How do We Properly Consider Science and History While Interpreting Scripture?

Spurred by some thoughtful posts from Peter Enns, I’ve been spending a great deal of time thinking through issues that have vexed me from the first moments that I opened my own Bible and read it through, from cover to cover.  How should I consider scripture in light of perceived conflicts not just between the Bible and contemporary scientific understandings but also between the Bible and contemporary historical understandings?

We evangelicals often seem to be trapped between low/high and high/low dichotomies.  In other words, in one corner are those who seem to have a low view of scripture and a high view of contemporary science and history.  They are quick to change or adjust or jettison Biblical interpretations or – at one extreme – even Biblical authority in the face of contradictory scientific or historical evidence.  At the other extreme are those who cling to particular Biblical interpretations ferociously no matter what contemporary scientists or historians say.

The primary flash point is obvious: evolution versus young earth creationism or evolution versus the more vague intelligent design.  But there are other conflicts as well.  Was the Flood a worldwide historical event or localized to a portion of the Middle East?  Or did it happen at all?  Were Adam and Eve actual historical people?  Did the Canaanite conquest proceed as described in the Old Testament or was it a more conventional tribal migration and displacement?

I don’t intend to offer answers to these questions (though I have opinions about each), but instead to offer a middle ground framework for dialogue and resolution.  Rather than fit within the low/high or high/low framework, I propose something more akin to high/medium – a high view of scripture combined with a view of science and history that recognizes their astounding achievements while still aware of their profound limitations.

Let me propose this framework for thinking through scientific issues: Scientific certainty decreases with complexity, but scientific progress is constantly shifting what is or is not deemed “complex.”

Let’s take an easy example.  For the contemporary American, weather is no longer that complex.  At this very moment, I can bring up the weather channel in a new tab, enter my zip code, and look at a live weather map that will tell me – with a reasonably high degree of confidence – whether it will rain during the day, how hot it will be, and whether it will rain tomorrow.  Not long ago this kind of forecasting was unthinkably difficult.

While weather forecasting is still inexact (as innumerable rained-out picnics can attest), its challenges pale in comparison to understanding climate.  Understanding the past, present, and future of global climate is means understanding everything from the impact of greenhouse gases (the scientific/political controversy) but also the sun, oceans, clouds, and any number of additional factors working together to create planetary-scale, constantly-changing weather patterns.

But saying that something is complex is not the same thing as saying its unknowable – just that “knowing” is more difficult.  (Incidentally, that’s one reason why so many scientists are unimpressed with the “irreducible complexity” argument of intelligent design; sure something seems impossibly complex now, but how about 10 years from now?)

Within history and archaeology, similar factors are at work.  Increase the time gap and the complexity of the question, and you increase the uncertainty.  If I want to know who won the Battle of Franklin in 1864 (just down the road from my house), that’s easy enough to discover.  But if you want to know why the ancient Mayan civilization collapsed, then that’s a different challenge altogether.  Heck, if the question is complex enough (like, say, which candidate voters truly favored in Florida in 2000), it doesn’t even have to be distant in time to be impossible to answer.

And finally, with science and history, one always has to contend with the human factors – bias and error.  At any given moment in time, scientists and historians are beset by political correctness, bigotry, incompetence, stupidity, corruption or any other malady that afflicts the human race.  I’ve litigated enough academic cases to know that many disciplines (particularly in the social sciences) are absolutely dominated by highly ideological groupthink.  But the beauty of the long-term arc of science and history is that human-caused logjams are usually cleared (sometimes after considerable anguish), and – by God’s grace – human knowledge continues to accumulate.

By this point, the reader might be thinking that if I have a high view of scripture, the preceding paragraphs were creating a strong argument for discounting scientists and historians when dealing with the most contentious biblical issues.  After all, what’s more complex (and distant in time) than understanding the origin of life, the universe, and everything?  The Bible describes in detail the rise and fall of human civilizations thousands of years old.  Do our historians have the necessary tools to affirm or falsify these ancient assertions?  Under my very own formula of complexity increasing uncertainty, am I not making an argument for discarding a great deal of contemporary historical and scientific understanding in favor of “classic” biblical interpretations?

