In my recent post on Interpreting Genesis, one of the commenters suggested to me the writing of Denis Lamoureux as a good example of defending a non-literal interpretation of Genesis. A quick visit to Amazon revealed that his big book on this subject, Evolutionary Creation, was over four hundred pages long and was quite expensive. Happily, last year Lamoureux, who is a professor of science and religion at the University of Alberta and holds doctoral degrees in dentistry, theology and biology, published a Cliff’s Notes version of his book called I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution. I purchased a copy and have now read it.
Short Review: I don’t think I’ll be reading the longer version. Lamoureux’s arguments are very unconvincing.
Longer review below the fold.
Lamoureux’s main argument is this: Scientific concordism, in which the text of the Bible is interpreted in a way that renders it consistent with modern science, is a failure as an exegetical strategy. The Bible absolutely does contain false statements about science. This is so because God accommodated himself to the best scientific understanding of the people at the time. His intent was to communicate timeless spiritual truths, not scientific truths.
I need to stress at this point that Lamoureux is not any kind of theological liberal. He is a hard-core evangelical Christian. If you are familiar with evangelical writing generally you will recognize many of the standard tropes. For example, he is endlessly attributing various turning points in his life to the actions of the Holy Spirit within him, and he routinely refers to his “brothers and sisters in Christ.” He believes in a literal heaven and hell. He objects to the term “theistic evolution” because the theistic part is then just an adjective that modifies evolution. He prefers “evolutionary creation” which gets the priorities right.
There is much to admire in Lamoureux’s book. He gives a nice summary of some of the evidence for an old Earth and for common descent. Nothing new, but always appreciated.
He is also very convincing in arguing that concordism fails. For example, he points out that people at the time held to a three-tier view of the universe, in which the heavens were located above the Earth (which was flat and covered with a dome), which in turn was located above the Underworld. There are many verses most naturally interpreted within this framework.
Furthermore, when the New Testament writers referred back to events in the Old Testament, they did so in ways that make it clear they viewed Genesis as literal history. They were wrong to think that, however, according to Lamoureux.
Lamoureux is also completely forthright that his approach to the Bible is quite a departure from the dominant views in the Church both today and throughout history. That is a pleasant change from those who imply that everyone used to be moderate and open-minded in their approach to the Bible, until those demented YEC’s arrived on the scene in the twentieth century. In fact, he is even gloomier than I am on this point. He routinely talks about how “most” Christians have serious problems with evolution and with the idea that Genesis is not literal history. That seems like an overstatement to me, but I think he is referring specifically to evangelical Christians when he says that.
Now for the bad news. I reject Lamoureux’s argument for two reasons. First, I think it fails on its own terms. That is, I do not find the notion of accommodation to be a plausible explanation for the manifold scientific errors of the Bible. Second, there is a simpler explanation for why the Bible contains so many statements that are indicative of a pre-scientific understanding of the universe. Do I really need to spell it out?
As I discussed in my previous post there is a difference between simplification and fabrication. I can understand God needing to simplify certain aspects of his creative process to make them comprehensible to a pre-scientific audience. But I can not understand him saying things that are utterly false.
For example, here is Mark 4:30-32:
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; yet it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
Here is Lamoureux’s discussion:
As everyone knows, the mustard seed is not “the smallest of all seeds on the earth.” Orchid seeds are much smaller, to cite just one example. Yet perceived through the eyes of ancient people in the Lord’s day, mustard seeds were the smallest seeds. That is, from their point of view, or better, from their ancient phenomenological perspective…this was a scientific fact for them. Of course, most Christians understand that Jesus’ purpose in the parable is not to teach botany. Rather he uses the science-of-the-day in order to reveal an inerrant prophecy about the kingdom of God. In other words, the Lord descended and accommodated to the level of His ancient listeners.
The problem here is the specificity of what Jesus said. He could have described the mustard seed as among the smallest seeds in the world, or he could have described it simply as a very small seed. Would his spiritual point have been harmed in the slightest by such a phrasing? Would his ancient listeners have then missed the point, lost in the minutiae of why Jesus described the mustard seed in such cagey terms? Instead, Jesus explicitly identifies the mustard seed as the smallest seed on Earth. This is strange, since His point was easily made without such a blatantly false statement.
