Creationism: a bridge too far

Creationism: a bridge too far July 10, 2012


Creationism: A Bridge Too Far

It should be a given that theological students are taught early on to consider the historical context, writing style, and author intention when trying to understand the bible.

It seems somewhat surprising to me then that evangelicalism is still having debates about creation and evolution.

It is clear that those who find it necessary to defend creationism are concerned that any limiting of a literal view of Genesis is an attack on scripture as a whole.

I don’t share this concern because I am comfortable with the idea that different parts of the bible exist to perform different tasks in communicating the good news message the church has been entrusted with.

The analogy I use in order to help navigate a way through understanding scripture is that of bridge building. Using the idea that – you can’t drive a two ton truck over a one ton bridge – I ask of each part of scripture a key question. What size and type of bridge can we build from it?

I have used this analogy to influence my thinking in business as well as theology. When considering the viability of a particular business system it has been good to evaluate the weight of the process that will be using the system. That is to say: what is riding on this process. What have we got to lose if the system should fail.

If there is only a small risk associated then it may be fine to use a limited system. If however the risk is greater we might want to ensure that our system, or bridge, can take the load.

The analogy also works when considering relationships. It is not unusual to meet a couple where the expectations of one party are greater than the other. In these circumstances the relationship bridge can only be as strong as the commitment offered by the weaker expectations. In these circumstance one party is inevitably attempting to drive a two truck of expectation over a one ton relationship bridge.

When it comes to scripture in general, and theology in particular, we do well to ask whether we are able to construct a strong enough bridge with the evidence available in order to deliver our doctrinal statements with confidence.

If we take for example the gospel of Luke we see that from the writing style, the content, and the author’s intention we should be comfortable building a bridge that can take a significant amount of historical enquiry.

The gospel of John however does not provide us with the materials for such a bridge. His writing style, content, and presumed intentions lead us towards a more theological enquiry.

It’s not that Luke contains no theology or that John offers no history but we should take care to build the right kind of bridge with each.

To say this in no way undermines either the inspiration or the effectiveness of either books. In fact it adds to our appreciation of scripture.

If we then use the above method to shed light on the creation accounts in Genesis we are liberated from trying to build the wrong type of bridge.

Firstly, if no human author was present at the creation of the cosmos then we have to see these early stories as revelation and not history. This in no way undermines their usefulness but leads us to ask the right questions of the text.

To create a historically centred understanding from the text in order to argue against science is to try to build a one ton bridge only to drive a two ton truck across.

The use of terms such as scripture or inspired tend to lead us towards a view that all the words found in the bible have the same function. Note here I said function and not value.

I am comfortable to state that both Genesis and Luke are inspired whilst maintaining that their function is different. It seems clear that many creationists would see this as belittling the bible; indeed I have heard it said that to fail to believe in a literal six day creation is to weaken the message of Christianity.

I do not share this view and would go as far as to say that the weakening of the presented message is far more to be associated with a flat reading of the bible as if culture, context, writing style, and author intention were of no value.

Let us then construct the correct type of bridges for the correct type of theology.


Thanks to my good web friend, Al Molineaux for this challenging guest piece.  Connect with him on Twitter.

"The Bible never says he "was born in a barn, accompanied only by his parents, ..."

2 Reasons NOT to ‘Keep Christ ..."
"Okay, didn't realize this was such an old post. Not sure how I ended up ..."

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
"Looks like it used to be free but the time period on that has expired. ..."

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
"Seems to only be free for members. Is that correct?"

FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Hear, hear, can we get more Christians to see this please. Too many fight for what is not literally spoke of in the Bible & undermine the authority of scripture to the unsaved who are confident in science.

    • Alan

      Thanks for the comment. Al

  • jduerrstein

    I too wonder about this.  Why do I so often have to defend myself to those who FIGHT for a literal interpretation.

    • Alan

      It does sometimes seem like a fight. Al

  • Paul Scott

    What would the essential elements, the support structures of the proposed ” one ton bridge ” be described as? The act of creation? The order? The timeline? Specifics of your view would help clarify your position.

