The Lesson of “Ancient Seas”

The Lesson of “Ancient Seas”

I was 15 years old when I stopped believing in a “young earth.” And it happened, of all places, at a fundamentalist Bible camp. I worked there on the kitchen staff, and one of my fellow workers, a college student, was reading Bernard Ramm’s A Christian View of Science and the Scripture, which had only recently been published. When one of the speakers at the camp denounced Ramm’s book as heretical, my friend secretly showed me his copy—in that context it might as well have been an issue of Playboy! I got him to lend me the book and I read it, and the two of us discussed it at length. We were co-conspirators in a private act of theological rebellion.

Ramm opened up a whole new way for me of thinking about Christianity and science. While he made a fairly sharp distinction between “theistic evolution” and “progressive creationism,” the reasons for the distinction were lost on me. Either label was fine with me–and that is still the case. What I got from Ramm is that the important thing is to believe that this world did not come about by chance, but was brought into being by the creative activity of the sovereign God of the Scriptures. Ever since then I have had no interest in quibbling about how long God took in getting things in the shape he intended for his creation.

It hasn’t always been easy to endorse this perspective in evangelical circles. I’ve even had some Fuller students get a bit upset with me when I have articulated my “take” on creation. And I admit that it is easy to be put on the defensive by folks who insist on a “literal” reading of Genesis 1. They present themselves as the ones who are really taking the biblical message seriously. I don’t like simply telling them that “we shouldn’t take Genesis 1 literally.” I want the alternative that I am proposing to be both theologically and spiritually engaging.

On the theological side I have been most helped by an interpretation—I first came across it in Ron Youngblood’s little commentary on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, published by Gospel Light—that the narrative of the succession of creation days in Genesis 1 is addressing the issue of idolatry. The kinds of things that were worshiped in the ancient world—sun, moon, animals—are seen here as mere creatures, called into being by the only true God.

The spiritual issue is a little more challenging. How do you get believers to get excited spiritually about the fact that the earth is millions of years old, and that human beings have evolved from lower forms of life?

On this challenge, I was immensely pleased to come across a wonderful paragraph in a scholarly essay, published in the early 1990s in Christian Scholars Review, by Ernan McMullen, who taught in the Notre Dame philosophy department for several decades. Father McMullen affirms that over a period of millions of years, there have been “uncountable species that flourished and vanished [and] have left a trace of themselves in us.” The Bible, he says, sees God as preparing the world for “the coming of Christ back through Abraham to Adam”; but is it too much of a stretch, he asks, “to suggest that natural science now allows us to extend the story indefinitely further back?” And then this wonderful passage: “When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.”

I find that to be an inspiring theme to add to our understanding of the Incarnation. That long process, beginning in “the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas,” was not wasted time. It was preparation for the One who would come with healing in his wings, a healing that will only be complete when the Savior returns and announces, “Behold, I make all things new.” And what he will renew in that act of cosmic transformation is all the stuff that he had carried–in his own DNA!– to the Cross of Calvary.


  1. Thanks for this post, prof Mouw. Your quotation of Fr. McMullen is particularly encouraging and thought-provoking.

    Comment by Mike Swalm — August 8, 2007 @ 10:08 am

  2. I am so pleased by your recognition of Bernie Ramm’s contribution to theological scholarship, and the effect his book on science had on you. His office was next to mine at the Baptist Seminary in Covina and across fifteen years he was a constant stimulus to theological conversation, and a learned friend.

    Comment by David H. Wallace — August 8, 2007 @ 10:17 am

  3. As I wrestle with the Genesis narrative and the implications of modern scientific assertions, I find the point of greatest difficulty is the nature of death. Is death the result of the fall? Is the curse something more than spiritual? Or was death a part of creation, included in the declaration “it was very good?”
    The answers to these questions have an enormous impact on what we mean when we talk about salvation and redemption, since they bear on why we need redeeming in the first place…

    Comment by Kevin Ford — August 9, 2007 @ 11:38 am

  4. While I don’t believe that the belief in a literal interpretation of Ganesis 1 is a salvation issue, I do feel it’s an important one. If we begin dismissing the tough parts of Scripture as being metaphorical it’s all too easy to carry that to other tough parts of Scripture. Doubting a seven day creation is not necessarily wrong in and of itself, but it is often the thread that begins to unravel one’s faith.

    We must be careful.

    Comment by D — August 9, 2007 @ 8:20 pm

  5. As theologically inspirational as this take on the Incarnation is to my ears, and as friendly as I am to your rejection of literalistic interpretation of Genesis, I don’t think you fully succeed tackling your base question which is how to get believers excited about evolution. You describe your view as holding that “this world was brought into being by the creative activity of the sovereign God of the Scriptures” which is basically taking the findings of science and tacking a fairly literalistic view of the Scriptures onto it. This creates a division in the soul that is not conducive to spiritual enthusiasm, but really something more like an open wound. Stitch the wound up superficially and you get a fractured faith and belief system fighting off the threat of incoherency and inconsistency. Instead of a superficial view, you could instead really deepen your understanding of the challenges posed by evolution to see divine revelation itself as happening within an ongoing process of evolution, and our understanding of God as constantly growing into the fullness of spirit. In other words, use biological evolution as an opening for addressing the reality of spiritual evolution, instead of taking a band-aid approach which leaves a static conception of a “Sovereign God of the Scriptures” fully unchallenged and uncontextualized.

    Comment by joe perez — August 12, 2007 @ 10:27 pm

  6. Thank for bringing a fresh wind of nostalgia to this graduate of Baylor University and Fuller Seminary. While I was at Baylor, Dr Ramm (he was too distinguished for me to call him “Bernie”) was my favorite professor. Martha and I asked him to officiate at our wedding on campus in 1957, and it was his recommendation that brought us to Fuller Seminary that same fall.

    Much of what I am today I owe to outstanding teachers at these two institutions. Thank you.

    Douglas Beyer, Interim Pastor of Union Evangelical Church, Mexico City.

    Comment by Douglas Beyer — August 14, 2007 @ 5:40 pm

  7. […] Read it here.   […]

    Pingback by An Incarnational Reflection on Evolution « Creation Project — August 16, 2007 @ 3:25 pm

  8. Moving theologically from acceptance of biological evolution to acceptance of spiritual evolution

    On Richard Mouw’s (of Fuller Theological Seminary) blog, this beautiful passage on Incarnation:How do you get believers to get excited spiritually about the fact that the earth is millions of years old, and that human beings have evolved from lower…

    Trackback by Until — August 21, 2007 @ 3:39 am

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