The beauty of the Christian faith is that it is based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is not arbitrary mythology but the story of God throughout human history redeeming the world through his appointed one Jesus Christ. As such followers of Jesus have and will remain concerned with the truth about God, about our world and what God has done, is doing and will do in history. Furthermore, it was from a Christian view of the world as the creation of an intelligent God which gave fertile ground to the rise of modern science.1 Christians and the civilizations in which they have traveled have thought of science as studying God’s created order and “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”2 As such, science has been done by and among people of Christian faith for hundreds of years. This has resulted in a unique dialogue that has sometimes had tensions.
Out of the intellectual developments in Europe there came certain non Christian philosophical movements (deism, agnosticism, atheism) which were at complete odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ. These were not new ideas but a revival and expansion on ancient debates which have gone on for some time. It was in this ground of conflict between competing worldviews and philosophies that a “war between science and religion” was put forth.
Over the years enlightenment rationalism and secular thinkers have attempted to fashion an image in the public consciousness that faith and religion were at war with science seeking the demise of free inquiry.3 This view that science is the domain of agnostics/atheists has been reignited a bit as of late by the so called “New Atheists” such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.4
While there is no war between science and faith they are indeed dialogue partners in our learning and understanding of our lives and place in the universe. In this essay I want to layout in brief some of the issues and tensions associated with the science of origins and cosmology (the study of the cosmos on a macro level) and the truth of the Christian Scriptures. This will by no means be complete as neither space nor time permits such a study in an entry of this size.
One point of note before we jump in. I did my bachelors degree in Applied Science with a minor in Physics. I have been around the scientific community. Furthermore, I am two thirds of the way complete in a Master’s degree in Applied Apologetics which is focused on articulating and defending the Christian faith in the market place of ideas. Even with my training, the issues raised by biblical studies, the sciences and the theology of the church are not simple issues to wrestle with. In fact, there are many competing views of how such integration of science, the Bible and our theology should come together. This is among Christians who love Jesus, hold to the authority and infallibility of the Bible. As such this debate and discussion is an “open handed issue” for us. This means that excessive dogmatism about some of these issues is not helpful in our learning and growing in our understanding of science and the Word of God. Finally, let me be very clear. Science is the study of God’s creation with a desire to learn, serve the good of others and enjoy the world God has made. Scientism is the idea that knowledge is only gained through empirical, scientific inquiry and such knowledge is superior to all other human discourses. I find this to be false both biblically and philosophically. There are many things which are real and true which cannot be proved through scientific method. The laws of logic, mathematics, ethical truths, metaphysical beings such as God, angels and demons, the fact that we are not trapped in the matrix, or that I did not eat breakfast today cannot be proven by empirical scientific methods. We should love to study the revealed things of God in creation but we should never trap ourselves in the small world of materialism; that matter is all there is to everything. Scripture uses the harshest of terms for worshipping the creation rather than the creator. All of our scientific study should be for the glory of God and the good of others, anything less is not worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What follows is some key issues surrounding the debate and I will close by describing briefly some of the positions held by Bible believing Christians along with some recommendations for further reading. OK, jumping in.
Key Issue—How Do you Read Genesis 1-2
There are many different ways that believers understand the early chapters of the first book in the Bible. One thing we must agree upon is that the book of Genesis is inspired by God, teaches us the truth about God and man, that it was written to ancient peoples and it would have held meaning for the original audience. Furthermore, Jesus himself quoted from the early chapters of Genesis as reality (Matthew 19:1-9) as did the apostle Paul (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Timothy 2). With these things in mind, there is some diversity among scholars who study Genesis in how it should be read.
