Topical Sermon for Easter 4 B   | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

 Creation: Faith and Science

[This is a topical sermon departing from the lectionary to address particular needs at the time it was preached in 1997. The legal challenge Professor Plimer brought against the creationists at that time was lost, but he managed to make some impression in public defence of the view that good science and good theology need not be at odds.  It continues to be relevant to recent public discussions a decade later. Note in 2009: It just so happens that Professor Plimer has been in the news again recently after the publication of a book in which he has disputed the claims of a majority of scientists on climate change. On this I think he is most probably wrong, but he has a point in recognizing the quasi religious character of at least some popular environmentalism. He is apparently sensitive to it as another kind of fundamentalism. Another sermon directly on the lectionary for Easter 4 Year B is also posted for 2000 and later years.]

This past week [in 1997] has been observed in Australia as Science Week; and by co-incidence there is a court case in progress in which issues of truth in regard to claims made by a well known Creationist are at stake. It is a nice co-incidence as I planned to depart from the lectionary to preach on faith and science, especially in regard to creation, because people have raised it with me over recent months. I will not be commenting on the court case, and I do not know what arguments have been put in it, but I will deal directly with the opinions commonly expressed by so-called Creationists and the opposing views of Professor Ian Plimer who has brought the case testing the claims of the Creationists.

Topical though it may be, this is not simply a matter of putting forward another philosophical opinion in the current debate. Most importantly, I will hope to base what I say on Scripture and the historic teaching of the church on the nature of God. You are, of course, free to disagree, but you should know that the position I am taking is that commonly held by theologians, biblical scholars and many scientists; and I begin not with any modern idea, but by affirming again what was said at the baptism last week when we recited the Apostles Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.

For our purposes today it does not really matter whether you say Father or Mother; and indeed 'mother' would make good sense because one meaning of 'create' is 'to give birth'. The idea that 'heaven and earth', all this is, came from another being is the essential idea. To believe in creation is to believe that God exists apart from the creation that we live in and experience, though God may also in another sense dwell in what God has made; and it is to believe that the creation was brought into being by God. We Christians believe also that it was not created once for all and let be, but rather that God has a continuing relation to what he (or she, if you wish) has made. In fact, in the Christian understanding, the creation is not yet complete, and God will eventually bring it to completion and perfection, at least in fulfilment of his promises to us, perhaps beyond time as we know it. So it will have an end, just as it had a beginning, but in the meantime, in Christian belief we have been offered the opportunity to take part in a 'new creation', that is, to share in the renewal of creation through the work of Jesus Christ.

There is much more is this understanding of creation than I can talk about today, but you will recognize that I have often referred to the new creation and the continuing work of God in Christ on other occasions. We are concerned more today with how things began and came to be as they are today, and the two topics of general interest are cosmology and evolution. Again these are enormous subjects and all I can do in a few minutes is to indicate something of what Christian attitudes to science in such areas of knowledge should be.

Why is it an issue at all? Why do people think there is a conflict between science and Christian faith? When I was a young minister thirty to forty years ago, we thought the science vs. religion controversy was a thing of the past, something belonging to the nineteenth century and to the now irrelevant struggle between liberals and fundamentalists. We thought we were then ready to move on to more important and productive things. How wrong we were!

Thirty or so years ago I would have agreed with what Barry Price said recently in his fight against the introduction of so-called 'creation science' to be taught in schools (The Creation Science Controversy, 1990, p.213):

Today, theologians accept evolution as fact. In 1963 Catholic theologian Raymond J. Nogar could write:

He adds that "the century-old rapprochement between science and theology is the best-kept secret on our cultural life."

There was nothing new in the view that science and faith were compatible. In the midst of the great controversies which saw the disappearance of the flat earth model and acceptance of the view that the earth revolves around the sun, nearly 400 years ago, to quote Price again:

In 1605 Sir Francis Bacon, the first philosopher of science as we know it, and a devout Christian, argued against those Christians who used evidence from the Bible that the earth was flat. He attacked the

Bacon warned also against mingling and confusing the "book of God's Word in Scripture and the book of God's Works in nature." Bacon may have been influenced by John Calvin, who maintained that "It is only a literalist reading of Scriptures which requires a direct conflict with the findings of legitimate science."

The tradition of the "Two Books of God" is an ancient one. In the early church, the great Saint Augustine [1600 years ago] in one of his sermons thus called upon his listeners to observe " the great book ... of created things. Look above you; look below you; read it, note it."

