Over the last several months I’ve grown away from believing that the Earth was created in 6 literal 24-hour days. I understand most of the scientific reasoning for the age of the universe, and I don’t believe that an “Old Earth” diminishes the Glory of God at all, but I’m more curious how we as Christians should/can reconcile the Genesis account with what science tells us about our origins?Joseph
This is a very important and timely topic, Joseph. A lot of people raised as Christians have felt a tension between science and Genesis on the issue of origins and the age of the earth. This perceived tension often causes a great deal of anxiety. To dispel that anxiety, many people turn right away to the question of how best to interpret Genesis 1-2: how can we understand Genesis 1-2 in a way that fits with what science is telling us? But this, too, can cause anxiety: by going this route, am I merely making the Bible fit what science tells me? Have I submitted the Bible to the authority of science?
Focusing right away on the interpretation question, then, and trying to determine what the Bible does or does not teach about the age of the earth, the origin of humanity, etc., skips over another, perhaps even more important question: does the Bible claim to be an authority in matters of science? What type of authority does the Bible claim to have, vis-à-vis science?
Before we can meaningfully engage with interpretations of Genesis, it may be helpful to think more about the nature of Biblical authority: how is the Bible authoritative, and what does it mean to be obedient to that authority? There is a continuum of possible relationships between Biblical authority and scientific claims. Looking at three possible views on that continuum gives a sense of the range of approaches that Christians have adopted on this issue.
VIEW 1: The Bible claims no scientific authority.
On this view, the Bible’s authority is exclusively over matters pertaining to theology and so-called “personal ethics.” In this case, to be obedient to the authority of the Bible is to agree with correct theological claims and doctrines, and act in accordance with the ethical guidelines laid out in the Bible. In regards to the Genesis account, a proponent of this view would argue that the first chapters of Genesis articulate theological claims about God as the sole Creator of everything that exists and God’s sovereignty over all creation. According to this view, every Christian must affirm these principles—but once they do, they would be relatively free to pursue scientific inquiry to determine how God created. On this account, Genesis is making claims only about the truth that God created, and makes no truth claims regarding how God created.
VIEW 2: The Bible claims indirect authority over science.
On this view, the Bibles exercises direct authority over something (such as the heart of the scientist, or the presuppositions of science), which in turn holds some authority in regards to science. One popular version of this view holds that the Bible has direct authority over the key tenets that define one’s life. In this case, being obedient to Biblical authority requires living according to the right tenets. This will have consequences for how one engages in the scientific enterprise, most notably in the ‘presuppositions’ that guide one’s scientific inquiry. In regards to the Genesis account, a proponent of this view would argue that the first three chapters offer us an account of the right tenets through which to view the world (the world was created and sustained by God’s design, will and Law; it has been tainted by sin, and so stands in need of redemption through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit). According to this view, these presuppositions must shape how a person views scientific evidence, and might cause one to question the presuppositions underlying certain accepted claims regarding origins in the scientific community.
VIEW 3: The Bible claims direct authority over science.
On this view, the Bible is directly authoritative over all aspects of a person’s life. In this case, being obedient to the authority of the Bible requires one to affirm every claim made in the Bible. In regards to the Genesis account, a proponent of this view would argue that the Bible clearly teaches that God created everything in the world ‘according to its kind,’ and did so in seven days. According to this view, any scientific claims contrary to this assertion are anti-Biblical; agreeing with them is a fundamental rejection of Biblical authority.
Where one falls on this continuum will likely predispose them to one way of interpreting Genesis 1-2 over others: evolutionary creationists, for example, tend to be on the end of the spectrum near the first view, young earth people tend to be nearer the third view, and others occupy various points in between.
But all three views agree that: 1) the Bible is the authoritative Word of God; 2) God is the Creator of everything that exists; and 3) obedience to God and God’s Word is central to the life of the Christian. We need not understand the origins issue as forcing a Christian to choose whether the Bible or science is authoritative for our lives. Rather, at issue is how a Christian understands the authority of the Bible and its implications for various elements of our lives, including scientific inquiry.
Readers of iAt: What are other ways to understand Biblical authority and its relation to Genesis? And what resources might you recommend to Joseph and others struggling with the relationship between Genesis and the claims of science?
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Thanks, Neal, for your thoughtful response to this challenging topic! In my science methods course for elementary and middle school teachers we discuss “controversial topics” in teaching science, and this one is always at the top of the heap. I’ll direct my students here as a resource to help them think through what makes this such a thorny issue for Christians who teach science.
While some parts of the Bible claim that authority over science, I would argue that the genre of the creation story is of the poetic sort and therefore, does not. It is difficult to understand the science of universe origins when scholars are still debating the metaphysical interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. Joseph (and those reading)- One book I would recommend to understand the Genesis story in a authoritative but poetic way is Catherine Keller’s “Face of the Deep.” Keller claims that Elohim did not create “ex nihilo” but that Elohim works with barren elements in order to provide differentiation, meaning, and life. God pronounces goodness, not existence. Being an “old-earth” person, I had difficulty acknowledging any authority in the creation story until I read Keller’s book. I would of course be open to reading other interpretations of the creation story.
What would it mean for part of an ancient text to claim authority over modern science? Do you mean some biblical texts have authority in matters of faith and morality that pertain specifically to the way science is done? Or something else? Shouldn’t we distinguish between “the Bible” (text) and “the Word of God” (Jesus)?
