Creation and American Christianity
The character of Christianity depends, in profound ways, on one’s beliefs concerning creation. For the first 250 years of the existence of the church in America, Christians assumed the truth of the doctrine of creation. It was revealed in the Bible and it made the most sense of the natural world. When large numbers…
The character of Christianity depends, in profound ways, on one’s beliefs concerning creation. For the first 250 years of the existence of the church in America, Christians assumed the truth of the doctrine of creation. It was revealed in the Bible and it made the most sense of the natural world. When large numbers of Christians rejected the doctrine in the 20th century, the results were astonishing.
The New England Puritans expressed their belief in creation in the confession of faith adopted in 1648 as part of the Cambridge Platform: “It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of His eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days; and all very good.”
It was not an abstract doctrine, for creation displayed divine truth. All nature taught the wisdom of God. It evoked thanksgiving to God for its benefits. It warned of God’s judgment through its threatening aspects. Puritan minister Cotton Mather thus urged Christians to “fetch lessons of piety from the whole creation of God.”
The doctrine of creation also led Americans to view themselves as part of the same organic history as Adam and Eve. Genesis recorded the origins of nature and of humanity, and demonstrated that all persons were part of the same race and history by virtue of creation. It is unsurprising then that Thomas Prince began his Chronological History of New England (1736) from the creation of the world rather than from the migration of the Pilgrims.
The doctrine of creation also contributed directly to such fundamental truths as the doctrines of the fall and of redemption. If the just and perfect God created this world, why was it filled with evil, suffering, and imperfection? The Bible explained that human depravity and natural evil resulted from God’s judgment upon human sin, initiated in Adam’s rebellion against God’s rule. The Bible explained the cure also. Humans could be redeemed through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, who would justify and save all who would believe in Him, and inaugurate a new heavens and a new earth. Fallen creation would become new creation. These beliefs infused American culture with a profoundly biblical cast.
Evolution and Creation in America
Before the late nineteenth century most Americans understood the Bible’s account of human origins as genuine history. By 1900 however large numbers of educated Americans viewed the Genesis account as a primitive myth. It was largely the work of Charles Darwin, but geologist Charles Lyell prepared the way.
Lyell’s Principles of Geology (2 vols. 1830-33) argued persuasively that the geological features of the earth were better explained as the result of gradual processes than of catastrophic floods, volcanic activity and upheavals. Since it would take millions of years to produce the stratified layers of the earth’s crust by slow deposition, the earth was necessarily much older than the Genesis chronology indicated. And the occurrence of fossilized remains in deep strata suggested, therefore, that the earth was populated with living creatures long before Moses said they were created.
Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1859) played the primary role, however, in convincing many educated Americans to reject the Genesis account. Darwin’s aim was to prove that the classification of large groups of living things based on their similarities was “utterly inexplicable on the theory of creation” – only “the theory of the natural selection of successive slight modifications” provided a satisfactory explanation. The theory of natural selection is necessarily opposed to the creation of different types or species. Darwin entertained the possibility that a Creator breathed life into a few primordial organisms, but all subsequent living organisms in any case developed by the natural agency of natural selection acting upon naturally occurring slight modifications.
Many who accepted Darwin abandoned the Bible. John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874)and Andrew White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (2 vols. 1896) pressed the claims of science against Christianity. They identified Christianity with superstition and persecution. No argument, Draper said, could “reconcile the statements of Genesis with the discoveries of science.” Evolution, geology, and astronomy proved that the universe was controlled by natural law, not by the miraculous interventions of God. “Creation implies an abrupt appearance,” Draper wrote, but the “resistless order of evolution” was a gradual unfolding. If evolution was true, creation was not.
Many Christians agreed. But they held that since creation was true, evolution must be false. Evolution was false because the Bible taught creation and because the natural evidence did not in fact prove evolution. In any case, creation and evolution were incompatible. Benjamin B. Warfield expressed the basic Christian response: “Evolution, it thus appears, is the precise contradictory of creation.” Evolution involved denial of creation, and vice versa.
Liberalism’s Third Way: Naturalistic Interpretation
Many professing Christians refused to accept this stark alternative. They were convinced that science proved evolution and the great antiquity of the earth. But they were convinced also of the profound power and truth of the Bible. But how could the Bible still be true?
The answer was a new view of inspiration that settled for the Bible’s partial truth: God inspired the Bible’s religious statements but not its historical statements. The account of creation then was inaccurate regarding its historical description, but taught truly that God was the ultimate originator of all things. The Bible could be false as history and science and at the same time true as religion. The Bible was true, but it was not inerrant. One could have evolution and the Bible.
The adoption of this view of inspiration established a new third way between scientific rejection of Christianity and traditionalist rejection of evolution. It produced Christian liberalism, a movement that attracted large numbers of Americans in the 20th century, including the clerical and academic leadership of most large American denominations.
It led however to a whole-cloth transformation of the Christian faith. The doctrine of creation, it turned out, could not be isolated to Genesis.
The Bible taught creation throughout its extent. Creation was also fundamental to other basic Bible truths: the presence of sin and corruption into the world, the necessity and nature of redemption, personal re-creation by faith in Christ, the consummation of redemption as new heavens and new earth.
No less damaging, the principle upon which liberalism adopted the new view of inspiration was the acceptance of naturalistic criteria for the evaluation of biblical statements. Not only the creation accounts, but accounts of miracles and prophecy could not pass the test.
And it meant rejecting Jesus’ own view of the Bible. Jesus quoted passages from the Old Testament with complete confidence in their historical reliability. His arguments in many instances rested on an appeal to historical events recorded in the Bible, including the creation of Adam and Eve. “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:4-6).
The liberal view of inspiration left the Bible, and the Jesus revealed in the Bible, with little functional authority. Commitment to evolution produced such results because creation is not just three chapters in Genesis. It is fundamental to the Bible’s central message.
Liberalism in America began with the rejection of the Bible’s creation account. It culminated with a broad rejection of the beliefs of historic Christianity. Yet many Christians today wish to repeat the experiment. We should not expect different results.
Gregory A. Wills serves as Dean of the School of Theology and professor of Church History at Southern Seminary. You can connect with Wills on Twitter at: @gwills11. This article was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.