Reflections on Biblical Interpretation and Evolution, Part 2

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April 9, 2013 Tags: Biblical Authority, Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Thomas Jay Oord. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

For another view on inerrancy, see Michael Horton’s post “The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy”.

Evolution

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.

Created Co-Creators

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.

Cruciform Existence

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.

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Alex Verburg - #78383

April 10th 2013

Thank you for writing.  This is very inspiring! 

- “conversationswithahigherpower.blogspot.com”


lancelot10 - #78608

April 16th 2013

Thomas

If God does not zap things into existence then we have a problem with the miracles - the cooked loaves and fishes were zapped instantaneously creatively into existence - so was Lazarus from dust since his cells were dead and smelling.  All Jesus’s miracles were creative - no sign of slow evolution. In the ressurection Jesus proves this since His Father gives him his resurrection body without any evolution whatsoever.

Plus about 20-30 billion souls are to be instantly raised without evolving their eternal bodies.

A new heaven and earth are to be created at the end of the thousand years - the saints will not be waiting for 12 billion years for a place to stay.

In the thousand years all animals go back to vegetarianism - this has to be quick creation - Lions eating grass like an Ox.

So evolutionary time does not square with the Bible I am sure.  Jesus was God in the flesh and all things were created through him - not evolved.

If evolution was true we would have a problem on the day of judgement on the ape to man timescale - where would the separation point be - could an nearly man ape mumble -I am not a human please dont subject me to judgement - its the guy next to me - he’s the first real human.

So as you can see if God needed evolution and its incredible timescale and blind chance then we have a problem.


lancelot10 - #78649

April 17th 2013

Did angels and demons “evolve”  over billions of years ??

To be a Christian we must believe in fallen angels led by the devil - there are billions of them.

There are also are the two thirds of the angels who did not rebel.  A Christian must believe in these real spiritual entities who are highly intelligent and powerful.

The only way they can be defeated is by scripture (the sword of the spirit) and prayer to Jesus and God to bring down their strongholds - which are real kingdoms and principalities as Daniel found out.  A powerful angel had to deal with the demonic angel called the prince of persia.

To the evolutionist this would seem crazy but if we go down the TE route we have to have a theory of how the angels would evolve - eg since they can look like humans being transformed - did they evolve.   Did  God create the angelic realm or did he need to evolve them - rather difficult for a TE to debate.


Chip - #78651

April 17th 2013

In yesterday’s post, Oord framed his whole discussion in terms of an error-prone bible which was reliable only in matters of salvation, and more specifically conceded, “I don’t require the Bible to tell me truth about science.”   So, salvation’s in, science is out, and most else is apparently sketchy at best. 

Until today, when we learn that “God creates through an evolutionary process involving ‘creaturely contributions’.”  Indeed, through his reading of Genesis, we now know that “God’s way of doing new things is written into God’s creating through evolution.” 

So, apparently (today at least) evolution and creation are back in, along with a whole slate of other topics he mentions in the post, including agency, freedom, love, life, and death, which have apparently been restored to the universe of topics that the bible can speak to. 

Merv, are you listening?  Can’t wait for tomorrow…


Merv - #78658

April 17th 2013

I’m here  —and with some criticism of my own, though it is differently motivated than yours I believe.  I can understand Jon and Eddie’s frustration with the whole nebulous concept of ‘freedom’ being attributed willy-nilly to all creation.  Actually I’m not as bugged by that as they are, but I do agree with them that it is not anything close to an adequate or coherent explanation for those who want all such agency demonstrated.  I’m okay knowing that mystery is in God’s hands.

I had started to reply to you in part 1, but I’ll just paste that here below instead (and hopefully the ‘snarkiness’ of my content is a notch or two lower!)  But here is where I still probably disagree with you, Chip.

