Approaching Genesis and Science: Hermeneutical Principles and a Case Study

Another response to the GAE that is quite detailed in the overall context.

@deuteroKJ and @jongarvey what are your thoughts on this?

The purpose of the present paper/article is to discuss the hermeneutic principles used in reading ‘God’s two books,’ creation and Scripture, together. The first part of the paper outlines and recommends the hermeneutical principles and procedures used by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in the Copernican controversy conflict between the Church and (Christian) scientists on the right to interpret scripture and how to do this informed by science. In the second part of the paper these principles and procedures are applied to a case study on the apparent conflict between the doctrine on common descent in evolutionary biology and the traditional understanding of Adam and Eve as the sole progenitors of humankind. A recent attempt by Joshua Swamidass to synthesize mainstream evolutionary theory with a high-view interpretation of Scripture is commended for allowing the scientific consensus to prompt a reconsideration of the traditional ‘spinal cord reflex’ against evolutionary understandings of humankind’s descent among Evangelical scholars. For the same reason it is recommended that sandboxes for interpretative and hypothesizing experimentation are created in both the academy and the church in order for various syntheses between interpretations of Scripture and scientific theories to be discussed without inquisitory strategies hindering a healthy and constructive debate.

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@swamidass thanks for sharing the article. I learned a few things (especially historically). Despite a couple of minor factual errors, overall it was a great article. Better yet, the way he frames the discussion is a great model of discussing things like this…and all of this is apart from what he says of GAE. This framing is a helpful way to then speak directly to a specific approach (like GAE). In fact, I think you (or me or others) would profit from mimicking this article’s framing in future discussions.

I was glad to see the reference to Ted Cabal (I took Ted for a philosophy class in seminary and I wrote my research paper on whether YEC should be considered science). The not wed, courting, or wed categories are helpful analogies.


The courting and wedding metaphor is strong and true to my intent. We are are trying to open the courting phase, after a long “never can be wed” phase, in part prolonged by some large misunderstanding of the science.

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Yes - I agree with Ken that it’s a good article, and represents well the spirit behind GAE. It’s a great template for ongoing work by both scientists and theologians.

If I have to pick any holes (and it’s not central to his argument, but is significant to the discussion process described), it’s in his maintaining of the false asymmetry between science and faith, in which (it seems) it is “scientific consensus” that acts as the final arbiter of biblical interpretation, once the biblical interpreters have laboured to resolve the contradictions.

Now he mitigates this asymmetry to some extent by the admirable inclusion even of YEC science in the discussion:

This [caveat about exclusivity] does not necessarily mean that ‘creation
science’ of Answers in Genesis is unimportant or scientifically unsustainable, and interpreters of Scripture need to include this research in their process of ‘courting.’

This is a great counter to the conceit that there is a body of true doctrine called “science”, surrounded by shysters doing pseudo-science. Instead, all ideas come to the table and are judged by rational means - very much 1st amendment stuff and unfashionable in these post-truth woke days, as well as amongst the scientistic Enlightenment types.

But as Brett Weinstein has recently re-emphasised (in the context of COVID and climate science) the very idea of “consensus” is antithetical to the scientific process. Galileo, after all, as the author points out, was in a very small scientific minority, and was accused, effectively, of pseudoscience by peers who regarded his telescopes as not showing what he claimed. Furthermore, although his stated principles of scriptural interpretation were irenic and orthodox, he was not above regarding fellow astronomers who disagreed with him as heretics against the truth.

In practice some matters will garner a consensus among scientists, but as shown by the case of continental drift (and heliocentrism itself), the consensus can never be regarded as a stable platform requiring (as opposed to suggesting) the reinterpretation of Scripture.

That is doubly true in the present state of science, which is no longer the pursuit of individual scholars like Galileo competing for their understanding of truthtruth against all comers in science, and against a powerful and, to some extent, monolithic Church. Instead it is now science that is a highly organised venture greatly skewed by global corporate and government funding and patronage, and by the desire of universities to constrain scientific endeavour in order to obtain it. Galileo might not gain tenure nowadays, and might well have his videos on the moons of Jupiter taken down by YouTube.

There is therefore now more consensus in science and less in theology - but not necessarily because independent minds have been persuaded by evidence.

What I am suggesting is that we dealing with moving targets on both sides of the aisle, and that renders the task both more complex and more uncertain. Both science and theology are usually honest human endeavours, but also tainted with personal ambition and reputation, money and power considerations, and indeed the inertia produced by cosy consensus.

In the case of GAE, as an example, the book was written more in reaction to a false scientific consensus that historical A&E were impossible, and to a large extent the debate with Christians on biblical interpretation has arisen afterwards.


PS - good to see Francesca Rochberg being cited in the piece: her insights on the practice of true science in Mesopotamia even without a philosophical concept of nature are very instructive on what science is.

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I also think it’s a good article.

