As I mentioned in my previous post, I think there are a number of areas where a distinctively Lutheran approach can help us understand the relationship between scientific and theological narratives of creation.
I’m not putting these forward as attempts to persuade my YEC-accepting fellow Lutherans that Lutheranism “really” teaches an evolutionary position. The question I’m trying to answer is, rather, this: given that many Christians (including many Lutherans) accept evolution, does Lutheran theology have a distinctive contribution to make in relating that understanding of science to the Christian proclamation?
These are also far from being fully worked-out theological schemes. They are more “hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses” as to how these questions might be approached from a distinctively (though by no means uniquely) Lutheran perspective. I would very much welcome people’s further thoughts, whether in support or criticism.
The theology of the cross is an important – I almost said crucial – theme in Lutheran theology. It involves contrasting the “theologian of glory” with the “theologian of the cross”.
The theologian of glory seeks the “Deus revelatus”: a direct, unmediated knowledge of the God who is revealed in visible things and events. In Luther’s words, the theologian of glory “looks upon the ‘invisible’ things of God as though they were clearly ‘perceptible in those things which have actually happened'”.
By contrast, the theologian of the cross recognises God as the “Deus absconditus”: the God who is hidden under suffering and the cross, and can only be known through the church’s proclamation of the crucified Christ. As Luther writes, “true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ”.
This principle of the truth of God being hidden under seemingly contradictory externals is used by Dr Hermann Sasse to explain how we are still able, in an age of thousands of churches and denominations, to confess faith in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church”. It is not that there are two churches, one “visible” and one “invisible”. Rather, the one true church is “hidden under the various church bodies with their different languages and nationalities, constitutions and forms of worship”. The church’s unity is an “object of faith”, not a matter of human observation.
In the same way, we could say that the createdness of the universe (and God’s Fatherly care for it) is also an object of faith, hidden under the outward appearance of a self-contained, impersonal, seemingly purposeless universe. We believe that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, not because we can see that by observation, but because we are told it by God’s Word, received by faith.
In, with and under
A related thought derives from the Lord’s Supper. If we were to take the consecrated bread and wine from the altar and subject it to scientific analysis – a gross act of sacrilege, so please note this is only a “thought experiment”! – we would find nothing there but ordinary bread and ordinary wine.
The bread and wine in the Supper are the body and blood of Christ not because we can observe a change in their nature, but because the word of Christ declares them to be such.
In the same way, we should not be dismayed by a universe – or a history of life on earth, even of human development – that shows no sign of observable “createdness”. It is by the word of God that they are declared to be such. Our createdness is to be found “in, with and under” what can be discerned about us by scientific observation.
The vocational universe
The doctrine of vocation is one of the most heartening and liberating Lutheran teachings. The perennial tendency of all Christian traditions is to distinguish between “secular” and “spiritual” spheres of life, to the detriment of the former. Many people feel guilt-ridden that their jobs and family commitments prevent them from doing enough “for the Lord”.
How liberating it is to learn that, in fact, our everyday vocations (whether in paid employment or otherwise) are “masks of God”, in which he is at work to provide for ourselves and those around us. As Luther writes (as quoted in one of my earliest posts):
All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government � to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.
It does not seem too much of a stretch to extend this to natural processes in the world around us. These too are “masks of God”, used by him to accomplish his purposes. As I’ve argued before, Psalm 104 demonstrates how natural processes – all of them capable of “comprehensive” scientific description – are used by God to provide for his creation.
At the very least, this shows that one of the objections raised against evolution by Christians – that it leaves “no room for God to work” – is misplaced. God does not need “room to work”, fitting himself into the gaps around natural processes. Rather, he hides himself within those natural processes and uses them to accomplish his purposes, in a manner incapable of scientific observation. (How? That is a mystery we cannot explain.)
If we can believe that of how he quenches the animals’ thirst or provides food for them to eat (as taught by Psalm 104), then I don’t see how we are required to deny it of the processes of natural selection that undergird evolution. We live in a “vocational universe”, where every aspect of it – however ordinary, meaningless or random it may seem to us – is a means used by God to achieve his purposes.
So there are three suggested areas in which a Lutheran perspective can help us relate the narratives of evolution and other scientific theories to the narratives of Christian proclamation and theology.
The common theme in each of these is the hiddenness of God, and I’d suggest that as a theme which should be fundamental to a Lutheran approach to science. Of all traditions, ours is the one which should be most comfortable with the idea that God’s work of creation is hidden within the seemingly natural and “unspiritual” stuff of scientifically-observable data, and discernible only by faith in God’s Word.