The Bible is not “scientifically accurate”: why that’s good news for Christians

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)

In a previous post, I mentioned Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 as “problem passages” for those whose view of inspiration depends on the Bible being accurate in everything it says (or seems to say) about astronomy, geology, biology, etc.

Joshua 10 claims the sun temporarily stood still during a battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites, while 1 Chronicles 16 describes an immovable earth. On my blog the other day, I wrote that it’s obvious these texts “should be viewed as metaphor, not literal assertion.”

Actually, I got it wrong, as a friend pointed out later.

These texts are not simply metaphor. They’re not merely “the language of appearance,” as sometimes claimed. They’re not the equivalent of modern-day people saying “sunrise” and “sunset” when we know full well the sun doesn’t literally rise and set.

Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 reflect how people in the ancient Near East understood the cosmos.

They really DID think the sun moved and the earth didn’t. “Sunrise” and “sunset” weren’t metaphors to them; that’s what they thought the sun did.

This drawing depicts the cosmology of the ancient Near Eastern world.


The earth was conceived of as a flat disc, surrounded by a primeval ocean. Above the earth was the firmament, a solid dome which held the sun, moon, and stars. Above that, a heavenly ocean.

This is how pretty much everyone, including the writers of the Bible, understood the universe. That’s why the authors of Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 wrote what they did.

It shouldn’t come as surprise that we also find this view of the cosmos in the creation story of Genesis 1.

The primeval ocean shows up as the watery depth over which God’s spirit hovers in Genesis 1:2. A solid “firmament” or “vault” is depicted a few lines later (1:6), holding back the “waters above,” a.k.a. the heavenly ocean (1:7).

In other words, Genesis 1 reflects an ancient cosmology which we all know to be scientifically inaccurate. The earth is not a flat disc surrounded by a primeval ocean. There is no solid dome above us, and there is no heavenly ocean above that.

For young-earth creationists like Ken Ham, to question the scientific accuracy of Genesis 1 is to undermine confidence in the whole Bible. For me, accepting that Genesis reflects an ancient (and scientifically inaccurate) cosmology causes me to love these ancient texts even more.

Why? Because it means God meets us where we are, limitations and all. Speaking in and through the scriptures, he met people of the ancient Near Eastern world where they were. He didn’t let their limited understanding of the universe stop him from revealing himself. He doesn’t let our limited understanding stop him from doing he same for us today.

So, for example, when God revealed himself as creator, he did so in the language of a prescientific world, within the framework of ancient Near Eastern cosmology — flat earth, solid firmament, moving stars, and all. That’s the only way that would have made sense to an ancient Near Eastern person, so that’s how God spoke.

This is sometimes called the incarnational view of scripture. Just as God took on flesh in the form of Jesus — a reality people could see, touch and understand — so God revealed himself in scripture in ways the very first to encounter his revelation could understand.

He doesn’t demand we overcome our limitations first. He did not wait for ancient people to shed their ancient cosmology before he said something about why he made the world.

We’re not so different from the people of the ancient Near East. We have our limitations, our blind spots. We may know the sun doesn’t move across a solid dome of firmament, but we do not know everything there is to know. Not by a long shot.

That doesn’t stop God from revealing himself to us.

Genesis is not a scientifically accurate record of how the universe came into being. It was never meant to be. But that didn’t stop God from telling us something about why the universe came into being.

For me, the latter is a story worth reading.


*A great book on the incarnational view of Scripture is Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns.

Why you might have to choose between science and faith

In the wake of Ham v. Nye, the latest spectacle in the ongoing creation/evolution debate, cooler heads are calling for a rapprochement between science and faith.

Take, for example, Tim Stafford’s impassioned plea on behalf of our children to stop treating the two pursuits as mutually exclusive:

Right now, the way we’re carrying on battles over evolution, many of our children… will shy away from science because it demands that they abandon faith. They will avoid faith because it requires forsaking science. And they will have no idea — in this realm, at least — that it is possible to disagree with someone on the deepest level and yet treat them with respect.

Or take respected scientist (and Christian) Francis Collins, who, during a recent interview with the Huffington Post, argued that science and faith shouldn’t be pitted against each other, because they ask fundamentally different questions. One is preoccupied with how things work, the other asks why.

The cooler heads are saying we can have both. We don’t have to choose between science and faith.

But we might have to put an asterisk to that claim.

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 11.55.44 AM

As much as I’d like to say, “Yes, it can be both!” that’s simply not the reality for many Christians today. In some corners of the church — and perhaps in some corners of the scientific community as well — you are forced to choose. Faith or science. One or the other. Some will cling to their belief in a young earth — scientific evidence be damned. Others, like the North Carolina State University students in Tim Stafford’s piece, will conclude they have no choice but to abandon their childhood faith.

