Should We Compare Genesis to Current Scientific Theories?

I. The Framework of the Debate
An interesting conversation has been going on over at Mark Shea’s blog: in this case, I think that the comments are actually much more interesting than his original case. The question is about the historicity of the first half (pre-Abraham) of Genesis. The question is generally not, “should we take a Young Earth Creationist view of Genesis,” but, “should we understand Genesis 1 as supporting an evolutionary theory, or should we view the Genesis accounts as imparting theological truths without being themselves historical?”

In other words, some parts of the Genesis account of Creation seem to support modern evolutionary theories:

  • Creation is ex nihilio (a fact atheists long denied or waffled on, but are very nearly left admitting if they believe in the Big Bang, and don’t come up with some illogical and unsupported alternate explanation like “multiverse”);
  • Creation begins with a bang (and there’s no reason to believe that the command of Almighty God “Let there be light!” couldn’t have caused a Big Bang);
  • Light (Gen. 1: 3) exists prior to the sun (Gen. 1:16) – prior to modern science, this looks like an obvious gaffe on the writer’s part: now we know it to be true;
  • Creation occurred in succession: as Ecclesiastes 3:1 (and more famously, the Byrds) puts it: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under Heaven.” This comports well with Genesis 1 as well as evolution. Rather than doing everything all at once, God takes His time, and gives everything their own “day,” to grow and live and prosper as the latest addition to His masterpiece, like a master chef bringing out a multi-course meal slowly.
  • Even the order of Creation roughly follows the evolutionary order (with a couple exceptions I’ll address below): first, there’s inorganic matter (Gen. 1:1-10), then vegetation (Gen. 1:11-12), aquatic life (Gen. 1:20-22), animal life (Gen. 1:24-25), and finally, human life (Gen. 1:26).

If those 4 points were all the material we had on Genesis 1 vis-à-vis evolution, we could just declare victory: finally, science vindicates religion! But it’s not, and the remaining details need to be grappled with:

  • Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Understanding this to mean that on the first day, God created a fully formed landmass called Earth throws this entirely out of the current evolutionary sequence. But that’s not the only, or even most logical, way to understand it. After Genesis 1:2 describes the Earth as still a formless void. So it sounds more like, in the beginning, God created matter. This understanding comports better with both the narrative and what we presently believe about science. Notice that in Gen. 1:1-3, the creation of chaotic matter immediately precedes the Big Bang (presuming, of course, that Gen. 1:3 can be held to be the same as the Big Bang).
  • Genesis 1:2 says that “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. ” This sounds as if matter exists pre-Creation… sort of. I mean, in the same verse, there’s a description of “water,” and a denial of the existence of form, which seems like a strange contradiction (that is, water is the liquid form of “H2O,” and even primitive people likely understood this). It may simply be that a human writer trying to express the existence of pre-Creation has hit a barrier: that no human words, or even cognizable thoughts, can express God-transcending-Creation in a way we can understand.
  • There’s repeated reference to “evening” and “morning.” Genesis 1:5 says that “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” At this point, the sun doesn’t exist, and God isn’t living within the universe, so “evening” and “morning” are empty signifiers from a scientific perspective. This one, I actually think can be explained pretty easily. Evening and morning mark transitional points in the account, and are narrative devices, not historical claims about it literally being sunset or sunrise. It’s not much different than saying, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany / Winter for Poland and France,” without suggesting that there are literally different seasons in the two regions.
  • Gen. 1:6-8 describes the creation of an “expanse” to separate the oceans from the sky.
  • Gen 1:14-18 puts the creation of the cosmos (or at least stars) after the creation of oceans, sky, and vegetation. Doctor Andrew Parker has an interesting theory on this, which I’ll get to later.

So the overall story seems consistent with evolution, while some of the details are head-scratchers. Based on this, there are two basic ways that the two can be reconciled:

  1. Genesis 1 is a theological account, establishing simply that God created everything from nothing (creating the materials, and then organizing them); that He intended us to work six days and rest on the Sabbath; that He created Man in His own (spiritual) image and likeness; and that Creation was created for Man to have dominion over. Creation alone was simply “good” (Gen 1:25), but after God introduced man, He declared it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). This account is not intending to describe cosmological or “scientific” history, it’s telling a story which conveys all of these truths (like a parable). In fact, trying to marry Genesis 1 to modern, popular accounts of evolution may backfire as a strategy (both because it seems to contradict the modern, popular theory, and because modern, popular theories may be proven wrong later).

