The article is by Kenton Sparks, a professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. His argument will be entirely familiar to connoisseurs of this issue. The Bible, you see, was never intended to teach us science. Augustine and Calvin understood that if the Bible conflicts with well-established scientific truths, then it is our understanding of scripture that must yield. Modern creationists err in treating Genesis like a science textbook, and would do better to adopt the attitude of Augustine and Calvin..
The “Genesis is not a science book” canard is one of the more annoying cliches of this genre. As a way of salvaging any notion of the inerrancy of scripture it falls short. It also represents a serious misunderstanding of how YEC’s view the matter.
Secondly, regarding Scripture itself, although Augustine and Calvin deeply trusted the Bible as a witness to Christ and the Gospel message, they did not feel any deep need for Scripture to provide dependable insights on everything in human experience. In particular, both theologians averred that the Bible is not a science book. This is why Augustine was so comfortable reading problematic biblical texts as allegories and why Calvin was able to say, rather nonchalantly, that one could not depend on Scripture as a guide to the structure of the cosmos.
Their temperament towards Scripture was very different from what prevails nowadays in pop Christian culture, where it is casually assumed that the Bible is a fool-proof guide for everything … not only for leading us to Christ and right living but also for elucidating the scholarly facts of astronomy, biology, chemistry, economics, psychology, and sociology as well as the practical facts of success in marriage, parenting, health, and personal finances.
I think we should follow the lead of Augustine and Calvin. It is time for the Evangelical tradition (of which I am a part) to take scientists more seriously and the Bible somewhat less seriously, with respect to Science.
What I mean is this. As a rule, God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves. Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers. On top of that, we have been able to tolerably appreciate and understand them by applying our natural, God-given intellectual gifts to a study of the cosmos that God made for us. And what we have discovered reveals a cosmos that is truly amazing and that, if anything, only points us towards the God who made it. And this, the Bible tells us, is precisely what the cosmos–the “book of nature”– was designed to do!
Let us get one thing out of the way right up front. Creationists do not believe the Bible is a science book. They believe, along with most Christians, that the purpose of the Bible is to instruct us about our need for, and the availability of, salvation. When the 66 books of the Bible are published in one volume, the result is a long, dense book almost none of which deals with anything relevant to science. The creationists are perfectly aware of these facts.
Nor do they believe that the early chapters of Genesis were intended primarily to teach us science. In their view the function of these chapters, as with the rest of the Bible, was to give us information relevant to understanding our predicament as sinful human beings.
However, they do believe the Bible is inerrant on any subject it addresses, and if that means accepting what it says during its very rare excursions into science then so be it. Thus, the point of Chapter One of Genesis is to establish that God produced a very good creation, one that was later sullied by human sin. It was also intended to rebut both polytheism and pantheism by establishing that one God was directly responsible for creating everything in nature. That creation took place in six days, followed by a day of rest, was meant to establish a pattern for us to emulate in keeping the Sabbath. Note that none of these purposes relate to science.
But in presenting these basic truths of the human condition, the Bible expresses itself in ways that have scientific consequences. We might even find it interesting and suggestive that the Bible, which mostly avoids scientific questions, begins with so much material relevant to science. Perhaps the conclusion is that God considered these particular scientific truths to be so important that they could not be omitted without compromising the story. At any rate, it makes little sense to say we will accept the spiritual truths of the Bible as a direct revelation from God, but will simply discard the parts that conflict with modern science.
There are many other problems with Sparks’s argument. He writes:
Basic facts about electricity, magnetism, gravity, quantum physics and genetics, however interesting, could not have been understood by ancient readers.
No one is asking for the basic facts about electricity and the rest. Even in the YEC interpretation of Genesis, there is little provided in the way of details regarding what God did. Scientific details are not the issue here. The question is: If Sparks is right that the Bible was not meant to provide us with scientific information, then why does it say anything about science at all?
Let us assume for the moment that evolution is God’s means of creation. We can understand that He would not lay out the technical details of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, since those details would not have meant anything to ancient readers. How does it follow that His only option was to present the story of creation via an entirely fictitious sequence of events? A story which, if you accept the results of modern science, has led astray enormous numbers of sincere seekers over the centuries.
When you explain something to a small child you routinely simplify the situation. You omit details and context, and express yourself in language the child will understand. It is rare, and almost never appropriate, to lie outright to the child about what is going on. Surely God could have presented the essential spiritual truths without embedding them within a fictitious story. Accommodating His presentation to the level of His audience calls for simplification, not fabrication.
Sparks is also wrong when he says:
As a rule, God has not specially revealed in Scripture those things that human beings can figure out for ourselves.
But the really important truths of Genesis are not things human beings could have figured out for themselves. Human beings could not have figured out, for example, that God created everything in six days and then judged his creation to be very good. The purpose of Genesis is to tell us about things that God did, and about his interactions with the earliest humans. Such things are well outside the realm of science, as people like Sparks so frequently remind us.
Consider the age of the Earth. If God had thought that was a question of burning importance, the Bible could have contained a verse resolving the question explicitly. Instead it contains an account of creation in six days, coupled with detailed genealogies that certainly seem to give us a complete record of descent from Adam to Abraham. The creation account and the genealogies have obvious significance in the story of the human condition; significance that has nothing to do with the age of the Earth. The fact remains, however, that it is a consequence of what is presented that the Earth is on the order of a few thousand years old.
For all its ubiquity, Sparks’s argument is simply inadequate to the challenge posed by modern science to scriptural authority. The stories in Genesis are central to the grand narrative of fall redemption, yet modern science tells us these stories are completely fictitious. Given this basic fact I can understand why so many people believe you must choose between science and scripture. What I do not understand is people trying to maintain the idea that the Bible is holy and inerrant some of the time, while utterly unreliable at other times. Yet that is precisely what Sparks, and those who argue like him, are doing.
It should also be pointed out that Augustine and Calvin were hardly theological liberals. They may have been wiling to countenance non-literal interpretations of certain aspects of Genesis, but both believed that Genesis was far more than just an allegory. It is one thing to adjust our understanding of certain verses based on what science is telling us, it is quite another to simply dismiss the clear teaching of whole swaths of scripture. If science tells us that the Sun is fixed and the Earth moves, then Joshua 10:12-13 can be given a figurative interpretation to accommodate the fact. It is not as if the purpose of the Book of Joshua is to teach us about the motions of the planets. Not so with Genesis. There the spiritual and scientific information is so bound up together that it is impossible to cleanly separate them. It is hard to believe that either Augustine or Calvin would have been satisfied with Sparks’s view of this issue.
The simple fact is that the Creationists would have felt right at home in nearly every portion of the Christian world right up until the nineteenth century. That the Bible was as reliable on scientific questions as it is on everything else was Christian conventional wisdom until relatively recently. The Catholic Church that tormented Galileo certainly thought the Bible was reliable on those scientific questions it addressed, for example. The common view, certainly supported by Augustine and Calvin, was that science was the servant of religion, and needed to be kept in its place. I find it unlikely that they would have appreciated the complete role reversal typical of modernity.