    • Alan

      Great question Paul

      I suppose I would see the bridge being built by recognising that the Genesis account is different historically than say Kings or other Bible texts.
      It has to be revelation and in that we probably don’t need to be tied to either chronology or any scientific reference points.

  • CB

    The problem is that the evidence for macro-evolution or the big bang is nebulous… from a SCIENTIFIC perspective. You act as if macro-evolution is proved scientific law and is unassailable. It seems to me you are giving science, dare I say, an air of inerrancy?

    I will hand you micro-evolution, but your assumptions get much deeper into cosmology and you choose not to actually deal with any of them. This is a post chocked full of assumptions but that doesn’t actually do any of the work of the mind to get to the conclusions you are making. Learn to think. Learn to look at the data for yourself and come to  your own conclusions. Don’t piggy back on an idea just because its the spirit of the age. You may be surprised what conclusions you come to. Not every biologist is also an evolutionist. You, are a theologian, and NOT a biologist. So what standing do you have to make such comparisons and draw such conclusions? Honestly? Are you not jumping into a field you are not an expert in?In your desire to appear reasonable to the world, you may be jettisoning Biblical faith. The world didn’t love Christ and they won’t love you if you’re living like him. Jesus affirms a portion of the creation narrative in affirming Biblical marriage, just saying. (Matt 19:5) Some things in the scriptures are a mystery. That is why, at the end of the day, we believe by faith, not by sight or reason or scientific proof. 

    • Alan

      Your point about me not being a scientist would be valid if I were trying to look at it this way.
      I am saying that Genesis isn’t a science book and that the need some have to make it seem as such doesn’t fit with how scripture is written. I am not saying that you have to accept evolution but that there is room for those who do and still count ourselves as bible believing.
      I appreciate your thoughts. Al

    • Alan

      Thanks for your comment.

      Your comment that I am not a scientist would be valuable if I were approaching it as one.
      I am simply saying that Genesis is not a scientific book and we should not feel the need to view it in such a way.
      I am not even saying that you have to accept evolution – I am saying that there is room for those of us who do accept it to still call ourselves bible believing.

  • RF

    Are there not more than one approach to the creation / evolution story? Does it mean that you find the bible to be errant if you believe in anything oth
    er than a literal interpretation of Genesis? Perhaps the problem is not with the text at alll but with our interpretation of the text.

    • Alan

      My point exactly.

      I get frustrated that those who take the text as literal seem to think this is the only way of believing that God created the cosmos.

      Thanks for commenting


      • Etuden

         There are those that do take the Genesis text literally but don’t believe the usual way of thinking is the one way “God created the cosmos.”  Some read “In the beginning” as being some undetermined beginning and not part of the “six days”.  For them, it means that the universe could well have started 13.5 billion years ago.  They think that afterwards, God turned his attention to the Earth and prepared it in six days.  But they also think that each “day” lasted a thousand years (based on some other biblical texts).  So for them, it took God 6,000 years to prepare the earth and create man.  That is literal and self supporting for them yet unconventional.

  • I appreciate these thoughts, Alan, and fully agree. I think your point might be strengthened somewhat if you were also to unpack what you mean, or even the range of what others mean, by saying that any text is “inspired.” All too often that word is used as code for a whole complex of theological claims that I maintain are themselves extrabiblical. Lots more on my own Blog if you wish, but the short version is that I do not think that word means, in Scripture, what most Christians mean by it.

    • Alan

      Great point Dan. I have covered this before but will give some more thought to it.

      In essence I suppose that I have a lower version of inspiration in that I am comfortable to mean that the text is ‘meant to be there’ – even if the text is saying what humans believe rather than a fuller (God) view of reality.

      I look forward to reading your blog.


  • Etuden

    This properly-sized bridge-building is an interesting paradigm and it would be a really good one in the case of the Bible, except for a major shift: For many people, the bridge needed isn’t even in the same towns we need to unite.  Never mind that it needs to be a two-ton bridge for a two-ton truck.

