Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science
Kenton Sparks rethinks the evolution/Bible conflict by discussing interpretive methods used in history, the principle that nature reveals truth, the Copernican controversy, and a testimony.
Let us begin with one of the great fathers of the early church, St. Augustine. Writing in his 5th century commentary on the book of Genesis, he lamented the embarrassment created when Christians interpreted the Bible without recourse to science:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions … Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.1
One issue that confronted Augustine was a conflict between the best cosmological thought of his day (the Ptolemaic view that a spherical earth was orbited by the heavenly bodies of the cosmos) and two other Christian views, according to which the heavens were either a vaulted half-dome or a flat disk suspended above a flat earth. As his above comment suggests, Augustine’s response was to advance an interpretation of the Bible that made room for the science.2
This set of priorities may strike some evangelicals as a bit odd, but it was in keeping with Augustine’s general approach to the apparent contradictions and problems in the Bible itself. Whenever two biblical texts seemed to contradict each other on a “literal” reading, Augustine was quite willing to assume that one or both were figural or allegorical. In a similar way, Augustine found it important to use his interpretive strategies to harmonize Scripture with the accredited results of science.
Regarding the shape of the cosmos, Augustine argued that the vaulted “half-dome” presented in Genesis 1 complemented the Ptolemaic view of a spherical earth. So Genesis gives us a partial picture of the larger scientific whole. As for the other Christian theory, which maintained on the basis of Psalm 103:2 that the heavens are disk-shaped3, Augustine explained that this psalm is allegorical and shouldn’t be used as a literal description of scientific facts. So here and at many other points in his commentary, Augustine found it advantageous to treat the biblical text as allegorical or figural when this suited the scientific evidence.
We can draw three insights from Augustine’s work and approach. First, the problem of apparent conflict between the Bible and science is not a new problem but rather a perennial one, nearly as old as the Christian Bible itself. Secondly, Augustine regarded it as important to let the scientific evidence have a say in how the Bible should be interpreted. He did not assume that the science was wrong simply because it contradicted what he took to be a literal reading of Scripture. Third, one of Augustine’s favorite exegetical strategies for resolving theological conflict was to closely consider the genre of the biblical text. If the biblical text contradicted good science, he recognized the possibility that the text was not a literal, scientific text.
This does not mean, however, that Augustine was unwilling in principle to take a strong stand against contemporary science. For instance, Augustine strongly resisted scientific objections to the biblical claim, in Genesis 1:6-7, that there were “waters above the heavens.” After rejecting both the scientific evidence against the Bible and the allegorical possibilities in the Bible, he concluded that these waters actually did exist because “the authority of Scripture in this matter is greater than all human ingenuity.” Of course, were he alive in the era of space exploration I suspect that he’d head in another direction and direct us to allegorize the heavenly waters. But in Augustine’s day, as he points out in some detail, the scientific evidence appeared to be fairly ambiguous.
From this I’d draw one last observation from Augustine’s work: whenever he considered the scientific evidence very strong, he adjusted his view of the Bible to make room for the science; when he considered the scientific evidence to be weak, he sided with Scripture. I would suggest that this element in Augustine’s approach brings us face to face with the scientific and theological question that confronts modern Christians: Is the evidence for evolution so overwhelming and clear that we must adjust our views of Scripture and theology to make room for it? Or is the evidence actually very weak and carelessly cobbled together by godless scientists who wish to discredit the Christian faith? I will come back to this question in a later essay.
Regarding the problem of science and Scripture, one option that Augustine did not consider in any of his work was the possibility that the biblical cosmology was actually wrong. So far as I know, we must leap forward about one thousand years to find a notable Christian theologian who said something like this. I refer to John Calvin and his commentary on Genesis.
In Calvin’s day the science was modestly more advanced than in Augustine’s day and, as a result, the Bible’s claim that there were “waters above the heavens” presented a more serious problem for him. The difficulty was exacerbated because Calvin’s interpretive tradition tended to reject allegories, so that Scripture, as a literal depiction of the cosmos, was brought into a very direct conflict with science.
