Science and the Bible

originstoday_fullScience and the Bible. What a loaded topic, right?! For some, it’s an issue of territory-defining significance: what you believe could determine if you are viewed as fundamentalist or liberal, in or out, true follower or not.

It really can become that serious. Quite disheartening, I might add.

I’ll admit I’ve gone through some stages of change over the past few years in regards to this subject. I’ve become quite open to what might be normally termed as theistic evolution, or also identified as creationary evolution. The approach is still grounded in the belief that God is the one true Creator. Yet, he chose to use what we scientifically identify as evolution to bring about his good creation.

I don’t know all the in’s and out’s, and I never will. But I am at least quite open to the idea. However, I approach things first and foremost as a theologian, not as a scientist. Some are scientists (Denis Lamoureux, Darrel Falk) and some are theologians (John Walton, Bruce Waltke). Still, both groups dip in and out of the other in various ways. And they all invest their time a little differently as they look to faithfully come to grips with a robust Christian faith and a willingness to listen to the scientific evidence of today.

And so, for me, noting some of the points on the table from the various sciences, I try and grasp and assess things theologically, considering some of the points while working through the Scripture text.

Now let me say upfront that this does not mean I (or any other) am putting science above Scripture. What it means is that we recognise there are many good and wholesome tools that God has given us to help us understand his ways and the world he has created. I believe in the importance of setting Scripture as primary. But we have many other assets such as history, tradition, reason, experience, life, creation, science, etc.

I am quite convinced that God designed it that way.

And I am also quite saddened when we are happy to use science when it benefits us, or we think it benefits us. But we disregard it when it challenges our tightly held beliefs. To cast a negative light upon biology or geology, when it does not support us, will never be a healthy approach. It doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to the reality that science is ever developing as more and more information comes to light. But I would say Scripture was ever developing (what theologians call ‘progressive revelation’) until we came to the final light of Jesus Christ. And it doesn’t mean that science will ever get things 100% objectively and absolutely perfect, since there is only One who is truly objective and absolute. But we can have a healthy respect for the various scientific fields.

So, in discussing science and the Bible, there is one approach that I think misses the mark. It’s the belief that the Bible has been given to communicate scientific revelation. Of course, we believe Scripture is God’s great written revelation, revealing his plans and purposes as summed up in Jesus Christ. But Scripture is not a science book, meaning it’s not given to communicate scientific revelation.

Therefore, we will find ourselves in quite a pickle when we try and harmonise the findings of science and the words of Scripture (as in Genesis 1). This is known as concordism.

But, as I’ve said, this is problematic because the Bible was not given to communicate any new scientific revelation. To help think about this a bit more, I recommend viewing a 4-video series entitled Genesis Through Ancient Eyes, by John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (here is a link to all 4 videos, with each video ranging from 8 to 16 minutes).

I particularly want to make the second video available below, as it touches on something important that I highlighted above. You can watch the video, or not, and then read some final comments of mine below.

Walton makes a very important statement early on in the video. It goes like this:

I just want to make two quick points here. The first one is that in the Bible there is no scientific revelation. That’s such an important point. Israel is not getting any new understanding of the material world, its mechanisms, its operations, or anything of that sort. No new information. Now they can observe the world, and they might make some of the same observations we make when we observe the world in our modern times. But they didn’t get that by revelation.

In other words, anything that is in the Bible about the workings of the material world were things that Israel already believed and that all the nations around them already believed. Like I mentioned with the waters, the waters above and the waters below in Genesis One. Everyone in the ancient world believed that. That’s not kind of a breakthrough revelation. And that is true all the way through the Old Testament.

Now, none of this means Scripture is simply an ethereal text, nor that it is only useful in regards to ‘spiritual’ matters and not ‘physical’ matters. I would never argue for a more dualistic approach, since God has vested his interest in making his rule known on earth as it is in heaven. But it simply recognises that the Scripture is not giving any new scientific revelation.

Therefore, Genesis 1 is not given to teach us the exact scientific timing of the creation of the cosmos and earth. It’s a discourse of theological proportion, teaching us very unique truths about God’s good creation (this being in contrast to many other ancient pagan accounts). And it does all of this through the observational science of the ancient day.

This is not to say that we, in our modern context, are so much better than they. Such arrogance is not helpful! We don’t have it all figured out in regards to the sciences – the good sciences God has given us. Nor will we ever reach such a place. Still, we do have some advantages over and above the ancients.

So, just as the ancients, we will ourselves communicate the all-important truth of God, teaching its pinnacle in Jesus, by employing the means we have available to us in our day. For example, we would apply our understanding of computer technology, the arts, humanitarian aid, environmental stewardship, and even the sciences, all in a humble effort to make known the gospel in our day. Or perhaps we might use these same fields in affectively communicating the revelation of God in Scripture.

For these reasons, as we head into Scripture, let’s remember the ancients spoke as ancients. God is above all and transcends all. But he amazingly decided to stoop down and reveal himself through the language, culture and worldview of the people of the ancient world. We’d expect they would communicate in such a way that was important for their community, not ours.

As the wise saying goes: The Bible was not written to us, but for us. We still benefit from it thousands of years later, even if it employs an ancient cosmology that doesn’t line up with the observed science of today, which has come through some fantastic modern tools.

