Ted Davis interview: A History of the Creation-Evolution Conflict

My friend Steven Anderson summarized for me his reaction to the Ted Davis interview, and I would like to post his comments for others to consider. – Stephen A. MacDonald Here is what Steven Anderson wrote to me: Dear Steve, Upon your recommendation, I listened to the lecture by Ted Davis of the ASA, who debunked the warfare view of the relationship between Christianity and science. This view, which seeks to eliminate or at least sideline Christianity, arises from naturalism, denying that dogmatic theology can help science. Instead, Davis reports, the historical conversation between Christian and science has been rich. Davis advocates the theology of creation, debated among Christians in the early modern history of the scientific revolution. One side emphasized God’s rationality, believing that man could understand creation completely through mathematics. The opposing side emphasized God’s will, seeking to understand the nature of creation through empirical research. Davis’ own position emphasizes divine freedom and creative power. He taught that creation is contingent, in the sense that God was not required to create. Davis holds that the great age of the universe and of the Earth /ipso facto/ rule out a literal reading of the days of the Genesis creation, and therefore the theological message there must be something else. On the other hand, Davis also holds that science does not eliminate God’s place as the transcendent Creator, nor that Christ arose bodily from the grave. Davis denied that Newton was a deist who believed in the clockwork metaphor of the universe. Instead, Newton believed that the providential continuance of the world, such gravity, is “a perpetual miracle.” Davis touched on the polarizing modernist-fundamentalist controversy of the 1920’s, mentioning that William Jennings Bryan believed that belief in evolution led to the theological enormities of modernism. Davis said that the important fact for the the interface between science and theology is the knowledge that the God Who raised Jesus from the dead is also the God Who created the world. Davis saw no value to the term, /evolutionary Christianity,/ advocated by the interviewer, admitting, however, the legitimacy of /evolutionary creation./ Davis said that acceptance of the truth of evolution does change the theological understanding of theodicy, because of animal death before the Fall. He also does not believe in a literal first couple, because humans and animals have common ancestors. Theology must be brought into conformity with the “actual facts” (his words) of science. The interviewer argued in favor of progressive revelation, that belief in evolution will improve our understanding of God. Davis emphasized the historical importance of Christ’s resurrection and God’s freedom to determine the nature of nature. Dr. Davis’s interview was a helpful review of important points in the history of the interaction between science and Christianity, affecting the discussion today. It seems to me reasonable to hypothesize that Davis’s theology is strongly Christian, but that his hermeneutic suffers from an important inconsistency. As you know, Scripture interprets itself, and exegesis cannot be modified by external considerations. I hold that if early Genesis is to be interpreted metaphorically, it must be on the basis of a consistently applied hermeneutic, not on the basis of the conclusions of science. Scientific discoveries and paradigms are to be encouraged to challenge a rethinking of theology, that is only common respect, but they do not have the right to require change in doctrine. That must come only from consistently applied Bible interpretation principles. Yours, Steven Anderson, Auburn, Maine

6 comments to Ted Davis interview: A History of the Creation-Evolution Conflict

  • Edward Davis

    Hello, Steven,
    You make a very good point.  If I might just “cut to the chase” with a short reply, let me make just two concise points.  First, I believe that a consistently applied hermeneutic–namely, using our best knowledge of the Bible itself, in its cultural and literary context (i.e., what literary genre is the individual inspired author using?) — will give us the best interpretation of a given text.  Concerning early Genesis, then, I recommend the following article from the ASA’s journal: cvhttp://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1984/JASA9-84Hyers.html.  According to Hyers, early Genesis is best understood as a proclamation of monotheism, vis-a-vis polytheism and pantheism, and not as an historical story.  I agree with Hyers; indeed, when I first read his article 26 years ago, I was blown away by it, in a positive way–I’d never encountered such a view before, even though (I am told) there is nothing at all radical about Hyers’ argument.
    Second, I also believe that we cannot entirely ignore well established facts when we interpret the Bible.  In other words, while I don’t disagree with the principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture (i.e., itself), I don’t fully agree with the additional point you have above: “exegesis cannot be modified by external considerations.”  What if (for example) you were convinced that a certain place named in the Bible had never actually existed, or that a certain person in a given story had actually lived much earlier or much later than the story’s historical setting.  Would you entirely ignore that information when interpreting that particular text?  Or, if you were convinced that a biblical author actually believed that the earth is a flat disc, not something like a sphere, or that the earth is at rest and does not orbit the Sun, would this affect your interpretation of a given text, even though other Scriptural texts might support the erroneous idea?
    In my case, I am convinced that the evidence for common ancestry of humans and other animals is very, very strong, such that I take it as an established conclusion–the functional equivalent of an ordinary fact.  Thus, I think we must interpret the Bible with that in mind.

