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Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 1

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February 6, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 1

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

My general theme is the perennial conflict between faith and science, but the immediate precipitating issue is evolution. More than any other avenue of scientific inquiry (even more, it would seem, than the search for “God” in our neurons) evolution seems to bring scientific insight into direct conflict. This conflict is not only with the facts of Genesis 1-2, but also with the very theological bases of the Christian tradition itself: the special creation of humanity, the fall, and the entrance of death into the world.

In the next several posts, I do not aim to solve the theological problems raised by evolution as much as rethink the nature of the conflict between faith and science itself so that a more lasting solution to these theological dilemmas can be posed.

Part 1: The Bible and Science: Old Strategies for an Old Problem

Let us begin with one of the great fathers of the early church, St. Augustine. Writing in his 5th century commentary on the book of Genesis, he lamented the embarrassment created when Christians interpreted the Bible without recourse to science:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions … Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.1

One issue that confronted Augustine was a conflict between the best cosmological thought of his day (the Ptolemaic view that a spherical earth was orbited by the heavenly bodies of the cosmos) and two other Christian views, according to which the heavens were either a vaulted half-dome or a flat disk suspended above a flat earth. As his above comment suggests, Augustine’s response was to advance an interpretation of the Bible that made room for the science.2

This set of priorities may strike some evangelicals as a bit odd, but it was in keeping with Augustine’s general approach to the apparent contradictions and problems in the Bible itself. Whenever two biblical texts seemed to contradict each other on a “literal” reading, Augustine was quite willing to assume that one or both were figural or allegorical. In a similar way, Augustine found it important to use his interpretive strategies to harmonize Scripture with the accredited results of science.

Regarding the shape of the cosmos, Augustine argued that the vaulted “half-dome” presented in Genesis 1 complemented the Ptolemaic view of a spherical earth. So Genesis gives us a partial picture of the larger scientific whole. As for the other Christian theory, which maintained on the basis of Psalm 103:2 that the heavens are disk-shaped3, Augustine explained that this psalm is allegorical and shouldn’t be used as a literal description of scientific facts. So here and at many other points in his commentary, Augustine found it advantageous to treat the biblical text as allegorical or figural when this suited the scientific evidence.

We can draw three insights from Augustine’s work and approach. First, the problem of apparent conflict between the Bible and science is not a new problem but rather a perennial one, nearly as old as the Christian Bible itself. Secondly, Augustine regarded it as important to let the scientific evidence have a say in how the Bible should be interpreted. He did not assume that the science was wrong simply because it contradicted what he took to be a literal reading of Scripture. Third, one of Augustine’s favorite exegetical strategies for resolving theological conflict was to closely consider the genre of the biblical text. If the biblical text contradicted good science, he recognized the possibility that the text was not a literal, scientific text.

This does not mean, however, that Augustine was unwilling in principle to take a strong stand against contemporary science. For instance, Augustine strongly resisted scientific objections to the biblical claim, in Genesis 1:6-7, that there were “waters above the heavens.” After rejecting both the scientific evidence against the Bible and the allegorical possibilities in the Bible, he concluded that these waters actually did exist because “the authority of Scripture in this matter is greater than all human ingenuity.” Of course, were he alive in the era of space exploration I suspect that he’d head in another direction and direct us to allegorize the heavenly waters. But in Augustine’s day, as he points out in some detail, the scientific evidence appeared to be fairly ambiguous.

From this I’d draw one last observation from Augustine’s work: whenever he considered the scientific evidence very strong, he adjusted his view of the Bible to make room for the science; when he considered the scientific evidence to be weak, he sided with Scripture. I would suggest that this element in Augustine’s approach brings us face to face with the scientific and theological question that confronts modern Christians: Is the evidence for evolution so overwhelming and clear that we must adjust our views of Scripture and theology to make room for it? Or is the evidence actually very weak and carelessly cobbled together by godless scientists who wish to discredit the Christian faith? I will come back to this question in a later essay.

