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MERE THEOLOGY: Christian faith and the discipleship of the mind – Alister McGrath

May 27, 2018

MTThe author likes C. S. Lewis. I loathe him. So we start with a problem. He’s much better on George Herbert.

The title is misleading and should be ‘Mere Apologetics’.

In his description of different views of the Eucharist he, ignorantly, leave out the majority view: sacrifice.

We cannot explore the relevance of theology, however, without first noting how bad a reputation it has developed within the churches in the last few decades. For some Christian leaders, theology is irrelevant to real life. It is about retreating into ivory towers when there are more pressing things to worry about. Yet rightly understood, theology is about enabling informed Christian action. It makes us want to do things, and do them in a Christian way. It helps us make judgements about how best to act; it encourages us to engage with the real world.

…The great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was also clear that there is a genuine intellectual excitement to wrestling with God. Theology is a passion of the mind, a longing to understand more about God’s nature and ways, and the transformative impact that this has on life. Our faith can be deepened and our personal lives enriched through theological reflection.

…The heartbeat of the Christian faith lies in the sheer intellectual delight and excitement caused by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is someone who the church finds to be intellectually luminous, spiritually persuasive and infinitely satisfying, both communally and individually….

…Yet while the appeal of the Christian vision of Jesus of Nazareth to the baptized imagination and emotions must never be neglected or understated, we need to appreciate that there remains an intellectual core to the Christian faith. We cannot love God without wanting to understand more about him. We are called upon to love God with our minds, as well as our hearts and souls (Matthew 22:37). We cannot allow Christ to reign in our hearts if he does not also guide our thinking. The discipleship of the mind is just as important as any other part of the process by which we grow in our faith and commitment.

Mere Theology consists of 11 chapters, based on previously unpublished lectures and addresses, given over a two-year period from late 2007 to late 2009 (see the ‘Notes’ section at the end of the book for further details). The book is arranged thematically.

Its first six chapters deal with the purpose, place and relevance of Christian theology. Their common theme is the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith and its ability to bring about a new and deeply satisfying vision of reality. Christianity is celebrated as something that both makes sense in itself, and has the capacity to make sense of many other aspects of reality as well.

I often cite C. S. Lewis’s famous words in public debates when making this point: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen — not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.”° As a ‘discipleship of the mind, Christian theology leads to a deeper appreciation of the capacity of the gospel to engage with the complexities of the natural world on the one hand, and human experience on the other. At the same time, we must realize that theology has its limits, which must be identified and respected.

The opening two chapters offer a general introduction to the study of theology, which I hope will be particularly useful for those looking for some guidance on how to begin their reflections. Theology is presented here as a positive, critical and constructive discipline, concerned to inform and sustain the Christian vision of reality — something that is essential to Christian ministry and preaching. These chapters are designed to help those who are new to the study of theology to orientate themselves, and to get a sense of their bearings as they navigate the field.

In Chapter 3, I explore George Herbert’s poem ‘The Elixir, which was first published in 1633 and remains one of the finest theological accounts of the transformation of vision, evaluation and action that ensues from the Christian faith. The poem illus­trates a leading theme of ‘mere theology’ — its positive role in transforming the way we see things, leading to an enriched per­ception of reality and a deeper sense of our own possibilities and responsibilities within the world Next we look at a complex and unsettling topic, often neg­lected. What happens when there is a tension between theory and experience? The fourth chapter considers the quite different approaches to theological ambiguity found in Martin Luther and C. S. Lewis, noting their significance for the life of faith.

Chapter 5 considers what difference the Christian faith makes to the way in which we see the natural world and behave towards it. How does it stand up in comparison with its atheist and pagan alternatives? Chapter 6 deals with the link between theology and apologetics. In what way can theology enable the Church to affirm the credibility and attractiveness of faith in contemporary culture? This traditional question has become more important in the light of recent atheist writings, making it all the more essential to ensure that the Church builds and sustains its witness upon firm and reliable theological foundations.

Having laid the ground for a theologically informed engage­ment with culture, the remainder of the book explores how inhabiting the Christian ‘interpretive community’ provides a platform for cultural engagement.” The Christian gospel man­dates a vibrant engagement with our culture, not an isolationist withdrawal from it. Christians are called to be salt and light to the world (Matthew 5.13-16). A theologically informed disciple­ship of the mind sustains, nourishes and protects the Christian vision of reality, thus enabling the Church to retain its saltiness and capacity to illuminate. Yet this is the precondition for cultural engagement, not a substitute for it.

