Every discourse on Origins is necessarily indirect and a posteriori. And in order to appear believable it paradoxically needs to be both partial and inclusive. Consequently we need to integrate the various existing perspectives on Origins if we want to have a meaningful reflection on this topic. Creation has both a Biblical and scientific-naturalistic approach. But these are only two expressions of a more universal quest. This quest, whatever forms of expression it takes – rational or mythological – is legitimate, noble and, as such, deserves our attention. It represents the anthropological need to say and describe, even with its own limits, a founding and an ontological precedence. Since no one can speak exclusively in rational terms about Origins (cosmology) and, since we humans are condemned to articulate only indirectly about it, this fundamental quest takes rather the profile of a cosmogony, i.e. a symbolic description of how the world, life and humans happened to be. In this sense even the naturalistic narrative of today’s science about Origins is, at a deeper level, also a cosmogony –de facto. And the same label is applicable, for the same reason, to the historical-Biblical narrative on Origins.
Pre-modern cosmogonies never pretended to be exclusive and exhaustive. But the paradox today is that the two major cosmogonies, Biblical and scientific, even if often opposed, both share the same pretension – to be exclusive and exhaustive. Thus both are partakers of the typical Western contemporary obsession with completeness and mono-functionality. And the extreme, reductive and polarized expressions of which are: Scientism and Creationism. For this reason we Adventists need to develop an inclusive reflection on Origins – both extra and intra-Biblically. And this inclusiveness has nothing to do with a flat syncretism but with the intent to recover the fragmentariness, plurality and tension that a sound reflection on Origins should always preserve.
This is what Dr. Herold Weiss, professor emeritus of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s College, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, does in his book: Creation in Scripture. A Survey of All The Evidence (Energion Publications). Weiss’s first achievement in this book is descriptive. He succeeds in identifying a differentiated intra-Biblical reading of Creation through elaboration of nine Biblical models of the Creation motive. He argues for the evident fact that we don’t have, in the Bible, photographic evidence of how the world came to be but, more modestly, only various inspired interpretations of Creation that we need to consider together. None of them alone can pretend to express the total and heterogeneous meaning of Creation. These nine theological models are:
1. The historical understanding of Creation in the Prophetic Literature
2. The universal and existential understanding of Creation in the Wisdom Literature
3. The Anthropocentric understanding of Creation in Genesis 2:4b-4:26
4. The Theocentric understanding of Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4a
5. The paradoxical and ambivalent understanding of Creation in the Epistle to the Romans
6. The Neo-Platonic understanding of Creation in the Epistle to the Corinthians
7. The Christological-Pleromatic understanding of Creation in the Epistle to the Colossians
8. The Stoic understanding of Creation in the Epistle to the Hebrews
9. The Hebrew mythological understanding of Creation in Revelation
Beyond the number of models proposed (there could be nine, six or twelve) let’s summarize, in four points, the updated and insightful contributions of Weiss’s inclusive reflection on Origins.
These nine models are not only classifications. They are not just different expressions of the same paradigm. They actually represent different theological paradigms of Creation that, to a certain extent, are complementary. But they also coexist in an uncompromising and irreducible tension. According to Weiss, this is a synchronic plurality, both in the Old and New Testaments. It means that, in the same time and territory, the reflection on Creation was not monolithic but offered some alternatives in relation to the religious and cultural specificities of existing sub-groups.
Interpretations of Creation are not extra-Biblical phenomena, they already exist. All the Bible sections (Prophetic, Wisdom, Gospels, Epistles, etc.) re-take the Creation motive and interpret it, adding or taking away elements of the original document, according to their particular historical and cultural circumstances. Even the two Genesis-based documents are already themselves interpretations of the Origins. And, as with every interpretation, they are necessarily partial and provisional, while at the same time true.
The plurality in the Bible is not only synchronic, it’s also diachronic. It means that reflections on Creation incorporate theological projects from various historical periods. For this reason they structure themselves not as all-comprehensive and definitive reflections but rather as fragmentary and open. They tried, on one hand, to connect themselves with what has been said before and, on the other hand, not to say too much in order not to prevent future generations from further exploration.
But Weiss’s best argument on how the Bible deals with Creation is that a necessary cultural component is present in every Biblical theological reflection on Creation. There are no a-cultural theological projects. Not outside the Bible, not inside the Bible. All these nine models are culturally “contaminated”. They are not culturally “determined” but culturally “influenced”. This fact represents both their strength and limit. All these models work implicitly with scientific and cultural models that are also useful to know but are no longer ours. In this sense there cannot be today a reflection on Creation that limits itself to the Bible. In order to better read the Bible we need to also do it with the science of our time. We don’t need to become anti-scientific but rather the opposite. If King David or the Apostle Paul could read the Biblical narrative on Creation conditioned by the limited and imperfect science of their time, it is also possible for us today. This is what the Bible teaches us. But, in addition, just as David’s or Paul’s science was not the last and perfect word on nature, our present science isn’t either.
Instead of correcting the reductive, theological and cultural Adventist models (characterized by obsession with exhaustiveness and exclusiveness), Institutional Adventism is planning, at the 2015 San Antonio GC meeting, to make them even more radical. Weiss’s book instead goes the other way and thus represents a valuable help. This approach to Biblical Creation encourages us to recover the fragmentariness, plurality and tension that a sound reflection on Origins should always have.
Two short critiques of the book:
1. Underestimation of Pre-modern Cosmogonies
Weiss writes: “In order to say this, the Wise and the Psalmists of Israel used a cosmological geography that can only be classified as “primitive”, and “outdated”…(they) cannot be taken seriously today as descriptions of Creation” (p. 28)
2. Over-evaluation of today’s scientific rationality
Weiss writes: “The secularization of nature is necessary to understand the God who transcends nature, and therefore is the only God worthy of adoration” (p. 44)
These complementary affirmations overturn and deny what Weiss has been trying to say about the necessity of alternative paradigms for thinking about Creation. If we are looking for real alternatives to todays reductive paradigms (Biblical or scientific) we can’t find them within the same Western rationalistic tradition we want to correct, but should look elsewhere – particularly in the pre-modern and non-western cosmogonies Weiss is stigmatizing.
In fact, in the Western world today, we experience an embarrassing cultural paradox. On one hand Creation and nature have never been so thoroughly studied by science and the general population – and even strongly confessed by Christians as the work of God. But, on the other hand, there has never been a historical period in which nature has been so much in danger as now. And with the contribution of Christians who, unfortunately, are not always known by their ecologically friendly attitudes and behavior.
But this cultural paradox is also at the center of Western science itself. Modern science has had an ambivalent relationship with nature. It has obtained unprecedented knowledge but we can also legitimately ask if it is really a better one. Is the quantitative, exhaustive, modern scientific knowledge of nature necessarily better, in a broader perspective, than the fragmented, symbolic and partial knowledge of non-Western cosmogonies? What kind of cosmos do we have after modern science has explained it to us? The question is not superfluous at all. Because the strategies should not be assessed by the efforts made but by the results obtained. A “disenchanted Cosmos”, such as often is the final result of scientific enquiry, is a result that is not convincing at all. It represents a necessary but still an insufficient knowledge as to what nature, cosmos and Creation really are.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy