Since religious skepticism started gaining traction critics have been harsh on the Biblical texts and their scientific findings. But are they reading the texts the way the authors intended them to be read?
This is a big one. Even in its dying breaths, New Atheism continues to shout the objection that the Bible largely conflicts with the findings of modern science. “Religion and science aren’t compatible!” so the argument goes. Attempts to align the Bible with modern science have been made from east to west, from young-earth creationism to old-earth. The problem is young-Earthers are accused of denying scientific findings whilst those who hold the old-Earth position are accused of misreading the Bible and forcing it to agree with the evidence. Critics reject either attempt because the former position doesn’t confirm modern science and the latter doesn’t conform with what we know of the Bible. The best the ancients would have had, critics argue, is a guess.
Personally, I’ve jumped back and forth between each position and to be honest I’m still not entirely sure which to adhere to. However, if all the evidence points to an old Earth I will wholeheartedly agree with it and it will not affect my trust in the Biblical texts in the least. Why that is is what I will be looking at here.
When critics argue for the incompatibility of Christianity and science the first piece of evidence is always the beginning of Genesis, so I will place my focus here and thus explain how the Bible is to be read in light of modern science. While it may come as a shock, especially to those who preach a literal form of inerrancy, modern science is not relevant to the Biblical authors. They simply didn’t have the knowledge. However, a scientific journal wasn’t what the authors set out to write.
Reading the Bible, as if it were a scientific journal, is a practice known as Concordism. This is the discipline of reading ancient writings through the eyes of modern science. If this is done we only have two choices. We can either twist an interpretation until it fits the evidence or we can conclude that the Bible is a lie and reject it altogether. Under this guise, I have no qualms with critics choosing to reject the Bible. It shows they value the truth. What I do have an issue with is critics refusing to read the Bible the way the authors originally intended (meaning those living in ancient times). If we refuse to read and understand the Bible through the author’s eyes misreadings will continue to spread. This attempt to introduce a different way to read the Bible has many further applications than refuting a critic’s objections. From personal experience, this reading can introduce entire theological concepts we completely missed because we never took the time to understand the Bible’s context outside of a face value reading.
My source for this reading comes from Old Testament professor John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One. So, if not in the light of modern science, how do we understand passages like the Genesis creation account? Walton offers a proposal that Genesis isn’t a recount of material origins but of functional origins. These functional origins don’t explain how material things were created, rather they tell us how they worked in their respective roles. The creation account is a recount of God setting up functions and functionaries to establish His sovereign order and role on the Earth, thus the ancients weren’t concerned with material creation but the function, order, and purpose of creation.
Perhaps a modern example will better explain how this works. Imagine the creation of a house. The house needs a concrete slab for the flooring, a wooden or steel frame, bricks and mortar to build the walls, and a ceiling. Additionally, the house will need a water supply and a working kitchen. If I were to recount the creation of this house the same way critics do with Genesis, that is as a material account, I would need to explain where the wood, concrete, bricks, and the heat and water came from and how they were made. But there’s something wrong here. We have the materials but we don’t have the function. We don’t have a house, and unless people (or gods) are to benefit from functions, the thing we’re hoping to build doesn’t exist. This is where I would explain how these materials fit into their respective roles in the creation of the house.
The problem can be clearly seen now. The skeptic reads Genesis as a recount of material origins as opposed to functional origins and in doing so misses the entire purpose of the Genesis account and how the readers at that time understood it. If I were to explain to you how my house was built I wouldn’t provide a material account of each part, instead, I would tell you how they work and why they work. The comparison falters a little when compared with Genesis but the point still remains. Days one to three in the creation account set up functions (time, cosmic space (i.e. weather), and terrestrial space), whilst days four to six provide the establishment of functionaries to carry out and live in the pre-established functions (sun, plants, and life). This is why God creates the “day” on the first day and the “sun” on the fourth. The function of time was established first, the sun simply carried it out. Yet if we read it as though it’s a material account this continues to be nonsensical, for how can one have a day without the sun?
Questions of whether the Earth is old or young are irrelevant to the purpose of Genesis. A scientific account of material origins wasn’t its scope, a functional origin account was. Of course, today we see functional origins as a scientific venture, but if we read Genesis with this in mind, it seems less and less like a contradiction and more like an affirmation. What Genesis describes is exactly what we are seeing today. It’s the establishment of purpose that is in mind.