This section opens with a chapter considering the Christian engagement with the natural sciences, often inaccurately pre­sented as being locked in mortal conflict with the Christian faith. Exploring the relation of Christian belief and the natural sci­ences has long impressed me as significant. My own journey of faith involved extended reflections on these questions, which remain important for many today. Here I offer what I believe to be theologically and scientifically informed responses to some contemporary concerns and questions, which are often of particular significance to Christian students of the natural sciences.

Chapters 8 and 9 explore some aspects of the religious impli­cations of Darwinism. The Darwin anniversary year (2009) led to intense media interest in the relation of Darwin and faith, often linked with the repeated and highly questionable assertion that Darwin’s ideas discredited Christianity. In rebutting such suggestions, Chapter 8 looks specifically at the place of faith ­both scientific and religious — in Darwin’s reflections on natural selection. Chapter 9 sets out the relation of creation and evolu­tion in the thought of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), offering some timely reflections for contemporary debates.

Darwin, of course, has been adopted as a mascot by many within the new atheism. The final two chapters of the book deal with the origins, pedigree and intellectual integrity of this move­ment. Chapter 10 considers whether the visceral antagonism of the new atheism towards religion can be taken seriously, and offers some reflections on how a more civilized discussion of the issues might take place. This chapter explores the ‘rhetoric of dismissal’ of religion, which is characteristic of writers such as Christopher Hitchens. I contrast it with the very different find­ings of mainline scholarship on a variety of issues, such as the origins of totalitarianism, the motivations of suicide bombers and the problem of fanatical violence. In particular, I criticize the notion of the ‘Bright, introduced in 2003, as a less than subtle affirmation of the alleged intellectual superiority of atheists over religious believers.

Finally, Chapter 11 looks carefully and critically at one of the most important yet understudied aspects of the new atheism: the observation that, far from being something ‘new, it is actu­ally deeply rooted in the assumptions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Its aggressiveness and dogmatism may indeed be new; its leading ideas are recycled from the past. Appreciating this connection casts light on some of the leading features of this form of atheism, especially its extraordinary hostility towards postmodernism. Can a movement so deeply embedded in the assumptions of a past age meet the challenges of our postmod­ern era? And what can the churches learn from this?

I hope that this short work will further stimulate the develop­ment of the discipleship of the mind within the churches, and enrich our vision of the Christian faith. Every chapter in this work had its origins as a public lecture, a seminar paper, or a presentation to a small group of people, often students. Each has been completely rewritten to take account of the questions raised by their audiences.

 

It did not take me long to begin to appreciate the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith. Not merely was it rationally and evidentially well grounded; it was also enabling and enriching. Here was a lens which enabled reality to be brought into sharp focus; a source of intellectual illumination which allowed me to see, in the world of nature, details and interconnections that I would otherwise have missed altogether. The Christian faith both made sense in itself, and made sense of things as a whole.

however important and helpful reason may be in theology, we have to acknowledge its limits in making sense of things. If we can’t make sense of something, it may simply be wrong. But it might also be so profound and complex that we simply cannot comprehend it. Patristic writers regularly compared understanding God with looking directly into the sun. In much the same way as the human eye cannot cope with the brilliance of the sun, so the human mind cannot cope with the glory of God.

A conversation between the Roman emperor Hadrian and the Jewish rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah (d. 131) makes this point well. Hadrian, dismissive of Jewish theology, demanded to be shown Joshua’s god. The rabbi replied that this was impossible, an answer which failed to satisfy the emperor Hadrian. Joshua       therefore took the emperor outside and asked him to stare at the midday Palestinian summer sun. ‘That is impossible!’ replied the emperor. ‘If you cannot look at the sun,’ replied the rabbi, ‘how much less can you behold the glory of God, who created it?’

The idea of ‘mystery’ is helpful here. Unfortunately, it is a word that is easily misunderstood. The language of theology sometimes seems to have little connection with the words we use in everyday life. Our definition of ‘hope, for example, might be ‘Something I would very much like to be true: The deeper theological meaning of the word as ‘a sure and confident expectation’ is lost. We find the same problem with a word that occurs in Paul’s exultant declaration that ‘the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations . . . has now been revealed to his saints’ (Colossians 1.26). What do we mean by `mystery’?

