Word of the Month

Supplementary explanations on our understanding of the Bible

March 2010

I have already taken position in the Our Family magazine on our approach to the Bible (see March 2009). At the time I pointed out that many things in the Old Testament are to be understood symbolically and metaphorically. This especially applies to the account of the creation. The conversations and discussions I have had since then have led me to give further explanations. 

Why is this topic even relevant? Well, I am most concerned about our children and young people, who at school are taught scientific insights concerning the origins of the earth. They are faced with the question of how to bring this subject matter into harmony with the biblical account of the creation. Even adults who are interested in science are at times uncertain here.

Scripture tells us that the earth was created in six days. If one were to take this literally, one might derive – using the genealogical registers in the Bible – that the earth is only six to ten thousand years old. But today science assumes that the earth is more than four billion years old. These two figures do not coincide in the least. If we adhere to the scientific findings, we simply cannot get around interpreting the “days” of creation as very long periods of time.

I know that the thought of moving away from a literal interpretation of the Bible is troubling to some of our members. While I understand this, I cannot help feel that the abundance of scientific evidence testifying against such a literal interpretation of the account of the creation is simply overwhelming. Take, for example, the age data of the various fossil records or the insights we have gained on the origins of the dinosaurs. Even our current knowledge about the predecessors of modern human beings points to a development that has taken place over long periods of time.

It may be helpful to consider the question of how those who recorded the biblical account of creation may have come to their particular understanding. For my part, I have no doubt that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. However their knowledge was certainly not imparted to them in the form of a scientific lecture! Rather, they were shown images and ideas which they recorded in accordance with the understanding of their time.

There are also other examples which allow us to conclude that the events portrayed in Scripture were defined by the context of the respective time period. For example, Revelation speaks of the “four corners” of the earth. This is based on the understanding that the earth was flat. Today we have a different understanding of the shape of the world, but no one is bothered by this expression because it is understood figuratively.

This immediately gives rise to the next question: “How, over all these immense periods of time, did the earth’s earliest forms of life develop into those that exist today?” Well, all the evidence points to a gradual development, an evolution. This too is consistent with Holy Scripture, which tells of a step-by-step development from plants to animals and ultimately to human beings.  It is not our task to uncover all the details of how this occurred. This is something we must leave to science. What is important for us is the belief that God is behind it all. He has always held this entire development process in His hand and has produced life in all of its diverse forms in accordance with His will.

There is yet another question that crops up: “How are we to assess the biblical account of Adam and Eve as the first human beings in this context?” My answer: Scripture basically regards human beings as entities endowed with an immortal soul. The exact point in time when the first ensouled human beings emerged in history cannot be scientifically determined because the soul, as an immortal life given by God, is not accessible to scientific research. Accordingly, any predecessors to human life which may have existed were not equipped with an immortal soul. The biblical account of the first ensouled human couple shows very vividly that they immediately fell into sin. This account may also contain figurative elements, but I would recommend that we do not attempt to analyse too deeply which elements should be understood literally and which should be understood figuratively. This will not help us in terms of faith.

One other concluding remark: the questions which I have broached here are not decisive for the attainment of our goal of faith. Nevertheless, as a Church we must take a clear position. It is neither necessary nor useful to put ourselves at odds with the findings of science.

With warm greetings,

Wilhelm Leber