Too many people frame any discussion of science and Christian faith as a battle for supremacy. The authority of science and the authority of Scripture are in conflict as though this was a competition with only one winner. Some (Richard Dawkins as an example) hold up science as the only reliable authority and dismiss Scripture as a collection of stories from the past. On the other hand organizations like Answers in Genesis are based on the premise that the Bible is the ultimate authority and that the “plain sense” interpretation is the only correct one. Accepting the findings of modern science means placing the authority of science over the authority of Scripture.
As a Christian as well as a scientist and professor, I find this conflict unfortunate. It focuses on trivia in and swerves us away from the purpose and point of Scripture.
The final section of Kyle Greenwood’s new book Scripture and Cosmology considers the relationship between scripture and science. Before moving into this discussion it will be helpful to summarize the basic argument of the book to this point.
(1) Ancient Near Eastern people viewed the cosmos as consisting of three tiers: heavens, earth, and sea. The earth is finite and flat, floating on the deep or supported by pillars. A solid structure separates the heavens from the earth, with the sun, moon, and stars in this solid structure. Water above provides rain, snow, sleet, hail. This view is reflected in art and recorded in a variety of ways.
(2) The Old Testament reflects the same cosmology as the surrounding cultures. A solid vault provides a space for human habitation on earth separating the waters above from the waters below. We read of pillars, foundations, storehouses, and the heavens as the dwelling place of God.
(3) The Aristotelian view of a spherical earth hung in space around which the heavens revolved challenged Christian thinkers because it contradicted the “plain sense” of Scripture. Augustine, for example, ridiculed the idea of antipodeans – people on the opposite side of a spherical earth. Christians came to accept this view because it was well supported by observation and reconciled it with Scripture.
(4) The Copernican revolution removed the earth from the center of the cosmos and replaced it by the sun. Although it took awhile, and a great deal more work by such as Galilleo, Kepler, Brahe, and Newton, this view was eventually accepted. Again there was resistance, but eventual reconciliation of this view with Scripture.
Today few Christians are troubled by the idea that the universe is infinite and expanding, or that we occupy one small planet orbiting one star near the edge of one spiral galaxy in an enormous universe. But there are other challenges. The most significant come in the realm of life science and biology. Ultimately this is no greater challenge than those faced in the past.
There is much that we can learn from the ways in which devout Christian thinkers (Augustine, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others) integrated changes in cosmology with Scripture. One key concept is that of accommodation. God accommodates his self revelation to the capacities of the people he is speaking to/relating with. This shouldn’t trouble us. These writers and preachers also recognized that in areas outside their expertise it is important to listen to experts and that faithful interpretation of Scripture requires knowledge outside the text.
But what does this say for the authority of Scripture?
Ultimately the presence of ancient cosmology in Scripture is not a problem and, in fact, should be expected.
First, the Bible never claims to be a scientific textbook. … The Bible’s primary function is to demonstrate how God has worked in history for the redemption of humanity, ultimately pointing to the One who brings about that redemption. (p. 202)
Greenwood cites Jn 5:39-40 but he could also have cited 2 Tim 3:14-17. Scripture is inspired for a purpose and that purpose is not to teach science.
Second, it takes a certain degree of hubris to assume that even now humans have a full grasp of the nature of the cosmos. Suppose that God communicated the actual structure of the cosmos. Even with our technology, our vast study of deep space with powerful telescopes and satellites, do even we know enough to comprehend a divine explication of the universe, if in fact it is a universe? (p. 202)
Even supposing that we have arrived at a complete knowledge (unlikely as that is) Greenwood asks what end would have been achieved by delivering a 21st century cosmology to an ancient Near eastern audience. “How would they have been able to make sense of that when everyone knew that the world was a flat disk supported by pillars?“
Biblical cosmology is ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Through the biblical authors God spoke in the language of the common folk. These authors wrote in their native tongue, whether that was Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. The utilized cultural conventions, such as animal sacrifices, monarchies, patriarchies, and polygamy. And they assumed the cultural thought world in which they operated on a daily basis. While some would argue that this aspect of the Bible undermines any of the divine qualities of its authority, it is important to remember that without the human element of Scripture there would be no access to the divine. As the Word of God condescended to dwell among us (Jn 1:14), so too did the words of God condescend to our level so they would have meaning to us. Scripture is authoritative not because it answers all of life’s questions or resolves all the mysteries of science. Rather, Scripture is authoritative because it testifies on behalf of Jesus (Jn 5:39-40), the one to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given (Mt 28:18). (p. 204)
Greenwood goes on in his final chapter to reflect on science and the authority of Scripture more generally, especially as it relates to the issue of evolution in our day. The lessons of history can help guide us as we move forward. Evolutionary biology is fundamentally no greater challenge than Copernican cosmology.
The Purpose of Scripture. As we wrap up this series on Greenwood’s excellent book it is perhaps best to conclude with a brief reflection on the authority and purpose of Scripture.
For the Scriptures to speak to God’s people throughout the generations it had to begin by speaking to the original audience in a context that they could understand. Otherwise it would have faded into oblivion at the very beginning. God’s self-revelation to his people set in motion a chain of connection continuing through the church that passes on the truth of God’s revelation and disciples us as Christ followers even today.
When the Bible speaks of pillars supporting the earth, of a firmament separating water from water, or of storehouses of snow and hail (Job 38:22) and wind (Ps 135:7), it is not making authoritative statements about cosmology or meteorology. It is speaking in the common language and thought world of the original audience. Reflecting on Aquinas’s comments on the firmament Greenwood notes:
For Aquinas, then, Scripture may not always comport with scientific investigation. However, it is not because Scripture misleads its readers, but because its readers are already misled. Rather than teaching correct cosmology to a generation who out of their lack of knowledge of the natural world simply would not get it, God … speaks to them according to their understanding, not his. (p. 199)
We need not defend a flat earth, a solid firmament, or a storehouse view of weather to uphold the authority of Scripture.
But does this mean that the Bible contains errors? That it is errant rather than inerrant? Frankly, this is asking the wrong question for the wrong reasons.
Roger Olson had an interesting post on the authority of Scripture earlier this month Is the Bible “Inerrant” or Infallible?”. In this post he defines the distinction as he sees it.
When I say the Bible is “infallible” I mean that it cannot fail to communicate the truth we need about God in order to be saved and transformed. I mean it is God’s uniquely inspired message to humanity that infallibly reveals God’s identity, character and will and the path to salvation. “Infallible” means “incapable of failing.” In other words, to me, when I say the Bible is “infallible,” I mean it is “perfect with respect to purpose.”
This hits the key point dead on. The Bible is infallible with respect to its purpose. Something Paul would agree with completely. In an often misused passage he wrote to Timothy …
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The perspicuity of Scripture relates to its ability to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. This is “plain to the understanding especially because of clarity and precision of presentation” in Scripture through the power of the Spirit to all who read or hear in earnest.
We face plenty of threats in the world today drawing us away from God. The lure of money, sex, and power. The consumerism of our culture. Celebrity hero worship (including Christian heroes). Secular materialism as a worldview. Scripture is “incapable of failing” to teach us how to face these challenges. Fights over evolution and the age of the earth, like the earlier fights over a spherical earth or a sun-centered solar system only serve to move us away from the more important questions and the purpose and message of Scripture.
Is the presence of ancient cosmology in Scripture a problem?
What is the purpose of Scripture? What role does it play in the life of God’s people?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.