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Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 2

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February 12, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 2

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.

Part 2: “The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature”

As a rule, I would say that Augustine and Calvin handled apparent conflicts between Scripture and science with a different temperament than one commonly finds among modern, creationist opponents of evolution.

On the one hand, Augustine and Calvin tended to take the scientific evidence more seriously and grant it more weight than many evangelicals would. On the other hand, they were far more willing to adjust their interpretations of Scripture to make room for the scientific evidence. Calvin even admitted that the cosmology of Genesis was wrong.

At this point I would like very briefly to explore why these older temperaments are so different from what one finds among modern evangelical.

First, regarding the scientific evidence, both Augustine and Calvin regarded the cosmos as an important source of revelation from God. Following Psalm 19, they understood that the “heavens declare the glory of God. Day by day they pour forth speech. There is no language in which their word is not heard.” When the cosmos is understood in this way—as divine speech to humanity—then it is no longer possible to characterize Christian debates about science as a conflict that pits “God’s inerrant word in Scripture” against “errant human science.” Rather, any conflict between Scripture and science should be understood as a conflict between “human interpretations of God’s word in Scripture” and “human interpretations of God’s word in nature.”

When we understand the situation in this way, then in any apparent conflict between Scripture and science it is just as likely that we’ve misunderstood the biblical evidence as that we’ve misunderstood the science … in fact, one could make the theological argument that we’re more likely to misunderstand the Bible, as an instance of special revelation, than to misunderstand the general revelation available to everyone in creation.

Secondly, regarding Scripture itself, although Augustine and Calvin deeply trusted the Bible as a witness to Christ and the Gospel message, they did not feel any deep need for Scripture to provide dependable insights on everything in human experience. In particular, both theologians averred that the Bible is not a science book. This is why Augustine was so comfortable reading problematic biblical texts as allegories and why Calvin was able to say, rather nonchalantly, that one could not depend on Scripture as a guide to the structure of the cosmos.

Their temperament towards Scripture was very different from what prevails nowadays in pop Christian culture, where it is casually assumed that the Bible is a fool-proof guide for everything … not only for leading us to Christ and right living but also for elucidating the scholarly facts of astronomy, biology, chemistry, economics, psychology, and sociology as well as the practical facts of success in marriage, parenting, health, and personal finances.

I think we should follow the lead of Augustine and Calvin. As a rule, God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves. Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers. On top of that, we have been able to tolerably appreciate and understand them by applying our natural, God-given intellectual gifts to a study of the cosmos that God made for us. And what we have discovered reveals a cosmos that is truly amazing and that, if anything, only points us towards the God who made it. And this, the Bible tells us, is precisely what the cosmos—the “book of nature”— was designed to do!

Is biological evolution among those things that we can discover for ourselves? And if it is, could it be that the evolutionary process, rather than pointing us away from God, might actually impress us as the work of a mighty God? That is the question that we will begin to take up in Part 3.

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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Unapologetic Catholic - #4389

February 12th 2010

Well since biology is easily capable of moving from what you call “micro”-evolution to “macro” evolution we shoudl indeed stick to biology since that’s actually the subject matter.

“especially since I’m not a biologist.”

That explains this erroneous stament:  ” Lots of micros- (accumulated) don’t get one to a macro- level. There is a meaningful ‘gap’ between them.”

That statement is flatly, demostrably wrong.

Here’s the topic: “Is biological evolution among those things that we can discover for ourselves?”

The answer is yes.  Has everybody here done it?  No.

Is that an excuse?  No.

How can you discover the facts about biologicval evolution for yourself?

Get educated (for free):  http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Biology/7-012Fall-2004/CourseHome/index.htm

There is no excuse for ignorance.  There is no substitute for knowledge.

Gregory Arago - #4391

February 13th 2010


Well stated! We are indeed dealing with opposites when we speak of micro- and macro-, small and large. There is a risk of collapse in the continuum when we leave the extremes.

Is there discontinuity or not?

One doesn’t say: “that’s the whitest shade of black I’ve ever seen.” We have greys.

On the issue of ‘mutability’ or ‘common descent(s)’, one should say that species *are* mutable (it is “like confessing a murder”). How mutable they are seems to be an open question. What is a ‘species’?

Perhaps this is the issue that Daniel wants to raise. He uses the word ‘we’ wrt ‘modern evangelical scholars’ and says (in #4358) “we do take issue with the theory of macro-evolution.” Who does he really speak for?

As for me, I don’t know how life came from non-life, how organic came from inorganic, how human came from animal. These seem to be fundamentally different levels or ‘kinds’.

Ben Smith - #4393

February 13th 2010


That phrases better what I was trying to say. Still, I have yet to hear anyone that is not an anti-evolutionist use either of the terms, and as a biology major at a leading research university you would think that I would have if it was something worth considering.

Gregory Arago - #4396

February 13th 2010

The person who coined the terms ‘micro-evolution’ and ‘macro-evolution’ was not an anti-evolutionist!

The invention/creation/design of the terms in 1927 was by Russian entomologist Yuri Filipchenko.

