the Book of Genesis is that they stir the heart like the solemn tolling of a great old bell with its beauty and dignity. Giving humanity a glimpse of the mystery of eternity, they also create a feeling of immeasurability of creation and its Creator.
Yet, Pope Benedict laments, these words would give rise to conflict as well. Beautiful though these words from Scriptures are, people ask whether they are true. In studying creation theology, therefore, the question of truth is recurrent.
We had not realised how close to the ground and how persistent this question of truth was, until two Filipino students in our creation theology class at De Lasalle University-Manila pressed the urgency of the case on us.
- The first, a religion teacher who has a basic degree in theology, asked with a sense of urgency: “Is the creation story in Genesis true or false? I am serious. I really need to know.” But why? Quite simply, he said, because he was asked the same query all the time and, driving home the urgency of the matter, he added, “I know of people who threaten to leave the Christian faith if the story wasn’t true!”
- The second, another religion teacher with multiple college degrees unrelated to theology, reported that a parish priest scandalised many mothers. They threatened to pull their children out of the Sunday school, because he said in a homily that the Genesis story of creation in six days was not true!
What could happen in the Philippines could of course happen in Malaysia where we were asked a shocking question in Penang. During lunch break at a weekend seminar, a small group of ladies from the parish catechetical ministry crowded round our table and practically demanded a “competent theological opinion” as they put it, insinuating that they had been given something quite incompetent previously. It transpired that their parish priest has “instructed” them: “Do not read Genesis 1-10….” but to skip these opening chapters of the Book of Genesis altogether. But why? “Because,” the priest announced, “they are very confusing. Children will get confused.” These ladies, though theologically untrained, did not think the priest was right. They wanted to have our comments so they could tell the other religion teachers. So we told them that the truth is, the priest might be confused, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not. Paragraph 289 reads:
- Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place… The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation – its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation.
Needless to say, we advised those volunteer catechists that it was their duty to read and understand, and then share the Gospel of Creation enshrined in Genesis 1-3.
The problem, actually, is not the Genesis-text at all, but the way we read and understand the text. And this problem is compounded by the very world in which we live, a world spread through by the invasive nature of science and technology in human lives. This “world” stands before the text; we unconsciously bring this “world” to the text when we read Scriptures.
Now, science appears to have disposed of a concept of creation built up piece by piece over six days. With the “Big Bang Theory”, for example, comes the realization of an expansion of the universe, so that a comfortable claim of the universe being definitively intelligible in terms of space and time is no longer tenable. Rather, is the idea of “creation” not in fact unreal? Does intellectual honesty not demand that we abandon “creation” in favour of “mutation and selection”? Are those words in Genesis true or do they reflect the naïveté inherent in the infancy of human history? What answer can we give to the contemporary age?
In confronting these questions, notice that Pope Benedict’s pattern of thought is critical, systematic, and reasoned.
What he wants to do is to reclaim the validity of creation doctrine in the consciousness of people and, in so doing, to get them to give due acknowledgement to God as Creator.
- He needs to fight the “rationalists” who divorce God from creation, thus treating Genesis as mere fable. So he first surveys the effect of scientific advancement in modern times: a growing tendency to render vacuous the claims in Genesis 1; creation narrative detailing God’s creation of universe gets dismissed as myth; the literal words of Biblical creation doctrine get dismissed as juvenile and naïve; from the 16th century Copernican revolution, the earth was no longer the centre of universe; the evolution theory of the 19th – 20th centuries contradicted the biblical revealed truth.
The problem, Pope Benedict realizes, is that both theologians and the Church hierarchy have taken Genesis creation stories literally, unaware of their original intended genre.
- He wants to stop a surface literal reading of Genesis, to rebut the “literalists” who treat the Bible as a science textbook.
His first step is therefore to clarify the hermeneutic issues crucial for understanding the language of the Bible and of science. An important hermeneutical key in this regard is the intellectual disposition to examine reality seeking a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.” This is crucial because only then, can we honour the truth contained in the Word of God, while giving due respect to science. Furthermore, it would be an important first step to help modern people, steeped in the culture and language of science, to recover and affirm their Biblical heritage.
Notice, therefore, that Pope Benedict begins, as every good theologian does, with an eye on methodology, conscious of the need for an adequate lens for the work of interpretation. He has an overall framework.
And so, the very first question Benedict attempts to address is the question of hermeneutics: How do we interpret the Scripture text?
- The Bible, he points out, is a religious book; it is not a natural science textbook. Creation stories in our religious book are stories, not scientific treatises on the origin of the world and humans’ beginning. These creation stories declare that the existence of all things and their meaning lie in God’s hands.
The doctrine of creation becomes clearer when we ask: What question is this doctrine supposed to answer? We deal with this by first asking what question this doctrine is not supposed to answer. It is the question of how everything in the world began in the first place. This is not the concern of either Genesis 1 and 2 or of Christian doctrines formulated on the basis of them.
- The question of how everything began is not a religious or spiritual question because it has no bearing on how to live a life that is open to God in faith, hope and charity. Scriptures do not aim to give scientific report on particular vegetation and so on, but to speak the ultimate truth that God created the world.
Once we see this truth, we at once realize that the dichotomy of “creation or evolution” is a false one. Take a look at some interesting quotes on this false dichotomy from renowned Christian leaders:
- Billy Graham: “I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things that they weren’t meant to say, and I think we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story.”
- John Stott: “Not many Christians today find it necessary to defend the concept of a literal six-day creation, for the text does not demand it, and scientific discovery appears to contradict it. The biblical text presents itself not as a scientific treatise but as a highly stylized literary statement.”
- John Goldingay: “I am told there are readers of Genesis who argue like this. If evolution is true, there was no Adam and Eve. If there was no Adam and Eve, there was no fall. If there was no fall, we didn’t need Jesus to save us. But this argument is back to front.”
The Bible offers religious experience, not information on natural sciences. The correct rule for interpreting the Bible is to appreciate the fact that the way images are painted or things described are all aimed at helping people to grasp profound realities beyond surface appearances. In other words, “Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine work” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 337).
Pope Benedict suggests that the way to go forward is to see in creation narratives a distinction between the form of portrayal and the content portrayed. The “form” pertains to things and images familiar to people at the time, profound realities which they could grasp, and helping them understand deeper realities. By contrast, the “content” relates to the deeper reality that shines through these familiar images. This deeper reality is what the text intends to convey. The ultimate purpose in all this, is to say one thing, namely, that God created this world.
Now, is that the end of discussion? No, hardly! Yet, it serves a huge purpose already, for it firmly establishes, for faith, the absolute starting point and, indeed, the foundation of all things: that God created all this! It declares and admits that it is not a neutral language, but a language of faith. It is not a language of science.
Pope Benedict, as a Christian leader, naturally does not leave things there, but attends to a link-up with Christ. On how the passages on creation in the Book of Genesis should be interpreted in relation to the whole Bible, the Pope’s answer is that they cannot be read in isolation from the New Testament. He insists on two indispensable interpretive criteria: first, the unity of the Old and the New Testaments; second, the Book of Genesis and the whole of the Old Testament must be read with Christ. Clearly, in thus linking the Old Testament with the New Testament, the Pope points to the three fundamental truths that Christianity puts together: Creation, Fall, and Redemption.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, August 2017. All rights reserved.
You are most welcome to respond to this post. Email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also be dialogue partners in this Ephphatha Coffee-Corner Ministry by sending us questions for discussion.