  • Edward Davis

    I strongly encourage our members to join in the lively conversation about the issues raised in the intervied Dowd carried out.  Please go to http://evolutionarychristianity.com/blog/general/ted-davis-the-creation-evolution-conflict-in-historical-perspective/ to comment.  It would be great if several ASA members add support to my comments.

  • Paul Seely

    Ted’s response in the interview is a masterpiece of careful scholarship. My only qualm is in his later recommendation of Hyers’ approach to Genesis 1. There is much in Hyers that is good and true, but his attempt to make the genre of Gen 1 akin to parable rather than natural history flies in the face of the text. Gen 1 shows what the world was like in the beginning: unorganized and desolate. Through a series of God’s words and works, the universe was put together into an organized whole which appears at the end of the creation week. This progress through time is by definition history, and the world being spoken of is not like the imaginary Good Samaritan but is the real physical world around us. The genre of Genesis 1 is thus not parable.
    At the same time, because the universe and its history is described in terms of ancient concepts of the natural world (watery beginning, solid sky, ocean above the sky and below the earth, etc.), we who know better scientifically recognize that the history has been accommodated to the understanding of ancient Israel and is thus not binding on us. The theological lessons given to us through that accommodated history are binding. We, unlike the Israelites, thus read the history in Genesis 1, which is not parabolic in genre, as if it were parabolic. This may seem to be a trivial distinction to the hasty, but a less careful approach to Genesis 1 will not have as robust an answer to critics both liberal and fundamentalist.

  • Dick Fischer

    I agree with Paul (fancy that!) that Hyers made a big mistake in his approach to Genesis 1.  By interpreting the fourth day of creation as a day where God brought the heavenly bodies into being rather than thinking of it as a day that God established their purpose as celestial timekeepers for the sighted creatures to come on succeeding days, Hyers feels compelled to bail out poor Moses who were it not for Hyers helping hand would otherwise be just plain wrong.

    So instead of the days of creation being days of succession, however long they might have been, they become a “cosmogonic order” instead.  And thus the days are realigned accordingly.  Had Hyers understood a little better and read more carefully perhaps he would not have gone down this path taking subsequent Bible scholars with him.

  • Scot Sutherland

    I would like to respond to this statement made by Anderson:
    “As you know, Scripture interprets itself, and exegesis cannot be modified by external considerations.”

    I have heard this before many times and I have always been troubled and puzzled by it.  How can we understand a Good Shepherd if there are no keepers of sheep?  What sense does it make for Christ to be the True Vine and the father the vine dresser if there were no grapevines and horticulturists to tend them?  We have the “body of Christ” the mustard seed and “born of the spirit.”  Nothing about Bible interpretation can be done without an understanding of nature.  Why should it be that understanding the Bible should be relegated to understanding the ancient conceptions of nature?  Wouldn’t it be more like God to inspire a scripture that can be interpreted in the context of our current scientific understanding?

    Perhaps God never intended for us to figure everything out.  Instead he wants us to live in between the scriptures and nature, just as Jesus did, making meaning of our world in the context of scripture and vice versa.  Whole bodies of social science and anthropological scholarship take the narrative as reality.  This perspective certainly illuminates some wonderful things about the Genesis account.  However, the Genesis account is also wonderfully synchronic, just like the physical and biological processes we experience every day. Perhaps theology, philosophy and science need to be reconnected.  Perhaps we’ll get on better when they all play a part in our understanding.
    The scripture makes one thing perfectly clear, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom/understanding/knowledge.”  It all starts with believing and fearing the Lord.  Isn’t this really what the battle is all about?


  • Paul Seely

    Although I agree with Dick that Hyers made a mistake in his approach to Genesis 1, I have made it clear elsewhere  that I agree with Hyers and the clear majority of OT scholars that Day Four is about bringing the heavenly bodies into being as well as establishing their purpose as celestial timekeepers (“The First Four Days of Genesis in Concordist Theory and in Biblical Context,” , PSCF 49:2 (June, 1997) 85-95 [www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1997/PSCF6-97Seely.html ]. Cf. my talk, Why God Created the Sun on the Fourth Day [ASA2008Seely.mp3].

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