“That’s just bad exegesis!”
As a moderator for several years on the BioLogos discussion forum, this is something I hear often. Exegesis is a fancy word that means “getting meaning out of” a text. Christians believe the Bible contains God’s revelation to humanity, and the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to teach us what to believe and how to live. Exegesis leads to an interpretation—a person’s understanding of what a Bible passage intends to communicate. Once Christians have an interpretation, they try to apply it.
People on all sides of the creation debate are convinced the other sides are doing it all wrong. After taking part in many conversations where people talk past one another, I’ve noticed a few recurring themes. Deciding what the Bible teaches and how to act on it involves assumptions—about what the Bible is and how God speaks to us through it. We don’t all have the same ideas. Sometimes people aren’t aware of their own assumptions, let alone the assumptions of people with different perspectives. You can avoid misunderstandings about other people’s conclusions when you recognize some common disconnects.
How is the Bible inspired?
A good place to start is with the other person’s ideas about the Bible as the inspired word of God. On one end of the spectrum are people who believe God told the biblical authors exactly what to write. They think every word of the Bible was intentionally chosen by God. At the other extreme are people who think the Bible is an entirely human product that God simply endorses. Most Christians fall somewhere in the middle. They don’t think the human authors simply took dictation from God. They acknowledge that the Bible expresses God’s truth in human thoughts, words, and experiences. It can be enlightening to explore how people think the Holy Spirit influenced the authors of Scripture, and how they think God speaks through the words of the Bible today. Sometimes people don’t accept the validity of some of the interpretive approaches described below because of their beliefs about inspiration.
How do we use the context?
Most Christians agree that understanding the context of a passage is important to interpretation, but not all Christians have the same approach. Some people favor concordism. This is an approach to the Bible that tries to find agreement between historical or scientific facts and biblical accounts. People who like this approach believe the Bible’s trustworthiness is established by how accurately it describes reality. They assume that if the context is properly understood, then history, science, and the Bible will all agree. The context they focus on is often linguistic or textual. They want to understand the use of certain words and grammatical structures, and how one passage of the Bible relates to another. Since they often assume the Bible’s “plain meaning” is clear, they might resist the idea that scholarship from other areas (like the study of ancient Near Eastern literature or religions) could influence how we understand the Bible. Many young earth creationist Christians believe that assuming the truth of the “plain reading” of a passage is a test of faith—It proves you trust God and take him at his word.
Many Christians prefer an interpretive approach that focuses on understanding the Bible in its ancient cultural context. They assume that God communicated with the ancient Israelites in a way they could understand. They believe God made allowances for their limited cultural conceptions of the world. This means the authors of the Bible may sometimes talk about the world in scientifically inaccurate ways. They may sometimes reference common ancient beliefs that are not necessarily based in reality, like when they talk about pagan gods or mythical creatures. With this approach, the focus is not on making the biblical text correspond to an absolute scientific or historical reality, but on figuring out what spiritual truth God was trying to communicate about himself and the world. They also assume the meaning that would have been plain to an ancient Hebrew-speaking audience might not be plain to a modern English-speaking audience. They think that scholarship that investigates the ancient context can help us uncover the intended meaning that might not be immediately obvious to us. This interpretive approach is often preferred by Christians who accept evolution because it eases some of the perceived conflicts between science and the Bible.
These two approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive and some people incorporate elements of both as they read the Bible. However, understanding which approach someone is using to understand a particular passage is helpful. When you recognize what context people are focusing on, you can see why certain details are most important to their understanding of the meaning.
How do we know it’s true?
Inerrancy is the teaching that the Bible is without error or fault in everything it teaches, and that it does not affirm anything contrary to fact. Many young earth creationists assume that if you believe the Bible is inerrant, that implies you must believe the literal interpretations are true. In this view, rejecting a literal interpretation (for example, that Noah’s flood covered the whole earth) is the same thing as claiming the Bible has errors and teaches things that aren’t true.
People with very different perspectives on how to apply the truth in Genesis often worship and minister side by side in the same church; they teach and learn at the same Christian college.
Some people who believe in evolutionary creation are not committed to inerrancy. But there are also many Christians who accept evolution and believe that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches and affirms. The big question then becomes determining what the Bible actually teaches and affirms in a passage, and where God is simply accommodating the worldview of the audience. This camp of Christians places perceived errors in the Bible on the interpreters of a passage or the mistaken worldview of the ancient audience, not on God and the truth he intends to teach through the Bible.
How do we apply the Bible’s truth?
Christians turn to the Bible for the answers to questions and come up with different answers all the time. Should we baptize infants or believers? Who gets to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist? Can women be ordained? Different branches of the church have already hashed out many of these interpretation debates and decided how to apply the answers to their faith and practice. We often have the choice to fellowship mostly with the Christians whose answers and applications we agree with. But when it comes to origins, the landscape of the interpretation debate has been changing as scientific knowledge challenges some traditional answers. People with very different perspectives on how to apply the truth in Genesis often worship and minister side by side in the same church; they teach and learn at the same Christian college.
One of the things that makes productive discussion about creation so hard is that it really isn’t just a question of who has the most defensible Bible interpretation. Other interpretations of reality are also involved—issues like whether scientists know the truth about physical realities, and what is the root cause of people losing their faith. Young earth creationists are sensitive to insinuations that they are uneducated, gullible, or intellectually dishonest because they do not accept the scientific consensus. Evolutionary creationists resent it when people call into question the sincerity of their faith, their Christian character, or their respect for the Bible because they don’t interpret Genesis literally. Young earth creationists sincerely believe that rejecting a literal interpretation of Genesis is a rejection of the authority and inerrancy of God’s word. They see evolution as a direct assault on the foundations of a traditional atonement theology that claims sin entered the world through a single couple from whom all humanity descends. On the other hand, Christians who accept evolution sincerely believe that the essentials of the gospel are not threatened in any way by scientific knowledge about the age of the earth or evolution. They claim the creationist conflict narrative that pits Christian faithfulness against scientific facts is alienating younger believers. They warn that undermining trust in scientific experts primes Christians to embrace science-denialism and conspiracy theories in other areas like climate change or vaccines.
These are all legitimate and weighty concerns. People on both sides are guilty of characterizing the other as arrogant, closed-minded, and uncharitable, and we could do better. But no matter how tactfully or gently you put it, it is hard to feel respected by someone who is essentially saying, “You believe lies and are actively sabotaging the mission of the church.” Christ calls us to unity and requires that we persevere in these hard conversations.
There are so many difficult questions right now that are dividing Christians and demanding thoughtful and gracious dialogue. In the church today, we are confronting racism, sexism, nationalism, gender and sexuality issues, and more. It can feel like the goal of “in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity,” is a hopeless cause. But taking the time to examine some of our assumptions about interpreting and applying Scripture can help us build bridges in these hard conversations. It prepares us to be better listeners and helps us extend more grace as we assess other Christians’ motivations and reasoning. It is worth the risk to really engage with fellow believers and seek common ground, not just about evolution and creation, but about all the other modern questions we bring to the Bible and seek to answer well.