Introduction written by the BioLogos editorial team. Today BioLogos begins a series that we think ought to have significant impact on evangelical churches far beyond the local congregation in Arlington, Massachusetts where it was first delivered. A recent editorial in Christianity Today stated that many Christians likely face another "Galileo moment." In that earlier era, finding that the earth moved around the sun—and not the other way around—caused the Church to reorient its understanding of certain scriptural passages. Today, interconnecting strands of evidence all of which lie at the heart of biology, geology, physics and astronomy require segments of the Church to carefully evaluate its magnificent creation narrative—it needs to be certain it is hearing God's message in the way that God intends for it to be understood. It is healthy for the conservative wing of Christianity to be carefully examining the genre of the creation narrative. It has had to do this once before and, it is appropriate to prayerfully seek clarity once again. Christians are truth-seekers and God's Spirit will guide the process as we sincerely seek that wisdom which is from above.
Oratory, at its best, has long been an important key in opening the door to new and dramatically important insights. Pastor David Swaim of Highrock Church in the Boston suburb of Arlington illustrates this poignantly. In fact his sermon is so significant, we've asked permission to post it in serial form so that each of us can deeply reflect on his words in a protracted fashion. We encourage you to let others who are conflicted over this issue know about the series so that they can follow it. Indeed, we believe It will be a great series for small group discussions—we need to lovingly support each other as we seek God's guidance in coming to understand God's truths.
In this sermon, Swaim discusses our belief in God as creator, or “Maker of heaven and earth”, as the Apostle’s Creed so poetically states. To begin, he reminds us that some passages in the Bible, like the parable of the prodigal son, convey deep truths even though they are not historical accounts. Asking “the wrong questions”—questions that focus on arbitrary details—about such stories can cause us to miss out on their intended message. In a similar way, he says, it is possible that we might be asking the “wrong questions” about the opening chapters of Genesis. In recent years, conflict has erupted because a literal reading of Genesis seems to contradict the findings of science. Swaim suggests, however, that accepting scientific evidence about things like evolution and the age of the earth need not rule out faith in Scripture.
If you wish to jump ahead and hear the sermon in its entirety, you may do so here.
"Maker of Heaven and Earth" (transcript)
One of my favorite parables is that of the lost son. There’s a lot to it. Basically, it’s a story that Jesus told about a young man who insulted his father by demanding his share of the inheritance early, then ran off to spend that money on wild living, and found himself destitute when the money was gone. In desperation, he returned to his father, asking to work as a servant. But instead of being angry, his father joyfully embraced his lost son and threw a huge feast to celebrate his return. It is a great story that Jesus tells to help us understand God’s amazing grace.
How many of you know this story? Raise your hand, if you would. Okay. Now I want to make sure I’m clear…that’s a lot of you…I don’t mean just like, you know it because I just told it to you. I mean you know it because you’ve heard a sermon on this before, or maybe you’ve read it on your own. Raise your hand high if that’s true of you. Wow, still a lot of you. That’s perfect because I actually have a couple of questions maybe you can help me with. You see, it says that the father saw the son while he was still a long way off. Can anybody tell me how far off was the son at that point? Anybody know that? Because, you know, they didn’t have glasses back then, and the father was really old, so how far could he really see? It just doesn’t really add up for me. Can anybody tell me about that? Nobody? Okay. Well I have another question. Maybe this one’s easier. What town did that family live in? Does anybody know that? No? Nobody? What town they lived in? People, this is one of the greatest stories of all time! This is a story that has changed thousands of lives, including many of yours! How can you say that you know this story, that you understand this story, if you don’t even understand these basic facts? Okay, well maybe this is easier. Speaking of family, the Bible’s into family values, so I want to know—where’s the mother? Can anybody tell me? Is this family not intact? What’s wrong? Did they get a divorce maybe? And how come the father ended up with the custody of the sons? And why did they only have two? Families back then had much bigger families. Maybe they just got divorced too early? But I mean he seems so nice—why do you think she left? Anybody know these things? I mean I just don’t get it. You all tell me you know this story, and yet you don’t understand just these simple things about it.