“Their common theme is the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith and its ability to bring about a new and deeply satisfying vision of reality.” And again, “Christianity is celebrated as something that both makes sense in itself, and has the capacity to make sense of many other aspects of reality as well.”

Initially, Herbert shows a clear preference for analogies drawn from the living world of nature. Yet from the third draft onwards, these are displaced by analogies drawn from the inorganic world of alchemy. A significant final verse is introduced, containing a controlling image which comes to dominate the poem — Christ as the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’.

This is the famous stone That turneth all to gold: For that which God doth touch and own Cannot for less be told.

This alchemical image is deeply significant, from both a literary and theological perspective. The classic image of the ‘philoso­pher’s stone’ makes a powerful appeal to the human longing to be able to transcend the limits of the ordinary world. Base metals could be transmuted into gold; mortality into immortality.” English writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were clearly familiar with alchemical literature and terminology, and though its leading themes were widely ridiculed in literary circles16 — Francis Bacon, for example, expressed concern about its ‘credulous and superstitious traditions'” — the potency of the imagery made its eventual deployment in sermons and poems inevitable. The great Puritan preacher Richard Sibbes (1577­1635) spoke of the grace of God as ‘a blessed Alchemist, in that `where it toucheth it maketh good and religious’.’s John Donne and George Herbert were thus not alone in believing that this intoxicating imagery could be put to literary, even theological, use to yield a ‘true religious alchemy’. Donne uses several alchemical images in his poems addressed to the Countess of Bedford. Perhaps more importantly, we find the alchemical `tincture’ playing a significant iconic role in his ‘Resurrection, Imperfect. Christ is here portrayed as the one who transmutes the base metals of fallen, mortal human nature to his immortal and imperishable nature.

Initially, Herbert shows a clear preference for analogies drawn from the living world of nature. Yet from the third draft onwards, these are displaced by analogies drawn from the inorganic world of alchemy. A significant final verse is introduced, containing a controlling image which comes to dominate the poem — Christ as the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone

This is the famous stone That turneth all to gold: For that which God doth touch and own Cannot for less be told.

This alchemical image is deeply significant, from both a literary and theological perspective. The classic image of the ‘philoso­pher’s stone’ makes a powerful appeal to the human longing to be able to transcend the limits of the ordinary world. Base metals could be transmuted into gold; mortality into immortality.15 English writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were clearly familiar with alchemical literature and terminology, and though its leading themes were widely ridiculed in literary circles16 — Francis Bacon, for example, expressed concern about its ‘credulous and superstitious traditions'” — the potency of the imagery made its eventual deployment in sermons and poems inevitable. The great Puritan preacher Richard Sibbes (1577­1635) spoke of the grace of God as ‘a blessed Alchemist, in that `where it toucheth it maketh good and religious:18 John Donne and George Herbert were thus not alone in believing that this intoxicating imagery could be put to literary, even theological, use to yield a ‘true religious alchemy:19 Donne uses several alchemical images in his poems addressed to the Countess of Bedford. Perhaps more importantly, we find the alchemical `tincture’ playing a significant iconic role in his ‘Resurrection, Imperfect: Christ is here portrayed as the one who transmutes the base metals of fallen, mortal human nature to his immortal and imperishable nature.

Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praisethout delays,

Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise

With him mayst rise:

That, as his death calcined thee to dust,

His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

The poem envisages Christ as the agent of transformation from dust to gold, from ashes to precious metal.

Yet it is arguably in the later versions of Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ that we find the most sophisticated theological application of the imagery of alchemy, focusing on three core concepts: the `philosopher’s stone’ itself, a substance that was believed to have the power of transmuting base metal into gold; the ‘elixir, a powder derived from this stone; and a ‘tincture, produced by mixing this powder with a liquid such as water or alcohol. The alchemical literature points to a wide variety of interpretations of these notions, and they are probably best regarded as essen­tially fluid concepts?’ For Herbert’s purposes, each is to be regarded as an agent of transmutation and transvaluation; when brought into touch with base metals, each has the power to transform metal into gold.

So how does this bear upon theology? How does Herbert’s `The Elixir’ illuminate the ability of theology to transform our perceptions of the world, and hence our actions within it? The first stanza of the poem sets the scene for the discussion that follows. Often criticized for their banality,” these lines empha­size the importance of ‘seeing’ the world correctly.

