29 New Paradigms in Biology and Biblical Interpretation

Around this time I also read an interesting book by Francis Hitching entitled The Neck of the Giraffe: Darwin, Evolution and the New Biology. It took its name from one of the famous unsolved problems of evolution: How did the giraffe get its long neck? The book was not by a creationist; its author didn’t even describe any religious beliefs he may have held. Rather, working within the evolutionary paradigm itself, he explained why more and more scientists were questioning the classic Darwinian model, in which all life arises gradually from a common source through beneficial mutations and the process of natural selection.

Such problems as the giraffe’s neck had so far proven insoluble within this model, and so, he reported, alternative avenues to understanding were being explored. These included the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” in which different species come into being with relative suddenness (although nevertheless through processes such as Darwin postulated, including geographic isolation and natural selection), and the discipline of cladistics, in which species were grouped according to their significant characteristics. (At the time I thought that this was done without any conclusions being drawn about ancestry. I did not realize that one of the most fundamental assumptions behind cladistics was that evolution had indeed occurred, and that characteristics considered significant for classification were believed to have been evolutionarily-derived.)

I had typed a paper in college for a student who had researched theories of the origin of flight in birds; he had found all of them unsatisfactory. And so I already knew that creationists were not the only ones dissatisfied with a classic Darwinian explanation of natural history. These alternative approaches, particularly as I understood them, provided more middle ground for me to explore once I no longer felt compelled to believe in a recent creation based on biblical authority. (I’ll explain in a future post how that shift occurred.)

At this time I also read Northrop Frye’s book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. I admired Frye as a literary critic, having come across his work in several of my courses at Harvard, and so I was eager to read what he had to say about the Bible. His book helped me continue integrating my thinking by giving me a model within which I could approach the Bible using the literary-critical skills I had been taught.

While living in Ottawa I taught several courses on biblical books for the evening extension program of the Ontario Bible College. For each course, I worked from a literary outline of the book we were considering, rather than from chapter divisions, which I now knew were often misleading and not representative of a book’s inherent developmental transitions.

A flyer from the program I was teaching in. The school later became part of Tyndale University College and Seminary.

I showed my students how the book of Hebrews, for example, alternates several times between exposition and exhortation, with clearly marked literary transitions. And when I taught a course on Genesis, I passed along the insight into its structure I had gotten from Meredith Kline, that the ten repetitions in the book of the phrase “these are the generations of . . .” mark off its major sections. “Generations” here means “things generated”; the “generations of Adam,” for example, are what Adam brought forth—not his genealogy. (After further study, I would now say that the Torah or Pentateuch is divided into sections by twelve repetitions of this phrase. There are actually 11 in what we know as the book of Genesis; Dr. Kline counted Genesis 36:1 and 36:9 as a single occurrence. The other is in Numbers 3:1.) My interpretive paradigm was becoming ever more consistently literary, not literal.

Within my Genesis course I naturally discussed the creation account. I first stressed, presenting the exegesis of that passage I had learned from Dr. Kline, that the most important thing, whether we took the chapter literally or not, was to appreciate its moral message. We needed to witness and participate in the “Sabbath enthronement of God” as the culmination of creation. This account does not “cater to our curiosity” about origins, I insisted. “What is that to you?” it asks, just as Jesus asked Peter when he inquired whether John would live until His return. “Follow me,” Jesus had said, and so we should also follow God without asking too much about things that were beyond us.

I did, however, share a few thoughts about whether we could legitimately take Genesis 1 as the grounds for believing in a recent creation. I observed first that “the poetic character of the passage is indisputable,” but added that “poetry can describe events that actually took place, so genre does not force a non-literal view, although it arguably permits it.” (By non-literal I meant one in which words and phrases are not necessarily descriptions, even figurative ones, of historical events.)

I then acknowledged the difficulties of a sequential, descriptive reading, specifically light on earth without the sun. The best resolution of this difficulty I could manage was to envision Genesis 1 as having been revealed from God’s perspective, insisting in my lecture, “There is not, as for us, with God a distinction between purpose and accomplishment, between seeing what does appear and what will appear. From the time God said there would be night and day, there was night and day. Nevertheless, as we all know, the sun gives light on the earth.”

I concluded with some objections that could be raised against the theory of evolution as a rival to the Genesis creation account, some taken from standard creationist arguments and others from sources such as The Neck of the Giraffe. My main point was that the prevailing belief about natural history had changed first, in response to the “spirit of the age” or Zeitgeist that emphasized “progress.” The physical evidence for evolution had come later, in the hands of people who were specifically looking for what they claimed to have found, but in many cases turned out to have been mistaken.

I noted the continuing gaps in the fossil record, which were leading to such theories as “punctuated equilibrium.” And I questioned the reliability of radioactive dating, noting that it depended on the assumption that the ratio of radioactive material to non-radioactive has remained constant throughout geologic time, an assumption incapable of scientific proof. I also noted the circular argument by which, in my understanding, the geologic time table had been constructed: Fossils were dated at a certain age because they were assigned to certain periods, but these periods were assigned that same age because they contained these fossils. My ultimate conclusion was, “if you want to believe that the earth is thousands of years old rather than millions, you are perfectly justified.”

So my seminary experience and my later reflections on it had brought me to a point where I could accept a poetic, figurative reading of the “days of creation,” but my understanding of the biblical chronology implicit in the genealogies running from Adam to later personages still committed me to a young-earth view. What science I knew did not present an insurmountable obstacle to this position.

However, I did have to respect the scientific expertise of one Christian I knew well, trusted, and admired, and his claims were becoming unsettling. In these same years my brother-in-law, Stephen Godfrey, became suddenly and deeply disillusioned with creationism. As he pursued his Ph.D. in paleontology, he began to complain the expectations about the fossil record he had had as a young-earth creationist were not being borne out in his field research. Now he didn’t know what to believe about creation and evolution, or about the rest of the doctrinal package that had come wrapped in the creationism he had been taught.

I didn’t fully appreciate the paleontology involved, but I knew him well enough to know he was not motivated, like the evolutionists I’d heard caricatured, by a desire for an ateleological natural world that would free him of moral responsibility. Clearly he had seen something in the ground that had shattered the “creation science” I was still considering reliable. I slowly began to hold this “science” at arm’s length, releasing my embrace of it and regarding it with a critical eye.

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