It seems to me that evangelicals fall into two categories when it comes to Bible interpretation. I will call them "Darwinist" and "Newtonian". I am not writing this to attack the theory of evolution (which I might do another time) or to put forth the idea that physics proves the existence of God (which it does). Additionally, I am not interested in skeptics of the Bible, no matter how educated, as I generally don't bother with them at all. I am talking about Christians who say they believe the Bible gives us revelation from God.
The reason I am using the names of two scientists is because some like to imply that their approach to scripture is "scientific" though it is not nor can it ever be. Modernist tools for Bible interpretation, called the 'higher criticism', are not scienctific at all. Science cannot help us very much in intepreting the Bible. But since the term 'science' is presumptuously used in the field of Bible interpretation and scientific ideas are considered to be authoritative in our culture, I will use a couple of ideas from science and see if they have helped form our thinking with regards to the scriptures. I think they have.
First, I want to look at the Newtonian approach. Isaac Newton, who gave us an understanding of the basic laws of physics, showed us that all things in the universe function by the same set of laws. He demonstrated to us that physical laws are universal and that the whole of creation functions according these laws in a complete system without any outside agency necessary to make all things work together. Whatever new things we might discover or invent has no effect on the laws of nature themselves. These laws are fixed and permanent. The law of gravity still applies even when we learned to make airplanes that fly. Other laws of nature would tell us how to 'overcome' the law of gravity in order to fly, but this would not abrogate the law itself. Progress comes from applying the laws of nature and understanding them better, not by pretending that we can make up new ones.
What could this idea have in common with Bible interpretation? Quite a bit. The concept that there the laws and principles laid out in the Bible and that these are eternal, not subject to change, is an idea that has been around since the Bible was written. These biblical principles can be applied to new situations, but the Bible itself does not change. Laws against coveting your neighbor's things apply to things that we have now that they did not have. We have cell phones and cars and lots of other stuff. We cannot say that the laws against coveting do not apply in these situations because things were different back then. The outward things may be different but the law against coveting still applies. We just apply it to new things. We may think of ancient people as scientifically ignorant, but they were not ignorant of what coveting was. They understood it as well as we do.
This newtonian principle can be used with any eternal principle in the Bible. Notice that I said eternal principle and not all laws or principles. Many OT laws are no longer in force. We do not sacrifice animals anymore when we sin, we ask for forgiveness based on Jesus' sacrifice. Hence, there is no more need for animal sacrifices nor to keep many of the kosher laws and laws of uncleanness. They were never intended to be permanent. "The Law [of Moses] became our tutor until Christ came, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that the faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor." Galatians 3:24-25 These laws are compared to the instructions that we give to children like "don't touch the stove". This is to protect the child until he is old enough not to accidently burn himself. This "law" is not permanent for the child but performs a protective function until he is mature. But the child will always be governed by the laws of nature. He can always burn himself if he is not careful. There is a permanent principle that always applies.
We have to read the Bible carefully to determine which instructions were eternal and which were temporary. The apostle Paul told Gentile believers that they did not have to be circumcised but that they did have to obey the laws regarding sexual morality. Paul condemned the actions of a church member who was living with his father's wife, something specifically forbidden in Leviticus 18:8.
Well, what about this Darwin fellow? Are we talking about the creation vs. evolution debate? No, not directly, though we could apply it there. I want to focus on an approach to the Bible that Darwin's theory might back up. Charles Darwin postulated that we humans are not direct creations of God but that we evolved from lower creatures. Some have taken this idea of evolution and applied it to all sorts of things. They look at human progress and say that we have come from a primitive, even brutal, state and have evolved into modern, enlightened people. Our ancestors (supposedly) were illiterate, patriarchal, prejudiced and just plain stupid. They held many unscientific ideas and believed things like slavery and genocide were perfectly okay.
