Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Creationism and the Doctrine of Creation in the LCMS

The May Reporter arrived a few days ago. This is the official monthly newspaper of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS) that is sent to all LCMS pastors, teachers, and other church workers.

On page three is an article about an upcoming conference at the LCMS's Concordia University, Mequon, Wisconsin. The purpose of the conference is to defend "young earth creationism," which the article defines as "the LCMS perspective of the earth being several thousand years old instead of millions of years old." To read the article, you can access it here.

As an amateur astronomer, who tries to keep up on new research in the discipline, I was struck by the error that occurs in the first sentence of the Reporter article. I have no idea where Dr. Joel Heck (a fellow theology prof. in the LCMS) got the notion that the universe is "150 billion light-years across." The fact of the matter is, we don't know how big the universe is. What we humans can observe is only about 13.7 billion light years in any direction. Thus, the observable universe may be around 28 billion light years in diameter. So, ironically, the universe IS likely younger than even Heck admits (at least in that first sentence)!

I have tried to identify some of the problems with the Synod's position on creationism. Such a position ignores the contradictions in the literalistic interpretation of the first chapters in Genesis (six days? or one?, for starters). Moreover, such literalistic interpretation of these chapters runs contrary to physical evidence in nature, does harm to individual consciences (especially to those educated Christians who know the biblical and physical evidence that contradicts creationism), and needlessly frustrates the work of the Holy Spirit in the church's mission within our western, scientifically-informed society. Those concerns led me to write my essay, "The Scandal of the LCMS Mind," which serves as the basis for my official dissent.

The CTCR has not responded to the specifics in that document. Instead, the CTCR has stated, "Dr. Becker's dissent regarding creation and evolution also suffers from a lack of specificity and focus. His letter of June 29 states that he is dissenting from 'the synod's position of interpreting the first two chapters of Genesis to mean that God created the universe over the course of six twenty-four hour days'—but this language has never been used by the Synod in any doctrinal resolution or statement."

Surely the CTCR knows about the Synod's 1930 Brief Statement. Perhaps they should re-read the paragraph on creation in that document. That paragraph uses the very language I cite in my dissent. So I'm sorry, CTCR members, but I beg to differ with your dismissal. The language I use comes right out of that Depression-era document. Or witness what happened when Dr. Kieschnick told the synod convention that elected him President of the Synod that he believed that God created the universe over six twenty-four-hour days roughly 10,000 years ago. He got a lengthy standing ovation by the majority of delegates. Certainly this latest Reporter affirms as much when it states that "young earth creationism" is "the Synod's perspective."

This perspective is at odds with the doctrinal content of Dr. Martin Luther's Small Catechism. The one who confesses faith in God the Creator confesses that "God has made me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all my limbs and senses; reason and mental faculties..." (Kolb/Wengert ed., p. 354).

This explanation to the First Article of the Apostles' Creed is significant when talking with Lutheran creationists, for it underscores that Lutheran Christians ought to trust their senses and reasoning to uncover reliable information in nature. After all, God "gives and preserves" our senses, our reason, and mental faculties. These are generally reliable when it comes to uncovering and understanding data in nature. (To be sure, "common sense" suggests that the sun and all heavenly objects move around an immovable earth, but more precise observation of nature by rational, sensible human beings has led to more precise theories about the motions of the earth and other objects in space--motions that are not reflected in the biblical writings that reflect ancient cosmological, phenomenological perspectives.)

That same reasoning and sensing also are working when one interprets any passage in the Bible. Such use of one's mental faculties ought to take into account physical, extra-biblical data that directly impacts the interpretation of those passages. We never interpret Scripture in a vacuum.

The creationists seem not to be able to entertain the notion that their literalistic interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis (and other cosmological passages in Scripture) might be faulty. No one can escape the problem of interpretation. Everyone who reads words in a sentence is involved in
interpretation. Why hold to the literal interpretation of these early chapters in Genesis, when we know that such an interpretation has been falsified by actual, physical data and observations?