Regarding the problem of science and Scripture, one option that Augustine did not consider in any of his work was the possibility that the biblical cosmology was actually wrong. So far as I know, we must leap forward about one thousand years to find a notable Christian theologian who said something like this. I refer to John Calvin and his commentary on Genesis.

In Calvin’s day the science was modestly more advanced than in Augustine’s day and, as a result, the Bible’s claim that there were “waters above the heavens” presented a more serious problem for him. The difficulty was exacerbated because Calvin’s interpretive tradition tended to reject allegories, so that Scripture, as a literal depiction of the cosmos, was brought into a very direct conflict with science.

Would Calvin side with the truth of literal Scripture or the accredited facts of science? Here is Calvin’s comment about the “waters above the firmament”:

For, to my mind, this is a certain principle: that nothing is treated here except the visible form of the world. Whoever wishes to learn astronomy and other esoteric arts, let him go elsewhere … Therefore, the things which he [i.e., Moses] relates, serve as the decorative objects from that theatre which he [i.e., God] places before our eyes.From this I conclude that the waters intended here are such as the crude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance of them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses. And truly a longer inquiry into a matter open and manifest is superfluous [emphasis mine].4

One should not, Calvin says, believe “by faith” that there are waters above the firmament when one knows good and well that this is not the case. In Calvin’s view, Genesis merely accommodated itself to the ancient and errant human view that such waters existed.5

Calvin similarly argued that accommodation was at work in the chronological system used to enumerate the various creation days of Genesis 1. Because the text reflects an acceptance of the ancient view of time, says Calvin, “It is useless to dispute whether this is the best and legitimate order or not.”6 In other words, accommodation was for Calvin what allegory was for Augustine … a useful interpretive tool because it made the Bible’s apparent scientific “errors” irrelevant. God does not err in Scripture … but Scripture does reflect the errant views of the ancient biblical audience.

Calvin’s approach parallels Augustine’s in numerous respects. Foremost, we see that Calvin took the science very seriously and recognized that the scientific evidence can become so clear to educated minds that it can no longer be “trumped” by Scripture. He was so committed to this perspective that he was willing, in this case, to admit that the biblical cosmology was wrong.

Secondly, like Augustine, Calvin turned to genre as a solution to the problem of Scripture’s error. However, where Augustine used allegory to make Scripture correct, Calvin used accommodation to absolve God of error in Scripture. Scripture does reflect an errant view, said Calvin, but the error is not God’s error … it is the error of the ancient human audience, perpetuated in the Biblical text because the Bible is not a science book. To put it in Calvin’s own words, “Whoever wishes to learn astronomy and other esoteric arts, let him go elsewhere.”

If Calvin was right, then we should by all means avoid an interpretive habit that assumes that, in our pursuit scientific knowledge, the Bible is always a better resource than the tools and traditions of the modern academy. I will take up this point in part 2.

1. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (2 vols.; trans. J. H. Taylor; New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 1.42-43.

2. My remaining relate to Augustine’s commentary in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 1.1-61.

3. “[God] stretches out the heavens like a skin” (Ps 103:2).

4. Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, 79-80. Calvin’s approach to Genesis is given more general expression in his Institutes: “For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.” See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 vols.; London: Clarke, 1949), 1.13.1.

5. For discussions of Calvin’s accommodation theology, see Jon Balserak, “‘The Accommodating Act Par Excellence?’: An Inquiry into the Incarnation and Calvin's Understanding of Accommodation,” Scottish Journal of Theology 55 (2002): 408-23; Ford L. Battles, “God Was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity,” Interpretation 31 (1977): 19-38; David F. Wright, “Calvin’s Pentateuchal Criticism: Equity, Hardness of Heart, and Divine Accommodation in the Mosaic Harmony Commentary,” Calvin Theological Journal 21 (1986): 33-50.

6. Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, 79-80.

