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

How do We Properly Consider Science and History While Interpreting Scripture? August 9, 2012

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.

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