Perhaps there is no greater tension in Christian education today than the relationship between faith and science. Over the last 400-500 years, the scientific method has emerged as a wellspring of knowledge, gifting humanity with helpful discoveries and practical new ways of viewing the world around us. Advancements such as modern medicine, GPS, and smart phones have all been made possible by our practice and refinement of the scientific process. For the most part, Christians have embraced these advancements in technology and science with open arms. Most Christians are happy to rely on science when it comes to receiving health care, using electronic devices, and accessing the internet. However, when it comes to the science of human origins and the age of the Earth, many Christians are unwilling to embrace the conclusions that the scientific community has made. Why is this? And how should Christians approach teaching science in light of this tension?
While the Bible does not specifically mention modern technological science, such as the internet or automobiles, it does contain a very specific story of origins.
Why the Tension Exists
It’s understandable that the main point of tension between science and Christianity has to do with origins. While the Bible does not specifically mention modern technological science, such as the internet or automobiles, it does contain a very specific story of origins. In fact, there are two stories of origins, one in Genesis 1:1-2:4, and another from Genesis 2:5-2:25. These two stories contain a beautiful narrative about a loving and generous God, who creates a good world using only his voice and establishes human beings as his representatives on Earth. Christians are right to emphasize these first chapters of Genesis as important since many of the Bible’s themes start within these creation narratives.
However, the biblical story of origins is very different from the story that modern science presents. The Big Bang theory and the theory of Evolution combine to form a scientific explanation for how the physical mechanics of the universe ended up forming the existence we enjoy today. In this explanation, there is no concern for anything beyond the physical. As with all science, only what is observable and testable in our physical reality is of concern. In this way, science and the Bible present two contrasting stories of origins. One which is primarily concerned with explaining the physical mechanics of the universe’s beginnings, and another which presents a beautiful narrative with love and generosity at its center.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the differences between these two stories. Every culture has a story of beginnings that contributes to its values and forms its assumptions. Origin stories give us an identity and shape how we perceive ourselves and the world around us. This is as true for modern, western society as it was for the ancient Israelites. For the Israelites, a community of exiled former participants in a theocratic monarchy, everything is divinely caused. By contrast, in the modern west, where the scientific method is upheld as the nearly exclusive source of all knowledge, nothing is divinely caused. Indeed, you can see this contrast between the two cultures, within the word “supernatural”. In the modern west, nature (a.k.a. the realm that can be observed and tested through science) is the engine of existence. Any divine action, therefore, must be super-natural, or beyond nature. Miracles and unexplainable events may be considered “acts of God”, but for the modern westerner the consistent functioning of the universe is a product of the material properties of atoms, molecules, particles, waves, and the like. This modern mindset (of a primarily physical understanding of reality) is not shared by the ancient Israelites, who viewed the consistent nature of reality as a direct result of God’s establishment and maintenance of order amidst chaos.
Never is this conflict between cultures starker than when you compare how the two conflicting stories of origins are told. In the modern west, the origins of the universe are explained through a science textbook. As a result, our origin story is almost exclusively interested in the mechanical and material operations of how matter and life came to be. By contrast, the origin story of the Bible is explained through literature. Indeed, the first chapter of Genesis is much closer to a poem than a textbook. In its story, God single-handedly establishes a good and ordered world abounding in life and beauty. This creative act is not the result of a conflict between competing gods (as in the origin stories of many of Israel’s neighbors). Rather, it is simply the character of a loving and generous God being expressed.
The differences between the two stories, not only in content but also in the method of delivery, point to the different assumptions each culture has. The modern west is interested in material origins explained through the scientific method. The Bible, on the other hand, has almost no regard for the physical mechanics of how the universe came to be. Beyond its depiction of God’s words as the source of all, the Bible is far more interested in the “why” of creation.