So when we read the first of the creation stories in Genesis as we did this morning we are reading an account from which, with the help of other believers, we can learn something of God and his relationship with us and the world we live in. When look at the world around us, we can, with help of others using scientific research methods, learn from it other things about how it came to be as it is and how it works, and these things can in turn give us cause for wonder and praise of God. So we are even better able to say can say with the psalmist:

If we have that kind of attitude of praise and thanksgiving we are likely to see in the report of scientific discoveries more wonders for which to praise God. When you look at the kind of photograph that was in the latest issue of the National Geographic showing a far distant part of the universe filled with many galaxies from which the light has taken billions of years to years to reach us, is it not cause for wonder? Do we need to get tangled up in silly questions about whether the universe is only 6000 years old instead of the billions that scientific observations show it to be? When we consider the marvellous variety of forms of life and the evidence that they gradually evolved from more simple forms of life, should we not be glad at the wonder of it all rather than being worried about whether a theory of evolution can be made to fit with the world view that people had a few thousand years ago when the Hebrews set down a faithful understanding of God as creator?

When we compare present day scientific accounts with Genesis we do see some similarities. Although it seems that the writer of Genesis 1 thought the earth was flat and that there was light and the earth before there were the sun, the moon and the stars, there is the basic idea of a beginning time and of development by stages from it, with the higher animals and humankind appearing in the last stage. That is the general view of science. There was a beginning and there was development. There is a more primitive view in the picture of Adam and Eve in the garden in chapter 2 which comes from an earlier period of writing; but the essential idea throughout Genesis is that God was the initiator and he took a continuing interest in the development and history of his creation and was particularly concerned to have a mutual relationship with human beings.

Why should it matter if it now appears that the earth is 4,500 million years old, or that there are many more species than could possibly have fitted into Noah's Ark or survived to live where they do now? What does it matter in terms of our relationship with God that the big bang with which the universe began probably occurred about 13 billion years ago and that it took hundreds of millions of years for species of plants and animals to evolve? Almost all scientists agree with these facts, though just how it all happened still leaves plenty of room for debate and some of that debate does tend to influence how people think about God, but that takes us beyond science to faith where scripture is most relevant. The authority of scripture is not then at stake in regard to the things for which it was written, that is in telling us about God and how we can live in relationship to him. If God chose to make the world the way it is through the big bang and evolution, how can that detract from our wonder and love of him and the relationship he has reached out to have with us, which we learn about from scripture as well as tradition and present day experience? Why not rejoice with the poets like Pope at the contribution to human life made by great scientists when he wrote as an epitaph for Newton:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light!

Yet there are people who want to have taught in out schools a very restricted and distorted view of creation derived from treating the poetic language of the ancient scriptures as if they were written in the same way as modern history or geology. It is this creationism that belittles our great and glorious God and which Professor Plimer has thought it worthwhile to attack as a distortion of the truth. He wrote a few years ago:

Why has the conflict persisted when we thought it was over? It is suggested that one reason for the misunderstanding is that preachers have been afraid to teach what they know and what is generally agreed amongst the scholars about the interpretation of scripture, showing that the accounts of creation in Genesis, for example, are not simple history, for fear of seeing people leaving their congregations for a more conservative church down the road. Perhaps it is due also to ministers often feeling inadequate in their knowledge of science. Then there has been the struggle with rapid social change, pushed ahead by some for their own advantage and used to justify libertarian attitudes that are clearly not Christian, so that people have looked to authoritarian teachers for certainty in reaction against false teaching and greatly varied beliefs. Fundamentalism has greatly increased in these uncertain and corrupt times, gaining many adherents and posing a serious threat to science, education and the teaching of the mainstream churches.

On the other hand, liberalism has become in some quarters a repressive and authoritarian orthodoxy. The liberal orthodoxy has become dominant in many secular spheres of influence. Very often in educational institutions and the media, opinion leaders simply assume that science reigns supreme and religion must conform to current popular demand or be irrelevant. Those dominant influences have had an effect in misrepresenting Christian beliefs and helping to justify people in turning away from the church. [Note 6 May 2006: it is interesting that the scales have tilted back the other way a little in the past few years with religion no longer being so lightly dismissed - a topic which deserves close attention, not least because strenghtening religion in general would not necessarily be a good thing, as it depends on what kind of religion you have, and at the base of it that is the concern of this sermon.]

Christians who were well informed forty years ago would, for the most part, have expected that compatibility of our basic beliefs with the discoveries of science would become clearer, that we would have more to celebrate and that we could move ahead together to use the results for the good of humanity. Non-Christians would probably have thought then that the Christian faith would fade away as a more scientific rational view of the world took over. Oddly, what none of us, Christians or non-Christians expected has actually happened: rather than a more rational view of the world developing, all sorts of crazy alternatives have come to the fore.