  2. Genesis 1 reflects scientific truth. Even though it is primarily concerned with theological truths, the events described actually occurred. Where contradictions seem to exist, we either need to understand the verse in question better (perhaps it’s a storytelling device), or revise our scientific theories. We have a very incomplete understanding of either early cosmology (any humble scientist will admit this), and we cannot hope to ever know what Creation was like for God. So just as Genesis 1:3 once seemed scientifically wrong, because it described light prior to the Sun (and we now know it to be true), seemingly wrong parts of Genesis may well outlast the latest scientific theories.

II. What Others Are Saying
The starting point for this is Dr. Andrew Parker’s Washington Post article, “Probing Genesis for scientific truth.” In it, the author, who the Post introduces him as “a respected evolutionary biologist, a professor at the Natural History Museum in London and a honorary fellow at Oxford University,” who has previously written a book on the importance of development of the eye (and vision) in evolution. From this background, he writes:

I recently volunteered to place the creation account of Genesis 1 side-by-side with our new scientific understanding of the history of life and the universe. Excepting the absurd fiction that the world was created in seven days, I found an eerily-close match. Amazingly, the precise wording of the Bible’s first page, and the events inferred and the sequence with which they are placed, tells the story of life’s history according to our current best scientific understanding. That a man without scientific knowledge , should write such a thing in 700 BCE is almost scary. And then another man of similar stock placed it on the first page of his people’s most important book. This is what I call a genesis enigma.

On the Bible’s first page ‘Let there be light’ is mentioned twice, why? Recently science has provided answers in both physics and biology — the formation of the sun followed by the introduction of vision — and I played some scientific role in the second. In Genesis 1, emphasis is placed on sea creatures, despite this biblical author being landlocked with little or no knowledge of marine life. Who in their right mind would have placed these center stage? The more I looked, the more the Genesis creation story seemed unlikely to be the result of a lucky guess.

Obviously, this understanding of Genesis places Dr. Parker squarely in the second category. He suggests that the Genesis 1 account is wholly compatible with modern science, and wholly unusual to be simply a product of the times. Note also the bit about vision at the start of the second paragraph I quoted from. Here’s what he’s talking about: Genesis 1:3 says “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” That’s the creation of light. Genesis 1:14-15 says “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.’ And it was so.” Dr. Parker claims that this is not God organizing light into “sun” and “stars,” but rather the creation of primitive vision. Prior to this point, organisms might generally sense light, but with the advent of vision, they could (for the first time) separate the sun from the stars, and see more of the nuance of light. In other words, God isn’t creating something new cosmologically, but biologically.

Mark Shea’s response to this article was that “Science Guy demonstrates that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail,” and that:

Genesis is not a science book. It is not interested in scientific questions. It is not trying to answer science questions in the least. It is an extraoardionarily sophisticated piece of literature, but not sophisticated in ways immediately amenable to technology-minded moderns. It must be read on its terms, not on ours.

In other words, Mark is the first of the two camps I mentioned above, and Dr. Parker is in the second one. In the comments section, the debate continued. One commenter writes:

You’re right that Genesis is not a science book, and that we shouldn’t make its truth depend on whether it tracks perfectly to our latest discoveries in science. But regardless of what the writer(s) of Genesis were thinking when they wrote it, Genesis does capture an extraordinary amount of what scientists currently think about the origins of human life. Compare the creation account in Genesis with any other religious creation account, and you see precisely how close Genesis comes. (See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cre…/Creation_myth) . The Genesis account becomes even more interesting when one considers the similarities between the Big Bang and the statement that it all began with the statement, “Let there be light.”

Materialistic science didn’t predict the Big Bang, and many scientists resisted Msgr. Lemaitre’s proposal of the idea on the account that it must be a religious invention. As Nobel laureate physicist Arno Penzias said, “The best data we have [concerning the Big Bang] are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the bible as a whole.”

How could the ancient writers have been so accurate? Could the Holy Spirit have been building into Genesis a truth not recognized (or recognizable) by its author(s)?

