If you have been following this blog, you may remember My Questions for a Bible School Student. After some illness and class catch-up, the Bible school student (BSS) replied with their obviously long-considered answers. With the student’s “I’m comfortable either way” permission to post the answers, I will do so here, one at a time along with some commentary and response. If you’d like to read just the answers given to me, follow the purple text.
BSS gave me a warm off-the-record preamble about their intentions and desired reaction in the tone and substance of their answers. Thank you.
BSS, I’d like to give a similar forward. When I was your age, I would have answered these questions virtually identically to the way you did. That may sound condescending, but it is not intended as such. I have great anger that my Christian education did not treat me with the respect to paint a full picture of the realities of the Bible text and history. And more than that, I have deep regret that I did not take upon myself to evaluate and question the claims in-depth on my own. Everything I write here are things that I wish someone had said to me at your stage of life, and that I would have had the guts and resolve to investigate fully — to strengthen myself in truth. Truth has nothing to fear from information.
Whatever you may think, I care about you a lot and greatly respect your mind, and so I will do my best to be gentle while trying to challenging you. Forgive me if I miss the mark I am setting. You owe it to yourself to look at your beliefs without the lenses of indoctrination. I’m not sure you can do this in your environment, but I hope that you can. After that, whatever you decide is fine with me, as long as your decisions are fully informed.
For the rest of my readers, you are a fly on the wall… though I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.
Question From Me
Charles Darwin knew nothing of genes and could certainly never have imagined modern gene sequencing technologies. From this data rises phylogenetic trees that perfectly fit every organism on earth based entirely on common genetic characteristics, without reliance on fossils, morphology or vestigial traits. This same data shows sites of ancient endogenous retrovirus attacks across varied species, the equivalent of finding the same hair in the same place on photocopies around the globe. Millions of Catholics and other believers accept this as evidence of a common designer and have integrated the billions of years of evolution into their faith, much like the then-heretical acceptance that the Earth goes around the sun generations ago. Why is it important to assert a literal interpretation of Genesis rather than a figurative one that accommodates new knowledge?
Answer From Student (with my commentary)
“You are completely right in saying that Charles Darwin could have not guessed any of the modern gene sequencing technologies around today. There are many circulating theories as to how the world and live on it came to be, but there is only one that has not changed, and this is the Bible.”
In conversation, it’s common for a typical average person to use “theory” as a synonym for guess or idea… in scientific parlance, this would really be a hypothesis. However, when a scientist talks about a theory they mean an explanatory concept that has reached the highest level of scrutiny, affirmation, and consensus that can be achieved. A scientific theory is more valuable than a scientific law (which are really just observations without exception). A scientific theory has been so rigorously tested that it is virtually synonymous with fact and is used as the basis for all other science. (See Germ Theory, Theory of Gravity, Plate Tectonics, Heliocentrism, etc.) I mention this only because you are using the former usage (hypothesis) of theory, while I am using the latter (most-reliable explanation), so we’re bound to have some miscommunication as a result.
The Theory of Evolution does not actually discuss the origins of the cosmos, our universe or even life. It addresses only the diversity of life on Earth. You are correct in saying that there are many hypotheses being researched in the non-biological fields of cosmology (origin of the universe) and abiogenesis (origin of life). Some have more compelling evidence and explanatory power than others, but all must adapt or be discarded when new information comes to light. This is one of the greatest strengths of the scientific method.
“It must be noted in your question though that there is a great difference between comparing the theory of evolution through ERVs and observable science such as the earth going around the sun, as well as the earth not being flat.”
Heliocentrism, the concept that the Earth goes around the sun, is a scientific theory. It is not directly observed, but is a functioning model that explains all known evidence. The same is true of the Theory of Evolution. In the scientific community, there is no difference at all between them. I’m uncertain as to what “great difference” to which you might refer.
That said, I specifically chose ERVs because there is no requirement to speculate about the past to observe them. You can go out today, take genetic samples from any still-living organism, sequence the genome and observe the ERV attack sites in everything from ferns to frogs to felines to flamingos. The ERV markers are as directly observable as germs under a microscope, air pressure with a barometer, or acidity with a pH meter.
You didn’t mention phylogenetic trees, but I find those to be even more definitive compelling evidence of common descent. Again, it is repeatable science that can be directly observed in present day.
“Where did these ancient endogenous viruses come from? For they too must have had a beginning somewhere.”
As I mentioned, millions of Christ believers accept that the ERVs evolved in a process guided by God from the initial life that the God of the Bible started. Others hold that abiogenesis happened via purely natural processes, but your preference on this is unimportant to my question. For the sake of this one discussion, I’d be willing to concede that God is the original cause that lead to ERVs.
I’m more curious if this question from you is an acknowledgement that common ERV attack sites are found in the DNA of all modern living plants and animals. That’d be some common ground.
“If one were to adapt a figurative reading of Genesis rather than a literal, this completely discredits the creation account, for there is no reason to doubt the writings of Moses on how the heavens and earth were created.”
That you used the phrase “the writings of Moses” bristles me a little bit, and tells me where you are at… in the same place I was in Pentateuch class at my bible school, going along with church tradition rather than scholarship. I would normally say “the writer of Genesis”, but those particular books were written by multiple authors over the course of centuries. I beg you to read “What Did Moses Write?“ at the faith-friendly BibleHub as an introduction to the topic. If you can handle it, perhaps go from there to my post “The Greatest Retcon Ever Told” and learn about the evidence behind the documentary hypothesis. At very least, ask some pointed questions to your professors about the scholarship about the origins of the first five books of the Old Testament.