What it really boils down to is the nature of your faith. Depending on what kind of faith you have, you may well have to choose between it and the scientific evidence for evolution.

If your faith is rigid, unyielding, or inflexible, you might have to choose.

If your faith is unable to cope with a constantly changing world, you might have to choose.

If your faith is not open to new discoveries and possibilities, if it views the outside world with a wary eye, then you might have to choose.

If the defining posture of your faith is defensive rather than inquisitive, then you might have to choose.

If your faith forbids you from even considering other ways of reading the Bible, then yes, you may have to choose between science and faith.

You won’t be the first.

Five hundred years ago, believers had to choose between the astronomical discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus and the church’s insistence on a stationary earth, based on a literal reading Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30. (Oh, and it wasn’t just the Catholic Church either; Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin also accused scientists of undermining faith in scripture.)

We all know how that particular episode turned out. The scientists were vindicated, and the church has fought to shake off an anti-science reputation ever since.

To us, it seems obvious that Joshua’s depiction of the sun standing still and the chronicler’s reference to an immovable earth should be viewed as metaphor, not literal (much less scientific) assertion. But it wasn’t so obvious to everyone in the 16th century. Just like it still isn’t obvious to everyone today that Genesis 1 may not be a literal description of how the universe came into existence.

Five hundred years ago, the church had to open itself to other possibilities, to other ways of reading the Bible. It had to accept that maybe we don’t have everything about the Bible figured out, that maybe not everything in scripture was meant to be taken as literal history (which is not the same as saying that none of it can be read historically).

If you build your faith out of a house of cards, then all you have to do is take one card away, and the whole thing comes crashing down. That’s why young-earth creationists like Ken Ham cannot give an inch to science. That’s why they force you to choose between faith — or their version of it — and science. In Ham’s view, to reject a literal, 7-day creation is to undermine the gospel itself. He’s backed himself into a corner, and he has nowhere else to go. So he fights on, evidence be damned.

There’s another way, though.

You don’t have to check your faith at the door in order to see that we don’t know everything there is to know about the Bible, much less the world around us. You don’t have to chuck your Bible out the window to accept that it doesn’t always describe reality in literal, scientific, or historical terms. It’s so much more than a rote depiction of stuff that happened.

You don’t have to fear new discovery. You don’t have to be afraid of exploring the world if you understand that “science is not the only answer” — that it can help us understand how, but it cannot tell us why.

If the God you worship is truly as big as you say he is, then you don’t have to fear that something’s going to jump out from underneath a rock and devour him.

In the end, Tim Stafford and Francis Collins are right, with a caveat. You don’t have to choose between science and faith — depending on what kind of faith you have.

Creation debate recap: Bill Nye invites us to explore the world, Ken Ham does not

[Note: This article is also available on the Huffington Post.]

It’s unlikely anybody’s mind was changed by the creation debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye.

Ham behaved pretty much as expected, largely skirting the scientific argument and framing the debate as one of competing worldviews. He attacked evolutionary theories from 1836, rather than address the current science head on. His diversionary tactics were probably enough to keep the largely sympathetic crowd at the Creation Museum from getting too restless.

For his part, Bill Nye picked away at the logic of young-earth creationism, using the very thing Ham accused evolutionary theory of lacking: observational science. Among other things, Nye highlighted a number of famous trees whose age puts them on the earth long before the cataclysmic flood in Ken Ham’s chronology.

It seemed to me the debate went pretty badly for Ham, especially considering that it took place on his home turf. But then again, I have no problem believing that God is the “ultimate authority,” as Ham puts it, AND that evolution was the means by which God brought the universe into being.

To me, the “age of the earth” debate is fairly straightforward. We know the speed at which light travels. We can calculate the distance between us and other galaxies, including one that’s a whopping 60 million light years away. Which means the image of this galaxy captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 took 60 million years to get here.

Unless you want to argue that God designed the universe to look older than it really is — that is, that God wove dishonesty and deceit into the very fabric of his creation — then it seems to me that young-earth creationism has a big problem on its hands.

The question of human origins is, admittedly, a bit more complex for Christians. But the religious implications of us descending from a bunch of apes are not insurmountable, as Peter Enns demonstrates in his book, The Evolution of Adam. Besides, as Bill Nye pointed out a couple of times during the debate, there are billions of devoutly religious people on this planet who don’t insist on a young earth or a particular view of the origins of the universe.

But what struck me more than anything about the debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye was the very different posture each took toward the pursuit of knowledge and the virtue of curiosity.

