In that essay, Gingerich makes some interesting claims, suggesting some special advance information provided by God in the words of Genesis 1. Rosenhouse quite correctly comments and then asks:
It’s people like Gingerich I don’t understand. He cherry picks two verses that he wants us to take very seriously. In verse three we find that God begins by creating light, and, hey!, that’s kind of like what modern cosmology says. Then he turns to the end of the stroy and tells us we should ruminate on the verse that asserts we were created in the image of God.
And the twenty-three verses in between? Where the Bible enumerates, in great detail, a sequence of events that is utterly fictitious? Well, just ignore that part.
And right there is my major problem with several approaches to apologetics in Genesis 1-11. There is a common thread of trying to preserve the idea that God somehow provided scientific knowledge ahead of time, and described the origin of the universe in ways that would not have been known to the ancient world in which this literature first appeared.
Sometimes, as in young earth creationism, interpreters take Genesis at face value as narrative history (I discuss what I believe the actual genre is here, and then demand that reality conform to their view. When reality fails to play nice, they simply deny it, or claim that in the future we will find out they were right all along.
At other times, old earth creationists try to find ways of reconciling the statements of the first 11 chapters of Genesis with science, not in the strict sense of scientifically worded statements, but in the sense that as a narrative history, they don’t contradict science. Rather, they can be viewed symbolically as going along.
Finally, we have the approach of Gingerich, which is to claim glimpses of great scientific ideas in the prose of the chapter. Admittedly, this requires reading past a great deal, and requires some imagination, but that has not prevented numerous people from trying and from publishing what they believe they have found.
When I deny scientific content in Genesis, I am frequently confronted by someone who has read somewhere how closely aligned Genesis is with science, and they will point to some area of agreement. But these areas of agreement, even if one has the imagination to accept them in the first place, are very small, very narrow, and are surrounded by areas that are puzzling at best from the scientific perspective.
I would apply here a standard I demand in comparative literature and comparative religion: Compare both the similarities and the differences. I also use a related requirement to search out what is regarded as critical within either the piece of literature or the religion in question. For example, to an evangelical Christian who believes firmly in salvation by grace received through faith, and regards that as central to his faith, the fact that another religion teaches love is only a minor point of similarity. It doesn’t make the two religions equal.
So in comparing Genesis 1 and 2 to science, it is not valid so simply list points of contact without also listing points of dissimilarity. One interesting thing here is that those who point out that “let there be light” is in one of many ways similar to the big bang do not also note the spirit of God, or God’s wind moving across the waters before the light appears. One has to posit a strange mix of symbol and literal physical data to make this work.
When Genesis is compared to scientific data as we know it on a broad basis, looking for both similarities and dissimilarities, it doesn’t come out so well. In addition to looking at both, it’s a good idea to look for accidental similarities, such as information that would be common knowledge anywhere. A reference to sunrise and sunset in two distant cultures would not be regarded as evidence that they had communicated, for example, because both would have observed the same phenomenon.
To support the claim that the Bible contains science, one would need to find statements of physical fact stated in a well defined and testable way, in other words, statements made the way scientists might make them. You may believe I am putting too high a standard here, but to use such a thing as evidence one must eliminate other explanations, especially more plausible ones.
If one thinks that the “waters” in Genesis 1:2 make some sort of statement of the place of H2O in chemistry, an implausible suggestion on its face, one should also consider the place of the waters or the deep in related ancient near eastern creation myths. Is it more probable to assume that the statement came from an unknown chemistry, or that God chose to cryptically convey information, information that would not be recognized until it was discovered in other ways, or that the waters here come from the same pool of mythological symbols used throughout the ancient near east?
For me, this issue settled into place when I started to read this material in the context of ancient near eastern literature. It is not surprising that even one of my professors in graduate school, a Seventh-day Adventists school and fairly strong on young earth creationism and associated interpretation, was extremely concerned that I would not see Genesis as coming directly from God in its current form.
Reading Genesis as ancient near eastern literature worked. It fit. I didn’t have to explain numerous loose ends. It was also something that the original hearer and/or readers might well have understood. There really wasn’t anything left to explain.
Over time I learned to read Genesis again as theology, and specifically as theology suited to its time. It expresses, in the context of ancient near eastern cosmology, the relationship between God and the universe. Even that expression is time and culture related.
Now I don’t expect atheists to like my position that much better. I know that they generally look down on views of inspiration that don’t result in error free texts with hard knowledge. After all, why couldn’t God get it right? But I think a better question is why would God get it “right” in that sense?
Spirituality involves communion with God, and the Bible reflects that communion as experienced by my community and its antecedents. Every piece of scientific information people claim to have gotten from the Bible can be found elsewhere, better expressed, and more reliable. But as a Christian this is the core of the experience of my community.
That doesn’t provide me with the means to convince others that my (or our) scriptures are better than others. That would have to work through the lens of the community. But the attempt to find scientific data is sure to be a failure.
Doubtless the Bible will get some facts about the physical universe right, but unless those facts are more than incidental, they demonstrate nothing, and high claims for them can only result in a negative judgment on the text in which they are found.