If there is really something called "biblical astronomy," as the Mequon conference planners state, then why defend merely young earth creationism? Why not be consistent, as Dr. F. Pieper (the author of the Brief Statement) was, and reject the Copernican theory? Why not insist that the earth is founded on a foundation or pillars, that the earth is immovable, that the sun and all heavenly bodies actually move around the immovable earth? There are many biblical passages, if interpreted literally, that necessarily lead to these conclusions. Why allow figurative interpretations of these biblical passages that reflect ancient cosmology--and that if interpreted literally would conflict with known observational data--but not allow for figurative interpretations of the first chapters in Genesis? Why the inconsistency among the creationists, most of whom seem in fact to have accepted Copernicus' theory (which was rejected by the biblical creationists of his day and later)?

It is significant that the young discipline of astronomy first received support at the Lutheran University of Wittenberg. Thanks to Lutheran Georg J. Rheticus, a young mathematician and Wittenberg student, Copernicus' revolutionary (!) essay was published in Lutheran Nuremberg in 1543. (To read a lively, partly fictional account of that episode in intellectual history, see Dava Sobel's A More Perfect Heaven [Walker and Co., 2011]).

If the Mequon conference were actually an academic conference and not an ideologically-driven propaganda event, then the conveners would at least have one or two reputable observational astronomers who could present the most up-to-date, observable facts on the age and size of the universe and the age and natural history of the earth. I know a few astronomers at my university who could do an excellent job of that. One, in particular, comes to mind. He is both a practicing Christian and a leading astronomer in his area of binary stars. (He knows one of the presenters at the conference, who has done otherwise good work in binary stars but is completely wrong-headed when it comes to creationism.) The astronomer at my university, however, is not a "creationist." He believes in God the Creator, but he doesn't think God created the universe over six twenty-four-hour days several thousand years ago. So he won't be invited to this conference to present.

Come to think of it, why not invite one or two Lutheran theologians who are trying to take seriously the basic, observable data from the natural sciences and to relate that data to basic affirmations of our Christian faith? That's the kind of thing scientists and theologians have been doing at some of the other Concordias for several decades. I guarantee you that if you went to the other LCMS universities in the CUS and polled the scientists (and the scientifically-informed theologians), you wouldn't find many "young-earth creationists."

Next week I will once again teach my university theology course, "Creation." Most of the students in the class are majoring in the sciences here at Valpo, but there are also some theology majors in the mix as well. We will spend a few weeks examining "creationism." I don't have to speak out against it, since the science students and the critically-minded theology students know enough to spot the glaring errors. They usually then identify them for the rest of the class. One of my overall goals in the course is to suggest ways in which one can be accepting of mainstream scientific facts and conclusions and still affirm a robust, orthodox faith in God the Creator. I am concerned to be critical of both atheistic scientism and fundamentalist creationism.

Even my seventh- and eighth-grade confirmation students know enough not to read the first chapters of the Bible as if they provide us with "biblical cosmology" or "biblical astronomy" or scientific information. One of them told me the other day, "I believe that God made the dinosaurs and everything else. It just took God a really long, long, long time to do it." "How long?," I asked him. "Well, millions and millions of years for the dinosaurs, who went extinct 65 million years ago. A few million years for us homo sapiens. And a lot, lot longer than that for stars, planets, and our earth."

He'll be confirmed on Sunday, along with three others. BTW, that student is my son, Jacob. On Wed., he'll be reciting before the congregation Luther's explanation to the First Article of the Creed. The genius of Luther's explanation to that article is that it works for the creationist Christian as well as the Christian who knows a thing or two about actual, scientific astronomy and paleontology. It is the kind of explanation that will work very well down the road for the scientifically-informed Christian believer, despite whatever new cosmological data gets uncovered by human sensing and reasoning.

The LCMS errs when it coercively insists that the Christian doctrine of creation must include the acceptance and defense of creationism. Insisting on such a sacrificium intellectus is contrary to the doctrine of faith.


