The Body of Christ in Science

On February 10, 2014

I didn’t go to church even once in high school, nor during my freshman year in college. As a lower-middle class kid from L.A., I had arrived at Harvard as an agnostic. Meeting my kind and impressive roommates only confirmed that I had entered the future, and it was unrelentingly secular. It was not that they were militant atheists, who often talk more about God than most Christians. Instead, belief in God was simply off the table as a matter for serious consideration.

But the summer after my freshman year, I got to hear a series of presentations on the composition and reliability of the New Testament. I found it fascinating, because I had assumed that the New Testament had been written centuries after the fact, another made-up religion in a world that didn’t seem to lack for credulous people or myth-mongering authors of religious texts.

I was astounded to learn that the 27 books of the New Testament had been written by eyewitnesses, or those who had talked to eyewitnesses. Just as important, the authors of the books of the New Testament had paid for their truth-telling by losing their social standing and in many cases their lives. So I began to read John’s gospel again—I’d read it before as literature—but this time knowing that I was reading a forthright attempt by regular people to report on what Jesus had said and done.

It was not long before I realized that the God whom I encountered in the written texts about Jesus was the same God now calling me. I responded by repenting and believing the good news about God in Christ reconciling the world, including me, to himself.

Those who had introduced me to Christ also let me know that, by the way, true followers of Jesus do not believe in godless evolution. That was even more good news to me, since I had been a lousy science student in high school and never dreamt of taking a science course in college. What a great religion: your sins are forgiven AND you don’t have to pay attention to science!

But as I began to study Greek and Hebrew, I realized that there was a problem with some of the anti-evolution arguments I had happily accepted. One example is that the word “yom” in Hebrew, meaning “day,” is used in Genesis 1 to count off the days of creation, leading to the seven days of creation that have become fixed in the popular imagination. But in Genesis 2:4, we read about “the day [yom] when the Lord created the heavens and the earth.” And then one notes that the sun is not created until the fourth day, but all along the author has counted off the days of creation by using the phrase “evening and morning, the ____ day.” I am no astronomer, but it seems obvious that you cannot have evening and morning without the sun.

What is going on here? Is the author of Genesis so stupid he didn’t see this? In fact, interpreters of Genesis from the Church Fathers on have noted these facts, and have argued that God has put these clues in the text. This ensures that we will understand that the text is not giving us a recipe for making our world. Instead, God is making a series of unique claims about the Creation in a very humorous way.

For example, the nations surrounding Israel worshipped the sun and the moon. They had temples and priests dedicated to these supposed deities. And they believed the stars were divine and had power to control the destinies of people. Contrast that worldview with Genesis 1, where the sun and moon are said to be mere creations of the one true God. While the nations surrounding Israel venerated the sun and moon as deities, in Genesis 1 they are not even named! It just says that God made “the big light” and “the little light.” To top it all off, the text adds as almost an afterthought, “…and he made the stars.”

The sad thing about trying to turn Genesis 1 and 2 into scientific texts is that we miss the point of why God inspired the writer to write them. They are a frontal assault on any understanding of the world that would view the creation as somehow infused with divinity. Israel, and later the Church, understood this. It is a key reason that science grew on Christian soil and not in places where animistic or quasi-animistic worldviews held sway. Only if the creation is not divine can we study it without fear of engaging in blasphemy.

The biblical view of creation thus gave birth to science, but of course Genesis 1 and 2 are pre-scientific.  That is not to say they are bad science, but that they are not science at all, since science became part of the human story three millennia later.  Genesis does not need or want to be taken on scientific terms, but on its own terms.

This was the understanding of Genesis that existed at the time Origin of Species burst upon the scene.  It was the evangelical Asa Gray at Harvard who corresponded with Darwin and helped introduce his ideas in the U.S.  He was one of the world’s leading botanists, and saw no contradiction between science and his beliefs.  The one who did see such a contradiction was the Unitarian Louis Agassiz, Gray’s Harvard colleague.  Agassiz felt that the wasteful nature of evolution was not in character with the God he believed in.  But Gray accepted that in human affairs “the road is narrow and the gate is straight that leads to eternal life and few are those who find it.”  Thus, an evolutionary process where much that occurs is wasteful presented him with no theological second thoughts.  The history of evolution’s warm reception by many evangelicals in the first decades after Darwin’s theory became known is recounted in David Livingstone’s Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought.

