Setting Realistic Expectations and Establishing Faithful Paths for Navigating History, Science, and the Bible

As disciples seeking to study God’s Word and His world, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the vast amount of information and resources that are out there related to the topic.  Yet there are some basic considerations that can guide us and help us to remain, or become, both realistic and faithful in our journey. Here we’ll cover three broad considerations: remembering our place as humans in history, listening to the wisdom of the Bible to guide our expectations, and remembering the Church as vital to our faith and exploration.

The creature and the Creator:

I am not God. You are not God. Simple enough, right? In theory, yes, but in practice? I’m not so convinced. I believe that tempting serpent still whispers, “You will be like God” (Gen. 3:5). When it comes to fathoming Creation, or particularly creating historical reconstructions that align with Biblical truth, this temptation comes in the form of desiring omniscience, that is, complete and infinite knowledge. In theology, omniscience is called a “noncommunicable attribute.” Some attributes of God can be reflected in His image bearers, while others are not able to be shared. They are part of what separates the Creator from the creature. Omniscience is for God alone. 

I hate admitting ignorance. Mystery freaks me out. I like my world nice and comfortable, about the size of my favorite coffee shop. In fact, I want to know everything. Pretty ambitious right? Maybe, but it’s also pretty sinful. Often this desire to know stems from an inability to trust. When I look at the history of this planet, I rapidly get confused. There is a lot to know! In fact, there is more to know than any one person can know. Actually, it goes beyond even that, there is so much that we simply cannot know about the past. 

When we start talking about creationism, which are theories about Creation1, we need to remember that the vast majority of the past is lost to us. No matter how much we search, we will only find crumbs. From those crumbs we try to construct historical narratives about the past that often look more like two day old half-eaten toast than they do a fresh loaf of grandma’s warm sourdough bread. Anytime we start thinking in historical terms, in this instance the history of life on earth, we need to heed the wisdom of historian Robert T. Mckenzie:

Cultivate epistemological humility by reminding ourselves of our limited ability to know the subject before us. It may seem counterintuitive, but sound historical thinking always starts here… Remind yourself—regularly, repeatedly—on the chasm that separates history and the past. Remember that the past is almost endless, human behavior is immeasurably complex, and the primary historical evidence that survives is but a minuscule fraction of the original historical record. Recognize the magnitude of the challenge. Feel small. Pray.

Only God knows all history. Only God knows the entire past. We know but the slightest fraction. May this humble us. May this cause us to tremble at the immensity of our God. May we start to know, may we begin to hear, “the LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will never grow faint or weary; His understanding is beyond searching out” (Isaiah 40:28).

Humility within the Word:

That brings us to our next point. What does the Bible actually teach about what humanity can know in regards to the complete history of the earth? It doesn’t take long exploring any of the creation websites out there to assume that some Christians think we’ve just about got it all figured out. Got a question about the past? They’ve got a ready answer, and then some. At times the confidence in their assertions is stunning. Don’t get me wrong, I love a strong answer and I love seeing someone’s desire to defend what the Bible teaches. But, I’ll ask again, what does the Bible teach us about our ability to understand the purposes and work that God has done in the past?

Often our zeal to defend one part of the Bible causes us to avoid or miss other parts of it that should temper some of our conclusions. Often we want to play the hero and prove the Bible in ways that I believe the Bible actually denies. Although I can affirm the historical truths of the Bible, I cannot figure out the work that God has done from the beginning of time even onto now. Neither can you. God’s Word explicitly denies this, so if you’ve got a problem with that statement, your problem is not with me.

Many people are familiar with the first part of Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV), “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” but have you seriously considered what follows? “Yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Sit on that for minute.  Then remember, “Can you fathom the deep things of God or discover the limits of the Almighty?” (Job 11:7) Indeed, “What exists is out of reach and very deep. Who can fathom it?” (Ecclesiastes 7:24) Not I. Not you. Even if we “saw every work of God” we would only see that, “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Ecclesiastes 8:17, NIV). This does forbid us from searching out answers and making claims, God knows I have, but…

When we consider the immensity of the past, when we dwell upon the staggering complexity of the history of this rock, when we tremble at our lack of knowledge, may we begin to exclaim, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised; His greatness is unsearchable.” (Romans 11:33, Psalm 139:6, Psalm 145:3) I sought, but I could not fathom. I searched, yet I did not find. Too lofty. Too deep. It is beyond me… and yet… despite all of this, God has given me, and He has given you, Jesus Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:3)

Help from the Church:

Moving to the final consideration, in case you didn’t know, I can’t read ancient Greek. Nor Hebrew. Nor Aramaic. These are the three languages that the Bible was written in and here I am, a 21st century English-speaking American trusting my entire eternal life to words that were first written in languages that I don’t know. Sure, I’ll drop the occasional Logos when I’m feeling fancy, and who doesn’t like a little agape every now and then? But much more than that, I really don’t know. 