But now, according to social darwinists, we have evolved to the point where we realize that many of the things that seemed fine in the past are really evil. The biggest example of this is the issue of slavery which was practiced in nearly every society since time immemorial. Now we know better. What, then, does a Bible-believing Christian with this kind of mindset do? We have the Bible, written thousands of years ago which seems to teach that God ordered the Canaanite genocide and, at least, permitted, if not ordained slavery. How does that person deal with the Bible? Can this person accept the Bible as fully inspired by a good God? Or, better, what paradigm can a believer use to bring together his belief in the Bible and his social darwinist assumptions?
Well, for many, the key is in the idea of evolution itself. Since, as is assumed by many, people were lacking in understanding of what was truly just and moral, then God must have planted in the Bible seeds, so to speak,that would sprout later. God has put things in the Bible that we would only truly understand when we were more enlightened and evolved. There are projections in the Bible that we are supposed to pay attention to. They give us hints as to how we should apply the Bible today. Hence, we do not always follow even the instructions given to us in the New Testament, but we are to use our evolved understanding (our current modern ethos) to determine what we should do or not do.
So instead of taking our cue from the Bible where the marriage ideal is one man-one woman until one dies we see how marriage 'evolves' and try to figure out where it should be today. There is polygamy in the Old Testament, but Jesus and Paul insist on monogamy in the New. Today, some people say that legal marriage is unnecessary, but that modern people only need "loving, committed relationships", an abstraction marriage. So sex may occur outside the marriage bond as long as it is not casual or promiscuous. And now some are saying that two men or two women ought to be able to get married. After all, we think that "loving, committed relationships" are good for any couple and for society as a whole.
But then we have those pesky rules against homosexual activities of any kind. What to do with those? Well, reinterpret them, of course. And this is not that hard to do if you make certain assumptions. If you assume that the homosexual activities condemned in the Bible were only of a certain variety, then you can justify others. It is alleged by these "darwinist" intepreters that ancient homosexual behavior was only of the violent or promiscuous kind and that they were too primitive and ignorant and unevolved to have the kind of "loving, committed relationships" that the Bible is supposed to approve of. It does not matter to them that homosexual relationships are always emphatically condemned in the scriptures no matter what the circumstances. They simply assume that God only condemned it for a primitive and ignorant people who were incapable of the enlightened and egalitarian relationships that we now have.
I have to say that I find this kind of reasoning to be very ironic. The assumption that ancient people were prejudiced and that we are evolved and enlightened is nothing but prejudice against ancient people. It prejudges them as unenlightened and stupid. It prejudges the biblical writers as being unable to understand the revelation that they themselves wrote. Some Bible scholars who do not believe in literal Adam and Eve acknowledge that both Jesus and Paul believed in a literal Adam and Eve, but that they were mistaken. Really? This is human hubris at its worst. To presume that you know better than the Son of God the meaning of the Scriptures is nothing short of blasphemy. But let's move on.
Is it not true that progress has been made in many areas? Has God not raised up many who have helped us see things that we were blind to before? Is this not progress? Sure it is. We have to examine how this progress came about. It did not come about because someone saw the general direction the Bible was going and reasoned accordingly. No, these things come about by applying the eternal principles of the Bible that was previously ignored.
Our progress has come not because we did not understand new some revelation that the Bible only suggests. Rather it has come by someone calling us to heed the eternal principles that we have ignored. Newton discovered the law of gravity; he did not invent it. He did not say, "I think that we ought to adopt the law of gravity. This is progress!" No, he discovered a principle that was there all the time. Dr. Martin Luther King was not a progressive with regards to the Bible. He called us to live according to the principles that had always been there. One does not need to radically reinterpret the Bible to see that it speaks clearly against all racism and prejudice. The problem is not with the Bible. It is with us. The problem is, and has always been, human sin not a lack of evolution. The solution to this problem is not interpreting the Bible according to our current culture, but humbly applying the principles of the Bible even if they go against our own thinking.