Teach me, my God and King, In all things thee to see,

And what I do in any thing, To do it as for thee.

These opening lines contain the core themes that pervade this poem. For Herbert, the disciplined skills required to see things as they really are must be thought of as an initial gift of divine grace, which are subsequently honed through the preaching and sacraments of the Church. The habits of thinking underlying the mature Christian engagement with reality are thus acquired from God, rather than from innate human intelligence or ex­perience. These habits of thought then lead from reflection on the world to action within the world. All of these themes, of course, are widely recognized to be commonplace within the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican theological traditions known to Herbert, directly or indirectly. Herbert’s genius lies not in their origination, but in how they are expressed and explored poetically.

So how does this help us reflect on the traditions and tasks of Christian theology? Herbert’s conception of the role of theology in the Christian life is to be found in the third stanza of ‘The A man that looks on glass,

On it may stay his eye;

Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,

And then the heav’n espy.

Herbert here contrasts two quite different possible modes of engagement with a piece of glass — a ‘looking on’ and a ‘passing through. There is a clear parallel with the poem ‘Windows, noted earlier, which explores how a human preacher, though little more than ‘brittle crazy glass, may act as a window through which God may be more fully known.The observer may look at the window, seeing it as an object of interest in itself. Yet there is a deeper mode of engagement, in which the observer uses the window as a gateway, a means of gaining access to a greater reality. Indeed, the window itself may become a distraction, in that the viewer focuses on the sign, rather than what is being signified.

Herbert’s analogy illuminates two possible ways of doing theology. The first is to look at the window itself, allowing our eye to ‘stay’ on its physical structures and appearance. Likewise, we may study theology by considering its core ideas and their mutual relationships; by gaining a deeper understanding of the historical contexts within which they emerged; or by reflecting on how best these may be expressed or explained.

Yet Herbert’s preference is clearly for a second mode of engagement: using theology as a means of envisaging a trans­formed reality. Theology makes possible a new way of seeing things, throwing open the shutters on a world that cannot be known, experienced or encountered through human wisdom and strength alone. Christian doctrine offers us a subject worth studying in its own right; yet its supreme importance lies in its capacity to allow us to pass through its prism and behold our world in a new way.

Having established this point, Herbert then makes a series of moves that consolidate this critical role for theology in discern­ing the true nature of things, and the manner of habitation and action that is appropriate for believers in the world. Theology articulates and frames the transvaluation of reality which takes place on account of Christ, turning the mundane into the epiphanic, base metals into gold. The gospel changes the realities of life, through the death and resurrection of Christ.” Theology is not the agent of this transformation; it is, however, the agent of its disclosure.

All may of Thee partake; Nothing can be so mean

Which with his tincture -(for Thy sake)

Will not grow bright and clean.

Herbert invites us to see the world in a new light — a world that has been brightened and cleansed through Christ’s suffering and death. Nothing that comes into contact with Christ can be `mean’ — lowly, humble, commonplace or worthless. His theo­logical vision discloses and describes the grand inversion of values within the new ordering of reality resulting from the gospel, in which the first become the last, the humble noble.

A servant with this clause Makes drudgery divine:

Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,

Makes that and th’ action fine.

Christ sprinkles every aspect of the believer’s actions with grace, forcing us to see both the agent and action in a new light. Herbert thus links the transformation of vision with that of agency, holding that the Christian gospel enables and authorizes a specific manner of beholding both the moral agent and the moral task.

It is interesting to compare Herbert’s understanding of the evangelical transformation of reality with that of C. S. Lewis. Herbert’s poetry is dominated by the notion of the gospel coming into contact with humanity. ‘The Elixir’ is unusual, in that this contact is described in somewhat impersonal and phys­ical terms, using the controlling images of the philosopher’s stone, a tincture and the elixir. All these are agents of transmuta­tion that need to be applied to what is to be transformed. Unless the tincture is applied to the wound, it will not be healed. Else­where in The Temple, Herbert uses images of personal contact ­for example, the image of Christ taking the believer ‘by the hancl’.28 Herbert’s imagery here is drawn from the Gospel narra­tives, which portray Christ as reaching out to touch individuals, or taking them by the hand (Mark 1.31, 41; 5.41; 7.32; 8.23; 9.27). The gospel is an alcemy of grace, which transforms by application, as a medicine is applied to a wound by a physician.

