Posted by: Philip Rushton | October 8, 2012

Christianity and Science: Understanding the intent of Genesis 1

As we study the book of Genesis this fall we inevitably encounter some very important questions about the origins of the earth. The creation account of Genesis has often been viewed as contradictory to old earth, evolutionary scientific insights. As a result, Christianity is often framed as a worldview that is at odds with modern science.

To move beyond this impasse I think it is important to consider what questions Genesis 1-3 is seeking to answer. My hermeneutics professor at Regent College emphasized to us that the purpose of Genesis 1-3 is not to answer, “when the world was created” or, “how matter is specifically created from a scientific perspective.” Instead the purpose of the creation account is to answer “who created the world,” and “why we were created.” When you read the Genesis creation account in light of the other creation stories of the day, you discover that it is making an important point. The creation account in Genesis shows us that there is a God who is intimately involved in the world and has created humanity with purpose and invites people into relationship with him. This stood in contrast to other competing creation stories in the ancient world.

When considering the relationship between Christianity and science I have often found it helpful to read the perspectives of Christian thinkers who predate our modern darwinian-creationist debates. Prior to the 20th century, there were many orthodox Christian thinkers who argued that the book of Genesis is not providing us with a scientific presentation of the earths origins. John Calvin, for example, argues that Moses is depicting a general view of the origins of the earth that would be accessible to the common person. He argues that the realm of science and astronomy provide deeper insights that we should not reject.

For example he writes: “Moses described in popular style what all ordinary men without training and education perceive with their ordinary senses. Astronomers, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man’s intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them…” (Calvin, Commentaries, 308)

This does not mean that the author of Genesis got things wrong. Rather, Calvin explains that the author is providing a more general observation of creation with the purpose of evoking gratitude, worship and praise of God. Calvin continues by saying:

“God has stretched out his hand to us to give us the splendor of the sun and moon to enjoy. Great would be our ingratitude if we shut our eyes to this experience of beauty! There is no reason why clever men should jeer at Moses’ ignorance. He is not explaining the heavens to us but is describing what is before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their own deeper knowledge. Meanwhile, those who see the nightly splendor of the moon are possessed by perverse ingratitude if they do not recognize the goodness of God.”

Note that Calvin does not disprove the role of God in creation. He acknowledges that God is creator, and was the source of all created beings. What is important, however, is that Calvin says that the Genesis account does not answer all the scientific details of how creation actually happened. For that he suggests that we remain open to the field of science. Science is not to be condemned but to be explored.

I recognize that the relationship between Christianity and science is a complex issue. It is one that I cannot simply summarize in a one page blog post. So for those who would like to go deeper in exploring this issue I will point you to someone much smarter then me! Below is a link to a great video by Alister McGrath, who provides some helpful insights into how Christianity and science might interact in a more helpful way. McGrath is a professor of theology at Oxford, and is known in theological circles to be quite conservative. What is interesting about McGrath, however, is that he also has a Ph.D. in the natural sciences. Therefore, he comes with a breadth of knowledge in both spheres of knowledge. This short 20 minute video is made available on the q-ideas website. The presentation is meant for a broad audience outside of academic circles.

You can access this video by clicking on this link:
http://www.qideas.org/video/overcoming-the-faith-and-science-divide.aspx

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Responses

  1. Phil, your blog really helped me in my own struggle with the seeming contradiction between biblical creation and modern science. Especially helpful was learning Calvin’s views that Moses was depicting a general view of the origins of earth and that the “realm of science and astronomy provide deeper insights that we should not reject.”
    I watched the McGrath video and also read his essay posted on the site “Science and Faith at Odds?” I found the essay much more helpful in understanding this debate and strengthening the validity of my faith. The video was more about calling pastors to challenge the believing scientists within their churches to witness to non-believing scientists. Anyway I recommend the essay, although it’s rather long. I haven’t read/watched any of the other related posts,but I plan to. Thanks for the link. Stan

  2. Thanks Stan,

    I appreciate your perspective on the video. I agree that the essay is more helpful. The q-idea video presentations are always limited to 20 minutes so I find that the speakers are often rushed. The essay goes a bit deeper into the issue. If you want more resources on this issue let me know. I took a course on Christianity and science during grad school which was fascinating. McGrath has a whole book on how Science and Christianity can interact in a more helpful way.


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