Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 2

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February 12, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Kenton Sparks. 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.

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.

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Dan - #4346

February 12th 2010

Augustine wrote:

‘Yet no one ought to suppose either that these things were written for no purpose, or that we should study only the historical truth, apart from any allegorical meanings; or, on the contrary, that they are only allegories, and that there were no such facts at all, or that, whether it be so or no, there is here no prophecy of the church. “

While Augustine was a wee bit flexible regarding he meaning of Genesis 1, he did not think the accounts of Genesis were less than factually true.  Augustine held to the historicity of the creation account and the flood and even insisted on a young earth.  I don’t see the point of holding Augustine up as a club to beat creationists with.  Seems like a misrepresentation to me.


Brian - #4349

February 12th 2010

Hello Kenton,

“...the evolutionary process, rather than pointing us away from God, might actually impress us as the work of a mighty God.”

What specific scientific evidence is there that points to the evolutionary process as—not mere unguided naturalism—but, as you say,  the work of a mighty God?


Dan - #4350

February 12th 2010

“I think we should follow the lead of Augustine and Calvin. It is time for the Evangelical tradition (of which I am a part) to take scientists more seriously and the Bible somewhat less seriously.”

You are never going to get most creationists, especially YECs, to agree with this. For them, the Bible is the ultimate source of information and it cannot be taken “too seriously.” If aspects of human inquiry appear to contradict things in the Bible well then so much the worse for those things. After all, they see this as a fallen world and we are fallible humans trying to understand it. When backed into a corner over specific evidence they resort to ‘God-was-there-to-see-it-and-we-weren’t’ type arguments. They simply don’t really think the natural world is open to scientific investigation.


Larry - #4351

February 12th 2010

to take scientists more seriously and the Bible somewhat less seriously

I think this could be better stated as taking our interpretations of the Bible somewhat less seriously. There is nothing wrong with taking the Bible seriously, it is, after all, the Word of God to the church and to the world. But we finite humans have a bad habit of making our interpretations, which are usually dependent on some kind of Enlightenment based hermeneutic, as being infallible.


Daniel mann - #4353

February 12th 2010

Kenton,

“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.”

Instead, I think Scripture is easier to interpret/understand:

1.  The Bible has already been rendered into word and concepts for us.

2.  It already includes its own interpretive contexts and statements. The narrative passages are a good example of this.

3.  It delineates the causal relationships: “We love BECAUSE he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

4.  The same message is repeated many times in many ways to enable us to zero-in on the meaning.

5.  Scripture itself quotes and interprets other passages, thereby nailing down the meaning: “At the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female and the two will become one flesh’?”  (Matthew 19:4-6)

6.  The Spirit also helps us with the interpretation.

7.  Scripture regarded itself as so clear that God’s people had no excuse for disobedience.

Therefore, when you argue that the interpretation of Scripture, in general, is unclear, you argue against Scripture itself.


MF - #4354

February 12th 2010

Dr. Sparks,

I heartily concur with the thesis herein that we must pay attention to God’s two books of revelation—nature and Scripture—and that we shouldn’t read the Bible as a scientific text. Indeed, Gordon Hugenberger of Park Street Church had an excellent sermon series on Psalm 19 that treated this topic in some depth and with much focus on faith and science (not without reason—his undergrad work was in physics at Harvard). Unfortunately, they only keep a year’s worth of sermons on their website, and this series has mostly fallen off the list (I have it saved if anyone wants it). His series on Genesis, which is also relevant, is, however, available here.

(cont.)


MF - #4355

February 12th 2010

(cont.)

Nonetheless, I’d suggest, as I did in my late comments on your previous post, that you misrepresent Calvin when you claim he “admitted that the cosmology of Genesis was wrong.”

In essence, after reading your essay and the comments, I read Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1, which is your proof text, and think you have misunderstood what he is saying. Calvin adopts a phenomenological approach, and so he’d only say Genesis is wrong if he would also say that it is wrong to say that the sun “rises”—and I don’t think he or we can say that’s wrong. See my slightly more detailed argument there.

You suggest that some Calvin scholars agree with you. Could you perhaps supply some citations to this effect (or are they the same ones listed in note 5 of the previous article)?


Daniel mann - #4358

February 12th 2010

Kenton,

You wrote, “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.”

I would suggest that if you want to indict modern evangelical scholars, please demonstrate where they are unwilling to use experiential or scientifically proven data, or quote them to this effect. Yes, we do take issue with the theory of macro-evolution, but so too do over 700 credentialed and courageous scientists who have signed a statement affirming that there are serious problems with this embattled theory.

Instead, the way it now stands, your generalizations about modern evangelical scholars sound like little more than insulting put-downs.


Kathryn - #4359

February 12th 2010

Dr. Sparks,

Thanks for this thought-provoking post.  I have two comments:

1. Rather than taking the Bible less seriously, I would argue we should take it even MORE seriously and thus study harder to understand how to read it faithfully, i.e. as God and the human authors through whom he spoke intended.  This means we need to cling less to specific interpretive lenses and more to viewing it from many angles, though never failing to offer thanks and praise to God for speaking to us.

2.  You rightly observe that in Christian pop-culture it is “casually assumed that the Bible is a fool-proof guide for everything.”  In secular pop-culture it is casually assumed that science is such a guide.  Neither is correct, but I can’t help but believe that God is still pleased in a simple, genuine faith that his Word is all we need.


