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Denis Lamoureux | God Meets Us Where We Are

Denis tells the story of atheism to young earth creationism to evolutionary creationism and how it was the bible that led him there.


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Denis tells the story of atheism to young earth creationism to evolutionary creationism and how it was the bible that led him there.

Description

Denis Lamoureux didn’t just stumble unto evolutionary creation, though, as he will tell you, there was a great deal of stumbling on his path to get there. In the first part of the conversation he tells the story of faith to atheism, back to young earth creationism, and finally to evolutionary creationism, and how it was the Bible, not science, which led him to where he is today. 

His new book, The Bible and Ancient Science: Principles of Interpretation, gives 22 different principles for reading the bible. We focus on a few of those in our conversation, including accommodation, inerrancy, and what he calls, the message incident principle, which is that the most important thing about scripture is the spiritual truths held within. These principles have helped Denis, and now his students, to dig deep into scripture, remain committed to Christ, and also to see to see the beauty of biology.

  • Originally aired on November 12, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Lamoureux:

By seeing the evidence day in and day out, day in and day out, I came to the conclusion, you’ve heard many people say this who are in biology, who see this biological data set, that the evidence for evolution is simply overwhelming. There is no debate. And of course, we know the number today. In the States, 98% of scientists accept biological evolution, including human evolution. But in the end of it, when it all came, I realized one thing: the Jesus I loved and served as a young earth creationist is the very same Jesus I love and serve today as an evolutionary creationist. My love for the Word of God hasn’t changed. In fact, I’m still reading my very same Bible that I first bought is a new Christian. It’s an NIV Bible. You know, every morning starts in prayer with a morning devotion out of the Word of God. And it’s being in the word of God, I hear the voice of God transcend those pages, encouraging me, challenging me, and building me up.

I am Denis Lamoureux. I’m a professor of science and religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

Denis Lamoureux is one of the pioneers of evolutionary creation, a position that takes the bible seriously, upholding God as the creator of all things, including humans in God’s own image, and takes science seriously, understanding that evolution is the best scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth today. That’s the position that BioLogos has supported since its founding too. But Denis didn’t just stumble upon that position. It took him many years, 5 graduate degrees, and being shunned by his community along the way. It can be a lonely journey in our culture to try to make one’s way by affirming both Christian faith and evolutionary science. In fact when I first met and introduced myself to Denis, he was leery of talking to me. Even among those of us on the same side of this debate, there can be a fair amount of suspicion and mistrust, because there has been so much rancor within the church over these issues.

After a bit of a tumultuous journey, Denis has found a place in academia and has written a new book, which we’ll talk about here. But his real passion is for his students and helping them to find joy in the science they learn in the classroom while holding strongly to their faith. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well, it’s very good to talk to you, Denis. You have a new book out. And we’ll get to talking about that in a minute but we like to start by hearing something of our guests’ story. You have been one of the pioneers of this position we call evolutionary creation we’ll get into in a second. And as a result, you have been kicked out of a lot of churches and fellowships and I can’t help thinking that your experiences in the early days out on the the tip of the spear as it were have made it, if not easy, at least easier than it used to be to be a Christian who accepts evolution. So on behalf of those of us from my generation, and after thank you for your work and for your faithful example that you’ve been in this business.

Lamoureux:

Well, thank you, Jim. But you know, it’s a community effort. And if I was the only guy saying the things I’m saying, I’d be really concerned. But I think there’s a movement happening within evangelicalism right now. And the thing with historical movements, you can be in the middle of them and not really see it. Let’s take for example, someone who I think is just one of the most—well we know he’s one of the greatest scientist ever, and I’m talking about Dr. Francis Collins. And, you know, it’s Dr. Collins, every time I meet him, I say to him, thank you for making my job so much easier. And thank you for BioLogos, because BioLogos has really been amazing in terms of getting Christians to think about evolution seriously. But I think a real thing that marks BioLogos is how evangelical that people are at BioLogos. They really, really love the Lord. And I know just about all of them. And I think the world of them. So thank you for what you guys are doing. 

Stump:

Well thanks. So you didn’t always feel the way you do now about science and the Bible, right?

Lamoureux:

Well, that’s correct. If I can maybe share a little of the story and you.

Stump:

Walk us through, yeah, walk us through some of those main stages in your journey to where you are. 

Lamoureux:

Let’s zoom all the way back to 1972 when I started university. I came out of a good Catholic boy’s school. And that very first course in biology was on evolution, the unifying theory. What a great way to start evolution. And by the time Christmas came along, church was done. I was trapped, like most people, in a dichotomy, assuming that if you’re on the evolution side, and the science side, there’s no place for God. And if you’re going to be religious, you have to believe creation in six days. And so I wasn’t prepared at all for university. And by the time that Christmas came along, I mean, and my parents found out and—it was quite an exciting exchange of ideas. And so continuing on I went on to dental school. And, you know, I appreciate what Christian parents are concerned about public universities, where secularizations and their children losing their faith. And between my third and fourth year dental school, I mean, I completely went the full route, becoming a flaming atheist. And a lot of people have gone down that route. 