On the ABC program Late Night Live last Wednesday night, that well known anti-Christian advocate Phillip Adams introduced discussion at the National Science Festival in Canberra by saying, amongst other things:

My answer to Phillip Adams is simply that if you don't have good religion will have bad religion. People are going to believe in something, and if you don't give them good stuff they will consume rubbish. What is more, the credulous are particularly vulnerable today because of the dominant value of personal freedom, implying that authority should be distrusted and you should be able to believe what you like and discover the truth for yourself. The trouble is that we do need each other in that venture; but whatever the social and psychological reasons for it, both Christians and non-Christians have been wrong in what we expected. The typical Adams line continues in his discussion with Peter Doherty, Australian of the Year and medical scientist who recently won the Nobel Prize. Phillip Adams: Peter Doherty replied: This reference is in the epistle for next week (1 John 4:7-8) Adams replied, "What a nice fellow he is!" and changed the subject.

In another Phillip Adams discussion, whether we believe in God as creator was recognized again, in a different context, as a matter of how we understand the nature of God. He was talking with Professor Paul Davies, the well known theoretical physicist whose writings on cosmology have attracted much attention, in the TV series The Big Questions (from which a book of that title was published.) Here Davies says much the same as in his book The Mind of God. Summing up at the end of the TV series Paul Davies said:

So there you have two apparently quite different ideas about the nature of God from two eminent scientists. Doherty says God is love and he believes in such a God. Davies says he believes reluctantly in a god that underpins and guarantees the order found in nature.

[For the written sermon only:- I quoted previously the view of Davies that the sense of order and increasing complexity looks too much like 'a put up job' to be the outcome of mere chance, and that it appears to have some purpose:

Some evolutionary theorists like Richard Dawkins (eg. The Selfish Gene) take a different view on the possibility of chance events accounting for what we observe, and that the argument from complexity is not supported by some who have researched it recently, but it is one of those things where we make an overall judgment of what is the most satisfactory view of the things we observe as a whole. It becomes essentially a matter of faith, and one in which scientists have an interesting and useful perspective, but no exclusive claim to wisdom.

We could go on with current controversies for a long time. The transcript of the LNL discussion at the National Science Festival contains more interesting material and may be found currently in the ABC web site http:\ In addition I would really like to go into the history of science and the Christian belief of many like Copernicus and Newton who brought about the great revolution in our understanding of the physical world, but for the last part of what I can say today let me turn to a contemporary theologian, Professor Norman Young, who recently retired from teaching in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne, and his book Creator, Creation and Faith. For the history see The Origins of Modern Science by Herbert Butterfield, former Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, The Act of Creation, The Ghost in the Machine, etc. On the contemporary state of the relevant philosophical debate see Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism by Nancy Murphy, and Creation out of Nothing by Don Cupitt. The general reader might, however, find the last two books rather difficult.]

The two views of Doherty and Davies about the nature of God in terms of love and order in creation, that I have just mentioned, are central to a Christian understanding. Unfortunately, the two ideas of love and order in creation are too often torn apart.

The early chapters of Genesis are not in fact part of the earliest Israelite tradition. The earliest tradition includes three similar statements (in Deut. 26:5-9, Deut. 6:20-24 and Joshua 24:2-13) telling of how God had cared for his people, how they had prospered and how when they were oppressed he had liberated them. Whenever they were written these statements summed up the most ancient tradition of 'the people of God'. They had that understanding of God first and then later they came to write down their ideas about how the world was formed. They had similar creation stories to the other nations around them, many of which have also come down to us, and the Israelites took those stories into their understanding of God as one God who rules alone and has a fatherly care for his human creatures. He was first of all the creator of a relationship with people. It then makes sense to see the purpose of his creation, for us, as being that relationship, that we might know and enjoy him for ever. (The purpose may be different for other beings he has made or for other aspects of creation: it is not necessary to believe it is all made for us.) To complete that return of love by his human creatures to himself we believe he sent his Son to be our Lord and Saviour. So we take part in the renewal or perfection of creation to fulfil his purpose for us and we do that through faith in the one who was with him at the beginning and was the Word through which he brought it into being:

The Christian belief in God the Creator is not then limited to the idea of a first cause, or what happened to start it all off, rather it is concerned with his continuing to create us and our relationship with him. At the centre of that reaching out to us is the Word made flesh. That is where the ordering of creation and God being love comes together most clearly: So John could write: And Paul: So may it be; and praise to him through whom we have confidence in God our Creator.

[© David Beswick 1997, prepared for 20 April 1997 ]| DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

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