Lewis similarly affirms the transforming capacity of the gospel. Yet the dominant imagery which Lewis deploys is that of illumination. God is like the sun, whose rays lighten the world, altering human perceptions. It would be no criticism of Lewis to suggest that he seems to be incorrigibly Platonic at this point,29 tending to think of God as the intelligible Sun who gives light to the mind and therefore intelligibility to all that is now seen.’°

Lewis’s emphasis on the importance of ‘seeing’ as a metaphor for human engagement with a greater reality may reflect the priority assigned to this mode of perception by many German Romantic writers:” his interest in the Romantic notion of Sehn­sucht is evident at many points in his writings. A particularly strik­ing instance of this imagery may be found in Lewis’s early sonnet `Noon’s Intensity. Here, God is portrayed as a sun whose ‘alchemic beams turn all to gold:” The sonnet appears to leave open the question as to whether this illumination transmutes nature itself or merely human perceptions of nature, but it is possible to argue that Lewis’s dominant idea is that of the divine metamorphosis of human vision. This stands at some considerable distance from Herbert’s approach, which sees the transformation of reality and of human perception as interlinked, both being dependent upon the gospel as a ‘tincture’ which heals and amends.

Much more could be said about Herbert’s approach to trans­valuation in ‘The Elixir’, not least the manner in which he re­worked the poem to make alchemy central to the development of its argument and imagery. The important- point is that Herbert offers us a vision of theology as a lens or window, through which we look to discern the transcendent in the everyday, heaven in the ordinary. There are few better starting points for the appreciation of the role of theology in the Christian life than this.

It would be tedious to illustrate this in detail. A representative example lies to hand in his reference to ‘laws impressed on matter by the Creator, which is given a higher profile in the second edition of The Origin of Species than in the first. This certainly points to a deistic God, rather than a Trinitarian God. But there is not even the whiff of a personal atheism here. While some might argue that Darwin may have made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, Darwin did not himself draw that conclusion. I fmd it very difficult to believe that his refer­ences to a Creator in The Origin of Species were simply contrived to mollify his audience, representing crude deceptions aimed at masking a private atheism which Darwin feared might discredit his theory in the eyes of the religious public. My own reading of the evidence is that Darwin regarded religious beliefs as a private matter, and was reluctant to talk about his own religious com­mitments. Yet the needs of the situation regularly obliged him to say something on this matter. The evidence, I believe, points to reluctant, painful and diplomatic self-disclosure of Darwin’s beliefs, not the fabrication or manipulation of those beliefs for tactical purposes.

The core theme of this chapter has been Darwin’s belief that his theory of natural selection offered the best explanation of what could be observed in the living natural world. It is not true to state that science believes only what has been empirically proven. At points, inference is necessary, in which an hypothesis (such as a ‘missing link’ or an unobserved entity, such as ‘natural selection’) is postulated as the ‘best explanation’ of known facts or established observations. This is an accepted norm of scientific reasoning, and is not controversial.

Yet it is important to note that the same process can be also seen at work in religious thinking, which also aims to give the best explanation of what it observes. To quote William James again, religious faith is basically ‘faith in the existence of an unseen order of some kind in which the riddles of the natural order may be found and explained Although some persist in

portraying religious belief as irrational, the fact is that its propo­nents regard it as eminently reasonable. In any classical philosophical theism or natural theology, God would be proposed as the best explanation of the way things are.

Both the natural sciences and religions offer what they believe to be warranted, coherent and reliable explanations of the world. Darwin, as we have seen, believed firmly that the explanatory power of his theory was such that it could coexist with anomalies and potential threats. This is a reminder that both scientific and religious theories find themselves confronted with mysteries, puzzles and anomalies which may give rise to intellectual or existential tensions, but do not require their abandonment. In the case of Christianity, I would judge that the greatest such anomaly is the existence of pain and suffering.` Yet I believe that the theory is big enough ultimately to be able to embrace and accommodate this anomaly, even though at present the manner of its resolution seems less than clear. Neither Darwin’s theory nor Christian theology can really be said to ‘predict’; they do, however, accommodate what is known about the world, even though both experience points of tension.

