Darwin: Liberator of the Bible

Darwin: Liberator of the Bible September 24, 2012

The story of the relation of Genesis to science is complicated. In fact, there are a number of stories, but the first one is the story of difference and then the story compatibility and the third one the story of monopoly. So argues Francis Watson in his chapter in Reading Genesis after Darwin.

The story many receive today is that either Genesis is right and science wrong, or science is right and Genesis is wrong. Watson contends that sells the story of their relationship short and misses out on big chunks of good thinking.

Do you think Darwin led to the liberation of the Bible from one kind of interpretation?

His focus begins with Calvin who in his own way and in his own terms, including the scientific terms of his day, saw astronomy as the world of reality and worthy of serious thinking, and Genesis a message of God’s gift to humans that what they “saw” (appearance) entailed a message of God’s gift to the real world. It appears to me that Watson sees in Calvin what some would call separable magisteria of knowledge. We see two lights in the sky — Genesis 1 — while science shows us there is one light and another that is reflected, along with Jupiter which is far bigger than that second light. This is about two modes of knowing. Both are good and gifts from God.

For Calvin we weren’t to surrender what the Bible says to science, or science to the Bible. Genesis teaches us about life as a gift from God. In this sense, the Bible has precedence because this is a fundamental perspective about reality.

But the story soon was reshaped to where science could falsify the Bible. In other words, the story of compatibility — leading to choice about which tells the truth — soon overtook the story of difference. Rocks were discovered — at first they were explained by the Genesis flood, and then when that was falsified the geological ages were fit between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 (I was taught this in college by a professor). This is all the story of making science and Genesis compatible. But compatibility nearly always leads to an alternative narrative of both the Bible and science, but the narrative is neither science’s or the Bible’s!

Watson’s argument is that the story of compatibility, which is an interpretation of Genesis, was eventually beaten by the story of science and can lead us back to the story of difference, as we read in Calvin (and probably too in Augustine in some ways). What he emphasizes is that science ruled out the interpretation of Genesis, but that interpretation can’t be equated with the text itself. Scripture is the narrative of salvation, the narrative of God’s ways with humans through Christ.

Darwin avoided Genesis; Darwin read the world of nature. He in effect, according to Watson, liberated the Bible from the natural sciences. A book like John Walton’s The Lost Worlds of Genesis One  steps in now to show the kind of difference we are talking about.

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  • thanks for this…just talking to a friend about a similar topic today (the historical accuracy of the bible) and this helped me think through it!

  • DRT

    But compatibility nearly always leads to an alternative narrative of both the Bible and science, but the narrative is neither science’s or the Bible’s!


  • The quote DRT cites. Yes, good post. Good thoughts from John Calvin. From the aspect of Calvinism I love.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    Unfortunately, that’s a misreading of Calvin. He insists in the Genesis commentary that the language is phenomenologically true, not that there are different magisteria of knowledge. He believed Moses knew the truths of astronomy, but that he chose to write in the language of appearance so as not to confuse the common people. In other words, it’s a matter of rhetoric not epistemology. I have yet to find any hint of double truth in Calvin, which is what this reading implies.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I supsect Glenn is right and I would add that I don’t think Augustine fits very neatly into this either. Augustine took the Genesis less literally than modern Christians today but Augustine believed if nature and Scripture were interpreted correctly, they were still compatible. The problem continues to be of asking different questions and raising different issues that neither the Reformers nor the early Christians like Augustine were dealing with.

  • Yes, to your question. Starting in Calvin’s time with Copernicus, then Galileo, to Newton, Darwin, down to Einstein, to today. Freed us not just from a flat earth, and a flat 3-tiered universe, but most importantly jolted the church free from a Flat Hermeneutic that had reigned for a long long time. I believe we have a chance to get our Book back if we’ll take it.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    Dru, everyone in the middle ages who had any education knew the Earth was a sphere. The question in Columbus’s day was the size and the distance to Asia. Copernicus didn’t change the shape of the earth, he changed it from a stationary earth to a moving earth. And no one thought of the universe in three tiers as usually presented, at least not since the early middle ages. If you’re going to talk about the development of science, at least get the history of science right! And did you know Galileo worked very hard at developing a “flat” hermeneutic that would enable him to argue that a literal reading of the Bible led to heliocentrism? It isn’t as simple as you make it out to be.

  • scotmcknight

    Glenn, if you can get your hands on a copy of this book from Oxford, read those 2-3 pages on Calvin. Maybe I misread Watson, maybe not. I thought I summarized him accurately. It sure sounded like two magisteria, or something close to that. He got into “appearance” a bit. I expected him to take “appearance” into accommodation, but that word didn’t show up…

  • Patrick

    Genesis 1 appears to be taken almost word for word from Egyptian cosmologies. It’s there to be cross checked if anyone cares to. That actually makes good sense if you think about it.

    There is specific verbiage in there that denigrates the Egyptian and Babylonian gods and exalts Yahweh, but, the cosmology seems Egyptian centric.

    In fact, the term “in the image of” is used in Egyptian cosmology.

    I would say Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo caused a re-examination of how to interpret biblical cosmology.

  • AHH

    An exhaustive study of Calvin on these issues in given in the book John Calvin and the Natural World by Davis Young (geology professor, now retired, from Calvin College and son of noted Reformed OT scholar EJ Young).
    I do not recall exactly how Young describes Calvin’s thought on this aspect, but he certainly porrtrays Calvin as accepting science as a valid means of finding truths abut the natural world, and Young makes much of Calvin’s doctrine of “accommodation” where Calvin says Scripture involves God condescending, presenting truth in a way the original readers could understand rather than God’s full knowledge which we would not be able to grasp.

    And just FYI the usual term in science/faith discussions for what is called “compatibility” in this post is “concordism” — the assumption that Scripture and science are talking about the same things in the same way and therefore should be made to “line up” and if they don’t line up then it is a big problem for either Scripture or science. As Scot and DRT point out, the hermeneutic assumption of concordism often leads to twisting science, or twisting Scripture, or both, as it tries to make Scripture be a modern science text rather than letting it be itself, an ancient theological text.

  • Ken Berry

    Davis A. Young, Professor Emeritus of Geology at Calvin College, has written a monograph, John Calvin and the Natural World, that discusses Calvin’s use of the principle of divine accommodation. I saw some reviews when it came out a while back, but I have not read it.

  • RJS

    I’m being done out of a job. With Scot posting on the science-faith discussion (which is a good thing), perhaps I am going to have to start tackling Jesus studies. The gospel of Jesus’s wife may be a good place to start.

    As I understand it (always subject to more information) both Calvin and Augustine were concordist and used the idea of accommodation. When the two (science and scripture) don’t appear to be in agreement it is because God was accommodating himself to human perspective (although Calvin does seem to think that Moses knew it was an accommodation), or because we are misinterpreting scripture. Neither, however, seems to view human study as a fully corrupt endeavor to be subject to the church’s interpretation of Genesis the way current young earth creationists do.

  • “With Scot posting on the science-faith discussion (which is a good thing), perhaps I am going to have to start tackling Jesus studies.”

    The singularity is near! 😉

  • Glenn Sunshine

    Scott, I’ll post some of the relevant passages from the Genesis commentary when I get home. They do include the word “accommodation” as I recall. It’s pretty clear that he sees it in rhetorical terms, not as different magisteria.

  • Norman

    Perhaps we spend too much time examining Calvin and church fathers views for enlightenment and in doing so add complexity to the examination of the original Hebrew intent. I would guess that modern scholars have a much more robust availability of insight to them than any church father ever had. Thus we should be able to determine more accurately the Hebrew mind on such things. It appears Walton, Enns and others often uses this method instead of spending an exorbitant amount of time of paying homage to previous scholars no matter how brilliant they were for their times. It’s interesting to study the contextual history of the church and that’s a worthy goal as it sheds light on the mistakes and fallibility of that process. I once heard that the best way to recognize counterfeit money was not to spend your time studying all the variations but become experts upon the original Bill so you can recognize the counterfeit as its difference stands out.

