11/26/2012 06:08 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Senator Rubio and the Bible

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite and potential presidential candidate, has solidified his base by coming out in favor of Creationism. When asked in a recent GQ interview "How old do you think the Earth is?" he replied: "I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians. ... Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries."

The mystery seems to be whether the seven days of creation in Genesis are literal or symbolic. He concludes, "At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all." So Rubio, a member of the Senate science subcommittee, believes that Genesis should be taught in science class alongside geology and physics.

What Sen. Rubio doesn't mention is that this is against the law. The courts have ruled decisively that Creationism and its latest remake, Intelligent Design, are religious doctrines. They cannot legally be taught in the science curriculum of public schools.

But despite Rubio's suggestion that we disobey the law, let us pursue his notion that the age of the Earth is "a dispute among theologians." (So much for the geologists, who don't get to vote.) I propose that we consult two of the greatest theologians in Christianity, Saint Augustine and John Calvin. Augustine is the greatest Catholic theologian of all time, and Calvin is arguably the greatest Protestant theologian. What do they say about the place of Genesis in scientific questions? Surprisingly, they disagree with the fundamentalist position of the modern Christian right. Hearing their advice might do some good in our troubled times.

In his "Literal Meaning of Genesis," Augustine took a firm stand on scientific questions. He cautioned against using the Bible to promote scientific nonsense: "It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation."

Sen. Rubio, are you listening?

Augustine also argued that the Bible never contradicts good science. If it seems to do so, he said, we should conclude that the Bible's meaning is not literal but figurative. In this way Augustine was able to harmonize the Aristotelian science of his day with the different picture of the cosmos and creation in Genesis. The difference stemmed from the Bible's potential for overriding its literal sense with symbolic meanings.

John Calvin took a slightly different tack. He did not believe that Genesis should be read in a figurative way. The plain (or grammatical) sense of the Bible, which is accessible to all readers, is the true meaning. This doctrine -- the primacy of the plain sense of Scripture -- was shared by all the Protestant Reformers. Calvin maintained that conflicts between the Bible and science can be explained by Scripture's fundamental purpose, which is to teach all people, including the uneducated. The Bible describes nature not as it truly is, but as simple people perceive it. As he says in his Genesis commentary, "Moses, by a homely and uncultivated style, accommodates what he delivers to the capacity of the people; and for the best reason ... he had to instruct an untaught race of men." The accessibility of the Bible's message to all people depends on its use of popular notions about nature and the cosmos.

This does not mean that the Bible's teaching is wrong in a deep sense, only that its purpose is not to teach science. The popular quality of the Bible fits its theological purpose, which is different than that of a scientific treatise. Calvin states this emphatically, "He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception... [T]he history of creation ... is the book of the unlearned." Because it is the book of the unlearned, it offers all people a path to salvation. As Galileo later said, quoting a Catholic cardinal, "the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes."

Is there a dispute among the theologians about the place of Genesis in scientific questions? Well, today there certainly is. But Augustine and Calvin, two of the greatest theologians ever, agree that Genesis is not a book of science. Where Genesis and science disagree about scientific issues, one should go with science. Genesis teaches a different kind of thing than science textbooks. It is just wrong -- and a source of ridicule -- to confuse the two. Perhaps Sen. Rubio should heed Augustine's advice and "take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation."