Mike Lehmann
 on September 04, 2019

Theology Before Darwin: Defusing the Dilemma

Even before science was raised as a contradiction to the biblical account of creation, many in the church already saw it as poetic wisdom about our Creator.

bible open with autumn colored leaves around it

What’s the difference between theology before and after Darwin? Ideally, there shouldn’t be much difference at all. Examining the ancient context of Genesis 1-3, and how the early church fathers viewed it, offers an old way to end a current conflict. This wisdom disarmed Darwin’s theory centuries before it was published by separating science from the true purpose of Scripture—revelation of God.

The Importance of Context

Unlike Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Genesis was not published in 1859, nor was it written in English. As John Walton warns, the Bible was written for us . . . but not to us. Translating the Old Testament’s original Hebrew text into English is just the beginning of understanding. Just as importantly, we must translate the first audience’s cultural assumptions. We must try to hear the text as they might have heard it.

For instance, consider the world of Genesis 1. It contains a “vault” to separate the waters above from the waters below, and the moon and stars are placed in the “vault” to give light and serve as signs. Modern scientists describe the world very differently, but Genesis describes the world as the ancient Israelites saw it. God humbled himself to accommodate their understanding, just as he humbled himself in the Incarnation. God communicates eternal truth in a way that we can understand.

When we understand the ancient context, the text reveals some startling surprises to many modern readers. Conrad Hyers points out that the spaces created on the initial three days are then inhabited on the next three days. God creates light and darkness on day one, and the sun, moon, and stars are created on day four to occupy the light and dark. Day two brings the waters above the earth and under the earth, and the birds of the sky and sea creatures are created on day five. And, of course, since God created dry land on day three, land animals were given life on day sixincluding our species. This literary framework hints that we have a powerful piece of poetry here, not a play-by-play account of how creation unfolded.

A pictographic chart showing the days of creation in terms of being created and then filled

Genesis 1 also asserts God’s supremacy over the gods of Israel’s neighbors. Genesis 1:16 says, “God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.” It’s easy for modern readers to miss, but this statement demotes the pagan gods associated with the sun, moon, and stars. None of those things are divine because God created them all.1

The story of Adam and Eve that immediately follows contains surprises of its own. A good example is the interpretation of Adam as Israel. Think about it. God places Adam and Eve in a land, gives them a commandment, and exiles them for disobedience. Sounds a bit like Israel’s own story, doesn’t it? They entered the Promised Land, received the Mosaic Law, and suffered exile for disobeying it.

Yet another surprise comes from the realization that Genesis 2-3 uses the specific name for Israel’s God, YHWH, unlike Genesis 1.2 It’s possible to see these chapters as describing the origins of Israel, not necessarily the entire world. Still, the battle with sin rings true in each of our lives.

There are obviously other possible interpretations, but that isn’t the point. What’s important is paying attention to the ancient context. When we do, it illuminates nuances and connections that we otherwise would miss.

The Church Fathers on Genesis

It’s not just the ancient context that discourages us from treating Genesis as a scientific textbook. The church fathers’ reflections on Scripture reveal the same concern.

In the fourth century, Basil stressed the importance of God creating everything from nothing—not arguing over the exact way that creation happened.3 Gregory of Nyssa explained, “The fact of creation we accept; but we renounce a curious investigation of the way the universe was framed as a matter altogether ineffable and inexplicable.”4 Augustine exhorted Christians to avoid “talking nonsense” by treating Genesis as science. He believed this created an unnecessary obstacle for people to trust the gospel.

These church fathers aren’t isolated examples. The debate about the temporal aspects of creation, or how and when it happened, obscures the main point. Peter Bouteneff captures this insight well in Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives:

As to the end result, however, none of the fathers’ strictly theological or moral conclusions—about creation, or about humanity and its redemption, and the coherence of everything in Christ—has anything to do with the datable chronology of the creation of the universe or with the physical existence of Adam and Eve. They read the creation narratives as Holy Scripture, and therefore as “true.” 5

The fathers held different views about the age of the Earth, Adam and Eve’s historicity, and other issues. But they agreed that all these details were secondary to the main point: Genesis is Scripture that reveals truth about God’s sovereign action, by Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, to redeem creation.

Any attempt to defuse the “conflict” between creation and evolution should look to the church fathers’ ancient context and commentary. This approach won’t resolve every question, but it undercuts an otherwise strong counterargument: “You’re just creating a new interpretation of the Bible to make peace with Darwin and evolution!” That battle cry has made unlikely allies of atheist Richard Dawkins and young-earth creationist Ken Ham.

Does this mean further reflection on evolution and theology is worthless, since the church fathers had all the answers? No way. Theologians still face daunting questions about original sin and the Fall in light of evolution, artificial intelligence, gene editing, and many other issues at the intersection of science and faith.

Christians must be mindful, however, never to let this work become severed from the early church’s strong roots. As Conor Cunningham says, “the theology that marries the science of today will be the widow of tomorrow.”6 When we analyze questions about science and theology, we should always seek common ground with the saints who have come before us. Harmonizing the Bible with the study of the natural world was never the point in the first place.

The Bible overflows with deep wisdom about God, but treating it as a science textbook is a mistake. The ancient Israelites would have caught the relationship between the days in Genesis, the critique of polytheism, and the parallels between Adam and Israel that we easily miss. And the church fathers remind us that our contemporary debate about the details of creation misses the meaning of creation. God created out of nothing and Christ is the key to everything—including our own salvation.

Declaring a ceasefire between science and Christianity isn’t a compromise or a delusion. It’s a reminder of how we should have been reading Scripture all along.

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About the author

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Mike Lehmann

Mike Lehmann studied the relationship between theology, science, and atheism at Duke Divinity School. He is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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