April 16, 2011

Carlson and Longman, Science, Creation and the Bible

In this brief and general-reader-friendly book, physicist Richard Carlson and Biblical Studies professor Tremper Longman III undertake an attempt at a solution to the perceived conflict between the Genesis creation accounts and modern science. They advocate a reconciliation between the two disciplines, and they do this by making the following argument (their thesis statement, which appears on page 14):

The first two chapters of Genesis, which accurately present two accounts of creation in terms of ancient Hebrew scientific observations and heir historical understanding, are neither historical nor literal in the twenty-first-century literal sense. Instead, the underlying message of these chapters applies for all time and constitutes a complete statement of the worldview of the Hebrew people in the ancient Near East. They accurately understood the universe in terms of why God created it but not how in the modern scientific and historical sense. This worldview, markedly different from those of their pagan neighbors articulates the principles underlying their understanding of the relation of God to the universe, their relation to the true God, and their relation to each other and to the created order.

This book has a number of strengths, as the authors seek to make their case for this thesis. The principle strength is that it distills a lot of technical and academic thinking and writing into a very readable presentation that introduces some of these concepts and arguments to people who aren't otherwise familiar with them. For instance, the writers use some of John Polkinghorne's work to present a vision of the relationship between science and theology that goes beyond the popular conflict motif to a much more nuanced understanding of two disciplines with different spheres of study and different aims. The second major discussion that lays the groundwork for their thesis surrounds biblical hermeneutics, that is, how we read the Bible. Here again the authors present in simple terms an approach to reading the Bible that pushes people to be self-conscious in how they are interpreting the Bible and opens up the question of genre, the more of less formal conventions that guided both author and audience in understanding the type of text being presented. They discuss at length an incarnational model for understanding the Bible as both a divine and a human book. They also push for the category of myth as being helpful when looking to Genesis 1 and 2 and make a case from some contemporary authors such as C. S. Lewis for the usefulness and legitimacy of Christian myth.

The authors then move on to a reading of the major creation texts in the Old and New Testaments, preparing the way for a careful reading of Genesis 1 and 2 to investigate its place in the canon, its teaching, and its context in the ancient Near East. They assert that Genesis 1 and 2 should be read as a worldview statement for the ancient Hebrews, a statement that is made in a two-layered story, one layer being that of a story of the experiences and understandings of the ancient Hebrews, and a second layer consisting of the theological story they wanted to convey. It is the second, theological layer that is important for us today. They also point out both the similarities and the difference between the two Genesis accounts, concluding that the differences cue us in that these stories aren't meant to be read literally, since the author left in what would otherwise be viewed as conflicting details.

I have many reasons to commend this book. It is readable, and it helps to get people thinking in a critical way about what is perceived as a major conflict for Christians today between science and the Bible. I think many of their ideas are very helpful, and I do think that reading Genesis 1 and 2 against the back drop of the ancient Near East gives much greater understanding of these passages than a surface reading by someone in the twenty-first century alone could. I am also in agreement with the basic outline of the relationship they sketch between science and theology and hope this popular-level treatment brings that understanding to a wider audience. There were, I thought, a few weaknesses in the book. For me the largest one was the lack of useful summaries at the end of the two chapters investigating the creation texts in the NT and OT outside of Genesis 1 and 2. I thought these were interesting chapters, but they didn't seem to add much to the argument. Or, at least, their place went largely unstated beyond a few allusions. I also thought they ignored one of the most important "losses" as they term it, if their non-literal approach to Genesis 1 and 2 is adopted, namely the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve and the implications of that discussion for our understanding of humanity, the image of God, and the origin and character of sin. Although it is a complicated question, its exclusion seems a glaring omission (though it could be argued that it is technically outside their scope in focusing on Genesis 1 and 2, but Genesis 2 and 3 clearly for a unit of story, so decisions about one would likely have implications for understanding the other).

In conclusion, I hope many people read this book, and I do happily recommend it. There are pieces that could have been stronger, but it is overall a very clear statement of a better way of thinking about science and the Bible than the conflict model, and it helpful points Christians in a better direction.