/** recent comments widget code */ /** end of recent comments widget code */

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Scripture or Science: Do we have to Choose?

What an awful choice. Do we actually have to choose between believing scientific claims and trusting in the bible? Can we trust the evidence readily apparent from our collective five senses? Or should we instead believe the knowledge provided by God through the divinely inspired authors of the scriptures? Is it really God’s word or the credibility of Science?

For many Evangelicals, “Scripture or Science” is not only a legitimate question, it is THE critical question with respect to science, and not actually a tough call to make. “No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record,” affirms the statement of faith of the most prominent YEC organization “Answers in Genesis (AIG)”. They state unequivocally that our confidence must be placed in the knowledge provided by scripture, not that given by science. History, it is claimed, has spanned less than 10,000 years from the time of Adam to the present, and if atheistic scientists have different answers, they are severely mistaken or probably lying. The dating mechanisms used by scientists are fallible; the bible is not. Evolution is a wild theory built on extrapolations from only a few fossilized bones, and is synonymous with the term “missing link” because of its inability to demonstrate even a single change from one species to another over time. Science indeed may have some answers, but the typical Evangelical attitude is to treat it with suspicion.

However, we live in a world where the results of science are obvious and widespread. In the past few centuries western civilization has been revolutionized by breakthroughs in physics, chemistry, medicine, industrial engineering, and electronics to the point that day-to-day life would be virtually unrecognizable by even our great-grandparents. Although the benefits of the technology based on these scientific breakthroughs are sometimes debatable, there is no question that science “gets a lot of things right”. This causes tension for Evangelicals who have been told to “trust the bible over science”. If science “gets it right” so often (eg. we can put a man on the moon, perform heart transplants, clone sheep, and build nuclear power plants), why do entire fields of academia like anthropology and biology get it so wrong? What if they aren’t wrong? What if it is bible that is wrong?

This tension was very real for me growing up in a conservative Evangelical culture. I certainly felt apprehension as I approached high school courses in history and biology that taught ancient hominid development and evolutionary theory. What I learned was that science and early human history were something to be feared, something dangerous to faith, and something to be avoided. After those initial courses, I registered for no more classes in history or biology.

My intellectual and spiritual journey out of this fear has been circuitous and complicated. Maybe all journeys are. Now, more than 25 years after my first introduction to evolution, I no longer fear either history or science. In fact, I relish opportunities to immerse myself in both. And I do not believe I’ve had to abandon scripture to accept scientific consensus.

What I have concluded is that the choice between science and scripture is not only a false choice, it is a heretical choice, a choice that God hates. Far from defending the integrity of creation, I believe this “science or scripture” choice diminishes and demeans creation. God has revealed himself to us in both the book of his works (creation) and the book of his word (scripture). He wants us to understand both. We do not defend God by placing one book in opposition to the other. By doing this we are challenging his trustworthiness.

Evangelicals that compare fallible human scientific conclusions with the infallible word of God miss a significant point. Not only do fallible humans interpret scientific facts, they also interpret the bible. Just as fallible humans can misinterpret the evidence of creation, so too fallible humans can misinterpret the scriptures. God is the ultimate author of both creation and scripture and so the two books will be consistent and will not provide contradictory guidance. However, since humans interpret both of God’s books, using the tools of science and philosophy to interpret creation, and using the tools of theology and hermeneutics to understand scripture, there is the potential for conflict between a human understanding of the two books. It is the filters we use to perceive the truth that results in discord, and not an inherent disharmony between the two truths.

Part of our problem, I believe, is the Evangelical tendency to insist that everything must be simple, clear, and understandable. Unfortunately the bible is sometimes complex, ambiguous, and very difficult to understand. It was set in a culture that as foreign to us as ours would be to the ancient Hebrews. Thus, we have to deal with many seemingly contradictory concepts even when dealing only with the book of scripture. In the past, Christians have been able to resist the urge to ignore or abandon difficult scriptures that seem to contradict others. We may not completely understand God’s revelation in scripture, but that does not diminish its stature as God’s word.

For example, in the 2nd century, Marcion insisted that the Christian canon should not include the Hebrew Scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). He could not reconcile the God of love, compassion, and sacrifice revealed in Jesus Christ with the Hebrew God who, for example, ordered the genocide of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua. Later, during the reformation, Luther considered excluding the book of James from his New Testament since he felt it contradicted the theology of justification by grace alone. Christians resisted both of these urges and today our canon includes an eclectic group of writings, writings that sometimes seem to contradict each other, but all of which we maintain is God’s word. Why then do we insist that the evidence of God’s creation must be immediately discounted whenever it seems to contradict a possibly fallible interpretation of Genesis?

For Evangelicals, it is not a question about which of the two books we should read, but how we read them and in which order. Even though God’s revelation through his creation was initiated prior to his revelation through the scriptures, it is the bible that precedes creation from a theological point of view: that is, it provides a more direct revelation of God, his character and his plan. Nature should be read as a sequel to scripture. What we discover there should be put in the context of the theological framework we build from a careful reading of the scriptures. Sometimes we may need to wrestle with our interpretation of specific scriptures based on our findings in God’s creation. However, a theology built on nature must be dependent on a theology built from scripture, and not the other way around.

