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Denis Alexander
 on March 23, 2017

The Various Meanings of Concordism

There is no need to keep theology in a watertight box, in isolation from the materiality of the created order.

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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” – Lewis Carroll, 18721

I lived for many years under the naïve impression that the word “concordism” had a reasonably stable and well-understood meaning. In Creation or Evolution—Do We Have to Choose [Monarch, 2014, 2nd edn, p. 286] I wrote that “it is truly important that we do not try and impose scientific interpretations upon the Genesis text, nor try to impose our interpretation of biblical passages upon the science, the approach of “concordism” that has already been criticized.” Therefore imagine my surprise when I was recently accused of being a “concordist”! Prof. Tom Wright was also so criticized in the same article, so at least one feels in good company. But I say “accused” advisedly because in my theological and cultural context, at least, it is mildly pejorative to claim that someone is “concordist” in their hermeneutics.

Generally when someone disbelieves in “something”, but then someone else claims that in fact the first person does believe it, one can be fairly sure that the label carries different meanings and connotations for both parties. What might those meanings be? The word “concordism” is not found in the Oxford English Dictionary, but concord means “a state of harmony,” which provides the general key to its meaning. Since words are defined by their usage, we need to explore the various contexts in which “concordism” is deployed.

Three Meanings of Concordism

As with most typologies of different complex entities, there are in reality a spectrum of views, and definitions identify different areas of the spectrum.

According to the historian Ted Davis, an influential early use of the word “concordism” is found in the writings of Bernard Ramm, the Baptist theologian, in his book The Christian View of Science and Scripture [1954]. Ramm writes with regard to the day-age theory (the idea that the days of Genesis 1 represent long periods of time): “It is called concordism because it seeks a harmony of the geological record and the days of Genesis interpreted as long periods of time briefly summarizing geological history” (p. 145). Ramm labeled such a view “moderate concordism.”

The French Wikipedia entry on concordisme describes a similar meaning. The website Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales provides a succinct definition of concordisme which, translated from the French, reads: “A system of exegesis aimed at establishing a concordance between biblical texts and scientific data.”

A little further reading reveals that there are two types of concordism which relate to this definition. For example, in the Jewish tradition David Shatz distinguishes between a “modest” concordism in which Jewish philosophers seek to reconcile the Bible with “accurate science and accurate metaphysics” (equivalent to Ramm’s “modest concordism”), and contrasts this with a “bold” concordism which claims that “the Bible teaches science and metaphysics in a positive fashion” (Shatz, 2008). A similar distinction is made between “soft” and “hard” versions of concordism by the organization Reasons to Believe.

Here we will label Shatz’s “bold” concordism as Type A. In the Christian community this is generally associated with the attempt to extract scientific information from Biblical passages. For example, it has been claimed that Big Bang cosmology can be inferred from many different Old Testament verses so that “The Bible taught it first!” This is an example of science currently deemed to be correct being interpreted from Biblical texts. Such an approach is very common in the Muslim community with respect to the Qu’ran where it is known as I`jaz `ilmiy (“miraculous scientific content”) theory (Guessoum, 2011). For example it is maintained that the speed of light can be calculated from Qu’ranic verses, and that other passages reveal the genetic code and the second law of thermodynamics. Such approaches appear to stem from a strongly modernist perspective in which scientific knowledge is held in high esteem and therefore, ipso facto, “holy books” are deemed to contain such knowledge. It should be noted that in every case the supposed derivation of scientific insights from religious texts occurs only after the scientific discovery in question, not before.

A similar approach, which can also be included within Type A concordism, is when attempts are made to extract scientific information from Biblical verses, information which happens to be wrong. For example, by interpreting the days of Genesis 1 as literal days of 24 hours, a young earth is inferred, even though it is well-established that the earth is very old.3 The term “concordist” now becomes a matter of perspective: for those who hold to mainstream science, such an interpretation becomes distinctly “discordant”, whereas for those who extract at least some of their science from the Bible, the interpretation is concordist – hardly surprising when the science is deemed to come from the Bible in the first place (albeit supposedly backed up by other data).