    I gather that the “bridge” in question is one that allows for “one-ton” of assumptions about parts of the Bible as not being historical where there is no way to prove it and “another ton”  that allows us to pick and choose what parts to accept or ignore in order to resolve apparent conflicts.  Therein lies the problem.  In many cases (and considering the way people have historically interpreted the Bible), it would be easier to re-route the river so that everyone concerned can get to a common spot.  That would mean doing away with the cause of the problem (the Bible) in order to achieve a common goal (peace and harmony).

    The paradigm is good because it sits at the heart of compromise.  The problem is that the land of compromise is indeed far away for many adherents.  Therefore, if someone builds a bridge, it goes to nowhere.  Considering that if the goal is to instill the message of the good news, one of hope and salvation, its parts also have to make sense, within and between them.  They don’t need to be scientific, but they need to have some logic.  They don’t have to be exact copies of same events, but they shouldn’t be contradictory.  Otherwise, how could some or many of us even begin to decide where to build that bridge?  One side starts building up-river and the other side starts in a different spot down-river.  The very problem of building those bridges throughout the centuries is perhaps one of the very reasons why the discipline of Historical Criticism is taught to many theology students.

    I think that many people simply do away with the source of contention all-together and use their own moral compass for inspiring hope and humanity in others.  Now, those are real bridges where a theology, any theology won’t present a paradigm-shift.

    • Alan

      Hi. I agree with you main thrust for hope and perhaps given the history of humanity the call for redirecting a river is needed.

      My concern is that churches/individuals already build theological bridges from what is oftenisguided concepts and then attempt to drive heavy doctrinal statements across them.

      I am offering a way of limiting what we drive across the weaker bridges.


      • Etuden

         Hi Al:

        Yes, I understand.  And I had to think about some of those bridges you refer to, like the one which allows the Pope and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church to co-exist, the one that allows many of the evangelical sects (say Baptist and Pentecostals) to believe that they are saved once they’ve “accepted” (whatever that means to each) the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, no matter what they do afterwards.  Those appear to be bridges that allow for tolerance and co-existence.  I would appreciate a suggestion of others.

        But just like one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, I see the situation I described not as bridges but as thick glass walls that allow them to see each other but remain separate in some fundamental ways.  They may recognize what they have in common, but are deeply entrenched in what they each interpret.  The insurmountable barrier I see is their reluctance to put aside their own belief or give in to some other person’s different point of view for the sake of getting along.  Much of the message in the New Testament revolves around the idea the Christ followers would be persecuted for their views, would be in the minority and would travel in a narrow and cramped road to salvation.  And so, the stage is set.

        And as you suggest, if they already build theological bridges on misguided foundations, the very foundations being their interpretation of the Bible, it would seem to me that they would have to in a sense give up the very thing that gives them those interpretations either completely or in considerable sections.

        You proposed a really optimistic idea which warms my heart.  Perhaps what you suggest could be done at the clergy level, if they really decided for it in a strictly theistic sense.  I imagine that the theological bridges would then allow denominations and individuals to think more or less the same or in the same way about the Bible in order to not cause contention amongst each other.  The reality is that it was the separate and different interpretations of the Bible that created other concerns, such as hierarchies, titles, properties, domains and wealth.  People may be willing to give that up.  But religious organizations will not.  For me, I history to blame for being pessimistic.

  • Jack Dowton

    Well said.

    The argument here reminds me of some things that Dr John Dickson (Australian ancient historian from the Centre for Public Christianity) has said regarding the way we read the first chapters of Genesis and other books in the Bible: We need to read these texts ‘literally’ (as in, according to the genre on offer) rather than ‘literalistically’ (as in, assuming everything said is something like ‘objective’ historical description).

    Therefore, Luke should be read ‘literally’ as an example of first-century historical biography (with, of course, theological objectives), and Paul’s writings should be read ‘literally’ as first-century letters.

