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“The Language of God” Book Club–Chapter 6

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March 21, 2014 Tags: Biblical Authority, Biblical Interpretation, Christianity & Science - Then and Now
“The Language of God” Book Club–Chapter 6

Today's entry was written by Jim Stump. You can read more about what we believe here.

With our discussion of chapter six in this installment of the online book club, we cross the half-way point in terms of the number of chapters and the number of pages in the book. You may notice, though, that according to the Online Discussion Schedule found on the Book Club page, we’re combining chapters for the last two blog posts. Remember you can find other resources there too, like discussion questions and supplementary resources. We’ve also created a Book Club survey you can take to give input on future book clubs.

Chapter six is called “Genesis, Galileo, and Darwin.” In it Collins draws the parallel between our current situation of reconciling evolution with Christian faith, and the Galileo affair for which the science in question was heliocentrism. The comparison is striking in many of its particulars. The comments from some of the church officials quoted on pages 154-155 sound as though they could have come from opponents of evolution today: “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies”; “his pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation”; and “it casts suspicion on the doctrine of the incarnation.” We look back on these convictions now and clearly see that the theological interpretation of an immobile earth in the center of creation was just not that important to the integrity of the faith. By analogy, we’re supposed to feel that our traditional theological interpretations of a six day creation and perhaps even a historical Adam and Eve can be modified without threat to the authority of Scripture and to the Gospel.

Not everyone agrees, though, that the analogy with Galileo is appropriate. James K. A. Smith wrote a short piece for Christianity Today a couple of years ago about this. He said, “The Galileo analogy doesn’t help us work through that tension because it says too much too fast. To invoke the Galileo analogy is to have already made up our minds.” And to be fair, another controversy between scientific and religious explanations resolved itself the other way: in the thirteenth century, the debate was about the eternality of the world. Of course according to Christian theology, the world was created at some point in the past. But such an idea was difficult to square with the natural philosophy of the time, which was dominated by the Aristotelian understanding. (Indeed, it was not until the twentieth century that the eternality of the world was seriously challenged by scientific evidence.) Siger of Brabant attempted to affirm the eternality of the world from the scientific perspective, even though it contradicted the teaching of the church, and his views were condemned. Even Aquinas saw the need to reconcile the apparent evidence from the natural world and claimed that nature existing eternally was not inconsistent with God’s creation of it. Theology appeared to have that one correct. Scientific conclusions should be regarded as tentative and subject to revision if new data comes to light.

Still, some scientific conclusions do seem to be definitively resolved—often because of technological innovations. For Galileo, it was the telescope. Perhaps genetics plays that role today for the theory of evolution.

  1. What do you make of the comparison of our situation today with Galileo? Are there important differences? Is the theology of Adam and Original Sin more central to orthodox Christian faith than the theological issues with heliocentrism?

On p. 149 Collins states, “The problem for many believers, of course, is that the conclusions of evolution appear to contradict certain sacred texts that describe God’s role in the creation of the universe, the earth, all living things, and ourselves.” This suggests that the issue is only secondarily theological, but is more primarily about our reading of the Bible. Historians of science often note that it was the same for Galileo: he didn’t run afoul of the church because of the theological implications of heliocentrism as much as for claiming that he—a scientist with only lay standing in the church—was attempting to instruct others on how the Bible should be interpreted. For those of us in the Protestant tradition, the interpretation of Scripture is a notoriously unregulated affair—witnessed by the some 40,000 distinct Christian denominations worldwide, all claiming to have the correct interpretation.

  1. How should we interpret the Bible? What is the role of tradition? What is the role of science? Who gets to decide whether traditional interpretations need to change?

Collins gives a lengthy quotation from Augustine on p. 156-7 about the need to understand the Bible in relation to what we know about nature from extra-biblical sources. And he ends the chapter with another quote from Galileo, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use” (p. 158). The relationship between faith and reason is one that Christians rightly wrestle with. Because of our faith, we sometimes evaluate the deliverances of sense and reason differently. This leads some to think that science should only be interpreted through the lens of what we believe by faith. The Galileo affair, and perhaps evolution today, show that the content of our faith can be affected by scientific discoveries.

