This is the third part of our blog series connected to our fall book club. Today, BioLogos content editor Brad Kramer ponders how the words we use to talk about the Bible and science often create unnecessary confusion and conflict.
In my high school statistics class, we studied how the wording of survey questions affected the answers. To test this, we gave the same survey to different groups of students, but changed the wording of the questions in subtle ways. To our surprise, we got much different answers, even though the questions all covered the same issue.
This is extremely relevant to the origins debate. More and more people are realizing that part of the fuel behind the continuing divide between science and faith is the vocabulary we use to describe the issues. For instance, when someone asks about how you feel about “creation and evolution,” you are automatically predisposed to thinking there is a difference between the two. In fact, even though we at BioLogos consider ourselves “creationists,” the word has been so strongly linked with the young-earth creation movement that it confuses people when we use the word “evolutionary” behind it. The same is true of “intelligent design,” which could easily apply to any position (including evolutionary creation) but has come to exclusively mean a certain type of anti-evolutionary scientific skepticism. Thus, many well-meaning Christians feel forced to accept these narrow positions because they believe it is the only way to affirm that creation comes from a creator and that it is well-designed by God.
In chapters 5 and 6 of Origins, the Haarsmas tackle another problematic and divisive word in the origins debate: concordism. They define it as the belief that natural history should line up with the order of events listed in Genesis 1. From there, the Haarsmas take us in chapter 5 through the various concordist perspectives, ranging from “young-earth” to “day-age” and beyond, noting how these positions interpret the “concord” between Bible and science very differently—even though they share similar theological commitments. Helpfully, they also note that there are many other creation texts in the Bible (Genesis 2 being a prime example), and concordists struggle to explain why Genesis 1 is the only chapter that is supposed to match modern science.
Chapter 6 covers the “non-concordist” options, which do not line Genesis 1 up with science on a point-by-point basis. Here’s where the flaws of the word “concordism” truly begin to show. For instance, the “creation-poem” interpretation (p. 132) simply points out that the days of Genesis 1 are organized in poetic triads. It is a feature of the text that points away from a strictly linear interpretation, but by itself it says nothing about whether or not the Bible “concords” with science in any way. Yet because it does not fit inside a preconceived notion of how the Bible is supposed to fit with scientific data, it gets a “non” in front of its categorization and thus appears to be a diametric opposite. In this sense, “non-concordism” is not the opposite of concordism, but instead a revolt against the presuppositions that led to this dichotomy in the first place.
To use the word “concordism” assumes ahead of time that the Bible is meant to concord with science, and that this concordance can be used to show the authority of the Bible. As the Haarsmas point out, this belief is driven by a sincere desire to defend God’s word against its critics. But this sort of view, no matter how it is applied, inhibits our ability to read the Bible well or do good science.
Book club participants will recall that earlier in Origins, the Haarsmas argued that while the Bible and nature are in perfect harmony, our attempt to understand nature through science and the Bible through interpretation are both human (and therefore fallible) activities. Thus, when someone suggests that the Bible and science are in perfect sync, we should ask: “Whose Bible? Which science?” To distinguish between the Bible and biblical interpretation is not to give in to postmodern relativism, but precisely the opposite: to prevent the authority of the Holy Bible from being super-glued to a particular interpretation of nature and Scripture and thus relativized into the past. If this happens,
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. (St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis)
This is why I’m extremely uncomfortable with apologetic tactics that connect theories like the Big Bang with specific verses or words in Genesis. On the surface, this seems to be a pious thing to do, given that the Big Bang is a well-established theory with clear religious implications, and Genesis 1 seems to speak of a definite beginning of the cosmos. However, once this connection between the Bible and science is made, both biblical interpretation and scientific discovery grind to a screeching halt. The Christian scientist is now obligated to defend the scientific theory of the Big Bang regardless of any further evidence for or against it, because the authority of the Bible now depends on the validity of this scientific theory. And the biblical scholar must dogmatically argue that the ancient Hebrews were given divine knowledge of a primordial cosmic explosion, even if science or scriptural scholarship suggest otherwise.
The solution, as the Haarsmas suggest, is to redefine what it means to read the Bible literally. The word “literal” is yet another confusing term, because even though it refers to the “true meaning” of the Bible, it often ends up saying more about the interpreter than the biblical text. Concordism depends, for instance, on a “literal” reading of the words of Genesis, but yet it presupposes that words like “sky” and “sea” primarily refer to modern understandings of nature. As scholars like John Walton frequently point out, the ancient Hebrews had a much different conception of nature than we do. Thus if Genesis is indeed full of modern science, then God gave the Israelites a deceptive revelation that appeared to speak truth to them but could really only be decoded by modern Western science-minded folks like us. If anything, the “non-concordism” movement has simply made us realize that the answers are not as simple as we would like them to be—and this leads me to greater humility before God and his word.
I believe that the resolution of the divide between science and faith will only come when we learn to use a different sort of vocabulary when describing God’s present and past work, both in nature and Scripture. Perhaps someday, we can then use words like “creation,” “evolution,” “literalism,” and “design” without the confusing and unhelpful cultural baggage attached to them. Then we will be on our way to a much better conversation.