Kenton L. Sparks (Ph.D., University of North Carolina) is professor of biblical studies and vice president for enrollment management at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible, God’s Word in Human Words, and Sacred Word, Broken Word.

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Martin Rizley - #4177

February 9th 2010

Kent and Pete,
The quote from Calvin you cite is the same one in the article above, in which Calvin is referring to the fact that some, through a “hyper-literal” interpretation of Moses’ words, insisted that there must be waters “above the heavens” to which Moses is referring other than the watery clouds, since the text places the waters physically above the heavens, whereas the clouds are “in” the heavens.  Calvin rejects this hyper-literal interpretation of the text, saying that Moses is clearly referring to that which anyone (even the ignorant and unlearned) can see (perceive) with his own eyes—namely, the clouds.  Moses was not referring to some other waters which the hyper-literalist must insist must be there, because the text says they are “above” the heavens.  No, no, say Calvin.  Your hyper-literalism ignores the intent of Moses, which is not to give a physical comography of the heavens, but to describe God’s work of creation from the standpoint of an observer who is looking at the “decorative objects” that God has created to fill “the theater which He places before our eyes.”  Moses is referring to no other waters than these (continued)

Martin Rizley - #4180

February 9th 2010

Apparently, some were clinging “by faith” to the view that some other waters existed “above the heavens” (beyond the stars).  Their error was in failing to grasp the intent of Moses’ description by insisting on a hyper-literalism in his use of language.  Calvin says this is an error.  Notice, the error is not in what Moses himself intends to affirm, but in the misinterpretation of the hyper-literalists, who expect something of the text which is not according to Moses’ intention.  There is a huge difference between a literal and a hyper-literal interpretation of the Bible.  Literal interpretation always strives to understand the intent of the author and to interpret his words taking into account literary conventions such as figures of speech, rounded numbers, metaphors and similes, and the use of phenomenological (as opposed to scientific or technically exact) descriptions of the natural world.  The phrase “waters above the heavens’ falls into the latter category.  Moses only meant to say that above the air that men breathe, there are ‘heavenly waters’ (i. e., the clouds).  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #4182

February 9th 2010

Moses didn’t mean to say that those waters must be located on the “far side of the stars.”  That’s an example of hyper-literalism, which leads people into the teaching of error.  But when people misinterpret the Scriptures through hyper-literalism and teach error as a consequence, that error should not be imputed to the biblical text which they are misinterpreting.  There can be error in the biblical text only if the author intends to affirm something which is not true.  So the question is, what did Moses intend to affirm?    If one truly understands what Moses intended to affirm and teaches that, respecting the literary conventions he employs in his use of language,  then one will teach the truth without error.  If, however, one tries to interpret the text in a hyper-literal manner—ignoring the author’s intention and demanding of his words a hyper-literal, scientific accuracy which is alien to the intent of the author—then one cannot avoid teaching error.  In that case, however, the error lies in the interpreter, who refuses to affirm the intended sense of the text, rather than in the text itself.

Gregory Arago - #4183

February 9th 2010

But you’re a ‘literalist’ aren’t you, Martin? Will you say you’re *not* a literalist?

What’s the difference between ‘hyper-literalist’ and ‘literalist’?

It seems to me that you are vilifying an even smaller minority than your own small minority.

In another thread you used my words to try to prove your point, i.e. to suggest that since woman was ‘created after’ man therefore ‘evolutionary theory’ must be wrong.

Yet I find your biological knowledge non-existent in the face of Dr. Falk’s. You seem to presume, sola scriptura, that Dr. Falk’s ‘scientific knowledge’ simply *cannot* be correct *if* it in any way contradicts Biblical Scripture, which you *interpret* as being inerrant.

Isn’t this one of the great ‘in-house’ confrontations among ‘evangelical’ minds, hearts and spirits?

