Nazarenes Exploring Evolution

Robust Conversation and Collective Discernment

I recall a conversation I had with one of my junior high friends one hot Sunday afternoon, in the church parking lot, while we were waiting for our families. He wanted to understand how dinosaurs could fit in the whole sequence of the world when they were not mentioned in the Bible. I have no memory of where or when I had learned my answer to him, but in my sophisticated junior high way I told him that the "days" in Genesis 1 could be any length of time. Thus, the Genesis 1 story could actually have taken place over billions of years (very, very long "days"). Furthermore, there is no detailed listing of every species God created in Genesis 1, so there could have been time for God to create dinosaurs, for them to die, and God to create more land creatures.

What strikes me about that memory (among many things) is that there was never a time when my Nazarene family members or my Nazarene church tried to indoctrinate me to believe I had to pick between my Christian Faith and the discoveries of science. It was possible to be a Christian and a scholar, no matter the academic discipline.

Perhaps my experience was abnormal; many of my relatives and I have loved learning and have shared that love at some point in our Nazarene colleges and universities by teaching in the fields of education, physics, athletics, mathematics, biology, computer science, and religion. Perhaps my experience was abnormal given that my childhood church (College Church of the Nazarene in Bourbonnais, IL) was full of people who gave their lives to study and teach in so many fields of inquiry. No matter the reason, "Nazarene" never meant anything different to me than generation after generation of people wholly devoted to the doctrine of entire sanctification and higher education. To hear my grandparents' generation talk, the faculty and students at our Nazarene colleges and universities were seeking the highest level of excellence in their studies in the same way they were unwavering in seeking the highest reaches of holiness in the Lord. Piety and scholarship both were to be conducted wholly unto the Lord, with integrity and excellence.

Just because I do not remember experiencing a disconnect between the realms of piety and scholarship does not mean I have not struggled to understand the relationship. One of the first papers I remember being assigned as an undergraduate at NNU was on the relationship between faith and reason. Thanks to rigorous professors, I was made painfully aware of how much reflecting I still needed to do!

When talking to my junior high friend in the church parking lot, I had tried to listen to the voices of academic study and then make the Bible follow details of science. Thus, I was reading Genesis 1 as having really long "days" so that the story could be saying the same thing that scholarship about the Big Bang and the processes of evolution was saying. In wanting the Bible and science to say the same thing, I was allowing that thing to be dictated by science.

When I began taking biblical studies courses in college, I realized some important issues that changed my approach. First, the ancient worlds of Israel and the early Church were very strange compared to the customs, beliefs, and understandings of today. Until college, I had never read the Old and New Testaments as a cross-cultural experience. I had been understanding Scripture according to my worldview. Second, while God had certainly used biblical texts in formative ways in my life, I had been reading them with the sound of my own voice. It was as though the words were an extension of me (my world) through which God would touch me. When the world of the texts became foreign to me, the text itself became distinct from me and my own voice. Whatever the texts were saying, it was different from me and my categories. Third, the more I understood that the worldviews of the ancient world were not mine, the more I struggled to do what I had done in junior high. I could not just make the Bible fit my categories by saying, "The Bible says 'A'. That must mean it is claiming what I heard in my interpersonal communications class, my science class, or business class." Fourth, I had to get to know the Bible anew, on its own terms. It has its own voice (or, more accurately, voices). I had to understand its claims in the realm of its own time and location. Only after getting to know what it said in its own world could I begin to imagine what those kinds of claims would look like in my own world. That means that in the radical way God's self-disclosure disturbed people across time, it must disrupt me now (in the same Spirit), in ways peculiar to my own context.

In coming to respect the voices of Scripture, I could no longer mold them to my world. At the same time, I could not force my world—informed by centuries of scientific discovery—back thousands of years to take on ancient customs and worldviews. One option I tried was letting the worlds of faith and reason—Scripture and modern scholarship—have their own separate realms of authority. If Scripture is revelatory of "all things necessary to our salvation," I could let it govern matters of the soul and let scholarship speak authoritatively on matters of living in the world. Yet, that kind of dualism is dangerous (as I soon enough began to learn). It is exactly what the radical Enlightenment thinkers wanted. They wanted to split "the facts of life" from questions of religion and morality. Rational arguments about politics, economics, law, technological advance, or any other public issue were the only arguments that came to matter in the West; religion increasingly became an interior private matter. That way religion would get out of the way by having jurisdiction over only invisible spiritual matters and let non-theistic human reason govern our everyday affairs.