Again, I’m not arguing that Genesis should be treated as a scientific text or that its truth depends on its correspondence to science. I’m just saying we shouldn’t be afraid to recognize (and we shouldn’t criticize others who recognize) its uncanny consistency with modern science.

A pretty solid argument for the first camp (Parker’s). “Jon W.” responds:

No, we absolutely do need to be afraid of noting any consistency of Genesis with our current (read: only valid for a short time till superseded by something else) understanding of science, because it encourages people in our overly-empirical society to read Genesis as if it were a science text, which it is not. People read it as if it were a scientific-materialist account of Creation. This satisfies them until they go to science class and realize that as a scientific-materialist text, it’s kind of … how you say, inaccurate.

So they decide that the Bible’s a bunch of hooey, and they go off and become one of P. Z. Meyers’s minions. Which is a fate worse than death.

So, save your children from a fate worse than death. Discover the literal literal meaning of the text.

A pretty solid argument for the second camp (Shea’s), and about the danger of the first camp.

III. My View, Briefly
Myself, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two camps. I think that what we know, and most of what we think we know, comports well with Genesis 1 understood in a sympathetic light. Those expecting Genesis 1 to read like a science book or a legal treaty where every word means what the reader wants it to mean, or expects it to mean at first glance, produces an incompatible result, and a variety of atheists and Fundamentalists have loudly argued that Genesis must be understood in this light. But there’s no reason that I see not to conclude that the Big Bang theory and evolution may be correct, and that if they are correct, they’re compatible with Genesis 1 in the way that Parker outlines. Finally, at the end of the day, Genesis 1 isn’t meaning to convey science, so it’s possible that God permits it to contain scientific errors or colorful storytelling which some scientists aren’t able to appreciate. I largely agree with Dr. Parker’s view of Genesis, but I agree with Shea and others that the truth of Genesis isn’t dependent upon either (a) how well it comports with the latest faddish theory about Creation, and (b) even how accurately it describes the history of Creation. God seems to permit errors on irrelevant details in other parts of the Bible, so while the fact that Genesis 1 comports with the latest theories is startling proof of its Divine Inspiration, even if the evidence came out the other way, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

IV. The Church’s Stance
Pope Pius XII tackled this question head-on in 1950 in the encyclical Humani Generis, and made a few important points which shouldn’t be overlooked. He begins by a fascinating examination of the relationship between faith and reason. He hits something of a crescendo in paragraph 36:

36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.[11] Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

Jeremiah 1:5 says that God knew us before He formed us in our mothers’ wombs, and in Psalm 139:13, the Psalmist praises God for “knitting me in my mother’s womb” (imagery I particularly like in light of the discovery of the double-helix DNA structure). But the fact that God formed us doesn’t negate the natural process. That is, no one says you have to choose between belief in sexual reproduction and Divine creation of each individual, nor do we say (as some heretics did) that sex creates the body and God creates the soul. Rather, God creates both body and soul, and both are good. Our souls, He creates ex nihilo, while our bodies are made from pre-existing genetic material. If sex doesn’t negate God’s creative power (but rather is an avenue through which He works), neither should evolution. After all, it’s essentially saying that just as you and I have biological parents and a spiritual Father who created us, Adam (and possibly Eve) had biological [non-human] parents whose genetic material God fashioned, and breathed a soul into.

Still, as Pope Pius XII points, just because this vision of Creation is compatible with Genesis doesn’t meant it’s the only one compatible with Genesis, or the right one. It’s entirely possible that Adam was created directly from literal dust.

37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]

Monogenism is the belief that we all literally descended from two ancestors, which the Bible refers to as Adam (“Man”) and Ishshah (“Woman” – see Gen. 2:23) or Eve (“living one” or “source of life” – see Gen. 3:20). Polygenism is the opposite belief (evolution gradually produced a whole lot of homo sapiens which weren’t directly related to one another), and the pope seems to suggest that it’s not a permissible theory to hold. So if one opts to believe in evolution, there needs to be a recognition that God, through a special act of fashioning a human and eternal soul (instead of the presumably mortal souls which conscious animals are thought to have) bestowed the unique gift of manhood after God’s own image upon Adam and Eve (and of course, their descendants). Coupled with that is the belief that Original Sin is real, and is really transmitted to the children of this historic couple.

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