More than once, Bill Nye addressed the audience directly, urging them to get out there and explore the universe for themselves. “Let’s keep looking,” he said. “Let’s keep searching.”

If Ken Ham had a recurring catchphrase during the debate, it was, “There’s a book about that, and it already has the answers.”

(For the record, the Bible is not a book about science.)

At one point, Ham and Nye were asked if there was anything that could ever change their minds. Ham’s answer was, in effect, no. Bill Nye, on the other hand, said he needed just one piece of evidence.

One of these two men was there to nurture curiosity. The other was there to stifle it.

One of these two men demonstrated a desire to keep on learning, to be shaped, challenged, and inspired by new discoveries. The other took a more defensive posture, treating scientific exploration with suspicion, hostility, even contempt.

I know which of these two men I want my daughter to emulate — if not with regard to faith, then with regard to intellectual inquiry. I want her to cultivate an insatiable hunger for knowledge, an unrelenting curiosity that propels her out into the world, an inner voice that says, “Come on! There’s more to discover.”

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to attend a Christian college that had made peace with the science of evolution. I remember what our president used to say: “We’ll turn over every rock in search of truth, because we’re confident that nothing’s going to jump out from underneath and eat God. And if something does, we should worship that instead.”

That’s a journey Ken Ham doesn’t want us to go on.

And that’s why Bill Nye won the creation debate. Even though he’s agnostic, it seems to me that he is closer to the creative, fearless, adventurous heart of God than Ken Ham has ever been.

How there’s a better way to read Genesis 1


This post was inspired by a conversation with some friends about a book called The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton.

What if you could read Genesis 1 and utterly miss the point?

What if someone told you Genesis 1 has a lot in common with other (older) creation tales from the ancient world?

What if Genesis 1 reflected ancient cosmology rather than modern science — hence light which appears before stars do and a heavenly vault that separates waters above from waters below?

What if ancient cosmology was more about the purpose of things and less about how they came into being? What if Genesis 1 was more about God bringing order and function to the cosmos than how it came into being?

To put it another way, what if Genesis 1 is about the why of creation rather than the how?

What if Genesis 1 is a really story about things which had no function, purpose, or meaning until God gave them one?

And what if the pinnacle of creation wasn’t reached on day six, when God made people?

What if Rick Warren is right? What if it’s not about us?

What if the people who added chapter breaks to the Bible got the very first chapter division wrong? What if the first few verses of Genesis 2 are actually part of the first creation story?

(Did you know there were two creation stories in Genesis?)

What if day seven, which comes at the start of chapter 2 but is actually part of the first creation story, wasn’t just an afterthought? What if it’s more than a footnote to the other six days? What if day seven is the whole point of the story?

What if God resting is what it’s all about?

And what if “resting” was ancient-world-speak for when a deity took up residence in his temple?

What if God “doesn’t live in temples built by human hands” because he already has a temple — one built with his own hands? What if the reason the scriptures say that God “is not far from any one of us” is because the earth is his temple?

What if Isaiah was right? What if the earth is God’s footstool, his resting place, his dwelling?

What if that’s the point of Genesis 1, that God made a home and invited us to share it with him? What if that’s the real point of the story, not how old the earth is or how it came into being?

What if getting sidetracked by debates over the age of the earth or evolution is more than just a way of embarrassing ourselves in front of scientists? What if we’re missing the whole point of our own story?

What if the whole rest of the Bible is about God reclaiming his cosmic temple so he can take up residence — so he can dwell with us — once again?

What if that’s what he was doing when he carved out a patch of earth to share with the Israelites? What if that’s what the apostle John meant when he said Jesus “became flesh and made his dwelling among us”?

What if that’s what God started doing on a global scale when he sent his Spirit to fill his church?

What if that’s what he’s going to do at the end of the story? What if that’s why the last book of the Bible depicts a holy city — God’s city — coming down to earth?

Do you get the feeling that if we miss the real point of Genesis 1, we could miss so much else?

If we get the beginning of our story wrong, could we get the ending wrong too?

What if this is really what’s at stake in the endless debate over creation and Genesis 1 — not just our scientific credibility (though that’s on the line too) but our ability to embrace the story the Bible actually wants to tell us?

All of which, by the way, is why we need books like this . . .

Lost World of Genesis One

Debating Adam

If you want to get caught up on the historical Adam debate, which has been prompted in part by Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adamhere are some good places to start…

Christianity Today published a balanced summary last year in their feature article “The Search for the Historical Adam.”

Over on the Jesus Creed blog, RJS is going through Enns’ book chapter by chapter, starting here.

