Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 1
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 Sparks is professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University and author of several books, including his latest God's Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship , in which he argues that evangelical biblical scholarship has largely failed in not appropriating critical scholarship as it should.