Science and Faith: How I Read Genesis 1-11
By Pastor Mike
There is an old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." And today I think we can all admit that we live in interesting times. One area of conflict in our time revolves around science and scientific consensus. Whether the subject is human sexuality, climate change, or evolution, science has been politicized. There is a fault-line running through our culture between "scientific consensus" and "pseudo-science," usually dividing people to right or left, but with the surprising exception of anti-vaxxers, who tend otherwise to often be progressive people but who nevertheless find themselves lumped in with climate-change deniers and young earth creationists, who tend to be conservative. It's a postmodern soup out there.
As an evangelical Christian, I feel no particular animosity toward the scientific community, nor do I usually feel a need to resist or remain deeply skeptical about widely-accepted scientific conclusions. Vaccinating children seems, to me, a pretty good idea. Are risks involved? Sure. But the proven gains seem greater than the much-debated risks. The computer on which I am typing is a product of scientific advancement, as was the accuracy with which this week's eclipse was predicted. Human beings are made in the image of God, and God's common grace means that whether human beings know their Maker or not, their Maker knows them and has equipped them with amazing faculties of creativity, discovery, and hard work. In short, people are smart and can do things. People are able to figure stuff out. Just as every person can be, and often is, in the wrong about something, so every person can be, and often is, right about something. Sometimes the scientists really can and do figure things out. Why should we deride them for it just because we don't like what they discover?
Well, this brings me to the point of my post. What do we then do with the claims of the Bible when they run headlong into the claims of the scientific community? This doesn't happen as much as our culture at large thinks, of course. The Bible nowhere tries to "prove" God. The existence of God is assumed from the start. And, conveniently enough, scientists and philosophers across the spectrum today generally agree that "God" cannot be proved or disproved. At best, one can argue for probabilities. The Bible, of course, assumes a natural knowledge of God in people, but in many ways this could be considered "moral knowledge" more than scientific knowledge. Actual miracles and experiences of God are limited in the Bible, mainly to prophets in the Old Testament and to born-again believers in the New. "Truly, you are a God who hides yourself..." (Isaiah 45:15). Similarly, the Bible's claims about miracles are really not an issue, per se. Scientific research tells us how the universe works. Miracles, by definition, are an interruption in the normal course of events. One can say they do not believe in the miraculous, but one cannot really say that science disproves the concept.
But what about the early chapters of Genesis? What about creation in six days? What about the genealogies that seem to argue for an earth much younger than the discoveries of astronomers, geologists, paleontologists, and geneticists seem to suggest? One approach is to side with the Bible over against the discoveries (and claims) of the scientists. Where the evidence can be interpreted to favor a young planet, so much the better. Where the evidence does not seem to be able to be interpreted that way, then appearances are deceiving but we will stick to the Bible anyway. For many evangelicals, this is a perfectly reasonable and comfortable option. And I respect it. It elevates the Bible and treats the contradictory claims of secular culture with skepticism. Anyone who has been a Christian for longer than a week knows that at some point you have to side with the Bible and let people call you stupid, evil, ignorant, and so on. Why not start here? This approach is known as Young Earth Creationism (YEC), and its best known proponents would probably be Ken Hamm and the folks over at Answers in Genesis. It may also be worth checking out the beautifully done film, Is Genesis History? To be clear, most evangelical Bible scholars today, along with most professional scientists who profess faith in Christ, do not ascribe to a Young Earth position. But it is not altogether honest nor fair to say that there are no reputable scientists and Bible scholars who argue for it, as the film Is Genesis History? in particular shows.
On the other end of the spectrum is the position of people like the folks over at BioLogos. This approach is the one taken by those who have examined the scientific claims in favor of, say, evolution, and concluded they are convincing but who have not thereby decided to abandon their Bibles. This kind of approach dates all the way back to the 1800s, and was the position of Benjamin B. Warfield (possibly one of the most important American Christians you've never heard of - he was the most important defender of biblical inerrancy in the 19th century and a top-flight Bible scholar and theologian). It is important to note that BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project and is a community made up of many reputable scientists and educators. Their roster also includes many evangelical Bible scholars and theologians. If you are curious of the evidence for evolution, an old universe, etc. but don't trust secular sources, or are curious how Bible-believing Christians harmonize faith and science this way, I would encourage you to check them out. To be honest, their approach is increasingly popular and has arguably saved the faith of many who thought they had to close their eyes and ears to the evidence if they wanted to keep God, and who were worried they could not do that in good conscience. My problem with this approach is that, whenever the Bible and scientific discoveries seem to clash, it always seems to be the Bible that has to be reinterpreted. If the Bible is fully inspired, as evangelicals believe, and people are able to misinterpret information, as BioLogos says creationists are doing, then conflict between the Bible and science cannot always, in my view, be reconciled by reinterpreting the Bible. Sometimes we must misread "the Book of Nature" too.
So this brings me to my own approach, known as Old Earth Creationism (OEC). Probably the best proponents of this approach are Hugh Ross and his team over at Reasons to Believe. Most of the people on the RtB team are scientists, though they do have a theologian or two on board as well. The OEC argument basically runs thus: The evidence for an old universe and a long history of life and death prior to the arrival of human beings is overwhelming and the scientific community has not come to these conclusions simply because of some anti-God conspiracy. Simultaneously, there is evidence for design in the universe that flies in the face of secular scientific methodology. While Ross and the team at RtB do not use the term Intelligent Design, and while Ross has even discouraged the teaching of Intelligent Design in school science curriculums, there is much overlap between the arguments of Old Earth Creationists and those within the Intelligent Design community, and those who adhere to the theological views of OEC more or less adhere to the scientific views of ID.
So how does the Old Earth Creationist view approach the Bible? First of all, creationists like myself and Ross view the Bible as the verbally inspired Word of God. We also believe that the Bible should generally be interpreted as literally as possible (giving due credence to poetry and metaphor, etc.). The days of creation in Genesis 1 are generally interpreted as a way of describing the stages of creation, a view which Ross discusses here and which is similarly interpreted by MIT-trained Orthodox Jewish thinker Gerald Schroeder. This view is based on the flexibility of the Hebrew word for day yom, and the allowance of "phenomenological language" in the Bible (language that describes things as they appear, not as they really are, such as "sunset" and "sunrise"). OEC Christians believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical people, which is something many people at BioLogos are willing to deny. OEC Christians also believe in a historical flood, but do not believe it had to be universal (in the sense of covering the whole planet) to be universal (in the sense of destroying all of human life outside of Noah's family). And OEC Christians makes sense of the age of the earth, and the age of homo sapiens as a species, by citing the common ancient practice of leaving gaps in genealogies to highlight only the most important people.
There is more that I could say, but this has already been the most time-consuming post I have ever written for the church blog. In summary, some Christians tend to lean toward the Bible and way from the findings of modern science. Other Christians tend to lean into the findings of modern science and then ask if the texts of Scripture can be reinterpreted in some less literal way to relieve the tension. My approach is to strike a via media, a middle way, and seek what is sometimes called a "concordance view," looking for places of harmony between science and Scripture, and being cautiously open to a new understanding of either.