Well, continued on, military paid my way through dental school, like your ROTC program in the States,  and one of the postings was Nicosia, Cyprus. Peacekeeping, in the Mediterranean, the island of Cyprus. And it was there that my faith was rekindled and I think, probably I suspect what started that, I mean, it was the Gospel of John. How often have you heard of conversions, adult conversions, by reading the Gospel of John. Now, I came home to an Evangelical Church in 1980. And of course, in 1980, there weren’t a whole lot of evolutionary creationists out there in the culture. I don’t think the term was even—I mean, the term has been around for a while, but I certainly didn’t hear this. Though I did hear the term theistic evolution. And of course, everyone said, “well these are people who don’t really trust the Word of God, they don’t take Jesus at his word.” And that was satisfying for me. But what was important about young earth creation—and I became part and parcel of that community—it answered my evolution problem of losing my faith. And of course, being a science student, this was ideal, that I could attack evolution on scientific grounds. Because that’s the big claim. So at that point in time, I am growing in the faith, but at the same time, I’m also growing in my young earth creationism.

Stump:

So at that point, you just thought this university education you had received in biology was just totally biased by an atheistic worldview, or how did you reconcile coming to the young earth position after having been persuaded in university?

Lamoureux:  

Okay, that’s a great question. Let’s go back to my fourth year dental school, and the Christians in my class, which I’m going to make a bracket here. I look back at those guys. And I could not verbalize it, but I wanted to be like them. I wanted God and I wanted holiness. But at the same time they were young earth creationist, so they brought me to a debate, with no less than Duane Gish, the famous young earth creationist. And he took on a paleontologist at the university and Gish just clobbered him. And the paleontologist was rude, but Gish just went, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So I mean, I’m not converting to Christianity at this point, but in my mind, I’m going, “holy, this guy’s got a real PhD from Berkeley University of California and he just laid lickin’ on this paleontologist.” 

So, Jim, I had that in the back of my mind. So let’s zoom back to Cyprus. Went on a holiday to Israel, ended up in a dingy little bookstore and lo and behold, don’t I find Duane Gish’s little book, Evolution: The Fossils Say No. 120 pages. I went out to the beach. I was in Tel Aviv. And I read that in one afternoon. And at that point, I said to myself, “there is a massive, massive conspiracy going on in universities.” So let’s talk about the conversion. The conversion was not a conversion to young earth creationism. That was sort of a sideshow. My conversion of coming to Christ was recognizing I was living a sinful life, and that Jesus rectified this by dying on the cross for all of us. Now, I did have that question, you know, being a biology guy, and Duane Gish filled it perfectly for me. And that’s when I came back to Canada, became part of the young earth creationist society here in the province of Alberta, went to conferences, from people coming up from the Institute of Creation Research in El Cajon. And I am locked and loaded with the intention that I thought the greatest thing I could be in my life is a Creation Scientist to declare Jihad on the evolutionary community and public universities.

Stump:

Okay, so keep the story going. Because it doesn’t stop there.

Lamoureux:

Wow, there’s a little bit more to this story. It’s also a question of spiritual maturity and trying to, you know, learn the ropes of what it is to be a Christian. And, you know, I think just about every Christian battles with this thing called God’s will. Is God’s will simply to follow God’s moral commandments and do whatever we want in terms of our life and stuff? Or does God actually call people? I was in the military. I had this amazing military career going on and I came to the end of my commitment time, and I was being offered an opportunity to do maxillofacial surgery. They even offered that if I wanted to go back to medical school, they would pay my entire medical school, at my dentist salary, which back in 83, was $70,000. So figure out how much money that would be today. And so I battled and I battled and it just, a real war going on in my heart. And I always remember, this woman in my church said to me, “you know, you do all this rationalization stuff, to do God’s will, you’ll find out when you’re on your knees.” And oh, I did not want to hear that. I just did not want to hear that. Because intuitively I knew she was right. And when I got on my knees, I had a sense of no, you shouldn’t be going to med school, you should be going off to do… The dream was very early of doing two PhDs, one in theology, one in biology. And so I went to med school for three days and I walked out. I realized it was going to be the biggest mistake of my life. So one year later, I started off in theology and, well, what happened at Regent? Denis, the dentist, got an education in learning how to read ancient texts. 

So I walked in there as a young earth creationist and I got in a fight with just about every one of my professors and a lot of the students. And I’m a little slow at this so it took me three years and two masters degrees to finally realize that, you know something, when the Holy Spirit inspired those opening chapters, he was not inspiring modern science in there, and there was something else going on. So in many ways when it comes to this book that’s just come out, I mean, the story of wrestling with all this stuff started a long, long time ago. So I finished Regent and I left young earth creation and what I’m about to say is not to be insulting to maybe some of the young earth creationists who are listening, but I left young earth creation for Biblical reasons. I did not do it for scientific reasons. And I started to identify some of that ancient science in Scripture. 

