When contemporary science and Scripture are in conflict (like it seems to be in Genesis 1), does a Christian ever have the right to reject inspired Scripture in favour of a view expressed by scientists?
In an effort to resolve any apparent conflict between claims made by the scientific community and statements found in scripture, I would take as my point of departure the validity of the following two statements, neither of which, I think, can be said to automatically and necessarily overrule or undermine the other:
1) We as persons can, by applying the methods of science (observation, experimentation and deductive reasoning), discover facts about the world we live in. Then, if and when we interpret those facts correctly, we can have reliable knowledge of what is the case about the world we live in (i.e., such knowledge will correspond with reality).
2) The meaning of any passage in Scripture should be in correspondence with the intended meaning of its author. Such meaning is discovered (and should not be assumed) by a person studying the text using various tools of interpretation. If and when we have interpreted the text correctly, we will have reliable knowledge about the intended meaning of the text. (Of course, a Christian need to rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the understanding of Scripture, but it seems to me that the Spirit guides understanding where the Word is handled correctly.)
(I realise, of course, that in many a postmodern academic setting, the claim is that discovering any “truth” in science and history/literature/religion is not feasible. But since I do not subscribe to a postmodern epistemology and believe that a theistic worldview makes justified true belief possible, I think that a search for truth in both these areas is a worthy pursuit.)
What is evident from the above two statements, if they are true, is the need for interpretation. The implication is that when we are trying to resolve apparent conflict, we need to understand that it is a conflict between our interpretation of certain gathered scientific facts about the world and our interpretation of the intended and discovered meaning of Scripture. In an objective sense the facts discovered by the methods of science, and the facts derived from discovering the meaning of Scripture, when it seems to speak on the same issue, cannot ultimately conflict if they are both legitimate ways of discovering truth about a reality that God is the Creator of. This would mean that any conflict must only be apparent, that either our interpretation of what the scientific facts mean is at fault, or our interpretation of what Scripture means is at fault, or both are at fault. It is rather obvious for why this might be so, since we are fallible human beings with limited knowledge and as a result our interpretations will often suffer accordingly. More to the point, I would argue that people’s particular biases (i.e., metaphysical / philosophical / worldview biases) always play a role in how they interpret things. But surely this is not more or even less the case when we do science than it is when we study the Bible.
This simply does not mean that we cannot try to bring our understanding of what the scientific facts mean in harmony with our understanding of what Scripture teaches. It does mean, though, that we should be humble when we apply our efforts to do so and try to be thoroughly aware of the role our biases plays in how we understand things. It is therefore prudent not to be too dogmatic and convinced in some areas of interpretation. Of course there are many things that one can be convinced about, even dogmatically so, but in other things one might have reason to be more cautious. I see nothing controversial about this, in everyday experience we hold to many different things with different degrees of certainty.
It is for these reasons that I find it very simplistic and short sighted for someone to think that in matters of apparent conflict that our understanding of science necessarily has credence over our understanding of Scripture, but in some cases it could have! Conversely, in apparent conflict, our understanding of Scripture does not necessarily have priority over our understanding of science, but in some cases it could have!
The implication is that with apparent conflict Christians should indeed be very cautious to reject Scripture in a favour of science – and vice versa!
People often mistakenly think that Christianity and science do not have anything to say to each other (or at least that they shouldn’t). But it might well be that they inform each other at some points (see this article by William Lane Craig, What is the Relation between Science and Religion?) But to discover what the one has to say to the other regarding any particular matter, is to be examined and decided on a case by case basis in the full knowledge that we all have biases that might skew our understanding and interpretations.
Here is one example of how science has influenced a correct understanding of reality where some have thought they have found corroborative support in Scripture for their views, namely Galileo’s scientific evidence for a heliocentric view of the known world. The following is a quote from Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett’s Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry:
“[T]he Holy Office directly declared the heliocentric worldview ‘foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical, since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common understanding of the Holy Fathers and doctors of theology.”
