Well, last week was a typical week in a world where Christian celebrity, social media, and theological convictions collide. A well-known Christian musician voiced his evolving theological conclusions, convictions, and even doubts about things like a real first-couple named Adam and Eve, a six-day creation (which he was taught happened 6,000 years ago), and a version of the Biblical account of a global flood resulting in water covering the entire surface of the Earth (including the highest mountain peaks in the world) which also accounts for the eventual spread of the animal kingdom across the globe. As with all of these dust-ups in the twitter-sphere, blogosphere, and miles-long Facebook comment threads, two things are patently obvious.

1. Anyone who believes what he now believes is obviously an apostate, an enemy of the truth, and doesn’t really believe the Bible.

2. Anyone who doesn’t believe what he believes is an ignoramus who might as well believe in Santa Clause.

These, of course, are now and always will be (we’re told) the only two possible choices – and you have to choose sides.

As my wife likes to say to our blogging team here at ThinkTheology.org when we disagree about stuff, “Girls, girls, settle down. Daddy thinks you’re both pretty.”

In some ways, I actually found all of this helpful because it caused me to engage in dialogue with various people who were wrestling through the issues in various ways.

My own commitment to taking the Bible seriously (which I define as taking the Bible as it was meant to be taken, and reading the Bible as it was meant to be read) resulted in my reaching out to my professor of Old Testament Theology, Elmer Martens to engage him about some of these big questions.  Interestingly, he told me that his twelve-year-old grandson had already talked to him about this, and they were having some really important conversations about all of it.

It has always been interesting to me to see where we draw our theological fault-lines. I’m a firm believer in the reality that there is such a thing as a right belief and a wrong belief. There is truth and there is error. There is what the Bible is actually trying to say, and there is what we say about the Bible. Thus, there is a right way and a wrong way to read the Bible – even if you read it regularly and sincerely. And without weighing in on exactly what I think about every one of these issues, I really want to focus on how we approach them in our ongoing discussions in the first place.

I was incredibly helped this week by the perspective of Dr. Hugh Ross in his book  Navigating Genesis – A Scientist’s Journey through Genesis 1-11.  Dr. Martens suggested that I include readings of Dr. Ross’ work in my own theological journey through the big questions of creation, humanity, and the relationship between nature and divine revelation. In the opening pages, Ross makes a very important point as a starting-place for dialogue between the disciplines of science and theology.  He says –

“…theology is not the same as the words of the Bible. It is the human effort to interpret the Bible’s words. Neither is science equivalent to the record of nature. It is the human attempt to interpret nature, past and present.” [1]

Did you get that? That’s so important. The classic mistake we all make is to equate our theological conclusions with the Bible itself, rather than honestly admitting that our theological work, and the conclusions that come from that work are not the same thing as the Bible. As we’ve said over and over on this site, a person may believe that the Bible is the authoritative word of God, but may also have completely wrong beliefs about what the  Bible is saying.

Theology is an interpretive conclusion about the Bible. If your interpretive tools are either lacking not employed correctly (or both), you can land in the wrong place no matter how much you trumpet a strong affirmation in Biblical authority. This is the mistake I think I have observed in the recent uproar.  I have read headlines saying that “so-and-so no longer believes the Bible.” But after reading what the person said, I concluded that he still believed the Bible, but no longer believed that his conclusions about it (based on the way he was reading and interpreting it) were correct. There’s a big difference between those two things.

So, a person may still believe the Bible and yet disagree with, or change their theological conclusions about something the Bible supposedly teaches.  And please. Don’t take the misguided risk of saying this is impossible. It will be too easy to start asking questions about your own theological journey and convictions, and demonstrate that you have probably done the same thing.  There’s the Bible, and there’s theology.  And our job as Christians is to work hard so that the latter is firmly grounded in the former.

Likewise, Dr. Ross reminds his scientist colleagues that their conclusions should not be confused with nature itself. Science is an attempt to observe nature and to make conclusions about what we observe. It is not the same thing as nature itself. A survey of the historical development of various scientific ideas will tell you that conclusions continue to change, adjust, or get thrown out altogether once better data, or better ways of interpreting data are developed. More on why these distinctions are important below.

The next section of the introduction was incredibly helpful to me, and gave me a simple way of retrospectively understanding so many of the debates, conversations, books, and seminars I have seen surrounding the big themes in Genesis 1-11 over the years. In this section, Dr. Ross provides such a helpful overview of four approaches typically taken by Christians, scientists, atheists, philosophers, theologians, and just about everyone else in discussions of the relationship between nature and revelation, science and scripture.

Four ways we talk about nature and scripture

To begin with, I am intentionally not comparing science with theology. Again, those are the disciplines associated with nature and scripture, and are distinctive from them in important ways. Once we get that straight, we can decide how we want to approach our dialogue.

First Approach – Separation – Keep the disciplines apart

In this approach, scientists and theologians are supposed to admit that they simply cannot talk to each other because their disciplines do not overlap. Science is science. Theology is theology. Interdisciplinary dialogue is impossible, and therefore should not be attempted.  Science deals with empirical data, and the world of tangible observations. Religion, theology, and spirituality deal with morals, metaphysical ideas, and the intangible world of sacred ideals.  The two cannot talk to each other, and therefore they should not try.