    It also appears that the early Jewish church was just as divided on how to read scripture as we are. Christ spoke to them largely in symbolic terms yet they typically didn’t grasp His interpretive methods. They said it was too difficult and continued expecting a physical Davidic Kingdom. Christ, the Apostles and Paul essentially said the Jews that didn’t get it were hanging on to physical reading while the Christians were reading the fulfillment of the scriptures through the proper lens of interpretive application. We are still arguing over biblical hermeneutics to this day with no end in view of it changing soon.

    Anyone reading the first century commentary of sorts called the Barnabas epistle will see this first century debate between literal reading Jews and the earliest Christians loud and clear. Barnabas says the Jews read literally but Moses intended it largely as spiritual. The minority Jews that interpreted things symbolically and as a spiritual fulfillment became Christians.

  • CGC

    Hi RJS(and all),
    My understanding of Calvin and Augustine is the same as yours. It appears that Watson’s may rightly show some problems with concordism but at its basic level, Calvin and Augustine both were concordists. If this is correct, there are still some profound things to learn from these two even if one disagrees with concordism.

  • Patrick

    The thing about this issue is, we have access to ANE literature to see any scientific type commentary is pre science and not to be seen as modern because the ANE pagan neighbors of Israel saw the same things the Jews did about cosmology.

    Most those folks we have literature of thought there was a dome over the earth, so did the Jews. Job called it an “iron dome”.

    They felt there were pillars under the earth, so did the Jews. They felt there was a chaotic sea overhead and when it rained, God(gods) opened up the floodgates, so did the Jews. They thought the earth was a flat disc, so did the Jews.

    The recent book, “In the Beginning, We Misunderstood” does a fantastic job demonstrating this for the layman.

  • CGC

    Hi Norman,
    Even though we probably see things very similarly on Genesis for example, I suspect we see the value and study of the early church fathers differently? There is a thread that runs from early Jewish apocalyptic for example through the early Jewish Christian writings. Unless people want to read Scripture in a vacuum (which I know you don’t), I for one think much of what the early church fathers wrote has greater consensus and more merit than much of what modern scholars write on the early writings which is difficult to find consensus where they are so all over the map! For example, what Iranaeus says on the Old Testament has more signficance to me than what Walter Brueggemann says on the Old Testament. This is not to take away any significant insights Brueggemann has but it seems that people want today to priviledge modern scholars over ancient ones and I for one don’t make this move although many do today (newer is better supposedly). I find my own modern assumptions challenged by ancient interpreters as other modern ones may help me see this problem of reading the Bible thorugh western eyes only.

  • CGC

    Hi Patrick,
    I am reading Miller and Soden’s book as well, “In the Beginning . . . We Misunnderstood.” Scot just recently did a thread on textual indicators or clues in Genesis. I found the section on “day” and how the article is not until the sixth and seventh day showing a difference within the text itself as an interesting clue in intepreting these early chapters in Genesis.

  • Norman

    We are likely closer than it might appear. My ideas are based upon a priority of investigation that puts a premium upon attempting to understand the original intent without prejudice first and then we can move on into studying the various church fathers and their implication. Since I’m a product of the American Restoration Movement I come hardwired 😉 with a “restorationsist” independent penchant for restoring purity of beliefs first. I have a built in skepticism of the church fathers that I guess I inherited. 🙂

    Having said that, I really do believe that the early church fathers quickly lost some of the hermeneutic skills that birthed first century Christianity. It’s really all about developing the correct biblical hermeneutic as I see it. If you get your hermeneutic right then you stand a much better chance of not skewing the picture of OT and NT literature. If you don’t then you are likely to carry forward skewed theology which gets incorporated as tradition over time.

