The Bible differs from Darwinian thought in fundamental respects. But the early authors of Scripture and the architects of evolutionary science shared a similar challenge: Both were looking to make sense of environments characterized by aggression, violence, and fierce competition for scarce resources. Biblical scholar Dru Johnson, director of the Center for Hebraic Thought, spells out this and other surprising parallels in his book What Hath Darwin to Do with Scripture? Comparing the Conceptual Worlds of the Bible and Evolution. Matthew Nelson Hill, author of Embracing Evolution: How Understanding Science Can Strengthen Your Christian Life, spoke with Johnson about reconciling biblical and scientific accounts of reality.
What is the “elevator pitch” you would give to summarize your book?
The biblical authors have a particular conceptual model that governs how they think about reality. What Darwin would later call natural selection is something they actually talk about quite vigorously in the early chapters of Genesis, even if not explicitly in those terms. My goal in the book is putting this biblical model into conversation with the Darwinian model of evolutionary science, to see where the underlying worldviews compare and contrast. My contention is that these worldviews are more complementary than we sometimes might suppose.
How do you work to maintain a high view of Scripture as you put it into conversation with Darwinian science?
This is the highest view of Scripture you could have, because it makes a serious effort to evaluate the motives and philosophical notions of its writers. And yet this often causes discomfort among those who say they have a high view of Scripture, because we’re not always used to entering the intellectual world of the authors themselves.
We often think of science as inherently secular in its perspectives and assumptions. But when you study it alongside the conceptual world of the Hebrew Bible, you can see how it represents one of the greatest expressions of that conceptual world. I’ve spent lots of time in the Hebrew text, and I believe that if you could time-warp writers of that era into the present and catch them up on our knowledge of things like solar systems and galaxies, they would find that it all makes sense.
Early in the book, you argue that science is telling a story and also that Scripture is not “merely” a story. Can you elaborate?
Anytime you read a scientific explanation, it almost always comes packaged in a larger narrative. Especially at the quantum level, many scientific facts are almost inexplicable without a narrative framework to help us make sense of them.
When you read evolutionary accounts of how humans emerged from various hominid ancestors, you realize that every worldview has an origin story, which is supposed to tell us where morality comes from and explain the reality we see today. Scripture, in this light, isn’t doing anything weird by giving an origin story meant to provide a foundation for morality and ethics and explain the development of things like families, nations, and political systems.
Lots of people come to the early chapters of Genesis with one question: Did all this really happen? I do think the ancient Hebrews would have read these stories as accounts of things that really happened. But in another sense, the Bible resists this kind of framing, because it’s trying to offer something beyond a functional explanation for how the world came into being.
In one section of the book, you deal heavily with sexual reproduction, a topic that both evolution and Scripture care deeply about. How are we to talk about this topic in productive ways?
If you’re prudish about sex, then buckle up, because the biblical writers are not, especially when it comes to the necessity of continuing family lines. You could point to the account of Lot’s two daughters, who got their father drunk to have sex with him and produce offspring. Or you could point to Abraham, who prostitutes his wife as a means of saving his life and preserving the possibility of the family God had promised.
Why is all this included? I think part of the answer is that these stories convey something of the sobriety that the biblical authors brought to the brokenness and fragility of humanity and its need for redemption.
Death, as you show, is part and parcel of nature. Yet Scripture depicts death as a great enemy to be defeated. How can we reconcile these two perspectives?
The biblical authors are very attuned to the fact that death happens and that it’s horrible. They are aware of how it shapes the world around them, but they are also aware that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
In the book, I use the language of the “Gloria Patri”—“as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be”—to outline this reality. The hymn itself, of course, testifies that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But the language hints at the way that things are different after the Fall, that God’s original design has been broken because of sin. So we can imagine a world where nature is crafted toward a good end, without the necessity of death.
If, as you contend, real science—research and exploration governed by the scientific method—began about 500 years ago, how can the Bible be seen as telling us anything about science?
There is a recurring question in the history of science that essentially asks, “Why did science start?” Because clearly there are great intellectual pursuits taking place in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and other major empires. There’s no shortage of very smart people doing very smart things. So why does science develop in the West with people who have essentially appropriated a Hebrew view of reality?
One good answer begins like this: There is just no good version of science grounded in the assumption that none of what we observe around us is really real. You can’t say that all the real stuff is in the heavens or being animated by spirits behind the trees, to mention just a few broad generalizations of certain religious or philosophical schools of thought. You can’t say that our senses are fundamentally deceiving us.
The Hebrew Bible takes a very different position: that what we observe around us is real, knowable, and regulated, even if it leaves room for divine interruption. The gift of the Hebrews is a scheme for discerning the workings of natural reality and letting that reality correct us, which is an aspect of science that I wish theology would pick up more often.
What is your greatest hope for readers of this book?
It has nothing to do with evolution or Darwinism. My biggest goal is getting people to think seriously about the intellectual world of the biblical authors and of biblical literature itself. I hope readers will see how those authors are addressing more issues than we might notice on the surface.
To take one example: You don’t see the modern institution of policing in the Bible. From that you might conclude that the Bible doesn’t say much about police work. It actually has a lot to say, but you need to know how to listen. Overall, I want readers to take the leap from Bible literacy, where you know what’s in the Bible, to Bible fluency, where you can extend its way of thinking into all kinds of practical areas.
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