For example, we hear interpreters of science claim that creation has no purpose, that humanity’s existence is but an accident, and that nature demonstrates that the creator is cruel. If we only read the book of nature, this could be a reasonable conclusion. However, by first reading the scriptures, we understand that God is good, his creation is good, he has a purpose for creation, and humanity was created to be a steward of creation. We can thus conclude that although the data behind the scientific claims may be correct, the philosophical interpretations and extrapolations are not.

There are times however, when evidence from God’s creation can help highlight poor biblical interpretation. For example, the scientific evidence for an extremely old universe and earth is overwhelming. What then should we do with interpretations of scripture that claim the universe and earth were created less than 10,000 years ago? Some creationists have argued that the universe only appears to be old. Thus its “apparent age” is much older than its real age. The problem with this strategy is that it is difficult to determine where “apparentness” begins and ends. What is real, and what is only apparent? Is it only astronomical findings (age of the universe) and geological findings (age of the earth) that are “apparent”? What about human history? Can we trust anything that history tells us of past human cultures? Did God somehow mess with time at some point in the past? How do we know anything that science tells us is true? For example, maybe the Earth only appears to be round but is actually flat.

The logical inference of “apparent age” completely contradicts what we know of God and his creation. Creation is real, not some “Matrix-like” illusion. He is a loving God that has made a good, orderly, and understandable creation; he is not a deceiver that has created some type of prank on humanity. His revelation, whether by creation or his word, is not something that is secret, available to only the chosen few who understand what is real, “Gnostics” with a monopoly on true knowledge. His revelation is for all, whether that be the message of redemption in scripture, or the message of creation. Thus, in this instance, the book of God’s works should guide us to look more closely at his word in Genesis. Just as creation provides the possibility for unbelievers to acquire some knowledge of God (Rom 1:20), we need in humility to accept that God, through his creation, can also guide Christians to rethink erroneous assumptions about scripture.

So this choice, science or scripture, is completely unnecessary. In fact, we need to honour both scripture and science since they both come from God. If we study science with discernment & integrity, and study the scriptures with the same level of discernment and integrity, I believe we can find harmony. Unfortunately, the interpretation of both is often done without the required level of discernment or integrity, and perceived contradictions result. Sometimes agreement is found only because the interpretation of both is abused. But that is a post for another day.


Anonymous said...


I’ve been reading your posts with great interest, but unfortunately I agree with you. Yes, you read that right, I agree with you and I think it is unfortunate. Why? Because dialogue / debate is always much more interesting when people disagree! Basically, I agree we shouldn’t have to choose between scripture or science, and I'm thankful I was never asked to make that choice. But I feel compelled to write something, so here goes.

Could it be possible that God made the earth in 6 days about 10,000 year ago, and yet it is, at the same time, billions of years old? Could it also be possible that God created all life, and used evolution as part of the process? Can two apparently conflicting explanations both be correct?

It reminds me of studying light theory in physics. Newton understood light as being made of particles, and he conducted experiments that proved his theory. Huygens understood light as energy waves, and conducted experiments that proved his theory. Which was true? Turns out, both were true. Einstein unified both theories into what is now accepted as the particle wave theory of light (or light is composed of photons which are tiny particles that have mass and energy and move in waves, and can be made into torpedoes and launched at enemy starships). It seems pretty obvious to us now, but for about 300 years, the two theories of light contradicted each other and people rallied around one or the other calling the opposing scientists hacks and liars. Maybe we just need to be patient and we will someday be able to unify the Genesis creation account with what science tells us? Maybe it is a matter of properly interpreting Scripture. Maybe it is beyond our capability to understand.

So what do we do in the meantime? We can be part of the crowd that waits for someone else to find the answer, and focus our efforts on other aspects of our lives. Basically parking the debate to the side and not dealing with it. Or we can be part of the crowd that keeps looking for the answer, possibly spending our entire lives searching for something that might not be there or that not everyone will agree with (like an alternate interpretation of Scripture). I’m pretty comfortable in that first group. The overwhelming scientific evidence supporting evolution and a very old universe, does not diminish my faith in the truth of Scripture, and the seemingly impossible (unproven) accounts of a 6 day Genesis creation and a global flood don't cause me to question the validity of science. It’s OK for me that they seem to contradict each other – there are other things that interest me more at the present time. But I will keep an eye on the second group, just in case something interesting develops.

Keep up the good work...


Steve Martin said...

Hi Jac,
Great comments! Love your example on the theory of light. I think I'll use that in a future post - don't worry, I'll give you full credit and 100% of the revenue I earn from the post. (Hint: don't quit your day job:-) )

On your "both young & old" comment, check out http://tgdarkly.com/blog/?p=577 where this exact issue is discussed.