A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

| By Arie Leegwater


Today’s post is adapted from an editorial introducing the September 2010 volume of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), the peer-reviewed journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).1 The issue contains several articles of interest to the BioLogos Community, including one by BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis R. Venema on the evidence from genomics for common ancestry between apes and humans.

Two other papers in the volume, by Calvin College Theologians Daniel C. Harlow and John R. Schneider, examine the historicity of Adam and Eve and original sin. Both authors suggest that the traditional Augustinian understanding of these doctrines must be reexamined in light of the many strands of scientific evidence pointing to the gradual creation of human beings through an evolutionary process.

While there is much food for thought in these two papers, we caution against pronouncing judgment too quickly, either for or against the ideas they contain. Certainly BioLogos supports accepting scientific conclusions where the science is clear. It is clear, for example, that the whole human race did not come from a single ancestral pair. What is not clear, however, is whether acceptance of an evolutionary view of creation requires rejection or substantial revision of these doctrines. (Denis Alexander’s recent BioLogos paper, while not the final word on the matter, demonstrates that historicity may, in fact, be embraced within an evolutionary framework.)

Harlow and Schneider’s papers have caused no little stir in some Reformed circles. Importantly, the question is not whether their ideas are heretical or even whether these doctrines should be open for discussion in the first place. Rather the question is how a given Christian tradition, the Reformed faith in this case, may determine the range of views consistent with its own creeds and confessional statements. As BioLogos is not affiliated with any single Christian tradition, we do not have identical concerns. Our interest is two-fold: we want to protect the integrity of both science and Scripture and create a place for Christians to engage in healthy dialogue on these difficult issues.

Dr. Leegwater’s editorial is important in the conversation for several reasons. First, he humbly admits that in reviewing new data in genomics and evolutionary science, some of his most cherished beliefs were challenged. It is a good reminder that encountering facts that conflict with our deepest beliefs is painful and disorienting, if not downright frightening. We should thus be charitable with those who disagree with us. At the same time, wrestling together is good for the church—iron sharpens iron—and it should not be avoided, for failing to seriously consider new data is not a satisfactory option for truth-seeking Christians. Second, Leegwater recognizes that we tend to oversimplify the issue of interpretation. Too often, he notes, a false dichotomy is presented: “Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science?” Neither simple approach gives full integrity to the entirety of God’s Two-Book revelation. Finally, Leegwater observes that we are embedded in a rationalistic Western culture that elevates the methods of science in ways that invite unhelpful responses to Scripture. In reaction to the positivist edicts of science, he says, we tend to reduce Scripture to a collection of infallible intellectual assertions. In doing this we forget the richness of faith, for “faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.”

Introduction written by Kathryn Applegate

A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

Dr. Leegwater's Editorial

On a late April 2010 visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, I viewed a diversity of exhibits, particularly those in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. To move from panel to panel describing and detailing the evolution of humans from primate forebears to modern humans, one is taken on a journey of over seven million years. This mind-boggling experience, coupled with a recent Science issue detailing the mapping of the Neanderthal genome and its genomic heritage in modern humans, and reading this issue of PSCF, devoted to the historicity of Adam and Eve, genomics, and evolutionary science, challenged some of my long-cherished positions. Such encounters call for a serious examination and reconsideration of certain crucial matters.

Speaking personally, it was a hard lesson to digest, as I suspect it may be for many readers of PSCF. What should we make of all the diverse anthropological evidence collected from several continents as well as the recently acquired detailed genomic data? Should we sweep it under the rug, considering it to be the result of a shameful misguided investigation, since it assumes a view that calls into question the “plain straightforward reading of Scripture”? Or should we dispute the science and suggest the data is open to multiple concordist interpretations? Neither of these positions would be fair to the nature of scientific practice. “Science in God’s world has its own proper task of giving joy, its own peculiar ministry of healing, its own God-given gift of serving up nuanced insight for one’s neighbor” (Calvin Seerveld). Nor would either position honor the role of hermeneutics in interpreting biblical literature.