It is interesting that there was exactly the same concern then, as there is often today, about the dangers to faith. Carroll and Shiflett continues: “[N]o question that the system of Copernicus was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1616 as dangerous to faith, setting Galileo up for his later fall; no disputing that Protestants were even quicker to condemn Copernicus than was Rome, with Lutherans leading the way…”
The controversy which erupted when Galileo aired his views based on scientific facts, is a good example, even if to shame the church, of how science corrected what Christians thought was the correct understanding of certain passages in Scripture. Says Carroll and Shiflett: “Galileo considered the church officials who condemned him misguided, of course, but not because he was bent on destroying a pillar of their faith. He believed, along with many theologians of that time and before, that when an indisputable fact conflicts with a common interpretation Scripture, then the interpretation – not the divine revelation itself – must be at fault.”
Mark Noll, in his The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, makes the following observation and I think he is right:
“For Galileo, as for Bacon and Augustine before him, to think that one could interpret the Bible on scientific questions without employing a dialogue between natural and biblical observations was to guarantee misunderstanding of Scripture.”
I would now like to refer to the interpretation of Genesis 1-3, because this seems to be especially relevant to the question of how science and Scripture relate.
Some Christians argue that those who disagree with a literalist interpretation of Genesis 1-3, simply reject the Bible as an authority on the historical and scientific reliability of Genesis 1-3 for no good reason. But the obvious first question is whether Genesis 1-3 as literature in a very specific religious and cultural context, was meant to be understood as something from which rigorous scientific theories in areas such as astronomy, geology and biology could be gleaned from. I therefore think that a responsible Christian interpreter should not describe Genesis 1-3 as being a source of authority on scientific discoverable matters, if he has reason to believe that it wasn’t necessarily intended to be such a source of authority in the first place.
In the rest of my response here, I will give some indication by way of reference to what others have said, for why I find it completely acceptable for Christians to hold to different interpretations of Genesis 1-3. These interpretations do not violate the integrity of Scripture and it is compatible with contemporary science which is not necessarily committed to naturalism, scientism or physicalism. (Please note that this is not an attack on any specific viewpoint, but simply an indication of different, and I think, legitimate understandings.)
I want to begin by referring to Augustine’s (354 – 430 AD) insights on interpreting Genesis. Davis Young mentions some of these views in an article The Contemporary Relevance of Augustine’s View of Creation. For my purposes here I simply want to quote Young’s introductory and concluding remarks:
“A common impression exists among lay Christians and many non-Christians that the church interpreted Genesis 1-3 literally until the last two centuries. This allegedly traditional rendering includes the idea that God created the cosmos over a span of six ordinary 24-hour days, that there was no death in the world until the fall of Adam, and that at the time of the fall God introduced many other unpleasantries into the world-order as a punishment for sin. Included is the notion that thorns and thistles were not part of the original creation. Moreover, one encounters the suggestion that the church firmly held to these traditional ideas until the early 19th century, when geology proposed the concepts of an old earth and death before the appearance of man. The conclusion for many evangelicals is that these traditional ideas are the plain teaching of Scripture, and that attempts to avoid these plain teachings arose because of an unholy desire to accommodate biblical teaching to the dictates of an anti-Christian modern science.”
“That such a reading of church history is simplistic becomes clear when we consider the views of Augustine, the church’s greatest theologian between Paul and Aquinas, on Genesis 1-3. Although we can gain an inkling of Augustine’s approach to Genesis 1-3 from scattered comments in Confessions and The City of God, deeper insight is now possible for a wide audience with the recent publication of a fresh English translation of his great work, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis.‘ The few studies of Augustine’s view of creation that are based on the Latin text are not widely accessible. It is my judgment that anyone seriously interested in the Genesis-science discussion should take the time to study this new translation. It is full of surprises. I wish to make a few observations about Augustine’s general approach and his specific interpretations of the text of Genesis 1-3.”
