Can the Bible Survive Science? – By John Walton

John Walton on Mark Harris’s The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science

Mark Harris, The NAture of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science, Durham: Acumen, 2013, 213pp., $29.95
Mark Harris, The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science, Durham: Acumen, 2013, 213pp., $29.95

In 2003, an international research group successfully mapped the human genome, exposing for the first time the mass of genetic information encoded in human DNA. This event changed the ideological landscape of conversations on the Bible and science, in part because it produced genetic evidence for the evolutionary relationships between humans and many other species. This explosion of genetic data has prompted many questions about human origins and demands a renewed examination of the biblical text and of Christian theology.  Meanwhile, recent work in biblical studies has encouraged new readings of creation literature — particularly in the book of Genesis — thereby reconfiguring the Bible’s relationship to science. Yet, few scholars are competent in both the hard sciences and biblical studies. Even fewer approach the confluence of these two fields without a predetermined agenda to promote. Mark Harris, however, is competent — he is trained in both physics and theology — and even-handed in his new book, The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science.

Harris’s engagement with biblical criticism, informed interaction with philosophical and theological issues, and firm grasp of the current scientific consensus allow him to make a seasoned and carefully nuanced argument that will satisfy scientists, theologians, and biblical scholars and make this book stand out from others in the field. As someone who works in the biblical field, Harris piqued my interest by giving insightful attention to the text of the Bible, the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis, and Old Testament critical scholarship. His broad view of the sciences and fair treatment of scientists will likely encourage specialists to treat him as an ally.

Harris’s central thesis is that we do not need to choose between the sciences and the Christian tradition and that “a living faith finds a means to appropriate the Bible’s creation theologies and to engage constructively with science.” He insists that the Bible can retain its normative status in a scientific world. The key to this integration is to interpret the Bible correctly; for, once we do, we find that the problems with science recede.


Any realistic understanding of the relationship of the Bible to science must begin with a clear understanding of what the Bible is literarily and what the Bible claims to be theologically. Harris offers a clear theological understanding of the nature of the text: it is primarily a theological picture of God and it tells the story of the beginning of the relationship between God, creation, and humankind. In this sense it is more than cosmology — it introduces the concept of sacred space. Harris finds this relational aspect of the picture of God (God in sacred space among his people) most prevalent in the biblical creation accounts, and he notes that such a view has no bearing on modern science.

Throughout, he poses the prototypical conundrums that arise when addressing origins, outlines the various perspectives on the issue, then points to some ways forward. He continually stimulates the reader to pause, to think of the issues differently, and to consider new pathways.

For instance, many Christians today believe Darwinism is incompatible with Christian faith because it makes the work of Christ unnecessary. Scientific findings on the origins of humanity reveal continuity with other higher primates and animals in terms of social and moral order. All of nature is defined largely as “red in tooth and claw” and seems to have been present since the beginning. This has led many to question an original innocence and, hence, the theological concept of the Fall. The argument is stated simply: no Fall, no need for redemption.  For Harris, however, it is not Neo-Darwinism that poses the threat but particular biblical interpretations that do so. For example, he interacts with the proposal that the Adam and Eve story is an aetiology of conscience and that eating from the tree represents their moment of awakening. In such an aetiology, the account in Genesis 3 becomes a step forward (enlightenment), not a problem that needs solving (Fall and entrance of sin). Harris immediately notes a number of problems, among them that such a view does not address natural evil and that it presents only a subjective Fall. In his view, rather than Neo-Darwinism, biblical interpretations such as this are to blame for making the work of Christ seem superfluous.

Strasbourg Cathedral, Creation of Adam and Eve – Image via Wikimedia Commons
Strasbourg Cathedral, Creation of Adam and Eve – Image via Wikimedia Commons

His even-handed approach characterizes discussions of other issues in genetics, such as mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam and the so-called genetic bottleneck, or of theological issues such as the case for the historical Adam. On the latter, while he concedes that Paul may well have believed that Adam was a historical individual, Harris contends that Paul’s actual theological argument rests on Adam only as a representative. In his view, debating an historical Adam does little to help us understand Paul’s point since Romans 5:14 refers to him as a “symbol.” At the same time he recognizes that Christian doctrine has long been dependent on Augustine, who does require a historical Adam. In this observation Harris has identified one of the most important areas of research that must be undertaken today. Can we adopt a more critical view of Augustine and get back to Paul? If we follow Harris, Paul would have much fewer points of contention with Neo-Darwinism than Augustine and his followers in modern Protestant traditions. Here, Harris offers a more fruitful option as represented by Irenaeus — that Adam and Eve should be viewed less as “fallen” than as having “failed to ascend”.