So from there went on to the Toronto School of Theology, Wycliffe College and the University of St. Michael’s college. It’s a brilliant theological Institution. And the University of Toronto, and was there that I discovered the first generation of evangelicals, many of whom are the Princetonians, had no trouble with evolution, so long as they saw evolution as being ordained by God. He ordered it, he sustains it. It’s not deism where he winds the clock and runs away, but God upholds it. He’s omnipresent and that nature reflects intelligent design. And so I came to the end of that program, and I was saying this to my students. “At this point in my life, I got one-two-three-four-five university degrees, and I still don’t have a job. Are you encouraged?” And of course, they chuckled. But more seriously, it’s back to getting on my knees and the Lord saying to me, “okay, you want to get into this discussion on origins? How much evolutionary science do you know?” And I’d answer, “well, Lord, obviously, I’m a clinician, I can fix people’s teeth.” But because I have a dentistry background, I can go into a PhD in some of the very best evolutionary evidence, the evolution of teeth and jaws. And I still have this thing about wanting to attack evolutionary biology. You know, I’m part of a generation of guys—and you’ve seen some of these guys out there—where we go out and get really good public university degrees and then we turn around and want to attack the public university on the evolution question. 

Now, at this point, should evolution be true, it wouldn’t have fazed me, because I had the hermeneutical wherewithal and, I’ll say, the theological wherewithal to realize this would not affect my faith. And again, another three year period—I’m a little slow on stuff—and you know, by seeing the evidence day in and day out, day in and day out, I came to the conclusion, you’ve heard many people say this who are in biology, who see this biological data set, that the evidence for evolution is simply overwhelming. There is no debate. And of course, we know the number today. In the States, 98% of scientists accept biological evolution, including human evolution. But in the end of it, when it all came, I realized one thing: the Jesus I loved and served as a young earth creationist is the very same Jesus I love and serve today as an evolutionary creationist. My love for the Word of God hasn’t changed. In fact, I’m still reading my very same Bible that I first bought as a new Christian. It’s an NIV Bible. You know, every morning starts in prayer with a morning devotion out of the Word of God. And it’s being in the Word of God, I hear the voice of God transcend those pages, encouraging me, challenging me, and building me up. So yeah, I’m still an evangelical. And I go to a Pentecostal church. And if that isn’t evangelical, I don’t know what it is.

Stump:

I was gonna ask, how did this process then, of coming to accept the science of evolution, even after you are already, as you say, hermeneutically prepared to do that? But did the actual acceptance of that science affect your faith in any way and the way you understand God and the way you worship God?

Lamoureux:

What a brilliant question, because I’m going to tell you what my experience in science has been, including evolutionary science: it is a greater appreciation of intelligent design. And I’m going to have to define this term because it has been mangled. I’m talking about the traditional definition of intelligent design. The one, if you wish, that Darwin used back in the 19th century. It is a belief that the beauty, complexity and functionality we see in nature, point to an intelligent designer, reflecting the mind of the Creator. So the more I dig in biology, including evolutionary biology, the more I just go “wow, Lord, this is amazing.” And let me tell you a little story. This past summer, it was an interesting summer in that I was finishing this hermeneutics book but I was also completing a paper with some colleagues in the paleontology department on iguana teeth, and the tooth attachment and stuff like that. And I’ll tell you, when I get into the microscope, and I start looking at some of these—and I know it’s gonna sound ridiculous to some people—when I get under the microscope, and I see some of these amazing teeth, I mean they’re beautiful. And they all make sense, and how they’re how they’re developing in the light of evolution. You know, as Dobzhansky once said, way back in 73, biology only makes sense in the light of evolution. And as I went through this paper— And here’s the thing, and it’s kind of a good thing, being a former young earth creationist, that’s always in the back of my mind. I’m always kind of thinking about that. And as I’m doing this paper, I’m going, how could I possibly understand what’s going on in these teeth without the theory of biological evolution? The answer is, you can’t. Because biology makes total sense if you fully embrace evolutionary theory.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of god,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Good. Okay, well, let’s turn to the new book, which I have here in my hand and hold up in front of the microphone: The Bible and Ancient Science: Principles of Interpretation. So, in my experience, which is not as long as yours, but I’m no spring chicken myself, it’s not usually a successful strategy to persuade Christians that the science of evolution is correct merely to plop down a bunch of scientific data and arguments, right? That’s one of the things that’s often very frustrating to scientists, you’ve mentioned already, for whom the evidence is so clear and so overwhelming. But I think your book, and really your work as a whole, recognizes that the proper starting point for accepting evolution is not science, but the Bible. So you’ve talked a little bit about that in your own life, of how it was first having to come to terms with what the Bible really is and how it works and how we ought to interpret it, rather than starting with the evidence. Is that consistent with what you have found with others, your students, perhaps or when you speak in churches, and so on?