Parenthetically, as an editor of PSCF, I have often hoped that I could keep these matters at a studied distance, because, in my opinion, there are many other pressing and important issues which the Christian community needs to address and which, due to the ferocity of the debates, frequently become emasculated. And secondly, and for perhaps far too long, a discussion of origins has functioned (for many) as the self-identity or touchstone of the ASA.

But, back to the matter at hand. If we accept the long-drawn-out saga of the evolution of living forms in creation, how must we then understand ourselves? Where and how do we humans “fit” in this development? That question is often the dominant theme in discussions about origins. As someone has perceptively remarked, “It is not the ‘fourth day,’ but rather the ‘sixth day’ that is in question.” To hold that the center and meaning of our life lies outside ourselves may be a posture that many persons and different religions share. But to honor this position as a Christian confession takes one on an eccentric and peculiar journey. In his Institutes, Calvin raised the classic question of human self-understanding, the question of how humans can know themselves. The answer that Calvin gives points us away from our desire to first examine ourselves: “Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself” (I.i.12). We, as humans, are essentially God-related creatures (Homo religionis).

While recognizing our human condition, we also need to tread carefully. The intense debates often assume the stage is set by positing “hard scientific data” to be in tension with our (systematic) theologies. In simple terms, the scene is portrayed as a battle between believing science and believing Scripture. Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science? We desire simple satisfying answers. To a large extent, however, we have simplified the issues. Putting the matter in this way, I think, will cause us to lose sight of the integrity of both the Bible and of science. If the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God is wedded to its scientific reliability, the “scientific” battles for an infallible Word of God have been lost from the start. We have then placed both on the same (scientific) level, and in the process, we will lose the reliability of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not written as a historical research report, nor do they give a scientific account. Rather, they are a testimony of faith, albeit in the form of God-inspired literature. The Bible is part of creation which bears witness to the Word of God who was present at Creation. The Bible points us to Christ. The Bible is divinely inspired, but it is not divine. The Holy Scripture in its entirety is revelation, but it is not the whole of revelation. Reducing the Word of God to the Scriptures can be a form of bibliolatry. The revelatory Word of God for creation speaks to its reliability and trustworthiness.

Stating it differently, the Bible speaks in prescientific language and pictures. It employs the language of the day, reflecting the world-picture of the original audience. The language of the Bible is accommodated to the cosmological and historical awareness of the day. In our eyes, these cosmological world-pictures may seem hopelessly scientifically naive, but the Word and Spirit are able—the church confesses—to penetrate our hearts, regardless of our local customs and situations, or of the world-pictures we hold.

In addition, we often discount the philosophical and historical contexts that undergird many of our procedures of interpretation. We live in a westernized rationalist culture which probably reached its zenith in the Enlightenment, but is still clearly regnant in the practice of the natural sciences and the theological sciences. This historical context has shaped our view of the Bible and its interpretation: we like (or deem it necessary) to compare the scientific propositions of science with the propositional revelation (teachings) of Scripture. In an effort to counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, Christians respond with the rational infallibility of revealed propositions. Consequently, employing the term “inerrancy” to describe the character of the Scriptures seems inherently tied to a rationalistic and positivistic position and plays into the hands of higher criticism. Our intellectual instincts tend to treat faith as basically an intellectual matter. But faith is much richer in its purview. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, RSV). Faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.


References & Credits

1. ASA was established in 1941 as a fellowship of those in science and related disciplines who prize both faithfulness to the Word of God and integrity in science. ASA members benefit from a robust dialogue about wide-ranging and pressing issues in science and faith through multiple blogs, publications like PSCF and the new God and Nature e-zine, and both regional and national events such as the upcoming 66th Annual Meeting, “Science-Faith Synergy: Glorifying God and Serving Humanity.” Interested in connecting with fellow Christians in science? It’s easy to join online.

About the Author

Arie  Leegwater

Arie Leegwater is a professor emeritus of chemistry at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor ofPerspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. He received his doctorate in chemistry from The Ohio State University, where his thesis was on steric effects in organic chemistry.