Note: this Entry is part of a series of Entries on Evolution and Creationism, and is not intended to be read in isolation.
In any debate that involves religious extremism it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of the people of that religion do not share the views of the more fundamentalist minority. This aim of this entry is to explain the mainstream Christian viewpoint on the argument between creationism and evolution and why most Christians do not have a problem with the theory of evolution. Indeed, Christianity effortlessly integrates scientific theories into its world-view because of the way it understands that scripture has many levels of depth and meaning. To most Christians, science reveals God's power and glory, it doesn't challenge it.
All scripture is the inspired word of God - every single passage
Old Testament scripture is the result of a long process of development from oral traditions to written word. The final decision as to what is scripture was made - under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - by the people of God.
While scripture is the inspired word of God, questions of human authorship and agency are important because if we don't understand these aspects, we distort scripture
We must understand scripture to some extent through the prism of its original authors and the community for which it was intended. Otherwise distortions enter into our understanding.
No document can ever be completely separated from its original language and milieu, otherwise it cannot be understood. God revealed himself to the human race in particular times and places. There are three significant moments in scripture interpretation:
The original experience that generated the document.
Historical understanding, down through the ages, of the document itself. Understanding the ways Israel or the Church has understood scripture. Creation stories require careful consideration of this point.
Contemporary meaning - scripture read through our own contemporary social and cultural prism.
The Major Premise
The controversy over the creation stories is needless and is totally irrelevant to the original intent of the stories. Both Creationists and scientific empiricists1 misread the biblical accounts. The biblical accounts are compatible with any scientific theory yet devised or that could be devised in the future.
The issue is, to a great extent, one of language and its uses.
Scientific empiricism or naturalism assumes that scripture attempts to provide some kind of crude 'prescientific' explanation - or literal physical description - of natural phenomena or the origins of things. As scientific knowledge progresses, these prescientific descriptions must be relegated to the dustbin of history. As biblical stories are now irrelevant, then so is the God described there. Thus agnosticism or atheism are the necessary outgrowth of increased scientific knowledge. Such naturalism is reductionist in that it reduces all knowledge to a particular kind. It assumes that the biblical accounts belong to the same class of linguistic usage as do scientific accounts.
Such biblical literalists as 'creation scientists' also believe that scripture intends a scientific, narrative or literal account of the origins of the universe because scripture 'gives every appearance of straightforward historical narrative'. Creation scientists thus accept the same linguistic criteria as do the empiricists, ie, language is primarily a means to convey modern scientific, historical modes of thought. For them also accounts must be 'records', they must be 'scientific' or 'sequential'. Such biblical literalists are also reductionists because they reduce the biblical accounts to something like scientific theories or reconstructions of empirical data. This position is unfaithful to the Bible.
Creation - the doctrine that the entire universe and all that is in it were created by a God transcendent to the universe.
Evolution - a scientific theory that things in the universe occur through a process of gradual change. In physics and astronomy, stars and planets evolve from gases and ultimately from a point zero (the big bang). In biology, evolution can be defined as 'the change in the genetic composition of a population during successive generations'. This change is caused by a number of factors such as natural selection, mutation and genetic drift.
Creationism - a particular theory about the literal interpretation of scripture, which leads to particular theories about science and nature and, in turn, to a variety of tactics aimed at bringing scientific data into conformity with this literal interpretation of scripture. Creationism reduces the biblical accounts to a scientific linguistic mode.
Evolutionism - based on empiricist assumptions, evolutionism holds that the chief competitor of science is religion; that religious explanations have been superseded by scientific ones; that religion itself is a product of psychosocial natural selection, but human evolution has now taken us beyond the religious and into the scientific phase.
The doctrine of creation and the scientific theory of evolution are not incompatible but creationism and evolutionism are.
The Genesis accounts use a different linguistic mode. It is necessary to examine again ancient and modern methods of recording historical events in order to arrive at the original intent of Genesis.
