Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reconciling Biblical Interpretation and Scientific Inquiry


In my previous post I pointed out some similarities between good scientific inquiry and good biblical interpretation. I suggested that certain scientific ideas and certain biblical ideas are so well established that, as more information is acquired, they may be modified but will not be overturned. I claimed that the Big Bang was such an idea and that the evidence for it is so compelling that the details of the origin of our universe may be revised, (particularly what happened in the first 10-35 seconds or so), but that the theory itself was so well established it will not be overturned.

Some readers have asked me if I would give an example of a biblical conclusion that is so well established that it will not be overturned even with further observations and evidence. I would suggest one such idea is that the Bible is basically a reliable historical document. For nearly 200 years, critics have claimed that various historical places, events, and people mentioned in the Bible have not been discovered in archaeological excavations and this lack of confirmation shows the Bible is unreliable. Time and time again further archaeological findings have overturned the prevailing view and shown the Bible to be accurate. Some examples include the existence of a Hittite civilization, the existence and governorship of Pilate, the existence of King David, and the fact that people crucified could be buried in private tombs. Further discoveries should continue this trend and I expect that other events in the Bible that currently have little archaeological corroboration will eventually be confirmed.

In my last post I stated that there should be no discrepancy between the record of nature and the record of the Bible since God is the author of both. In addition, I listed seven parallels between biblical interpretation and scientific inquiry and proposed that list could be used as a foundation to build a bridge between scientific findings and biblical statements. The seven points were:

Biblical Interpretation Scientific Inquiry
1.  Human attempt to understand the Bible. Human attempt to understand nature.
2.  Has well developed principles for how to determine what is true. Has well developed principles for how to determine what is true.
3.  Any practitioner should follow these principles. Any practitioner should follow these principles.
4.  There is a large body of knowledge accepted by the experts. There is a large body of knowledge accepted by the experts.
5.  Some things not agreed on by the experts.Some things not agreed on by the experts.
6.  Has some well established truths that will not be discarded though may be refined. Has some well established truths that will not be discarded though may be refined.
7.  Our understanding can change with new facts. Our understanding can change with new facts.
The agreement between the Bible and science is already evident in many things that are well established as true (point 6 above) such as the fact that both indicate our universe had a beginning and a transcendent origin.

Areas in which there is an apparent conflict between the Bible and science should fall into the category of those things that are not agreed on by all experts (point 5) and should be resolvable by following the well-developed principles for determining what is true (points 2 and 3). As an example of how these principles can be used to harmonize science and the Bible let’s look at the historical example of a geocentric solar system versus a heliocentric solar system. Before the time of Copernicus and Galileo after him, observations from the earth were all consistent with a geocentric solar system and biblical passages seemed to support that idea. Consequently, almost all people believed the earth was the center of the universe, but this belief would have been categorized as belonging to point 5 above, that there were some differences in opinion among scientists and/or theologians, though there were not too many dissenters.

Early observations of the solar system could have been interpreted as either a geocentric or heliocentric universe (until the telescope was perfected the evidence was still rather ambiguous). As the evidence for a heliocentric solar system became conclusive both the scientific conclusion and the biblical interpretation had to be rethought. Though there was some resistance in both camps, eventually a heliocentric solar system was shown to be more accurate. Passages in the Bible like Joshua 10:13 (“So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped”), and Ecclesiastes 1:5 (“Also, the sun rises and the sun sets”) were interpreted in their straightforward manner from the point of view of the observer, just as we currently say the “sun rises” even though we know the earth is rotating. This “point-of-view” interpretation is not distorting scripture but a natural idea based on good rules of interpretation including context, language, and culture.

Lest you think that it is always scientific observations that drive a reinterpretation of the Bible, I should remind you that theologians have been saying for centuries that the universe had a beginning based on biblical teaching (Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”). Scientists were reluctant to accept that conclusion until the observations were overwhelming and gradually scientists changed their interpretation of nature and now accept that this universe had a beginning. If scientists had considered biblical teaching maybe evidence for the origin of the universe would have been discovered sooner. As discussed in this blog, there are still scientists who are holding out with the belief that maybe some new observations will overturn the Big Bang, just as there are hold-outs that still think the earth is flat, but all known observational and theoretical science points to a beginning of the universe.

When the well developed principles of biblical interpretation or scientific inquiry (point 2 and 3) are not followed, then there is likely to be conflict between the two. Certainly those who claim the Bible teaches the earth is flat or cold fusion can produce energy have not followed the proper principles of biblical interpretation or scientific inquiry, respectively. An improper approach will almost always lead to conflict.

I observe so much unnecessary conflict between non-religious and religious people in this arena of science and biblical Christianity. I believe much of the tension is caused by people not following the well developed tools for each discipline so that they are misunderstanding the words of the Bible or the observations of nature. Practitioners of each would benefit by understanding the similarities between the two disciplines and good practices of the other discipline. A little awareness and humility would go a long way toward reconciling any apparent conflicts.

6 comments:

  1. Mike, it seems to me that the old earth vs. young earth debate is similar to the geocentric vs. heliocentric debate. The latter was resolved by means of overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the heliocentric view is correct. There is also overwhelming scientific evidence that the old earth view is correct, so why do you suppose that young-earth creationists are so intractable in their view? Do you think they'll ever admit that they are wrong? - Paul Carter

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    1. I think you are exactly right Paul. It took a couple hundred years for the church to totally embrace a heliocentric solar system. Hopefully it won't take quite that long for the church to accept the overwhelming evidence for the age of the universe, particularly since it fits in so well with the biblical record.

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  2. Mike Would you agree to some extent that one parallel between science and the bible would be at the core lies inexplicable truth that in each case presents evidences that in the respective fields of inquiry are so universally accepted by the adherents as to be certain; namely quantum mechanics on the one and the Trinity on the other. These are it seems at the heart of each, fully understood by no one, yet evidenced to all careful adherents.

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    1. I think I would agree with you. That is another reasonable parallel. There might be some scientists who would disagree, saying either that science only describes nature and isn't converging on some truth, or others saying we may some day be able to explain the inexplicable. But my philosophy of science would probably agree with the parallel you present.

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  3. Science’s general goal is to determine the truth about physical reality. Bible’s general goal is to provide revelation about God, values and morals. They both provide a basis other than personal preference for determining what to believe and do. If one respects the principal or conclusion from either than they are not free to believe whatever they personal prefer. Because the general goals are different for much of their claims there is no significant overlap. A physical description of reality provided by science cannot fundamentally determine what is valuable. This is the “Is–ought problem” problem that Hume described (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is-ought_problem). So fundamentally Science cannot provide an ultimate source for values.

    There are some claims of the Bible such as historical claims that overlap with scientific theories. These situations provide an opportunity to check some of the claims of the Bible. Also, once something is determined valuable, then science can be used to determine what morals promote or discourage something of value. So even for non-historical claims there can be some overlap between the claims of science and the Bible.

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  4. It seems the universe has a principal that organizes the convergence of elementary particles and the associated forces that exhibit statistically described but uncertain behaviors such that the human brain, consciousness, rational thought, a central nervous system are manifest. Is this the interface between science writ large and the realm of religious faith writ large in the bible.

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