Memory Meaning & Faith
By Nick Miller (Department of Church History, SDA Theological Seminary, Andrews University)
Sometime back, I examined the claims of Professor John H. Walton of Wheaton College to have uncovered the “lost” world of Genesis 1. There, I examined his argument that Genesis 1 was consistent with other Ancient Near Eastern literature in only concerning itself with functional origins, not material origins.Thus, he believed that the Genesis account was silent as to when the physical stuff of the earth, plants, animals, and even humankind was actually made.
This concern with functionality, Walton claims, allows for the teachings of evolutionary biology to remain largely unaffected by the Biblical account, as there is really no conflict between the two accounts, once they are properly understood. I argued that Walton’s arguments were problematic for Adventists, who see both a functional and material story in Genesis, and who also would have significant theological problems with their Great Controversy framework if God used suffering and death to bring about His good creation.
But given the topic, it would be remiss not to say something about science. Religious scholars believe that scientists do not take the Bible and theology seriously enough, and the opposite is also true. Scientists are often frustrated by the apparent lack of willingness to listen by their theologian colleagues. No doubt we all have much to learn and improve in the skill and art of listening.
As a professor of theology and history, I acknowledge that science does matter, and that it does make a difference to how we do theology and history. Empirical data does impact Biblical interpretation and understanding. Some of our most basic canons of Biblical interpretation, such as that metaphors should be construed symbolically, and literal passages, literally, is dependent on our knowledge of the empirical world to distinguish between the literal and symbolic. It is our knowledge of the real, natural world that enables us to see that dragons with ten heads, and goats with horns growing on horns, are symbols that require interpretation.
We also must be open to having Biblical understandings and interpretations checked by the real world. One example is the church and Galileo, where many people thought the Bible taught the earth was the center of the universe, or at least of the solar system. This was based on Greek philosophy, but some had come to view it as a teaching of the Bible. Galileo’s scientific findings regarding the orbit of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus, both showing that the earth was not the center of orbit of everything in the solar system, were cause to go back and look at the Biblical evidence, and to determine that in fact it did not teach a geo-centric universe.
A more recent example is the Adventist experience of 1844 and the Great Disappointment. The failure of Christ to return to earth on October 22, 1844, was empirical, real world evidence that something was not right with the Millerite interpretation of Daniel 8. It forced a re-examination of the relevant passages, and a realization that our interpretation of the nature and location of the sanctuary was in error.
So empirical observation can invalidate and guide Biblical interpretation. The question becomes one of level of demonstrability and certainty. On October 23, 1844, the fact that Christ had not come, at least in the manner the Millerites understood as described in the Bible, was an open, notorious, and observable fact by everyone alive at that time. The evidence for a sun-centered solar system in Galileo’s day was similarly observable and demonstrable, at least by those with the time, patience and equipment to observe and chart the phases of Venus and the orbit of the moons of Jupiter.
What about evolution, at least the capital E kind, which claims the relatedness of all living beings and the gradual progression of all life forms? I believe that it comes nowhere close to meeting the same level of certainty or demonstrability of either Christ’s failure to return in 1844, or Galileo’s proofs of the place of the sun in our solar system. Don’t take my word for it. Rather, consider the words of evolutionary paleontologists themselves, who considered the guardians of the most reliable and valuable proof of evolution—the fossil record. (Read more)