For over a century debates have raged over the ability of the Bible to tell us about the world, particularly how the natural world, and beings that inhabit this world, came into existence.
These debates have only continued the arguments between science and the Bible that started with the 17th century Scientific Revolution when Galileo challenged a literal reading of the words of Scripture by showing that the sun, and not the earth, is at the center of the universe, and that the universe functions because of mathematical laws. Yet, in our politically charged culture, the conflict between the Bible and science seems more heated than ever.
The issue seems to be whether the Bible can answer the questions of science, and whether science can actually prove the Bible, as some think. Of course, at the heart of the current conflict is the contentious debate between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious belief in creation.
The challenge of science to faith has become so threatening that attempts have been made by some who hold to a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 to use a form of pseudo-science to propose a theory known as intelligent design; but at its core, this teaching is only a refurbishing of creationism. The problem with this view lies in our misunderstanding of the first chapters of Genesis as a basis to prove the idea that the natural world was literally created in seven days from nothing.
Admittedly, I am not a scientist, so I cannot speak about scientific theories in much depth, and certainly not in this brief article. However, as a biblical scholar, historian and theologian, I can address what I see to be the problem from an interpretive and theological point of view.
First and foremost, we must understand that the narratives of Genesis were written by ancient humans, who, without the skill of modern science, sought to explain their world and the origins of the natural world from a religious viewpoint. Genesis, then, was the ancient Hebrews’ story of their beginnings and the origins of the world and humanity as they saw it from their theological, but not a scientific, point of view. Like other ancient peoples, the Hebrews justified their religion and their view of the world by telling their creation story, which detailed how the world came about as an act of their God.
In the case of the Hebrews, the Genesis narrative was an attempt to define their God as the only God of the universe, who is transcendent, and who, in God’s infinite wisdom and power, created the physical world, including humanity, which is literarily represented by the characters of Adam and Eve. Thus, the beginning chapters of Genesis are theological narratives that express how the Hebrews viewed their God as supreme over other gods, a theme that continues throughout the Hebrew Bible. But the Genesis narratives are not scientific accounts or explanations about natural phenomena, and they cannot support such a literal reading. Doing so misses the point.
Does this view dispel any notion of God? The answer to this question is simply no. While some who hold to evolution as the answer to the origins of the natural world do dismiss the idea of a divine being, science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Alternatively, neither can the Bible prove that God exists. The Bible can only describe how ancient people of faith, Jews and Christians, understood God. A belief in God comes only through faith.
Is evolution a threat to the authority of the Bible? The answer is again no. The Bible is theological literature, written by ancient people, who wrote from the perspective of their religious faith and how they understood the world, humanity, and the divine. The creation story from Genesis is a theological explanation of the world from a monotheistic Hebraic perspective, but it is not a scientific explanation.
What does this mean for people of faith living in a world of scientific knowledge? It means that we must approach the Bible not as a scientific document, for the scriptures cannot answer our scientific questions. Rather, we must view the Bible as a religious text that shapes the way we live in the world, and we must interpret the Bible theologically, investigating what it says about God as the ultimate reality and how we should live out the image of our God in our world.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.