  1. Can you think of other examples when the direction of influence flows from our sense and reason to the content of faith?

Share your thoughts on these questions or others with the BioLogos community in the comments section below.

Jim Stump is Senior Editor at BioLogos. As such he oversees the development of new content and curates existing content for the website and print materials. Jim has a PhD in philosophy from Boston University and was formerly a philosophy professor and academic administrator. He has authored Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming) and co-authored (with Chad Meister) Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2010). He has co-edited (with Alan Padgett) The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and (with Kathryn Applegate) How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity, forthcoming).

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Merv - #84879

March 22nd 2014

Responding to #1 on how the Galileo affair compares to today’s issues ...

The physical arrangement of the cosmos is a trivial faith consideration (to us)—and probably was to most people and clergy in Galileo’s time as well.  But the underlying issue for them (and for so many today) is deemed the much more important one:  a perceived threat to the authority of Scripture and to the authority of its interpreters.  In that sense I think the two issues are very much parallel—while acknowledging that anti-evolutionists would deny the comparison between what they see as settled science (moving earth) with unsettled science (evolution).

But on the content of the science in view the parallel nature doesn’t hold up so well.  The arrangement of the cosmos impinges virtually not at all on any important doctrine within Scripture.  Whereas most see significant theological content in dealing with physical human origins.  In short, to fully accept this modern science requires more thought and work than a simple parting from geocentrism. 

Merv - #84881

March 22nd 2014

I seem to have the entire floor here, so I’ll continue rambling along.   ...on the same thought I started above.

It seems historically established now that the science of Galileo’s day was much more upset by challenges to geocentrism than the theologians ever were, in terms of the accomodating work created for each.  All theologians had to do was realize that a few psalms shouldn’t be read for literal cosmology and do some trivial shifting among already well-established categories of Scripture.

Natural philosophers (scientists), on the other hand (granted these were mostly the same people as the theologians at that time) had an immense challenge in that it totally contradicted the “settled” science of the time.  They had a lot of explaining to do if heliocentrism were to be taken seriously.  It created more problems than it solved.

Maybe it’s a fair note of comparison then that this situation is a little reversed in today’s situation.  Evolutionary science is not entirely settled to be sure, but it does explain a lot.  And theologians have more work in settling all the issues this time around because existence and origins of sin/humanity/death—and how all those things get categorized are certainly more central to Christianity than mere motions of worlds.

Merv - #84882

March 22nd 2014

Regarding questions 2 and 3 ...

Interpretation is formed by both tradition and experience which are not independent of each other.  The latter especially is a broad category that includes all our interactions with God’s book of works (creation)—and yes, science.  Many are frightened of that last word “science” because then it is suddenly seen to be a contest—a looming spectre only inflated by recent anti-religious dogmas.  But if it is seen as God’s works that will not contradict Scripture when both are properly understood, then the warfare model is exposed as nonsense.  Indeed we have scriptural imperative to pay attention to the world and people around us so as to distinguish true prophets from false ones, or to learn higher wisdoms via parallel physical manifestations.  It is presumed that we have attended to those and know them well if we are going to appreciate proberbs and parables alike.  If we can’t appreciate what we can see, how will we be expected to learn about what is beyond our immediate vision?

Matthew Winegar - #84894

March 24th 2014

  1. What do you make of the comparison of our situation today with Galileo? Are there important differences? Is the theology of Adam and Original Sin more central to orthodox Christian faith than the theological issues with heliocentrism?
I believe the comparison is apt, however, I do believe that the theological implications of the spatial arrangement of the cosmos is trivial compared origins and temporal concerns, in the minds of many of our fellow Christians.  They can, of course, be resolved, but arguably this challenge is greater when dealing with origins than with astronomical concerns.
  1. How should we interpret the Bible? What is the role of tradition? What is the role of science? Who gets to decide whether traditional interpretations need to change?
The comparison in the previous question is apt insofar as both issues implicate the authority of interpretations (including traditional interpretations) of the scriptures.  They require us to consider these interpretations in light of new evidence.  Tradition and science (which I consider to be a part of experience) are part of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  My application of this to my faith is to consider scripture as fundamental, but we must arrive at an interpretation (or understanding) of scripture.  To that end we have tradition (which helps make sure we are not too far off base in our interpretations, particularly as they concern core theological doctrines), experience (which includes science, and all observations of God’s creation, in addition to personal experience with God), and reason (which helps us consider these elements in coming up with reasonable understanding of scripture).  Note, that I don’t think I apply this quadrilateral exactly the same as John Wesley, I still consider it helpful, and I think my reasons to use it are similar.
As for who gets to decide whether traditional interpretations need to change, we all must come up with our own interpretation(s) for our own Faith.  That is what we are doing here, working out our Faith, and doing so in a community.  When doing this, it is wise to be humble, though, and remember that interpretations are fallible, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of private interpretation, and that the Holy Spirit speaks through scripture (from 2 Peter 1:20-21).  The Holy Spirit, then, must be involved in any faithful understanding of scripture.
  1. Can you think of other examples when the direction of influence flows from our sense and reason to the content of faith?
This is a tough question, although I would say undoubtably, our general worldview affects how we read and understand scripture, on a literal, immediate level, because our understanding of language is not a priori, but is based on our lifelong experience in this world.  A good example comes from recent lecture series by Denis Lamoureux’s series on Biblical genealogies.  A common, traditional reading of these genealogies understands them as we would understand a family tree we might make of our own families today.  But this runs into numerous problems, such that a very plausible case can be made that these genealogies were constructed differently then we would, today.  This understanding can only be appreciated through reasoning about the text, and the world and culture in which the writer(s) lived.  Either way, common experience and/or reason governs how we understand this part of scripture.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #84905

March 25th 2014


I understand what you are saying, but I think that you are making a mistake of looking at the past with modern eyes. 

The issue was one of a world view.  The people looked at the universe during Galileo’s time through Aristotle’s eyes.  This confirmed view of the dignity of humanity, because our world and we were the center of the universe.  With Copericus and later developments the “importance” of humans and the earth took big hits in the eyes of many.

In a real sense Darwin’s theory is more of the same.  It makes human exceptionalism more precarious.  Of course we could put our faith in God and not in the exceptionalism of humanity, (See Psalm 8) but Western culture does not act that way.   

The issues concerning the identity of humanity both with Galileo and Darwin are not scientific, but how we understand the “scientific” data culturally, philosophically, and religiously.   

Mike Beidler - #85010

April 3rd 2014

1.     What do you make of the comparison of our situation today with Galileo?  Are there important differences?  Is the theology of Adam and Original Sin more central to orthodox Christian faith than the theological issues with heliocentrism?

It is said that Cardinal Cesare Baronio (1538 – 1607), in conversation with Galileo, remarked, “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”  This observation was very much in contrast to others within the Church who interpreted the Scriptures in accordance with ancient (and arguably “biblical”) Near Eastern cosmology.  These well-meaning naysayers demanded scientific concordance and stipulated that the Scriptures ultimately dictate the conclusions of scientific observation, even to the point of blatantly disregarding the truth their God-given senses had perceived.  As a result, believing scientists experienced an extremely difficult time feeling free to explore how God’s cosmos truly operated, instructing others in their discoveries, and how these discoveries were to change the way we read Scripture.

