Evolutionary Creation: Phenomenological Perspectives
Many Christians are quick to point out that all of the passages cited above are only “appearances” in nature. That is, these are phenomenological descriptions (Greek phainomenon: appearance). The earth “looks” flat, “seems” to be surrounded by water, and “feels” stationary; the sky gives the “impression” of being a blue body of water overhead; and the sun “appears” to cross the dome of the sky, “rising” and “setting” every day. However, to ancient peoples like the biblical authors, these are descriptions of the actual structure and operation of the universe. As history reveals, the notion that the earth was immovable and that the sun moved daily across the sky was part of astronomy up until the early seventeenth century. In fact, this was the issue of the Galileo controversy (Russell, 1991).
Scripture does indeed employ phenomenological language to describe the natural world. But there is a critical and subtle difference between what the biblical writers saw and believed to be real in the universe, and what we see and know to be a scientific fact. Observation in the ancient world was limited to unaided human senses, like the naked eye. Today scientific instruments, like telescopes, have broadened our view and understanding of the cosmos. As a result, it is essential to appreciate that statements in Scripture about nature are from an ancient phenomenological perspective. What the biblical authors and other ancient peoples saw with their eyes, they believed to be real, like the literal rising and setting of the sun. In contrast, we view the world from a modern phenomenological perspective.
Sunrise & Sunset
When we see the sun “rising” and “setting,” we know that it is only an appearance or visual effect caused by the rotation of the earth. Therefore, it is crucial that these different viewpoints of nature not be confused and conflated together. This is the problem with the so-called “phenomenological language argument” (or poetic language argument) often heard in churches — it reads the ancient science in Scripture through a modern mindset and perspective. To correct this situation, we must read our Bible through ancient eyes. They were unaided by telescopes and other modern scientific instruments, so we must read our Bible with that mindset.
It is important to note that ancient peoples also understood the origin of life from an ancient phenomenological point of view. Biological evolution was not even a consideration because in the eyes of the ancients, hens laid eggs that always produced chicks, ewes only gave birth to lambs, and women were invariably the mothers of human infants. Living organisms were therefore static and never changed. In conceptualizing origins, they used these day-to-day experiences and retrojected (to cast back) them to the beginning of creation. Ancient peoples came to the very reasonable conclusion that life (and the universe) must have been created quickly and completely, “after their kinds” as stated 10 times in Genesis 1. Termed “de novo creation” (Latin de: from; novus: new), this was the best origins science-of-the-day. It appears in most ancient creation accounts and it involves a divine being/s acting rapidly through a series of dramatic interventions, resulting in cosmological structures and living creatures that are mature and fully formed (Leeming & Leeming, 1994). With this being the case, it becomes evident that the God-of-the-gaps model of divine creative action is ultimately rooted in de novo creation, an ancient origins science.
Recognizing that the Word of God features an ancient science is troubling to most conservative Christians, because they believe that statements in Scripture about the physical world are inerrant and absolutely true. Many assume that the Holy Spirit revealed scientific facts in the Bible thousands of years before their discovery by modern science (Morris, 1974, p. 229; Ross, 1994, p. 154). In other words, these Christians accept concordism (or better “scientific concordism”). They take for granted there is an accord or alignment between Scripture and science. In contrast, evolutionary creationists make no apologies for the obvious ancient science in God’s Word. Instead, they attempt to understand the Holy Spirit’s revelatory process in the light of this feature. In the same way that the powerful spiritual truths in Scripture penetrate our heart and remodel our mind (Heb 4:12, Rom 12:2), Christian evolutionists contend that the incidental ancient science in the Bible must also penetrate and remodel our understanding of biblical inerrancy.
Evolutionary creationists are not disturbed by the fact that Scripture includes an ancient science. For that matter, they expected it, and draw a parallel to God’s greatest Act of Revelation — the Incarnation (Enns, 2005; Lamoureux, 2008, pp. 169–176). The Creator not only came down from heaven and took on human flesh in the person of Jesus, but He also embraced the intellectual categories-of-the-day. The Lord spoke Aramaic, the common person’s language in first-century Palestine; and He preached using parables, indicating that He used the ordinary ideas and concepts of the people at that time. For example, Jesus often employed the agricultural knowledge of His listeners in the parables of the good sower (Mk 4:1–9), the weeds (Matt 13:24–30), and the mustard seed (Matt 13:31–32). Of particular interest is the last parable. The Lord used the botany-of-the-day in stating that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds” when in fact many seeds, like orchids, are much smaller. In other words, Jesus accommodated or descended to the knowledge level of His ancient audience.
In a way similar to the Lord’s teaching ministry, the ancient science in the biblical accounts of origins is an accommodation by the Holy Spirit to the conceptual level of the inspired authors and their readers. For example, they believed the blue of the sky was a body of water that God made on the second day of creation. But today modern science has determined that this is a visual effect due to the scattering of short-wave light in the upper atmosphere. Despite these radically different understandings of the physical world, the inerrant spiritual truth remains steadfast: the blue body/effect overhead was created by God. Evolutionary creationists emphasize that it is inconsequential to the divine theology whether or nor statements about nature in Scripture are scientifically accurate and actually describe physical reality. The powerful spiritual truths concerning the natural world transcend the incidental vessel of the ancient science that transports them. Or stated another way, the biblical notion of creation does not focus on how God created, but that He created.
These concepts are explained further in my book, The Bible & Ancient Science: Principles of Interpretation.
About Denis Lamoureux
Denis O. Lamoureux is a professor of Science & Religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. He holds three earned doctoral degrees — dentistry, theology, and biology — and has written several books on the relationship between Christian faith and modern science. Denis worships at a Pentecostal church.
Click on the links to purchase his latest books from McGahan Publishing House, The Bible & Ancient Science: Principles of Interpretation and Beyond the Evolution vs. Creation Debate / Click HERE for his webpage.