Science 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.