Would Calvin side with the truth of literal Scripture or the accredited facts of science? Here is Calvin’s comment about the “waters above the firmament”:
For, to my mind, this is a certain principle: that nothing is treated here except the visible form of the world.Whoever wishes to learn astronomy and other esoteric arts, let him go elsewhere … Therefore, the things which he [i.e., Moses] relates, serve as the decorative objects from that theatre which he [i.e., God] places before our eyes.From this I conclude that the waters intended here are such as the crude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance of them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses. And truly a longer inquiry into a matter open and manifest is superfluous [emphasis mine].4
One should not, Calvin says, believe “by faith” that there are waters above the firmament when one knows good and well that this is not the case. In Calvin’s view, Genesis merely accommodated itself to the ancient and errant human view that such waters existed.5
Calvin similarly argued that accommodation was at work in the chronological system used to enumerate the various creation days of Genesis 1. Because the text reflects an acceptance of the ancient view of time, says Calvin, “It is useless to dispute whether this is the best and legitimate order or not.”6 In other words, accommodation was for Calvin what allegory was for Augustine … a useful interpretive tool because it made the Bible’s apparent scientific “errors” irrelevant. God does not err in Scripture … but Scripture does reflect the errant views of the ancient biblical audience.
Calvin’s approach parallels Augustine’s in numerous respects. Foremost, we see that Calvin took the science very seriously and recognized that the scientific evidence can become so clear to educated minds that it can no longer be “trumped” by Scripture. He was so committed to this perspective that he was willing, in this case, to admit that the biblical cosmology was wrong.
Secondly, like Augustine, Calvin turned to genre as a solution to the problem of Scripture’s error. However, where Augustine used allegory to make Scripture correct, Calvin used accommodation to absolve God of error in Scripture. Scripture does reflect an errant view, said Calvin, but the error is not God’s error … it is the error of the ancient human audience, perpetuated in the Biblical text because the Bible is not a science book. To put it in Calvin’s own words, “Whoever wishes to learn astronomy and other esoteric arts, let him go elsewhere.”
If Calvin was right, then we should by all means avoid an interpretive habit that assumes that, in our pursuit scientific knowledge, the Bible is always a better resource than the tools and traditions of the modern academy. I will take up this point later.
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 evangelicals.
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.
The theological debates surrounding the Copernican revolution are fascinating for anyone interested in the perennial problem of faith and science. When Copernicus (1473-1543) proffered his heliocentric theory in the 16th century, it met with sharp resistance both within the Catholic Church and among the Reformers.
The responses of Luther and Melanchthon are good examples. Luther (1483-1546) referred to Copernicus as an “upstart astrologer” and as a “fool [who] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”7
Luther’s associate, Melanchthon (1497-1560), added these words of criticism:
The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves … Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.8
Melanchthon believed that wise governments ought to “repress” the views of Copernicus because “public proclamation of absurd opinions is indecent and sets a harmful example.”9 In support of this opinion, he could cite biblical texts such as Ecclesiastes 1:4-5: “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and quickly moves to its place where it rises.” Luther and Melanchthon are merely representative of general trends in the sixteenth century, in which clergymen feverishly searched the Bible line by line for new passages that would confirm the traditional Ptolemaic view.
It is easy to see why the Catholic Church and Reformers took this hard-line position against the Copernicans. First, the Ptolemaic view was matched step for step by the long-standing traditions of the Church. Second, the Ptolemaic view corresponded rather precisely to the usual experiences of human life—that the Sun is moving and we are not. And third, as we have just seen, the geocentric view had Scripture on its side. Tradition, common sense, and the voice of Scripture joined together to create a coherent understanding of the world against which the Copernican viewpoint seemed senseless, even heretical.
Ultimately, however, the Copernican viewpoint would win the day. The reason, of course, was that the scientific evidence finally coalesced into a consensus against which tradition, Scripture, and common sense could no longer prevail. For once one understood the arguments of Copernicus, it was rather easy to “experience” the new cosmology with one’s own eyes.
The Copernicus situation (and the closely related issues surrounding Galileo’s work) was an embarrassment to the Church and created a kind of breach between faith and science that has not been totally mended since. As a result, regardless of the stripe of Christian, all Christians agree that we should work to avoid repeating the error and to repair the breach between faith and science.
Our present scientific problem is evolution, but the situation is somewhat different from the days of Copernicus for one very important reason: the evidence for evolution is not readily “visible.” Rather, evolutionists tell us that it is only through well-informed familiarity with the details of the evidence—the fossils, the distribution and variety of living species, the biochemistry, the ecological issues, the genetic evidence, etc.—that one can see how convincing the evidence for evolution actually is.
