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Don Stewart :: How Should Biblical Statements concerning Science and Nature Be Understood?

Don Stewart
If the Bible is the Word of God then the question becomes one of interpretation. Though the Bible is the final authority on all matters, does the Scripture intend to give us any scientific information about the beginning and functioning of the universe? Did the biblical writers mean for us to take literally what they said in their statements about science and nature?

The following four theories have been brought forward by Christians to explain the Bibles relationship to science.

1. The Bible is Gods Word to man but scientific statements are not to be understood literally. The purpose of Scripture is to bring mankind to salvation not to teach us about science. Hence, the Bible contains no useful scientific material.

2. The Bible is Gods Word and does give us information about science. Yet the information is of such a general nature that it can be made to fit current scientific theories such as the theory of evolution.

3. The Bible is Gods Word only in regard to theological statements. The only infallible statements in Scripture deal with spiritual matters (heaven, hell, salvation, sin, etc.).
Statements of a scientific or historical nature, on the other hand, are not mistake-free.

4. The Bible is Gods Word to man and the statements about science and nature are to be understood at face value. Though not a textbook on science, the Bible always speaks correctly when referring to scientific areas.

1. NO SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION

There are some Christians who believe that biblical references regarding science are not to be taken literally. They feel that it is not the purpose of Scripture to give its readers any scientific information. These interpreters view Scripture more as a theological statement where any hope of finding scientific information should be abandoned. The Bible, they say, should not be used to answer scientific questions about the age and historical unfolding of the earth. They maintain that Scripture tells us only that God is the Creator, but it does not tell us "when" or "how" He created. They view the opening chapters of Genesis as poetry, myth or allegory. Since any reference to science found in the Bible is not meant to be understood literally, the Scripture offers no useful and certainly no definitive scientific material.

This view, however, seems inconsistent with the facts of Scripture for several reasons.

Foundational Truth

The statements of Scripture that touch the areas of science and nature are written as history. There is no hint in the text that they should be interpreted as non-historical events. From the first page of the Bible until the last, these events are assumed to have literally happened. Furthermore, the truths taught in Genesis are foundational to the rest of Scripture. If one removes the first three chapters of Genesis from the area of fact, then the rest of the teaching of Scripture is meaningless.

Not Understood By People?

Often it is argued that the biblical writers as well as their audience would not have fully understood scientific references. Though this may have been true, it does not explain why they were given.

It is also important to note that the biblical writers did not always completely understand what they were recording. Prophetic messages, for example, went beyond the historical understanding of the people:

Although I heard, I did not understand. Then I said, "My lord, what shall be the end of these things?" (Daniel 12:8).

Scientific statements would inevitably exceed the current state of knowledge. It is not right to assume that the scientific statements had to have been completely comprehended by the people to whom they were originally given. Gods revelation of Himself was for all time.

If the details of creation are not important then why are they recorded in Genesis and then restated elsewhere in the Bible? Why spend so much space telling us what happened if it did not occur in the manner in which it is stated?

Finally, we have examples of Scripture giving us science in advance (see Question 31). Though the giving of scientific truth is by no means the main purpose of Scripture, the fact that it is there should cause us to take it seriously. The idea, therefore, that the Bible contains no usable scientific information is incorrect.

2. MAKE THE BIBLE FIT (CONCORDISM)

There are many Christians who feel they must make the Bible correspond to the current scientific theories of the day. If the latest scientific theory calls for the universe to be ancient then the Bible will be found to teach it. If evolution is considered a scientific fact then the Bible will be made to teach evolution. Those who take this approach (called concordists) go first to modern scientific theory to determine what is true and then interpret the Bible in that light.

One such Christian writer says:

We have to be willing to revise our interpretation of what the Bible means. We must acknowledge that we may not always have understood the meaning which the author intended to convey. Revising our interpretation of the Bible, however, does not demand a change in our estimate of its authority (Colin Chapman, The Case For Christianity, First American Edition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981, p. 126).

Evolutionist T. H. Huxley sarcastically commented on the constant reinterpretation of Genesis by biblical scholars to fit current scientific theories:

If we are to listen to many expositors . . . we must believe that what seems so clearly defined in Genesis . . . is not the meaning of the text at all . . . A person who is not a Hebrew scholar can only stand aside and admire the marvelous flexibility of a language which admits such diverse interpretations (T. H. Huxley, cited by Oswald Allis, God Spake by Moses, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1943, p. 158).

Dangerous Consequences

Constant reinterpretation of the Scriptures to make it conform to modern science undermines the Bibles credibility. Scientist/theologian John Klotz perceptively summarizes the problem:

Today creationists often find their bitterest opponents within the church. There are those who insist that theology must fit the Procrustean bed of science. The new god is science and therefore theology must adjust itself to the latest scientific findings. Too often the question in church circles is not, What do the Scriptures say? but rather, How must we change our understanding of Scripture because of the latest scientific finds?
This is not to suggest that the approaches, findings, and research of the various academic disciplines are to be ignored in understanding what the Scripture says. By no means. They have a role, and it is an important one. But it is a ministerial role, not a magisterial one. They are to help us understand the Scriptures; they are not to judge the Bible and its truthfulness (John Klotz, Studies in Creation, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985, p. 87).