What we find, however, in the Russian tradition, is a concentrated anti-Malthusianism, which was not manifest in ‘the west.’

L. Margulis said a few months ago in no uncertain terms: “English-speaking biologists still don’t get it.”

She is responsible for publishing in 2010 for the first time in English Boris M. Kozo-Polyansky’s 1924 book “Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution” - Harvard University Press.

Maybe that’s why you haven’t heard anything yet, Ben?

Kent Sparks - #4406

February 13th 2010

Wow. A lot of conversation. I’m off to a soccer tournament in a few minutes, but let me say this, in general.

First, Augustine’s approach should be judged in its own context, not in ours. His approach to Genesis mixed literal and allegorical methods, using allegory especially when the text seemed to contradict the best science of his day. Whether one agrees with this method or not, it was how he worked things out. He certainly was interested in fitting Scripture to the Ptolemaic cosmology of his day.

Second, Scripture’s meaning is not perspicuous (clear and obvious). The fact that spirit-indwelt, Bible believing Christians disagree on so many basic theological subjects reveals that this is the case.

More later. I’m very sorry to be “out of the loop” this a.m. But I’ll be back ...

let the conversation continue.


Dan Baright - #4408

February 13th 2010

Calvin’s treatment, as a prosecutor, of Michael Servitius might be of interest.

Dan - #4417

February 13th 2010

To my original point, using Augustine to support theistic evolution is to me a misrepresentation.  Yes, in his “Literal Meaning of Genesis” he acknowledged that Genesis 1 is difficult to interpret and should not be tied to tightly to a particular theory of “how God did it”.  On the other hand, in his City of God he was quite willing to insist on a 6000 year old earth, the historicity of the Genesis flood and insisted strongly that physical death was a result of the fall of Adam.  Young-earth creationists could cite Augustine for their position far more easily than Theistic evolutionists can.

Augustine allowed for allegorical interpretations in addition to the historical, but did not deny the historicity of the events of Genesis.  Perhaps he was wrong.  That would be a fair case to make.  To suggest his view is supportive of TE is to put words in his mouth and misleads those who haven’t read “City of God” on the matter.

Kent Sparks - #4427

February 13th 2010

Hello Dan,

Of course you’re right. Augustine (and Calvin for that matter) would have espoused all sorts of “science” (like a 6000 yr old earth) that might support those who are against evolution. But in principle, if one looks at their approach, it seems that they were much more influenced by the then scientific information of their day than modern fundamentlism. We know (as much as one can know in such matters) that Augustine, if he lived today, would embrace evolution as within the realm of Christian faith. How do we know? Because catholicism accepts it.

As for Calvin, he was so much of an intellectual rebel ... SO opposed to everything traditional ... I feel quite sure that he’d be somewhere close to where Calvin College’s science department is ... gain, evolution.

In other words, my point is not specifically what Augustine and Calvin believed ... my point is that their general approach would have taken the “secular” science seriously and would have embraced a flexibility with Scripture that is not found in fundamentalism.

MF - #4547

February 15th 2010

Dr. Sparks,

I’d still like to hear from you on the argument I made above (4354 and 4355) and in more detail on your prior post regarding Calvin imputing outright error to Genesis 1. After reading his commentary, it seems plain to me that he takes a phenomenological approach, which is quite different than saying it is simply wrong.

eddy - #4738

February 17th 2010

” could it be that the evolutionary process, rather than pointing us away from God, might actually impress us as the work of a mighty God?”

If the aim of this article is to draw people who deny God closer to Him, certainly the intended target are not biblical literalists.

0_o - #11176

April 26th 2010

i think you’re wrong eddy. it was a direct result of the ridiculous rationale “hyper-literalists” use that i began to question and ultimately leave the faith. a great amount of damage is done by insisting science is wrong, and both augustine and calvin pointed that out. most of the atheists and agnostics i know would be much more receptive to the gospel message if they didn’t feel like it meant lobotomizing themselves to accept it. so IMO “biblical literalists” are indeed the appropriate target.

i appreciate your work on this dr. sparks, and look forward to the rest of the piece. pieces like this are instrumental in taking back christianity, and bringing some of us lost ones back home.


Herman (Dusty) Rhodes - #15107

May 25th 2010

In order to understand about God’s creation, you need to understand what God is. God= all Truth. Most Christians think of God as being good. But Truth is more than good. Anything that can be proved is Truth, (Fiction can never be proved). We discovered the laws of physics recently and have just scratched the surface of them. People that discover some of the laws get the laws named after them, Like Ohm. But the laws that they discover are eternal laws and are a part of God. They have been in the universe and we have observed them all the way back to the big bang. God is made up of all laws of Truth, Physics, Chemistry, math, etc. etc. The laws that we observe all support each other; you can’t have one law without the rest. That says that they are a program and they could not have evolved one law at a time. God did not create the laws of nature; God is the laws of nature. From his laws, the universe evolved by a path of evolution, by it’s self. But first God had to calculate the structure of the universe and establish his laws in a special structure that would bring forth the universe and life. That shows the intelligence of God, the only know-it-all.

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