Because most of us will never be able to “see” this evidence for ourselves, we are forced to decide whose testimony to believe. On one side we have practically all scientists, and also many confessing Christians—including even many evangelical Christians—who attest to the cogency of evolution as an explanation of the evidence. On the other side we have the testimony of fundamentalist science, which represents a very small minority of the scientific community.
How do we prudently weigh out this testimony? Shall we assume that Christian evolutionists have compromised the faith and celebrate the fundamentalists as prophetic heroes of faith, or shall we interpret the situation as “Copernicus revisited” … in which case, the Christian evolutionists are our scholarly heroes and the fundamentalists should be understood as insular, uninformed protectionists?
In my opinion, there are three reasons to side with the progressive viewpoint.
First, the general arguments that support evolution are clear enough and have been driven home relentlessly to the satisfaction of an overwhelming majority of trained scientists. Although I am not trained in the sciences, I can discern good arguments from bad ones. The persistent claim of fundamentalist scientists that modern science is filled with misinformation and falsehood is rhetoric rather than substance. The evidence in our hands is now quite sufficient to warrant the conclusion that the cosmos is very old and that life on our planet originated through a long and complex evolutionary process.
Secondly, Fundamentalism stands in unconscious complicity with atheistic naturalism. Though Scripture and tradition plainly tell us that the created order itself is evidence for God’s existence, Fundamentalism accepts the atheistic premise that such a naturalistic explanation as evolution would disprove God’s existence. Fundamentalism has unwittingly accepted the idea that, if we find a natural explanation for the emergence of life on earth, then this would demonstrate that we are studying a world without God. But if nature really is God’s creation, then there is no reason at all to deny that nature has the creative capacity to give rise to life. In fact, evolution might actually turn out to be impressive evidence for God’s creativity and existence.
Third, Fundamentalism’s resistance to evolutionary theory is largely the result of its faulty view of the Bible. It understands the early chapters of Genesis as essentially scientific in that they must be compatible with what we learn from modern science. I have already pointed out that some of the best minds of Christian antiquity, such as Augustine and Calvin, saw very quickly how precarious it was to accept this view of Scripture. Many modern Christians have made the same observations. If Genesis is not a science book, what is it? In our next discussion, I should like to look more closely at the genre of Genesis … at the kind of text that it is.
The early chapters of Genesis cannot be right if we suppose them to be writings of accurate science. We have before us two basic interpretive options, each represented already in the older work of Augustine and Calvin. On the one hand, we have Augustine’s strategy. Augustine tells us that Genesis is more theological and allegorical than scientific, so if it seems scientifically wrong this is because we’ve read the book incorrectly by taking it as a book of science. In other words, Augustine’s “solution” for the conflict between Scripture and science is generic: once we understand the non-scientific genre of Genesis, then we can no longer say that Genesis has its science wrong. On the other hand, we have Calvin’s strategy: Genesis is not a book of science and, precisely because of that, we can admit as irrelevant the fact that it reflects ancient and errant views of the cosmos.
Among evangelicals who wish to accept (or at least be open to) evolutionary theory, many have sided with Augustine. The claim is made that the Genesis creation account is not science but rather more like the ancient creation stories from Egypt and Mesopotamia, which are typically understood as myths. The term “myth” is controversial and not always carefully defined. The main point is that myths are assumed to be creative, symbolic, theological writings and are not designed to answer technical questions about the structure of the cosmos and the origins of life. In other words, these texts were written by ancient people who did not have access to the kinds of information that they would have needed to answer even basic scientific questions. One evangelical who epitomizes this approach is Greg Beale, who advances the idea that Genesis 1 is not amenable to scientific criticism because it was written in a genre that used “Cosmic Temple” imagery (i.e., myth) to depict the created order.10
This approach is partly right and far better than the fundamentalist attempt to turn Genesis into a science book, but in the end I do not find it convincing. The primary difficulty with this approach is that, in certain important respects, Genesis turns out to be a work of ancient scholarship that really is informed by science … but informed by ancient science rather than modern science. The modern distinction between “myth” and “science,” or “myth” and “history,” simply did not exist in antiquity, or at least not in the same way as it does for us. The Egyptians used the same word (gnwt) to refer to what we would call “myths” and “histories,” and in Mesopotamia we observe that scribes consulted myths like Enuma Elish when they were creating scientific cosmologies.11 And it is precisely in these cosmological works, and not merely in myths, that we find a belief that there were “waters above the heavens,” as Genesis also has it. In other words, though the ancient scribes did not necessarily think that myth and scholarly cosmology was precisely the same genre, they did believe that the two genres were closely related.
