Why The Current Debate is Critical
For eighteen years I drove past the cemetery in which the remains of school teacher John T Scopes are buried, an almost daily reminder of a debate that's dominated a great deal of Christian and Anti-Christian thought for more than a century. Scopes of course was the teacher at the center of the legal storm that erupted over teaching evolution as a theory in his Tennessee school room, a story made even more famous by the popular movie "Inherit the Wind". The movie portrays the Biblical literalism of prosecuting attorney William Jennings Bryan as a backwards, idiotic, anti-scientific arrogance that needs to be pilloried and consigned to the ash heap. The actual trial proceedings aside, that's an accurate portrayal of how a lot of people view literal readings of the early chapters of Genesis and offers a pretty clear view of the antipathy many hold to an authoritative place in our lives for the Scriptures. Discrediting the text allows them to discredit the Church and her message.
In that regard, I agree with the antagonists: if the text is read and understood correctly, but the text and its right understanding are manifestly untrue, then the entire Christian Church and message cannot be defended and should be abandoned. If God is not the Creator of all things, and if the fall of mankind into sin is a myth, then there was no need for a Savior - which would also make Jesus just another first century peasant who happened to believe his culture's myths about origins.
But that's the question at the center of all the debates about the text today. From Young Earth Creationists to Theistic Evolutionists, and a host of opinions in between, Christians are seeking to rightly read, understand, and defend the early chapters of Genesis. This discussion is manifestly important, with the very credibility of the Scriptures and the Church at stake. And this is why I begin with Jesus himself, the One in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. He is revealed as Creator and Savior, and he held up Adam and Eve as his model for marriage in a debate over divorce, and after his resurrection began the re-creation of the universe by 'breathing on his disciples' the gift of the Holy Spirit, re-engineering humnankind in just the same way that Genesis 2 records Adam becoming a living being. To say that Jesus had a rather high view of Genesis would be the understatement of the century. How could my view possibly be lower than his? When did I grow smarter than Jesus? To claim that position really would be folly.
It seems to me that opponents to the Faith seem to think that the Young Earth Creationist view (YEC, the belief that God created our universe about six to ten thousand years ago, all during activity confined to six twenty four hour days) is the only possible one held by true believers (some true believers would agree!). Such a view is more often than not simply dismissed with a chuckle and wink by most of the academy, or even by a decent sampling of eighth graders. That said, the antagonism to the very idea of God as Creator and that mankind is a unique creation of God, seems to be rooted in far more than a defense of scientific endeavor and the advance of human knowledge. There are a host of socio-political-historical matters which are noted by many as good reason for rejecting the early chapters of Genesis as a) literal history and/or b) religious texts informing all of human existence.
It is certainly true that a higher critical approach to the text of Genesis has yielded a non-literal understanding of the text in many academic circles (including seminaries), one that embraces a wide range of opinion about its meaning, from viewing the text as post-exilic re-telling of Israel's creation and fall/exile to simply the Hebrew form of an ancient mythological account of origins. While debates over the validity of these approaches have influence in religious circles, I find that the other socio-political-historical issues seem to drive the debate in other disciplines. Examples include those who link a supposedly arrogant view of human domination over nature in Genesis with the currently claimed world-wide ecological crises in which humankind abuses and despoils the environment. Others connect the abuse of women by men with a supposed portrayal of male over female dominance in Genesis. Still others claim that the same gender distinctions in the presentation of Adam and Eve as the exclusively God-ordained model of family and marriage lay the foundation for the suppression of homosexuality and the abuse of homosexuals.
Each of these objections reflect the undeniable truth that Genesis has played a formative role in the development of our society. It is not going too far to say that what one believes about Genesis influences or even controls what is believed -
- About the Existence and Being of God
- About Scripture's Interpretation and Authority
- About Human Knowledge and Advancement
- About What Constitutes a Human Being
- About the Foundations of Sexual and Familial Ethics
- About the Stewardship of Resources
- and in turn forms the core of what is commonly referred to as a 'worldview', the foundational belief system held by an individual or community. That the entire Biblical revelation commences with the phrase "In the beginning God created", and the Christian Confession begins with the words, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth" demonstrates the foundational significance of what we hold to be central to Faith, namely the matter of creation. There is no dimension of human endeavor, social structure, and Biblical belief unaffected by what one holds to be true in regard to the Genesis account of creation. Thus the current discussions are of supreme importance.
Church and Mission
There are other pastoral and evangelistic matters in play as well.