Alan - #4360

February 12th 2010

“Yes, we do take issue with the theory of macro-evolution, but so too do over 700 credentialed and courageous scientists who have signed a statement affirming that there are serious problems with this embattled theory.”

Unfortunately, this is just not true. For one thing your little statement says nothing about ‘macroevolution’.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty1Bo6GmPqM

http://ncse.com/taking-action/project-steve


Glen Davidson - #4362

February 12th 2010

The rise of literacy is presumably the main reason why the Bible has come to be supposedly covering all areas of knowledge.  The Church in the Middle Ages didn’t want people reading the Bible (including poorly educated priests), not just because this meant that their own interpretation would have to be accepted, but because they really did know that people were prone to read the Bible out of context (we still do, really, but not as much as previously).

Augustine and Calvin had enough knowledge to realize that the Bible could not be a text about the “natural world.”  Which isn’t the same thing as saying that anything goes (but then again, what exactly does?), yet it’s not the kind of absolutism that infects too many.

How is a person who knows little enough about even how texts get written, redacted, and passed down, let alone about science, to read Genesis?  An absolutist literalism is probably their best bet, however it’s very inadequate.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Ben Smith - #4366

February 12th 2010

I die a little inside whenever I hear someone compare “micro”/“macro” evolution…There is no difference! You can’t accept part of evolution without the whole of it! (Unless you don’t know the specifics of the science behind it, which I suppose is the reason most people bring this up)

Besides that….another great article, I learned a lot about Augustine’s views in my Religion and Evolution class I took recently, and a lot of that was reiterated here. Hope to see the 3rd part soon!


John VanZwieten - #4370

February 12th 2010

@ Dan #4346

I finally this week got to read Augustine’s Genesis 1 commentary in whole, and I certainly think it is powerfully instructive not to “stick to one’s guns” regarding any given literal interpretation of the passage in the face of strong extra-biblical evidence to the contrary.

From just before the often-used quote:
Let us suppose that in explaining the words, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and light was made,” one man thinks that it was material light that was made, and another that it was spiritual. As to the actual existence of “spiritual light” in a spiritual creature, our faith leaves no doubt; as to the existence of material light, celestial or supercelestial, even existing before the heavens, a light which could have been followed by night, there will be nothing in such a supposition contrary to the faith until un-erring truth gives the lie to it. And if that should happen, this teaching was never in Holy Scripture but was an opinion pro-posed by man in his ignorance.


John VanZwieten - #4371

February 12th 2010

cont.

Augustine acknowleged significant difficulties arriving at a correct literal interpretation of Genesis 1, and so he points out that any such interpretation could be “an opinion pro-posed by man in his ignorance” rather than a true teaching of Holy Scripture. 

What young-earth creationism does is insist that it’s own particular literal interpretation of Genesis be equated with _the_ true teaching of scripture and be required belief for all Christians—even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary.  Augustine certainly would not have approved.


Brian - #4372

February 12th 2010

Ben is spot on: there is no difference between, for example, the observed phenomenon of moths changing color over the course of a generation or two, and mice becoming men. 

No difference at all.


Gregory Arago - #4373

February 12th 2010

The micro- / macro- distinction is more significant than you give credit, Ben. To say ‘there is no difference’ is to trivialize the problem. Its a question of levels/layers, isn’t it?

Let’s step outside of biology.

Microeconomics & macroeconomics: to say that individual consumer choices can be extrapolated to ‘explain’ a nation’s economy is of course ridiculous. It is a kind of reverse reductionism, from smaller to larger entities, from bottom-to-top.

There are also the categories of mesa- and meta-, e.g. the post-modern belief that meta-narratives no longer hold or can be defended due to pluralism, etc.

‘Evangelical’ itself is a micro- term within a macro- faith, which is Christianity.

It might be better not to ‘die a little’ but to ‘learn a little’ on this topic.

I don’t accept the ‘whole’ of evolution, at least, not as a ‘theory of everything.’ If it is the same with you, then the best next step is to give examples of ‘things that don’t evolve.’


Unapologetic catholic - #4384

February 12th 2010

“Let’s step outside of biology.”

Let’s not.  Stay there for a minute and explain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_descent

“It might be better not to ‘die a little’ but to ‘learn a little’ on this topic. “

Please do.


Michael Thompson - #4385

February 12th 2010

I thought that “macro” evolution was really just an accumulation of “micro” evolutionary changes that produce speciation over time? am I off on this?


Gregory Arago - #4386

February 12th 2010

I have no problem at all with common descent(s).

Nevertheless, macro- and micro- are fundamentally different categories.

Lots of micros- (accumulated) don’t get one to a macro- level. There is a meaningful ‘gap’ between them. One is fighting with language to protest otherwise.

We could speak of degreeism and anti-kindism here too, but that’s not the main point.

Unapologetic catholic can get stuck in biology if he or she prefers. I don’t feel such a desire, especially since I’m not a biologist.

We are surely veering off topic here anyway!


Argon - #4388

February 12th 2010

Gregory Arago - “Nevertheless, macro- and micro- are fundamentally different categories. “

It’s more of a continuum—fuzzy in the middle ‘zones’. It’s like asking when cold becomes hot as you heat a pot of water.


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