Thursday, January 14, 2010

How was Genesis Interpreted Before Darwin?

Many Christians secretly believe that biblical interpretation is always being pushed around by new scientific discoveries. They imagine something along these lines: "We claim the text says one thing in one century and then beat a hasty retreat the following century when our interpretation is threatened by some new empirical observation. If the days of Genesis are no longer interpreted as "literal 24 hour days" then, who knows, maybe next generation we'll deny the historical bodily resurrection of Jesus."

Such fear is not uncommon even if it is unspoken. And, I suppose, I should say right up front, this fear is also unwarranted. Look, as Catholics we have enough to worry about in evangelizing the world than to suspect that the teaching magisterium of the Church is on the verge of rationalizing away the "faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

Liberal, evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal Protestants as well as Catholics and Orthodox hold a wide range of interpretive schemes for the first 3 chapters of the Bible. These are "fights" worth having. People quarrel over what is important and, as unpleasant as they sound, such disputes often force people to confront ideas, stretch their minds, and, if they are in fellowship with God, sanctify their hearts. The Catholic Church for centuries has harbored within itself all manner of theological disputation and entertained various kinds of biblical interpretation without sacrificing what is presented in the text for the sake of our salvation.

Generally, Catholics get less exercised over Genesis than evangelical Protestants. Hopefully, this doesn't represent a neglect of Scripture but rather an awareness that the sacred text has always been read within a believing community and as part of a stable tradition. The vantage point of two thousand years of thinking on these things ought to stabilize us a bit. After all, we are NOT practitioners of private interpretation for as Peter wrote: "Understanding this first, that no prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation" (2 Ptr 1:20).

The discoveries of modern science should neither be seen as the instigator of some abandonment of trust in Scripture, nor as contradictory to Scripture, but as guideposts toward a proper understanding of scripture’s meaning.

The BioLogos Foundation posted a brief overview of some of Christianity's most capable theologians and biblical scholars as they considered interpreting Genesis. Catholic Answers also provides sound doctrine.

Augustine offers this advice:

"In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture."

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