• Can the Bible Survive Science?: A Review From Marginalia by John Walton

    Below is an excerpt from a review of Mark Harris’s The Nature of Creation, originally published by LARB Channel Marginalia earlier today. 

    In 2003, an international research group successfully mapped the human genome, exposing for the first time the mass of genetic information encoded in human DNA. This event changed the ideological landscape of conversations on the Bible and science, in part because it produced genetic evidence for the evolutionary relationships between humans and many other species. This explosion of genetic data has prompted many questions about human origins and demands a renewed examination of the biblical text and of Christian theology.  Meanwhile, recent work in biblical studies has encouraged new readings of creation literature — particularly in the book of Genesis — thereby reconfiguring the Bible’s relationship to science. Yet, few scholars are competent in both the hard sciences and biblical studies. Even fewer approach the confluence of these two fields without a predetermined agenda to promote. Mark Harris, however, is competent — he is trained in both physics and theology — and even-handed in his new book, The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science.

    Harris’s engagement with biblical criticism, informed interaction with philosophical and theological issues, and firm grasp of the current scientific consensus allow him to make a seasoned and carefully nuanced argument that will satisfy scientists, theologians, and biblical scholars and make this book stand out from others in the field. As someone who works in the biblical field, Harris piqued my interest by giving insightful attention to the text of the Bible, the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis, and Old Testament critical scholarship. His broad view of the sciences and fair treatment of scientists will likely encourage specialists to treat him as an ally.

    Harris’s central thesis is that we do not need to choose between the sciences and the Christian tradition and that “a living faith finds a means to appropriate the Bible’s creation theologies and to engage constructively with science.” He insists that the Bible can retain its normative status in a scientific world. The key to this integration is to interpret the Bible correctly; for, once we do, we find that the problems with science recede.


    Any realistic understanding of the relationship of the Bible to science must begin with a clear understanding of what the Bible is literarily and what the Bible claims to be theologically. Harris offers a clear theological understanding of the nature of the text: it is primarily a theological picture of God and it tells the story of the beginning of the relationship between God, creation, and humankind. In this sense it is more than cosmology — it introduces the concept of sacred space. Harris finds this relational aspect of the picture of God (God in sacred space among his people) most prevalent in the biblical creation accounts, and he notes that such a view has no bearing on modern science.

    Throughout, he poses the prototypical conundrums that arise when addressing origins, outlines the various perspectives on the issue, then points to some ways forward. He continually stimulates the reader to pause, to think of the issues differently, and to consider new pathways.

    For instance, many Christians today believe Darwinism is incompatible with Christian faith because it makes the work of Christ unnecessary. Scientific findings on the origins of humanity reveal continuity with other higher primates and animals in terms of social and moral order. All of nature is defined largely as “red in tooth and claw” and seems to have been present since the beginning. This has led many to question an original innocence and, hence, the theological concept of the Fall. The argument is stated simply: no Fall, no need for redemption.  For Harris, however, it is not Neo-Darwinism that poses the threat but particular biblical interpretations that do so. For example, he interacts with the proposal that the Adam and Eve story is an aetiology of conscience and that eating from the tree represents their moment of awakening. In such an aetiology, the account in Genesis 3 becomes a step forward (enlightenment), not a problem that needs solving (Fall and entrance of sin). Harris immediately notes a number of problems, among them that such a view does not address natural evil and that it presents only a subjective Fall. In his view, rather than Neo-Darwinism, biblical interpretations such as this are to blame for making the work of Christ seem superfluous.

    Strasbourg Cathedral, Creation of Adam and Eve – Image via Wikimedia Commons

    His even-handed approach characterizes discussions of other issues in genetics, such asmitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam and the so-called genetic bottleneck, or of theological issues such as the case for the historical Adam. On the latter, while he concedes that Paul may well have believed that Adam was a historical individual, Harris contends that Paul’s actual theological argument rests on Adam only as a representative. In his view, debating an historical Adam does little to help us understand Paul’s point since Romans 5:14 refers to him as a “symbol.” At the same time he recognizes that Christian doctrine has long been dependent on Augustine, who does require a historical Adam. In this observation Harris has identified one of the most important areas of research that must be undertaken today. Can we adopt a more critical view of Augustine and get back to Paul? If we follow Harris, Paul would have much fewer points of contention with Neo-Darwinism than Augustine and his followers in modern Protestant traditions. Here, Harris offers a more fruitful option as represented by Irenaeus — that Adam and Eve should be viewed less as “fallen” than as having “failed to ascend”.

    In a similar vein, his conclusion that the Fall, as it has been formulated in Christian theology, is “marginal to the biblical witness” may shock some readers: “We have seen that the writers of the Old and New Testaments were able to exist without asserting the historical Fall strongly (if at all), although they were certain that sin and failure are universal features of the human condition.”  In other words, the actual further doctrinal development of such items as original sin may not have concerned the earliest of ecclesial figureheads. This prompts the question: Can traditional Protestantism survive an overhaul of the concept of original sin and yet remain true to the conviction about the reality of sin and the need for a Savior? Here again Harris shows how the science involved might prompt further biblical and theological reflection but also how multiple perspectives, which can often accommodate this new data, already mark the Christian tradition.

    Read the rest of the review by John Walton on Marginalia.