In a similar vein, his conclusion that the Fall, as it has been formulated in Christian theology, is “marginal to the biblical witness” may shock some readers: “We have seen that the writers of the Old and New Testaments were able to exist without asserting the historical Fall strongly (if at all), although they were certain that sin and failure are universal features of the human condition.”  In other words, the actual further doctrinal development of such items as original sin may not have concerned the earliest of ecclesial figureheads. This prompts the question: Can traditional Protestantism survive an overhaul of the concept of original sin and yet remain true to the conviction about the reality of sin and the need for a Savior? Here again Harris shows how the science involved might prompt further biblical and theological reflection but also how multiple perspectives, which can often accommodate this new data, already mark the Christian tradition.

What does Harris have to say about how we talk about suffering, sin, and death in relation to science and theology? He encourages the readers to consider the concept of “evolutionary theologies,” formulating ways to understand God in light of evolution that are incorrigibly theological rather than biological. We see him once again acknowledging that a thoroughly theological response can accommodate scientific findings. He suggests that we think of suffering and death not as unmitigated evils but as subtleties to account for (he notes praise to God for providing prey for carnivorous animals in Job 38:39-41; Ps 104:21; Ps 147:9). This suggestion opens up paths of thinking that may well help us to make headway in the conversation, but a more nuanced examination of the place of the threat of death in the Genesis narrative could have strengthened his argument considerably. He accepts the increasingly common observation in Old Testament critical scholarship: God said Adam and Eve would die (they didn’t) and the serpent said they would become like God (they did). Though the Church Fathers routinely recognized this problem and answered with the proposition that God meant “spiritual death,” any Old Testament scholar recognizes that as an anachronism that finds no support in the Hebrew Bible. A better solution is found in giving careful attention to the syntactical elements in Genesis 2:17. The expression beyom is a Hebrew idiom meaning “when” and carries no connotation of “in the next 24 hours” or “before the sun sets.” More importantly, the construction translated, “you will surely die,” is comprised of an absolute infinitive and a finite verb of the same root. When used in other contexts it clearly means “you will be doomed to die” or “you will incur the sentence of death.” That is exactly what happens when they are driven from the garden and access to the tree of life is cut off. With this understanding, we can agree with Irenaeus that people were created mortal, so death was normal and life was only available as an antidote provided by God through relationship with him.

One of the most creative suggestions Harris makes is that there is need to uphold the continuing roles for multiple creation paradigms that in the past have been viewed as competing alternatives: creatio ex nihilo, creatio continua, and creatio ex vetere (“out of the old”). He contends these just represent differing aspects of creation rather than competing paradigms and that each can find resonances in science and theology. Ex nihilo can be linked with the Big Bang but is largely theological as it addresses non-contingency and transcendence. Continua is supported by evolutionary theories and theologically pertains to God’s immanence in relationship. Ex vetere can be addressed from the sciences in largely biological terms but is attested robustly in theological concepts such as resurrection, redemption, and New Creation. Harris considers these paradigms to cohere as one work of creation and he urges us to consider this unity in diversity as reminiscent of and not unrelated to our doctrine of the Trinity.

The Nature of Creation could easily assuage the often-volatile interactions surrounding the issue of origins. Harris reminds us that learned biblical scholarship and nuanced theological erudition is often a foil for hasty concern that so often leads to detrimental boundary-policing and premature foreclosure. He concludes that modern science only overlaps the biblical/theological theme of creation at very superficial levels. As outdated as the cosmology of ancient Israelites may seem to the present scientific point of view, science “has not invalidated their various portraits of the relationship between God and creation” and remains a significant theological resource for so many today.

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