Martin Rizley - #4198

February 9th 2010

I am a literalist, in that I believe the Bible should be interpreted literally, according to its straightforward, literal meaning.  However, I distinguish between literal interpretation and the two opposite of extremes of “allegorical” and “hyper-literal” interpretation.  A literal approach to interpretation seeks to understand every text in its context in order to determine the intended meaning of the text.  It understands that a text “says” only what it “means” but meaning must be determined from the text itself, interpreted in its linguistic, cultural, historical and literary context, and that means being sensitive to such things as literary genre and literary conventions such as metaphor, simile, use of rounded numbers, lack of strict chronology in certain passages, and use of summary and paraphrase.  A literal approach also takes into account literary genre, and the use of symbolism in genres such as Jewish apocalypse and prophecy.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #4199

February 9th 2010

A hyper-literal approach, on the other hand, ignores literary genre, style, and conventions, and presses the literal meaning to ridiculous extremes, refusing to see symbolic language anywhere in the Bible.  A hyper-literalist would insist, for example, that John’s vision of Jesus coming on a white horse in Revelation 19 means that at some point in the future, a literal white horse must descend from the sky, or that the description of New Jerusalem must also be literally fulfilled in terms a literal, cube-shaped city descending from the sky with the precise physical dimensions recorded made of the gemstones mentioned, etc.  Such an approach, in my judgment, errs by failing to recognize the highly symbolic nature of apocalyptic vision.  An allegorical approach, on the other hand, attempt to “spiritualize” texts which are clearly intended to be taken in a straightforward manner as literal history.  For example, to “spiritualize” the narrative of the fall in Genesis 3 by saying it is simply a picture of everyone’s struggle with temptation is an example of unwarranted allegorization of the biblical text, I believe, which ignores textual indications of Adam’s identity as an historical figure.

Martin Rizley - #4200

February 9th 2010

By the way, did I misunderstand or misuse your words in the other thread you mention to make a point?  If so, I’m sorry.  I thought you had said that belief in an evolutionary origin of mankind means that one cannot accept the view that the woman was created after the man and from the substance of the man.

Kent Sparks - #4260

February 11th 2010

Hi Martin,

You’re not the first defender of Calvin to try to read him the way you have, but Calvin experts read him differently and take this as an example of accommodation, in which he allows that God assumes an errant, uneducated view of the cosmos in Scripture. In fact, this would be Calvin’s point even if he’s critiquing “hyper-literalism” in the way that you describe. It would remain that case that, when Moses describes the cosmos “as the uneducated thought it was,” then it was wrong ... else, why point out that it was as the uneducated thought?

Secondly, in answer to Pete’s post, I’d say that my view differs, of course, from Calvin’s. Calvin wants to have Moses “in on the secret” when he writes Genesis. I would simply say that accommodation is accomplished by adopted the human author’s viewpoint, so that not only the ancient audience of Genesis, but also the author of Genesis, believed (like everyone else in the ancient world) that there were waters above the heavens.

Martin Rizley - #4268

February 11th 2010

Kent,  I think you’ve hit the nail on the head on where I understanding of Calvin diversges by pointing to the phrase “such as the crude and unlearned perceive.”  You interpret the word ‘perceive’ to mean ‘understand,’ so that Moses is accomodating himself to the ignorance-based understanding of the crude and unlearned in what he says about the waters above the heavens.  I interpret the word ‘perceive’ to mean ‘observe with the naked eye.’  In other words, Calvin is saying that Moses is speaking of waters which not only the educated (that is, astronomers) are able to see with special instruments, but such waters as even the “crude and unlearned” are able to see with the naked eye.  In other words, Calvin is not saying that Moses is accomodating himself to the “ideas” of the crude and unlearned, but that he is referring to such waters as people not equipped with telescopes (“educated” astronomers) can see with the naked eye.  So there is no suggestion on Calvin’s part that Moses is basing his statements on the ideas of crude and unlearned people, only that he is referring to those waters which such individuals can see with the naked eye.

