Lest the bold title of this post be over-read and lead to serious misunderstanding, this is about using the bible to make scientific assertions, not about denying the truth-value of Genesis.
Over at Thinking Christian, Tom Gilson posted (awhile ago) some very good thoughts on putting the creation-evolution debate in perspective with regard to its necessity for Orthodoxy (to loosely paraphrase). In essence, it’s ok to say we don’t know when we don’t know and it’s important to recognize when we don’t know. Concerning this debate, it’s important for Christians to realize that the debates involved in evolution are much more complex and involve much more sophisticated analysis that most people know/understand – perhaps especially among those who feel the need to voice strong opinion. To this I say, “Well put”.
With that prelude, it was not too many decades ago that the creation-evolution debate was in full flame within the church. Recently, it has rekindled due to some goings-on with Bruce Waltke and other high profile biblical, especially OT, scholars publicly admitting that evolutionary theory is not incompatible (note the logic of the negatives) with Genesis 1 (the incident is a little more complex but that seems to be the nub of it.) This has recently created a flurry of re-affirmation of the “plain reading” of Genesis 1 in asserting a 6-day creation view as biblical (i.e. orthodox).
This is no small issue, often times creating considerable division between those who hold scripture as canonical for life, yet see little reason why science should be so wrong in their claims of origins (perhaps theistic evolution should be the answer), and those who plainly see that origins are clearly spelled out in scripture, are plainly contradicted by science, and therefore clearly denies God by denying Scripture. These are by no means the extremes of the spectrum, but such disparity can often lead the first group to view the latter as perhaps somewhat fundamentalistic, and at least a little narrow minded in their approach to scripture. Meanwhile the latter group often sees the former as compromising God’s word, as not truly or fully submitting to the authority of scripture, and perhaps being a bit too influenced by the liberal thought of academia. Along the lines of Tom Gilson, I think this calls for checking both our judgmentalism and our too-small orthodoxy box at the door. Of course some if not many fit the caricatures of each camp, but we suffer flawed thinking if we think that it’s necessarily the case.
At its best, what seems to be going on is a division between those who do not want the Christian faith compromised by assenting to a theory that really wants to explain away God and those who want to find some sort of allowance that science, though (generally) denying God, is objective enough to read some truth out of God’s “natural revelation”. I think there is a way out of this dichotomy and room for parts of both.
First, some considerations towards the first group:
1) It almost invariably happens in the quest to understand Scripture that what Scripture asserts to be true and what’s incidental to the assertion (historical, cultural, etc.) are confused to some degree or another. Take as an example Job 38:4 and 6 which reflect the view common in its day picturing an actual foundation (pillars) holding up a flat disc called earth. Now, it’s been well proven – not least by astronauts – that the earth is round and doesn’t have an actual foundation. I can’t help but chuckle picturing a conversation with someone back in the day explaining that the earth is not just round but actually just suspended in … hmmm … Nothingness? Blackness? Space? If you’ve seen The Emperor’s New Groove, in the words of Kronk: “Riiight.” So, anyways, the understanding of the author used by the bible, picturing a flat earth or pillars holding up the earth, may be wrong but that doesn’t make the bible wrong in any real sense because the text isn’t asserting the fact but using the incidental cultural view to proclaim God’s sovereign majesty in creation. [Update: I changed this sentence slightly since my wife informed me that what I wrote isn’t quite what I meant.] The earth still exists no matter what cultural viewpoint is standing on it … and God created it.
What’s happening is that the author is correctly proclaiming an attribute of God through an erroneous astrological viewpoint, which God didn’t see fit to correct. The confusion between assertion and incident is natural when one simply doesn’t understand the world-view of the original author, something inevitable in finite and fallen humans. This confusion is often decreased when considerable effort is made to understand the cultural-historical background(s) of the text, knowing that what the text means is more important than what the text means to me. Likewise the confusion is increased when no care or thought is taken to understanding that there is an author before a reader. When this happens, it’s easy to ask the wrong questions, questions foreign to the world of the author, and so get the wrong answers, making the bible affirm something it didn’t intend to affirm. Examples of this abound throughout history. The peoples of the OT, for example, assumed slavery, so that if one tries one can find all sorts of Scripture references that “support” slavery. After all, even in the NT Paul in Ephesians 6:5 ff commands that slaves obey their masters, not run away, and masters are to treat their slave with goodwill, not threatening them. If slavery is such a bad thing, why doesn’t Paul abolish it then and there? … Not too many would argue along these lines these days, but would probably sound quite ludicrous. But cultural incidentals have been used also to affirm arranged marriages, inferiority of women, geocentrism, flat earth, etc., some of which were long standing dogmas of the church. But the bible can, and often does, make profound theological assertions within a given cultural framework without asserting the cultural framework. Great care needs to be taken when using the bible to assert a cultural issue.
2) At the same time, when #1 above isn’t kept in view, it can be easy to take current cultural frameworks and agendas and transpose them back on the text. The scientific inquiry of today is far removed from the cultural framework of Jesus’ day, let alone Genesis 1. But when something comes along that threatens the theistic assertions of the church in the name of objective scientific inquiry, and there is little perspective of the actual cultural framework of, say, Genesis 1, then it can be easy to develop a counter-argument in the name of Scripture while being far from it. The problem is that we’re still playing the scientific game and using non-scientific tools. A new playing field is needed.
3) When someone comes along who doesn’t see the scientific explanation as satisfactory and tries to correct the understanding of the text (especially because he/she places high value on it), tensions can arise because the major weapon is being removed from the arsenal. And it seems a better understanding has come along, defended by some highly respected biblical scholars. Genesis 1 is using imagery/symbolism common in its day to portray God creating the cosmos, with the earth at its center, to be his temple/dwelling place from which he orders the cosmos. Whether or not the 6 (or 7) days are literal is a question that already strains the text. The symbolism and structure was common in its day and had something much different to assert than a precise literal accounting of the order of creation, a scientific journal log of sorts.
Now, it would take a good post or two to really defend the whole of Genesis 1, but a fair survey of the parallel literature of Genesis would find, for example, that 7’s abound to a degree that transcends the literal. Its usage seems to usually concern something like “A full or complete cycle of time or effort sufficient for its due significance.” So, for example, we read in the Epic of Gilgamesh that Enkidu has sex with a harlot 6 days and 7 nights – sufficient to tame him from his feral ways. Afterwards he drinks 7 jars of beer – sufficient to become a man. Gilgamesh himself builds an ark with 7 decks and completes it in 7 days. The ark ran aground in 6 days and he releases a dove on the 7th. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh weeps for 6 days and 7 nights. There are numerous other examples in Ancient Near East (ANE) literature where 7th day refers to the climax of a cataclysmic cosmic event or the completion of a temple dedication ritual.
It’s possible that the 7 days in Genesis are meant to be literal, but the above indicates that the point of the text lies far from the point. That the text obviously means 7 days misses the point. The author obviously speaks of 7 days in a literary sense inasmuch as he wants to portray his point. What it appears the author wishes to portray is a vivid description of perfection and completeness with which God creates everything that exists.
In the end, perhaps it really is 7 literal days that Genesis 1 portrays. But the meaning intended to be conveyed lies so far from this that it’s hardly a point that should delineate orthodoxy. One can be reasonably faithful to the text without taking 7 literal days.
[Update: Upon further reflection, I'd add that there's also no need to exclude a literal 7 days just because there is greater symbolism evident.It may very well be that a literal understanding actually establishes the symbolism. If God exists, then it's His world after all. We are hardly in a place to judge otherwise.]