September 22, 2017

Implications of Interpretation

The Effects of Accommodation to Evolutionary Thought

Brian Collins

FrontLine • July/August 2016

The interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis is at the forefront of biblical and theological discussion once again. Evangelical scholars have recently put forward new interpretations of those chapters that attempt to harmonize Scripture with the evolutionary account of origins. The motivation for these attempts is understandable. John Walton represents many when he writes that young-earth “scientific scenarios have proven extremely difficult for most scientifically trained people to accept. When the latter find YEC [young earth creation] science untenable, they have too often concluded that the Bible must be rejected.”[1]

Walton and others do not want the Bible to be rejected, and so they have looked for ways to interpret the Bible that harmonize with the prevailing evolutionary paradigm.

Re-examining one’s understanding of Scripture in light of new scientific paradigms is not intrinsically wrong. When the Copernican paradigm replaced the Ptolemaic one, Christians had to think about how they would interpret a passage such as Joshua 10. The answer in that case was fairly simple: the Bible was not speaking scientifically; it was speaking as things appeared to an observer from earth. We still speak this way when we speak of sunrise and sunset.[2] Such interpretations have no negative implications for the Christian system of doctrine or practice. Therefore, there is no difficulty in adopting them. The same is not the case with attempts to harmonize the Scriptures with evolutionary cosmology. These attempted harmonizations have wide-ranging effects on both doctrine and practice.

The Problem of Evil

Though the conflict between evolutionary and biblical cosmology is often seen as the chief apologetic challenge of the present time, the chief philosophical challenge to Christianity is the problem of evil (in a nutshell: how can a good, all-powerful God permit evil). Attempts to harmonize Scripture with evolutionary cosmology make defending Christianity against the problem of evil more difficult.

Old-earth creationists and theistic evolutionists tend to deny that death and suffering in the natural world can be considered evil. But philosophers have not been willing to accept that death and suffering in the natural world carry no moral significance. Michael J. Murray observes that Darwin himself recognized the problem: “‘The sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time’ are apparently irreconcilable with the existence of a creator of ‘unbounded’ goodness.”[3] In other words, “What kind of God . . . could possibly permit preventable suffering in an animal that lacks moral responsibility, if, as seems to be the case, that suffering exists and serves no purpose?”[4]

Traditionally, Christians have held that natural evil entered the world due to Adam’s fall. Genesis 3:17 clearly states that the Fall had effects on the physical world. Genesis 3:14 may well indicate that all animals, not just the serpent, were affected by the curse that God brought on the earth due to Adam’s sin. Romans 5:12–19 and 8:19–22 tie death and corruption in the natural world to the Fall. Finally, certain passages indicate that redemption will remove pain and destruction from the animal world (e.g., Isa. 11:6–9). These passages imply that pain and destruction were not part of the original good created order.

Goodness of the Created Order

An evolutionary view of the world also affects the theological claim that God created an originally good world. The world is full of death and suffering. What is more, some have suggested that Adam and Eve were not the first humans, meaning that human death existed prior to the Fall.[5]

But all of this compromises the goodness of the original creation. Walton attempts to deal with this problem: “As I have proposed elsewhere, if Genesis 1 is viewed as an account of functional origins rather than as an account of material origins, when God says repeatedly that ‘it was good,’ he is indicating that it is ready to function as sacred space. . . . In this case ‘good’ is not indicative of perfection (either moral or design), but of order.”[6] But this only attempts to explain the use of the word “good” in Genesis 1. It does not deal with the theological problem of that which is not morally good existing prior to the Fall.

Romans 8:19–22 teaches that God subjected creation to futility and corruption or decay. For God to subject the world to futility and decay implies that the world was not originally in such a condition. Verse 20 says the creation was subjected “in hope,” which fits nicely with Genesis 3, since the first gospel promise is given in Genesis 3:15 in the same account in which God curses the earth.

Romans 8:19–22 teaches us that God created a good world into which natural and moral evil entered later. Thus it affirms the natural goodness of creation. This is an essential doctrine of Christianity, as the early church recognized in the face of the Gnostic heresy. The goodness of God is tied up in His making a good creation. The goodness of creation is also important in understanding the extent of the Fall. There are consequences to our ethical systems if we limit the scope of the Fall. Such a limitation leaves neutral areas, places that sin doesn’t touch. But the biblical teaching is that there is no area of life untouched by the Fall. The very terms “world” and “worldliness” indicate the extensive reach of sin into every aspect of creation. Finally, limiting the scope of the Fall limits the scope of redemption. But Matthew 19:28, Acts 3:21, Romans 8:19–22, and 2 Peter 3:13 all teach that in redemption God will restore His good but fallen creation.

