What Man is to Believe Concerning God
This article is the second in a series of three articles on the necessity of belief in an historical Adam. Part One : Must We Believe in an Historical Adam?
3. Recognizing the Limitations of the Bible
Having made comment about the limits of science, it is only appropriate that we acknowledge that the Bible also has its limits. That may come as a surprise to some sensitive Christian ears, but it is actually self-evident: the Bible does not pretend to say everything that can be said about everything! Its specific focus, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism helpfully reminds us, is to tell us ‘what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man’. So there are many areas of history, geography, politics and much more besides on which it is either silent, or that it addresses from a very particular perspective.
At a more technical level, when the Bible does venture into the kind of areas alluded to above, it does so from the perspective of the cultures of its day. So, in terms of the subject matter we are considering in this paper, the ‘science’ of the opening chapters of Genesis should not be perceived as though it were ‘science’ in the way we use that term is used today. In that sense, although it speaks to the issues of science, it should not be treated as a scientific manual in its own right.
The Bible is God’s self-revelation spoken into specific points in history over a 1,500 year period that reflects the languages, thought-forms and worldviews of the cultures of those times. In other words, we need to appreciate God’s revelation within the context into which it was originally given.
Does that mean that the Bible is flawed or somehow inadequate because of this? Not at all, because the truths God was revealing about himself and about our world and its need are not altered by the language and limitations of the times in which he made them known. It does, however, mean that it would be wrong for us to try and make the text of Scripture speak ‘scientifically’ in the opening chapters of Genesis in a way that was never intended.
Some of the positions that have been appearing through the writings of men like Dennis Lamoureux and, more recently, Peter Enns have come as a reaction against a naive and un-nuanced handling of Scripture that does not do justice to its unique nature and character.
Just as it is wrong to try and press science beyond its appropriate limits, so too it is equally wrong to attempt to press the Bible beyond the limits of what God meant it to reveal and how he intended it to function. Far from diminishing the authority of Scripture, this actually affirms and yields to it in a manner that truly recognizes its character.
4. The Working Relationship between Science and Scripture
Given what has been said about God’s revelation of himself through his works as well as his words, how are science and Scripture meant to function in harmony? There can be no question but that they can and must do so, since ‘all truth is God’s truth’; the issue is what that should look like in practice.
At the most basic level it must mean recognizing that the Bible is the ultimate revelation that God has given of himself for all time. Even though he has indeed made himself known in the works of creation (Ps 19.1-6; Ac 14.16-17; Ro 1.18-23), the knowledge of God provided in through this sphere is not enough to bring people to a saving relationship with him; only to leave them ‘without excuse’ (Ro 1.20). We see enough in the created order to know there is a God and to appreciate something of his power, character and attributes; but not enough to appreciate the depth of our need as human beings or what is required for us to have fellowship with God.
The Bible itself tells us why God has also chosen to make himself known in a propositional and written form to provide us with ‘all we need for life and godliness’ (2Pe 1.3) and that he has done so through his word in Scripture, the written expression of his self-revelation through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (2Ti 3.14-17; He 1.1-4; 2Pe 1.20-21). It is important to be clear on what this does and doesn’t mean.
We have already noted that the Bible does not tell us all we need to know about everything and we have just said that its primary focus is knowledge that leads to life and godliness. There are, however, many other things that can only be learned through ‘scientific’ (in the older broader sense of that term) observation of our world and universe. We should be eager to expand our knowledge and understanding on both fronts.
It stands to reason that the knowledge we need for salvation must take precedence over what we simply learn about our world and everyday life, because our eternal destiny hangs on the former, not the latter. Add to this the fact that the Bible makes the claim of being free from error and being worthy of our utmost trust because it comes from the God who is true and reliable and we begin to see that it demands the kind serious consideration that rises above that attention we give to other areas of life. Indeed, when we realize that its central message is all about the eternal Son of God supernaturally entering our world in order to bring redemption by means of his death on the cross, it elevates this book to a place of its own in terms of the knowledge it imparts.
So in all the spheres and categories of knowledge to which we are exposed – including those of science – the knowledge that comes through Scripture is supreme.
When we look at the alternative spheres of knowledge, particularly those of the natural sciences, we find ourselves in very different territory. For one thing the knowledge that comes through science is ‘empirical’ – it is constantly growing and being refined from one generation to the next. What is accepted dogmatically by one generation is frequently revised and corrected by those that follow! But more than that, how we process what we learn through these avenues of investigation does not take place in a vacuum. Our understanding as human beings is affected not only by the fact our minds are finite but also that we are flawed. This comes out in many spheres of life, but not least in the scientific community where there is often rivalry and professional jealousy that affects its ‘findings’ and the way they are communicated.
The critical issue to grasp in all of this is that when the ‘findings’ of science are clearly in conflict with explicit statements in Scripture – which are not open to differing interpretations – then the ‘findings’ of science need to be revisited.
When it comes to what many scientists and the Bible say about human origins at this point, there is a very definite conflict. As we noted at the beginning of this paper, evolutionary science is adamant that human beings – Homo Sapiens – evolved from less sophisticated human-like creatures which themselves had evolved from even simpler life forms. At some point in the evolutionary chain the human species emerged.
The Genesis account could not be more explicitly different. It tells us, ‘the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Ge 2.7). The critical component in this verse in view of the current debate is the fact that, prior to this action on God’s part, Adam was not a living being. The biblical statement leaves no room for God’s adopting some already living being, because the Hebrew does not allow for that interpretation.
Even though there is a degree of latitude in how we interpret the detail of the early chapters of Genesis in relation to the age of the earth and the nature of life on earth before the fall of man, there is no latitude at the point of how the human race came into existence.
Part One: "Must We Believe in an Historical Adam?"
Part Three: "Jesus and Adam"
Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in the Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.