Young then continues with his article and concludes with the following two remarks:
“1. It is historically inaccurate to maintain that modern science alone forced the church to come up with ideas about Genesis 1-3 that differ from the allegedly traditional views. Many of Augustine’s interpretations are plainly at variance with what are commonly perceived in evangelicalism as traditional views of Genesis. And, I might add, he was never accused of heresy for his views. It is plain that we cannot accuse Augustine of departing from the plain meaning of Scripture in order to make peace with science as we know it. Obviously, Augustine was not looking over his shoulder at scientific geology or paleontology. It is therefore all the more remarkable and significant that he adopts positions generally not perceived as the traditional church positions.
2. Given that a theological thinker of Augustine’s genius arrived at the views he did after years of careful study of the text, it is incumbent upon us to approach the early chapters of Genesis with far less dogmatism and far more humility and caution than we often do. Augustine’s interpretations should help us guard against facile claims about the obvious meaning of these texts. The point here is not that we should adopt Augustine’s specific interpretations (I’ve got problems with some of them myself), but that we should recognize what Augustine recognized: namely, the early chapters of Genesis are in fact complex and do not tender easy, pat answers. Once the entire evangelical world comes to grips with that simple conclusion, we will have made some progress.”
Hugh Ross has written an article The Creation Date Controversy, where he briefly addresses some misconceptions regarding the implications of accepting long evolutionary periods in the universe’s history. He addresses common fears that such a view of the world entails evolutionism, that it constitutes a denial of a literal Adam and Eve, that it leads to a distortion of the doctrine of salvation, that it denies biblical inerrancy, and that is an elevation of science above the Bible.
J.P. Moreland, a respected philosopher of science, answered a question following a lecture given at Northshore Church in Everett, Washington on February 2, 2002. The transcript of his answer can be found here (The Age of the Earth), but the following is an excerpt:
“Now, when it comes to the days of Genesis, I’m of the view on this that while we ought not allow science to dictate to us our exegesis of the Old Testament, nevertheless, if there is an interpretation of the Old Testament that is exegetically permissible– that is, and old age interpretation; that is to say, if you can find conservative, inerrantist, evangelical Old Testament scholars that say that the interpretation of this text that treats the days of Genesis as unspecified periods of time, and that is a completely permissible thing to do on exegetical grounds alone, then my view is that that is a permissible option if it harmonizes the text with science because that option can be justified exegetically, independent of science.”
In a short article Creedal controversy: The Orthodoxy of ‘DAYS’, Kenneth Samples gives an overview of the different interpretations of the creation days in Genesis and then makes the following remark:
“Christianity’s greatest theologians and biblical scholars, including Augustine, Calvin, and Warfield, expounded a diversity of views concerning the nature and duration of the creation days. From the time of the church fathers, through the Reformation, and up to the present, various views have prevailed, some more broadly represented than others, but none was ever considered the definitive, or the only, orthodox biblical position…If indeed the nature and duration of the creation days cannot rightfully be considered a test of orthodoxy, then for church bodies to split over such issues not only hurts the unity of believers but also damages their reputation among non-believers. Christians have a divine imperative to stand up for the truth and against false doctrine. The issues worthy of such a stand do not include the length of God’s creation days. For nearly 2000 years Christian martyrs all over the world have chosen death rather than deny the essential doctrines of the faith. May God grant His church the wisdom to know which issues to fight and die for and which to acknowledge as needing further study.”
The following remarks by Rich Milne and Ray Bohlin from their article, Christian Views of Science and Earth History, is an example of Christians who are humble in their approach and considerate of others who view things differently:
“Biblically, we find the young earth approach of six consecutive 24-hour days and a catastrophic universal flood to make the most sense. However, we find the evidence from science for a great age for the universe and the earth to be nearly overwhelming. We just do not know how to resolve the conflict yet. Earlier, we emphasized that the age question, while certainly important, is not the primary question in the origins debate. The question of chance versus design is the foremost issue. The time frame over which God accomplished His creation is not central….Such indecision is not necessarily a bad thing. Davis Young in his book Christianity and the Age of the Earth, gives a wise caution. Young outlines that both science and theology have their mysteries that remain unsolvable. And if each has its own mystery, how can we expect them to mesh perfectly?The great 20th century evangelist, Francis Schaeffer said: ‘We must take ample time, and sometimes this will mean a long time, to consider whether the apparent clash between science and revelation means that the theory set forth by science is wrong or whether we must reconsider what we thought the Bible says.’”