Martin Rizley - #4276

February 11th 2010

Kent,  In other words, Moses in Genesis 1 is not affirming the “thoughts” of the crude and learning by suggesting that there are waters above the sidereal heavens (that idea is not found anywhere in Genesis 1, Calvin says); rather, he is describing the “visual images” which the crude and unlearned “perceive” with their own eyes.  To say that Moses in Genesis 1 is affirming the “thoughts” of the crude and learned would involve him in teaching scientific error; on the other hand,  to say that he is simply describing the “visual images” which the crude and unlearned are able to perceive with the naked eye, apart from telescopes, involves no scientific error—and it is the latter, not the former, that Moses is doing in Genesis 1.

MF - #4279

February 11th 2010

In reading Dr. Sparks’s essay, the relevant section of Calvin’s Genesis commentary, and the comments above, I must say I think Martin Rizley is closer to the truth on Calvin’s view of the waters and that Dr. Sparks (and perhaps others) have misunderstood him. (This says nothing about my own view, which is unsettled.)

Calvin rejects both the allegorical view of Genesis 1 and the hyper-scientific view (that the text reveals that there are hidden waters above the heavens, which he says contradicts “common sense”) and by adopting a phenomenological approach: “nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world.”


MF - #4280

February 11th 2010


The old example of the sun “rising” falls under the same point—we describe the world as we see it from our perspective, not as it “really is” from God’s perspective. Calvin suggests that a person who would learn how the world really works should pursue “recondite arts” like astronomy and not expect Genesis, which is written to all men not just the highly learned, to reveal the laws of physics or the detailed structure of the universe. Likewise to charge Calvin with attributing error to Moses because of his use of phenomenological language seems unjustified, just as it does when we say the sun rises.


MF - #4281

February 11th 2010


Thus he concludes that “the waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive…. We [all, learned and unlearned,] see that the clouds suspended in the air, which threaten to fall upon our heads, yet leave us space to breathe…. God has created the clouds, and assigned them a region above us….” Calvin cites Ps. 104:3, which says (including v. 2, NIV):

    [The LORD] wraps himself in light as with a garment;
    he stretches out the heavens like a tent
    and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
    He makes the clouds his chariot
    and rides on the wings of the wind.

That seems to confirm Calvin’s understanding of the “heavenly waters” in Genesis 1 as clouds.

Dr. Sparks, could you perhaps provide some citations of Calvin scholars who support your thesis about him?

MF - #4283

February 11th 2010

Oops. Delete “and” from the phrase “and by adopting” in post #4279 above.

Edward T. Babinski - #4654

February 16th 2010

Hi MF,

In Psalm 104:3 what are the waters in which God lays the beams of his upper chambers? Are they the same waters as the clouds which are His chariot? So are you saying that God’s home is built on a cloud, the same cloud which he uses as a chariot?  Then why didn’t the author use the same term, “cloud” in both cases, instead of using the common term for waters of the sea?  Maybe the “waters” of “His upper chambers” are something a bit more substantial than mere clouds, perhaps like the “waters” depicted in another Psalm, Psalm 148:3-4: 

Praise Him, sun and moon;
Praise Him, all stars of light!
Praise Him, highest heavens,
And the waters that are above the heavens!

Edward T. Babinski - #4659

February 16th 2010

Hi MF,

Sparks is correct.  Calvin excused the simple “gross” confusing depiction of creation in Genesis 1 on the basis that such words were meant for common folk, but at the same time Calvin did not want to leave people with the impression that Moses himself might have been confused concerning such matters. So Calvin also boasted in sermons that the words of Genesis 1 do not indicate that Moses himself lacked more precise knowledge regarding such matters. Rather, Calvins insisted that Moses had a far more extensive personal knowledge of what he was talking about concerning creation and the heavens, but Moses kept that to himself.

See Scott M. Manetsch, “Problems with the Patriarchs: John Calvin’s Interpretation of Difficult Passages in Genesis,” Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005): 13–15.

