A CHALLENGE FROM A PERSON HOLDING A Th.D DEGREE
Lorence G. Collins firstname.lastname@example.org
Shown below is some email correspondence between myself (Lorence Collins) and a person with a Th.D degree who expresses well the view of those persons who assert that a literal interpretation of the Bible is necessary for one to be a Christian. To maintain anonymity, I have not revealed this person's name or gender. I think that this correspondence is useful in showing an alternative view as to how a person can be both a scientist and a Christian witness. What is shown below is not exactly as in our original communications because I have added a few references and explanations to clarify two of my sentences. I also corrected some misspellings in both messages.
Dear Dr. Xxxxxx:
Thank you for your thoughtful letter, challenging my views as a Christian and my interpretations of the Bible. Your response is one of the better ones that I have received and one that is done in a Christian way rather than attacking me personally. From your perspective, you have made some good points, and I will try to answer your comments in the order in which they are written in your letter. To facilitate my response, I have copied your letter below. I suspect, however, that the end result of my comments will be that we will have to agree to disagree, that is okay. I certainly would not want to destroy your faith. The bottom line for both of us is whether you and I are following the teachings of Jesus, seek to love and serve Him, and recognize our forgiveness, all of which you are doing to the best of your ability, as I am.
It is clear that we will have to disagree because you assert with conviction that you cannot accept the natural views of the history of the universe. I assume that this belief is one in which you aver that everything in creation is done supernaturally. That is, the Creator in doing the creation breaks His/Her own natural laws --- laws which the Creator also created. There will be nothing that I can say in subsequent paragraphs which are arguments against that belief, because it is possible that a Creator could have that supernatural ability in all of creation. As a scientist, however, I have to respect the natural laws and rely to the best of my ability on these laws, then try to understand them, and finally to see how the Creator did His/Her creation by using these laws. It seems to me that the creation, as recorder in Genesis 1-2, is equally miraculous, if not more so, if it were done in billions of years in time rather than in a literal Genesis Week.
Following these preliminary comments, I will now proceed to your letter and make additional observations.
Dear Dr. Collins,
I came across your Website quite by accident. I found it rather interesting. The purpose of this e-mail is not to challenge your claim of being a Christian as that is between you and God. Nor do I actually believe that I will be able to change you mind on what you believe as it is apparent that it is already made up. But, then, so is mine so that also is not meant as a criticism.
I do wonder though, why you are a Christian and how can you lead others to Christ? My position is based on the following argument: If I cannot believe Genesis 1-11, then how can I believe John 3:16? If I cannot believe Colossians 1:16-17, then how can I believe Romans 5:6-8? I was not around at the time of creation, and neither were you. I cannot say what happened based upon my own experience, and neither can you. I was not around at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection, and neither were you. Again, I cannot say what happened based upon my own experience, and neither can you. For both instances I have to rely on the record of others, and so do you. If the word of God is wrong concerning the creation account, then how can I believe that it is right concerning the account of the crucifixion and resurrection? Are not both equally miraculous? To cause someone to doubt one is to plant the seeds of doubt for the other."
Response: Of course, neither of us were there when creation occurred or when the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ happened, but that does not mean that there is only one valid way of interpreting what occurred. The verses John 3:16, Colossians 1:16-17, and Romans 5:6-8 are statements involving spiritual matters and have nothing to do with science. I do not see how viewing creation from a scientific point of view should in any way affect the above three marvelous passages in the Bible or that a failure to believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis should destroy your ability to believe in the validity of these three biblical statements.
It is not true that I have to rely entirely on the record of others for interpreting scientific relationships. As I have indicated in my website, I do not use the Bible as a scientific text. The first and second law of thermodynamics are not recorded in the Bible. Furthermore, I have never seen an electron in my life, nor has any other scientist. Yet the modern scientific achievements are based on the thermodynamic laws and on interpretations of this electron phenomenon even though no one has ever seen or recorded that they have seen an electron. To expect the biblical writers to be modern scientists and to believe that they simultaneously wrote the books of the Bible as a spiritual guide and a science text is unrealistic in either case. To expect that the author of Genesis can condense the creation story into two chapters when whole libraries are needed even to start on this problem or to expect that the purpose of this author was to give a scientific explanation when his audience really needed to know that there was one Creator God and not many gods out to get them are also unrealistic expectations, in my opinion.
