The Bible, Evolution, and Grace
Note: Today’s post was recently published as a feature on the American Scientific Affiliation’s God & Nature magazine. It is reprinted with permission.
“I remember being so angry about it, I wanted to shoot him,” said Grace Buchanan over the phone.
Grace’s voice had been lively and energetic up to this point, but even while perched on the couch in my sunlit living room in Louisville, Kentucky, I could perceive the emotional intensity of Grace's recollection.
The “him” in Grace’s statement referred to her husband, chemical engineer Scott Buchanan, many years ago. The “it” recalled Scott’s abandonment of young earth creationist (YEC) perspectives on Genesis and the history of life on earth, which both she and he had held since the beginning of their relationship. For years, Grace had watched as Scott pored through text after text comparing old earth creationism (OEC), which accepts the conclusions of consensus science on the Big Bang and the ancient age of the earth, and YEC, which teaches that the universe was formed by God in a literal 24-hour-day, six-day creation event.
To understand Grace’s vitriolic gut reaction, her sense of outrage at her husband’s shifting theology, we must first visit Grace as a teenager, then as an adult, seeking to know and serve God as faithfully as possible.
“Ever since I was a young Christian and all through my adult life, I have been starving hungry to know God,” says Grace. “When I was in high school, I started going to weekly Bible studies [led by her future husband, Scott] and prayer meetings, and began ravenously devouring the Bible. I would wake up at four or five in the morning most days and read and read. I went to any meeting that might bring me closer to God, and I prayed every day. My view of the Bible at that time was that it was the inspired word of God, and I believed with all my heart that every word had been dictated by the Holy Spirit through the pen of the writer with almost no human involvement. To be fair, no one ever told me anything else. All the Christians I knew communicated that the Bible was the infallible word of God and to be embraced unquestioningly. I thought I was meant to let the scriptures challenge me, not vice versa.”
According to Grace, she had never really considered the conflict between scientific findings and young earth views, since her biology classes in high school never dealt with evolution. “We did anatomy and taxonomy,” Grace explains. “We never talked extensively about evolution or the age of the earth in science class. I think I accepted the Big Bang Theory, but I didn’t connect it with the evolution of man. In college, I took physics, and I loved physics—but this, too, never addressed the age of the universe—so the things I studied never conflicted because I never thought about it!”
Throughout both high school and college, Scott and Grace were active in the church and led Bible studies and youth activities. While Grace was studying to become a teacher at Gordon College, Scott was studying at Princeton to become a pastor. They shared the same outlook on scripture and creation—that the Bible is accurate and able to be referenced for historical and scientific facts about natural history—which they passed down to the young people for whom they had become mentors.
It was during this time that Scott read the seminal YEC book The Genesis Flood, among other publications, and attended lectures on young earth creationism as a young college student. He was a Near Eastern studies major at Princeton, and these texts made sense to him as they patterned perfectly onto the descriptions of creation in Genesis I.
“It was really years later, once Scott had gone back to school for his PhD in chemical engineering, that the waters began to muddy,” recalls Grace. “It was only after he finished his engineering degree and began to study geology on his own that Scott started to question young earth publications. And he happens to have a passion for truth! So when he started to find contradictions between the findings of geology and YEC writings, that spurred him to dig deeper.”
Grace paused for a moment. I became briefly aware of chirruping spring birdsong outside my window, and a white square of sunlight angling across the living room floor. On the other side of the couch, the cat yawned and extended his paws, as if in supplication.
“I should say here that Scott’s journey involved a high level of pain,” Grace continued, “because he had studied to prove YEC true in college, and it was a painful process for him to face the fact that the science he worked so hard to acquire was inaccurate. To adequately challenge his own beliefs was a 10, 15-year journey—he was emotionally invested in the YEC view and it took a huge amount of patience and perseverance for him to keep studying what he initially did not want to face.”
For ten years, Grace had been listening to Scott as he conducted his private research about geology and was expressing concerns about YEC. She recalls going through a process of denial and rage because he was disturbing what she felt she knew about the Bible. “I felt like the very basis of my faith was being challenged,” says Grace, “and I felt rage over someone taking away my comforting view of a personal God who downloaded the Bible without human partnership or error. I felt guilt because I had taught the Genesis story as literal fact to children for over 25 years. How could I be forgiven for deceiving them and/or possibly causing them to lose their faith when they got to science classes that convinced them they had been lied to in Sunday school?”
How Grace came to peace with old earth creationism and evolution was more simple and streamlined than Scott’s journey through tomes of research and dialogue. What helped her the most wasn’t a documentary about the Big Bang, or lectures on faith and science from sympathetic academics. Those came later. “What helped me take that first step was a graduate course I took on the wisdom books of the Bible,” says Grace. “I learned in that class that there was a great deal of human thought and planning involved in many biblical writings and stories. I learned that the parable of the prodigal son was crafted from a story that already existed in rabbinical teaching, for which Jesus changed the ending to show what his Father in heaven was really like. I also learned that many of the psalms and proverbs followed the elaborate literary devices of the Hebrew poetical forms of that day, including acrostics and very specific poetic patterns. Wait a minute!, I thought, that means that a human being filtered those thoughts through an educated mind and had to work hard over a long period of time to craft his writings! How did that fit with divine inspiration?”