Calvin reminded people that Moses had been raised in Egyptian courts and those Egyptians knew a thing or too about creation and astronomy. Of course this was a lame boast on Calvin’s part since no one in Calvin’s day knew much about Egyptian courts or what Egyptians knew about astronomy. Indeed, the Egyptian language of hieroglyphics remained a mystery for a couple hundreds years after Calvin’s day.

Edward T. Babinski - #4662

February 16th 2010

Calvin was a great rationalizer. 

Calvin wrote that God created the light of day several days before He “made and the sun and set it” in the sky, just to demonstrate His miraculous power. We should therefore praise a God who can create light even without the sun!  (However, since such a display took place before the creation of man, the demonstration seems nugatory in my opinion.)

Calvin also wrote about how God miraculously keeps the waters from covering the earth (another demonstration of God’s power).

Calvin also wrote about how God held the earth in place in a stationary fashion via His mighty power, while everything in the heavens revolved around the earth (again, another demonstration of God’s power).

I’m not sure such proofs of God’s power would impress modern astronomers and geologists quite as much today.

Edward T. Babinski - #4664

February 16th 2010

Also, according to Calvin . . . “The sixth day is not the end of Creation. Calvin hints that a dark side of Creation continued after the seventh day: “...it is to be observed, that in the works of the six days, those things alone are comprehended which tend to the lawful and genuine adorning the world. It is subsequently that we shall find God saying, ‘Let the earth bring forth thorns and briers’” (Chpt. 2, 2). In fact, Calvin conceives a kind of perverse Evolution following the seventh day: “...many things which are now seen in the world are rather corruptions of it than any part of its proper furniture. ...it became necessary that the world should gradually degenerate from its nature. We must come to this conclusion respecting the existence of fleas, caterpillars, and other noxious insects. In all these, I say, there is some deformity of the world, which ought by no means to be regarded as in the order of nature, since it proceeds rather from the sin of man than from the hand of God. Truly these things were created by God, but by God as an avenger” [A Biblical Critque of Creationism, Dennis O’Leary, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 51, n. 3, March, 2003, p. 309-312]

Nazorean - #24749

August 6th 2010

Firmament comes from the Hebrew word raqia meaning to spread or stamp, like a metallurgist hammering out a piece of metal. It is understood to mean the sky is a vault or canopy, but there are 3 other Hebrew words that would have been better suited for this purpose. If raqia means heaven why was it necessary to follow it in G 1:14, 15, 17, and 20 with the phrase “of the heaven”.

“The Septuagint translated raqia into Greek as stereoma, which connotes a “solid structure”  The Greek word used in translation was stereoma–in order to suggest a firm, solid structure. This influenced Jerome to use the word firmamentum (meaning a strong or steadfast support) which translates as firmament.

In G 1:2 the earth only existed as a wave function, with no mass. Void means no quantum particles. In G 1:3 God creates light and separates the quantum world of light from darkness. In G 1:6 God creates a firmament to divide the waters above from the waters below. It is the creation of the third brain. The outer layer of the mind which is etheric forms the raqia or halo around the brain of man. The firmament separates the upper waters, the emotional body, or masculine polarity from the lower waters, the mental body, or feminine polarity.

jitsevandermeer - #69676

May 4th 2012

Kenton Sparks wrote in his 4th to last paragraph:

“Calvin similarly argued that accommodation was at work in the chronological system used to enumerate the various creation days of Genesis 1. Because the text reflects an acceptance of the ancient view of time, says Calvin, “It is useless to dispute whether this is the best and legitimate order or not.”6 In other words, accommodation was for Calvin what allegory was for Augustine … a useful interpretive tool because it made the Bible’s apparent scientific “errors” irrelevant. God does not err in Scripture … but Scripture does reflect the errant views of the ancient biblical audience.”

Please note that Calvin’s discussion was about the sequence of dark and light within a day, not about the sequence of days within a week.A Freudian slip?

Jitse van der Meer

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