That example by itself is small, but it illustrates the main problem with Lamoureux’s argument. As another example, consider his discussion of day four of Creation Week:
The purpose of the fourth creation day is to reveal a radical theological message to the ancient world. It is a polemic (a cutting critique) against pagan astral religion. Most people at that time believed that the sun, moon and stars were gods. But the biblical author, through the Holy Spirit, strips these astronomical bodies of their divine status and makes them mere creations of the Hebrew god. Even more radically, the Scripture throws these so-called “gods” into servitude! Instead of men and women serving the heavenly bodies as demanded by astrological religions, the inspired writer states that the sun, moon and stars were created to serve humanity. In other words the Bible puts the heavenly bodies in their proper place. They have value because they are God’s good creations, but they are definitely not gods worth of worship.
That is all a good argument for why God would stress that he created the sun, moon and stars, and that he created them for human ends. But it does not explain why God said he created these celestial objects after already creating plants on day three. Nor does it tell us why he felt obliged to embed his acts of creation within a time frame that is off by many orders of magnitude.
Lamoureux’s argument becomes even more implausible when you consider the harm that God’s accommodations have done. If Lamoureux is right then countless generations of Christians have been led completely astray by reading the Bible. Many Christians have been driven away from science altogether because of their understanding of Scripture. From the other side many have been driven away from the Bible because of the numerous, obvious, errors it contains. God surely knew this would be the result of his accommodations. Am I really to believe he could not find a way to make himself understood without trodding a path that would drive countless people in terribly wrong directions? Doesn’t seem reasonable.
For that matter, if God were accommodating why does He not make it clear in the text that that is what he is doing? Where are the exhortations to study nature or to investigate the properties of his creation in an orderly way? Why not simply preface his scientific statements with something like, “Let me put this in terms you will understand…”? Again, the harm done by God’s accommodations, in the form of Christians driven away from science and non-Christians driven away from the Bible, is enormous.
Which brings me to my second objection. Lamoureux’s view of the Bible is like arguing that the reason we don’t see elephants hiding in trees is that they are very skillful at hiding. The numerous scientific errors and indications of a pre-scientific understanding of the world could all be evidence of God’s gracious condescension to our level. On the other hand, it could also be evidence that the Bible is a purely human production. I think Lamoureux, in looking for zebras, has missed some very obvious horses.
Those are my main problems with his central argument, but to make this a proper review I really need to take note of some of the large number of outright factual errors in the book. Lamoureux writes:
Another serious difficulty with dysteleological evolution is that it is a personal commitment to the belief that truth is only found through scientific investigation. This view of knowledge is known as positivism and reductionism.
But positivism and reductionism are not at all the same thing, and both are different from scientism, which is the view described in the first sentence. And “dysteleogical evolution” (by which Lamoureux means a view of evolution that does not regard human beings as inevitable) does not entail any of those three philosophical views.
Elsewhere Lamoureux writes:
Darwin’s position in 1859 is proof that the origins dichotomy is a false dichotomy. He believed in both God and evolution. In fact only a few years before his death in 1882, he openly admitted, “I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of God.”
Darwin, of course, was famously agnostic in his later years. And the idea that his opinion on the question of evolution and religion is in some way definitive is a level of Darwin worship that even I am not prepared to attain.
I could list many other such examples, but I would rather close with a different consideration. You see, Lamoureux is in the habit of writing things like this:
Scripture calls those who do not acknowledge the Creator fools. Twice in the Psalms it is written, “The fool says in his heart,`There is no God’” The Proverbs also state that “fools hate knowledge” and that “fools mock at making amends for sin.” Atheistic evolutionists reject the existence of God, construct a worldview without reference to Him, and dismiss sin as irrelevant. In light of God’s word, dysteleological evolution is the origins position of fools.
This comes not long after Lamoureux made a plea for respect among defenders of different views of origins. And no, I am not mollified by his footnote that says, among other things, “I make no apology for what the Bible clearly states — atheists are fools.” Lamoureux goes on to explain that the Biblical notion of being a fool does not relate to stupidity, but has to with our sinfulness making us blind to the religious realities lying behind scientific data.
This got me thinking about ye olde accommodationism debate again. We vocal atheist types are routinely lectured about not criticizing theistic evolutions (or evolutionary creationists). It hurts the cause, you see. They are allies in the fight against creationism, and that is what matters.
Lamoureux may be an ally in the fight against creationism, but he certainly is no friend to reason or rationality. How respectful can I be towards someone who says I am a fool, and that he knows this because an ancient book tells him that I am? How much do I really have in common with a man who walls off certain beliefs from rational consideration and describes them as nonnegotiable, as Lamoureux boasts of doing with his Christianity? Am I really expected not to scoff at the argument, offered by Lamoureux, that we can be certain that the Bible was never intended to teach us science because so much of what it says about science is false?
A world in which most people think like Lamoureux would, at best, be a very marginal improvement over a world of Young-Earth Creationists.