In your zeal to discredit Oord, you do misrepresent him when you accuse him of having us believe that any of Scripture should “be written off as unreliable fluff”.  True—he is denying inerrancy, but he does not use this to come to the same conclusion you are here imposing on him.   Don’t you at least agree that if someone wanted, for example, to press Jesus about the detail of the prodigal son story, and they became obsessed with verifying its historical details—refusing to consider its message until they had evidence it was true—don’t you agree that such a person would be entirely missing the point, and in fact missing out on a valuable lesson about God?  Yet, by such logic as you seem to employ:  If the facts of a story aren’t true, then the story is worthless at every level.  Such an approach totally misunderstands what a parable is intended to teach us in the first place.  You may respond that Jesus clearly labeled these narratives as parables—very true.  That is why I use the example.  Jesus taught other things too and expected us (and his immediate disciples) to discern the deeper meaning.  “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees”  or “You must be born again”  —things not labeled as parables, and yet not literal either (as his thick-headed disciples often discovered).  If we really want to take Scriptures seriously, we cannot then think ourselves free just to take plain (to us) meanings and adopt those as if that is all the serious study God’s word merits.  We really do need to ponder, pray, and study –both alone and together.   Such time spent is often rewarded.

 


lancelot10 - #78666

April 18th 2013

I agree with much of what you say - Paul says do not debate or argue.  It is probably rare for someone to come to Jesus through logic alone - it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that man comes to realise his sins before a Holy God and repents.

A creationist scientist once said that while vehemently debating the creationist view he saw a vision of hell - he said he knew this was from God. He felt then that he was wanting to win the argument at all costs rather than preach the gospel under the power of the Holy Spirit.

This would be a good tactic for the devil to use - have Christians tangled up in unloving debate rather than helping orphans and widows -  I have fallen into this trap when I tried to convince family and friends that the Bible is inerrant which I 100% believe.

I read an church father saying one kind act performed in love is better than all the religious ceremony in the world.  The NT says anything not done in faith and love is sin.

I was quite proud of my certainty of creation science and fulfilled prophecy and still have no doubts but centering on this can lead to pride and presumption.

Millions of Christians have a sure faith in the bible but have no wish to debate evolution and creation - they just know in their hearts that God exists and his word is inerrant.

Belief in the bible does not necessarily make one behave in a Christian manner - other religions believe in 6 day creation such as Islamic scientists.

Once someone has accepted the Truth of Jesus the Holy Spirit will lead one into all truth if that person has humility and prays for understanding.

There are many stories of Christians rejecting the truth and apostasising by believing evolution trumps the truth of the Bible - but this may be a symptom of unbelief rather than the prime cause of leaving Jesus behind.

A look at the standard of debate on the evolutionary sites plainly reveals there is no brotherly love - Christians should avoid anything other than the most gentle of debates - but they should still state their case where possible and without damaging those of little faith in case they snuff out the smoking wick - Love only Love is the way.

When I changed from an evo to a creationist and became a believer I was like the bull in a china shop when it came to my disastrous attempts at witnessing .  I did not study the word enough to become approved and other successful christians who had written good commentary.

 


Chip - #78688

April 18th 2013

Hi Merv,

you accuse him of having us believe that any of Scripture should “be written off as unreliable fluff”.

Certainly there’s no doubt he wouldn’t have expressed it the way I did.  But given his statements, “unreliable” certainly seems a fair description of his view of the “non-salvation” portions of the bible.  And this assumes, by the way, that he can determine with any degree of objectivity or consistency which portions are “the necessary points of scripture,” as he says in Part 1, and which aren’t. Necessary. Who makes that call? And how? And what should we call the parts that aren’t “necessary”?  In the end, this smorgasbord approach to the scriptures is—at best—arbitrary and quite subjective. 

Having said that, I agree with  your references to parabolic language and other examples, and would simply make the statement that holding out for true bible in no way implies the need for a wooden, literalisitc one—as so many people seem to assume.  Jesus was not a plank of oak (“I am the door”—jn 10), and God is not a chicken or an albatros (“He will cover you with his pinions”—Ps 91).  But its still accurate in what it says.

What you’re advocating (“ponder, pray, and study –both alone and together…”)—which I heartily endorse—is valuable simply because it is God’s word and therefore trustworthy.  Or as Paul says to the Thessalonians, “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

Thanks for the conversation. 


glsi - #79500

May 3rd 2013

Sorry, but I found Dr. Oord’s equation of the crucified Christ with Darwinism to be very creepy indeed.


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