3 thoughts on “Science and the Bible

  1. Thanks, Scott for this – the video-link is particularly interesting and helpful in understanding conceptual differences. The example of how we understand existence illustrates this so well: he states that this perspective can confuse us, but that is only because even as we’re told about a different way of understanding the concept we are often still in danger of applying our own conceptual framework as if, in this case, oceans didn’t have material being in the minds of ancients, which is clearly not at all the case. Helpful to be reminded of how our own conceptual framework can limit our thinking if we are not careful and fascinating to think that people very much like ourselves have not always seen the world as we have, and that not just for lack of suitable scientific rigour.

  2. Greetings Scott. There is an organization in this country (USA) called “Reasons to Believe” (RTB). I strongly suggest you poke around their web site and consider a slightly alternative view. Two points give me pause: (1) John Walton (the speaker?) says that he is NOT a scientist. and (2) “In the Bible there is no scientific revelation”. I generally agree with point #2, but IF something is true, it much match what physical realities are revealed in the Bible. Waltons statement may cause people to strongly reject the Bible as truth simply because there is no “revelation”. His conclusion “modern science is not there” will cause people to reject the Bible especially regarding the history of people like Galileo.

    So, even though Genesis and the Bible in general is not a Scientific text, all truth (discovered scientific truth) must match in some way God’s revealed truth. RTB does an excellent job of doing this while appropriately allowing each genre, sphere, and domain of each to rule. Regarding theistic evolution, RTB has a really good approach that both takes into account modern archaeology, anthropology, and biology without stretching or forcing the scriptures to artificially and unreasonably force itself onto science.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think I saw where someone posted links to RTB (maybe on Peter Enns’ blog).

      In regards to the 2 points that give you cause about the video’s teaching:

      1) John Walton (yes, he was the speaker) says he is no scientist. I think this a very important thing to consider (as I am also no scientist). Other Christians are concerned with the science, such as Denis Lamoureux, Darrel Falk and Francis Collins. But Walton is aware of a few things and he is trying to take us into the ancient context in which Scripture was penned, into the community that has passed on to us the story & teaching in Scripture. To teach the theological context and purpose of the ancients doesn’t require multiple degrees in science, but a robust theological engagement with the ancient text and it’s context. It’s similar to someone like myself not needing a science degree to teach on the literary elements of 16th century English literature, even if that literature makes peripheral statements about scientific matters. One needs to engage in the historical 16th century Anglo-context to understand some of the cultural scientific understandings of that day. This is what John Walton has done with the ancient near eastern culture in which the Hebrews lived, the people who gave us Scripture.

      2) I see your point #2 in two parts.

      a) You state: but IF something is true, it must match what physical realities are revealed in the Bible.

      As I’ve already pointed at, I think there are some things to remember about the ‘physical realities’ revealed in Scripture (especially in regards to cosmology). 1) Firstly, what is described comes out of an ancient context where they did not have the scientific tools available to us today to study things more intently. They are passing on their understanding in the midst of the bigger point of their storied teaching, just as we would do the same today (knowing that in another 100 years, there will be much better engagement with the cosmos than we have available). 2) Secondly, what the ancients were describing was peripheral to their intent and point, and so should have no consequential bearing upon the teaching intent of the author. The Scripture speaks of the 4 corners of the earth, and they probably believed the earth was more of a flat surface. It is phenomenological language to us, but most likely not to them. 3) Lastly, it’s important to remember that even something like Gen 1-3 is not trying to lay out a direct & straightforward historical reporting, like in modern-day journalism. If anything, as Walton points out in his other videos, this is a theological statement about the building of God’s temple – the heavens and the earth – bringing shalom to the chaotic waters, calling all things good, making human beings in his image, etc, etc.

      b) You said: Waltons statement may cause people to strongly reject the Bible as truth simply because there is no “revelation”. His conclusion “modern science is not there” will cause people to reject the Bible especially regarding the history of people like Galileo.

      We need a balance here: We need pastoral-practical wisdom in communicating these things, knowing that certain statements might cause confusion for some. However, we should not let fear distract us from teaching the truth, just because it might cause people to ‘reject the Bible’. Even more, Walton is not asking people to reject the Bible. He is asking people to accept it as coming out of a particular ancient context and that we guard against seeing the Scripture as trying to teach us perfect science in line with some of our modern-day findings. And with regards to Galileo, it’s interesting that he and Copernicus (as scientists) went against the prevailing teaching of the church of their day – stating that the earth was not the centre of our solar system, but rather the sun was. They were heretics at one point! This seemed to contradict the church’s understanding of the universe, as they thought the Bible gave a particular teaching on the science of the universe. Today we find ourselves in a similar situation – we argue that the Scripture teaches this or that about science (so evolution cannot be true or that the earth was created in six 24-hour days, etc). Thus, we reject findings in science (since it challenges our paradigm). But, again, Scripture is not ultimately teaching us science that says the earth is the centre of the universe (though I’m sure ancient folk held that view). Therefore, it was good for Copernicus & Galileo to argue what they did, even though they were deemed heretics for a while. And I would argue the same today as we engage with issues: Scripture is not trying to tell us everything was created in six 24-hour days, with no processes (as described by evolution). So we can be open to evolution being the way in which God brought about his good creation.

      I hope that explains a bit more of my thoughts. Thanks.

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