    That is why there is such a debate today over how to interpret some of Paul’s readings. If one thinks Paul has a certain literal hermeneutic then one is prone to declare that Paul must have believed in such and such a manner. If one thinks Paul may have been reading, writing and understanding from a spiritual hermeneutic perspective then perhaps that explains more robustly some of Paul’s more difficult for us to understand concepts. I really don’t think the Hebrew writers and the NT writers such as Paul were viewing their ancient world as literally from an ANE concept as we want to let on. They show extensive metaphorical understanding and application of these concepts in theological parameters instead of a rigid narrow minded ANE view of things. They used the terminology and concepts of the ANE to tell story yet it doesn’t reflect ignorance toward them that we want to ascribe. So I would take some issue with Patrick above concerning the degree of ANE influence upon the scribal and prophetic authors of the OT and NT. They all appear to have theological applications that goes beyond a simple ANE mindset.

  • CGC

    Good points Norman . . . I like what you said here about ANE but I wonder if I have then misread you on another topic when you and Dana were discussing the Greek philosophical worldview of the early church fathers. I again would say they contextualized greek concepts for their own uses and went beyond them like you suggest on ANE mindset. What do you think?

  • John Inglis

    Calvin, in his Genesis commentary, stated that God made plants to appear and grow before there was sunlight to prove that God did not need secondary causes and that he could endow living things with their own inherent vigor, which would then be manifest before the arrival of the secondary cause.

    Calvin also asserts that God indeed took only six 24-hour days, and that by so doing the creation in 6 days He thereby accommodated himself to man. Calvin opposes the idea of instantaneous creation and that Moses distributed the creation moment into 6 days for the purpose of conveying instruction.

    Calvin also believed the earth to be only 6,000 years old, a good YEC’er if there ever was one.


  • RJS


    A good YEC’er yes and no. He did believe the earth was only 6000 years old. He didn’t think that Adam was created naturally immortal and that all death entered through Adam’s sin. He did think that storms were the result of sin. … He also thought that God knew and predestined the sin of Adam leaving no uncertainty in the fate of his creatures.

    One of the most interesting things in Calvin’s commentaries is the foils he argues against. The fact that he feels need to argue against them gives some guidance on the range of ideas that were out there in the Church.

  • Patrick


    I loved John Walton’s book, I love Miller and Soden’s even better. I pray the entire Church gets this message.

    It’s neat seeing the theological/spiritual war being fought by the author of Genesis for the hearts of the Jews who had been immersed in Egyptian centric paganism for so long.

  • Norman


    It’s a mixed bag in the evolutionary drift of the church IMHO. The Eastern Church held closer to Jewish concepts than the western church but even they drifted away from the fullness of the metaphorical and spiritual application of scripture that birthed the original church. The western church indeed appropriated a Greek Philosophical tendency is indisputable IMO, however this Western approach fits nicely with the last two centuries of Liberal theology whom are comfortable with mixing of the two. I’m not an expert on Western drift but I see the distinction early in how some of the concepts and hermeneutic approaches started to separate by the time of Augustine. I think Augustine is a mixed hybrid bag of hermeneutics who displayed some Hebrew inclinations and some Greek which makes sense of a gradual drifting.

    However Augustine indeed shows that he was still in touch with the Hebrew mindset in this following metaphorical interpretation of the Days of Genesis representing the periods from Adam to the Messiah. This lines up with much of the 2T literature so Augustine cannot always be easily classified, which makes sense if we understand that these interpretive skills gradually eroded over time. You can see below that Augustine’s metaphorical approach would be completely rejected by evangelicals today but it provides a snapshot view of an Eastern Alexandrian style interpretive approach that still permeated even some of the western church. Most people think all the ancients thought there was a consistent belief of a literal understanding of the days of Genesis or modern scholars think it was mostly an ANE approach. Well Augustine reflects below that neither application fits him and I would argue that is why we need to know the earliest church better than trying to interpret it through the eyes of later influenced church fathers.