First, there are those who treat it as a truth teaching myth.5 I find this problematic due to the New Testament’s direct references to Genesis accounts. There are others who see Genesis 1 as ancient Near Eastern poetry giving us a literary framework to teach us the theology of creation thematically and it was not intended to treat issues of science or chronology. This view would also hold firmly to the historical nature of Adam/Eve in Genesis 2 and the fall of Genesis 3.6 Others argue that Genesis 1 is speaking of assigning function to the creation as God’s place of operations and not about material mechanisms at all. This view does not require the mythologizing or denial of the historicity of an actual Adam.7 Finally, there are others who see it as a narrative telling us exactly how God created the world which takes the chronology to be an unfolding of “days.”8
Key Issue—The Age of the Universe
Associated with the reading of Genesis is the age of the earth and the universe. If one thinks that Genesis 1 unfolds precise chronology it leads one to certain conclusions about the age of the earth. Putting together the genealogies of the Bible, as has been done in the past, places creation at roughly six thousand years ago.9 This would be the case if the days of Genesis 1 are strict solar days which modern people understand to mean one rotation of the earth. However, we must ask the question if there might be biblical and scientific reasons to believe that the earth and the universe are much older. Biblically speaking, if Genesis 1 is not speaking of chronology then making such inferences would be unwarranted and dubious. Furthermore, if there are good scientific reasons to think the universe is older than six thousand years we may need to look carefully at our interpretation of Genesis. So where have Bible believing people landed on the question of the age of the universe? First, those who hold that Genesis 1 is a chronological unfolding fall into young earth and old earth varieties. The young earth person takes “day” to be one revolution of earth, the old earth person would take “day” to mean “age” or unspecified period of time. One final group of those who hold to an older earth/universe see an unspecified time after Genesis 1:1 where the long periods of time observed scientifically could take place. In this view, the chronology of the six days can still be normal days. Second, those who hold to literary framework or functional view of creation in Genesis 1 feel no reason to be bound to a young earth hypothesis. They hold that a proper reading of the ancient text does not demand any such thing. Finally, one thing which is largely agreed upon by Christians and secular thinkers regards the appearance of human beings in history. Human beings, as we now exist, came about on the earth in the area of thousands of years ago. Most Bible believing Christians who do not mythologize our first parents hold to a recent creation of human beings in the image and likeness of God. How the first humans became humans is addressed by the next key issue; the role of human origins and the issues raised by biological evolution.
Key Issue—The Question of Origins
Let it be clear that the term “evolution” simply means to change over time. Furthermore, we do observe that biological creatures do change due to environmental conditions in which life exists. Some have called this micro or horizontal evolution; change within certain kinds of creatures. We see this readily in the biodiversity found on our planet. It is quite another thing to say that the universe came into existence, uncaused, from nothing. Additionally, the teaching that life spontaneously generates from inorganic materials when fortuitous conditions arise, that RNA and DNA systems with built in information transfer capacities arise without any sort of intelligence, and that simple amino acids arise and morph into functionally folded proteins without any design or cause is quite a different idea. These ideas, some would call macro or vertical evolution, has given Christian thinkers/scientists and some secular scientists pause over the years. Even atheistic scientists such as Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins have even suggested panspermia, the idea that basic life was seeded from other planets, as a “solution” to the problem of life arising spontaneously on the earth. Of course this just moves the location of the problem geographically and solves nothing.
There are several contemporary views that Bible believing Christians hold in relation to the question of origins and evolution. All Christians believe God is the creator of the universe and life with its various latent capacities. From this point it can get complicated. First, there are Christians who find no reason to biblically accept the theory of evolution and reject it in toto (don’t believe a lick of it). There are also Christians, many trained scientists, who find no good scientific reason to accept a naturalistic version of evolution. Some hold to an evolution guided by God and have rightly been challenged because the theory of evolution simply requires “no God.” Some have accepted evolution as the means or secondary cause which God built into his creation as the way he would create the biodiversity and humanity we see today. Putting some of this together in list form reveals the diversity of Christian thought on the matter. I have also listed some authors in each camp for you here in the list.
