The Problem: Disparity in Defining Terms
Literal, history, myth, inerrancy. Science, theory, design, random, creationism, evolution. These are but a few of the terms used in discussions of origins that are prone to misunderstanding and equivocation, even by the experts. In our own study, we have noticed such confusion with respect to the term “concordism.” Concordism, generally, is the supposition that the biblical and non-biblical data on a given topic can and should be harmonized (of course, the term “harmonized” itself is open to varying definitions, which creates the problem for understanding “concordism”). A simple example is seeing Genesis 1:1 and the Big Bang as describing the same event. The concept of concordism is particularly relevant when there appears to be a discrepancy between what the Bible says and what general revelation says. Our specific focus is the use of “concordism” regarding the biblical and scientific data concerning the age and development of the universe/earth and of living creatures, including humanity.
The disparity in defining “concordism” has been noted previously, but the disparity is brought into sharper relief when reading Zondervan’s recent volume, Four Views on the Historical Adam. Those who are unfamiliar with the book are encouraged first to read BioLogos’ interaction with three of the authors beginning here.) Simply stated, evolutionary creationist Denis Lamoureux claims (as a critique) that his three interlocutors “embrace scientific concordism in varying forms,”yet all three deny the charge! Lamoureux, who considers the legitimacy of concordism as “the central issue in the origins debate,” goes further in his interview with BioLogos: “Those who pin Adam to the tail end of evolution are scientific concordists because modern genetics offers no evidence for his existence. Their belief in Adam comes from Scripture, not science. And from my perspective, scientific concordism always falls short.…From my perspective, a foundational tenet of evolutionary creation is that it rejects scientific concordism. Consequently, those who accept human evolution and a historical Adam should really be classified with the progressive creationists because they embrace concordism.” (This last statement implicitly challenges or questions those who are non-committal or loyal to an historical Adam.)
A glance at various statements in the book reveals that each author is using “concordism” differently (and at times it appears an individual author himself uses the term in multiple ways). Consider the following statements:
- Lamoureux (No Historical Adam: Evolutionary Creation view): “Scientific concordism is the assumption that the facts of science align with the Bible. Stated another way, it is the assumption that God revealed scientific facts to the biblical writers thousands of years before their discovery by modern scientists.”
- John Walton (Historical Adam: Archetypal Creation view): “Concordism tries to identify that which can be identified as common truths in the convergence of the Word and the world. That pursuit has its place. But in this discussion it is more important for us to identify what the authoritative claims of the biblical text are.”
- Jack Collins (Historical Adam: Old-Earth Creation view): “I quite agree that it is misguided to expect that the Bible will align with what the sciences discover, although not for the same reason that Lamoureux states. Nevertheless, I read him as implying that there is only one kind of concordism, the literalistic kind; and since that is bad, then no concordism is possible.…So the right distinction is between proper [i.e., historical] and improper [i.e., scientific] concordism.”
- William Barrick (Historical Adam: Young-Earth Creation view): “Just to be clear: my view is not concordism, because no concord exists between evolutionary science and divine revelation. The cause for the lack of concord does not reside in the Bible’s ancient understanding of science. The writers were not speaking of subjective science; they were passing on objective divine revelation (2 Peter 1:20-21). The written record that God superintended did not agree with the ancient pagan scientists nor with the ancient scholars’ worldview.”
The above examples indicate that each of the writers has in his own mind a different working definition of “concordism.” These statements are merely illustrative of the problem (of definitional confusion). What we need is a more intentional focus on how this term is being used; otherwise, the broader origins debate suffers from lack of clarity. We are not interested here to critique or side with any one person or position; rather, we want to present some overlapping questions that might help the discussion move forward:
- Does the Bible make any scientific claims? That is, when the biblical writers describe matters that intersect with the purview of science, are they providing authoritative assertions on these matters (perhaps viewing these as prophetic or eye-witness accounts) or merely using commonly-held perspectives (e.g., accommodationism, phenomenological language, incidentals) in order to make authoritative claims of other things? Is this distinction even relevant? More particularly, how might this affect or interact with one’s view of biblical authority, especially in light of various views on inerrancy?
- How confident can we be of the results of science? Can we make a distinction with respect to such confidence between specific disciplines (e.g., the fields of physics, chemistry, and geology over biology)? How much should we distinguish between observational science and historical science (to use an oft-repeated distinction from some camps)?
- Should the answer to concordism be a simple Yes or No, such that one adopts either concordism or its counterpart, accommodationism? Or, is it better to think in terms of a continuum, or (as Collins’ suggests) even to differentiate between types of concordism? More specifically, in considering a relationship to the biblical data, can/should we distinguish between various disciplines, such as science vs. history, or between sub-disciplines within science (e.g., physics/chemistry/geology vs. biology)? If so, how? Would the categorical distinctions be based more on the differences in the nature and methodology of the disciplines, such that one discipline is considered more objective than another (e.g., hard science vs. soft science)? Or would it rather be based more on theological presuppositions? For example, is the question of a historical Adam more one of science or history?
