Note: I originally wrote this post on another blog as part of an FAQ for my church in 2013. I am re-publishing here (with minor edits), since I will be using it in an upcoming class on science, faith, and Old Testament interpretation. Part 1 dealt with the literary relationship between Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern creation/flood myths, while Part 2 deals with the relationship between Genesis and science.
What’s the problem?
Was the universe really created from nothing? Are the “days” of Genesis 1 literal 24-hour days? Is the earth thousands of years old or billions? Can Christians believe in the Big Bang Theory? What about evolution? Does Genesis really describe the sky as a solid dome? How could there have been light on the first day of creation, when the sun and stars were only made on day four? Were Adam and Eve really our first parents? How does that square with hominid fossils and population genetics? Did carnivores only eat vegetables until the time of Noah? Was there really a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Is there any evidence that Noah’s flood ever happened? Was it global or local? Did all human languages really come from the Tower of Babel? This is just a small sampling of the many questions that come up when Christians try to relate Genesis to science. Addressing each one of them could fill up volumes of books, let alone a single post. The purpose of this post will instead be limited to getting at the “questions behind the questions”—that is, we will explore the presuppositions and methods involved in trying to reconcile Genesis with science.
What is science?
In order to understand how Genesis relates to science, we need to first define what science actually is. At its most basic level, science is simply the study of the world around us. It involves making observations, forming hypotheses based on those observations, testing those hypotheses, and then subjecting them to public scrutiny. Hypotheses that are able to stand up to such scrutiny are often elevated to the level of theory or law (this whole process is referred to as the scientific method). Over the past few centuries, scientists have been able to make tremendous advances for civilization, and the word “science” has become more or less synonymous with critical thinking, intellectual expertise, and technological progress.
However, many mistaken notions have also become associated with science. It is often thought to be a purely objective process, free of any bias—unlike faith, which is often relegated to the realm of private, subjective opinion. As a result, the pronouncements of science are sometimes accepted without question.1 But the reality is that science doesn’t “say” anything; scientists do, and they each carry biases of their own.2 It is simply a fact of human existence that we cannot help but see things from a certain perspective, based on our prior personal commitments. We all see reality through the lens of our particular worldviews and presuppositions. This is not to say that all worldviews are equally valid, and in some cases our lenses can be corrected by observation and evaluation of the data. But lenses are always there.
This should caution us about some of the limitations of science. To begin with, despite the efforts of many to draw a sharp dividing line between science and faith, it is undeniable that science itself rests on certain faith commitments. One cannot use the scientific method to justify the scientific method. Rather, in order for science to work, scientists must assume the reliability of our sense experience, the reliability of our mental processes, and the relative order and predictability of the universe. But such assumptions cannot be accounted for in a materialistic worldview that rejects the possibility of divine intervention. Twentieth-century Christian author C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.”3 In other words, science depends on God for its very legitimacy.4
We also need to be aware of the different ways in which scientists examine regularly occurring phenomena versus non-repeatable events in the past.5 This does not mean that the latter is entirely off limits to scientists. There are times when scientists can and do gain accurate knowledge about the past; for example, forensic scientists regularly investigate crime scenes in order to determine a particular sequence of past events. But when it comes to addressing big questions—like where the universe came from or how life began—scientists are much more dependent upon inferences, and these inferences will in turn be dependent upon their worldview. When scientists work from within a materialistic worldview, that inevitably affects how they interpret the evidence. So when we examine the book of Genesis, we need to ask, is it really at odds with the scientific evidence, or merely with the materialistic worldview presupposed by many scientists?
Two sources of truth
Christians have historically affirmed that God has revealed the truth about himself in two different ways: through general revelation and special revelation.6 General revelation refers to the non-verbal testimony of creation that is accessible to all people everywhere, while special revelation refers to God’s verbal testimony that is uniquely accessible through Scripture.7 Since both forms of revelation come from God, and since God is by nature wholly truthful, then in principle they cannot contradict each other.8 At the same time, we can only approach God’s revelation from the vantage point of our finite and fallen humanity. Revelation must always be interpreted, and our interpretations can be wrong. So when there appears to be a conflict between Genesis and science, we ought to ask, is the contradiction really between God’s Word and God’s world, or is it rather in the interpretation of one or the other?
