Faith, Science & Genesis One

mountain and lavaVery few topics within American Christianity have been so fiercely debated over the past hundred years as the way in which one views the first chapter of Genesis. When discussing the origins of the universe it is assumed that faith and science are at odds with each other. This paper will seek to harmonize faith and science by first defining those terms before looking at lessons learned throughout history. After drawing upon the ancient church fathers, a hermeneutical method based upon the incarnation of the Creator God will be proposed as a way to read the Scriptures, most notably Genesis chapter one.

Words have difference meanings depending on the usage of the word and the person using them. When people say that “faith” and “science” are in conflict, they are typically refereeing to one aspect of the words while ignoring their other definitions. The word “faith” for example could refer to a “system of religious beliefs” just as it could mean the “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” [1] The same could be said of the definition of “science” with that word meaning a “state of knowing” as “as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding” or a “system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.”[2] People who see a conflict between faith and science tend to focus on the latter definition of both faith and science while ignoring or dismissing the former definition of faith.

This confusion about the definition of the two words can be readily seen in how one reads Genesis chapter one. Those who hold tightly to the latter definition of science tend to be very skeptical about the manner in which the Scriptures record the origins of the universe as the record does not fit within the modern scientific model of creation. Within American Christianity, this view is promoted by liberal Protestant theology which has embraced modernity and its focus on science to describe the world rather than a reliance on the supernatural.[3] Protestant fundamentalism represents the other side of the conflict with a literalistic hermeneutic that considered six-day creationism as core to the Christian faith.[4]

st_augustine_of_hippo-icoinWhat is largely forgotten by participants of this conflict is that they are not the first ones to have debated the method of how to read the Scriptures. The church fathers of the first seven hundred years of Christianity readily “expected to find layers of meaning within a biblical text” which lead them to embrace multiple hermeneutic methods ranging from grammatical-historical to typological to allegorical.[5] This allowed St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) to embrace an allegorical understanding of Genesis chapter one while concluding that it was acceptable if other people understood the Scriptures differently.[6] It must be noted that part of the reason that St. Augustine used an allegorical hermeneutic method when reading Genesis chapter one was because of the skepticism he and others had towards the way the origins of the universe were described in Genesis.[7]  He, similar to some today, preferred to let the scientists of his time describe the origins of the universe rather than staying with a literalistic hermeneutic.

The one hermeneutic principle the church fathers all agreed upon, however, is that the Scriptures must be read “through the prism of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.”[8] The incarnation in particular is very important when learning how the Creator God speaks to his people. Rather than speaking outside of human culture, God choose to enter into history by taking on the flesh of humanity and enter into the 1st century Jewish-Roman culture. This deliberate choice to speak in and through culture and history rather than above or in lieu of culture and history creates an incarnational hermeneutic that will help bridge the divide between faith and science.

Incarnational hermeneutics recognizes that the Scriptures, as Peter Gomes once wrote, is “not a book of science and cannot, in light of modern science, be made to perform like one.”[9] Rather, the “purpose of the Bible is to teach not science but theology, to reveal God and His will to us” as the Eastern Orthodox Church states.[10] Accordingly the Scriptures should be understood as containing glimpses into the scientific understand of the culture during which it was written. This does not diminish or lessen the value of the Scriptures; rather it allows them to speak more clearly without being chained to the “current scientific consensus, which would mean that it would neither correspond to last century’s scientific consensus nor to that which may develop in the next century.”[11] Incarnational hermeneutics also allows science to test and retest new ideas about the origins of the universe without being bound to the ancient cosmology presented in the first chapter of Genesis.

Rather than being in conflict with each other, science and faith are bedfellows who tell different stories to their listeners. Science, as noted by Dr. Francis Collins, is the “only legitimate way to investigate the natural world” while faith “provides another way of finding truth” in answering the questions of the “meaning of human existence, the reality of God, and the possibility of an afterlife.”[12] Not only can a follower of Jesus fully embrace faith in the supernatural, they can also embrace science as a way of exploring the natural world. This blend of faith and science can provide new ways of understanding the Scripture and life that brings to light the amazing hand of a Creator God who deeply cares for all of humanity.

Bibliography

End Notes
[1] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “Faith.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/faith [accessed April 16, 2016]
[2] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v. “Science.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/science [accessed April 16, 2016]
[3] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999),  539
[4] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology, 554-556
[5] Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 132-133.
[6] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 295-296.
[7] Collins, Francis S. The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 156-157.
[8] Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture With The Church Fathers, 192.
[9] Gomes, Peter J. The Good Book: Reading The Bible With Mind and Heart (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1996), 319.
[10] Coniaris, Anthony M. Introducing the Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1982), 154.
[11] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 15.
[12] Collins, Francis S. The Language of God, 228-229.

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