Lamoureux:

Everything you’ve just said, is so spot on. Of course, within the anti-evolutionary community, they’re going to say, “well, here are the arguments against evolution.” What is the motivating factor here? The primary motivating factor is hermeneutics. It’s scripture. They’re defending a certain understanding of Scripture. The technical term is Concordism. They see there’s an accord, in their minds, between what we see in nature and what we see in Scripture. So these scientific, anti-evolutionary arguments are really secondary. And if you start to notice, in my own voyage, I did theology first, then I did biology. And the moment I was freed from seeing the book as a book of science—in other words, the moment I was freed from Concordism—then I was open to the possibility that maybe the Lord created through an evolutionary process. But with that being said, this thing on Concordism is deeply, deeply embedded, especially within the evangelical tradition, because we have such a high view of the scripture.

Stump:

Let me get you to set that up a little bit more, because I really think this is the important bit we need to get at here. So your book…

Lamoureux:

I think you’re absolutely right, Jim.

Stump:

In your book you offer 22 hermeneutical principles. So hermeneutics for audience members new to that word is like the practice or the discipline of interpretation, right? So some of these principles are these topics are what we would expect, things like literalism in the Bible or understanding genre. But this one, Concordism, that I think even in the blurb on the book that I wrote for you, I called you the most consistent opponent of Concordism, right? So I want to start there and get you to back up a little bit and describe what is Concordism and why is it such a bad hermeneutical principle?

Lamoureux:

Alright, so let’s define this term, Concordism. Think of the word to accord. What Concordism is suggesting is that there is an accordance, that there is a harmony, between both the Scripture and what we find in nature. I’m a two books guy, the book of nature and then the book of Scripture. So as a former Concordist, I worked with the assumption that the two lined up. Now let’s make something very clear. Concordism is not irrational. I’m going to say that again. Concordism is not irrational. Let’s stop for a second. I believe God created the world, okay? I’d fall on a sword on that. I believe the Bible is the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit. I would fall on a sword on that. So we have these two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest there must be some sort of alignment, some sort of matching up, some sort of accord between them. It’s reasonable. But here’s what graduate school did to me. I started looking at the scripture a little more carefully, thanks to my professors. And I started to realize that the two do not line up. Why? Because what we find in Scripture is actually an ancient understanding of nature, or to use the term in the book, an ancient science.

Stump:

So this is making some people nervous.

Lamoureux:

Oh, listen, Jim. When this happened to me, was my caged rattled? Oh, goodness, gracious, yes.

Stump:  

So give us some examples here some specific things that biblical authors seem to be affirming, which we would today say are not correct.

Lamoureux:

Okay, we don’t have to go very far into scripture. That very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis one. Go to the second day of creation. And it says, “and God created,” here’s the Hebrew, “a raqia”, a hard firm structure, which translated in English is best called the firmament. God created a firmament, a firm structure, to lift the waters above from waters below. And of course, most people are going, “what in the world is going on here?” And this is where I’m going to say, “stop.” When we read an ancient text, we have to respect what the author’s trying to say, and not for us to try to push in certain ideas from our time period. And we call this eisegesis, reading into a text. Instead, we’ve got to do exegesis, read out of a text, where ex means “out” in Greek. So if you actually read the Hebrew, you can actually see that this word raqia, is a hard firm structure. Now, another thing about reading scripture is we have to suspend our wonderful modern 21st century science and go back into the ancient world, a time when they don’t have telescopes. They look up, they only have the naked eye. And here in Edmonton today, it’s a great big blue dome overhead. So to think that there was a sea of water above, being held up by something very firm, made perfect sense from their—and I’m going to use the technical term—from their ancient phenomenological—in Greek Phenomi means appearance—from their ancient phenomenological perspective, which was the naked eye. 

And here’s the thing we can do. We can go read the literature, the Egyptians, and the Mesopotamians, and that’s exactly what they thought, that there was a sea of water overhead. Let’s zoom on to the fourth day of creation, just to complete astronomy, ancient astronomy, and it says God placed the sun, moon and stars, where? In this hard structure called the firmament. And isn’t that what it looks like from an ancient phenomenological perspective, from the perspective of the naked eye. Whereby the sun, moon and stars are in front of this great big blue sea. So I would say that’s probably one of the best passages to start the voyage, to start identifying that there is an ancient understanding of nature in Scripture. 

Now, let me zoom ahead before anyone asks the question, because my students always ask the question, the Christians. Did God lie in the Bible? And my response is no, absolutely not. What did the Lord do? What did the Holy Spirit do? The Holy Spirit came down to the level of these ancient Hebrews, some 3500 years ago, and he accommodated. He came down to their level, used their ancient science, the only understanding of nature they had, to deliver wonderful spiritual truths, which I will qualify, inerrant spiritual truths, such as God created that big blue dome above our heads, and God created the sun, moon and stars. So the principle of accommodation is a very important one.