Keller is described in her academic role as a process theologian working on a reconstruction of tradition Christian doctrine. That sounds both interesting and troubling to me, but the ideas you mention are uncontroversial, even venerable parts of the Jewish rabbinical tradition.
She is probably drawing on an important 19th century rabbi who tried to reconcile the Torah with evolutionary science while closing the door to naturalism. One of the great medieval rabbis had already made this relatively easy to do by offering a literal-grammatical reading of Genesis 1 that stresses creation as a collaborative process. God works with his creation, “making” or “fashioning” each successive creature from the preceding one.
It’s easy to bring this into an evolutionary reading that still reserves the pride of place for the human creature because only Adam and Eve are “created,” either from nothing or from God himself. (I don’t think Judaism is so committed to creation ex nihilo.) Humanity as the “image and likeness” of God infused with the divine breath — traditionally associated with rational consciousness — emerges at the end of this process, which can be presented monistically, dualistically, or panentheistically. Jewish tradition accommodates them all, but Christianity not so much. I can see the appeal to process theologians though. Teilhard de Chardin is back in favor even with conservatives now, so maybe some type of process approach has a future if it can emerge from *within* a canonical tradition.
My interest in this subject started in 5th grade. The day after finishing a science test our teacher told us to skip the next chapter because it was about dinosaurs. We were told that they didn’t really exist so we just needed to move on to the next topic (maybe she didn’t say it in quite that way, but that’s the way that I heard it). That 10 seconds was the extent of my education on the creation/evolution “debate” in grade school. Even in 5th grade where school didn’t reach the same level of importance as playing sports with my friends, I immediately questioned the teacher’s perspective. However, it was an internal question and one that I continually struggled with throughout my formative years. I kept trying to meld my faith with what I was learning about the world around me. I wish I could have said that I shared my fears and concerns with a trusted adult, but the few times I was in a setting where the subject was discussed I heard the same basic perspective shared without exception. I never found a safe place to open my heart. I wonder how much more I could have grown during those years if I could have freely discussed this issue. The closest I came to resolution was through a book I found in our church regarding the flood that I read as a young married man. It provided many reasons why the flood could have created many of the geological conditions we see in our world, but it still left me unsettled. I wanted to believe in the six days of creation that had been so much a part of my upbringing, but I couldn’t make it work. This discrepancy never made me lose my faith, but it did shake it, sometimes violently. I had a true faith, but I couldn’t find a way to reconcile my faith in a perfect God who provided a biblical account that appeared less than “perfect” because it didn’t appear to match what I was seeing in creation.
Today I can say that I’m very grateful for the faithfulness of our God who brought me to a place of complete peace with this issue. Beyond that, I’ve been blessed abundantly with a faith that continually grows through the creation discoveries that meld so beautifully with the Biblical account. It wasn’t a time, place, or event that began the next step in my journey. Rather, it was a book called “The Fingerprint of God” by Hugh Ross that opened a new world for me. We all experience those moments when we’ve seen and experienced the Truth. We recognize when the Holy Spirit is opening our heart. This is what I experienced as I read the book. My MIND could finally begin to fully reconcile the God of the Bible and the truth of the creation around me, opening my HEART to the full beauty of it.
How many times have you read Genesis 1 and wondered how God first created the light and then created the sun, moon, and stars? In “The Fingerprint of God” Hugh, an astrophysicist, shared that he was a non-believer, but knew there had to be a God based on all scientific evidence he had gathered. He chose to read all of the “holy” books so he could refute the “man-made” gods that were worshiped. When he reached a point of incredulity with each book he would check it off his list and move on to the next. In this way he quickly moved through the ‘holy’ books. However, this changed instantly with the second verse of the Bible: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” As an astrophysicist, Hugh was immediately struck by the fact that this was the context in which the rest of chapter one was viewed. The Spirit was hovering over the waters of a formless and void world. This matched the opaque atmosphere of the early earth. Each creation day that followed matched the progression of the world as it was created, including the sun, moon, and stars, which appeared as the atmosphere cleared. Hugh couldn’t put the Bible down. As he delved deeper he came to a profound understanding that this was truly the work of God. That’s what his mind told him. A few months later his heart said the same thing, and he gave his life to Christ. He is now the founder and President of “Reasons To Believe”, an organization that has also created a testable Creation model based solely on the scientific evidence found in the Bible.
This is not a treatise on Hugh Ross. It is a short history of my faith journey as it related to my reconciliation of the God of my heart and of my mind. I continue to explore the beauty of God’s creation found in both his Word and creation. The deeper I dig, the more blessed I am. Even as I write I had a conversation with my son regarding the beauty of God’s creation both intellectually and spiritually. It was something that I missed in my childhood so I am very grateful to see my son’s heart open to the vastness and beauty of creation, completely reconciled and at peace. My fifth grade struggle resulted in a blessing beyond my hopes more than 40 years later.
Do you struggle with this issue? Do you have questions? I invite you to join me in the journey. I would suggest “The Fingerprint of God” by Hugh Ross as a starting point. It is a Biblically based book written by a scientist for the layperson. Or, for a quicker read, check out any of the articles found on the website, “Reasons to Believe”. I don’t want to preach or persuade. I only wish for you to be blessed on the journey as I have been. God does not want us to set our intellect aside, but to fully engage it. By doing so your heart will be more fully open to His amazing grace.