Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe, and is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. To find out more about him or view more of his works, visit his website or the Center for Open and Relational Theology.
Oord shares his beliefs regarding the relationship between evolution and the Bible. He finds harmony between the book of nature and the book of Scripture, science and religion.
The best place to begin the story of my exploration of evolution is with the Bible.
That may seem a strange. Many people wouldn’t start with the Bible when talking about a scientific theory. But I’m a theologian, and I take the Bible with utmost seriousness. Talking about the Bible is a natural place for me to begin, both because the Bible was principally important in my youth, and because it remains so for me today.
I don’t mean to snub science. Science is important too. I read a lot in the sciences, and I think the evidence supporting the theory of evolution is strong. I try to take this and other evidence with great seriousness.
But the real story – for me – starts with the Bible.
Centrality of Scripture
Fortunately, my parents were committed Christians. Our family was one of those “attend-church-three-times-a-week-and-more” families. My parents were significant leaders in our local congregation, and I began following their footsteps early in life.
I doubt I missed more than a handful of Sunday school classes before I was twenty years old. And I always attended Vacation Bible School – even winning Bible memorizing competitions on occasion. (John 11:35 was my friend!) I participated on youth Bible quizzing team for a while too.
While growing up, I don’t recall anyone telling me that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. But my passion for Scripture and my Evangelical community inclined me toward that position. Scripture was central in my life.
Besides, I wanted a failsafe foundation for my beliefs. And how could I convince my Mormon friends to become Christians if the Bible was not true in every sense, including literally true about what it said about the natural world? Witnessing to God’s truth seemed to require that I believe the Bible was without error on all matters, including matters related to science.
An Inerrant Bible?
My view of the Bible began to change when I went to college. It wasn’t that a liberal Bible professor brainwashed me away from the positions of my youth. Instead, I started reading the Bible carefully and the work of biblical scholars. I began to think it important to love God with my mind in a more consistent way.
And then I took a class in koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. In this course, I discovered several things. First, we have differing English translations of the New Testament, because the biblical text allows for a number of valid translation options. (When I later took Hebrew class, I found the diversity of valid translations even greater!) Second, we do not have access to the original biblical manuscripts/autographs. Our Bibles come from later manuscripts, the earliest of which are not complete. And, third, the oldest texts we have differ in many ways – although most differences are minor.
I also discovered discrepancies in the Bible. For instance, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus curses a fig tree and it withers immediately (21:18-20). But in Mark’s version of the same story, the fig tree does not wither immediately and the disciples find it withered the next morning (11:12-14; 20-21). Mark says that Jesus heals one demon-possessed man at Gerasenes (5:1-20), while Matthew says there were two demon-possessed men involved in that same miracle (8:28-34). Jesus tells the disciples to take a staff on their journey as recorded in Mark 6:8, but Matthew says Jesus told the disciples not to take a staff (10:9-10). Jesus says Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly. Then, making an analogy with his own death, he says the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Mt 12:40). But Jesus was not dead three days and three nights!
I mention only a few of the many internal discrepancies. Once I discovered a few, I noticed more. This, of course, made me question whether I should say the Bible is inerrant in all ways.
What’s the Bible For?
I’m persistent. I don’t usually settle for easy answers, ignore problems, or appeal to mystery at the drop of a hat. I want to give a plausible account of the hope within me.
My quest for better ways to think about the Bible prompted me to read theologians and Bible scholars from the past and present. What I found surprised me! I had assumed believing the Bible is inerrant in all ways was the traditional position of Christians throughout the ages. I assumed it was the position of my own Christian tradition. I was wrong.
Few if any great theologians argued the Bible was absolutely inerrant. Augustine did not affirm inerrancy in this way. Thomas Aquinas didn’t. Neither did Martin Luther or John Wesley – a least in a consistent way. And I discovered through reading and conversations that those considered the leading biblical scholars and theologians today also reject absolute biblical inerrancy.