While he doesn’t mention Enns by name, Kevin DeYoung has weighed in with “10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam.” Which, in turn, has generated responses from New Testament scholar James McGrath (“Ten Really Bad Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam”) and Oxford don Timothy Law (“Kevin DeYoung’s Misunderstandings”). Enns has also weighed in here.

(Still waiting for the promised review by Albert Mohler.)

The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, a review (part 2 of 2)

So what are we to make of The Evolution of Adam?

There’s no question Enns’ proposals concerning Adam (and Paul’s use of Adam) are controversial for many Christians. They’re not something we should embrace or reject quickly. Books like these often elicit knee-jerk reactions (from both sides) when something more thoughtful is called for.

Like James Dobson did 20 years ago, I’m going to pass on rendering a final verdict. It’s not for me to say what we should make of Adam. Instead, I want to share three takeaways — two positive and one (mildly) critical.

1. Inspiration as incarnation

Some have accused Enns of demonstrating a low view of Scripture and a near-total disregard for its divine inspiration. If Genesis is “wrong” about creation, (I would argue it’s not a matter of Genesis being right or wrong because Genesis doesn’t seek to address scientific reality), and if Paul was “wrong” in some of his assumptions concerning Adam (though not in the point he was using Adam to make, Enns would say), then we are left with an unreliable, uninspired Bible.

But Enns himself never goes there. He repeatedly talks about the Bible’s divine inspiration in ways that should give responsible critics pause before lobbing these rhetorical grenades.

Rather, what Enns does is connect scriptural inspiration to divine incarnation — which, I gather, is the point of his previous book, Inspiration and Incarnation (though I haven’t read it).

God revealing himself in the written word, the logos, is fundamentally an act of incarnation. And incarnation — whether it’s God finding a way to contain infinite divinity within finite humanity or finding a way to reveal infinite truth through finite language — is an act of divine self-limitation. Or divine condescension, if you like.

As Enns writes in the final section of The Evolution of Adam:

Even the expression of deep and ultimate truth does not escape the limitations of the cultures in which that truth is expressed. [God accommodates] himself to the views of the time.

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power…

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather… we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.

According to Enns, the biblical writers’ knowledge of the universe was limited by the time and culture in which they lived. (No doubt our knowledge is similarly limited in ways we don’t fully realize.) Evidently, when God chose to speak into THAT time and culture, he didn’t feel the need to correct every false assumption about cosmology, origins, etc., because he had a much more important story to tell.

The fact that the Bible reflects the cosmological assumptions of its day isn’t a problem for inspiration — unless you attribute to God a compulsion to correct every false assumption people have, much like the overzealous parent who nitpicks a child’s pronunciation just as she’s learning to talk.

Disagree with Enns about Adam if you like, but to accuse him of holding a low view of scripture is, in my opinion, a red herring.

2. Creation as cosmic temple (and a few other things)

Using Genesis 1-2 to wage a scientific battle is like using Van Gogh’s Starry Night to make a point about astronomy. There is little to be gained — and a good deal that will be missed.

For example, when we lay Genesis 1 next to other ancient creation stories like the Enuma Elish, we see more clearly the polemical punch our story packs. Genesis 1 effectively neuters the gods of the ancient pantheon. Sun, moon, and stars are no longer gods themselves, but merely created objects, stripped of their supposed divinity. Genesis 1 rather ingeniously suggests that God doesn’t even need the sun to provide light — he’s more than capable of that himself! Genesis 1 is, at its core, a profoundly subversive text.

Genesis 1 also reveals the true purpose of the cosmos: to serve as God’s dwelling place. We’re so used to thinking of God existing outside of time and space that we have a hard time wrapping our minds around this one.

Enns observes that Genesis 1 follows the pattern of a seven-day liturgical week, which for its original Jewish audience would have brought to mind Sabbath and sanctuary. Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1 and the creation of the tabernacle in Exodus 25-31. And he draws an important contrast between Genesis and the Baal creation myth:

There is no temple in Genesis 1 constructed after creation to celebrate God’s victory over chaos; the created world is his temple.

Which connects nicely to the resolution of the biblical drama in Revelation, where God returns to his cosmic temple once more, this time to dwell among his people forever.

Meanwhile, in Genesis 2, we see a striking parallel to Israel’s story. Both Adam and Israel are “hand-made” by God. Both are given a piece of land to tend on God’s behalf. Both are given a law to govern their relationship to God. Both fail to keep their end of the bargain, and consequently both are subjected to exile — exile and death being nearly synonymous in the Old Testament.

There is so much good stuff to be explored in Genesis 1-2 once we get over our scientific hang-ups. There is deep truth to be found here, if we’d stop trying to make scripture answer questions it has no interest in answering.