E.J. Young comments about Christians who believe the Bible must continually give way to changing science:

What strikes one immediately upon reading such a statement is the low estimate of the Bible which it entails. Whenever science and the Bible are in conflict, it is always the Bible that, in one manner or another, must give way. We are not told that science should correct its answers in light of Scripture. Always it is the other way around . . . on whatever subject the Bible speaks, whether it be creation, the making of the sun, the fall, the flood, mans redemption, it is authoritative and true. We are to think Gods thoughts after Him, and His thoughts are expressed in the words of Scripture. When these thoughts have to do with the origin of man, we are to think them also. They alone must be our guide (E. J. Young, Studies in Genesis One, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975, pp. 53,54).

Double Revelation

If Christians make modern science more authoritative than Scripture the Bible is at the mercy of the latest finds of a changing science. Theologian John Whitcomb views the idea of making modern science more authoritative than Scripture as a double-revelation approach. He writes:

This theory maintains that God has given to man two revelations of truth, each of which is fully authoritative in its own realm: the revelation of God in Scripture and the revelation of God in nature . . . The theologian is the God-appointed interpreter of Scripture, and the scientist is the God-appointed interpreter of nature . . . whenever there is an apparent conflict between the conclusions of the scientists and the conclusions of the theologian . . . the theologian must rethink his interpretation of the Scriptures at these points in such a way as to bring the Bible into harmony with the general consensus of scientific opinion, since the Bible is not a textbook on science, and these problems overlap the territory in which science alone must give us the detailed and authoritative answers . . . After all, Genesis was written primarily to give answers to the questions, Who? and Why? Modern science, however, must answer the important questions, When? and How? (John Whitcomb, The Origin of the Solar System, Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1964, p. 8).

Whitcomb rightly chides those who hold to this double revelation view of interpreting Scripture. Taking this approach reduces the authority of Gods Word and places it in the hands of finite scientists.

Scripture cannot be continually changed to fit the present theories of science. Such an approach robs the Bible of its authority as well as casting doubts on its credibility. Scientific "truth" is limited and relative, while biblical truth is absolute.

3. LIMITED INERRANCY

Other Christians believe in a limited inerrancy of Scripture. They assert that the Bible is Gods Word to mankind, yet they believe that it contains errors in areas of science, history and geography. The statements about God, heaven, hell, and salvation are supposedly error-free, but other statements contain mistakes.

This view of Scripture has obvious problems. If the biblical writers were mistaken in their historical, geographical and scientific references then why, one might ask, should their statements in the theological realm be trusted? It is meaningless to assert that the biblical writers made errors in history, science, and geography, but were kept error-free when they recorded statements in the theological realm (heaven, hell, salvation, etc.). We are asked to believe that statements that we can investigate (history, science, geography) contain some errors but statements that are beyond the realm of investigation (salvation, heaven, hell, etc.) are without error. This approach causes more problems than it solves. Francis Schaeffer writes:

God has set the revelation of the Bible in history; He did not give it (as He could have done) in the form of a theological textbook. Having set the revelation in history, what sense would it make for God to give us a revelation in which the history was wrong? God has also set man in the universe which the Scriptures themselves say speaks of this God. What sense then would it make for God to give His revelation in a book that was wrong concerning the universe? The answer to both questions must be, No sense at all (Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1968, p. 92).

Textbook Of Modern Science?

A phrase that is often repeated is "the Bible is not a textbook of modern science." This is obvious. Nobody contends that the Bible could be used as a textbook for paleontology or biochemistry. Often, however, an illogical assumption accompanies this statement. Because the Bible was not written to teach science, some assume it may contain errors of fact about scientific matters. But this reasoning does not follow. The fact that the Bible was written mainly to communicate spiritual truth does not logically imply it contains errors of scientific fact. Joseph Dillow explains the sense in which the Bible is a textbook of modern science:

In what sense, then, is the Bible a "textbook of modern science"? In this way: the Bible gives the modern scientist a framework within which to perform his research into the geophysics of the ancient earth. It provides a general framework and starting presuppositions for him. Since science in the purest sense deals only with that which is reproducible and measurable in the laboratory, when the scientist launches out in the question of earth history, he has taken a step of faith . . . The . . . assumption the scientist may begin with is that the Bible is true, and therefore what it teaches about creation, the age of the earth, the Flood, and other scientifically related events is accurate (Joseph Dillow, The Waters Above, Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1981, p. 3).

4. UNDERSTOOD LITERALLY

We now come to the last of our possibilities. The view that makes sense biblically and scientifically is that the Bible does intend to give us factual information about areas pertaining to science and nature. The Bible, from beginning to end, contains a report of facts that are meant to be understood literally. This includes areas of science and nature. Either the creation account has a purely human origin and is meaningless, or it has been revealed by the Creator and is, therefore, binding on all of mankind. Theologian Kenny Barfield writes:

Surely the being capable of producing the universe would understand the laws by which it was made. And any revelation from that being would also demonstrate a deep and almost prophetic comprehension of those universal laws we come to accept as "truth" . . .
Although the Bible is obviously not meant to be a scientific textbook, any honest observer must admit that through the centuries the Bible has held a close, unchanging relationship to now-verifiable scientific principles. In addition, when the laws of science are reflected within its pages, they are presented correctly. Finally, when one understands the times in which the various books were written, that tie to truth becomes even more impressive (Kenny Barfield, Why The Bible is Number 1, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988, p. 9).

