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No. 2073:
Darwin and the Bible

by John Price

Today, our guest, the Reverend John Price, talks about Darwin and our understanding of the Bible. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Before Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, the almost universal method of interpretation of Bible passages was what would be called "conservative" today. The passage said what it was: the Earth was created in 6 days, the flood covered all the Earth, and so forth. Using the genealogies in the Bible, Archbishop Ussher of Ireland determined in 1654 that the earth was created in the year 4,004 BC. Darwin himself struggled mightily with the conflict between what he'd believed for his quarter of a century of life with the implications of what he saw in the Galapagos Islands, as have so many ever since. 

The intellectual turmoil of the 19th Century gave serious challenge to theologians, and what is now called the liberal school of biblical interpretation arose, searching for scientific explanation of the "puzzling passages." A line from the Psalms was comforting to those who were trying to deal thus with the antiquity of Earth when it observed that "a day is as a thousand years to the Lord and a thousand years is as a day." Many scientific explanations were pursued and many books were written along this line.

My grandfather was born before the Civil War and was furious when my father, born in 1889, decided to study for a Ph.D. in geology at Johns Hopkins University, which he earned in 1913. My then 104-year-old aunt explained to me in the 1960's that my father and grandfather had terrible arguments about the antiquity of the earth, showing the stress this issue produced, even in families. My father was later Professor of Geological Oceanography at Texas A&M in the 1950's and his views on biblical interpretation reflected this liberal school, which he often shared with me. 

Then the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, in writing a commentary on the Letter to the Romans, also in 1913, came to the conclusion that this attempt to explain away the difficult passages was a diversion and proposed that biology and geology was out of place in discussing the Bible, that what mattered was theology: what did a passage mean to the person of faith who wrote it and to the person of faith who is reading it? This came to be known as the neo-orthodox school of biblical interpretation and it is generally taught in mainline denominational seminaries today.

Barth's neo-orthodox concepts were what were taught to me in the Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia; and, for me, he resolved what had been a struggle in previous generations. It is interesting that my family's three generations reflected the three-stage evolution, if you will, of biblical interpretation from my grandfather's time to mine.

You can still see a heated argument going on over interpretation with regard to teaching evolution. Three mainline schools of thought; and every clergyperson I've met falls in one or the other of these positions.

I'm the Reverend John Price, and I'm interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

W. E. Phipps, Darwin's Religious Odyssey. (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002).

K. Barth, The Epistle to the Romans. (trans. from Der Romerbrief by Sir Edwyn Hoskins) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1933).

Darwin and Scripture

(image by JHL)