Those of us who believe in God as revealed by the Incarnation and accept the scientific evidence for evolution find ourselves in an identical position.  (In fact, just this morning, a friend leveled charges of heresy against me for my belief in evolution and all that it allegedly entails.  Thank goodness we no longer face the threat of being burned at the stake, although excommunication from our respective worship communities is still a very real problem.)  Those who object to evolution do so because such evidence contradicts their particular interpretation of the Bible – which is completely understandable given its ancient Near Eastern character and our tendency to ignore that character – and the extent to which they believe the sacred Scriptures are inspired.  In regard to the extent of the Bible’s inspiration – which, incidentally, is nowhere defined by any of the biblical authors – there is a strong tendency among us Evangelicals to impose a modern, Enlightenment-influenced perspective onto our sacred texts and demand they be true in every respect, even in those areas which have no affect on the essentials of faith.  This approach is unfortunate, as it unwittingly sacrifices the Bible on the altar of modern science, forcing its meaning into submission beneath the thumb of our Western paradigm.  Such demands are responsible for a vast assortment of concordist positions, none of which align with the other.

Just as prevailing religious views placed enormous pressure on the scientists and open-minded theologians of Galileo’s day to recant, so does today’s Evangelical church:  fire a respected theologian here, dismiss a seminary science professor there, etc.  Some organizations pressure ministries into not coming out of the evolutionary creationist closet for fear that doing so will sully the good work they’ve accomplished in the past and ruin future opportunities to reach people for Christ.  They are willing to subject themselves to a considerable measure of intellectual suicide in order to preserve their reputations in the eyes of their supporters.

It’s completely understandable that some view Adam and Original Sin as more central to orthodox Christian faith than cosmology, for cosmology does not touch the central focus of our faith: Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, the perceived threat from evolution results from a conflation of two concepts:  the origin of sin and Adam’s rebellion.  Most Evangelical Christians cannot imagine sin originating from anywhere but Adam and Eve’s fall, as if eliminating the alleged cause of humanity’s universal propensity for sin somehow dispenses altogether sin’s existence and the need for a Savior.  However, it is extremely important that we evolutionary creationists emphasize that sin exists and that humanity’s propensity to sin is universal within our species.  And although modern evolutionary biology has provided us an extremely powerful explanation for our inevitable rebellion against God’s Moral Law, we also need to stress that such an explanation is not a threat to our faith.  In fact, as evolutionary creationists, we should affirm the timeless truth of Genesis 2-3 and acknowledge how the account of Adam and Eve provides a perfect archetypical picture of our individual journeys from innocence to rebellion (and beyond) with a mythical beauty that science cannot hope to duplicate. 

I believe the fear that evolution somehow subverts Christ reveals much about where a Christian’s faith truly lies: It ends up being placed in the written word in tandem with the individual Christian’s accompanying position on the Bible’s inspiration, rather than in the Living Word, who reveals the darkness within all of us by His light.  The purpose of the written word was never to serve as a paper replacement for Jesus.  God gave us the written word so that we might possess a reliable testimony to the Living Word (cf. 1 Cor 10:11a), which is the object around which our faith should not fail to revolve. 

Mike Beidler - #85011

April 3rd 2014

2.     How should we interpret the Bible?  What is the role of tradition?  What is the role of science?  Who gets to decide whether traditional interpretations need to change?

We should interpret the Bible to the best of our ability in such a way that we preserve the original intent of both the original author(s) and redactor(s).  Understanding the original intent of the former is exceedingly difficult, especially when a book like Genesis exhibits a non-uniform literary nature and is clearly compiled by a redactor (or redactors) living much later than the time during which Genesis’ source material was first preserved.  In many cases, it is much easier to understand the redactor(s)’ intent in weaving together the various (and sometimes contradictory) traditions especially evident throughout the Torah.

That being said, understanding the original intent of any particular passage requires a significant amount of study to determine the cognitive environment in which the passages in question were written.  Without such knowledge of the culture and its associated paradigms, truly understanding a complex passage like Genesis 1 is virtually impossible.  For example, reading Genesis 1 from a purely Western, Enlightenment-influenced point of view will instantly rob the text of nearly all of its theological significance, leaving it a sterile, blow-by-blow account of the cosmos’ material origins that would horrify its original readers.  As John Walton asserts, we must have the culture in which the Bible was written translated for us as well.  It is only when we understand that culture that we can find the commonalities and apply its message in our own culture.