Bible scholar Eric Sauer makes an appropriate comment on this controversial matter:
It is true that the main and real aim of the Biblical creation-narrative is of a thoroughly spiritual nature. All our efforts to understand it scientifically must never forget this. This applies to the whole of Scripture. We must agree with Augustine when he said, "We do not read in the Gospels that the Lord said, I will send you the Spirit, who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon. They were to become Christians, not astronomers." Nevertheless it cannot be denied that the first chapter of the Bible conveys its spiritual teachings in the form of a historical narrative. Unmistakably it affirms a series of acts of God following one on another and hence the progressive character of the process of creation. Therefore, just as we must not overlook the spiritual content of the creation story, we should also not despise what it contains regarding the history of creation (Eric Sauer, The King of the Earth, Palm Springs: Ronald N. Haynes Publishers, 1981, pp. 197,198).

Therefore it seems more consistent to let the Bible speak with authority on the areas of science that it touches rather than assuming the writers were only composing an allegory.

Non-Technical Language

It is important to understand that scientific truth is communicated in Scripture in non-technical language. Whenever any event occurs, there are two basic ways of explaining it. One way is to give a technical scientific explanation. Science has a language of its own, and events are often communicated in technical scientific language.

Appearance

A second way of explaining things is to relate how the event appears to the observer. It is this non-technical way in which the Bible describes events that pertain to science and nature. For example, the events of creation recorded in the early chapters of Genesis are not described in terms of modern scientific classification, but are described from the vantage point of an observer.

The Bible does not use the technical language of science, but rather the language of the marketplace. The biblical writers dealing with concepts of their times used the language of their times. The scriptural language is the language of everyday use. The words of the Bible are neither scientific nor unscientific in nature, but rather non-scientific. The language of Scripture is the language of appearance. Biblical writers describe things as they appear.
Jesus taught in such a way that even a child could understand Him. God desires mankind to grasp truth and comprehend important things regardless of education, background, or IQ.

Not Technical Answers

In addition, the Bible does not attempt to give technical answers to technical questions. Since the Bible speaks in everyday language, it is not proper to look to it for answers explained in technical scientific language. Bernard Ramm writes:

The Bible is a book for all peoples of all ages. Its terms with reference to Nature must be popular. Perhaps in the medical and nautical language of Luke there are some technical terms, but most of the vocabulary of the Bible with reference to nature is popular. It is therefore highly improbable for scientists to seek technical terminology in the Bible. It is also reprehensible for exegetes to try to find . . . references to modern scientific terminology in the Bible. The first is unfair in expecting a popular treatise to speak the language of science, and the second is undiscerning in making the Bible speak that which it does not propose to say (Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1954, p. 46).

In addition, literal interpretation allows for figures of speech. The Bible at times uses figures of speech to communicate its truth. If the Bible is read as other literature allowing the author to say what he wishes in the different literary forms, then there will be no major problem understanding that which is to be taken literally and that which is meant to be figurative.

God And Man

We again stress that the Bible was written chiefly with the relationship of man and God in view. According to Jesus, the central theme of the Old Testament is Himself:

You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me (John 5:39).

Likewise Pauls central theme was Christ. The primary purpose of the Scriptures is explained to us by the Apostle Paul:

And from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 3:15).

The main purpose of the Bible is to make its readers wise for salvation.

Summary

The Scriptures are necessary to provide a philosophy of science for modern man. Award-winning scientist E. H. Andrews writes:

Is it possible for an ancient book such as the Bible to provide the Christian today with a philosophy of modern science? The answer given to this question . . . is a resounding Yes. A biblical view of science is not only possible, but essential, if the church is refute effectively the largely materialistic outlook of our present age, an outlook that falsely claims the support of scientific evidence and knowledge. Without such a theology of science we are unable to relate spiritual truth to the scientific view of nature and thus by default we allow atheism to claim science as its own. To the ordinary man, science represents the objective truth about the real world in which he lives. Layman, though he be, he therefore tends to accept whatever world-view appears to command scientific respectability (E. H. Andrews, God, Science, and Evolution, Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1980, p. 27).

Gods Light

The Bible says:

In Your light, we see light (Psalm 36:9).

Christians must let the light of Gods Word be the final determination of what is true and what is not. Scientific matters, when spoken of in Scripture, should be studied, not ignored. Furthermore, the Bible should be interpreted at face value without attempting to inject current scientific theories into it to make the Bible fit. It is a big mistake to surrender such matters as the origin of the universe and the beginning and development of life to the changing theories of modern science. The final authority for the believer must rest in Gods revelation to us in Scripture.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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