  1. I am curious if you have ever read Dr. Heck's book IN THE BEGINNING:CREATION FROM GOD'S PERSPECTIVE (CPH, 2011)and what your reactions to the book might be, if you have read it.

    1. Dear DVE,

      I have read Dr. Heck's little booklet. It is an example of young-earth creationism. Heck treats Gen. 1 as "a statement of historical narrative," which he thinks is the divinely-intended meaning for all time.

      I fully agree with him that every word in Scripture should be taken seriously and that the literal sense is the proper starting point for any biblical interpretation. If, however, there are good reasons for understanding a passage figuratively, even a passage that is "an historical narrative," then we should move to a figurative understanding.

      I also agree that the stories in Genesis offer profound biblical truths about God, human beings, and the whole of creation. I agree with Heck when he asserts THAT God created the world is more important than HOW he created it.

      Contrary to Heck's assertions:

      (1) the facts in nature that evolutionary theory interprets do not fit with young-earth creationism;

      (2) Human reason is fully capable of uncovering reliable data in nature and coming to reasonable interpretations of that data over time; We do not need to reinterpret obvious facts and data in nature to fit with a literalist, creationist interpretation of Gen. 1;

      (3) Heck does not address the obvious contradictions between the two creation stories in Gen. when they are interpreted literally;

      (4) The stories in Gen 1-11 are not "history," as we understand that modern concept today;In fact there are multiple genres in these early chapters of the Bible and none of the stories fits a known genre perfectly.

      (5) The biblical writers reflected the "scientific" knowledge/worldview of their day, not the scientific knowledge of our day. God allowed the biblical writers to state quite literally that the earth is founded on pillars or a foundation and to reflect the ancient view that the sun moves around the earth. God allowed the biblical writers in Gen. 1 to reflect God's creation of the earth as if God were like a Jewish worker who worked on six days and rested on the seventh. This is not a scientific description of an historical sequence, but a phenomenological description that is based on a cultural/religious assumption about work and rest. So interpreting "day" (YoM) here in its normal sense is beside the point. (If the earth is not founded on pillars or a foundation and if the sun does not move around the earth, why then did God allow the biblical writers to write passages that reflect this ancient cosmology?)

      (6) Even within the literalist reading of Gen 1-3, biological death was present in the garden prior to the temptation and sin of Adam/Eve, since presumably the plants that God gave them to eat in their state of innocence would have died in the process of being eaten. Rom. 5:12 must be interpreted to refer to spiritual death and separation from God, not biological death. Heck's literalist presuppositions about "death" keep him from positively entertaining this view.

      (7) Heck doesn't want modern scientific conclusions "to rule over" "biblical conclusions," and yet elsewhere he seems to suggest that the acceptance of the Copernican Theory does in fact allow scientific knowledge to guide our understanding of those many passages that speak about the earth and its relation to the sun and other heavenly bodies.

      (8) Heck simply ignores the most important facts that evolutionary theory addresses. Most of his objections have easily been addressed by those who know the current state of scientific research.

      (9) There are many ancient stories of human origins that are older than the Gen. texts. Gilgamesh, which has influenced the flood narratives in Gen., is usually dated to about 3000 BC.

      (10) Heck relies mostly on a few creationist sources. The usual creationist authorities--Geisler, Morris, other ICR authors--make their occasional appearance. Heck does not engage mainstream scientific data and conclusions that complicate and even falsify his position.

    2. Here's a small video of President Harrison taking up the subject: http://youtu.be/VEnV0QR0kz4

  2. Luther's explanation of the First Article in both the Small and Large Catechisms do not reference the Genesis creation accounts. Instead, his emphasis is on God, the Creator of the universe, who is intimately involved in the creation as we experience it today and as we will experience it tomorrow and the day after, i.e. Luther described creation as a continuous event, not a once-and-done, 6-day event.