Augustine discerns the following themes in his reading of Scripture, and weaves them together into his account of creation. God brought everything into existence in a single moment of creation. Yet the created order is not static. God endowed it with the capacity to develop. Augustine uses the image of a dormant seed to help his readers grasp this point. God creates seeds, which will grow and develop at the right time. Using more tech­nical language, Augustine asks his readers to think of the created order as containing divinely embedded causalities that emerge or evolve at a later stage. Yet Augustine has no time for any notion of random or arbitrary changes within creation. The development of God’s creation is always subject to God’s sover­eign providence. The God who planted the seeds at the moment of creation also governs and directs the time and place of their growth.

Augustine argues that the first Genesis creation account (1.1-2.3) cannot be interpreted in isolation, but must be set alongside the second Genesis creation account (2.4-25), as well as every other statement about the creation found in Scripture. For example, Augustine suggests that Psalm 33.6-9 speaks of an instantaneous creation of the world through God’s creative Word, while John 5.17 points to a God who is still active within creation. God created the world in an instant but continues to develop and mould it, even to the present day. This leads Augus­tine to suggest that the six days of creation are not to be under­stood chronologically. Rather, they are a way of categorizing God’s work of creation. They provide a framework for the clas­sification of the elements of the created world, so that they may be better understood and appreciated.

Augustine was deeply concerned that biblical interpreters might get locked into reading the Bible according to the scien­tific assumptions of the age. This, of course, is what happened during the Copernican controversies of the late sixteenth century. Biblical interpreters, who already held that the sun revolved around the Earth, read the Bible in the light of this con­trolling assumption. Not surprisingly, the Bible was then held to support a geocentric view of the solar system. Some church leaders mistakenly interpreted challenges to this erroneous idea in the sixteenth century as a challenge to the authority of the Bible itself. It was not, of course. It was a challenge to one specific interpretation of the Bible — an interpretation, as it

happened, in urgent need of review.

Augustine anticipated this point a millennium earlier. Certain biblical passages, he insisted, can legitimately be understood in different ways. The important thing is that these interpretations must not be wedded to prevailing scientific theories. Otherwise, the Bible becomes the prisoner of what was once believed to be scientifically true.

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines our position, we too fall with it.

Augustine’s approach allowed theology to avoid becoming trapped in a prescientific worldview. It is important to appreci­ate that he faced significant cultural pressure to adapt his bibli­cal interpretations to prevailing thinking. For example, many leading contemporary scientists of the late classical era regarded the Christian view of creation from nothing (ex nihilo) as utter nonsense. Claudius Galen (129-200), celebrity physician to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, dismissed it as a logical and metaphysical absurdity. Augustine noted the resistance of his culture to this notion, but believed that the biblical texts required him to affirm it. It was an integral part of the web of Christian doctrine, a coherent set of interlocking ideas.

This doctrine of ‘creation from nothing’ had some important implications. For example, Augustine argues that Scripture teaches that time is part of the created order. God created space and time together, so that time must therefore be thought of as one of God’s creatures and servants. Time is an element of the created order; timelessness, on the other hand, is the essential feature of eternity.

So what was God doing before he created the universe? Augustine undermines the question by pointing out that God did not bring creation into being at a certain definite moment in time, because time did not exist prior to creation. For Augustine, eternity is a realm without space or time. Interestingly, precisely the state of affairs that many scientists believe existe before the ‘big bang.

So what are the implications of this classic Christian inter­pretation of Genesis for the Darwin celebrations? One point is particularly obvious. Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis shows that a ‘faithful’ or ‘authentic’ interpretation of the biblical texts concerning creation does not necessarily demand a six-day period of creation. The opening chapter of Genesis must, Augustine argues, be set in context — initially, in the context of Genesis 2, and subsequently in the context of Scripture as a whole. For Augus­tine, the big question is this: What way of articulating the doctrine of creation makes sense of all the biblical statements on the matter, and not simply the first chapter of Genesis? His own answer is hardly the last word on the matter. But it is an excellent starting point for reflection. Above all, it shows the importance of weaving the total witness of Scripture into a coherent doctrine of creation, and not limiting this to Scripture’s first few dozen verses.

Augustine does not limit God’s creative action to the primor­dial act of origination. God is, he insists, still working within the world, directing its continuing development and unfolding its potential. There are two ‘moments’ in the creation: a primary act of origination, and a continuing process of providential guidance. Creation is thus not a completed past event.

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