Grace says she learned that the people of ancient times very much studied nature and fully embraced the science of their day, including the concept that the world was capped by a rigid dome called the “firmament” which prevented celestial waters from deluging the earth, and in which the sun, moon, and stars were suspended. Their ancient biology observed that living things came from reproduction by their own kind, rather than branching off from the stalks of a long and complex evolutionary tree. Says Grace, “I learned that God faced a choice when choosing how to reveal God’s nature and purposes to mankind over the centuries: God could try to change the scientific understanding of the ancient peoples or God could use their current understandings to begin to reveal God’s nature through stories and lessons that complied with those understandings. It appears God chose the latter method."
All of this new information helped take away Grace’s fear that the validity of scripture was under attack by old earth creationists.
“Finally, I could grasp the concept that the beginnings in Genesis are every bit as valid ‘parables’ as the other parables we read in the Bible,” recalls Grace. “Jesus told stories about realistic characters who were not actually real people. That does not make the stories less ‘true’—all parables contain a message of God’s truth, a revelation of the true natures of both God and man. The truth is the message or meaning that God wanted to convey, and the story is a vehicle for that truth. Was there an actual ‘Good Samaritan’? Likely not, but this doesn’t lessen the meaning of the story. I now believe the creation story in Genesis was given to teach truths about God and man, not about science. Was the world made in 24 hour days? I don’t think so—but it doesn’t lessen truth that God was the creator. That was the hinge point for me.”
Back in Louisville, Kentucky, the cat had quit my company and the square of light on the living room floor was slowly climbing up the opposite wall. I asked Grace what role she felt patience had played in her journey to reconcile modern science with her Christian faith.
Grace replied with heartfelt recollection, “For all those years I was fighting him tooth and nail, Scott exhibited tremendous kindness and patience and was so gentle in letting me express my fear and anger—yes—I can’t say enough about how patiently he endured my reactions to his changing views on nature and scripture. Every time the subject came up, Scott was getting the brunt of my visceral response, and he endured until finally I learned enough about how scripture was written that the facts of the science no longer threatened me.”
Grace then went a step farther, and answered my next question before it was even asked.
“I have a deep compassion for YECers,” says Grace. “I completely understand why they feel they are being disloyal to God if they question the literal interpretation of Genesis. For biblical literalists, the loyalty to that interpretation of scripture is akin to loyalty to God. They sincerely believe they are helping God out by holding onto a very simple view of divine inspiration. I know because I was right there, too, at one point.
“If your core value is serving God and you believe that anything but a literal interpretation of the Bible is disobedient to God, you can’t hear any of the scientific arguments,” Grace continued, “and that was the way it was with me. Until I dealt with the loyalty question, I could not proceed to the science. The fact is that even now, the childish part of me can still admit that I don’t like the pain of this new reality; the history of life on our planet is far more complicated than I would ever choose. But the crucial fact that makes it all bearable is that God is good, and God’s love as expressed through Jesus Christ is more than adequate for every complexity, every pain, every messy fact of a world that I can’t and never will understand fully. I no longer fear the unanswerable question—but that was a process that took decades, and continues to evolve.”
Above all, when talking and debating with other Christians over questions of origins and scriptural interpretation, Grace advocates addressing the biblical issues first, and always approaching the topic from a posture of grace and love. “What I’ve said to my husband over and over is that those who want to change the thinking of the church in America on science must address the fear and guilt factor, first—because no human being who is invested in what they perceive to be loyalty to God can even consider rationally an idea that asks them to fly in the face of that loyalty. But there can also be no respectful debate unless those who are not still angry and threatened can kindly and patiently take the lead and speak with loving-kindness to those who are.”
Grace Buchanan is a mother of three, has been a Sunday school teacher for over three decades, and is certified in elementary education, reading, and K-12 history. She holds a B.S. in Education from Gordon College, an M.A. in Reading Education from the University of South Florida, an M.S. in Christian Counseling from Philadelphia Biblical University, and is a certified Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant in New Jersey. Grace has volunteered in various healing prayer ministries for over ten years. She is married to J. Scott Buchanan, chemical engineer and author of letterstocreationists.wordpress.com.
As Web Editor, Emily Ruppel oversees the editorial content of the BioLogos website, including working with our many guest authors for our blog. She received a master’s degree in science writing from MIT and a bachelor’s degree in English from Bellarmine University. Since graduating MIT, she has worked as the Associate Director of Communications for the American Scientific Affiliation, where her favorite activity is editing and publishing God and Nature magazine, and as a freelance writer.