Concordism Type B makes no attempt to extract science from Biblical passages, but instead seeks to interpret texts in the light of modern science. There is a very large literature on such attempts, described in detail elsewhere4 and Ted Davis helpfully summarises the long history of the idea in American evangelicalism (Davis, 2006). The quotation above from Bernard Ramm provides a classic exemplar. When it comes to the interpretation of Genesis 1, there are gap theories, day-age theories, and many other attempts to impose a scientific understanding on the Genesis text that supposedly bring it into harmony with the geological record. Other Type B understandings are cautious about such impositions, but nevertheless state that “The concordist not only believes that nature and Scripture will harmonize, but sees specific references in the Bible to current scientific understanding of the universe.”

Concordism Type C is typical of much of the present academic discussion between science and religion. Indeed as a category it’s so broad that one wonders whether the use of the term “concordism” in this context does any useful work, but Type C is included here in part to highlight the clear water that separates it from Types A and B. Rejecting the Non-Overlapping Magisteria model of science and religion espoused by the late Stephen Jay Gould (Gould, 2002), Type C concordism emphasizes that all truth is God’s truth and that it’s therefore healthy and good for science and Biblical theology to engage in active dialogue, seeking where possible to allow both disciplines to complement each other. This is in full light of the history of science and religion, marked as it is by complexity (Brooke, 1991), and the knowledge that concord is never a foregone conclusion.

An assumption of concordism Type C is that science and theology have their own integrity as methods of enquiry, constructing their own models of reality without mutual interference. But having completed that process, it is deemed intellectually lazy if Christians do not then proceed to see what types of concord, or indeed discord, there may be between these two forms of knowledge. Whilst hermeneutics clearly plays an important role in constructing theology, science plays no role in interpreting the Bible as one finds in concordism types A and B. Indeed, type C concordism insists that it is incongruous to impose scientific meanings upon Biblical texts, given that science in its modern form, together with an increasingly specialized scientific literature, did not really emerge until the 19th century (Harrison, 2015). The Bible should be interpreted according to its ancient Near East context and the literary genre in use.

Some examples of concordism Type C

For those brought up with either Type A or Type B concordism, but who have now discarded such unhelpful hermeneutical approaches, it is well understood that there may be some hesitancy in even embarking on a Type C exercise. So it is good to emphasize that Type C can be carried out without any need to impose scientific meanings on to Biblical texts. At the same time, there is no need to keep theology in a watertight box, in isolation from the materiality of the created order. Theology is about real people, not (most of the time) about angels. Scientists are perhaps more used than theologians to the task of inter-disciplinary model building and thought experiments, which play such important roles in our advances in scientific understanding. Models generated from science-theology will never be encompassed by either science or Scripture alone – how could they be?

Three examples (amongst many) of Type C: first, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) – how does their putative discovery relate to the theology of the atonement? There are plenty of books and articles being written about this topic, a trend which first began in the 17th century.

Second, how does cognitive psychology relate to theological insights concerning human identity? There is a growing Type C literature here.

Third, how does the theology of God’s divine action relate to the proposal that God interacts with the world through quantum uncertainty?

Fourth, what about those (like the present author) who believe that Biblical theology portrays a state in which people initially know God personally, then rebel against God by choosing their own autonomy – so introducing sin into the world – leading to their need of redemption? How does that theology relate to our current understanding of human anthropology?

Asking big questions of this kind is surely a task for both theologians and scientists in partnership. In the blogpost already cited, Scot McKnight finishes by suggesting that the concord he prefers “is one that sees Genesis 1-3 more in conversation with the ancient Near East accounts of origins and purpose”. That’s fine, but there’s no need to choose between this and Concordism Type C–we need both. There are too many “either-or” narratives in the world right now. Let’s have more of the “both-and.”

About the author

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. He has spent the past 40 years in the biological research community. From 1992-2012 he was editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and he currently serves as an Executive Committee member of the International Society for Science and Religion. In his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Alexander presents his belief in both the biblical doctrine of creation and the coherence of evolutionary theory. Alexander’s other books include Rebuilding the Matrix – Science and Faith in the 21st CenturyScience, Faith and Ethics: Grid or Gridlock? (co-authored with Robert White); and The Language of Genetics – an Introduction. Dr Alexander gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in December 2012 on the theme ‘Genes, Determinism and God’ to be published by Cambridge University Press 2016/17

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