My personal experience tells me that I am sitting in my chair and not going thousands of miles per hour because of the earth's rotation. The Bible does not reveal this knowledge to me. In fact, it tells me that I am sitting still and that everything in the heavens moves around me. Only science tells me otherwise. As a geologist, it is impossible for me to have seen what happened during the earth's history beyond my own life time, but I can examine the evidence recorded in this history much in the same way that a chemist or physicist examines how an unseen electron behaves in chemical reactions, electricity, the creation of light, etc., in the experimental studies that such scientists do.
The geologic record is consistent and shows no evidence that the Creator ever needed to break His/Her natural laws to accomplish it. My interpretation of this record is not always correct, but the mistakes that I make can be corrected as new knowledge and new data are obtained. Moreover, the behavior of the electron is "miraculous," but one does not say that the Creator uses repeated miracles to accomplish how an electron acts or that chemical reactions are a series of miracles. The equation sign does not say "a miracle occurs here." All of these processes are just the nature of science even though the results are miraculous. On the other hand, your method of interpreting the Bible forces you always to have the right literal answer with no alternative solution. There is no correction possible because your interpretation of the Bible has to be scientifically accurate forever. That belief in such accuracy defies intelligence, but I understand your need to have this kind of faith.
I can be a Christian and lead others to Christ because of the witness that I can make as to how He changed my life. Whether someone accepts that witness is not up to me but is a gift from God. The gift of becoming a Christian is always an invitation, not a forceful demand that person must accept Christ.
Yes, I, too, must accept the witness of the disciples who were there living with Jesus. It is only through what was passed down through many years by word of mouth that we know what Jesus said and taught. How much is factual is really difficult to know because the Gospels were written tens of years after the death of Jesus by persons with no scientific training, but there is enough truth in what is written that I know of no better guide to how to live than what is presented in the Gospels. What Paul wrote in his epistles is closest to the actual life of Jesus, and what Paul says is a powerful witness to what occurred as reported to him by the disciples. So, it is obvious that something miraculous happened to turn frightened disciples into fearless witnesses. On that basis, I do not pretend that science can explain everything in the Bible, and I have chosen to follow Christ to the best of my ability because of His example and teachings.
"Perhaps I am not as strong a Christian as you are for I fear that taking up your philosophy would cause me to lose my faith all together. Isn't that what it all comes down to --- faith? Hebrews 11:1, 'Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.' Hebrews 11:3, 'Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.' Tell me, is it more difficult to believe that God supernaturally stopped the earth for Joshua and then supernaturally started it again than it is to believe that God can bring spiritual life to someone who was spiritually dead before coming to Christ? If so, then why? Again, aren't they both miracles and don't they both defy rational explanation? How can you hold to one and deny the other when the same Word of God declares them both with equal authority?"
Response: Your letter gives no indication that you are a weak Christian or one having less commitment than mine. And, I see no reason to believe that you will lose your faith. Your mind is made up, so you are strong in your faith.
Yes, faith is the necessary ingredient to being a Christian. We are in agreement here. But it is another matter in regard to the story involving Joshua as being equivalent in the need for faith as indicated by what is said in the verses in the book of Hebrews. I was not there when the writer described the supposed supernatural event of stopping the earth for Joshua, but I am well aware of the laws of physics that indicate what would happen if that stopping were to occur literally. If that did happen, and the recorded account was not a literary method used by the writer to make a strong point, there would be physical consequences that would have been recorded geologically which would reveal the effects of this stoppage, and to my knowledge, no one has ever found such evidence. This does not mean that a supernatural God could not have done such, but it would be one miracle built on another miracle, built on another miracle,... Even so, such miracles do not have a bearing on the spiritual miracle that happens when a spiritually dead person comes to Christ and discovers the "living water" that He gives to such a person. Note that "living water" is a spiritual understanding and not a literal translation.
I do not believe that it is necessary to force a literal interpretation on everything written in the Bible as you seem to want to do. I get the impression that you are likely selective in your interpretation of what is literally required. The Bible says that if you pick up sticks on the Sabbath that you should be stoned to death (Numbers 15:32-36). Should you not be following this dictum and making sure that those who work on the Sabbath are put to death? The Bible says that physically the sun travels in a circuit across the heavens, "like a strong man" running (Psalm 19:4-6). (This physical motion of the sun was equally believed by scientists at the time of Kepler, who lived from 1571-1630, and was not corrected by theologians of his time. Moreover, theologians in 1632 actively supported this concept when they attacked Galileo for his heliocentric beliefs.) Should you not be correcting the astronomers who are using other interpretations? Are you not selectively deciding what passages you want to believe and ignoring those which do not fit your belief or knowledge?