I did find a few teachers who said the Bible was inerrant. But when I read their explanations of the Bible’s discrepancies and their views about the differences between the oldest manuscripts, I found they stretched the word “inerrant” beyond recognition. Their meaning of “inerrant” was nothing like the usual meaning. And it was certainly not what most Evangelicals meant when they called the Bible the inerrant Word of God.
Perhaps even more important was my discovery that great theologians and biblical scholars of yesteryear believed the Bible’s basic purpose was to reveal God’s desire for our salvation. Many giants of the Christian faith could agree with John Wesley who said, “The Scriptures are a complete rule of faith and practice; and they are clear in all necessary points.”
The necessary points of Scripture refer to instruction for our salvation. They indicate that, as the Apostle Paul puts it, Scripture is inspired and “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The purpose of the Bible is our salvation!
I also discovered Christian leaders over the centuries did not feel required to search the Bible for truths about science. In fact, they sometimes used allegorical interpretations that seem silly to me now. The vast majority of Evangelical scholars with whom I talked also didn’t think the Bible has to be inerrant about scientific matters.
After my studies, I came to believe that the Bible tells us how to find abundant life. But it does not provide the science for how life became abundant.
Can I Trust the Bible?
When I tell people I don’t require the Bible to tell me truth about science but I trust God to use the Bible to reveal what is necessary for salvation, I’m sometimes asked this question: “If the Bible can’t be trusted on science and all other matters on which it speaks, how can it be trusted on matters of salvation?”
That’s a fair question. Before I answer it, however, we should look at what it seems to presuppose.
Those who ask this question seem to think the Bible is a container carrying a complete set of literally true statements. Those who take this position worry that, like a house of cards, any defect in that complete set means the whole structure will fall. One error, to them, places into jeopardy the truth of the whole book!
Others who ask this question seem to presuppose a view of inspiration that seems to make the writers of Scripture machines or robots. God manipulated these writers by controlling them and their worldviews entirely.
By contrast, I think there are great advantages to thinking God inspired but did not entirely control biblical writers. This symbiotic view of authorship explains the presence of errors in the Bible. And it explains why the limited worldviews of biblical authors don’t fit perfectly with contemporary worldviews informed by science.
I think, however, that the Bible can be trusted about what it says about salvation even though its statements about the natural world – when interpreted literally – may be wrong. After all, biblical scholars say we best interpret Genesis 1 and other Bible creation passages as hymns and theological poetry, not scientific treatises.
My primary answer to why I think we can trust the Bible to be used by God to reveal truths about salvation, therefore, pertains to salvation itself. I trust the Bible on matters of salvation, because God has transformed my life as I read and followed the Bible’s teaching. God continues to transform me – provide salvation – as I pray and read the biblical text.
In fact, the transformation God is doing in my life seems to have increased since I stopped thinking the Bible was inerrant in all ways! I don’t know if there’s a connection, but there may be.
In short, the “proof” of the Bible’s truth about salvation is in the “pudding” of transformed lives – mine and billions of others. The Bible doesn’t have to be accurate in terms of contemporary science or be absolutely inerrant for God to use it for our salvation.
What does this have to do with exploring evolution?
At a minimum, my study of the Bible and great Christian thinkers reveals that the Bible and contemporary science are not essentially in conflict. The Bible’s purpose pertains to salvation. The purpose of science is greater understanding of the natural world.
Sure, sometimes a scientist will make statements that seem to allow no room for God. When a scientist does this, he or she moves beyond findings or theories about the natural world and speculate about things beyond the domain of science. I feel free to disagree with these kinds of statements, in part because they go beyond the proper explanatory functions of science.
As a theologian, I find it exciting that science and theology need not conflict. I’m free to think biblical authors operated from a worldview different from mine shaped by contemporary science. But because God uses the Bible in ways to teach me and others truths for our salvation, I’m not worried that ancient worldviews don’t match contemporary science.
It’s one thing to say evolution doesn’t conflict with the Bible’s purpose. It’s another thing to say evolution actually reinforces central biblical truths.