Not exactly.  Not all problematic scientific knowledge is complex (by contemporary standards).  Let’s take the concept that made me start asking questions during my young-earth creationist upbringing: the speed of light.  It’s hardly surprising that a sci-fi geek like me would be fascinated by the speed of light (question for any scientists reading this post: what will you do – today – to bring us closer to warp drive?)  But from the moment I learned about light, light-years, and measuring interstellar distances, I realized a (by now) simple scientific concept was fairly easily telling us that the heavens were old.  Like, really old.  Super old.  But folks in my church were telling me that the heavens were young.  Like, really young.  Super young.

Internally, I concluded the debate by thinking that the speed of light was telling me more truth about the matter than my Sunday School teacher.  I don’t hold this view with any kind of emotional intensity and am more than open to discussion and persuasion, but I hold it still. However, here’s the key point: that tentative internal conclusion does not shake my faith in the slightest.

Why not?  To put the answer simply: because I’d already read the Bible all the way through – more than once, by that time (late middle school/early high school) – and had begun to understand that God does not always communicate truth in the most direct, literal fashion.  Jesus spoke in parables, prophecy is laced in mysterious imagery (I don’t know a single biblical literalist who believes the “beasts” discussed in Revelation are, were, or will be actual beasts), and it’s clear from biblical accounts that even the most learned religious thinkers of any given age were constantly missing God’s purposes and God’s message.

In fact, as I read I came to a disturbing realization: had I been alive in Christ’s time, it’s highly likely that I would have either missed Him entirely or opposed Him outright.  Why?  Because the “plain reading” of Isaiah and other prophets seems to indicate that the Messiah would establish an earthly kingdom far more than the prophets (again, according to the “plain reading” of the language) point to the kind of Messiah Jesus actually was and is.  Knowing and understanding Jesus required “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” – not just any eyes and ears that see and hear with human wisdom.

That’s when I prayed one of my most simple prayers – a prayer I pray constantly – “Dear God, please give me eyes to see and ears to hear.”  (This also set me down the road to Calvinism, but that’s a story for a different time).

In sum, here is what my high view of scripture tells me with all the certainty that one can have in matters of faith:

 I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

the Maker of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

born of the virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

The third day He arose again from the dead;

He ascended into heaven,

and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;

from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;

the holy catholic church;

the communion of saints;

the forgiveness of sins;

the resurrection of the body;

and the life everlasting.

I will close with this observation on the conflict between science and scripture: Even the most ardent theistic evolutionist, the most science-loving Christian in our faith, holds at least one view utterly at odds with the most simple, easily proven truth that science has ever bestowed upon mankind

That dead people stay dead.

Thank God science is wrong.

  • Walter Pereira

    My view is this: Scripture is not History but it is historically accurate. Ther flood story is supposedly “stolen” from Gilgamesh, but Gilgamesh wasn’t a flood story- and cerrtainly not about Noah. It’s more likely about Nimrod-the great leader that was famed as a hunter (which is how Gilgamesh is decribed). Also, the flood story is universal, i.e, peoples in the East, West, and on the Pacific islands all have flood stories. Did they “steal” from Gilgamesh also?? Go to varchive.org and read Velikovsky’s inquiries. I’ll leave you with one scientific proof of the scriptures. Catholics call it transubstanciation: this (bread) is my body. This (wine) is my blood. The law of equalization between energy and mass- E= MC2 is exactly the samre thing, no??