Relieving the Tension
So what do we do with these two conflicting cultural stories of beginnings? Different Christian communities have engaged with the science of origins in different ways. Some Christians assert that the Bible overrides modern science. Young-Earth Creationists insist on a face value reading of Genesis 1, in which creation came to be in 6 literal days (24-hour periods) around 6000-10000 years ago. Other Christian communities assert that the Bible’s narrative harmonizes with modern science. Those who hold to views such as Theistic Evolution and Progressive Creationism see the “days” of creation in Genesis 1 as long periods of time which correlate to our scientific understanding. So how should Christians react to the science of origins? More specifically, how should Christian educators approach a topic that has such wide-ranging responses even within the Christian community?
The resolution to this problem lies in understanding what the Bible is and is not. The Bible is not a science textbook. The Bible is a work of literature. In fact, it is a highly curated collection of literary works which come together to tell a unified story about the nature of God, human beings, and how we should relate to one another. Both of the views described above (that the Bible overrides or harmonizes with modern science) assume that the Bible is in part a scientific textbook, which teaches us about the physical mechanisms of the universe. It is not. When we treat it as if it is, we are actually overriding the Bible’s perspective and loading our modern assumptions back onto it. Since the primary way that modern, western society understands the world is through the physical mechanics that undergird it, we assume that this should be the perspective of the Bible as well. It is not. The way we relieve the tension between modern science and the Bible is by treating the Bible in light of what it is. Literature.
When we do this, a whole world of literary connections and themes open up for us to meditate on and shape our character to. For instance in Genesis 1, a careful reader will note the creation of various realms in days 1 (day/night), 2 (sky and seas), and 3 (dry ground), correlates with the filling of those realms in days 4 (celestial bodies), 5 (fish and birds), and 6 (animals and humans). Other textual details such as the refusal to name the Sun and the Moon (“greater light” and “lesser light”), point to the author’s purpose of showing the creation process as a work of a singular God, not in conflict or collusion with any other gods (as in many other ancient creation accounts). When we leave our modern cultural assumptions at the door and enter into the world of the text itself, we open ourselves up to the truths this divinely-inspired literature has to teach us.
Outcomes for Christian Education
So how does this practically connect to Christian education? Firstly, by viewing the Bible as literature, we open the classroom floor (or discussion post forum) up to the plethora of views within the Christian community concerning the science of origins. When we treat the Bible as literature that imparts wisdom to its readers, students from all theological backgrounds are encouraged to engage in the conversation, rather than being force fed a secondary doctrine they may not hold to or be familiar with.
Secondly, we prepare our students to enter the real world. By focusing on what the Bible has to teach us within its cultural and literary context, students begin to understand what the Bible is and how it should affect their lives. It is not a science textbook, or even a theology textbook. It is divinely-inspired literature to be meditated on and learned from. Many students develop a skewed perspective on what the Bible is, thinking it to be a science textbook or a set of divine dos and don’ts, and when college professors challenge their views, they are overwhelmed, with some even abandoning the faith. The antidote to this is not a stronger insistence that the Bible is the ultimate authority. The antidote to students leaving the faith due to intellectual dissonance is to teach them early on about the nature of the Bible, what it is and isn’t, and how its perspective varies greatly from that of our modern age.
The resolution to this problem lies in understanding what the Bible is and is not. The Bible is not a science textbook. The Bible is a work of literature.
Lastly, it provides a legitimate framework for teaching the modern science of origins within a Christian educational environment. When Scripture is viewed as a scientific textbook, many students may challenge why they should bother to learn the scientific material at all, given the Bible’s seemingly oppositional view. Instead, by understanding the Bible as wisdom literature, and acknowledging the diversity of views on origins within global Christianity, there is a good reason to learn about the modern science of origins. Even if a student may not personally believe that the science is true, it is helpful for them to understand other perspectives so they can engage with the conversation in an informed way.
With all that said, it is important to be sensitive to the current views students hold concerning how Scripture relates to modern science. We cannot be blind to the fact that many students will come from different backgrounds with different beliefs. It may be prudent to remind students that even if they differ on this issue, there is much more that binds Christians together as the body of Christ than that makes us different. However, by treating the Bible as literature within the classroom (or discussion board), we both demonstrate to students how to accurately engage with the Bible and prepare them for a world that deviates greatly from God’s ideal vision for humanity.