    Accordingly, the opening chapters of Genesis should be read ‘literally’ as a highly theological, semi-poetic explanation of origins, rather than ‘literalistically’ as a modern ‘scientific’, clinical description of events.

    This, I believe, has much to commend it.

    p.s. the only problem with your article is that you have fallen for the old trap of viewing Luke’s work as primarily ‘historical’ as against John’s more (primarily) ‘theological’ approach. Richard Bauckham’s work on this topic is a game-changer.

    • Alan

      Thanks Jack.

      I take your point about Luke/historical etc.

      I know it is more complicated than I have made it and that I am viewing it from a 21st cent context. I was just trying to show how Luke would have had a greater sense of chronology than John necessarily would.

      Good to read your stuff.


  • Absolutely. 6 Day Creationism is a misuse of Scripture. It is not historic Christian orthodoxy either.

    • Alan

      Very true Edward. Good to hear from you. Al

  • Hvjunk

    I think you need to check where God himself wrote it in Exo 20…

  • While this debate among evolution and creationism seems to have no end in sight, this perspective offered here in the blog can shed some much need light on the subject.

    I appreciate the authors analogy.

    It strikes me as a bit odd that many would be willing to place so much credibility in the literal 6 day creation, all the while not being focused upon the Creator.

    The one who spoke the cosmos into existence manifest himself some 2000 years ago. It seems to me that his message, and promises are of profound importance. In them we have the only hope known to man. This hope is that of a new creation, a new life from the very Author of life, Jesus Christ. This message, this person is what we can build our lives upon, his bridge is capable, trustworthy, and secure.

    Thank you Al for the creative way this topic was addressed,   and the concept of evaluating the intent of the scriptures message.

    • Alan

      Really appreciate you comments Jim


  • This is an interesting piece.  I think you are correct in the sense that all scripture is equally inspired, yet not all scripture is equally applicable.  However I do think Mark 10:6 does possibly shine some light on what Jesus thought about the creation story.  In the verse he doesn’t mention the creation process, but does quote from Genesis 1:27 which we could deduce that Jesus thought Genesis 1:27 were true then why not the first 26 verses.  Granted He is talking about a specific and different subject in Mark 10 but the reference would seem to press that Jesus believed what the scriptures literally said.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  Thanks!

    • Alan

      It’s a really good point and one that often causes issue for people trying to find genuine answers. I would want to say two things:

      1) Wherever you pitch your tent on this issue you will find verses that give you problems. The presence of such verses does not mean that a position is wrong in itself as it may be that our understanding of them might be incomplete.

      2) The answer I will offer next will not completely satisfy. It is my attempt to show a possible response.

      In Mark 10:6 we see Jesus mention Adam and Eve.
      Firstly Jesus is not talking about the process of creation and so

    • Alan

      You make a really good point and one that is not always easy to answer. Before attempting to do so I would like to say two things:

      1) Wherever you pitch your tent on this issue there will be verses that cause problems. The presence of these problems does not mean that a particular view is wrong but could indicate that our understanding of the text is incomplete. 

      2) The contextual way that I try to approach things will never make the more conservative reader comfortable. 

      In Mark 10:6 we see Jesus mention Adam and Eve. 
      Firstly he is not doing so to comment on the process of creation. He is speaking about creation as having a purpose in God. It would not seem strange to use the Genesis account to do this. 
      Secondly,it is possibly to hold an evolutionary view of creation and consider the existing of a primary couple over whom God pronounced ‘good’ and then breath into. 

      Not a complete answer but hopefully some help. 


  • Great perspective! Definitely a “let’s see the forest from the trees perspective” which I think is important in the Christian conversation pool (which can get very divisive over doctrine).

    I’m not sure which account is accurate (or if either fully are), but I do think we can get lost in the argument and lose sight of what matters. I appreciate you steering us back on track, and with the argumentative brainpower to not feel guilty for not being 100% positively convinced of a young earth, 6-day creation, etc.

    • Alan

      Thanks for your comment Brian

  • I don’t see a “Creationism v. Evolution” as necessary. Collins is a Creationist.