When I say, “reinforce,” I’m not saying the Bible proves the theory of evolution is true. But I do think evolution fits well with important features of the Christian faith other creation theories don’t fit as well.
For instance, Genesis tells us that “when God began creating the heavens and the earth,” “the earth was a formless void” and “darkness covered the face of the deep.” In creating, a “wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2).
From relationship with creation, God calls forth other things. In this creating, God does not act alone. God says, for instance, “let the earth put forth vegetation” (11), “let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (20), and “let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind” (24).
In other words, the Christian creation story says creatures act as created co-creators! That story fits well with the idea God creates through an evolutionary process involving creaturely contributions. It doesn’t fit so well with creation views that say God unilaterally zaps creatures into existence from nothingness.
God is Love
I find the Bible bubbling over with examples of God working in, with, and alongside creatures. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Isn’t that the way love works? It makes sense to think a loving God would create in, with, and alongside that which God previously created.
It’s pretty obvious to most people that love doesn’t entirely control others. Love does not coerce. Instead, love calls, persuades, invites, or influences without overriding freedom.
Evolution helps us realize that giving of freedom and/or agency is a gift God gives all creation. Sure, the tiniest creatures don’t have freedom like we do. But they have some measure of agency. And it would make sense that a loving God would give freedom and/or agency to all God creates. We know that give-and-receive relations require at least some freedom and/or agency from those in relationship.
To say God gives freedom and/or agency to all creation and has always been doing so helps answer some of the biggest questions we have about evolution. For instance, evolution tells us that it took millions of years for creatures to evolve into the complex forms we now see. But if God gives freedom and/or agency to all creatures and they act as created co-creators, it would make sense that creating complex creatures takes time.
Or consider the problem of pain, suffering, and death. An evolutionary theory that says God lovingly gives freedom and/or agency helps explain why things sometimes go wrong. Creatures might use that freedom and/or agency badly. And that’s an important place to start when pondering the difficult issues of evil.
In short, the theory of evolution can help remind us of the central truth of the Christian faith: God is love. And it can help us see why Jesus’ great commandments – love God and love others as ourselves – fits in the fabric of creation.
There is ample support in the New Testament that the death of one (Jesus Christ) brought life to others. “Christ died, and now we can live,” Christians often testify. We Christians make this claim not only based on our experience, but also on the biblical witness. In fact, those who die to sinful habits and come alive in Christ are said to live a cruciform existence. They imitate the crucified One.
In an important sense, the theory of evolution assumes death can bring about new life. Darwn saw very clearly that without death, the planet would quickly become overgrown and overpopulated. In some cases, death is required for more robust and diverse life to emerge. In other words, evolution has a cruciform element in it.
I want to be clear that I’m not saying all death is good or that God ordained death. Death is sometimes evil, but other times not. Christians have affirmed since the beginning that at least sometimes death in necessary for the bringing forth of life.
Jesus Christ, of course, witnesses to this cruciform existence most poignantly. And when we choose death for the sake of something better, our death is similar to Jesus’s death and to death occurring in the evolutionary process. Death can bring life!
God is Doing a New Thing
I could say much more about evolution and the Bible. But I don’t have time and space. So let me conclude.
Not only do I think the theory of evolution best accounts for the scientific evidence. And not only do I think the Bible is compatible with evolution because the Bible’s purpose is to reveal God’s salvation. I also think the theory of evolution is a gift. It’s a gift to Christians like me who take the Bible with utmost seriousness. It reinforces central themes of the Christian faith.
The writer of Isaiah 43 records God saying, “I will do a new thing.” God then immediately asks, “Do you not perceive it?” (19) An evolutionary picture of the world suggests God is in the business of doing new things. And the Bible says creation has been invited to participate.
Perhaps Evangelicals are ready today to perceive that God’s way of doing new things is written into God’s creating through evolution. And in this, the book of Scripture and the book of nature agree.