The second essay in Barton and Wilkinson’s Reading Genesis After Darwin is by Francis Watson.  Yeah, that Francis Watson.  Watson’s thesis is that Darwin liberated Genesis from the natural sciences.  Before Darwin, theologians and scientists tended to make interpretive choices that harmonized Genesis with current scientific hypotheses.  This, according to Watson, produces “an unnatural conflation of of scriptural and scientific truths whose significance only comes to light if they are kept distinct.”  I tend to agree.

In the course of his argument Watson points out, as John Calvin did before him, that the description of heavenly bodies in the fourth day of creation is quite different from that derived from modern science.  In Genesis, the Sun is the “great light,” the Moon is a lesser light, the stars are mentioned more or less as an aside, and the planets do not come up at all.  Science, however, knows that the Sun is a mediocre star and most planets are larger than the Moon.  Following Calvin, Watson writes:

…Our capacity for reason enable us both to operate within our own given and immediate perspective and to transcend it.  We transcend it in the context of a scientific investigation in which a perspective on reality comes to light that is quite other than the one from which Genesis speaks.  Here, we learn (among other things) that the least conspicuous of all the visible planets [Saturn] is actually much larger than the moon–in spite of appearances to the contrary.

This discovery of a scientific perspective is all good, because it discloses something about God and his work.  Despite this, however, it is not good to pursue the scientific perspective to the exclusion of the Genesis perspective because:

There is a danger that ‘the knowledge of the divine gifts we enjoy’ may ‘vanish away.’  That is to say, we may acquire a knowledge of abstracted natural phenomena at the cost of a knowledge of our own giftedness.  If so, the idea that a scientifically explicable phenomenon such as moonlight is a gift of God will imperceptively lose its persuasiveness, as we understand ourselves no longer as participants in a God-given order, but as observers of a reality become neutral and indifferent.

I like the idea that one of the transcendent truths we learn from Genesis is our own giftedness.  I agree that this is a perspective that we will not get from science, and that it is important.  Anyway, from his reading of Calvin’s argument Watson develops four hermeneutical rules:

1.  In those  cases where science and scripture differ, it is unwise to assume that science must give way.  Instead, we need to evaluate each case and discern whether we really face one truth claim in opposition to another or simply a difference in perspective.

2. The perspective in scripture is that “of our own life-world understood as the gift of God,” and is foundational.  Because of this, when scripture comes in contact with science the biblical account “should take precedence.”

3. Because scientific discourse reveals God and his creation it must not be neglected.  It also “provokes a more insightful reading of the scriptural text that is not content merely to note and paraphrase its fact-like assertions, but seeks to uncover their significance and rationale.”

4. Since science operates in a different realm than scripture, interpretation should “explain the difference rather than deny it.  Where one attempt to show that scripture is confirmed by science or science by scripture, the integrity of both discourses may be compromised.”  [emphasis in the original]

Darwin’s contribution, according to Watson, arises precisely from the fact that he did not interpret Genesis.  Instead, he worked strictly within the natural world.  This left Genesis to the theologians, “who will perhaps succeed in restoring it to its natural habitat with the Christian narrative of “salvation” or final human well-being–incidentally learning from Darwin to avoid some of the serious interpretive errors that have clustered around this text in the past.”


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Mormon Archipelago

January 2010
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