But the Church does know these languages. Far too often in our cultural we are encouraged to think individualistically. It’s a very Western concept. But I’m not only Western, I’m also American! You know what else we love? A good old fashioned rebellion every now and then! Everyone loves a rebel. The irony of our culture though, is how often it eats itself alive. What happens when a bunch of individuals rebel against the idea of individuality? Well, if nothing else, you’ll find a far closer depiction of what it means to be a Christian. We are a community. We “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; emphasis mine). What my community of brothers and sisters in Christ know, in some real sense, I know. 

Think of the analogy of the body that the Apostle Paul uses in I Corinthians 12. All the members of the body of Christ are vital, yet they are gifted very differently. But all this is masterfully designed so that all believers would share and benefit form one another. God has not yet ordained my life in such a way for me to know any foreign languages. But he has given the body of Christ such people! And by that gift, when I read my Bible I get to read “speech that is clear” and by which I, through the gifts and work of others, receive “edification” (I Cor. 14:9,12).

In the same way, God has provided the church with many gifted Christians who have a wealth of knowledge in geology, cosmology, philology, and pretty much any other “ology” that you can think of. When it comes to creation debates we need to recognize, to some degree, the knowledge and faith of those who are far more educated in matters surrounding these areas than we are. This is not a call to just believe every expert. The Scriptures never separate our corporate identity from our individual responsibility. Nevertheless, there are a vast amount of confident assertions made from layman (like myself), and a whole lot of clergy for that matter, about what the Bible teaches that reveal an apparent, and sometimes extreme, lack of knowledge about the natural world which our God has created. This is not a new phenomena. Writing near the end of fifth century Augustine put it like this, “If [unbelievers] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven?”2

Instead of listening to and thinking through the various explanations that faithful Bible believing Christians are offering up in regards to creation and various aspects thereof, many Christians are affirming that their personal interpretation of these matters is beyond dispute to anyone who really takes the Bible seriously.4 From pulpits, to blogs, and at a coffee shop near you, non-believers, and even many believers, are pressed, sometimes rather forcefully, into situations in which they are told they must affirm a nonessential belief that absolutely contradicts what they know to be true at a nearly common sense level.  

Now, this does not mean we just blindly accept every scientific assertion as if, ‘Scientifically proven’ is our new ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ The point that I’m expressing here in reference to the Bible and scientific study of the natural world is this:

The believer’s skepticism should be a studied one, not an ignorant flinch. We often throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are, for example, overzealous “science deniers” who take their skepticism too far. And even when sane and sober believers doubt science at the right points, we often do a poor job identifying why science went wrong (or we fail to appreciate how reasonable it is for science to end up there).6

 Yet, it goes both ways. Perhaps you noticed, I emphasized that there are faithful answers out there, which implies that there are unfaithful answers as well. When it comes to gaps in our knowledge, there is a helpful defensive move in philosophy that can help us see if the person speaking is someone that we can trust (I’m merely speaking at a theologically/interpretive level here). This is called looking for the persons presuppositions. When it comes to creation debates keep your eyes and ears open for what beliefs the scientist or theologian who knows more than you is building off of. Where does the Christian who is offering up a different interpretation really differ from you? Is it just more knowledge combined with a moderately different interpretation that does not infringe upon core doctrines of the faith? Or, are they advocating for a conception of God that turns the radically personal Trinitarian God of Christianity into a deistic Aristotelian god who cares for us no more than we do a scab on our elbow? To me, this is a first level issue that should alert any Christian reader that, although we may have something to learn from this writer, they must not garner our trust. If we know the path leads to heresy, it seems rather important not to follow. Or, in another instance, this time one I would classify as second tier (that is very important, yet not heretical [as in can’t be a true Christian] if denied), is there a significance difference in how they view what the Word of God is? Does someone you are reading believe in inerrancy, that is that “the Bible is true in what it affirms.”7 Or are they saying that Moses and the inspired Scriptures were/are wrong in relation to an actual truth claim that was being made? That’s a big difference. Recognizing these types of differences helps us determine who to listen to. Faithful and regular Bible reading should develop this instinct.