Stump:

So what about when we find some of these things, though, in the mouth of Jesus himself? The mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth or the favorite of many defenders of a historical Adam and Eve, “from the beginning he made them male and female.” That sure sounds like Jesus himself is making some claims about the way things are.

Lamoureux:

And that is a fair, fair question. I would simply turn to who exactly is Jesus? Jesus is God, who came down and took on human flesh. Jesus’ very existence is the greatest example of accommodation. So when the Lord starts talking about the mustard seed—and when it comes to seeds, we know the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds because orchids are much smaller. And in fact, we have an orchid that is the size of bacteria. I will also argue that because Jesus is also God, he’s also the Creator. So this is no, this is the— Jesus knew very well that the mustard seed was not the smallest of all seeds. But what is he doing? He’s accommodating. He’s using a seed that they understood to be the smallest of all seeds. So here is Jesus, using an ancient science, coming down to their level. And look, the Lord did not come to teach us stuff about plants and botany. The Lord—I mean, that’s pretty clear. I think everyone would agree on that. So what was the mustard seed all about? He was saying, the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, would start very small—he’s talking about his 12 disciples—and then expand and get very large. And indeed, this is a prophetic parable, in that that’s exactly what’s happened to the church. So again, Jesus is not lying. Jesus is accommodating. And I’d sort of appeal to Christians, and especially evangelical Christians. We often say, in our tradition, that God meets us exactly where we’re at. You know, in my case, God met me and the only understanding of creation I had was young earth creation. So he accommodated to that level, in order to get across the big idea that he was the creator. And the moment I believed there was a creator, boy was my atheism crushed. So I’d say, when Jesus is talking about the mustard seed, or when Jesus is talking about Adam and Eve, I’d say that is an ancient understanding of human origins. But more importantly, when Jesus talks about Adam and Eve, he’s trying to draw across spiritual truths about Adam and Eve. And that’s what’s being drawn out. And that’s what I think the message is. So Jesus is accommodating.

Stump:

So does it get difficult to draw a line between these and other things that are affirmed in Scripture that we think are correct. For example, I’ve heard a pretty well known conservative Bible scholar say he doesn’t accept scientific Concordism, but does accept historical Concordism. And I wonder whether it gets tricky to distinguish when you have some maybe historical sounding statements that have pretty clear scientific implications like Exodus 20:11, “for in six days, the Lord made heaven and earth.” Is that a historical claim? Or are there other instances where you’d say, boy, this one’s close, as to know whether this is the accommodation or whether this is the spiritual truth itself coming through?

Lamoureux:

Yes, there’s no doubt about it. There’s some really challenging passages. No, that’s clear. Now, with that being said, I have an advantage in that, and you use the term historical Concordism, and I appreciate that term, but it actually doesn’t show up in the book. So what I’m trying to do is just work on the science stuff. But I do say very early in the book, you know, one of the questions, where does history start? And I think history starts with Abraham. So was there an Abraham? The answer’s yes. Was there a Moses? Yes. Was there a David? Yes. And as we get closer and closer—and remember, our focus is on Christ—as we get closer and closer to Jesus, the historicity gets tighter and tighter and tighter. So for example, was there a King Herod? Absolutely. Was their Pontius Pilot? You bet there was. And so were their Pharisees, were there Sadducees? All this stuff gets tighter and tighter. So would I say historical Concordism increases as we go through the Scriptures? Yes. But I think it starts with Abraham being a real historical person. Now, my view is not all that unique because biblical exegetes, specialists in Old Testament, have long sort of said, Genesis one to eleven is a different sort of literary genre. Some people call it simply “accounts of origins” or “proto history” and stuff like that. And I would say, yeah, I think that’s the case with history starting with Abraham.

Stump:

Can I ask you about, say, Jonah?

Lamoureux:

Great story.

Stump: 

And Jesus mentions it right?

Lamoureux:

Hang on. Let’s get back to Jonah. You know what I have above the name Jonah in my Bible?

Stump:

I do not. 

Lamoureux:

I crossed out Jonah and I wrote Denis.

Stump:

[laughs] Every man.

Lamoureux:

Who spent three days in the University of Toronto medical school? Denis did. Jonah spent three days in a fish. Here’s the thing. I know a lot of people want to take this as a hard and fast historical account. But we have a lot of trouble in evangelicalism to appreciate the genre of story. And not only that, the genre of story with exaggerations. And the advantage of using exaggerations and embellish stories, is they tend to be remembered. So Jonah is Holy Spirit inspired. No doubt about it. It is my personal story of running from God. I don’t think there was a fish where a guy was put inside there. And so Jesus, using Jonah, is using Jonah, by and large, archetypically. And he’s taking the story, the theological story of Jonah, and applying it within that context. 

