A few years ago, I got an email from an old college friend, Denis Alexander, at that time director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University. In a “p.s.”, he said, “I have been busy celebrating Darwin’s birthday this past week. Do you remember Nick Sagovsky? I can remember when he became a Christian [in the 1960s]. I watched him lay a wreath on Darwin’s tomb in Westminster Abbey on Thursday (Darwin’s birthday).” I confess I had to Google Nick Sagovsky (not having seen him for fifty years) to see why he would be laying a wreath on Darwin’s tomb—and discovered that he had become the Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey.
I couldn’t help thinking how counterintuitive that scene would have been for many Christians and for many secular people: a leading scientist who is also a Christian, plus a leading Church of England clergyman, marking the birthday of Charles Darwin, father of modern evolutionary theory—and in Westminster Abbey of all places!
Inside and outside the church, Darwin and his theory of evolution have long been perceived as being enemies of Christian faith. You will often hear things like, “Well, of course, evolution disproves the Bible. The Bible says the world was made in six days, but scientists have proved that it took millions of years.”
But that scene at Westminster Abbey suggests it might not be quite so simple. For example, you will often hear the defence, “Ah, but we don’t take the creation stories literally anymore.” Unfortunately, that can sound as though we are just moving the goalposts to prevent a goal that has already been scored!
Yet hundreds of years before Darwin, St. Augustine, writing around 400 AD, suggested that the six days of Genesis 1 were to be interpreted symbolically. And in the mid-1500s, John Calvin, a leading theologian of the Reformation, wrote, “Moses [supposedly the author of Genesis] spoke in a popular way … One should not look there for astronomy and other … sciences; it is a book for laymen [sic].” In other words, the Bible is not trying to teach us science, so don’t look there for scientific information.
Far from moving the goalposts, those who stress that Genesis is not literal are merely reminding us where they always believed the goalposts to be.
So, if Genesis is not teaching us science, what is it?
In the first place, it is a work of literature. It’s not strictly poetry in the way that the psalms are, but it is like poetry. Here’s just one example. The symbolic numbers ten, three, and seven are used throughout the story: it says “And God said” ten times; the word “earth” occurs seven times; the word “to create” is used three times, and on the third occasion is used three times. You get the idea. This is not a journalist scribbling down what she was seeing, nor a scientist writing a technical report on an experiment. This is someone carefully crafting a story for the glory of God—and doing a lot of counting!
The creation stories are also a political document. Many scholars believe that Genesis was written for the Israelites when they were in exile in Babylon 500 years before Jesus. In the religion of the Babylonian empire, there were already stories of creation—but they were very bloodthirsty stories which involved gods fighting and killing each other. Not surprisingly, the Babylonian empire was also pretty violent. (What we believe about the gods shapes our behaviour—for better and for worse.)
In contrast to that, the Genesis story spoke of a peaceful and orderly creation brought into being by a single loving and rational Creator. Quite a different picture—suggesting a radically different kind of society.
But these stories are also spiritual. They offer answers to some of the deepest questions human beings can ask: Who am I? What is my value? Why am I here in this world?—questions science isn’t equipped to answer.
Genesis answers: You are in a world created by a loving Creator. You are of infinite value because you are in the image of God, and you are here to use your gifts to look after this amazing world. Babylonian religion taught that only the king was in the image of God, and that human beings existed simply to do the bidding of the king. Not much room for human dignity there!
Genesis challenged that ancient view and said, in effect, no: every individual is in the image of God, and therefore not a single one should be mistreated or exploited. That was radical. Today we take things like the equality of all people, and human rights, and democracy, for granted. But those things did not come out of nowhere, and they are certainly not self-evident. Genesis’s view of the world was certainly one of those sources. You certainly couldn’t get them from a secular view of evolution.
So Christians who believe in evolution—theistic evolutionists or (if you prefer) evolutionary theists—would say: A scientific view of evolution tells us how God did it (and it’s a fascinating story), but the Bible tells us what it means (which evolution can’t tell us). Both versions of the story are important. The two realities exist side by side.
Much more can be said—though not by me. If you want to pursue the subject further, try Denis Alexander’s book, Creation and Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? (Monarch Books, 2008). His answer, as you might expect, is “No!” It’s mine too.