Evolution and scripture linked through Dippy
Beneath the enormous skeleton of Dippy the Dinosaur in Norwich Cathedral, 90 socially-distanced people heard Rev Dr Ernest Lucas explain how science and scripture offer complementary rather than contradictory perspectives on humanity’s place in the world. Patrick Richmond and Nick Brewin, of Science and Faith in Norfolk, report.
The speaker, a research biochemist turned Biblical theologian, began by quoting St Augustine of Hippo and Calvin to the effect that the purpose of Scripture is training in righteousness and salvation, not teaching science. In the words of Galileo: “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
Furthermore, the Bible needs to be interpreted. For example, in the scriptures, “life” and “death” often have spiritual rather than biological or literal meanings. Dr Lucas illustrated this point with the ‘principle of incarnation’, whereby ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). God gives his word in specific cultural, historical and literary contexts and we must remember these contexts when we interpret the Bible. God accommodates revelation to the original audience, so even children and the uneducated can learn from it.
Dr Lucas noted that Biblical creation stories show similarities to the literature of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. In general, these texts focus on the emergence of order, especially in human society. They all try to help people cope with life using dramatic stories about divine action. But the Bible is distinctive in being monotheistic and in having all humanity, rather than just the king, created to rule the earth in God’s image and as his representative. As a polemical religious text, the Bible teaches about the purpose, nature, and meaning of creation, in contrast to rival religious traditions. It does not address the questions which drive modern science, namely the mechanisms of the cosmos and the ways in which matter and energy interact.
Nevertheless, this does not mean the Bible has nothing to teach us about the world of nature. Despite the many strengths of scientific enquiry, it is important to recognise its limitations. Science does not address why nature exists at all or why it follows regular laws, but rather it presupposes these. Lord Martin Rees a distinguished astrophysicist, wrote: ‘the pre-eminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations of physics, and actualized them in a real cosmos? Such questions are beyond science: they are in the province of philosophers and theologians.’ (Our Cosmic Habitat, p. xi).
Long before modern science, theologians like Origen and later St Augustine were arguing that the biblical text itself invites a figurative interpretation. There is morning and evening without sun and moon and even without a sky. God plants a garden and walks in it. Genesis 1, with six days of creation and a holy day, sets a pattern for work, rest and worship, with humans ruling in God’s image. ‘God is spirit’ (1 John 4:24), and so it is in their spiritual qualities (Galatians 5:22) that humans reflect God’s loving rule. Genesis 2 presents God in humanlike ways, moulding man from the earth, instituting monogamous marriage and punishing sin with separation from God.
Archbishop Ussher famously calculated the age of the earth from the ages in Biblical genealogies, but Dr Lucas noted Biblical genealogies have striking similarities to other lists of kings from the Ancient Near East. The ages follow mathematical patterns, and the genealogies convey symbolic meanings rather than realistic chronology.
Christians have sometimes interpreted St Paul to be teaching that all death and suffering result from the original sin of Adam, the first human from whom we are all physically descended. Obviously, it is hard to fit this interpretation into our knowledge of dinosaurs and modern genetics, but nowhere does the Bible actually say this. In Romans 5, St Paul does not say Adam’s sin brought death to the non-human world. Paul is speaking of spiritual life (vv. 18, 21) and so plausibly of spiritual death. Paul says that each person dies because of their own sin (v. 12b). He does not explain exactly how this relates to Adam’s sin.
Scholars differ over whether Paul thought of Adam as an historical individual or a representative figure, but the parallels he draws between Adam and Christ suggest that, since the spiritual life comes through spiritual union with Christ, not physical descent, so the death that comes through Adam comes through spiritual union, not physical descent. Dr Lucas suggested that, just as theological truth about the nature and purpose of the cosmos and humans is ‘incarnated’ in ‘unscientific’ cosmology from the Ancient Near East, so theological truth about salvation through Christ could be ‘incarnated’ in ‘unscientific’ anthropology and stories about Adam.
From our evolutionary perspective, this leads to the question: ‘When did early hominins come to bear the image of God?’ This is not a question that can be answered by examining fossil remains. As a possible partial explanation for how humans might image God, Dr Lucas referred to the concept of “emergent properties”. This is often used in physics when the properties of the “whole” system seem greater than the sum of the parts. Perhaps human self-consciousness arose when the central nervous system of hominins reached a critical degree of complexity. The same may have been true of “God-consciousness”, an awareness that there may be a ‘higher being’. God would then offer humans the requisite relationship with their creator.
Some have suggested evolution implies that our emergence was just a lucky fluke, but Dr Lucas noted the ideas of leading biologists like Simon Conway Morris that the ubiquity of convergence in evolution makes the emergence of something like ourselves a near-inevitability (Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe). God can plan and constrain evolution from the beginning.
In conclusion, Dr Lucas noted that most leading Christians were not hostile to the ideas of Darwin, quoting from Archbishop Frederick Temple: ‘What is touched by the doctrine of evolution is not evidence of design but the mode in which the design was executed … In the one case, the creator made the animals at once, such as they are now; in the other case, he impressed on certain particles of matter … such inherent powers that, in the ordinary course of time, living creatures such as the present ones were developed.” (The Relations Between Religion and Science, 1884).
Thus, God created Dippy the dinosaur, and humans, through the same evolutionary process. It is not incongruous for them both to be in the same Cathedral at the same time.
A transcript of the speaker’s slides is available on the website for Science and Faith in Norfolk. A video recording of the talk will be made available on the Cathedral website with a link on the SFN Facebook page.
Dr Lucas is currently Vice-Principal Emeritus at Bristol Baptist College and Associate Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College, London. His books include “Can we believe Genesis today?” (IVP, 2001) and “The Bible and questions of science” (IVP, 2005).
The talk is the first in a series of evening events at the Cathedral on “Talkative Tuesdays” during the visit of Dippy the Dinosaur from the Natural History Museum. The next SFN talk will be on 21st September, when Dr Nick Spencer will speak about “Dinosaurs, Evolution and Religion”.
The meeting was organised by Science and Faith in Norfolk (SFN), a Norwich-based group that provides a forum to explore contemporary scientific issues from a Christian perspective. For further information, visit the SFN Website; the Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Contact: SFN Secretary, Dr Nick Brewin (07901 884114); firstname.lastname@example.org;
Pictured above is Rev Dr Ernest Lucas in front of Dippy the Dinosaur at Norwich Cathedral.