- If one favors a concordist position (however defined), how is all the data—biblical and scientific—assessed and brought into harmony? Is it more of a one-way street: assuming more certainty of the interpretation of one dataset and then reinterpreting the other dataset? Or is it a two-way street? Specifically, even if one admits the strong evidence for modern scientific claims, when (if ever) should one reject this evidence for theological reasons?
- If one favors a non-concordist position (however defined) in doing exegesis and biblical theology, is concordism still a valid undertaking in systematic or philosophical theology? Or, might it be better to avoid the term in order to reduce confusion?
Potential Positions and Definitions
Perhaps the following construct of potential definitions of “concordism” provides another way to understand the fuzzy situation. The three categories, each with a “hard” and “soft” version, might offer clarity on why there is confusion. That is, this might help explain why various views (e.g., Evolutionary Creationism, Old-Earth Creationism, Young-Earth Creationism) can be thought of as either “concordist” or “non-concordist,” depending on one’s assumed definition of concordism.
Concordism Definition #1: Interpret Scripture as agreeing with mainstream science in all areas.
- “Hard” Version (1A): The Bible teaches an old universe/earth and evolution. This is a hypothetical category; we are not aware of any scholar who consistently adopts this view, especially with respect to modern science vis-à-vis Genesis 1 (though we have come across statements that seek to interpret phrases like “let the earth bring forth” [Gen 1:24] in a naturalistic way).
- “Softer” Version (1B): The Bible, including an historical Adam, can be harmonized with an old universe/earth and evolution. This entails a broad sense of “harmony” as a synonym for “concordism.” Generally, however, those who accept both mainstream science and some sense of harmony or complementarity with the Bible (including many evolutionary creationists) would classify themselves “non-concordists” because they do not think the Bible is trying to teach modern science. The position proposed here (1B) differs from the following one (1C) in that 1B constitutes evolutionary-creationist models of how the biblical and scientific data can be reconciled to uphold an historical Adam. These proponents are Christians who accept the genetic evidence for evolution (both the genetic similarity across species and the genetic diversity within the human species), yet believe the Bible teaches an original human pair (either alone or part of an original population). A good place to find such models is in the American Scientific Affiliation journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Biologos’ agnostic position on historical Adam allows for this position (but note above Lamoureux’s more hard-line take).
- “Softest” Version (1C): The Bible can be harmonized with an old universe/earth and evolution. This would entail the broadest sense of “harmony” as a synonym for “concordism.” This position is similar to 1B above, but denies an historical Adam in any meaningful sense. Lamoureux (and many evolutionary creationists) fits this category, and Biologos’ stated position allows for this as well.
Concordism Definition #2: Interpret Scripture as agreeing with mainstream science in some areas (e.g., astronomy and geology) but not others (e.g., biology). This view is advocated by many old-earth creationists and Intelligent Design advocates who, for various reasons, reject mainstream evolutionary theory.
- “Hard” Version (2A): The Bible and science are compatible concerning an old universe/earth, but both biblical and scientific data point against the mainstream view of evolution. Proponents of this view generally adopt the label “concordist” (e.g., see Hugh Ross’ defense of concordism) and actively engage in offering alternative scientific explanations on the data generally used to support evolution.
- “Soft” Version (2B): The Bible and science are compatible concerning an old universe/earth, but not concerning evolution. While the scientific evidence for evolution might be strong, the biblical teaching must take precedence. Proponents of this view might seek to redefine science, separate the scientific sub-disciplines in terms of reliability of results, or remain in cognitive dissonance. The position of Jack Collins seems to fit best here, though he does not reject evolutionary theory outright (so Collins’ position might be something of a mix of definitions 1B and 2B).
Concordism Definition #3: Interpret Scripture as disagreeing with mainstream science on both the age of the universe/earth and evolution, and thus mainstream science needs to be revised. This view is advocated primarily by young-earth creationists.
- “Hard” Version (3A): The Bible and modern science are incompatible concerning an old universe/earth and evolution; therefore, the biblical teaching must take precedence and scientific evidence needs to be reconsidered. Some young-earth creationists actively engage in offering alternative scientific explanations to the data used to support an old universe/earth and evolution. Examples might include Todd Wood, Kurt Wise, and Paul Garner.
- “Soft” Version (3B): The Bible and modern science are incompatible concerning an old universe/earth and evolution; therefore, the biblical teaching must take precedence and the definition or limitations of science need to be reconsidered. Some young-earth creationists spend more time on metaphysical arguments, redefining “science” itself and/or stressing the limitations of science (or ignoring science altogether). The appearance-of-age position would be a prime example. We would classify Barrick’s position here, as well as the general tenor of the approach of many young-earth creationist organizations.
We do not intend to suggest that the above questions and positions are exhaustive, nor that there is always a simple either-or for individuals. But if Lamoureux is correct that concordism is one of the central issues in the discussion (we tend to agree that it is), then we hope this article furthers the discussion, so we can actually have discussion without talking past one another.