  • Larry Farr

    If you’d been standing there (and able to do a battery of tests) after God created the universe (say right after Adam took his first breath.) – then you could have an accurate measurement of the “age” of the universe at the time. We have no idea what the actual level of zero really is.
    Personally, whether it is 6 million or 6 thousand – we really get to talking cases with – “He is Risen!” The other stuff is interesting, profound, and should be thought about and considered. God explained what He did – and how He did it – with just enough details to show us what He felt was important.
    Not to mention what we could grasp. If He had given us copious details – we’d be haggling about those too. We tend to just hang ourselves with whatever amount of rope we are given.

    I agree with you, if that is not coming across. (laugh) We do have to cope with having to hold some ideas that are ludicrous. Another “silly” idea is forgiving your enemies, but when One makes the rules – He can decide what rules He likes!

  • Jason

    David, I liked this post. I’ve always felt Christians do their religion a disservice by being adamantly opposed to evolution and a four and a half billion year old universe, and Kenneth Miller’s book Finding Darwin’s God was a welcome read for me. I wanted to take issue with your last statement, that science says that dead people stay dead. It certainly would indicate that our bodies stay dead, but on the issue of if some mystical part of us lives on elsewhere afterwards, science has nothing to say as of yet. Who knows if it will in the future. In my more optimistic moments, I like to think that science and religion have zero conflict if both are done right.

  • Larry

    David, Reasons to Believe ( http://www.reasons.org/ ) provides an approach which is both/and rather than either/or. Staffed by accomplished scientists (who enjoy the respect of their peers) and theologians, Reasons to believe provides a compelling and engaging coupling of authentic science and a biblically informed worldview.

    They find no conflict between old earth creationism and sound exegesis. I’ve enjoyed their resources for many years now … perhaps you’ll find their material helpful.

    • David French

      Thanks Larry. I’ll check them out.

  • Christopher Porter

    Science would also have told you the universe always existed, and certainly didn’t expand that fast. Thank God the Catholic Church’s scientists stuck with their wacky “God-did-it” theory now known as the Big Bang Theory (originally a derisive term). Put another way, how confident are you really that the science your children and their children learn won’t radically differ from what you are willing to use now? I personally don’t have much of a dog in the fight either way for the reasons you outline, but the overconfidence people have in current scientific theory never ceases to amaze me.

  • Mike G

    I Love this post! I have had minor studies on this topic, and as one of the more devout Christians (and the only Latter-Day Saint Christian mind you) in my work place, the topic of science & history v. Scripture is brought up to me.
    The 1st thing to remember is that God did not physically write Scripture. Scripture is inspired writings whether it be histories, accountings, proceedings, lectures, or dicatations from The Lord to His ordained Prophets. Therefore, since it is of God it is divine. Since it is produced by Man, however, it is subject to Man’s natural state and is thus, imperfect. Then it gets dicier when we remember that the Books in Scriptures were written sometimes years after the events they cover, and sometimes written by hear-sayers. Since some are probably being turned off by this post so far, I need to say this: The Doctrine (i.e. the teaching, point, or moral) is Eternal, Divine and Correct. But the exact details may be sketchy, exaggerated, or just left out.
    For instance, The Bible never really says that the Earth is 6,000 yrs old. It only says that its approximatley 6,000 since Adam and Eve started reckoning time, in other words, post-Eden. Adam and Eve could have been in the garden for billions of what we would call years. Dinosaurs, unicorns, dragons and other “missing links” could have been around then! We don’t know.
    The other thing is the Genesis calls the creative periods days (The event) but does not give clearance on whether that was a God’s Day or a Man’s Day. Either way, it does not matter to me. I believe God could create the universe in the blink of an eye. So if he took longer by our standards to create the Earth it does not matter to me. The point is that My Loving Heavenly Father built this earth, and countless other worlds (The Doctrine).
    This issue also gets complicated when we remember that the Bible was written in the writers original language, translated into another language, then from the translated text, translated into other languages, then sometimes the translated (cubed) texts would be translated back into their original language, but yet the syntax’s, slangs, and dialects of the original language had been changed. Thus things can be lost in translation easily. So maybe the original writers got it correct right off, but now what we have is slightly off. Proof of this can be found just with in the different english translations!
    The other problem is the Prophets saw things that they would understand. They may have seen future events and seen clearly what it was, but because they had no word for it, they used the closest thing they could. Take Revelations for example, John saw many wonderful things about our day. However how would he describe Planes, cars, internet, etc to the Church in the first century? He could only describe what he knew.
    As Stated earlier, and really, the main point is that Scripture is suppose to be tangible evidence of the Divinity of Jesus Christ. When one combines the reading of scripture with Prayer and the Impressions of the Holy Ghost, one comes to a perfect knowledge that Jesus is the Christ, The Living Son of The Living God. We wont have a perfect knowledge of how many nails Noah had to make to use in the ark. We will never obtain a perfect knowledge of whether or not the Pearly gates swing in or out. And thats ok. Those things are not relevant to our Salvation. What is is that through Jesus Christ’s infinite atonement we are able to repent of sins and return to Heaven through faith in Him.