Some people would prefer to draw a sharp wall of separation between general and special revelation so as to avoid any potential conflict.9 On this approach, science should deal with the physical world, while theology should be limited to spiritual or moral issues. But such an approach cannot be consistently held, since there are times when the two realms do indeed speak on the same subject matter (such as the origin of humanity). So rather than adopting a position of either conflict or compartmentalization with respect to God’s revelation, Old Testament scholar C. John Collins advocates a position of coordination, in which “apparent conflict triggers a revision in interpretation that yields a harmony.”10 This need for mutually-correcting interpretations should not undermine our confidence in knowing and understanding God’s truth, but instead should foster in us a spirit of humility, open-mindedness, and critical thinking.
The language of Genesis and the language of science
C.S. Lewis once made the following observation about language:
I begin with three sentences (1) It was very cold (2) There were 13 degrees of frost (3) ‘Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers was a-cold; The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold: Numb’d were the Beadsman’s fingers.’ I should describe the first as Ordinary language, the second as Scientific language, and the third as Poetic language…Two and three are improved uses of the same language used in one. Scientific and Poetic language are two different artificial perfections of Ordinary: artificial, because they depend on skills; different, because they improve the ordinary in two different directions.11
Lewis’s point here is that language can be used in a variety of ways, depending on its purpose. While we normally operate in the realm of ordinary language, scientific language may be more appropriate when mathematical precision is needed, and poetic language may be more appropriate when the author wants to appeal to the audience’s sense of beauty or imagination. It is important to recognize that one form of language isn’t “better” than the others; they are each uniquely suited for a particular task.
So when it comes to interpreting Genesis, we need to ask, what kind of language does it use? As discussed in Part 1 of this post, Genesis is quite evidently meant to be read as real history, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand of it exact, scientific precision. Nor should we necessarily expect the author of Genesis to write history in the same way as modern historians. Although it wouldn’t be quite accurate to classify Genesis as poetry, there are certainly poetic (or better, stylistic) elements within it, such as parallelism (“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;” Gen. 1:27), refrain (“And there was evening and there was morning;” Gen. 1:5ff.), anthropomorphism (God “breathes” life into Adam; Gen. 2:7), and metaphor (the “windows” of heaven open; Gen. 7:11). Genesis also makes frequent use of what is known as phenomenological language—that is, the language of appearances.12 This should guard us from imposing a strict literalism on the text.13 What Genesis records is historically true, but it must be read according to the author’s intentions rather than as a modern science textbook.
All of these points should help to give us the proper mindset when relating God’s general revelation to his special revelation. Science is a valuable tool, but it can still be subject to error and bias. Genesis is a reliable record of our history, but it needs to be read on its own literary terms. When it comes to addressing particular areas of supposed conflict, we may find that an honest evaluation of the scientific evidence will lead us to revise our interpretation of the biblical text. Conversely, we may also find that certain biblical truths set limits on what scientific theories are allowable (such as how the doctrine of the image of God necessarily rules out certain theories regarding human origins). But in neither case are we forced to say that God’s revelation is self-contradictory. We may err in our understanding, but God’s Word never errs.
1 It is ironic that in our postmodern culture, which tends to relativize all truth claims, scientists still enjoy a virtually sacrosanct authority.
2 This point has been confirmed by twentieth-century Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi. See Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 39ff.
3 C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 106.
4 These comments only scratch the surface of a very complex philosophical debate about how our minds relate to the physical world. But the basic point is that scientists cannot explain how, if our minds are merely the products of non-rational physical forces, we can trust them to make rational judgments about the world. For more information, see Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).
5 This distinction is sometimes referred to as “nomothetic” science versus “historical” science. See C. John Collins, “Miracles, Intelligent Design, and God-of-the-Gaps,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55.1 (March 2003), 25.
6 The Belgic Confession, Art. 2; The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1
7 For those who question the reliability of Scripture as God’s Word, see the following post: Are There Errors in the Bible? (forthcoming)
8 See Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979).
9 This is the approach of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who used the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (or NOMA) to refer to this kind of strict compartmentalization. Many in this camp tend to say that science only deals with the “what” and “how,” while religion only deals with the “who” and “why.”
10 Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 51.
11 C.S. Lewis, “The Language of Religion,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 129.
12 An example of phenomenological (or simply “phenomenal”) language in English would be the “rising” and “setting” of the sun. Technically, it isn’t the sun that moves, but rather the earth rotating on its axis. But in the context of ordinary language, there is nothing wrong with simply describing things as they appear to us. See Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 92.
13 At the same time, rejecting literalism doesn’t justify an interpretive “free-for-all” where any reading of the text is as good as any other. As C.S. Lewis once put it, to interpret Genesis however we want “is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, it therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful.’ This mode of interpretation I regard, frankly, as nonsense.” Lewis, Miracles, 125.