Given the parallels between the cosmology of Genesis and ancient cosmology, are we not wiser to view Genesis as a book of theology and ancient scholarship? I think that the answer must be yes. For if we look elsewhere in the early chapters of Genesis and compare them to other ancient texts, at almost every step we are confronted with the genres of ancient scholarship.
The flood story, for instance, was a standard feature in ancient histories. Equally at home in ancient scholarship was the use of genealogies, of eponymous ancestors to explain the origins of nations and ethnic groups, of numbers that were mathematically and/or astronomically interesting, and a belief that the gods were responsible for humanity’s many languages.
So Genesis does reflect the views of ancient scholarship and even of science. At the same time, it’s also quite true that there are parts of Genesis 1-11 that seem to be creative works of theology rather than ”pure” science or history (as we might put it). The author(s) used a creation story to project a weekly sabbatical pattern into the order of human life in (Genesis 1). In the next two chapters (Genesis 2-3) he combined various mythical motifs—found in Near Eastern stories like the Gilgamesh Epic and Adapa Legend—to produce a second creation story and the story of humanity’s fall. In fact, the very pattern of “creation, population growth, flood” seems to be patterned after the Atrahasis Epic. So, generically speaking, Genesis is more than “myth or science.” It is a highly intentional piece of ancient scholarship that combines what we call myth, legend, history and science into a theologically oriented composition.
If we add the insights of Calvin to those of Augustine, then I believe we have before us some of the theological resources that we need to understand Genesis. On the one hand, Augustine was right. There are theological and symbolic elements in Genesis that we should not mistake for science or history. On the other hand, Calvin was right. There are elements in Genesis that really do reflect an ancient and scientifically errant view of the cosmos.
The verdict is in. One way or another, it is not a good idea to use the book of Genesis as a guide for our modern scientific queries, or even to expect it to enter into modern scientific conversation. Rather, our science should be deduced mainly by carefully studying God’s world and by receiving the results as a “word” from God and as evidence of his majesty and creativity. I freely admit that this “conclusion” leaves us with more theological work to do. We still have the apparent problem that death entered the cosmos before human beings existed, and also the pressing question of how the “Adam” of Genesis, and more importantly of Romans, should be understood in light of theological orthodoxy and the evolutionary process. But those are questions to consider at another time.
I met Frederick Turner at a professional meeting on the subject of Octavian’s political strategies in the Roman Empire. I was particularly impressed with the breadth and insight of Fred’s contributions to the dialogue and made it a point to get in some personal, one-on-one time learning more about him. I soon learned that he was the son of Victor Turner, a very famous scholar (now deceased) whose name would be familiar to anyone versed in anthropology and ritual studies. I also learned that Fred himself was an epic poet … yes, you heard me right … an epic poet. At present he holds a chair in humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Knowing something of his family background, and having deduced from the conversation that he was deeply committed to evolutionary theory, I was a bit surprised to learn that he was a confessing Christian. Dizzyingly intelligent and always witty, it was a particular thrill to hear the story of his conversion to faith. And as you might guess, it was not the usual evangelical conversion tale. You see, Fred was converted to the faith by … evolution!
Fred found again and again, in his face-to-face experience with nature, the cosmos and human beings, that the natural order as a whole seemed to be an impressive miracle. There was nothing, anywhere, that was not amazing, fascinating and interesting. While this experience set the stage for his conversion, the final blow came when he studied evolutionary biology at Oxford. The intricacy and beauty of the evolutionary process simply overwhelmed his mind and senses. So at last, having considered the matter, he became convinced that the complexity of the cosmos could not be the work of blind chance. Rather, the cosmos was the work of God.
Fred is not an evangelical. He is a serious, confessing Catholic who came to faith after receiving the “word” of creation as testimony that pointed the human heart to God. Biblically speaking, this is precisely what we should expect. The miracle of nature is potent evidence that God is there.
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