How To Read The Bible Or Why Creationists Aren’t That Bright

Perishing with commencing time, in the light which was created by God, by the second day, the infinite waste of waters is revealed as the absolute antithesis of the ordered world of “heaven and earth,” as an enemy of all life, as the death of every possibility of life. It is this power as such which is radically broken by the creative work of the second day. What is basically secured by thisw ork is the theatre of life, and therefore of man. In precise correspondence to the announcement made in the creation of light, it consists in the establishment of a boundary. The delineation of this boundary will be continued in the work of the third day. Its commencement consists in the radical crushing of the sovereignty of the element of chaos; in the liquidation of its finality, form and structure; in a division in to “waters above” and “waters below” in which it can no longer speak a fina linimcal and moral word, but can only be a last threat which cannot make man and his world impossible and thus destroy them. It is separated. It can exist only in this separation. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol III, Part 1, p.133.

St. Jerome receiving some Divine assistance translating the Bible to Latin

St. Jerome receiving some Divine assistance translating the Bible to Latin

The other day I mused on the possibility – or even the need! – for a so-called “theology of the natural sciences”. My reason for these thoughts are my current reading of Vol III, Part 1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in which the great Basel doctor pays careful attention to the two creation stories in Genesis. It occurred to me today, after reading Barth’s careful work on Gen. 1:6-8, the work of the Second Day of Creation, that a careful look at how Barth reads just these two little verses should be a demonstration both in how to do theology (Biblical exposition), and how different are the questions it asks and the answers it offers from those of the natural sciences. This is an object lesson in why Christian Doctrine, particularly the doctrine of Creation, have nothing at all in common with astrophysics, cosmology, or quantum mechanics. It also demonstrates just how stupid creationists really are.

By way of some general observations, Barth’s strengths moving forward are a focused dedication both to the text as text and his prior methodological principle of the priority of such a focused reading always being done through the lens of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the real revelation of who God is and what God has done and is doing. I doubt such a careful and thorough theological hermeneutic will or could exist in the future; relying as it does on a certainty that the particular narrative of the Christ-event defines how we approach the entire canon of Christian Scripture, living in a time when such meta-narratives, even as a functional device, are no longer tenable, such dedication and clarity and thoroughness are no longer either possible or desired.

This particularity of focus, however, gives Barth the power and authority to declare both that the events in the first two chapters of Genesis are real history and to set aside any conflict with a scientific account of the creation of the Universe as a primary misreading of the texts in question. Yet it is precisely here at his boldest that Barth’s weaknesses become most apparent. He spends an inordinate (to this reader at least) amount of space trying to define the Creation-event both as historical and outside the ability to research using proper historical (or one could add scientific) methods (pp.59f). Part of the confusion here stems from the tortured use of a weird German distinction between two kinds of history, reflected in the development and growth of meaning of two different words English translates as “history”. One refers to History with a capital “H”, History as meta-history, the overarching movement of forces – either metaphysical (Hegel) or theological (Barth) – that determine, define, and provide meaning for what most of us think of as “history”, that ebb and flow of events, of names and dates and places and events we usually consider history. Even knowing all this, even vaguely, Barth’s attention to this point is both labored and tortured and – dare I say it? – smacks of more than a little bit of apologetics.

The other weakness, and here we encounter Barth in discussion with his contemporaries in Old Testament studies regarding literary styles, is a curt discussion of “saga” (pp. 42f). By attempting to define an understanding of the text by defining the literary style, Barth is yet again – gasp! – sneaking an apologetic concern through the back door, as it were, of his stated disdain for apologetics. Which is not to say that our reading of the Bible should ignore matters of literary form and style. It is only to suggest that, in this particular instance, Barth’s arguments are both rather weak (which is rare enough) and seem, in the end, to be beside the point. Historical or just historical, saga or myth or something else entirely, Barth’s focused discussion on each word, each line, each phrase, each day of Creation sets these matters aside almost completely.

In any event, it is the event of Day 2 – the setting of the firmament in the heavens to separate the waters above from the waters below – that, for me, show both how powerful and distinct a theological reading of the Bible can be as well as how little any of it has to do with contemporary scientific questions regarding cosmology. It is also precisely here that creationists – ideologues who use the Bible as a hammer against others – show themselves to be very poor exegetes. First, those “waters above” and “waters below” were once unseparated, those waters over whose face the Spirit shone just before the first creative act. While both the Church Fathers as well as Protestant Dogmaticians of the 16th and 17th century claimed these “waters above” were clouds and mists, Barth uses evidence both from other parts of the Bible as well as the particular description of these “waters” from the opening lines of Genesis to show this is not at all what the author of Genesis had in mind.

On the contrary, the “waters” over which the Spirit hovered is the primordial chaos against which God’s good creation stands both opposed and victorious. Like the darkness that is broken by the creation of light (not a pre-scientific description of the Big Bang), the setting of a firmament separating the waters below – rivers and seas and rain and clouds – from the waters above – the primordial anticreation – these first two events of creation, by setting specific barriers against and separation from those forces and things (darkness and the primordial chaotic waters), creates the space and time and conditions under which the rest of the creation called “good” can proceed. Only by splitting darkness with the creation of light, which creates day, and the First Day, is that darkness that opposes the light created by God defeated and set in its proper place. Only by separating the waters with a firmament, keeping away from God’s ordered creation the chaos whose depths reflected the Spirit and are defeated by it.

The first two days of creation, rather than talking about particular specific acts that can be dated and fixed upon a timeline, offer a theological view of what creation entails: It is the defeat both of darkness and chaos, their subjection to the creative love of the God who wishes ours to be a world both of order and  fitting for God’s very good creation, man and woman. We are not in the realm of “saga” (always a poor word choice to describe the literature of Genesis 1) or “history” at all. Barth’s setting aside such matters once he picks up the cudgels of theological exegesis demonstrate how little such discussions and definitions have to do with understanding the events of Genesis 1. While it is certainly true enough it is possible to read in Genesis 1 an account of events that actually took place on particular dates that can be discovered a la Bishop Usher, such a reading strips the text of their meaning and import. Anyone using this particular part of Scripture to defend a particular ideology robs them of the richness and fullness they actually contain.

Ours is a God of prodigal love who has chosen not to be alone but rather to create an Other to love that would seek God’s glory in return. Ours is a God who saw the original darkness and chaos and banished them, forcing them either to become part of God’s good creation or separating them entirely from Creation because their very existence as what they were posed a threat to the creation God was even then beginning. Ours is a God who would not have us creatures face the terror either of endless darkness or all-powerful chaos. Rather, ours is a world of order, discernible and discoverable, an order that provides space and time not just for survival, but for life, abundant life. We learn about our God, first, and our world and what kind of world it is God has created for us, second. Anything else the text might or might not say is less than unimportant.

As for Creationists who would continue to insist these texts give us a “real” history of “real” events that took place at a particular time, all I can say is by stripping the text of its theological depth and import, they have left nothing behind from which a reader can learn about God, or about the kind of creation in which we live, or any relationship between these events and the Christ event, the light that shines back offering the believer a particular perspective from which to understand the God of love who is the Father of Jesus Christ. Creationists aren’t really concerned that much with Christian faith as much as they are with having power over others by forcing a particular unBiblical and certainly unChristian reading upon others.


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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.

Howdy! Thanks for reading. Really. Be nice and remember - I'm like Roz from Monster's Inc. I'm always watching.

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