The Question of Language
Religious language has different levels of meaning. The creation stories are easily accesible to even the untutored, small children, the ordinary people. At the same time, they have a depth of meaning that has not yet been completely fathomed. Like looking at a pool - anyone can see the surface, but the depths must be explored with sophisticated equipment. Biblical stories are a deep pool, not a shallow puddle.
Biblical stories always use the primary 'common sense' understanding of words, rather than the scientific understanding. Sun, earth, sky, etc mean that which is identifiable, not hot gaseous matter, swirling electrons, ozone layers. For example, the sun rises and sets; how it appears to ordinary people. The sun still appears to rise and set and it's still legitimate to speak that way. An earlier generation of creation scientists opposed the heliocentric theory because it was 'contrary to scripture'.
Biblical authors use the frames of reference of their own times and cultures. For example, the 'firmament'.
The Language of Symbolism
Religious language is fundamentally and necessarily symbolic. Language can be descriptive, explanatory; the language of modern science, of historiography, of reporting. Ancient peoples also made careful empirical observations and were able to use descriptive language. Because of their particular world view they more often overlaid it with symbolic language than we do.
A symbol is that which suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention - a visible sign of something invisible. Symbolic language uses words to convey a deeper meaning than is immediately obvious from the ordinary usage of the word. For example, a 'lion' is an animal, or as inferring a person's courage: 'a lion in battle'.
Language is used univocally or analogically. Univocal means having one single 'voice' or meaning. Analogical is a meaning that is similar and related but not the same. For example 'an apple is healthy' or 'I am healthy'. All language is an approximation of reality; analogical language is by intent an approximation not a description.
Becasue we do not see God, all 'God language', including biblical language, must be symbolic and analogical.
The Language of Myth
The word 'myth' comes from the Greek 'mythos' meaning 'story'. Older popular definitions imply 'a purely fictitious narrative'. Some apply the word only to the early polytheistic stories of ancient peoples. Others hold that myth refers only to stories that explain the 'cyclical time' of ancient religions; the regeneration cycle of nature. Often myth means 'merely symbolic', 'pure poetry', 'mere figures of speech' or primitive superstition. Some folklore is mythological in construction and is, in fact, a primitive attempt to explain or describe things. For example, the reason why dogs have paws and lizards have hands used to be described by a contest between the two in story form, an explanation in mythical form possible only in 'prescientific' cultures.
More recent and more sophisticated studies show that myth is 'a presentation in symbolic form of the unknown transcendental reality that lies beyond observation and simple deduction, but that is recognised as existing and operative'. Or 'symbolic of the reality that it apprehends obscurely and only through intuition... this reality is perceived and represented in events and not in abstraction, and the event is portrayed in the form of a story'.
Another study concludes that 'a symbolic approximate expression of truth that the human mind cannot perceive sharply and completely but only glimpse vaguely, and therefore cannot adequately or accurately express. Myth implies not falsehood but truth; not primitive naïve misunderstanding but an insight more profound than scientific description and logical analysis can ever achieve. The language of myth is consciously inadequate, being the closest we can come to a formulation of what we see very darkly'.
With respect to ancient polytheistic or explanatory myths, the creation stories are anti-mythical. With respect to scientific empiricism, they use myth to explain creation in the only way possible. The intent of the creation stories is theological - to establish the one creator god against the many gods of the surrounding peoples. The issue for them was not evolution but polytheism.
The religious meaning of the creation stories is crystal clear to anyone reading them. The central intent and purpose is the portrayal of God as the sole creator of all things and to establish the proper relationship between God and humanity.
The creationist-evolutionist debate therefore concerns something other than the religious meaning of scripture - ie, the literary form used to convey the theological content. The only way to resolve this issue is to examine the historical context in which the stories arose to discover both the original intent of the scripture with respect to the contemporaneous culture and the exact nature of the literary form.
Other Entries in this Project
- Evolution and Creation - an Introduction and Glossary
- The Tension Between Science and Religion
- The Theory of Evolution - Part II
- Discrepancies in the Theory of Evolution - Part II
- Creationism - Fundamental(ist) Errors
- Human Evolution - the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
- Creationism and Creation Science - A Perspective
- Creationism in the UK