  • Sabrdance

    I get through most of my life without worrying about these things, but something I learned in college has long stuck with me. My ancient cultures teacher was a nun (Sisters of Charity to the Incarnate Word -affectionately known as Sister Two-oh-Six (CCVI)) who did not much care for Protestant literalism. But what really annoyed her was when a literalist imposed the plain reading of the 21st century English on the 1st century Greek, or worse the ancient Aramaic. She said the Ancients did not write history or science the way we do, and it is incorrect to take an ancient’s geneology and read it as a literal account of years. Sayeth Sister 206, when the ancients said Methuselah lived 962 years, no one at the time would have understood this to mean an actual 962 years, they would have understood it to mean he was a good man who was much blessed, lived a long time and you should try to be like him. And that’s not even counting the ancient habbit of skipping generations where nothing happens. Luke is unusual that he’s trying to be literal, which is why he mentions in the first chapter that he is drawing up an orderly account.

    As a result I am reluctant to get into too many arguments about “faith” and “history” or “science” without first asking what the author of the passage in question would have actually expected his readers to understand from the words.

  • Larry

    Sabrdance, the good sister’s notions of hermeneutics are in conflict with more than a few of the “ancient” Church Fathers as well as classical rabbinic teachings regarding a very literal interpretation of the creation narrative found in Genesis. To suggest otherwise is simply not accurate.

    Monseigneur Lemaître, the Roman Catholic cleric/cosmologist who gave us “the Big Bang theory” (a phrase mockingly applied by critics who insisted it sprang from his efforts to align science with the Genesis account) wrote … “Perhaps the theologians themselves have a responsibility in the misunderstanding which places science against faith. An appearance of conflict originates between a traditional point of religious teaching and a new hypothesis which begins to establish itself on the basis of facts, they show a too easy tendency to wait till the last moment when the hypothesis would be definitely proved. They would have done much more useful work to have carefully investigated these points of the doctrine which seem to lead to conflicts . . . Anyway, their intelligent courtesy would be very appreciated in scientific circles, and it would constitute an apologetic of the best type”

    The notion that scripture, because it is an ancient text is an unreliable guide to history or science is as misguided as the idea that true science is wholly incompatible with religion. Fluid perspectives which remain true to the disciplines of both science and theology find an exhilarating confluence of corresponding discoveries.

    These are matters which speak directly to our view of scripture though. Is it, indeed, the very word of God … or merely words about God conceived and written by men.

  • Patrick

    I think a thoughtful hermeneutic removes all science/bible debates. It doesn’t need special “understanding”, IMO.

    Example, ANE literature seems to indicate when they said “create”, they did not have the concept we do (according to John Walton’s book on Genesis). If Walton is right, those believers who think the universe is 6000 years old not only are wrong on science, they’re wrong on understanding what the text meant as well.

    The Walton view also can be accomodated to evolution or not.

  • Scott Stenson

    In my opinion, nineteenth-century evolutionary science and the doctrines of Christ as revealed in the Bible and other subsequent books of scripture cannot be reconciled.


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