A Reflection on the Church and Science conference, and Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Creation

Today I attended the Church and Science conference sponsored by New Wine, New Wineskins which is a theology of culture ministry that Dr. Paul Metzger initiated at my alma mater, Multnomah Biblical Seminary. Multnomah has partnered with the American Association for the Advancement of Science who has provided Multnomah Seminary with a sizeable grant to work on producing theological curriculum that is attentive to the discipline of science in the 21st century. We had two plenary sessions, the first was Dr. Se Kim, of the AAAS; and then Dr. Rod Stilt of Seattle churchandsciencePacific University, he is a historian of science’s development as a discipline. There was also two workshop sessions. The first one I attended was offered by Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass, he is an Assistant Professor of Laboratory and Genomic Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, and his presentation was entitled Is Jesus Greater than Anti-Evolutionism? The second workshop I attended was offered by Derrick Peterson and Dr. Michael Gurney, Derrick has his MDiv and ThM from Multnomah Biblical Seminary (and is a friend), and Mike Gurney has his PhD from Highland Theological College, University of Aberdeen (also a friend and former prof in undergrad) — their presentation was entitled “When Galileo Goes to Jail”: Rethinking What Galileo’s Controversy with the Church Means Today (Derrick presented the paper, and Mike moderated and facilitated the Q&A following).

I mention all of this because it leads to what we will consider in this post; in other words, the discussion from today at the conference has motivated me to write this post. I just happened to have read something from Bruce McCormack last week on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation, and in particular, about Schleiermacher’s qualified belief in the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. I actually think that this topic would be an interesting one to explore at a conference like the one I attended today at Multnomah.

I am going to share from McCormack at length. The first piece from him is providing context for why Schleiermacher developed his doctrine of creation the way that he did. Here’s McCormack:

At the dawn of the modern period in theology, Schleiermacher was concerned that the day might come when the natural scientists would be in a position to provide a complete explanation not only of the movements of heavenly bodies but even of the origins of the physical universe. He writes,

I can only anticipate that we must learn to do without what many are still accustomed to regard as inseparably bound to the essence of Christianity. I am not referring to the six-day creation, but to the concept of creation itself, as it is usually understood, apart from any reference to the Mosaic chronology and despite all those rather precarious rationalizations that interpreters have devised. How long will the concept of creation hold out against the power of a world view constructed from undeniable scientific conclusions that no one can avoid?

By means of his heuristic and critical norm, he found a way to limit a theology of creation so as to obviate a conflict with the exact sciences but also to make a reasoned use of the creation story found in Gen. 1.[1]

Schleiermacher was anticipating what later came to be known as full blown naturalism and/or metaphysical materialism; where all of reality can ostensibly be reduced to physical reality and “natural” (i.e. observable) phenomenon. Schleiermacher was concerned with providing a kind of apologetic basis for Christian theology that elided the potential (in his day) findings of the natural sciences. As the direct quote from Schleiermacher illustrates he wasn’t concerned with the minutia of various biblical interpretive approaches, but instead he was concerned with the macro issue of origins itself. He was trying to provide a rigorous theological basis that would be impenetrable from the attacks of the natural sciences; as he perceived their development in his day in the 18th and 19th centuries.

McCormack distills for us in four points the way that Schleiermacher attempted to develop a genuinely Christian doctrine of creation that would out-pace Schleiermacher’s antagonists in the natural sciences. McCormack writes of Schleiermacher (at length):

