The Glass Darkly

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Biblical Interpretations of Time

I was doing some reading lately on the following topics:

Biblical Interpretation and how it applies to the Creation account

10 majory differences between Calendar-day creationists and Day-age Creationists

I thought back to my first semester of science at my Christian liberal-arts college -- zoology. I remember clearly my professor cautioning us in our studies. Most of us in that class were also training to be teachers. He said that too often Christians, in their pursuit of literal interpretations of the Bible often stumble and misrepresent the intentions of science. He believed, they also end up, in many cases, misrepresenting the intentions of the writers and even that of God as we see the story unfold from Genesis to Revelation.

I remember my professor saying that in our zeal to keep science and faith separate, we end up putting God in a box. We make irresponsible claims about how God did the things we see in the Bible and even go further to speculate why He did them. Some do this with such an assurance, that they completely eliminate both the reality and the necessity for the Mystery of God. That semester I barely kept up with my zoological studies, but I did begin four years of a healthy look at my views of Biblical accounts and how it impacted my faith.

In that first class, however, we were about to enter a study that, in part, not only looks at the types of animals that exist on the Earth,
but also their morphological characteristics and relationships to one another. Inevitably there would be some chapters dedicated to ontology, how things began or were created or evolved. That was one place our professor expected some debate and conversation. He encouraged us to trust science, for it is measurable and observable. But it is not the end-all in truth. He also encouraged us to think outside the box, for that is how God works -- outside the box of our human understanding and reason.

For example, what about the possibilities that each day of Creation was not a 24-hour block of time . . . what if each day started with God speaking into existence another aspect of the Creation, but the fulfillment of it, or the maturation of it took "time" like many years? Does not the Bible teach that our sense of time and God's sense of time are not the same? Or what about the possibility that God created an old Earth right from the start? In both of these examples, the age of the Earth could be much older, as the scientific method has measured. And the changes that have been measured or theorized based on observable data and extrapolated data by science may have happened, if not in "real time" (longer than 24 hours), at least in the instant it took for God to speak the word that brought Creation into being.

Through this whole discussion I kept coming back to the mystery of God. My professor's main caution, as I have written about before, was that we never use the Bible as our science textbook. The Bible teaches us WHO did WHAT and may give some
clues as to WHY, but it does not explain HOW. He said that anytime we try to use the Bible to teach how God did anything, we are walking on thin ice. For that usually requires a literal interpretation of what we read and it is considered impossible to remain consistent in that approach. And most tragic, it seeks to remove the mystery of God that makes Him God. When we claim we know exactly how God did anything, we are mistakingly elevating ourselves to diety-level.

While the new theories related to the Creation were certainly interesting for me to consider, I soon realized they were not discussable in typical groups of Christians. Neither were the theories of evolution or Big Bang. Immediately I would get looks of suspicion or even the "knowing" looks by those who were convinced I had traded my salvation in for the wiles of education and knowledge (more likely considered heresy). I wondered why scientists couldn't ask these questions? And more importantly, why weren't Christians willing to engage these questions or ideas.

I added my theories of Creation to a long list of views related to other ethical challenges in the science field, as well as those debated within Christian apologetics classes. This argument over how God created has dramatic implications on how we test our faith views on a whole host of topics: studies of reletivity, cosmic activity, scientific tests on animals, global warming, abortion, capital punishment, war, stem-cell research . . .

I found an account of this remarkable interview with Willian Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). He was born in Salem, Illinois and became a lawyer and later a congressman in Nebraska. He was a devout Christian but was also a philosopher, writer and famous speaker. At the 1896 Democratic convention, he mesmerized delegates with his famous "Cross of Gold" speech and ended up the party's presidential nominee three times, though did not win the elections. He served as Sec. of State under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan spent his later years campaigning for prohibition and against the teaching of evolution. Though he stood against evolution, he was not a literal Creationist. He was a known proponent of the day-age theory of creation.

In 1925, Bryan served as prosecutor in the infamous "monkey trial" of John Scopes, a Tennessee teacher arrested for teaching evolution. Yet I find his testimony interesting in how he frames his understanding of how God created the world. I wonder what most Christians would have to say about this:

Clarence Darrow (the ACLU lawyer) [D]: ‘Mr Bryan, could you tell me how old the Earth is?’

Bryan [B]: ‘No, sir, I couldn’t.’

[D]: ‘Could you come anywhere near it?’

[B]: ‘I wouldn’t attempt to. I could possibly come as near as the scientists do, but I had rather be more accurate before I give a guess.’

[D]: ‘Does the statement, “The morning and the evening were the first day,” and “The morning and the evening were the second day,” mean anything to you?’

[B]: ‘I do not think it necessarily means a twenty-four-hour day.’

[D]: ‘You do not?’

[B]: ‘No.’

[D]: 'Then, when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not necessarily mean twenty-four-hours?’

[B]: ‘I do not think it necessarily does.’ ‘I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the Earth in six days as in six years or in six million years or in 600 million years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.’

[D]: ‘And they had the evening and the morning before that time for three days or three periods. All right, that settles it. Now, if you call those periods, they may have been a very long time.’

[B]: ‘They might have been.’

[D]: ‘The creation might have been going on for a very long time?’

[B]: ‘It might have continued for millions of years.’

Source: The World’s Most Famous Court Trial, Second Reprint Edition, Bryan College, Dayton, pp. 296, 302–303, 1990.

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