I would have mentioned in the Relay update entries I did over a year ago that I spent some time on that programme reading around origins. That is, reading about the debate surrounding evolution, the age of the earth, and how to read Genesis (amongst other parts of the Bible). I'm sure I promised some sort of report of my findings. Yeah, well... anyway... here's some thoughts on just one related issue.
You can roughly divide Christians into two camps: those who think that there is a contradiction between what the Bible teaches and some important theory of modern science, and those who think the Bible is basically harmonious with mainstream modern science. I say roughly because there are all sorts of subdivisions to be found. There are Christians who think that the Bible can't accommodate evolution but can accommodate an old earth. There are Christians who agree that the Bible is compatible with both, but disagree on how exactly to interpret the text. But for the sake of avoiding endless qualifications, let's stick with the rough sorting-out and call one camp the Concord group and the other camp the Discord group. Obviously enough, the Discord group thinks Biblical teaching clashes with some orthodox scientific theory whereas the Concord group thinks they are really in agreement.
I'm not, in this post, going to make a case for which group ultimately has it right. It's not my interest here to make a case for whether or not the Bible is compatible with evolutionary/old earth science (E/OES from here on). I am, however, going to criticise a particular argument/attitude put forward by some in the Discord camp. I could make criticisms of some Concord habits too but, as it happens, it's the Discord folk I want to interact with today.
Some Discord-ers are a bit suspicious of how Concord-ers approach the Bible. They observe that Concord-ers are interested in seeing the Bible as compatible with E/OES and it's thought that this “interest” makes for a spiritually or rationally dubious agenda. They think their pro-E/OES motivation, regardless of the conclusion reached, is dubious in principle. It's thought that it disrespects the Bible's integrity or authority, that it fails to treat it as Christian ought to. Describing Concord-ers, you might hear some Discord-ers say things like, “they do not start from the Bible alone, instead they take man's ideas and try to squeeze Scripture around it.” This critical attitude does, I think, have a proper target. But that target is often missed.
If you believe in something like inerrancy – that the Bible does not err but is wholly truthful in its teachings – then it's important to remember that, even if the Bible is always right, it doesn't mean that our understanding of it is. In other words, we can make a distinction between what the Bible in fact teaches, and our beliefs about what it teaches. Sometimes our beliefs about what the Bible teaches are right. Sometimes they're wrong. So while the Bible might be “infallible”, our interpretations of it have no such guarantee, even if on the whole they're broadly reasonable.
Bear that in mind and imagine a person – Rufus we'll call him – who's in the following scenario. Rufus is an honest-to-goodness, Bible-believing Christian. He's been doing some reading and thinking recently about science and how it relates to his faith and he's come to a tricky impasse. Rufus has always believed that the Bible teaches a young earth, mostly because that's what his church has taught him. But he's come to believe there's really compelling, perhaps unavoidable evidence that the earth is old. He really does trust that the Bible teaches truth though. In fact, after having what he thought were contradictions in the Bible satisfyingly ironed out a few months earlier, he's more convinced of inerrancy than ever.
He's in a bind. Unless he wants to embrace flat-out contradiction, his beliefs need some modifying. Recognising the distinction between his belief in the truth of the Bible's content and his belief about what that content is helps us to see that there are three beliefs he's juggling between and they can't all stay. He can't believe 1) that the earth is actually old, 2) that the Bible teaches it's young, and 3) that the Bible teaches truth. For if the earth is old and the Bible teaches truth, then the Bible can't teach that the earth is young. And if the Bible teaches a young earth and the Bible teaches truth, then the earth can't be old. And if the earth is old and the Bible teaches it's young, then the Bible can't always teach truth. You can accept two of the three beliefs together but not all of them. Each combo of two of ends up logically excluding the third. Rufus must give up one of those beliefs.
Naturally, it makes sense to keep the two beliefs one has strongest evidence, grounds, or assurance for. You keep the strongest two and, on their basis, conclude that the third, weaker belief is probably false. Say that in our scenario - and the details that were given make this sound likely - Rufus is very convinced of both the old age of the earth and the inerrancy of the Bible but less convinced that the Bible teaches a young earth (he trusts the teaching of his home-church overall but he's had differences with them before). If this is the case, then he is perfectly entitled to hold onto his belief that the Bible teaches truth and that the earth is old, and to conclude from both of these that the Bible does not teach a young earth. In fact, that would just be good practise for keeping his beliefs in some sensible condition.
In other words, it would be perfectly legitimate for Rufus to seek an alternate reading of the Bible's teaching – one that doesn't entail a young earth – out of the joint motivation of his belief in inerrancy and his belief in the old age of the earth. There is nothing arbitrary, unrighteous or otherwise improper about Rufus' practise here. He is perfectly entitled to try and find an interpretation of the Bible which accommodates the scientific theories he's convinced of.
Of course Rufus might have a friend – we'll call her Molly – who is a Discord-er observing his journey. And she might find the new readings of key passages, say Genesis chapter one, that Rufus brings to the table thoroughly unconvincing. Molly might think that Rufus is, frankly, butchering the text and clearly going against the grain of its intended meaning. She might find his interpretations strained and clumsy, and tell him so. Fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Rufus may have done the best he could have faced with three mutually incompatible beliefs but that doesn't guarantee that he chose to abandon the one that actually was false. Rufus might, through further study, find the evidence for a young-earth reading of the Bible stronger than he thought, warranting a re-examination of which beliefs he held on to. Though he was rationally motivated to read the Bible differently, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll find an E/OES interpretation that fits, and perhaps Concord-ers do run into trouble there.
The point being, it is okay to think, if you are that way convinced, that Concord readings of the Bible are awkward. That they do not do justice to the text. That they quite obviously fail to allow harmony between the Bible and E/OES. You can legitimately target that and point out where you find the interpretations weak. But do not think that in seeking a harmonious reading, the Concord-er is being irrational, or poorly motivated. As I have hopefully demonstrated, it is perfectly proper, in some circumstances – those that Rufus found himself in for instance - to allow your scientific beliefs to motivate a change in your reading of Scripture.