If nothing else, the fact that these stories were carefully arranged to make specific theological points should serve as a clue that their writers were not particularly interested in providing a literal, scientific, or purely historical description of events. They would give us so much more — if we would just let them.

3. Death as the last enemy

I do have one criticism of The Evolution of Adam that I’ll share here. On the next-to-last page, Enns writes, “Death is not the enemy to be defeated.” His point is that some of the things we think of as bad (such as death) need to be revisited in light of evolution.

I agree… up to a point. Death in some form seems to be a vital element of creation and not just a foreign entity. Call it “the circle of life.” Or as Rob Bell once said, “Death is the engine of life.” In the plant world, for example, death and decomposition are vital to creating and sustaining new life.

There’s nothing in Genesis to suggest that humans were immortal by nature prior to the fall. In fact, they needed to eat from the tree of life precisely because they weren’t immortal. Death was woven into our DNA from the beginning.

And it’s a good thing too, given the reality of sin. I mean, to live forever in a progressively decaying body, now cursed by sin and sickness — who in their right mind would want that? (Unless, of course, you’d like to end up as Lady Cassandra from Doctor Who.)

Still, in a more ultimate sense, death is an enemy to be defeated. Or as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:

The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

We’re all made to die. The question is whether death will have the last word. And the whole point of the redemptive story — of Christ’s death and resurrection — is so this question can be answered with a definitive, resounding no.

I don’t think Enns would disagree, which is why I characterized this as a mild criticism. In any case, whatever you make of Adam, Enns’ book is one that deserves to be read and considered carefully.

The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns, a review (part 1 of 2)

When I was growing up, I listened to a lot of James Dobson broadcasts. Now, Dobson isn’t known for expressing his views with a great deal of ambiguity. He tends to see most issues in black and white, and he expresses himself clearly.

But I remember one broadcast 20 years ago, where he moderated a debate between a theistic evolutionist and a young-earth creationist. At the end, Dobson declined to render a verdict. He said we ought to leave room for both views.

At the time, I was convinced that creation had taken place over six literal days, roughly 6,000 years ago. For some reason, though, I was glad to hear someone say that how you interpret Genesis shouldn’t be a litmus test for orthodoxy. To this day, I’m still grateful to Dobson for that broadcast.

Since then, I’ve met a number of people whose scientific credentials are far more impressive than mine (which is to say they have some), who accept the theory of evolution, and who are every bit as devoted to Christ as I am.

Like Peter Enns, author of The Evolution of Adam, I’m no scientist. I’ll let others debate the scientific particulars of the universe. I’m more interested the theological or biblical merits of young-earth, six-day creationism. And I’ve come to opinion that there aren’t that many.

Peter Enns approaches the issue of human origins — specifically, the question of Adam’s historicity — from a biblical/theological point of view, rather than a scientific one. Along the way, he questions many widely held assumptions.

Summing up Enns

The Evolution of Adam highlights some of the major problems with a literal reading of Genesis. For example, the fact that it contains two creation accounts which aren’t easily harmonized. Or the fact that Genesis 1 speaks of “days” well before the sun and moon are created on day 4 — which should be a strong hint that the writer is making a theological point rather than a scientific one. And the list goes on.

Again and again, Enns takes us back to the issue of context. Most Christians today accept the Bible has to be read in context, even if we’re not always very good at doing this. But Enns raises the stakes. He wants us to revisit the theological and cultural context of Genesis 1-2. He wants us to think about how these stories came into being — and why.

Enns notes the many parallels between Genesis 1-2 and other creation stories, like the Enuma Elish (Assyrian) and Atrahasis (Babylonian). He argues that these myths predate the Genesis narrative, though the relationship between them is complex — not a simple matter of drawing a causal line from one to the other.  If he’s right, this has profound implications for how we understand the theologicalpurpose of Genesis 1-2. The biblical creation stories may be, in part, a polemical response to Israel’s conquerors (Assyria and Babylon). In their final form, they are Israel’s attempt to make sense of its own story, in light of the exile. Enns writes:

The Genesis creation narrative we have in our Bibles today, although surely rooted in much older material, was shaped as a theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile. These stories were not written to speak of ‘origins’ as we might think of them today (in a natural-science sense). They were written to say something of God and Israel’s place in the world as God’s chosen people.

But Enns has bigger primordial fish to fry. Namely, what do we do about Adam? This might not be much of an issue, if it weren’t for Paul. After Genesis 1-4, Adam disappears from the Old Testament record almost entirely. The idea of Adam as the originator of universal sin and death is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

So why does Paul say in Romans 5, “Just as sin entered through one man [Adam], and death through sin”? Enns devotes the entire second half of The Evolution of Adam to this question.