- There are young earthers who read Genesis 1 chronologically that reject evolution (see Kurt Wise, Faith, Form and Time)
- There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 chronologically that reject evolution for scientific reasons (see David Snoke, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth)
- There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 chronologically that accept some forms of evolution with progressive creation (see Hugh Ross, Creation as Science)
- There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 thematically who accept forms of evolution (see edited work by Keith B. Miller, Perspectives on an Evolving Creation)
- There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 thematically/functionally who are quite neutral on evolution (could take it or leave it depending on the scientific evidence, see John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One)
All those who accept forms of evolution and wish to remain committed to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture hold the following in some form or another. Though God used evolution to bring about the body plans of the first humans, God breathed into them the breath of life (Genesis 2:7) and made them in the image of God, distinct from their animal ancestors. I am not saying this is true, this is simply what is articulated to hold both evolution by natural processes and the teaching of the Bible. I think the science of evolutionary biology is still a young discipline and as we learn additional things about the information involved in cellular life there will be further discussion. Additionally, two great fronts of scientific investigation involve consciousness/brain matters as well as the complexity genetic information and expression. These will be at the forefront of discussions in future as we wrestle both biblically and scientifically with what it means to be human.10
Key Issue—Relating Special and General Revelation
In Christian theology we speak of both general revelation (God revealing himself to us through nature, conscience and design) and specific revelation (God speaking to us through Jesus Christ and the Scriptures). On all matters to which the Scriptures speak, the written Word of God is the authority in our lives. However, through the study of nature using God given rational capacities, truth from general revelation may require us to re-think our current understanding of the biblical text. A case in point might help a bit here. Looking at every day appearances, it seems that the sun rises and the sun sets. It seems the Sun travels across the sky each day. There is nothing “wrong” about this understanding and you will likely hear it from the evening news weatherperson and read a similar description in Psalm 19. Yet we now understand, due to the careful study of general revelation, that the earth rotates on roughly a 23.5 degree axis and each day/night results from this rotation. Some Christians in the past might have thought, and understandably so, that the sun rose and the sun set. The Bible uses this sort of phenomenological language but we should not use these passages to argue that the sun goes around the earth. Clarity brought from observation and general revelation has helped us to better understand what certain parts of the Bible are actually teaching.11 As we learn more about the age of the universe and developmental biology, it may cause people to rightly re-think a wooden reading of Genesis.Finally, we need not place things in someone’s way of considering the gospel of Jesus Christ by marrying oneself to a certain scientific paradigm. Such would be unnecessary and unwise and perhaps cause us to read a certain view into the Bible ourselves. We should remain humble and hold to the clear teachings of Scripture and remain open in debatable matters. So what IS essential?
Give me the down, down!
In closing I want to be very clear and remind us the purpose for which God gave us the Holy Scriptures and the Genesis account. They do not intend to give every truth that can be known. They make no such claim. However, they are given to us to reveal who we are, who God is and how God has purposed to redeem his people and all things through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the central figure and subject of the Bible’s teaching. When coming to the doctrine of creation, we should make some things very clear. The Word of God wants to communicate to us that:
God made all things and is the rightful owner and sovereign ruler over them.
God made human beings in his image, unique among all creatures to know and worship God. We are responsible to God for how we live and steward creation under his rule.
God made all things for his purposes and redeems all things through Jesus Christ.
We might say that Genesis 1 and 2 hold the true accounting of creation and all THAT GOD DID but makes no effort at all to explain HOW (in terms of contemporary science) God did ALL THAT. As we learn through good science (not atheism smuggled in as science) we will discover wonders about our God and his infinite wisdom. I am also sure there will be secret things that remain with God alone (Deuteronomy 29:29) to keep us both humble and desiring to learn.
- See Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science and Thaxton and Pearcey’s The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy for more on this thesis.
- This statement has been attributed to Johannes Kepler, a Christian scientist and one of the fathers of modern astronomy.
- The two most seminal works from this point of view would be John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology.
- Harris recently completed his PhD in neuroscience at UCLA, and has written a couple of books bashing faith. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist from England whose book The God Delusion laid out his diatribe against religious belief. Dennett is a philosopher at Tufts University and his book Breaking the Spell sought to explain religion as a biological phenomena and artifact of evolution. For a witty response to the idea that atheism has the corner on “Science” see mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion—Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions My review of the latter work is found here.
- See Robin Collins’ “Evolution and Original Sin” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation edited by Keith B. Miller
- See Meredith Kline’s “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony” available online at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1996/PSCF3-96Kline.html. From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 48:2-15 (1996).
- See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One for his view which he describes as one of “Cosmic Temple Inauguration.” In his view Genesis 1 describes the one true God inaugurating the cosmos as his place of operations. Walton provides an excellent summary of his view on pages 162-168 of this work. On the issue of Adam, Walton is clear that his view sees Adam as an archetype of humanity but this does NOT eliminate that Adam could be an historical figure and biological individual. See footnote 5 from page 71. In Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton’s A Survey of the Old Testament, Walton does seem to hold to an historical Adam.
- Various Christians hold this view but disagree strongly with each other on other matters. In this group you would find young earth creationists, old earth day-age theorists and those who hold that a long period of time could exist after Genesis 1:1 and before the 6 chronological creation days.
- See discussion in Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine-What Christians Should Believe, p 94.
- An interesting recent work, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves by James Le Fanu tackles how our immense learning in these fields has actually led us to a deeper sense of mystery and an openness to discuss views of humanity without the harsh materialism and scientism recently common in our intellectual culture.
- See Richard Pratt, He Gave US Stories, p 38-39.