Now, I suspect and this is one thing we could probably say generally, of Second Temple hermeneutics, in other words, hermeneutics just prior to the New Testament, there was a lot of literalism going on. And so I think Jesus would probably accommodate to that. And I suspect many of them would sort of see Jonah as, if you wish, a hard and fast historical account. Now whether Jonah’s historical or not, the most important thing about Jonah is the spiritual truth in Jonah, running from God. And here’s the amazing thing, even when we run from God, God gives us a second chance. I’m living proof of that. 

And still on the issue of story, let’s talk about our Lord and Savior, Jim. One third of Jesus’s teachings in the Synoptic Gospels are parables. And what are parables? They’re stories of accounts that never happened to get across a spiritual truth. And what I’m about to say, I always, the first time I say it to Christians who’ve heard me, let’s talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Wonderful, wonderful parable. It’s had a huge impact on Western civilization in terms of our legal systems we have, you know, good samaritan laws. But here’s the thing, it’s going to be shocking, the parable of the Good Samaritan never actually happened. It’s a story that Jesus made up to tell us who our neighbor is. It’s a Holy Spirit inspired story. So if the Lord used stories that are not historical, if the Lord used stories that he made up—and here’s another thing about the genre of stories, it really is efficient and getting across spiritual truths. So maybe the Holy Spirit inspired a biblical writer back in the early chapters of Genesis to use a story to get across these great spiritual truths for all of us.

[musical interlude]

Stump:

So the way you’re talking about this is very much the application of what you have called the message incident principle. Principle number six, in your book here. It’s been at the center of your understanding of hermeneutics for a long time. Here you call it the most important interpretive principle in this book.  Normally, you have some visual aids to help you explain this, and we can link to some of your diagrams in the show notes here. But give us a little bit further explanation in this audio only format of what your message incident principle is and the work that it does for you.

Lamoureux:

Yeah, and thanks. And you’re right. That is, you know, a pretty central concept. When I started teaching, starting in 97, you know, you get out of PhD school, you really don’t know what you’re doing. And I started putting together a science religion course, and if there’s one thing from my personal experience, I started realizing that this hermeneutic stuff is the key. Biblical interpretation is the key. And so as I’m teaching, and you might be interested that most of my students are not theology students, most of my students are just regular undergrads from all sorts of different disciplines. So the way I’ve shaped my teaching is with a sense of—and I’ll tell you, I love them, but engineers don’t have a whole lot of background in literature. So I’m trying to put stuff together that is accessible to them. Now, the message incident principle, you know, though I’ve coined this term, that’s been around for the longest time. And I first started getting inklings of this with Clark Pinnock when he was at McMaster University, in his book, The Scriptural Principle. So it started building along. Now, there is nothing all that unique about it. Because if you ask any Christian, when it comes to Scripture, what’s the most important stuff so to speak? And we would say, it’s the messages, or if you wish, it’s the spiritual truths. And so when I talk about the message, I talk about these spiritual truths as being these inerrant truths that the Lord got across for us. 

Now, when it comes to the message incident principle, I do make this really sharp qualification, that I’m dealing only with passages in the Bible dealing with nature, in other words, statements about the physical world. And so I’m narrowing it. You know, a lot of people want to use this as a global hermeneutical principle. And I’ll go well, there are applications, I’m sure, outside of that, because most of us believe scripture is about messages. And so when it comes, and it’s part of my reading scripture, through, if you wish, a different set of eyes, thanks to my professors that Regent College, I’m starting to see all this ancient science. So the message incident principle has the message on top and that there is an ancient science that is carrying this wonderful message. And I use the word incidence, and I use the noun because I’m using the word message as a noun. I could have used the word incidental. I think the ancient science is ultimately secondary and incidental and it’s not the message God’s trying to get across. But for God to talk about the creation, he has to come down to the level of the ancient biblical writers and use some sort of conception of nature. And so this ancient understanding, and it’s from an ancient phenomenological perspective, which is the other part of the message incident principle, it is a vessel that delivers the, if you wish, the living water. So take, for example, we have the image of a water bottle. Whether the bottle is made of plastic, or ceramic or metal, I would say that’s ultimately incidental. But you do need some sort of vessel to bring the water across. And if we push the metaphor a little bit to John 4, in the living waters, I will say, what the ancient science does is ultimately incidental. But it delivers the inerrant spiritual truth, the messages of faith that changes our lives.

Stump:

So is it fair to say then, that God could have revealed himself, that Jesus could have become incarnate in very different cultures than this in fact took place in, among the ancient Hebrews, and among the Jews of the first century, and Rome occupied Palestine. And that we would have had a very different Bible then, if God had revealed these truths through a different incidental culture.

