Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 2
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 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.