    “Tractate 9 (John 2:1-2) … 6. But observe what Himself says, “The things which were written in the law, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms concerning me.” And we know that the law extends from the time of which we have record, that is, from the beginning of the world: “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 Thence down to the time in which we are now living are six ages, this being the sixth, as you have often heard and know. The first age is reckoned from Adam to Noah; the second, from Noah to Abraham; and, as Matthew the evangelist duly follows and distinguishes, the third, from Abraham to David; the fourth, from David to the carrying away into Babylon; the fifth, from the carrying away into Babylon to John the Baptist; Matthew 1:17 the sixth, from John the Baptist to the end of the world. Moreover, God made man after His own image on the sixth day, because in this sixth age is manifested the renewing of our mind through the gospel, after the image of Him who created us; Colossians 3:10 and the water is turned into wine, that we may taste of Christ, now manifested in the law and the prophets. Hence “there were there six water-pots,” which He bade be filled with water. Now the six water-pots signify the six ages, which were not without prophecy. And those six periods, divided and separated as it were by joints, would be as empty vessels unless they were filled by Christ. Why did I say, the periods which would run fruitlessly on, unless the Lord Jesus were preached in them? Prophecies are fulfilled, the water-pots are full; but that the water may be turned into wine, Christ must be understood in that whole prophecy.”

  • DRT


    This is not to take away any significant insights Brueggemann has but it seems that people want today to priviledge modern scholars over ancient ones and I for one don’t make this move although many do today (newer is better supposedly).

    I believe you suppose wrongly, at least for me.

    RJS#23 brings up an excellent point that weighs in on the “newer is better” type of argumentation. We all live in a context and, I feel, that the weight of arguments should be assessed based on the context in which the argument is made. I have some exposure to Brueggemann and my assessment is that he has a fully contextualized view (i.e. he knows and understands the arguments of those who have gone before).

    The assertion of “newer is better” may apply to many, but none that write here. I feel this is one of the major drawbacks to the Calvinist debate. They seem to ignore the context of the thought that has gone into the world in the past couple centuries, in particular.

    I, and all others with whom I agree, take into account the context and contribution that others have made. We are trying to move the ball forward, not keep it stationary.

  • DRT

    I probably could have been explicit about what I mean by context. I mean that people have access to, and have read, the basic and nuanced findings of those who have come before up through the present day. Clearly not all do this, and that is a fault.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    This is from a book chapter I wrote on the history of accommodation. It illustrates Calvin’s treatment of science in Genesis and why I found it to be more about appearances than conflicting magisteria:

    Calvin also resorted to accommodation to address conflicts between scriptural passages dealing with the natural world and the science of his day. Calvin generally resolved these by arguing that Scripture was written in the language of appearance, in other words, that the words of Scripture describe the world as we see it, not “with philosophical acuteness,” so as not to confuse the uneducated. One example of this approach is Calvin’s response to the question of how the moon can be described as one of the two great lights that govern the heavens when, first, Saturn is larger than the moon, and, second, the moon is a reflector of light rather than a source of light in its own right. Calvin replied:
    “… Moses wrote in a popular style of things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand …. [B]ecause he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity…. [S]ince the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, adapts his discourse to common usage…. Moses … only proposes things which lie open before our eyes.”
    In other words, Saturn may be larger, but in terms of our daily experience, the moon’s appearance is larger; understood in terms of the language of appearance, the passage is true.
    Concerning the moon as a source of light, Calvin’s comments are similar:
    “… it is not here philosophically discussed, how great the sun is in the heaven, and how great, or how little is the moon; but how much light comes to us from them. For Moses here addresses himself to our senses, that the knowledge of the gifts of God which we enjoy may not glide away. Therefore, in order to apprehend the meaning of Moses, it is to no purpose to soar above the heavens, let us only open our eyes to behold this light which God enkindles for us in the earth …. For as it became a theologian, [Moses] had respect to us rather than the stars. Nor, in truth, was he ignorant of the fact, that the moon had not sufficient brightness to enlighten the earth, unless it borrowed from the sun; but he deemed it enough to declare what we all may plainly perceive, that the moon is a dispenser of light to us.”
    In addition to illustrating the use of the language of appearance to eliminate a conflict between science and Scripture, this passage is very significant for what it says about Moses’ knowledge of the natural world. Statements such as this are sometimes misread as saying that the Genesis account is simply a mythic retelling of the origin of the universe accommodated by God to the pre-scientific mentality of the age, but that is clearly not what Calvin is arguing here. He says that Moses knew the scientific facts about which he wrote, but that he (not God) accommodated the text to the ignorance of the people to teach the “rude and ignorant” about God and his works without confusing them with extraneous information.