    If creation is a continuous event, there really is no conflict between the belief in the Creator God and the theory of evolution. By faith, we know Who is the Creator. Evolution is just one descriptor of the creation after the creative event.

    Significantly, Luther's explanation stresses that God is my Creator. The essential message is the personal relationship that each of us has with our Creator because God, through His creative power, is at work in and for each of us. This message gets lost in the senseless debate that is creation v. evolution.

  3. Unfortunate as it was for Pieper's Brief Statement to make its claims about creation in 1930, it is truly embarrassing for Mequon to hold a conference on creationism in 2013.

  4. Dr. Becker wrote: "Even my seventh- and eighth-grade confirmation students know enough not to read the first chapters of the Bible as if they provide us with "biblical cosmology" or "biblical astronomy" or scientific information. One of them told me the other day, "I believe that God made the dinosaurs and everything else. It just took God a really long, long, long time to do it." "How long?," I asked him. "Well, millions and millions of years for the dinosaurs, who went extinct 65 million years ago. A few million years for us homo sapiens. And a lot, lot longer than that for stars, planets, and our earth."

    All this anecdote proves is that you've taught your son the mythos of evolutionary theory, and he trusts you. It says nothing about his competence as someone who "actually knows a thing or two about scientific astronomy and paleontology." You, the teacher, know probably just a little more than he as you are not a PhD scientist, and accept on faith the "consensus" of other scientists. In sum, you are part of a belief system through which you interpret all things, even the one thing you are supposed to be a teacher of, the Scriptures.

    Kids will believe what they are taught. You have trained him in the way of evolution, and he will not depart.

    I wonder if you taught the kids' song: My God is so great, so strong and so mighty, there's nothing our God can not do...." except create, in 6 little days, and make everything good. Yeah...and don't let the animals ripping each other apart be a concern for you. God wanted that. That ain't a sinful byproduct, that's nature! And don't bother with the eschatological promise those animals won't be gnawing at each other. We can trust those eschatological promises, even though we deny the protological premise. Or, why not just posit that the new heaven and earth will be just as bloody and violent as the first "Good" evolutionary creation.

    Keep up the good work of teaching, Dr. Becker. The church needs you tremendously.

  5. Dear Egregious,

    My son has learned evolutionary theory from many sources. We have visited several natural history museums, including the Field Museum. He has studied public school textbooks and science books. He has visited the Columbia River Gorge and the John Day Fossil beds. In preparation for a trip to the Grand Canyon he is studying the natural history of that part of the world.

    You make it sound like evolutionary theory is a fantasy, when it is based on solid facts, the kind you can stub your toe on. If you got out from the creationist propaganda, you might see there is more than sufficient evidence to falsify creationism.

    How do you account for the dinosaur fossils? Do you discount radiometric dating? On what basis?

    If you are going to be a literalist with regard the cosmology of Genesis 1, why not do the same with the many other cosmological passages in Scripture that speak of an immovable earth, an earth founded on pillars or a foundation, and of a sun that goes around the earth, that rises and sets, and so on?

  6. Dear Egregious,

    I should also mention that I have already responded to the concern you raise regarding the reality of biological death prior to the first human sinners. See my posts on May 11 and July 19, 2012. Animals have been procreating and feeding, living and dying, long before the first human beings lived, sinned, and died.

    More importantly: I agree with Origen's basic position that the end of creation will be qualitatively better than its beginning. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the beginning of that new creation.

    You could also listen to my online sermons that proclaim the hope we have in Christ, our risen Lord and Savior.

  7. I would give those sermons a hearing. Where may I find them?

  8. http://www.immanuelmc.com/sermons.html

  9. If the bible is so ridiculously wrong about the sun and the earth, why do we still say, "The sun rises in the east and sets in the west?"

    1. Because of the abiding character of customary figures of speech--and because the sun sure seems "to rise in the east" and "set in the west." Neither simple common sense nor the Bible suggests that the earth is spinning on its axis, thus giving the illusion of the sun's rising, moving, and setting.