As the twentieth century dawned, the theologians of Princeton Seminary engaged the issue of evolution.  It was professors Hodge and Warfield who coined the term “inerrancy” to establish a standard term to denote a high view of biblical authority.  Yet it was precisely these first inerrantists who wrote articles that made clear that evolution and inerrancy were not enemies.

Then in 1910, a project was begun to define orthodox Protestant faith in the face of assaults from modernists who denied miracles, the atonement, and other central aspects of the Christian faith.  This resulted in a multi-volume series of booklets entitled “The Fundamentals,” whence we get the term “fundamentalism.”  So what did these foundational booklets say about evolution and creation?  The Fundamentalists stood with the Inerrantists in insisting that evolution and the highest view of biblical inspiration and authority were compatible.

It turns out that for centuries prior to Darwin, then at the time of Darwin, and again after several decades of digesting the implications of evolution, the Church did not see an inherent contradiction between science and biblical faith.

Much has been written about the rise of anti-evolution convictions among conservative Protestantism.  George Marsden’s Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism and Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists:  From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design give a very helpful account of how and why the modern exaltation of scientific knowledge as the only true knowledge led some believers to try to beat the scientists at their own game by proving that Genesis was scientifically true.

My heartfelt concern about this issue comes from my years as a pastor in Cambridge, MA.  I got to know many very good scientists who became leaders of our church as they got degrees from MIT and Harvard.  One was a molecular geneticist who was a Malaysian citizen of Chinese ancestry.  He came from a country where it was illegal to share one’s faith in Christ with Malay Muslims.  Yet he and his friends risked imprisonment to bear witness to their Lord and Savior.

So it makes me both sad and angry that some within the anti-evolution community, from Young Earthers to ID defenders, would impugn the integrity and backbone of scientists who are Christians.  My friend braved the threat of arrest to stand up for Jesus.  It is insulting to even hint that he would not gladly follow the evidence wherever it led in science, even if it meant disputing evolution.  As he himself pointed out to me, if indeed he or any scientist could do work that led to overturning evolutionary theory, they would likely be in line for a Nobel Prize.  That is how science works, by in the end celebrating the overturning of received theories in light of new evidence.

I am not in any position to judge scientific theories, either pro- or anti-evolution.  But that is why God has put us in the Body of Christ, so none of us needs to claim omni-competence.  I studied Hebrew, so when I wrote that “yom” meant “day,” I was working within my field.  And I studied theology and church history, and thus could write about the beginning of inerrancy and fundamentalism.  Nevertheless, you should not trust me to make pronouncements on science.  If we believe that God has distributed gifts throughout the Body of Christ, then we are unwise not to heed the thoughtful conclusions of our sisters and brothers in Christ with gifts in science.  If the overwhelming number of these faithful and sincere followers of Jesus say evolution is true, then we honor the Body of Christ by heeding them.

Others trained in the natural sciences can and should challenge the consensus opinion if they feel the scientific evidence demands it.  But the wider Christian community, those whose expertise is in law or engineering or theology or English literature, should give deference to the consensus opinion while being open to hearing the thoughts of the dissenters.  For it is indeed the case that dissenters can be right, just as it can be the case that they are wrong.  What is not fair is for non-scientists to present a distinctly minority position as the authentically Christian one.

I alluded earlier to what I suspect drives this very recent movement to enlist science in trying to buttress claims that the Bible is true.  We live in an age that often assumes that all truth must be amenable to being proved scientifically.  The unstated assumption is that if God is truly active in the creation of the world, there should be some traces of that which science can discover.  But notice that this supposition does not grow out of the Bible, but is being imposed upon it.

It is not a silly idea, but neither is it one that need be true.  Take the case of Jesus.  We know that he was fully God and fully human.  If we had some of his DNA, would we be able to analyze it and deduce this fact? Of course not.  Neither should we assume that if we analyze the creation scientifically we will find evidence that God made it.  Of course we know that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh.”  These are true statements, but there is no reason to insist that they are accessible by science.

I hope that we non-scientists will quit second-guessing our brothers and sisters in the faith who are scientists.  If we do want to let the minority report on evolution be heard in our churches, we are duty-bound to be sure that we give proportionally more time to the majority report.  Scientists and their work are too often maligned by the anti-evolution forces that dominate the Christian airwaves and bookstores, the homeschooling publishers and Christian conferences.  I want Christians in the sciences to know that they are fulfilling their role in the Body of Christ.  Just like their forebears, they are engaged in helping us understand the world God has actually created.  May they be honored in the Church for all they do to the greater glory of God.