Additionally, in regards to the use of the word “days” in the Genesis account to separate each step, with the concept of functional origins in mind, we can conclude that the “days” were most likely not literal twenty-four hour segments (for again, the sun wasn’t established until the fourth day, so how can we possibly have a day represent a literal twenty-four hour period?). Their use of the word “day” would be similar to the way we use it today to signify a point in time, such as “in the day of the chariot” or “in the day of the written press.” This could signify millions or billions of years if the science so agrees.
Now we can go back to the critic’s argument that the Biblical authors didn’t possess the knowledge we have today. This is true in part, however, contrary to what internet atheists continue to claim, that hardly meant they were foolish. The ancient world had a firm grasp of the senses and they could reliably describe what their senses could perceive. Even today we often don’t see how material objects come into being, we instead focus on how those materials function. This is why we don’t tell people how bricks and steel are made when we describe how our houses were built. That isn’t our focus. Our focus is on what we can physically see and we can see how steel forms the body of the house and how bricks provide the walls. It’s an interpretation of the evidence that’s based on function and even though it may not be scientifically correct (what bricks are made of isn’t called “the wall of a house”) they’re reliable all the same.
Another example we could point to would be the modern phrase “The sun is setting.” This isn’t scientifically correct as the sun doesn’t actually set. A more accurate phrase would be “The Earth is rotating away from the sun,” but we don’t say that. We’re choosing to describe the sun from the vantage point of an “Earth-bound observer.” We find no different scenario when we look at the ancients. Walton further notes that,
“We should not worry about the question of “truth” with regard to the Bible’s use of Old World science. As we mentioned before, some scientific framework needs to be adopted, and all scientific frameworks are dynamic and subject to change. Adoption of the framework of the target audience is most logical. The Old World science found in the Bible would not be considered “wrong” or “false” as much as it would just offer a perspective from a different vantage point. Even today we can consider it true that the sky is blue, that the sun sets and that the moon shines. But we know that these are scientifically misleading statements. Science, however, simply offers one way of viewing the world, and it does not have a corner on truth…. The way any culture describes the makeup of the material cosmos may vary considerably from how another might. A century ago the idea of an expanding universe would have seemed ludicrous, while today the steady-state universe has fallen into disfavour. This is all part of fine-tuning cosmic geography.
“God did not give Israel a revised cosmic geography— he revealed his Creator role through the cosmic geography that they had, because the shape of the material world did not matter. His creative work focused on functions, and therefore he communicated that he was the one who set up the functions and who keeps the operations going, regardless of how we envision the material shape.”
Walton, John H.. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (p. 62). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
This is why one can be ignorant of modern science and still be a reliable observer. This is why my trust of the Bible isn’t affected when we look at scientific facts about the creation of the universe. The only folks who disregard the Bible because of science are staunch fundamentalists who hold to an inerrancy that doesn’t allow human limitations. They argue that God should inspire a Bible that everyone from every culture and vantage point could easily understand, but this would be logistically impossible (see link 1 below). They never stop to look at the possibility of God communicating with the ancients in ways they could understand; nor do they realize we have the capability to understand that message today. Why should God aid the advantaged over the disadvantaged?
Because we’re able to understand the message the objection that God should have hit the ancients with a lightning bolt of knowledge becomes nothing more than an embarrassing admittance of laziness. People who approach Christianity this way most likely have personal gain in mind as opposed to proper discipleship. The starting line should always be a recognition of our condition and a realization of a need humanity cannot provide.
The interpretation of the Bible as a functional account spreads far beyond Genesis. It fits the context of every scientific objection to the Bible I’ve read yet. In addition, Walton notes that it is completely consistent with the literature of the ancient Near East and he provides countless examples in his works (these include his work on Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, to name a few).
In the end, I know what it feels like to realize the Bible may not be as scientifically accurate as we once thought it was. But I questioned the Bible before I ever thought to question my reading of it. No matter how assertive critics may be, remember that that is often their downfall as they will not challenge themselves further than what they want to believe. Many testimonies I have seen from people questioning themselves and their interpretation aren’t atheists anymore. As to the objection, at the very least I hope this article has challenged you to look deeper into the Bible we all so fondly read. Trust me, it’s a journey that’s well worth the effort.
Link 2 (another example of the ancients focusing on function over material).