Lamoureux:

You know, something Jim, only a philosopher could come up with a great question like that. And I would say, in principle, yes. But here’s the deal, I suspect there would probably be sort of a Old Testament, New Testament type of structure. You know, sort of a setting down to the principles as we see in the Old Testament and looking forward to a fulfillment and with Jesus coming, if you wish, in a different culture. That is a possibility. I don’t see that as a problem. But the one thing I would say, and it’s back to that the Lord always meets us where we happen to be. I mean, the Lord could have done the following. God is powerful. God could have put a biblical writer in a trance and say, “I created through the Big Bang through cosmological evolution and biological evolution.” I mean, that could have been put in the Scripture. But would anyone 3500 years ago have understood that? No. God is a magnificent teacher. He understands his audience. He comes down to his audience to communicate as effectively as possible. And I think the best way to communicate is for those people to use their ancient conceptions of nature. And, for us, as we look back at the text, to identify that, and in this way we can separate the messages of faith, the inerrant spiritual truths, away from the incidental ancient science. And look what we can do—we can take evolutionary theory and now use it as an incidental vessel upon which we can deliver the same spiritual truths—that God is the Creator, he used an evolutionary process, that the end of the evolutionary process all these living organisms were very good. There it is, your very good statement. And when it comes to using human evolution to creating humans, there comes a point in evolution where humans start to bear the image of God, become morally culpable and regrettably, that they all sin. And of course, this will point forward ultimately, to Jesus dying on the cross for sins.

Stump:

I think that’s super helpful, Denis, to understand our current understanding of science as an incidental vessel for carrying this message too. Such that we’re not as committed to the evolutionary science as we are committed to the truths of Christianity, right?

Lamoureux:

You’re spot on. I will fall on a sword for my Christian faith. I will not fall on a sword for my science. Now, with that being said, if I didn’t think evolution was true, and really, you know, quite certain about it, I wouldn’t be teaching this. Because you know very well what it says in James about people who are teachers. I sort of look at evolutionary theory in the same way I think about the earth. I don’t think we’re ever going back to a geocentric universe, with a spherical Earth in the center. I don’t think we’re going back to a flat earth with a three tiered universe. And so when it comes to evolution, and the age of the Earth, I think this is really solid stuff. It’s not a flaky theory. It’s—sorry to use a bad pun from geology—evolution is rock solid.

Stump:

So we get to the last of your principles, number 22, biblical inerrancy, toward an incarnational approach. Inerrancy is a term that’s part of the fightin’ words in many circles, right? But it’s one that you have not shrunk back from using and defending, what do you understand by inerrancy and what’s the work that it’s doing for you and your hermeneutics?

Lamoureux:

Look, I think everyone, not just Christians, have certain truths that we think are very true and absolutely true and will fall on a sword for. For example, I think Richard Dawkins would believe in the inerrant truth—that he would say is inerrant—that evolution is dysteleological, has no plan or purpose, run by irrational necessity. So I think everyone has certain truths they really hold on to as being absolutely certain. The term inerrancy has always been part of my vocabulary. And as time has gone on, I started realizing, you know, people had different sort of approaches to inerrancy. I still like the term. I will also say, it’s not because I am, but I’m a member of the evangelical theological society, and I sign a statement every year, believing the Bible is inerrant. So when I look at scripture, I think it’s inerrant. This is exactly what God wanted us to do. But inerrancy also extends to accommodation, that the Lord inerrantly accommodated to the level of ancient people. So the other thing is, when you’re in sort of controversial situations, and you always, if you if you want to have some negotiation to reach out to people, and I used the word inerrant to say, look at, you guys, I still uphold this, the the the inerrant spiritual truth in Scripture, so we can have some sort of conversation and some sort of meeting in terms of Scripture does have these inerrant spiritual truths. So, yeah, I think it’s like the word evangelical. I mean, some people will say, I’m not an evangelical, but you know, I hold up the word evangelical and I qualify it. An evangelical is someone who is really focused on the scriptures, is upholding the scriptures, is upholding the gospel. And that’s why I focus there. And I do the same with the word inerrant. So I use these two terms, to sort of say, yeah, I’m still part of this community, because these are valuable terms. But I also recognize within the evangelical community, there people have different spins and how they deal with the word inerrant and evangelical. Does that make sense, Jim?

Stump:

Yeah. So it’s the qualifications of those that I think are important to sort out here. For being a good Protestant, you’re not claiming that your interpretation of Scripture or mine or anybody’s is inerrant. But also there’s the admission that we do have to interpret scripture. So how does it help to say that the text is inerrant, but we have to interpret it, and our interpretations are not inerrant?