Milne and Bohlin conclude their article with the following:
“Therefore, we believe we must approach this question with humility and tolerance for those with different convictions. The truth will eventually be known. In the meantime, let us search for it together without snipping at each other’s heels.”
In conclusion to an article Science and the Bible: Are they Compatible?, where Ernst Lucas also takes a closer look at Genesis 1, he writes:
“Several times our study of Genesis 1 could have taken us off down interesting and important pathways that we do not have the time to follow and that would have lead us away from our main topic. The fact that I have signposted a number of such paths as we have gone along does, I hope, make the point that if Genesis 1 is read as I think it should be, as a theological polemic expressed in a symbolic story addressed to ancient Hebrews, and not as a scientific text, it is extremely fruitful and relevant today. Far from being incompatible with science it provides a framework within which we can pursue our science and technology for the positive benefit of humankind and the rest of creation.”
Dr. Otto Helweg, in an article called, How Long an Evening and a Morning?, says:
“How sad that many Christians have been taught to reject whatever light science may shed on Genesis. St. Augustine warned us to “Be on guard against giving interpretations of Scripture that are farfetched or opposed to science, and so exposing the Word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers.” In accepting science’s legitimate role and the Bible’s specific purpose, we are, in fact applying rather then violating biblical principles of interpretation.”
The Catholic writer, Mark Shea, in his article Literalischtick, has the following opinion:
“…Scripture employs dozens of different devices to communicate literal meanings. “I am the vine and you are the branches” employs a metaphor to express the literal meaning of the Christian’s complete dependence on Christ. Likewise, the author of Genesis uses various linguistic devices (such as measured Hebrew poetry and the image of six “days” of creation) to convey a literal meaning, but many modern readers mistake the device for the meaning. The literal sense of the author was, “Creation is the orderly act of a loving Creator God.” What the modern fundamentalist — both atheist and Christian — often hears, however, is, “The universe was made in six 24-hour days.” This is as wrong-headed as taking me to mean that my cardiac tissue has been torn in half or that Christ had delusions of being a grape plant. It is necessary therefore to distinguish between the literal meaning of an author and the various literary devices he may employ to communicate that meaning.”
A Comprehensive 78 page Report of the Creation Study Committee, evaluates all the different interpretations of the creation days and in its introductory statement it says the following:
“The Committee has been unable to come to unanimity over the nature and duration of the creation days. Nevertheless, our goal has been to enhance the unity, integrity, faithfulness and proclamation of the Church. Therefore we are presenting a unanimous report with the understanding that the members hold to different exegetical viewpoints. As to the rest we are at one. It is our hope and prayer that the Church at large can join us in a principled, Biblical recognition of both the unity and diversity we have regarding this doctrine, and that all are seeking properly to understand biblical revelation. It is our earnest desire not to see our beloved church divide over this issue.”
(An interesting article by Gerald Schroeder that propose that the world may be simultaneously young and old, can be found here: http://www.aish.com/societywork/sciencenature/Age_of_the_Universe.asp)
In conclusion I want to ask and answer two questions:
- Can Christians hold to different interpretations of Genesis 1-3? Yes, I believe they can and I appreciate Christians like those writing from a “young earth” perspective in a book like Three Views on Creation and Evolution who can admit that “[it] is obvious that a person who is generally committed to a traditional understanding of Christianity can be ‘old earth’” (p. 100).
- Should the views of some Christians who understand the meaning of Genesis 1-3 differently, be considered a dangerous compromise that leads to slippery slopes and end up in liberalism? No, there are a variety of interpretations that uphold the divine authority and inspiration of Scripture. To make such an allegation might say more about someone’s ignorance or stubborn dogmatism than about what is really true.