This is not the place for a comprehensive exposition of Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation. It will suffice here to allow Schleiermacher to describe his approach in his own words and to briefly sketch its results. “The doctrine of creation is to be elucidated preeminently with a view to the exclusion of every alien element, lest from the way in which the question of Origin is answered elsewhere anything steal into our province which stands in contradiction to the pure expression of the feeling of absolute dependence.” Since everything that exists must be absolutely dependent upon God, a Christian doctrine of creation must oppose “every representation of the origin of the world which excludes anything whatever from origination by God,” and it must oppose all conceptions of the origin of the world that would place “God under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world.”From this state of affairs, Schleiermacher draws the following conclusions, all of which are supported by exegesis of Gen. 1: (1) God does not work with preexisting materials in creating. For if God found material ready to hand that he himself had not created, such material would be independent of him and the feeling of absolute dependence would have been destroyed. So the idea of a Divine Architect is ruled out of court. (2) If it is the case that the Christian doctrine of creation excludes anything that would place God “under those conditions and antitheses which have arisen in and through the world,” then God could not possibly be seen as having deliberated before acting. To be sure, creation is a “free” act of God, but divine “freedom” is wrongly construed where it is seen to entail “a prior deliberation followed by choice” or as meaning that “God might equally well have not created the world.” To define “freedom” in God in this way is to play it off against “necessity”—which is to bring God under an antithesis that is proper to the conditions of life in the world God creates. God’s freedom consists in his “otherness” and in his capacity to be who and what he is in all of his activities. It does not consist in a choice among options over which he must first brood before deciding upon the one he thinks “best” (as Leibniz had it). And in any case, as Spinoza put it (in a passage Schleiermacher would have approved), “because in God, essence and will are one, then the claim that God might possibly have willed a different world would be the same as saying that he could have been Another”—that is, a different God.(3) God cannot be conceived as having begun to create. Now this might seem to make creation “eternal,” but Schleiermacher resists this formulation of the relation. The reason is that if we say that creation is “eternal,” we seem to make it independent of God, which would destroy the feeling of absolute dependence. So Schleiermacher wants to uphold two values: (a) that God has never been without the world, and (b) that the world has always been absolutely dependent upon the divine activity for its existence. His conclusion is that God alone is “eternal” (in the sense of transcending time); the fact that the world does not transcend time but is structured by it is sufficient, in his view, to preserve a proper distinction between Creator and creature. But how then to speak of a creation that has no beginning without resorting to the term “eternal”? Alexander Schweizer would later use the word Sempiternität (from the Latin sempiternitas—meaning “everlasting” or “perpetual”) to describe the existence of a world that knows of no beginning. Such a world is “everlasting,” but God alone is “eternal.” I should add, perhaps, that this is not a linguistic trick but a real distinction, rooted in the differing kinds of being that God and the world are (God as a being transcending time and the world as a being structured by it). (4) Schleiermacher is willing to use the phrase creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) so long as its meaning is restricted to the understanding that God used no instrument or means in creating. That, he believes, is the force of the New Testament phrasing according to which God created “by His Word” alone. Such a phrase is to be taken in a critical sense, rather than as a positive explanation of how God works.[2]

Schleiermacher was obviously concerned with maintaining his principle of ‘feeling’ as the locus for his theological methodology; again motivated by his desire to move beyond the rationalism of his day and find a “safe place” as it were for theology to take place (unfortunately this ended up having deleterious consequences for subsequent theologizing, even if there is something also latently pregnant and valuable within this move of Schleiermacher). The point here though is that Schleiermacher desired to keep God distinct from his creation, and at the same time leave room for encounter or ‘feeling’ of God to happen in his creation/creatures.

I would like to say more, but this is running a bit long for a blog post. Suffice it to say, I think that Schleiermacher actually has the potential to provide some fruitful place in his doctrine of creation for some of the things considered today; particularly with reference to Dr. Josh Swamidass’ presentation. But also, Schleiermacher also helps to illustrate how conflict was happening, even for him, between the natural sciences of his day and his own theological development and methodology (which was something being considered at the conference today in general; i.e. the conflict or “warfare” between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ and how that might be mitigated and in fact used as a place where fruitful engagement might happen between scientists and say Christian theologians/pastors and lay people in the church).

P.S. There is much more to say, particularly with the place that Schleiermacher has in the development of the continued rift between science and religion. Does he help soften that rift, or contribute further to it? Questions like that. Not to mention the kind of theological space he might create for folks like Dr. Josh Swamidass who would like to focus on ‘experience’ and ‘encounter’ for evangelizing scientists in the public square and beyond (although I believe Barth provides a better more orthodox and constructive basis for a theology of encounter via his analogy of faith/relation).

[1] Bruce L. McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 21.

[2] Ibid., 22 scribd.


13 thoughts on “A Reflection on the Church and Science conference, and Schleiermacher’s Doctrine of Creation

  1. Sorry, the video clip is closer to 12 minutes. I am curious to hear your thoughts about this video, Bobby. Surprisingly (to me) it speaks from an Incarnational Trinitarian viewpoint of evolutionary creation.


  2. Yes, I watched this when it was first published. I don’t agree with evolution, at least not macro evolution; and I definitely agree with evolution when it is applied to cosmology (because it doesn’t really apply). I’m not persuaded of macro-evolution, so I’m not really a fan of this presentation either; since it presupposes that macro-evolution is true.


  3. It presupposes that macro-evolution is true because macro-evolution is true. The science of biological evolution has advanced way beyond anything that Charles Darwin could have imagined. While Darwin got the basic principles right (random mutations and natural selection), he could only concive of slow accumulation of incremental changes, which could easily be understood to make macro-evolution difficult to accept.