Regarding the origins and mindset behind this approach, Dr. Ross writes —

The first set of models was eloquently described more than a decade ago by evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. In his article entitled “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” first published (1997) in the magazine Natural History 5 and later (1999, 2002) in the book Rocks of Ages, 6 Gould proposes “a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to… the supposed conflict between science and religion.” The proposed solution : recognize that science (based on tangible reality) and religion (based on sacred stories) define two different and completely independent domains of teaching, questions, and research. Since, according to Gould, the two domains do not overlap, there can be no conflict between the two. [2]

Second Approach – Conflict – Pit them against each other

In this approach, scientists and theologians take the posture of defensiveness. They embrace a belief that the other side has ulterior motives and diabolical intentions. No good can come of listening to what the other guy says.  You will be deceived by God-hating science or fairy-following fanatics. My sense is that much of the evangelical world is in the conflict approach, and is suspicious of science. Evangelicals are told that if a certain approach to reading Genesis is not taken, one cannot be a true Christian, cannot understand or preach the gospel, and is ultimately an enemy of the truth and the problem with Christianity.

Again, Dr. Ross writes —

[Richard] Dawkins…advocates a conflict model. If science and religion, such as Christianity, make contradictory claims about the state of the natural world, they cannot both be right. Thus, he sees no basis for peace. The two perspectives are inexorably locked in a war with only one possible outcome, in his view: science will emerge as the victor and religion, the vanquished. Even before Dawkins articulated his battle-to-the-finish model, young-earth creationist organizations had trumpeted the call to arms, urging Christians to join them in a life-and-death (spiritually speaking) confrontation. The main difference between the two groups lies in their anticipation of who will emerge as the victor and who, the vanquished. [3]

The end result is essentially the same here. Both sides come away concluding that their disciplines are unable to forge common ground, and suspicion of either superstitious ignorance or malicious atheistic intent drives their perception of the other side. It is reasoned that if scientists and theologians don’t see eye-to-eye, then they cannot both be right. Thus, they need to slug it out until the truth prevails.

Third Approach – Complementarian – Acknowledge similarities and differences

The complementarian approach essentially acknowledges that there are both differences and agreements between the disciplines of science and theology – but they also find these differences in two primary sources of information; Nature and Scripture. That is, they believe that the scientific conclusions about nature differ from the what the Bible says because the Bible occasionally talks about things in ways that don’t align with scientific observations. However, they also see points of overlap and commonality in some places, and use these occasional touch-points in order to foster dialogue.

Dr. Ross describes the dynamic this way —

Thus, complementarians work hard to limit the encroachment of one domain upon the other’s territory. Given their view that science has nothing to say about spirituality or morality and ethics, they tend to discount research findings on these topics , including those published by cognitive psychologists and social neuroscientists. Likewise, complementarians work hard to limit scientific inferences from what the Bible says about natural history.

According to Dr. Ross, a huge chunk of evangelicals self-identify as complementarian. They still see big differences between what the Bible says and what they can observe in nature, but they also see a few points of agreement.

Fourth Approach – Concordism- The two sources agree. If we can’t see it, keep working.

Dr. Ross call this approach”Constructive Integration Models.”  It is also called “concordism,” based on the conviction that divine revelation and natural revelation both come from the same source, and thus – cannot disagree. They will both say the exact same thing (with a caveat). Concordists don’t deny that there are disparate views between scientist and theologians. However, they do not attribute the disagreement to the source-material itself. Rather, they attribute it to methodology and interpretive flaws within the models used, upon which  either scientific or theological (or both) conclusions are based.

Ross describes concordism in this way —

Based on the consistency of the message emanating from these two sources, constructive integrationists take a strong view of Scripture and a strong view of the record of nature. They see both domains as content-rich, addressing a wide range of similar issues and coming closer together through time. For them, the concept of divine inspiration is large enough to encompass the notion that each book of the Bible communicates relevant truth to and for all generations of humanity, not just the writer’s contemporaries.[5]

In simple terms, concordists believe that where scientists and theologians disagree, they have more work to do. Both are working from true, trustworthy, and reliable sources of information that would never disagree because one is the creation of God (e.g., the cosmos itself), and the other is the revelation of the same God (e.g., the record of Scripture). Concordists cannot imagine that the God who created the world would say things about it in scripture that contradict what is visible.

I don’t personally know where Michael Gungor fits on the grid here, but he seems to be leaning heavily into a complementarian model after having come from both a separation and conflict approach at various points in his journey through these questions. If you jump into the fights online, you can quickly begin putting everyone into their own corner.

The Separationists say – “Why even have this discussion? The Bible and Science are two separate realms. Let them stay in their own corners and never try to talk. It’s impossible.”

The Conflict-oriented people chime in – “No! We’re both talking about the observable world, and we’re both coming to different conclusions. We can’t both be right. Let’s fight until the best side wins — and we all know who that will be.”

Trying to calm them all down, the complementarians offer – “Hey, there are definite differences between us, but we’re both trying to do different things — and both things are valuable. Plus, we don’t always disagree. Where we agree, let’s collaborate, and where we don’t let’s let each be an expert in his own field. No need to fight about it.”

Finally, the concordist speaks – “Our disagreements are about our own ignorance, our own methodology, our own biases, and our own dogmas. Truth is truth, and neither nature nor the Bible will disagree with the other when interpreted correctly. The problem is not with your truth-source. The problem is with your own way of understanding it. We need to keep talking. We need to keep studying. We need to keep researching. In time, if we’re honest about everything we see, and if we’re willing to learn, our paths will cross, overlap, and fully align themselves. The record of nature and the record of history say the same thing. We just need to learn to speak the language — then we’ll undersdand.”

What say you? Do these models help move the discussion forward? Are you helped (as I am) by Hugh Ross’ proposal of a concordist starting-place?  If we start there, how can we move forward?

Jump in!



[1] Ross, Hugh (2014-03-01). Navigating Genesis: A Scientist’s Journey through Genesis 1–11 (Kindle Locations 265-266). RTB Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] ibid., loc. 194-200

[3] ibid., loc. 215-220

[4] ibid., loc. 229-233

[5] ibid., loc. 251-254