Bouteneff Speaks on Blending Bible and Science

Katherine Byrns

On February 1, 2010, the Department of Religion and Core 151: Western Traditions hosted a lecture by Peter C. Bouteneff, author of the recent book Beginnings and Associate Professor of Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. In his lecture, titled “Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives,” Bouteneff explained how the Bible, particularly the book of Genesis, can be read from a modern perspective, without being opposed to scientific and evolutionary fact, but instead, enlightened by it.

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Ancient Western Political Philosophy Kevin Kalish introduced Professor Bouteneff. Kalish lauded him for his contemporary approach to the Bible, stating that Professor Bouteneff’s interests are “not merely antiquarian.” He explained that his interest in a contemporary approach to the Bible is mirrored in his active engagement with present day issues and concerns. For instance, he served for many years as Executive Secretary for Faith and Order at the World Council of Churches. He also teaches a course on the presence of theology in cinema at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary.

Through his lecture, Bouteneff sought to answer the complex, yet much-contested question: “How does the Bible work?” While this question is widely debated, Bouteneff acknowledged that these debates lack a crucial element.

“What is missing from these debates is a serious inquiry into the interpretation of Scripture, an inquiry into the Bible that acknowledges the need for a variety of approaches.” Bouteneff said.

In his lecture, Bouteneff expressed his belief that those interpreting the Bible have traditionally kept with “an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture,” and that such a trend must be broken in order to meaningfully study and interpret the Bible.

Using an approach that is not strictly literal, Professor Bouteneff has interpreted the Book of Genesis in such a way that may be more suitable to a larger audience in an age in which science has flourished and evolution has become a widely accepted theory. He explained the view some hold: that unless the Book of Genesis is scientifically factual, it cannot be considered a true narrative. He, however, interprets the stories in the Book of Genesis as allegorical.

“The Book of Genesis has all the contours and features of a story,” Bouteneff said.

For instance, rather than viewing Adam and Eve as actual historical figures, he believes that they both can and should be considered as figurative characters who serve, respectively, as anti-types to Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy David Dudrick particularly appreciated this contemporary version of the Book of Genesis.

“Professor Bouteneff’s talk shows the Church Fathers to be a valuable resource for those of us who hold both that Genesis is the Word of God and that evolution is true. Gregory of Nyssa and others thought that to read Genesis well is to see that it doesn’t seek to teach proto-science, but to teach something far more important: how human beings do – and should – relate to God,” Dudrick said.

Some students had the opportunity to speak with Professor Bouteneff outside of his lecture. He visited with the Religion 317: Bible as Literature class, taught by Professor Kalish, where he was able to field questions posed by students. Junior Alyssa Perez was especially impressed by his visit.

“It was interesting to watch Professor Bouteneff distinguish between his own personal beliefs with personal anecdotes and his scholarly work. It was also nice to see him engaging with us students in class, rather than simply lecturing. Because of this engagement, I felt that at times we were all able to have a really wonderful dialogue together,” Perez said.