Reflections on Biblical Interpretation and Evolution, Part 2
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.”
Yesterday we heard from theologian and “Evolving” co-editor Tom Oord about his developing thoughts on the interpretation of Scripture. Today we hear how he came to believe that evolution actually reinforces central biblical truths.
Can I Trust the Bible?
When I tell people I don’t require the Bible to tell me truth about science but I trust God to use the Bible to reveal what is necessary for salvation, I’m sometimes asked this question:
“If the Bible can’t be trusted on science and all other matters on which it speaks, how can it be trusted on matters of salvation?”
That’s a fair question. Before I answer it, however, we should look at what it seems to presuppose.
This question is sometimes based on the assumption that the Bible is a complete set of literally true statements. In that view, the Bible is like a house of cards, where a defect in any one statement means the whole structure will fall. This leads to understandable concerns, since one error would place the truth of the whole book in jeopardy!
Sometimes this question presupposes a view of inspiration in which the writers of Scripture act like machines or robots. In this view, God manipulated these writers, directly controlling their views and their words. In that case, any biblical error would reflect directly on God, whether it’s about science or about salvation.
By contrast, I think there are great advantages to thinking God inspired but did not entirely control biblical writers. This symbiotic view of authorship explains the presence of errors in the Bible. And it explains why the limited worldviews of biblical authors don’t fit perfectly with contemporary worldviews informed by science (e.g. the prevailing view in Moses’ day that a solid dome-like structure held back the “waters above”).
I think, however, that the Bible can be trusted about what it says about salvation even though its statements about the natural world – when interpreted literally – may be wrong. After all, biblical scholars say we best interpret Genesis 1 and other Bible creation passages as hymns and theological poetry, not scientific treatises.
My primary answer to why I think we can trust the Bible to be used by God to reveal truths about salvation, therefore, pertains to salvation itself. I trust the Bible on matters of salvation, because God has transformed my life as I read and followed the Bible’s teaching. God continues to transform me – provide salvation – as I pray and read the biblical text.
In fact, the transformation God is doing in my life seems to have increased since I stopped thinking the Bible was inerrant in all ways! I don’t know if there’s a connection, but there may be.
In short, the “proof” of the Bible’s truth about salvation is in the “pudding” of transformed lives – mine and billions of others. The Bible doesn’t have to be accurate in terms of contemporary science or be absolutely inerrant for God to use it for our salvation.
What does this have to do with exploring evolution?
At a minimum, my study of the Bible and great Christian thinkers reveals that the Bible and contemporary science are not essentially in conflict. The Bible’s purpose pertains to salvation. The purpose of science is greater understanding of the natural world.
Sure, sometimes a scientist will make statements that seem to exclude God. When they do so, they move beyond their findings or theories about the natural world and speculate about things beyond the domain of science. I feel free to disagree with these kinds of statements, in part because they go beyond the proper explanatory functions of science.
As a theologian, I find it exciting that science and theology need not conflict. I’m free to think biblical authors operated from a worldview different from mine shaped by contemporary science. But because God uses the Bible in ways to teach me and others truths for our salvation, I’m not worried that ancient worldviews don’t match contemporary science.
It’s one thing to say evolution doesn’t conflict with the Bible’s purpose. It’s another thing to say evolution actually reinforces central biblical truths.
When I say, “reinforce,” I’m not saying the Bible proves the theory of evolution is true. But I do think evolution fits well with important features of the Christian faith; other creation theories don’t fit as well.
For instance, Genesis tells us that “when God began creating the heavens and the earth,” “the earth was a formless void” and “darkness covered the face of the deep.” In creating, a “wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2).
From relationship with creation, God calls forth other things. In this creating, God does not act alone. God says, for instance, “let the earth put forth vegetation” (11), “let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (20), and “let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind” (24).
In other words, the Christian creation story says creatures act as created co-creators! That story fits well with the idea God creates through an evolutionary process involving creaturely contributions. It doesn’t fit so well with creation views that say God unilaterally zaps creatures into existence from nothingness.
God is Love
I find the Bible bubbling over with examples of God working in, with, and alongside creatures. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Isn’t that the way love works? It makes sense to think a loving God would create in, with, and alongside that which God previously created.
It’s pretty obvious to most people that love doesn’t entirely control others. Love does not coerce. Instead, love calls, persuades, invites, or influences without overriding freedom.
Evolution helps us realize that giving of freedom and/or agency is a gift God gives all creation. Sure, the tiniest creatures don’t have the freedom that humans do. But they have some measure of agency. And it would make sense that a loving God would give freedom and/or agency to all God creates. We know that give-and-receive relations require at least some freedom and/or agency from those in relationship.
To say God gives freedom and/or agency to all creation and has always been doing so helps answer some of the biggest questions we have about evolution. For instance, evolution tells us that it took millions of years for creatures to evolve into the complex forms we now see. But if God gives freedom and/or agency to all creatures and they act as created co-creators, it would make sense that creating complex creatures takes time.
Or consider the problem of pain, suffering, and death. An evolutionary theory that says God lovingly gives freedom and/or agency helps explain why things sometimes go wrong. Creatures might use that freedom and/or agency badly. And that’s an important place to start when pondering the difficult issues of evil.
In short, the theory of evolution can help remind us of the central truth of the Christian faith: God is love. And it can help us see why Jesus’ great commandments – love God and love others as ourselves – fits in the fabric of creation.
Let me add one more way in which I think a biblical theme fits well with evolutionary theory.
There is ample support in the New Testament that the death of one (Jesus Christ) brought life to others. “Christ died, and now we can live,” Christians often testify. They make this claim not only based on their experience but also upon the biblical witness. In fact, those who die to their sinful habits and come alive in Christ are said to live a cruciform existence. They imitate the crucified One.
In an important sense, they theory of evolution also requires death in order for life to emerge anew. Darwin saw very clearly that without death the planet would quickly become overgrown and overpopulated. In some cases, death is required for more robust and more diverse life to emerge. In other words, evolution also has a cruciform element in it.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying all death is good. Death is sometimes evil but other times not. But Christians have affirmed since the beginning that at least sometimes death is necessary for the bringing forth of life.
Jesus Christ, of course, witnesses to this cruciform existence most poignantly. And when we choose death for the sake of something better, our death is similar to Jesus’ death and the death that occurs in evolutionary processes. Death can bring life!
God is Doing a New Thing
I could say much more about evolution and the Bible. But I don’t have time and space. So let me conclude.
Not only do I think the theory of evolution best accounts for the scientific evidence. And not only do I think the Bible is compatible with evolution because the Bible’s purpose is to reveal God’s salvation. I also think the theory of evolution is a gift. It’s a gift to Christians like me who take the Bible with utmost seriousness. It reinforces central themes of the Christian faith.
The writer of Isaiah 43 records God saying, “I will do a new thing.” God then immediately asks, “Do you not perceive it?” (19) An evolutionary picture of the world suggests God is in the business of doing new things. And the Bible says creation has been invited to participate.
Perhaps Evangelicals are ready today to perceive that God’s way of doing new things is written into God’s creating through evolution. And in this, the book of Scripture and the book of nature agree.
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.