Lamoureux:

Well, it’s pretty simple, especially in my case. I’ve made more than my fair share of interpretive mistakes in the Scripture, forgive me Lord. And I think if we do the history of theology, of biblical interpretation, you’re going to see a million and one different spins, especially these opening chapters of Scripture. But if there’s one thing, as I read, say, for example, Saint Augustine or Martin Luther, John Calvin, I notice that, you know, they focus on the stuff I consider is the most important, you know, those messages of faith. And so I think it is by God’s grace, even though we are limited human beings, and will always have that limitation, there’s something about those people who have a serious faith, they come away with the most important truths. And I’ll give you an example of a young earth creationist. If I sat down with a young earth creationist and I opened my NIV Bible and I’d say to them, in Genesis One, tell me what is the most important, if you wish, inerrant truths, spiritual truths, and they will come up with the very same ones I do. Like God is the Creator, the creation is very good, humans have been created in the image of God. They know that those are the most important truths. 

Stump: 

So there are some fairly well known young earth creationists that make a kind of ranking of the importance of the things that scripture is defending. And some of those people have put things like Adam and Eve into the most important category, because they think it violates inerrancy not to do so. So that’s where I say this, these become fighting words sometimes, right? And the way I hear you talking about inerrancy, though, it’s much more of a communal commitment to what Scripture is, as opposed to some infallible hermeneutic that is an algorithm or formula that we just have to turn the crank. And that shows us exactly what these spiritual messages are. I mean, they’re still human judgment and debate, involved in a community and a history that’s involved in all of that right?

Lamoureux:

Boy, did you ever say that well. I tell you. You’re right. I mean, you’re pushing me and you’re opening up a component in my head that I have never verbalized as well as you’ve just done it. It is indeed that communal aspect. And that’s what the church is. It is a community and it’s a community going through time. It is a community that’s growing spiritually, but it’s a community that has you know, if we’re going to talk about our hermeneutics, we don’t arrive, there are always going to be some loose ends. 

Stump:

Let me try to bring this to a close here, Denis, and have you maybe tell a couple stories. You don’t have to be around Denny Lamoureux long before you see he has a particular passion for students. In closing here, can you give us maybe some inspiring stories about how you’ve seen these principles you’ve been discussing here, how you’ve seen these affect students who didn’t have to go down the same road you did, of having to choose between the science of our day and an authentic Christian faith?

Lamoureux:

Jim, look, I love this academic stuff. I think it’s really cool. But it’s, you know, you want to know what motivates me, it’s the young people who are stumbling over this stuff. I mean, I stumbled over this stuff in many ways. And my focus has been teaching undergrads who are wrestling with these issues. That is the greatest joy of my life. You know, I could be retired, but I wouldn’t think of retiring, because I just, that’s my lifeblood. One of my favorite stories is a young woman who came to me in about the third week of the course. And the way I teach this course is, in the first couple weeks, I tell them where we’re going, to give them an idea. And then for the rest of the course I recycle the basic ideas and just to show them how all this stuff fits together, that it’s very consilient. And this young woman came up to me after class, and she was flush. Her face was red, her neck was red. And I swear those eyes were glassy. And she said to me, “you have no idea what this course is doing to me.” And of course, I’m a little concerned going, what? And then she said, and Jim, you’ll know exactly what she was saying, she said to me, “I no longer feel guilty going to biology class.” Okay, you know what’s being said there. This is a young evangelical woman, she’s a pre-meder, she needs to go to biology class. Heck, if you go to medicine, you better learn a whole lot about the genes. And you’re going to see the evolutionary pattern for evolutionary genetics. But she’s also being told, go to class, learn these facts, don’t believe them, but put them in the exam so you can pass. And of course, that’s the way a lot of evangelical students are coming and learning biology. And I’ll simply say, what a dysfunctional way to learn, where you’re in class, you’re seeing something that’s pointing in an evolutionary direction, but you’ve got to deny it. And then this young woman said to me, “you have no idea how exciting it is to go to biology class to learn about evolution, because it all makes sense in biology in the light of evolution.” And of course, look, there’s nothing more exciting to hear something like that, and only three weeks. And so she’s falling in love with biology, because she’s seeing it right in front of her eyes. And that’s the way, you know, students should be dealing with biology. 

Stump:

Nice. Well, thanks, Denis, thanks for your passion for these students and their future, their faith. Thank you again, for the work that you’ve done in this space of science and Christian faith over several decades. And thank you for talking to me today. Let’s do it again sometime.

Lamoureux:

Well, Jim, thank you very much. This has been just one of the most wonderful interviews I’ve ever done. You’re one of my heroes. I love you. And every time we get together, it’s always a treat to share ideas, and if there’s anything I can do to contribute to BioLogos, you know, just ask and I’m happy to contribute. So thank you very much for the support and thanks for promoting my book.

Stump:

Thanks, Denis.

Lamoureux:

Ok, buddy. blessings.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Denis Lamoureux Headshot

Denis Lamoureux

Denis Lamoureux is the associate professor of science and religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. He holds a PhD in evangelical theology and a PhD in evolutionary biology. Lamoureux is the author of the books Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (2008) and I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution (2009). More on his work can be found here.

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