The habit of referring to God’s ‘two books’ – the book of Scripture and the ‘book’ of nature – goes back at least to Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Michael Faraday (1791-1867) spoke in the same terms, as did Galileo (1564-1642). Charles Darwin quoted Bacon in the preface to his Origin of Species:-
‘To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s work, or in the book of God’s word; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress of proficence in both.’
And Frederick Temple (later Archibishop of Canterbury) spoke the following words in a sermon preached in 1860 (on the day after the semi-mythical encounter between T.H. Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce):-
‘The student of science…if he be a religious man, he believes that both books, the book of Nature and the book of Revelation, come alike from God, and that he has not more right to refuse to accept what he finds in the one than what he finds in the other. The two books are indeed on totally different subjects; the one may be called a treatise on physics and mathematics, the other a treatise on theology and morals. But they are both by the same Author.’
But neither book is self-interpreting. Each needs its own principles of interpretation: nature is understood by the application of scientific method, whereas Scripture is interpreted using the rules of grammatico-historical exegesis. To attempt to interpret one by the tools suited to the other leads to confusion. It is a mistake, for example, to read the reference in Genesis 1 to God’s creation of living creatures ‘after their kind’ to attempt to prove the fixity of species.
The early chapters of Genesis should probably be understood as semi-poetic in character – ‘elevated prose’. It seems clear that symbolism is present, most obviously in the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’, Gen 2:17, but probably elsewhere as well. A literal reading of these early chapters would indicate that by Gen 4 the only people around are Adam, Even, Cain and Abel; but Gen 4:14 (‘will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me’) suggests that there were other people (many people?) around at the time.
Gordon Wenham points out that the early readers of Genesis would have been familiar with Canaanite, Babylonian and Mesopotamian creation stories. These stories in involved warring gods, humans feeding the gods, battles between equal and opposite forces of good and evil, worship of the Sun and Moon, and a general denigration of matter as evil. Genesis 1 is a deeply subversive corrective to this.
Evolution teaches that humans have a lowly ancestry. How does this square with the teaching of the Bible, that we were created in God’s image? It is true that we share 98.8% of our DNA with chimpanzees, but that does not make a chimp 98.8% human in terms, for example, of language, reasoning, or abstract thinking ability. And the Bible marks out humans as made ‘in the image of God’: we were made like God, and for God. This opens up the whole of the rest of the biblical revelation as it plots our alienation from God and our restoration to him.
Based on Michael Poole, User’s Guide to Science and Belief, Lion, 2007, 9-18.