Finally, the biblical writers had the freedom to use all kinds of literary methods to make points which a writer of science cannot do. Scientific writing requires words of precision that cannot have multiple interpretations. Because of your scientific knowledge, you can decide today whether the biblical writer was using exaggeration in a parable or whether a literal meaning was intended, but it takes that special knowledge to know when a literal meaning is what is meant to be said and when it is not. I agree that today's knowledge makes it extremely difficult to know what was really intended by the biblical writers by their literary styles of writing. Many times I think people who interpret the Bible need to think "Hebrew" and not like a Greek because thinking Hebrew with their understandings in ancient times allows for other kinds of interpretations than what a Greek (scientist) might think.
"I really am curious. I can understand your point of view of accepting evolution. I can understand your point of view of accepting that there is a supernatural God who transcends nature. I cannot understand how you can rationalize holding to both points of view simultaneously. I don't think that you have to justify yourself to me, but if you do feel up to responding to my questions, I would be appreciative."
Response: I too can understand your need to accept a supernatural God and your concern that if you have doubts about the "Word of God" as recorded in the Bible, such doubts might destroy your faith. I would not want to destroy your faith. What is good for me may not be good for you. I do not believe in science as a "religion." Science points me to a marvelous Creator which the Bible tells me exists. I see no evidence that would deny the existence of this Creator and the highly dependable laws which the Creator produced, and I have faith that Jesus tells me what this Creator is like. I think the Creator gave me a brain and expects me to use it to try to understand all of the ways in which He/She acts, both in the physical world and in the spiritual realm. Neither comes easy.
"You have your faith in so-called science (please forgive me, but I cannot accept the natural view of the history of the universe) and I have my faith in a supernatural God who transcends nature and who can do what He wants when He wants however He wants. I am glad, in fact, that my God is beyond my ability to understand and to analyze. For if God could be analyzed, then what type of God would He be? Somehow I truly do feel richer for it and I feel a note of sadness for you."
Response: I certainly do not believe that God can be analyzed. I am in awe of this Creator. I have been privileged to learn a little bit about His/Her creation and how the Creator has done some of this Creation. None of my scientific knowledge and studies has explained the "why" of it all. In this respect, I rely on the words of Jesus.
Xxx Xxxxxx, B.D., M.Div., Th.D."
Final response: I hope that what I have said has been helpful in explaining where I am coming from. I do not expect that you need to change your position. For you, it is what you need. It gives you the richness that comes from that firm belief.
I could certainly gain a lot if I had the knowledge that came with your B.D., M.Div., and Th.D. degrees. Unfortunately, life is not long enough to do everything that I would like to do, but I respect all of the hard work that went into obtaining those degrees. I suspect that your long years of training in theology and the mentors under whom you studied have led you to your current position for a literal interpretation of the Bible. I suspect that because of your talent and natural strengths in the various fields in theology that you have had little time to spend on science (chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, and all of their sub-fields). My studies in these fields have revealed how thoroughly dependable the Creator is. From the teachings of Jesus, I see no reason to believe that this Creator would lie to us or act to fool us. As I said, the Creator is awesome, and I can witness to the wonders of His/Her creation and still be a Christian, saying that the best way to live is to follow Christ. I suspect that you, as I do, happily incorporate all the benefits that science brings to us in terms of modern technology, the modern foods that we eat because of genetic modifications, the antibiotics that cure our sicknesses, the x-ray machines, the cat-scans, etc., but I know that science does not solve the moral and spiritual issues that mankind faces. For me, I can be a Christian and a scientist at the same time because I can accept both ways in which the Creator reveals the wonders of the universe. You will have to decide what is best for you.
Postscript: "I read the response that you sent and I think I can boil our differences down to one basic statement. You have decided to judge the Bible by the record while I have decided to judge the record by the Bible. I believe that if the writers of the Old Testament did write under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, as numerous Bible passages claim, then the Genesis account of creation was also written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Since God was present during creation and was personally responsible for it, then I trust His record of what happened as He was the only observer."
Response: In both of our approaches to the Bible, we have to rationalize certain issues because neither of us was there at the time. One sticky point for you over which you have to rationalize is how the natural laws, which the Creator also produced, are considered. The problem is that they cannot be broken if they are laws.
Dr. Lorence G. Collins Department of Geological Sciences California State University Northridge 18111 Nordhoff Street Northridge, California 91330-8266 FAX 818-677-2820