Enns’ argument rests, in part, on Paul’s use of the Old Testament — which is creative to say the least. If you have a reference Bible, try looking up some of the Old Testament passages mentioned in the New Testament. You’ll notice how time and again, Paul radically reinterprets the Old Testament to suit his purpose.

It’s often argued this was Paul’s prerogative, since he was writing inspired scripture. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that Paul wasn’t the only one to use the Old Testament this way. He is part of a much larger rabbinic tradition that did this sort of thing all the time.

According to Enns, Paul’s just doing what his people have always done: “reworking the past to speak to the present.” This is what the authors/editors/compilers of 1-2 Chronicles did, for example, retelling Israel’s story from a post-exilic vantage point. It’s what rabbinic scholars started doing with the rest of the Old Testament in the period leading up to Christ.

What makes Paul unique is that he reinterprets everything in light of Jesus’ resurrection — which (unlike Adam) was recent history for Paul, having occurred just 25 years before he wrote Romans.

For Enns, the loss of a historical Adam doesn’t in any way diminish the truth of Paul’s main point in Romans 5:

Even without a first man, death and sin are still the universal realities that mark the human condition… The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam.

Enns also warns that by getting hung up on one detail of Paul’s argument (Adam), we risk losing sight of Paul’s larger purpose for writing his letter to the Romans:

Paul’s goal is to show that what binds these two utterly distinct groups [Jew and Gentile] together is their equal participation in a universal humanity marked by sin and death and their shared need of the same universally offered redemption.

For Enns, then, the fact that we are in this plight of universal sin and death is more important than how we got there. And Jesus as the answer to our plight is far more important than the idea of Adam as the literal, historical originator of our plight. Jesus and Adam, Enns writes, are not “characters of equal historical standing.” Christ is the one through whom all of history must be reinterpreted and reimagined.

Or as C.S. Lewis once wrote, Christ is the one through whom “this great myth became Fact.”

A line in the sand?

I’ve been sharing a number of preliminary thoughts before I get around to reviewing Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, partly to buy some time so I can actually finish reading it. (One more chapter to go.)

In the meantime, here are some good reviews by Kurt Willems and Rachel Held Evans.

I said in an earlier post that The Evolution of Adam is not so much a book about creation vs. evolution as it is about big, foundational questions like: What kind of book do we think the Bible is?

But there’s another “question behind the question,” the importance of which can’t be overstated: What do you have to believe in order to be a “Christian”?

Ken Ham, president of the young-earth advocacy group Answers in Genesis, threw down the gauntlet, charging Enns with heresy and willful disbelief. Elsewhere he called The Evolution of Adam a “heretical book” and accused Enns’ publisher (a respected evangelical book company) of sowing “the seeds of doubt leading to unbelief.”

For Ham (and others), it’s quite simple. If you believe in evolution and/or if you believe the account of Adam and Eve is something other than exact, literal history, then you cannot be a Christian.

Now, I’ve long been uneasy with efforts to equate Christianity with a set of propositional statements which must be affirmed or denied, as if faith is best expressed in the form of a doctrinal checklist. This is reductionist Christianity. It bears little resemblance to the Christianity of the gospels or of James or of, well, pretty much the whole New Testament.

Emerging church types have been deconstructing this form of Christianity for several years, and they are right to do so.

At the same time, Christianity still involves believing something about something. Several years ago, Mike Wittmer wrote a book called Don’t Stop Believing, which is largely a critique of the “how you live matters more than what you believe” point of view. I don’t agree with everything he wrote, but I affirm the basic premise: it matters that we believe something about Jesus.

Emergent types rightly ask what good it is to believe in the resurrection, for example, if it doesn’t compel you to bring new life wherever you can. But it’s equally fair to ask: what good is bringing new life wherever you can if you don’t believe in the resurrection?

I would say that what has to be believed is the core Christian story. That is, what Paul defined as the “gospel” in passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-7. It’s story of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s story — which, it turns out, is God’s plan for rescuing the whole of humanity from sin and death.

This is the story that churches like mine affirm every Sunday when we celebrate the Eucharist with these words:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

It’s the story the church fathers sought to encapsulate in our earliest creeds, such as the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.

If someone believes and seeks to put these words into practice, they have the right to call themselves a Christian. It doesn’t matter how they vote. It doesn’t matter what they believe about evolution or Genesis or Adam.

“But what about the slippery slope?” some will ask.

Answers in Genesis argues that even the slightest tolerance of any view of creation other than theirs will open “a door of compromise that will inevitably be pushed open further.”

