Reflections on Biblical Interpretation and Evolution, Part 1
Note: How does my walk with God relate to modern scientific discoveries? Can I maintain biblical Christian faith even if I change my mind on an issue like evolution? Many Evangelicals today are pondering these questions. Finding the answers will involve more than a mere synthesis of scientific facts. We need to hear stories from others who have wrestled with evolution and Christian faith. What arguments made them change their views on science? How did they hold fast to their relationship with God? The essays in this series will eventually comprise a book, provisionally titled, “Evolving: Evangelicals Reflect on Evolution.”
Today we hear from theologian and “Evolving” co-editor Tom Oord about his developing thoughts on the interpretation of Scripture. Tomorrow we’ll hear how he came to believe that evolution actually reinforces central biblical truths.
The best place to begin the story of my exploration of evolution is with the Bible.
That may seem strange. Many people wouldn’t start with the Bible when talking about a scientific theory. But I’m a theologian, and I take the Bible with utmost seriousness. Talking about the Bible is a natural place for me to begin, both because the Bible was principally important in my youth, and because it remains so for me today.
I don’t mean to snub science. Science is important too. I read a lot in the sciences, and I think the evidence supporting the theory of evolution is strong. I try to take this and other evidence with great seriousness.
But the real story – for me – starts with the Bible.
Centrality of Scripture
Fortunately, my parents were committed Christians. Our family was one of those “attend-church-three-times-a-week-and-more” families. My parents were significant leaders in our local congregation, and I began following their footsteps early in life.
I doubt I missed more than a handful of Sunday school classes before I was twenty years old. And I always attended Vacation Bible School – even winning Bible memorizing competitions on occasion. (John 11:35 was my friend!) I participated on youth Bible quizzing team for a while too.
While growing up, I don’t recall anyone telling me that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. But my passion for Scripture and my Evangelical community inclined me toward that position. Scripture was central in my life.
Besides, I wanted a failsafe foundation for my beliefs. And how could I convince my Mormon friends to become Christians if the Bible was not true in every sense, including literally true about what it said about the natural world? Witnessing to God’s truth seemed to require that I believe the Bible was without error on all matters, including matters related to science.
An Inerrant Bible?
My view of the Bible began to change when I went to college. It wasn’t that a liberal Bible professor brainwashed me away from the positions of my youth. Instead, I started reading the Bible carefully and the work of biblical scholars. I began to think it important to love God with my mind in a more consistent way.
And then I took a class in koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. In this course, I discovered several things. First, we have differing English translations of the New Testament, because the biblical text allows for a number of valid translation options. (When I later took Hebrew class, I found the diversity of valid translations even greater!) Second, we do not have access to the original biblical manuscripts/autographs. Our Bibles come from later manuscripts, the earliest of which are not complete. And, third, the oldest texts we have differ in many ways – although most differences are minor.
I also discovered discrepancies in the Bible. For instance, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers immediately (21:18-20). But in Mark’s version of the same story, the fig tree does not wither immediately and the disciples find it withered the next morning (11:12-14; 20-21). Mark says that Jesus heals one demon-possessed man at Gerasenes (5:1-20), while Matthew says there were two demon-possessed men involved in that same miracle (8:28-34). Jesus tells the disciples to take a staff on their journey as recorded in Mark 6:8, but Matthew says Jesus told the disciples not to take a staff (10:9-10). Jesus says Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly. Then, making an analogy with his own death, he says the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:40). But Jesus was not dead three days and three nights!
I mention only a few of the many internal discrepancies. Once I discovered a few, I noticed more. This, of course, made me question whether I should say the Bible is inerrant in all ways.
What’s the Bible For?
I’m persistent. I don’t settle for easy answers, ignore problems, or appeal to mystery at the drop of a hat. I want to give a plausible account of the hope within me.
My quest for better ways to think about the Bible prompted me to read theologians and Bible scholars from the past and present. What I found surprised me! I had assumed believing the Bible is inerrant in all ways was the traditional position of Christians throughout the ages. I assumed it was the position of my own Christian tradition. I was wrong.
Few if any great theologians argued the Bible was absolutely inerrant. Augustine did not affirm inerrancy in this way. Thomas Aquinas didn’t. Neither did Martin Luther or John Wesley – a least in a consistent way. And I discovered through reading and conversations that those considered the leading biblical scholars and theologians today also reject absolute biblical inerrancy.
I did find a few teachers who said the Bible was inerrant. But when I read their explanations of the Bible’s discrepancies and their views about the differences between the oldest manuscripts, I found they stretched the word “inerrant” beyond recognition. Their meaning of “inerrant” was nothing like the usual meaning. And it was certainly not what most Evangelicals meant when they called the Bible the inerrant Word of God.
Perhaps even more important was my discovery that great theologians and biblical scholars of yesteryear believed the Bible’s basic purpose was to reveal God’s desire for our salvation. Many giants of the Christian faith could agree with John Wesley who said, “The Scriptures are a complete rule of faith and practice; and they are clear in all necessary points.”
The necessary points of Scripture refer to instruction for our salvation. They indicate that, as the Apostle Paul puts it, Scripture is inspired and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The purpose of the Bible is our salvation!
I also discovered Christian leaders over the centuries did not feel required to search the Bible for truths about science. In fact, they sometimes used allegorical interpretations that seem silly to me now. The vast majority of Evangelical scholars with whom I talked also didn’t think the Bible has to be inerrant about scientific matters.
After my studies, I came to believe that the Bible tells us how to find abundant life. But it does not provide the science for how life became abundant.
Tomorrow, Tom will discuss what his evolving view of the Bible has to do with evolution.
Thomas Jay Oord, Ph.D. is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University. He is the author and/or editor of about a dozen books, including Creation Made Free, Divine Grace and Emerging Creation, and Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. He blogs frequently on issues of theology, science, and philosophy at http://thomasjayoord.com.