Scripture and science (or any other academic discipline), religion and reason cannot just separate from each other and have separate realms of authority. God's self-revelation and redemptive work has significance in our everyday engagement within the world (beyond much more than in our inner spiritual life). Yet, people who are going to do the scholarship to hear and reflect on the Church's canon are likely not trained to be scholars in the array of other academic disciplines. If our best readings of Scripture and theological reflections on the Christian Faith are going to speak into everyday living, they have to be in conversation with the front-edge of our present world. But conversation from the biblical-theological side does not mean dictating what other scholars must say in their disciplines. It means hearing and reflecting together where the living God, revealed preeminently in Christ Jesus, might continually be discerned in these experiences and discoveries of God's creation.

At the same time, it is not up to other disciplines to dictate "the facts of life" upon which religion must append itself in order to help us cope and be good people in that world. Data does not interpret itself and give itself a name. Human beings give names and meaning to what we discover. Our Nazarene scholars, in the full spectrum of academic disciplines, should be in conversation with the people in the theological disciplines regarding naming and theologizing about the data with which they are working, in light of the triune God revealed to us. Robust conversation and discernment within the entire Body, across the spectrum of specializations, is the only way for us to proceed with a non-dualistic witness of and participation with God's creative-redemptive engagement in the world. Our vision of and cooperation in full-salvation and holiness, as New Creation is begun and awaited, may hinge on this interdisciplinary dialogue more than we have yet come to acknowledge.

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Comments (6)

  1. Michael Lodahl:
    Jul 01, 2013 at 03:02 PM

    Thank you for these thoughtful, provocative and challenging reflections, Eric.


  2. Brian Fitch:
    Jul 01, 2013 at 09:16 PM

    The Bible does mention dinosaurs but not by that name. Check Job 40:15-19, doesn't describe any animal on the earth today.


    1. Eric Vail:
      Jul 02, 2013 at 08:50 AM

      Thanks for taking the time to read the essay. I am not an Old Testament scholar (perhaps there are some OT scholars who want to weigh in on this), yet I have never heard any biblical scholars make an argument in favor of their being references to dinosaurs in the Bible. The stout herbivore (vv 15-18) who hangs around in reeds and marshes (vv. 21-22) and is quite comfortable in rivers (v. 23) is likely a hippopotamus. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon and the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament translate Behemoth as hippopotamus. (Behemoth itself is connected linguistically to the general word for four-footed animals.) The Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains lists hippopotamus, crocodile, and elephant as translations. It also mentions Behemoth possibly being the name of a fictional monster (like we have dragons and unicorns). Given the pairing of Behemoth (on land) with Leviathan (in the sea), the monster idea is not out of the question. But if the author is making reference to mythical creatures in ancient legends, we need to ask what the author is trying to evoke in his readers by doing so, or what point about God he is trying to communicate (more than whether there exists concretely the legendary creatures being mentioned). Side note: I really wish I had a copy of Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Brill, 1995) at-hand to look up Behemoth in there.

      Your statement about this being a reference to dinosaurs is actually a helpful one. It illustrates the approach with which I first tried to harmonize my worldview with the statements in scripture. I overlaid my knowledge of the world onto statements made in scripture, assuming my world and scripture were saying the same thing. When we start to dig into the ancient-Hebrew thought-world, we not only find that they thought differently about the world than we do (with different categories and images), but we also gain a whole new curiosity to hear more clearly the point of what they were trying to say about God and God's relationship to creation. What a loss if I fail on that point. More than anything I hope to listen carefully to the Spirit's promptings through these quite foreign voices.
      Grace and peace,


      1. Gary Hurd:
        Jul 04, 2013 at 11:59 AM

        Regarding "dinosaurs" in the Bible, I wrote a short piece on this a few years ago, "Dragons, and gods, and dinos- Oh My!"

        You might find it at least an introduction to some of the literature. You might also enjoy two books I didn't mention in my review;

        Black, Jeremy, Anthony Green, Tessa Rickards (illustrator)
        2003 "Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia" Austin: University of Texas Press.