If we reinterpret Genesis, they argue (without acknowledging that many of us would dispute the term reinterpret), we will inevitably reinterpret other teachings of Scripture, “such as the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ.”

To those who question the validity of the slippery-slope argument, they say, in effect, “I told you so”:

Well, that door of compromise has now been opened to such an extent that the gospel itself is under attack.

It’s fine to worry about a slippery slope. It’s always a good idea to check ourselves, to ask if we’re just trying to be clever or if we’re sincerely trying to understand the Bible as best we can.

But remember, as Pete Enns and N.T. Wright reminds us in this video: the slippery slope runs both ways.

Innovation for its own sake has a slippery slope that, if not guarded against, can lead farther away from authentic Christianity — without even realizing it.

But I would argue that Ham and others are headed down a slippery slope in the other direction — one that leads to a reductionist Christianity. One that misses the real point of Genesis and the story that follows.

Theirs is a belief system that emphasizes the how of creation more than the who or the why of creation (the latter two being what Genesis 1 and 2 are actually trying to tell us).

The draw a line around questions the Bible doesn’t even seek to answer.* And they go careening down a slippery slope of their own making, further and further away from the real gospel story.


*It’s worth noting there are many young-earth, six-day creationists who don’t draw a nonnegotiable line around this issue. They may feel strongly (and argue strongly) that Genesis 1-2 demands to be read literally, but to their credit, they don’t reject other Christians who see it differently.

Science vs. Scripture (or, history repeats itself)

There was a time when scientists made a series of discoveries that revolutionized our understanding of the world around us. They began proposing new theories to explain these groundbreaking observations.

Not everyone was happy about it.

Many in the church felt threatened by the new scientific consensus, which undermined confidence in Scripture (so it was thought), because it contradicted some of what Scripture seemed to say about the universe.

So the church rejected these new theories as “godless,” even though many scientists (though by no means all) professed a deep and abiding faith in God.

Church leaders expended vast resources trying to discredit the new science. They accused scientists of being hostile toward religion and discouraged the faithful from reading any of their books.

“Science or Scripture,” the church seemed to say. “You have to choose.”

For some, this might sum up the present-day creation-versus-evolution debate. But it also describes a scene from our more distant past.

Over 500 years ago, science began questioning the geocentric view of the universe, which said the earth is fixed and everything else revolves around it.

Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo. These were the scientific trailblazers who brought geocentrism crashing down. The church fought them tooth and nail because it feared that without a geocentric universe, the Bible would come crashing down as well.

After all, Joshua 10 described the sun, not the earth, standing still during a battle between Israel and the Amorites. 1 Chronicles 16:30 said the earth “cannot be moved.” (And the list goes on.)

The new science, heliocentrism, was regarded as a threat to faith. It had to be stopped.

In fact, opposition to it was one of relatively few areas of common ground between Catholics and Protestants (who, generally, were still trying to kill one another).

On one side, Rome forced Galileo to recant his scientific theories (under threat of torture) and sentenced him to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Books by Galileo and Kepler were banned by the pope — for over 200 years in some cases.

Sixteenth-century Protestants took by and large the same view as their Catholic counterparts. John Calvin wrote that “the earth… is placed in the center [of the universe].” It is “unmoved,” because God himself made it that way.

Calvin may not have been acquainted with Copernicus’ theory, but Martin Luther was. And he didn’t like it any better. In a conversation with a student of Copernicus, Luther reportedly said:

But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must agree with nothing else others esteem. He must invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! That fellow [Copernicus] wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.

Luther’s disciple Philip Melanchthon went even further, suggesting governments should punish anyone who advocated the new science.

It took many years for the church to come to terms with heliocentrism. But eventually it did, largely because it had no other choice in the face of overwhelming evidence.

None of the contentious passages in Scripture (Joshua 10, Psalm 104:5, 1 Chronicles 16:30, etc.) disappeared from the Bible. But they came to be read in a new light — not as scientific or literal descriptions of reality, but as something else.

Some would argue that we find ourselves in a similar situation today. Only now with evolution as the church’s Waterloo moment instead of geocentrism.

But we don’t have to fight this battle.

Science can’t answer questions of ultimate origin (i.e. God), and the Bible doesn’t seek to answer questions of science. To make it do so is to turn it into something it’s not. It’s making the Bible what we want it to be, rather than letting it speak for itself.

Five hundred years from now, I wonder if our descendants will look back on the Al Mohlers and Ken Hams of our world in the same way that most of us look back on the 16th-century church’s opposition to heliocentrism.

