In March of this year (when I first posted this), the student group VERITAS brought Terry Mortenson to campus to speak about evolution. I will not discuss the biological aspects of his presentation, but will leave that to biologists and other specialists. Mortenson was exposed as talking about things (such as the meaning of Hebrew words) that he really knows little about that isn’t parrotted from other sources, and it would be foolish for me to make the same mistake.
When it comes to the Bible, however, Mortenson made claims that are easily tested. He claimed that not only Genesis 1-3, but other passages such as the stories about the birth of Jesus, are historically factual narratives that may not use modern language, but which accurately describe things as they actually happened. He said that this is the plain sense of these stories, and that context showed this to be the case.
I would ask anyone genuinely interested in understanding the Bible to take a look at Matthew chapter 1. Matthew 1:17 says that “all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations” (RSV). The plain meaning seems beyond dispute: these are all the generations in question, and in each group there are fourteen. This is the plain meaning, and it is clearly false. On the one hand, one only has to count them in order to see that there are in fact two groups of 14 and one group of 13. On the other hand, one only has to look at the genealogies in Kings and Chronicles to see that in order to get 14 in one of the groupings he had to leave out some generations.
If Mortenson is correct that the Bible should be read as providing factual data when this is the plain meaning to a modern reader, then the Bible is false, unless one wishes to propose a special “Biblical mathematics” in which 14 sometimes means 13, as well as a special Biblical linguistics in which “all” sometimes means “some”. There is, however, another solution. My own view is that the desire for historical, factual information, and the assumption that this is what will be provided because it is mose important, are modern perspectives these authors did not share. The number 14 is the numerical value of the name David in Hebrew, and that seems to me to explain why the author went to such lengths to emphasize this number – even to the length of making the text numerically and genealogically inaccurate! The point is about symbolism, and not history, nor is it about math. But the latter, to a modern reader, seems to be the plain meaning of the text.
Is Mortenson correct that if we cannot trust the Bible on math, or history, or science, then we cannot trust it on anything? Absolutely not. I am tempted to use Mortenson himself as an example, but I will instead use myself. I am not inerrant, and I do not always get my facts right. I try to be honest, but the paradox is interesting that if I claimed I was always perfectly honest I would be dishonest in doing so! Wouldn’t we all? Does this mean that I am totally untrustworthy? I certainly hope not – again, wouldn’t we all?
What if the Biblical authors were not pope-like figures who, when writing Scripture, became infallible and wrote infallibly, but were ordinary people without this superpower? What if they wrote in their human, fallible way about life-changing experiences they had, and tried to express this in words as best they could? Would that make their testimony about this worthless? Not at all – it would just make it human testimony. The reason I am a Christian is that I have had an experience of being born again that seems to me to be what these authors at times talk about. But in studying the Bible I have learned not only that the Bible is not inerrant, but that it is spiritually dangerous to think of the Bible as inerrant. This is not only because it is idolatry (attributing divine attributes to something created), but because it leads to arrogance and a conviction that (at least as long as we “stick to the Bible”) we have got it all figured out, we have all the answers, etc. I say this as someone who felt this way himself. I used to give talks very much like the one Terry Mortenson gave last night. What changed? I studied the Bible, not just superficially but in a serious, intellectually and spiritually rigorous way, reading books by experts in these areas who were not all carefully chosen because they said what I wanted to hear. I also was fortunate enough to read books by biologists who took the time to explain why some of the arguments used by creationists are incorrect, and others are outright lies.
These latter books also explained what science is, and that the appropriate scientific response if we find that evolution through natural selection turned out not to provide a completely adequate explanation of biological diversity would be to keep looking, keep researching, keep trying to understand and explain. That is what science does. It would be entirely inappropriate for scientists to throw up their hands and say “we do not yet have a complete explanation, and so let’s just say that God did it and be done with it.” What would have happened if, because of the plain meaning of the Bible’s reference to the sun standing still, science had stopped investigating the possibility of the earth moving around the sun? Would we be better off? Would scientific progress have been possible? It saddens me when I see history repeating itself, and these same battles being fought again. When will Christians learn their lesson? The answer is, when the majority of Christians realize that they are reading the Bible selectively, and instead of ignoring so much of what the Bible says and what the Bible is, begin to take it seriously. That is not what literal six-day creationism does. It is what Biblical scholarship does, and although I do not expect the majority of Christians to learn the Biblical languages and study for degrees in Biblical studies, is it too much to ask that you include on our reading lists books written by serious scholars, genuine experts in the field. Choose serious Christians from your own denomination by all means, individuals who have a deep, spiritual commitment to Christ, and are not merely academics and professionals. But inform yourselves.
Let me close with a quote from Proverbs 18:17. “The one who states his case first seems right, until another comes forward and questions him”. I had, back in my teenage years as a fundamentalist, immersed myself in one particular perspective, and fell into the trap this proverb warns us about. The truth is that there are atheist scientists who become Christian young-earth creationists, and there are Christian young-earth creationists who become scientists and atheists. There is movement in both directions. But the suggestion that these two extremes are the only options is simply false. There are other options, and even among fundamentalists there are few who take their alleged Biblical literalism to the extreme of asserting that the earth is flat – and if one combines different references, a circle with four corners. Even most fundamentalists are not at the extreme end of the spectrum, even though they often use rhetoric that denies the existence of a spectrum at all, and claim that there are only two options. My own opinions were changed by studying the Bible and by reading (as an amateur, I admit it) books by biologists, some of whom are themselves Christians and find no necessary conflict between being a Christian and believing that biological evolution occurred. I am under no illusion that anyone who evaluates the evidence will necessarily reach the same conclusions I have. But I do think that anyone who studies the evidence in a serious way will not tend towards the extremes. I am also convinced that in having one’s views challenged by the evidence from both the Bible and science, it will open up to you a scary and disconcerting but also exhilarating and liberating experience, in which you can consider new evidence without fearing that your whole worldview will collapse. Finding yourself in that place you may even dare to change your mind, or admit that you don’t know, because you will realize that human existence is inherently uncertain, and that trusting God does not make us infallible or make us right all the time. That is the whole reason that humbly casting ourselves upon God makes sense and is so important.
I’ve been thinking about these matters for quite a long time, but I still have a lot to learn. I am ashamed when I think back to my teenage years, how foolish (and unchristian) I was to believe that, after a little reading of the Bible, some high school science classes and reading a few creationist books, I had all the answers. I didn’t even know what the important questions were yet. I am still learning. If there is one thing that the overarching central themes of the Bible and of science work together to persuade me of, it is that in my lifetime I will not have all the answers, and that is OK. No, it is more than OK – it makes one’s spiritual and intellectual journey through life meaningful and exciting.