As for reasons to doubt the Genesis creation stories, the order of creation will be enough for this discussion… the earth first (debris and samples from space are billions of years older than the oldest samples on Earth), light (without a sun), plants (without a sun), the sun and moon, stars (though the light from them would not reach the earth for millions of years), fish and birds (even though birds are the last to appear in the fossil record), land animals and finally humans last (the most believable part). The ordering is the tip of the iceberg for scientific problems in the creation account, but that alone is beyond plenty of reason to at least doubt. It became so for me and began my quest to prove the Bible to be scientifically accurate, leading through unsatisfying rationalizations from non-scientist apologists, to where I am today.
“When approaching Scripture, we must always be careful not to read our own agenda into it to get out of it what we want to say. It must be read for what it is saying, regardless of whether or not we like the answer or it suits our fancy.”
When approaching science, we must always be careful not to read our own agenda into it to get out of it what we want to be true. We must follow whatever the evidence (all of the evidence) is saying, regardless of whether or not we like the answers or it suits our fancy.
“Observable science has never disproved the Bible, it is only the theories that have sought to disprove what Scripture says. In 50 years from now, new theories will be seeking to prove and disprove this and that, whereas the Bible will continue to remain unchanged.”
It is the positive claim that has the burden of proof to support their assertion, it is not up to anyone else to disprove it. (For example, you don’t need to disprove the existence of unicorns. If I said unicorns were real, it would be up to me to prove it.) The Bible needs to prove its positive claims, not wait to be disproven.
As I’ve mentioned, millions of people around the world accept the findings of cosmology, paleontology, geology, genetics and evolutionary biology while still fully placing their faith in the allegorical teachings of Genesis and their salvation to Christ.
Scientists will keep on learning and ruthlessly questioning the ideas of yesterday when new information appears. There is no attempt by science to disprove the Bible. The Bible is irrelevant to Christian scientists and secular scientists alike. It is the study of the material world, regardless of opinion about a non-material world. There is no agenda other than to find truth, no matter what the truth is. If you feel that the best of humanity’s learning contradicts with your beliefs, then you are bringing that bias.
“If I lose my mind tonight, I know that what I say will not change the reality of Scripture. However, if one of these worldly scholars or evolutionists loses his mind, their words will have the power to change the theories, for these are based on man’s wisdom, whereas Scripture is based on God’s wisdom.”
I suspect you are projecting religious authoritarianism onto the realm of science. There is no single scientist (or even group of scientists) who could ever have the power to change a theory or invent ideas. The scientific method is known for peer-review and a requirement for repeatable results. If a German scientist can’t reproduce a Russian scientist’s results, then the community does not accept the initial results, no matter who proposed them. There are no authorities, only evidence.
That is in stark contrast to the Bible. What if, for the sake of argument, Paul the Apostle didn’t actually see Jesus, but was just a man who saw hallucinations. You know from your studies that some in the early church suspected this to be true. Paul has enormous sway over the theology of millions, with no way for anyone to verify or duplicate his claims. All of Christianity is just taking his word.
There’s a saying that goes something like… if every book on earth were destroyed today and every mind erased, eventually mankind would recreate science and it would look nearly identical to today’s because scientific truth is discovered, not invented. However, none of humanity’s religions would survive because they cannot be discovered, only invented… new, unrecognizable religions would take their place.
After a preamble with examples of observable science, my question was, “Why is it important to assert a literal interpretation of Genesis rather than a figurative one that accommodates new knowledge?”
You started by challenging the validity of the science, but with a sweeping denial that suggests you may not be familiar with the claims you are denying. You would not have had to address the science at all in order to answer the question. If the science aspect is of interest to you, you should be able to find some quick secular resources on the claims of the sciences I listed… cosmology, abiogenesis and evolution. It is common debate advice to become as familiar with your opponent’s position as they are. You would be unimpressed with someone unfamiliar with the Bible, but said, “it’s full of errors.” Be able to argue both sides in order to connect with the person you want to convince. If you don’t care about the science, just leave it alone.
Your one phrase that directly addressed my question was, “if one were to adapt a figurative reading of Genesis rather than a literal, this completely discredits the creation account.” I happen to agree with this (more later), but you didn’t explain why that would be bad, in your opinion. That’s what I wanted to learn from you. What theology would be impacted if you treat Genesis 1 – 2 as allegory, as so many Christians do? Why are these Christians wrong, in your opinion?
Instead you continued on with some assertions about the reliability of the Genesis accounts, and a warning to not come to the Bible with preconceptions. From the outside, this is ironic, after you rejected out-of-hand science that doesn’t line up with Bible account preconceptions.
Lastly, you emphasize twice that the unchanging nature of the Bible is superior to the changing nature of science. By this logic, we were better off before we knew about germs. Better off before bicycles, cars and airplanes. Better off with a 1923 encyclopedia than the internet. Of course, you mean to say that the original word was perfect and therefore stands for all time. But we know that this word has been edited many times over many centuries, so is not really unchanging. And what we have does not hold up well to new knowledge, at least not without significant interpretation.
While I do not agree with them, I have great respect for those who harmonize science and faith, like those who run the BioLogos ministry. They have many excellent articles on these topics. Here is one that talks about endogenous viruses in the context of creation. If I had not once held such dogmatic views on scriptural inerrancy, I might still be a Christian of their ilk… for they do not attempt the intellectual dishonesty of denying observable science. That cognitive dissonance was too much for me.
However, I do agree with you, BSS (see Reduction to Allegory). Accepting evolution means rejecting the creation story, and Adam and Eve. Without that, the rest falls apart quickly. I wrote my thoughts on this subject in (Adam)ant Doctrine. I suspect this is what you meant, but that you land on the other side of this fence.
How would you have answered this question? How would you have responded to the answer? Where did I go wrong, or too far, or not far enough? Or miss the point? Let me know in the comments below.
Stay tuned for question #2.