    However, the modern extended evolutionary synthesis (EES) now includes “symbiosis, gene duplication, horizontal gene transfer, retrotransposition, epigenetic control networks, niche construction, stress-directed mutations, and large-scale reengineering of the genome in repsonse to environmental stimuli.” [quoted from Sy (Seymore) Garte’s “New Ideas in Evolutionary Biology: From NDMS to EES” in the American Scientific Affiliation’s journal “Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith,,” Vol 68, No. 1 (March 2016), pp; 3-11] These relatively newly-discovered machanisms make much more rapid macroevolution possible.


  4. That’s way too triumphalist of a statement, Paul, to foster any type of fruitful discussion among those who disagree with you. It is that type of triumphalism that the conference was trying to mitigate.

    I don’t agree that macro-evolution is true (note I didn’t say Darwinism because I realize things have progressed much further than him). There is no physical evidence for it. Yes there is evidence for micro-changes, but not any for speciation or vertical changes (at least no evidence that that isn’t first deemed to be so based upon a priori commitments that make it circular).

    Again, micro-evolution is obviously a reality, but macro is not. There is no physical evidence of the kind that should be available if evolution were so. It is also interesting that humans seemed to have stopped evolving. What would a macro-evolutionist believe a human would evolve into next? I mean physiologically not intellectually. I know what futurists hope for and hold to, i.e. the merger of man and machine, but that’s not organic evolution.


  5. You can label that statement triumphalist is you want to, but that doesn’t make it anything other than a simple statement of fact. A lot has happened in the science of biological evolution in the past fifty years.

    The statement is from the abstract of the article that I cited. The article summarizes each of the evolutionary mechanisms mentioned and has 55 references for further reading. BTW, the author is a Christian. Unfortunately, the article won’t be available to non-members of the American Scientific Affiliation until around October, 2016, so fruitful discussion among non-biologists could be dicey in the meantime.

    Speaking of triumphalist statements, what would you call your statement: “Again, micro-evolution is obviously a reality, but macro is not. There is no physical evidence of the kind that should be available if evolution were so.”? The fact of the matter is that there is a great deal of evidence supporting macroevolution, and more is being found every year. Google it.

    BTW, modern humans have only been around for 150,000 years or so, a very brief period of time compared to the hundreds of millions of years of macro-evolution. A macro-evolutionist would probably hesitate to predict what might or might not be next for human evolution, if anything. They might even suggest that there is no natural selection driving force for any changes to occur. Some species haven’t evolved for hundreds of millions of years because they didn’t need to.


  6. Paul, my response was in kind to yours; it was a counter assertion. Yes, but you come off sounding more militant than you need to. Yes I realize that there are plenty of Christians who believe in macro-evolution; I was just at the above conference full of them. But your approach right off the bat shuts down discussion. You can find lots of things on Google.


  7. Yes, I think so, Paul.

    I’m currently reading *When Science & Christianity Meet* edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. You might like it.


  8. Hey Bobby, thanks for the positive words about my seminar.

    For the curious, you can find the audio here: http://www.new-wineskins.org/blog/2016/4/20/is-jesus-greater-than-anti-evolutionism-a-presentation-by-s-joshua-swamidass.

    I think I can see what you are saying. It seems like Schleiermacher is trying to put the focus on our dependence on God as a key part of the creation narrative. And I see the parallels you are drawing to my position. My point was that whether evolution is true or false, our theology is meant to be rooted in God revelation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, not the details of creation. I think you got that, which is why you warmly received me there, even though we have disagreements about our origins.

    So, I do see and agree with your frustration with triumphalism. It is not natural for us, but we all need to become better at tolerating and learning from one another, even when we disagree. I wonder what you think about the story of the 100-year old tree here. I wonder if that could be a good starting point…

    As far as what human evolution will produce (from a scientific point of view), it looks very much like human evolution has basically slowed down to a standstill. Compared with other species (e.g. chimps and gorillas), our generation to generation mutation rates are very low and our overall genetic variation is also very low. Genetically and morphologically speaking, we are nearly unchanged from 200K ago. In terms of biological evolution, humans might be at the end of the road.


  9. Thanks for providing the link to your seminar, Josh!

    I will look at your link in re to the 100 year tree (which you shared in your power point as I recall). I will think about it some more.

    And yes, Schleiermacher was trying to find space for Christian relationship with God in an increasingly modern and rationalist time in which he lived. The problem of course for Schleiermacher is that in the end he put so much pressure on feeling and dependence that his theology ended up being more anthropology rather than theology; Barth corrects that.

    Thanks for commenting.


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