When we come across educated believers building off of statements that warn us, “not to approach Scripture saying ‘but it can’t mean that’ — whatever ‘that’ might be. It can. It can mean whatever God has written it to mean,”8 I believe we ought to give such people a listening ear, even when their interpretations may challenge our own. I do not believe that such Christians, and there are many of them, can easily be ignored if we take seriously the various giftings of the body of Christ. That said, there are experts, with robust beliefs in the Bible, on multiple sides of the creation debate. If you confine yourself to only ever exposing yourself to one of those groups, particularly if that group is unable to articulate opposing views without creating straw-men, you’ll find all of the answers that you want. But in doing so, in settling for the comfortable, you might just be misinterpreting the Bible. I’ve made that mistake many times, and it has consequences. I vividly remember several instances in which I answered an unbeliever’s objection to the Bible in complete ignorance of a topic that I have since changed my beliefs on (and had never seriously studied), while never once getting to the person and work of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. ‘The Bible obviously teaches that’ was seen as foolish for all the wrong reasons, because it didn’t teach that. Those are moments I can’t get back, but I can learn from them. Understanding that there are competing views within the Church that still hold to a high view of Scripture should temper our dogmatism. But not completely.

  We cannot forget that, “Not all interpretations of the Bible… are morally innocent.”9 We have to be careful when we seek answers to these questions from those who have more education than us. Knowledge is powerful, but we are not defenseless. Indeed, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (I Cor. 1:27). Believing that God’s Word is true, holding yourself in complete subjection to its teachings and under its authority is utter foolishness to this world. Look for those who are willing to become fools in this age, in order that they may become wise (I Cor. 3:18), though foolish for the right reasons. Beware of the “natural man” that can be found even within the visible Church (I Cor. 2:14). Walk through these debates holding onto a robust confidence in the Word of God, for all of it testifies about the Son of God (Luke 24:27). But walk humbly, for many who affirm all of this hold to vastly different views regarding creation. Don’t be afraid to lean into others who radically follow Jesus but know more than you about God’s world and God’s Word, and are able to provide a more robust integration of how we are to interpret them. If you share their presuppositions there is a good chance, that in time, you’ll find yourself very near to where they are, or at least within the same Church walls. And, by God’s grace and for the glory of Christ, may those walls be as far reaching as an earnest desire for unity and a commitment to disciplined faithfulness will allow.10 

Notes: 

  1. For a helpful and brief discussion on this distinction see: Kenneth D. Keathley and Mark F. Rooker, 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2014), 17-18
  2. Robert T. Mckenzie, A Little Book For New Historians: Why and How to Study History, (Downer Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2019), 14
  3. Augustine, Literal Meaning of Genesis,43 ; sourced from: Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 113
  4. An example of this type of assertion has been made by Tim Challies and his belief that those who are “all-in” when it comes to the Bible will be Young Earth Creationists. Tim is a blogger that I respect who shows great discernment in many areas, but not on where to draw lines on creation matters. See a thoughtful response to Challies’ opinions by Gavin Ortlund: https://gavinortlund.com/2018/02/18/is-6-day-creation-the-only-long-term-viable-option-a-response-to-tim-challies/ ; interestingly Challies has (since I originally wrote my first draft) recommended a book by Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, in which Ortlund argues for not dividing about the age of the earth. Though that is certainly not the central argument of the work, still, I commend Challies for his recommendation of what I believe should be essential reading material for Church leadership. 
  5. Mitch Stokes, How to be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 143
  6. Ibid. 15
  7. Louis Markos, “Book Review: Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Science, and Truth,” Themelios, April 2019, https://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/review/reading-genesis-well-navigating-history-poetry-science-and-truth-in-genesis/ ; For the record, Reading Genesis Well by C. John Collins is my number one recommend resource for a detailed, higher level study of navigating the early chapters of Genesis with intellectual integrity and Biblical fidelity. 
  8. Kristen Brikett, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, Edited by: D.A. Carson, “Chapter 30: Science and Scripture”, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 985; emphasis original; If I understand her correctly, in context, Brikett is primarily concerned with doing exegesis without superimposing anything upon the text. More could be said about that, but perhaps in another blog.
  9. Vern S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 20 
  10. For a helpful discussion on why those walls should extend to encompass a wide array of views in relation to creationism see: Theodor J. Cabal and Peter J. Rasor II, Controversy of the Ages: Why Christians Should not Divide Over the Age of the Earth, (Wooster, OH: Weaver Book Company, 2017)

Photo by Jordan Madrid on Unsplash

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