@jongarvey your quibbles about the details around Galileo are similar to my own. He alludes to this by pointing out that Galileo didn’t even follow his own principles, and you are right to note that the scientific consensus is a moving target. That doesn’t mean anything goes or we can’t made good guesses where it will go, but it does mean that constructive pushback is required for healthy scientific discourse and dialogue about science.

Personally, I think Kepler is a much better model than Galileo: Follow Galileo or Kepler?

@TedDavis ?

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When Galileo wrote his letters to Castelli (1613) and Christina (1615), he was still committed to the classical Aristotelian notion that “science” is genuine, certain “knowledge,” not mere opinion. If Finocchiaro (Maurice Finocchiaro | People | University of Nevada, Las Vegas) is correct, his encounter with Bellarmine and the Church was a factor that helped move him away from that absolute view of knowledge and closer to the modern view of science as contingent knowledge. A lot of others in the early modern period, including Boyle (substantially) and Newton, also contributed to a more modest view of scientific knowledge. Indeed, one might say at the risk of oversimplification that the notion of “contingent knowledge” would have been somewhat of an oxymoron prior to the Scientific Revolution. I don’t want to overstate that; I’m no expert on classical Greek and medieval views of knowledge, and I don’t want to imply that contingency had no role in their thinking. Anyone familiar with Aquinas, e.g., knows that he wrote some pretty important things about contingency and human knowledge.

My basic point, however, I think is right: the concept of “knowledge” itself (scientia in Latin) became softer, more probabilistic, and more empirical during the Scientific Revolution.

Thus, Galileo accepted Bellarmine’s strong claim (stated in his famous letter to Paolo Foscarini) that if Galileo could produce a “necessary demonstration” of heliocentrism, then the Church would need to reconsider the traditional interpretations of certain biblical texts, including some of those cited in note 7 of Kofoed’s paper. It’s crucial to understand that “necessary demonstration” was basically deductive proof, such as provided (traditionally) by geometry. Modern science now rarely trades in deductive proof; the name of the game is to argue abductively for the best explanation of the available evidence. Such knowledge is contingent, not necessary.

So, yes, Galileo “didn’t even follow his own principles,” namely, the premise stated by Bellarmine about the need to have a “necessary demonstration” before seeking a re-interpretation of certain biblical texts. I think that’s b/c Galileo basically believed that he could indeed produce such a “necessary demonstration,” in his explanations of the tides and the phases of Venus. He was of course mistaken, but had not yet fully arrived at the view that science doesn’t really produce necessary demonstrations. On that view, one ought NEVER to change a biblical interpretation, merely on the basis of contingent scientific knowledge. I think that view is equally problematic, however, since if one wishes one could insist that the Solar System has never actually been proved beyond all possible doubt. That leads to absurdities, IMO. We might as well say that science is worthless, at that point. So, let’s be careful before we just reject Galileo’s fundamental insights, if we can’t do much better ourselves.

I’m an enormous fan of Kepler, who is my all-time favorite scientist from history. I like what he wrote (briefly) about the Bible, accommodation, and astronomy, and especially I like his attitude (channeling Copernicus) that those ignorant persons who use the Bible against science would do well to “fertilize their own garden” (i.e., go pee in your backyard and mind your own business) than to dismiss the piety of those scientists who found the Copernican theory persuasive. But, he didn’t really have to deal with officials who directly threatened his research program: although the Lutheran theologians who had been his teachers at Tubingen were deeply troubled by Copernican beliefs, and had effectively prevented him from publishing his thoughts on the Bible and science in his first book, he was able to put them into the front of his great book, Astronomia nova, many years later, because his Catholic patron in Prague wasn’t bothered by that. Galileo’s local situation was quite different. If the Grand Duchess had become convinced (by certain people who weren’t in Galileo’s fan club) that Galileo’s ideas were actually unbiblical, she could have put a full stop to his research.

Thus, Galileo didn’t have the luxury of making a short appeal to accommodation, coupled with a dismissive tweet of the astronomically ignorant. He couldn’t just leave things where Kepler did. He needed to write a lengthy, detailed reply to a very learned theologian (Bellarmine) who had once briefly taught astronomy himself at university. He needed to argue carefully WHY one ought to give priority to scientific conclusions over the literal sense of a few biblical texts about the heavens.

And, frankly, he was right. Everyone today agrees that, in order to understand something like hemoglobin or oxidation or the phases of Venus, we start not with the biblical text but with observations and reason. That’s Galileo’s most fundamental point: the two books ought not conflict, but they mustn’t be read in the same ways–and they do not give the same kinds of information.

When scientists claim that humans have common ancestors with chimps, they aren’t just making that up. Biblical texts bearing on origins need to be read differently than we read the book of nature. That’s where Galileo is still controversial, for many. As I’ve written at length elsewhere, the YECs keep Galileo out of the garden of Eden by saying that “origins science” isn’t valid, simply b/c we weren’t there and God was. The assumptions about God and revelation smuggled into that “argument” are the very kinds of things that Galileo was talking about 400 years ago, in a very different context. That’s a big reason why we still need to read him today. Kepler never went there; he didn’t have to.


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