Fall 2001

Faith in God the Creator and Scientific Cosmology

Wolfhart Pannenberg

“If the Christian belief that God created the world could no longer be related to the world of our experience . . . the one God of the Biblical faith himself would become an unreal entity.”

Like the biblical account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis, the medieval Christian doctrine of creation assumed a temporal beginning of the world. Indeed it was a not uncommon belief that the world was no more than 6,000 years old. Already in late antiquity the Christian doctrine of a temporal beginning of the world found itself in opposition to philosophical conceptions such as those of Aristotle, who believed the cosmos to be limited in space, but without beginning or end in time. Given the authority of Aristotle in medieval Christian theology from the 13th century on, many Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, considered the assertion of a temporal beginning of the world to be a proposition that was to be held on faith but that was not susceptible of rational demonstration.

With modernity, the idea that the world was unlimited in space gradually gained an increasing number of followers. Giordano Bruno’s affirmation of the infinity of the cosmos seemed to find increasing confirmation in the discoveries of astronomy and the consequent revisions of earlier conceptions of the spatial extension of the universe. In the 18th century, Kant’s thesis that our planetary system was formed as a result of mechanical processes seemingly rendered belief in a temporal beginning of the universe even more unlikely. Not only did it become clear that the history of our own planetary system had begun much earlier than the 6,000 years that the older assumption believed had passed since the creation of the world, but the stars and the Milky Way turned out to be much older than our planetary system itself. The question of a beginning of the universe dissolved into a nebulous, uncertain expanse of indefinite time. A paradigm for the change of attitudes is the development of the thought of Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant declared the impossibility of answering the question concerning a temporal beginning of the universe, even though he himself only a few years earlier had affirmed such a temporal beginning. Considering this change in attitude, it is understandable that in the 19th century Christian belief in creation became hard to defend in an intellectual climate increasingly shaped by natural science.


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