The theories discussed in the preceding two chapters—the Big Bang model of cosmology and the biological theory of evolution—have occasioned passionate and sometimes rancorous disagreements in the church. Christians who reject mainstream scientific theories, like young-Earth creationist Ken Ham, are accused by other Christians of being ignorant and narrow-minded. Christians who accept the prevailing theories of cosmology or biology, on the other hand, are seen as heretics sliding down a slippery slope toward atheism. I’ve heard people say that sincere followers of Christ can’t possibly believe in evolution or the Big Bang, implying that Christians like astronomer Jennifer Wiseman (who accepts Big Bang cosmology) and geneticist Francis Collins (who accepts the theory of evolution) aren’t genuine Christians at all.
The root of these disagreements isn’t hard to identify. The opening chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1 and 2, describe how God created the world and its inhabitants. The prevailing scientific theories tell another story about the origin of the universe and biological life, a story that seems to contradict the biblical account. Christians have differing opinions on how to resolve this apparent conflict between science and scripture. Some Christians reject mainstream science and try to interpret the scientific evidence in a way that makes it compatible with their understanding of the Bible. Others reexamine the biblical account of creation and try to understand it in light of the scientific evidence. Neither strategy provides a simple solution. On the one hand, the scientific evidence is complicated. On the other hand, the creation story is intricate. Close examination of the biblical text raises difficult questions, and Christians already held a diverse range of opinions about its meaning long before the rise of modern science. No wonder we disagree on these issues today!
More than a thousand years before the scientific revolution, a wise church leader named Aurelius Augustinus—better known today as Saint Augustine—wrote an insightful commentary on Genesis. (He wrote many other books too; indeed, Augustine is perhaps the most influential writer in the history of Christianity, aside from the authors of the New Testament.) His commentary, titled On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, warns his fellow Christians not to confuse their own fallible understanding of scripture with the infallible word of God. His advice is worth quoting at length:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.St. Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, book V, chapter 2, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 41.
Sadly, the church has not always followed Augustine’s advice. Today, especially, we find Christians on all sides of the creation controversy “battling not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for their own.” As a result, the supposed conflict between science and the biblical creation story has been a stumbling block for many Christians and a barrier to faith for many non-Christians. Augustine recognized the latter problem even in his own day, when Aristotelian philosophy was the prevailing “science.” Shortly after the passage quoted above, he continues:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for [a non-Christian] to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”St. Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, book V, chapter 2, trans. John Hammond Taylor (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 42-43.
Augustine recognized our prideful tendency to assume that our own interpretations of scripture are always correct, even when scientific evidence suggests that we’ve misunderstood something. Those foolish scientists must be mistaken, right? Surely we’ve made no error ourselves! As Augustine points out, the harm caused by such pridefulness goes beyond mere embarrassment to the church: it gives unbelievers the impression that the Bible is full of falsehoods, when in fact our own errors are the source of any “utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements” we claim to have learned from scripture.
Truths learned by scientific investigation will always accord with the truth of God’s word. If we find an apparent conflict between science and the Bible, we have made a mistake either in science or in our understanding of scripture. Scientists do make mistakes, of course, and the history of science is rife with refuted theories that were once widely accepted; but Christians make mistakes just as often. We should be careful to consider our own shortcomings, especially when lost souls are on the line.
In this chapter, we’ll examine the biblical account of creation and consider numerous ways in which Christians have interpreted it. We’ll also consider various approaches Bible-believing Christians have taken to reconcile their beliefs about science with their belief in the truth and authority of Holy Scripture. I will share my own opinions on these matters, but my aim is not to convince anyone that my personal views are correct. I think my beliefs are true, of course (otherwise I wouldn’t believe them), but I recognize that I might be wrong. Even if I’m right, I have a more important aim than merely persuading others to agree with me. By providing an overview of some popular Christian perspectives (and some unpopular ones too), I hope to promote greater understanding and fruitful dialogue between Christians who hold opposing views on these issues. Whether you agree with my views or not, therefore, I implore you to consider how we—as diverse members of the body of Christ—can accept one another with open hearts and humble minds while remaining steadfast in the truth of God’s word (Romans 12:3-5, 15:1-7).