On the Pastoral front, Church members who work in the sciences and the academy need to know not only that their work has Biblical foundation, but also that their faith is credible in the face of the often very aggressive claims for contrary views which can be characteristic of their work environments. They need to know that their own scientific investigations and research have the understanding and support of their fellow-Christians, as opposed to enduring a dismissive and antagonistic to science rhetoric that can characterize some preaching and teaching in the Church. This is certainly true for our University students as well, wrestling as they do to make what was often their father's faith their very own. All truth is God's truth, and that includes the truth being learned from creation, whether derived from a distant star observed by a deep-space telescope, or the messages sent to us by DNA and received with as much understanding as we can currently achieve via chemical analysis and observation. Disrespect for knowledge is anti-Christian and our members need to know this, noting alongside this truth the limits of a fallen, finite, and fallible human grasp of the created order, that God the Creator is the only infallible interpreter of reality, and that our 'conclusions' in the realm of human knowledge of our world are always preliminary.
In regard to the Evangelistic task, many non-believers have been taught to simply ignore or dismiss the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ because the authenticity and authority of the Biblical accounts of creation and miracles cannot possibly be true because 'Science' ably demonstrates that such claims are impossible in the light of scholarship - which is always infallible. This 'war' between Faith and Science, unwittingly reinforced by some Christians who take a dim view of the scientific life and project (all the while benefiting from and depending on its very presence!), does not need to exist. Certainly contrary claims inherent in total worldviews will generate conflict -that happens within science itself in debates over the supremacy of quantum mechanics and other global theories of physics. Without ignoring authentic differences, however, the common grounds in Faith and Science can be put forward. This is not a question of appeasing an unbelieving person or society, or trying to avoid ridicule by the opponents of Faith - such mockery has always occurred and always will because opposition to Jesus Christ lies far more in the will of man than the mind of man. The claims of Christ over a soul are total and those who don't believe often employ all manner of defenses, including ridicule and shame, to keep the Lord at bay and discredit his invitation to life; the cross will always be a stumbling block and the Christian Gospel foolishness to the perishing. Rather what must be advanced is a coherent explanation to the unbeliever of what the Scripture teaches about God, creation, humankind, and our redemption that bears in mind the 'defeater' objections already firmly entrenched in the minds of many through a false view of science in which the lab is viewed as the fulcrum of infallibility. Good communication begins with where people are at rather than where one wishes they were, and speaks their language in order to teach them the vocabulary of the new. Ignoring or deriding science is not helpful to the furtherance of the Gospel.
My position in this entire discussion is that the matter is of such supreme significance that patient and respectful listening to one another within the Christian Church is essential as we seek to understand and articulate in fresh ways the truth of God as Creator, Lord, and Savior, together with the truth of mankind as his unique creation fashioned after his image. We need to listen well, be aware of new discoveries in the realm of science, and learn to speak in sensible ways about such matters to our children, congregations, and to the world as we share the Gospel. We need to have some historical perspective too. Controversial issues in Biblical interpretation and theology usually aren't solved over a weekend - and sometimes even over a century. We may be witnessing the eruption of a new phase of Christian scholarly debate over the meaning of the text which will yield new and more exact ways of confessing what we believe, along with how we hear and read the Scriptures. Arius was wrong about the two natures of Christ, but his heresy paved the way for several centuries of wrangling (not always pleasant!) that bequeathed to all generations a robust and Biblical Christology. Its possible that our current debates will necessitate as many years - and perhaps just as much wrangling! - to arrive at an equally rich inheritance.
What is somewhat different now, though not entirely dissimilar to the Copernican and Galilean controversies, is the way in which God's 'Book of Nature' will be part of the debate, together with the text of Scripture. Both books have their unique purposes and characteristics, but neither book bears false witness. The problem with reading the books lies with the limits of our minds not the veracity of the witnesses. What we discover to be true about the universe from the work of science (broadly considered, and noting the preliminary nature of conclusions that attend such endeavors) will not ultimately undo what is known to be true in the Scripture. The witness of the stars and the rocks will bear witness to the One who is the Rock and whose birth was announced by a star. So let the debate proceed - and please, please my Christian friend and scientist, stay hard at work. This world needs your labor; your Church values you and your labor; your Savior has called you to your labor. Physicists and Chemists, Astronomers and Biologists, Paleontologists and Geologists, Oceanographers and Physicians, may God bless your research to the end that all the world he loves and all who bear his image may find their lives continually enhanced and the beauty of his handiwork made more gloriously manifest, the hungry fed, the diseased healed, and new technologies serve to aid the spread of the Faith.