In regard to the proper role of tradition in hermeneutics, tradition is extremely important to understanding how certain Christian communities have understood Scripture and the nature of Scripture over the millennia.  In fact, extremely early traditions can (to various but limited degrees) help us better determine the original meaning of many passages.  However, we should not fail to identify the tradition of which we speak when asking this question.  Is it Evangelical tradition?  Catholic tradition?  Methodist?  Jewish?  Because tradition is heavily influenced by culture, it must necessarily take a back seat when attempting to apply Scripture in our faith walk.  I am not, of course, advocating kicking tradition completely out of the car; in fact, tradition’s relegation to the back seat is preferable to abandoning tradition along the roadside and allowing the people of God to proceed to its destination alone without some measure of guidance.

As for the role of science in hermeneutics, science has a great record of accomplishment in helping the Church eliminate its slavish dedication to some traditions, as “biblical” as they are.  For example, certain ancient cosmological concepts, such as a flat earth and geocentrism, are clearly embedded in Scripture.  Today, our modern scientific paradigm forces us to automatically reinterpret – completely unconsciously, I might add – certain passages of Scripture that evidence ancient cosmology as examples of poetic or phenomenological language.  Of course, the language as originally understood was neither poetic nor phenomenological, but rather reflective of an ancient scientific understanding of the world.  When modern Christians read scriptural passages that speak of the earth, we envision a roughly spherical ball; the Hebrews didn’t.  When the Bible speaks of the heavens, we don’t think of lights fixed in a solid but transparent dome, but rather as a vast emptiness containing numerous suns and galaxies, the true nature of which the ancients had no knowledge.

However, it is important that we not outright reject outdated scientific “traditions” once we recognize them.  We should use these outmoded traditions as tools to better understand the ancient peoples who wrote our sacred texts.  We should hold them loosely, respecting them for what they are and the important role they play in helping us accurately determining the original meaning of Scripture.  Some traditional interpretations, such as a three-tired cosmos, have already been placed gently aside and preserved like precious museum relics.  Other traditions, such as the pre-existence of the Logos, will never be subject to the rigors of the scientific method.  Nevertheless, the question of who decides which traditions should be placed gently aside is a very good one.  Did any one person or body “decide” to dispense with geocentrism?  No.  It was a gradual process.  It was a slow, collective paradigm shift.  The Church’s near-universal acceptance of evolution will never be forced upon the Body of Christ by means of one person or one organization; even today, there are pockets of Christ-followers who are convinced in a flat earth, a geocentric cosmology, or both as a result of their particular hermeneutic.  The Church’s general adoption of evolution as God’s method of creation will only come about through gradual illumination of the Church’s collective heart by the Spirit of God, who continues to energize both the cosmos and the minds of those contemplating the cosmos and the Godhead.

Mike Beidler - #85012

April 3rd 2014

3.     Can you think of other examples when the direction of influence flows from our sense and reason to the content of faith?


The idea of humans as tripartite (or, at a minimum, bipartite) beings is certainly affected by advancements in the neurosciences.  The realization that our minds are inextricably linked to our bodies has caused some to rethink the concepts of the soul and/or spirit, and whether such entities actually exist and are not simply the ancients’ way of communicating certain aspects of human bodily existence.  If such structures do exist, did they develop through natural evolutionary processes, or did God confer these spiritual structures onto us at some point during the course of human evolution?  (See Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul; Joel B. Green’s In Search of the Soul, Second Edition: Perspectives on the Mind-Body Problem; or Nancey Murphy’s Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies?)

These discoveries, by extension, also cause some to rethink the nature of our post-mortem bodies and what it is exactly that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 15.  (See Murray J. Harris’ From Grave to Glory: Resurrection in the New Testament.)

Mike Beidler - #85013

April 3rd 2014

Not sure why the paragraphing isn’t working in my submissions.  My apologies.

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