Dispatch 2: Evolution and Scripture

Following my previous post, I want to continue sketching out some basic considerations for those who may be, even for the first time, considering the notion that Christian faith need not necessarily stand in contrast with an acceptance of evolutionary theory. The great theological hurdle to acceptance of the theory of evolution when I was younger, and indeed still seems to be the case in a number of Christian circles, is the question of what one does to the Bible if one accepts evolution.

Typically, this argument against evolution goes something like this: “If I accept evolution, then how does this not altogether undercut the authority of the Christian scriptures? If I say that the early chapters of Genesis are ‘myth’ or ‘allegory’ or some such, why would I interpret the later chapters of Genesis as historical or literal? And how does that not lead us toward reading the whole of the Bible as mythical or allegorical? Or if we insist that some is mythical and some is literal, how can we do that without simply being arbitrary?”

Good questions all.  A few observations for discussion:

(1) This way of putting the question seems to assume that one can read a text—any text—without interpretation. But, in fact, all texts necessarily require interpretation. Even the phone book. One might object, “No, that’s altogether stupid. Of course a phone book requires no interpretation. You just look up the telephone number of the person you want to call, read off the number, and dial the number.” But this objection overlooks the most basic of observations about texts, namely that texts come in various genres, and we read various genres in different ways. We do not read a phone book as we do a history text book, nor read a history text book the way we read poetry, nor read poetry the way we read stock quotes. Each and every text requires a certain amount of presuppositions about what the text itself is, about its genre; only after determining a text’s genre can we begin to (try to) make some sense of it.

(2) This most basic observation leads to a second observation. Typically the arguments over evolution vs. the Bible are wrongly categorized about the authority of scripture versus the authority of science. But again, this is altogether unhelpful. Instead of starting with the most basic Christian commitment to the authority of scripture, the prior and more important question when thinking about evolution and the Genesis story is what kind of text is this? What is the genre? And what is this text trying to accomplish?

(3) This is an obvious but too-often overlooked set of questions. Consider how obvious it is: we know that the Psalms are a different sort of genre than 1st and 2nd Chronicles, and that Chronicles differs from the Proverbs, and the Proverbs from the book of Revelation. Thus, we need not get into a spitting match over the authority of scripture versus authority of science, and then try—as many Christians have (ironically, even strangely) tried to do—to use science to legitimate the authority of scripture in odd and over reaching and unhelpful ways. (Though this is not to say that we should, either, act as if we can ignore science and act as if it’s quite alright that our most basic claims stand in stark contradiction to basic scientific claims either.)

(4) In other words, it’s more helpful for most of us, who assume some sort of basic authority of the texts of scripture, to ask what these texts are and what their purposes are. Again, I am under no illusion that this is a ground-breaking observation. It is the most basic of considerations. But that’s why it’s so important that it be said, because it so seldom gets said in the context of a pervasive fear of the evolutionists’ claims.

So, what might these early chapters of Genesis be up to? This will again open up a whole host of possibilities. Consider two options, one from a more “liberal” and one a more “conservative” take on the Bible:

(1) First, more liberal biblical scholars have long contended that the first five books of the Old Testament took final shape when the Jews were in exile in Babylon. When one compares the creation stories in the early chapters of Genesis with the creation stories told in ancient Babylon, the sociological and human implications of these contrasting stories are staggering. For the ancient Babylonians, the world was “ontologically” violent: the primordial event was a war among the gods and goddesses, the young rebellious gods rising up against the old farts, with the young rebels winning; and out of this primordial war, the very fabric of the universe was taken from the blood and body parts of a defeated goddess, and humans were created for the purpose of, in effect, being a slave class to the victorious gods. In contrast, the biblical creation story is about an “ontologically” peaceable universe: the primordial event was the one God who spoke into existence a peaceable universe, in which the original shalom and goodness of the garden made manifest the character and will of a God who desires plenty and abundance and goodness and life for God’s good creation; and humans were not created as a slave class, but to “image” this good God’s care and concern and creative work, living in communion with the God and neighbor. The social and ethical implications of these two competing stories are both profound, obvious, and, again, staggering. (For a very helpful extended discussion of this, see Walsh and Middleton’s discussion in their Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be.) 

(2) Or for another perhaps more conservative option, consider the building of a house (as I heard Wheaton College Old Testament scholar John Walton say at the recent BioLogos gathering). When building a house, one can describe the mechanical processes of digging a foundation, pouring the foundation, setting the blocks, framing, wiring, plumbing, and dry-walling; alternately, one might tell a different sort of tale when describing the making of a home, the love and care of a family coming together, making a space for communion and hospitality and life together, the art of making a home for the cultivation of virtues and a beautiful life. A text might and can do either. But what if the Genesis creation stories are more like a description of home-making instead of house-building? Again, the interpretive implications are huge depending upon the way one answers those questions. (And, we might note the still obvious consideration that biblical texts come with no “authoritative” readers’ guide, no preface that gives us guidance on how to answer these sorts of basic questions about the nature of the text itself, and thus we are left to argue about, sort out, and try to make some sense of answers to the basic questions. And just because someone may differ with me or you on their answers to these basic questions does not mean they have rejected “the authority of scripture.” Those who have “rejected the authority of scripture” would not care about these arguments in the first place. The very argument is evidence that both parties have taken the notion of the authority of the texts seriously, at least in some fashion.

More soon.

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Lee C. Camp, Professor of Theology & Ethics at Lipscomb University, in Nashville, Tennessee, is the host of www.TokensShow.com and the Dispatches from the Buckle Podcast, and the author of Who Is My Enemy?