By waging a battle with science, Ken Ham and others are taking a page from a very old script. They are repeating history. (You might even say they’re refusing to evolve.)

Worse, by forcing people to make a false choice between science and faith, they’re inadvertently pushing people away from faith — people who conclude that science and faith are irreconcilable, that the evidence for evolution (for example, the Human Genome Project) is compelling, and that Christianity therefore is not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The church came out its last tiff with science a bit bruised, but otherwise intact. Faith didn’t come crashing down. The Bible didn’t stop being God’s inspired word just because people realized it may not be an inspired word about science.

If the church continues to pick an unnecessary fight with science, it will end as the last one did. And it will be a self-inflicted wound.

Rethinking Adam? (part 2)

I’m sure Pete Enns knew what he was getting into when he published The Evolution of Adam last month. As Scot McKnight said in his endorsement, this is a guy who’s earned his “battle scars.” (Enns was let go from Westminster Theological Seminary for his previous book, Inspiration and Incarnation.) 

Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler has already promised a response to Enns’ book. (I gather there’s not much chance of him endorsing it.) Ken Ham, president of the young-earth advocacy group Answers in Genesis, beat Mohler to the punch with a scathing review in which he accuses Enns (and his publisher) of heresy. Citing 2 Peter 3:5, Ham charges that Enns is “willfully ignorant.” (Though speaking of willful ignorance, it should be noted that 2 Peter 3:5 is a rebuke to those who deny the second coming of Christ, not those who question how God brought the universe into being. Context matters.)

There’s a reason The Evolution of Adam is generating a lot of heat. It’s not so much a book about evolution and creation, or science and the Bible, as it is about this foundational question:

What kind of book do we think the Bible is?

For many believers, questioning the “traditional” view of creation (Enns will argue it’s not as traditional as we think) is to question our view of the whole Bible, its divine inspiration, and its very reliability.

A friend of mine framed the discussion like this: do we let the “science story” drive our reading of the Bible, or the other way around?

It’s a fair question. But is it the right one?

Most evangelicals accept the Bible is not a scientific textbook. Still, it’s commonly argued that Scripture, to the extent it addresses natural phenomena, is scientifically accurate.

But what if the Bible depicts a flat, motionless earth? What if its human writers held pretty much the same cosmology as everyone else in the ancient Near East — namely, that the earth is a flat, circular disc covered by a dome of sky, the whole thing surrounded by water? What if the Bible assumes the sun rotates around the earth?

In fact, this is precisely how the biblical writers understood the cosmos. Exhibit A: two articles by Paul Seely, published in the Westminster Theological Journal (hardly a bastion of liberalism). One is The Geographical Meaning of “Earth” and “Seas” in Genesis 1:10, and the other is The Firmament and the Water Above.

Or you could just read passages like Daniel 4:10, which describe a large tree that is “visible to the ends of the earth.” Even as hyperbole, this statement doesn’t make any sense if the author understood the earth is a sphere. Or how about Psalm 104:5, which speaks of an immovable earth?

Or what about the day “the sun stood still” in Joshua 10?

When science began to question geocentric cosmology in the 16th century, the Church saw it as an assault on the integrity of the Bible. Galileo was put under house arrest. Kepler’s books were banned.

Even today, you can find flat-earthers and fixed-earthers who say they’re just being faithful to the Bible — to a literal reading of the Bible, that is. They maintain we shouldn’t let science (“so-called science,” they might say) shape our reading of holy Scripture.

Following a period of painful adjustment, however, the vast majority of Christians came to accept what science was telling us — namely, the earth is a sphere that rotates around the sun, not the other way around.

Ask a believer today how they reconcile Joshua’s claim that “the sun stood still” with scientific fact, and they might tell you the Bible is speaking idiomatically about God’s intervention on Israel’s behalf. Or that it was simply putting things in language that made sense to an ancient audience. Most would accept that whatever else Joshua 10 means, it’s not trying to make a scientific point.

To which I say: EXACTLY.

Given that the biblical writers held the same cosmology as everyone else in the ancient world, if we were to submit their descriptions of the earth to scientific scrutiny, we would be forced to conclude they got some things wrong.

But if they weren’t trying to make a scientific point, then it’s no use judging the merit or the inspiration of what they wrote on the basis of its scientific accuracy.

To ask which story — science or the Bible’s — ought to drive our worldview is asking the wrong question, because they are two different stories about two different things.

So as we turn to the issue of Adam and the origins of the universe, the million-dollar question is this: if we accept that passages like Joshua 10 and Psalm 104 should not be read scientifically (even though it took a couple hundred years for us to get there), why should we insist on a scientific reading of Genesis 1?