  • scotmcknight

    Glenn, what you say about appearance is what Watson focuses on. It is human-shaped perceptions but not necessarily reality; I don’t see that Watson sees accommodationism in Calvin. He doesn’t use that term.

  • RJS

    Scot (#29),

    I don’t know what Watson sees in Calvin – but back many years ago you went through an edited volume, Christians Theologies of Scripture. The chapter on Calvin is the place where I first became aware of the idea of accommodation. Calvin, according to this chapter, thought God accommodated himself to unlearned men and to the capacity of men in general to understand. His discussion of Saturn is one example. One point that I found interesting when looking at Calvin’s commentary on Genesis is that his use of accommodation goes beyond astronomy and creation. When it appears that God changes his mind or responds to a human event it is because God’s self-revelation is accommodated to the finite perspective of mankind.

  • John I.

    But for Calvin, “accommodation” does not have to do with the presentation of reality in the Bible but the actual construction of reality. Calvin states that God created in seven 24 hour days because that is what men could understand. He opposed Augustine’s instantaneous view (with a description in Genesis that was written as 7 days in order to teach men to observe the Sabbath). Calvin believed that the instantaneous view did not accommodate men, because it used an allegorical or literary interpretation which was contrary to the ordinary sense of the words that men would naturally understand. Hence, even we did call Calvin’s view of science and scripture “accommodation”, it would have to be in a very different sense than that used by neo-evangelicals, post-evangelicals, and etc., today.

    That is to say, today’s interpreters see the language as being accommodated to humans, and masking the historical and scientific reality (that the ANE Jews could not have grasped), whereas Calvin believed the language to be “literally” / concretely true and that God had constructed reality itself in a manner that would be easy for humans to comprehend and grasp.


  • John I.

    Calvin was aware of phenomenological language, but his interpretation is that behind the obviously identifiable phenomenological language is a closely associated reality that is perceived according to the phenomena. Hence, it is not wrong for Moses to describe the phenomena as it is perceived. However, the creation is not a perceived or perceivable event and so the language of the first 7 days is not phenomenological but actual. Both of these approaches are what the YEC’ers advocate.

    So neither Calvin nor his methodology are of any significant assistance in the areas of greatest science – scripture controversy today.


  • Glenn Sunshine

    Scot, in the first quotation, if memory serves, the word Calvin uses to describe what Moses does is either accomodare or attemperare in the Latin IIRC, in which case it is clearly an example of accommodation even by the vocabulary. The key, though, is that it is Moses adapting the language to the people, not God adapting it to a pre-scientific mentality. Nor is it an example of dual magisteria.

  • scotmcknight

    Glenn, one thing I’ve been trying to figure out in this thread is whether you are suggesting I didn’t summarize Watson right or Watson didn’t summarize Calvin right.

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, Yes, you are right about Calvin. This post thread got a little murky for me but I now realize some are saying Calvin didn’t accept dual magisteria when as I read Watson he seems to describe Calvin that way. Calvin does teach accommodationist stuff; I don’t see Watson seeing accommodationism in Calvin.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    I don’t have access to Watson’s book, so I really can’t comment on whether the issue I have is with him or with your summary. My concern was to clarify Calvin’s position. If Watson is saying there are two magisteria in Calvin, then I would argue he is wrong. Like I said, Calvin doesn’t hold to double truth, which is what dual magisteria would amount to.