By: Steven Nelms
Evangelical Christians are those types that subscribe to the necessity of sharing their faith for the explicit purpose of encouraging others to believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Old Earth Christians are those types that subscribe to the Earth being approximately 4.7 billion years old existing in a universe that is somewhere around 14 billion years old.
At the time I took this survey, I had been a Christian for less than a year. I’d never been really great at science and hadn’t really considered how old the Earth actually was. I was an English major, so it didn’t really concern my academic pursuit. I did know enough to know that all but one of my Christian friends agreed with the Young Earth theory. So I more or less shrugged my shoulders and agreed with Young Earth Creationism. I’ve since then changed my mind on this issue, but that isn’t why I want to talk about it.
At the heart of this issue in conservative evangelical circles is one that deals with how we interpret Scripture. It has very little to do with whether we accept compatibility between faith and science. It has everything to do with where we place authority in concluding on our opinions concerning the age of the Earth. But here is where we get into some sticky areas. Usually, the argument is whether we’re going to be using Scripture or Science as our chief authority. But this isn’t the argument at all. The actual issue at hand is whether we’re going to be using our interpretation of Scripture or our interpretation of the Science as our chief authority.
Neither Scripture nor Science is devoid of our human fallibility. We are interpreting objective source material through subjective lenses. Now, we’re doing the best we can. The rocks are there and they can only be one age. They provide objective source material, but it is our ability to rightly interpret their evidence that gets us into trouble. The same goes for Scripture. Scripture can only be teaching one objective truth. It’s just that our methodology of interpreting the truth it is conveying will always be flawed by nature of us being human. It’s our job to do the best work we can to most adequately interpret the evidence we’re provided.
I’m not here to explain and argue for a particular way of interpreting the scientific evidence. I myself agree with the conclusion that the Earth is billions of years old and the universe is several billions of years older than that. What I do want to discuss is how we interpret Scripture. It’s called Hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is the method by which we understand works of literature. It gets its namesake from the Greek god, Hermes, who was the messenger god. There have been a lot of different methods of hermeneutics throughout the centuries. Some see the work of literature as a distinct manifestation in itself that must be interpreted wholly separate from the author of the work. Some think that the background and cultural influence of the author must be included in the interpretation of the work itself. Some think that any and all literature can be interpreted on multiple levels, such as the literal level, allegorical level, mystical level, etc. For the most part, a Conservative Evangelical would subscribe to a hermeneutic that is described as the most plain, literal reading possible. So where the genre seems to be history, then it’s read as history. Where the genre is poetry, then it’s read as poetry. Where the genre is apocalyptic, then it’s read as apocalyptic. Genre is necessarily taken into account when trying to provide the most plain and most literal interpretation of a given passage.
So this brings us to the long struggled over passage of Genesis 1. How are we to interpret this passage? It becomes even more narrowed of an issue than simply what kind of hermeneutical method we think should be used. It is narrowed to what exactly is the genre of Genesis 1. If it is history, then it requires a different handling than if it is poetry. And then within these two camps, there are various meanings of it, if it is indeed history or if it is indeed poetry. I think it is of utmost importance to understand that while using the same hermeneutic, people can arrive at different conclusions based on which genre they would classify Genesis 1 as.
The idea that only one interpretation of Genesis 1 should be accepted as reflective of being “biblically minded” is blatantly irrespective, if not ignorant, of the past 2,000 years of church history. Some of the greatest thinkers in Christendom throughout the centuries disagreed on the meaning of Genesis 1. Again, I’m not here to argue one interpretation over the other. It’s clear that there is only one correct meaning, since the Earth cannot be both 6 thousand years old and 4 billion years old. But to so boldly assert that we have accurately interpreted the passage that it leads us to charge our brethren with mishandling, misunderstanding, and unwisely expositing Scripture is a grave claim. Understanding Genesis 1 as a literal account of 6, 24-hour days does not hinder or help one’s interpretation, understanding, or application of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as interpreting Genesis 1 as poetic does not negate one’s understanding of salvation throughout the rest of Scripture. I do believe that it is irresponsible to claim otherwise. I believe it is irresponsible to say that one’s understanding of Genesis 1 could ever be grounds for casting doubt upon their understanding of the gospel.
I think then that we should be able to explore and entertain varying theories concerning the meaning of Genesis and the natural sciences that seek to explain the history of living organisms on this planet. Given the options concerning interpretative methodology, a number of hypothesis such as Young Earth Creationism, Theistic Evolution, or Intelligent Design are all legitimate theories. They are mutually exclusive to some extent to one another, but none of these are necessarily excluded by Genesis 1.
So at the end of the day, my proposal is toward open-mindedness and a little more grace on the subject of the age of the Earth and how we arrived at where we are today. It’s worthy of conversation, but not even remotely worthy of dissension. My challenge is to stop thinking of your particular method of interpreting Genesis 1 as the method that is more “biblically minded”. No one seeking Christ and seeking an understanding of Scripture is deliberately being unbiblical. “Neither were the heretics!” you might say. But nothing about the varying interpretive views of Genesis 1 propagate heresy. If you believe otherwise, please name for me one heresy that you can trace back to an incorrect interpretation of Genesis 1. I do believe the ardent discussion over Genesis 1 and the disheartening dissension it’s caused within the church is simply a novelty and will pass in the following generations. But more than likely to only be replaced by a different distraction that will derail the energy of the church from what really matters. But I at least hope to be a part of the remedy that reconciles people’s inaccurate understanding that one view of the Earth’s age is somehow more biblically minded than another.
Let’s resolve toward more humility in our interpretations of Scripture and not claim that our interpretation of Scripture is synonymous with Scripture itself. Let’s resolve to acknowledge authority where authority is due. So more than a desire to explain why I am an Old Earth, Evangelical, Conservative Christian, I desire to at least have diversity in hermeneutical methodology respected enough that we wouldn’t claim a bold assertion on an ambiguous passage as singularly biblical.
Strive to love well, brothers and sisters.