        Rabbi Natan Slifkin,
        2007 “Sacred Monsters: Mysterious and Mythical Creatures of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash” New York: Zoo Torah and Yashar Books


  3. Gary Hurd:
    Jul 03, 2013 at 02:58 PM

    I think that the theological issues confront the church with more problems than answers. What are the theological alternatives given that the Universe is 13.8 billion years old, the Earth/Moon system is 4.55 billion years old, Life is at least 3.8 billion years old, and anatomically modern humans emerged about 180,000 years ago? We also know the invention of writing followed the invention agriculture by several thousands of years, and preceded metallurgy by several thousands of years. Modern humans did not descend from a single male/female pair, and they did not have a population restricted to just 4 closlely related couples. Life was not reduced to just one, or seven male/female pairs. There was never a global flood, let alone just thousands of years ago. Biological species do not appear suddenly out of thin air.

    This is all verified fact.


    1. Eric Vail:
      Jul 06, 2013 at 09:50 AM

      There are two possible ways I am reading your post; 1) you are saying that the growing body of scientific knowledge about our universe creates more questions and challenges to the ways Christians traditionally state doctrinal positions than it helps us theologically--so how can dialogue be helpful or can theology handle this? Or, 2) science makes things quite clear and it is theology that is the problem by introducing conflict and controversy within the church. Since I am not certain which is your aim, I'll make a brief comment about each.

      1) Scientific discoveries are unveiling a world vastly different from what we "knew" the world to be like in past centuries. Christians from the beginning of the scientific revolution have been scrambling to restate doctrine in credible ways--ways that were consistent with how we were coming to understand the world and ways any rational person on the street could accept. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ were not rational; some Christians tried to explain them away or jettison them. Also, in an age where people understood human culture to be maturing/evolving from originally primitive conditions, the doctrine of original sin was a poor fit. Not only was there no primal utopia from which we "fell," there was wild optimism that there was no limit to the heights to which humans could climb on their own. The western Christian paradigms of perfection/fall/restoration, sin/grace were sharply criticized. Some Christians dogmatically dug in their heels to keep doctrinal language they had inherited, while others conceded everything. Neither option was a good one.

      The Christian tradition has several points along the way where the ground shifted under its feet (like in the scientific revolution). Christianity moved from the ancient Near Eastern worldview in which Israel had come to understand itself into the Platonism of the surrounding world. That was a centuries long process for Christianity to work out how to express itself. In the middle ages the ground moved again when Platonism lost its place as the under-girding philosophy in the world to Aristotelianism. Theologians like Aquinas were once again needing to give an account of the faith in light of a new context with new rules.

      People who think Christian doctrine was handed down on stone tablets from the apostles may be surprised by the many ways Christians have sought to give an account of the mystery of what God did in Christ Jesus in ever new thought-worlds. Pastors and Missionaries continue to do that around the globe today into their contexts. Yes, it is challenging to think about the implications of what God did in Christ in light of what we know of the universe. Yet, that is what Christians have done since day one. There are many theologians today who have taken up that challenging task. They are doing exciting work that is not "compromising" the wonder of what God has done and to what the church has continued to give witness.

      2) We cannot help but have a theology. Even a-theism is a theological claim. Theologians are not trying to confuse things by adding theology to a scientific milieu in which the matter is settled. Such a view of science (that lacks self-awareness about historical contingency and awareness about methodological limitations) is itself problematic. Theology belongs at the table of discussion as much as all other disciplines. If we are going to speak well, we should be considering matters from all directions.

      I know of no theologian whose goal is to bring uncertainty and conflict into the church. Most every theologian I know is trying to serve the church by engaging hard questions with which believers and non-believers alike are facing. There is no way to explain away the mysteries of the faith. However, we can work to say things in a more intelligible manner in the "language" of our contemporary thought-worlds. Some Christians are content to embrace and pass on whatever they were told doctrinally (even if it does not fit the realities of life). Not everyone is willing to follow that approach, or see that it is necessary. By talking with these people, theologians are not trying to create conflict. They are trying to help the droves of people walking away from the church see that there is a way to be a vibrant, faithful Christian and not fight off robust learning. In that way theology is trying to be a peacemaking endeavor.


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