Presbyterian Church (USA) *

On June 22, 2016, the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on a vote of 305-264 approved the following the following “Affirmation of Creation;” and approved its distribution electronically to all councils of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (synods, presbyteries, sessions) for their study, reflection and, where possible, their approval.

Affirmation of Creation

From early in its life the Christian church has affirmed metaphorically that God is the author of two books of revelation: the Book of Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) and the Book of Nature. Because God is the author of both and God neither deceives nor is incoherent, these books cannot in principle be in conflict even though they are expressed through fallible creatures.

However, over the centuries some Christians have sought to deny observations of Nature by reference to Scripture. In the 5th century CE Augustine warned that claims about Nature, contrary to human reason and experience but supposedly derived from Scripture, should be avoided, lest they make Christians seem ignorant and the objects of scornful laughter. Yet we recognize that God has called forth in Homo sapiens an exploratory curiosity and a critical intellect. A fruit of these gifts is our capacity for scientific inquiry.

The results of this inquiry are provisional because they are open to new discoveries and revision. Yet these results are also highly reliable because the Creation itself, through observation and experimentation, attests to them. Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time, of the myriad of creatures which inhabit and have inhabited this Earth, and of the means by which the Creation itself has shared in the work of creation.

In light of these discoveries, today with confidence we can affirm:

  • That God has been calling this universe into being for at least 13.8 billion years and continues calling upon the Creation to bring forth new creatures;
  • That God’s creative call has resulted in virtually countless stars and planetary systems, and new stars and planetary systems are continuing to be created;
  • That, in response to God’s creative call, the Earth took form at least 4.6 billion years ago;
  • That, in response to God’s call, living creatures emerged on the Earth at least 3.6 billion years ago;
  • That God has connected all life on Earth in a network of kinship by virtue of biological evolution from common ancestors;
  • That, in response to God’s call, we Homo sapiens (modern humans) emerged, in our wide diversity and different cultures, as a species over more than 6 million years of hominin development;
  • That, since our line of descent split from the line that resulted in our contemporaries, the chimpanzees and bonobos, we Homo sapiens were preceded by at least eighteen already identified hominin species, all of which are now extinct;*
  • That, in the providence of God, we Homo sapiens have come to exercise extraordinary power over other creatures and their habitats, the Earth’s geological structures, and the meteorological systems of the Earth;
  • That, by virtue of the powers of intellect and creativity called forth in us by God, we bear exceptional responsibility for the future of the Earth and all its constitutive creatures.

This affirmation provides a framework in which we are called to worship God, are called to proclaim the Gospel of Grace, and are called to live as faithful expressions of God’s love for the whole Creation.

*The eighteen identified species are: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Orrorin tugenensis, Ardipithecus kadabba, Ardipithecus ramidus, Australopithecus anamensis, Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus garhi, Australopithecus sediba, Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus aethiopicus, Paranthropus boisei, Paranthropus robustus, Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensisHomo neanderthalensis, Homo floresiensis. See <http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-evolution-timeline-interactive>.

Rationale

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
There is no speech, nor are there words;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and night to night declares knowledge.
their voice is not heard;
and their words to the end of the world.
                                                    Psalm 19:1-4

With these words the Psalmist declares that the Creation gives witness to its Creator. This theological sense of nature spurred Christians to study nature as a way of honoring God.

At the beginning of the western scientific revolution in the 16th century Nicolas Copernicus captured this sense when he wrote,

To know the mighty works of God, comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power, to appreciate in degree the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High to whom ignorance can not be more grateful than knowledge. [1]

In the 20th century Albert Einstein expressed the mutuality between inquiries about nature and religious life when he wrote: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” [2]

This is not to say that religion is obligated to tie its theological cart irrevocably to any particular scientific horse. As Presbyterian teaching elder, ethicist, and philosopher Holmes Rolston III notes, “The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow.” [3] Yet he goes on to add this caution, “But the religion that is divorced from science today will leave no offspring tomorrow.” [4]

Evidence for this latter effect can be found in the results of the 2011 Barna Group Study that reported that among the reasons given by teens and young adults for their disassociation from churches were that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%) and “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). [5]

Yet the idea is not new that a Christian faith, uninformed by a credible understanding of nature, is compromised in its ability to faithfully proclaim the Gospel. Augustine of Hippo perhaps most eloquently expressed this concern in the 5th century when he wrote,

Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.… [6]

All Christians affirm that God is Creator. Many, perhaps most Presbyterians value science as a means to gain appreciation of God’s creation. Scientific inquiry also makes possible insights into nature that enable more effective service to God through service to neighbor. Yet these same scientific discoveries also challenge traditional ways of thinking about God, God’s creation, and God’s creative activity. In 1947 the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described this challenge. 

When we speak of a ‘theology of modern science,’ it obviously does not mean that by itself science can determine an image of God and a religion. But what it does mean, if I am not mistaken, is that, given a certain development of science, certain representations of God and certain forms of worship are ruled out, as not being homogeneous with the dimensions of the universe known to our experience. (Emphasis in the original.)

He went on to expand on the importance of homogeneity for the relationship of science and the Christian faith.

This notion of homogeneity is without doubt of central importance in intellectual, moral and mystical life. Even though the various stages of our interior life cannot be expressed strictly in terms of one another, on the other hand they must agree in scale, in nature and tonality. Otherwise it would be impossible to develop a true spiritual unity in ourselves – and that is perhaps the most legitimate, the most imperative and most definitive of the demands made by man of today and man of tomorrow. [7]

Yet the Christian churches, and specifically Presbyterians, virtually never publicly acknowledge the significance of even the most basic discoveries that humanity has made through science about the history, structure and processes of creation for Christian faith and life, and often speak theologically as though they lived in a pre-Copernican cosmos. 

Over the past 500 years humankind has gained more depth and breadth of understanding of creation than in all the preceding millennia of human history. Even within those five centuries there have been several revolutions in our understanding of creation. Though the findings of the sciences do not determine the Gospel message, as Augustine noted they do influence how that message can be credibly declared and persuasively received. The first task of an effective contemporary evangelism must begin with an assent to the Creation that God has indeed been calling and is calling into existence. It is for this purpose that the affirmation above has been developed.

Endnotes

[1] Louis E. Van Norman, Poland: The Knight Among Nations, 3rd ed. (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908) 290.

[2] Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science” New York Times Magazine (9 Nov. 1930).

[3] Holmes Rolston, III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987) vi (Preface).

[4] Rolston, ix (Preface).

[5] Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church.” Web. 28 Sep. 2011.

[6] Augustine of Hippo. De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis), I, xix, 39.

[7] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Science and Christ (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) 221.

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