Original Sin

Theistic evolutionists who deny a historical Adam or who deny that Adam and Eve were the first two humans have difficulties affirming the doctrine of original sin. This doctrine teaches that all humans are born sinners because of Adam’s initial sin. Walton, however, suggests that people who lived before Adam would have done things that were sinful by our understanding, but since there was no law before Adam, there was no sin imputed to these people. What is more, these people would have died, but they would not have died because they were sinners. This, however, contradicts Romans 5:12, which teaches that sin and death entered the world through one man, Adam. It fails to acknowledge that sin brought about a fundamental change in human nature (Gen. 5:3; 8:21; Ps. 51:5; Eph. 2:3). Walton’s view in particular fails to recognize that God built His law into the very fabric of creation and into the conscience of all humans (Rom. 2:15; Prov. 3:19–20).[7]

Authority of Scripture

Attempts to harmonize Scripture with evolutionary cosmology undermine the authority of Scripture in several ways. Most obviously, there is an unwillingness to consider that a historic understanding of a young earth, a creation week of seven normal days, and a historical Adam and Eve as progenitors of the human race is possible in the face of the claims of evolutionary science. This means that evolutionary science has the authority to determine up front which interpretations of Scripture are permissible and which are not. This gives modern science authority over the Scripture.

Some of the new approaches to interpreting Genesis compromise the authority of Scripture in another way. For instance, John Walton’s proposal depends on his understanding of the worldviews of the Ancient Near East. His argument is plausible: we should read Scripture the way the original readers would have read it, the original readers shared the assumptions of the Ancient Near East rather than modern assumptions, and we should, therefore, read the Old Testament in light of the worldview of the Ancient Near East.

While background material is often helpful in understanding Scripture, interpreters must be careful not to allow it to dictate their interpretation of Scripture. When an interpreter begins to claim that background material demands a certain interpretation of Scripture, then he is saying that his interpretation of background material has authority to determine what interpretations of Scripture can and cannot be accepted. But background material requires interpretation itself. It is fragmentary and sometimes difficult to understand. Often the worldviews found in the background material are contrary to a biblical worldview. Thus while background material can be a helpful servant in interpreting Scripture, it is a dangerous master.

Conclusion

Modern Christians are not the first to face the challenge of interpreting the opening chapters of Genesis in the face of strong cultural pressures. The early church faced pressure from Greek philosophy. It seemed unworthy for God to take a full week to create the world. So under this pressure, men such as Augustine allegorized the creation account. They held that the actual creation took place in an instant.[8] The pressures from Platonism are long since past. If the Lord tarries, Darwinism too will be discarded and replaced by some other system. Given the high cost of accommodating Scripture to these transitory philosophies, the wiser course of action by far is simply affirm the plain sense of what God has said in His Word. Human philosophies come and go, but the Word of the Lord endures forever.


Brian Collins (PhD, Bob Jones University) serves as an elder at Mount Calvary Baptist Church and works as a biblical worldview specialist at BJU Press.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2016. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 109–10; cf. Francis Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 173–74, 177–78. []
  2. Interestingly, John Walton argues against understanding Joshua 10 in terms of the sun, by appearances, standing still in the sky. He thinks the language is incompatible with the Copernican paradigm and notes that some are “unpersuaded that physics could be so tamed.” He suggests that the whole issue can be avoided by looking at the text through an Ancient Near Eastern worldview. He noted that the opposition of the sun and moon on the fourteenth day of a month was considered a good omen but that if it occurred on a bad day, it was a bad omen. He thinks that the passage is indicating that the Canaanites received a bad omen (John H. Walton, “Ancient Near Eastern Background Studies,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005], 44–45). But this interpretation fails to account fully for the precise wording of the passage. The sun and the moon stood still “until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies,” a time period specified in the text to have lasted “about a whole day” (10:13). []
  3. Michael J. Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Suffering (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 2. []
  4. Murray, 5, relating the position of William Rowe. []
  5. This conclusion is based on the claim that DNA evidence shows that the earliest humans not only descended from lower primates but that the earliest humans existed in a population of at least several thousand. Not all humans are descended from a single pair of people, according to these theistic evolutionists. If Adam and Eve are affirmed as historical figures, they would be representative figures, like a king and queen over a tribe of people whom God set aside for special work. []
  6. John H. Walton, “A Historical Adam: Archetypal Creation View,” in Four Views on the Historical Adam, Counterpoints, ed. Stanley Gundry, Matthew Barrett, and Ardel Caneday (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2013), Kindle loc. 1973–76. []
  7. Wisdom is built into creation as the way God ordered His world to work. The Mosaic Law applies the wisdom built into creation, or creational norms, to the life of Israel (as well as adding material like that sacrificial system that pointed forward to Christ). God’s law is not something added to creation much later. It is inherent in creation. []
  8. For a helpful survey of interpretations, see William VanDoodeward, The Quest for the Historical Adam: Genesis, Hermeneutics, and Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2015). []


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