Obviously, my questions miss the whole point of the story. There was no mother, or for that matter, no father or son either. This never actually happened. It’s just a parable. It’s one of the many marvelous stories that Jesus told in order to help us understand something that was hard to see. Now does that make it so that this story isn’t true? No, it is true. This story communicates some of the most important truths in the universe—about God’s nature, and the way that we relate to him. There are many passages in scripture that promise God’s love, or praise God’s love, or even try to explain God’s love. But this passage helps us grasp that truth in a way that’s much more effectively communicated than just through direct reporting. This way helps us feel it. This event never happened, but it’s one of the truest stories in the world. And what a shame for someone to dismiss it as irrelevant because it’s not literal history, or miss the point by asking the wrong kinds of questions.
Now I bring this up because just like my questions miss the point of the lost son parable, so, I fear, many of us ask the wrong questions about the beginning of the book of Genesis, which we read from just a few minutes ago. Not only does this generate needless confusion and division, it also makes us miss the point, miss the life-changing truths that we could see if we asked the right questions. Right now we’re in a sermon series studying the Apostle’s Creed, an ancient declaration of faith in the God of the Bible. And today, we’re considering the word “creator.” So, Genesis seemed like the right place to go.
Like the story of the lost son, most of you know the basic outline: God created the universe in six days and then napped on the seventh (so those of you who nap through my sermons every Sunday, you’re in good company!). But by adding up all the names of the people mentioned in Genesis, and throughout the rest of the Bible, seventeenth century Bishop Ussher determined that the creation of Adam and Eve, and everything else, happened in 4,004 BC—about 6,000 years ago. And that’s great. But you’re probably also aware that this creates some tension with contemporary scientists who suggest a different timeline. Considering the evidence offered by the size and expansion rate of the universe, plate tectonics, fossil evidence, and genetics, their best guess is that the universe was created by a big bang about 13 billion years ago, the earth appeared about 4.5 billion years ago, and the earliest humans existed about 200,000 years ago. In the past 300 years, this has become a very heated debate. Apparently, we need to choose whether we believe in science or in scripture. At least that’s the claim made by the most strident voices on each side, so the general population seems to have accepted that if you believe in God you can’t believe in evolution, and if you believe in evolution then you can’t believe in God.
This topic arouses passions and anxieties in many people, including some in this room. No matter what your perspective is, I’m probably going to say something today that you’ll disagree with, and might even make you angry. There’ll be plenty of time for you to set me straight in the coming weeks. But for the next half hour, in order to allow the possibility that we might hear something new, or even learn from the Holy Spirit, let’s lay aside our defensiveness so that we can at least consider why we are so attached to whatever ideas we have, and evaluate whether our devotion to one truth may be blinding us to others. As scientists have discovered more and more evidence supporting the basic evolutionary theory outlined in Darwin’s Origin of Species, Christians have responded in a variety of ways.
Science has been right about so many things, so some Christians have embraced evolution and felt forced to abandon their trust, not only in the truth of Scripture, but also in the God it describes. Other Christians, including many renowned scientists, have fought back by pointing out the many flaws in evolutionary theory and proposing alternative theories of their own. These include Young Earth Creation, which asserts that the earth was created in six days six thousand years ago, and offers thoughtful explanations to reconcile the findings of science with the words of Genesis 1. Old Earth Creationists do the same thing, but contend that each of the days in Genesis could represent an epoch, or a million years, or whatever amount of time, instead of just a 24-hour day. This is linguistically legitimate—it’s a fine interpretation of the Hebrew word “day” in Genesis—and it recognizes that it’s hard to measure a day before the invention of the sun in day four, anyway. So, Old Earth Creationism opens up many possibilities to reconcile scientific claims about the age of the earth with a literal interpretation of Genesis. Theistic Evolution takes further steps to accommodate evolution while still honoring God as the one who created heaven and earth and everything in them through the evolutionary process. This is attractive because it eliminates the conflict between science and scripture, but it requires a very different way of reading Genesis. They suggest that, like I did with the parable of the prodigal son earlier, perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions about Genesis so that we’re inventing an unnecessary argument, and even worse, we’re also missing what the first chapters of Genesis really are all about.
In the next installment, Pastor Swaim goes on to discuss the Genesis passage in detail.