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Crabby Christians or Nebulous Data?

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December 11, 2009 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

Today's entry was written by Gordon J. Glover. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Crabby Christians or Nebulous Data?

Scientists who confront Bible-believing Christians with the physical evidence of theologically-challenging views like old-earth geology or common ancestry are usually incredulous when their well-crafted and well-supported arguments fall on deaf ears. How can something so obvious to one person be so easily dismissed by another?

In my own Reformed Presbyterian tradition, I have found that our theological presuppositions typically serve as the lens through which the natural world is observed and understood. When faced with apparent conflict between science and faith, the conservative knee-jerk reaction is to insist without equivocation that special revelation is a more reliable guide to ultimate truth than natural revelation. Without this ultimate reference point, it is feared that our sin natures would prevent us from seeing the world clearly. But if Christian theology is merely our fallible attempt to systematize the biblical data, then certainly we are prone to goofing that up as well. And given the estimated 38,000 Christian denominations spread across the world today, I’d say we’ve goofed it up quite a bit!

Interestingly, we do have the ability to faithfully interpret scientific data when no theology is at stake. For instance, Christians who tend to perpetually argue over the most trivial points of doctrine would probably all agree that chlorophyll is green, ice melts at 0 degrees C, and the universal gravitational constant is 6.67300 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2. This leads me to believe that theology can also be a dirty lens that blurs our observations of the natural world. Is it possible that scientific data can help Christians sort out good theology from bad theology?

Consider the great supernovae explosions that occurred in the years 1006, 1054, 1181, 1572 and 1604. Details of these incredible events were dutifully recorded by the world’s great astronomers. But the 1054 and 1181 explosions were not mentioned by any European astronomers. Some have cited bad weather as the probable cause, but the 1054 supernova, which is known today as the Crab Nebula, was visible in broad daylight for 23 days and at night for 653 days. Its sudden and violent appearance was recorded by Chinese, Arab, Japanese and even North American Indian astronomers, but for some reason nobody in Europe seemed to care. The 1181 supernova was visible at night for 185 days and was recorded by both Chinese and Japanese astronomers. But once again, Europeans paid scarce attention to it. Perhaps there was more going on than perpetual cloudiness?

In the years following SN1006, European astronomical science gave way to primitive superstitions and occult astrology. The conflation of Aristotle’s ancient cosmology with Christian tradition seemed to give theological support to the Greek notion that everything beyond the sub-lunar firmament was perfect, eternal, and unchanging. We now recognize this as a clear-cut case of bad exegesis based on incorrect assumptions about creation, but at the time this doctrine was considered non-negotiable. While Chinese astronomers referred to these supernovae explosions as “guest stars” European astronomers would have considered the existence of heavenly guests contrary to theologically acceptable science. As a result, the supernovae were not seen as new scientific data to be analyzed and understood, but as omens and curses to be feared—as was the comet of 1066 which nearly threw medieval Europe into widespread panic.

But why is there no mention of SN1054? Some say the object could have been viewed as an atmospheric phenomenon rather than a heavenly event—similar to how comets were understood; but even passing comets were dutifully recorded. Others have blamed the Ecclesiastical disputes between Rome and Constantinople, which came to a head in July of that same year. Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church only two weeks after SN1054 exploded. Given the political turmoil of the Christian world, it’s quite possible that SN1054 was not seen as a natural phenomenon to be studied, but a supernatural omen marking the schism between East and West. Perhaps it was bad luck to even mention it? Since no written records of the event exist in Christendom, we may never know for sure.

The lesson here is that we Christians must be careful not to ignore obvious facts and data just because they don’t seem compatible with our theology. Often times these inconvenient truths can provide exciting new biblical and theological perspectives, and they can open up areas of scientific investigation that were once considered off limits to believers. For example, after Nicholas Copernicus pointed out the flaws in Aristotle’s earth-centered cosmology, more people were willing to test other aspects of the traditional system. Eventually it became theologically acceptable to study the material changes in the heavens—and just in time for the 1572 and 1604 supernovae! By demonstrating that these transient celestial objects were distant enough to occupy the “immutable” heavenly realm, the Renaissance astronomers began a difficult journey that would eventually liberate Christian theology from the scientific shackles of Greco-Roman astronomy.

It might not have seemed so at the time, but clearly this was a win-win situation for both science and theology—a victory achieved not by new exegetical insights, but through scientific discovery. It is definitely possible for scientific data to be misunderstood, but if Christians can admit that the Scriptures can also be misunderstood, then there is hope for a constructive dialogue between science and faith.


Gordon J. Glover holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering and is the author of Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and Creation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area where he works and runs the popular blog, "Beyond the Firmament".

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BioLogosFan - #900

December 11th 2009

Great post, Gordon!  Glad to see this new section of the site –– very well done!


Fred Wilcoxson - #901

December 11th 2009

Paul’s perception was that: ‘Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.’ God continues to reveal who He is through natural revelation. His light is beginning to penetrate the man created veil that clouds the mirror. God’s creation is magnificent and man has but scratched the surface of who He is through scientific discovery.


Glen Davidson - #902

December 11th 2009

One might even note that it’s been recognized by Christians that the heavens evolve.

My point is not that using the word “evolve” equivocally proves anything at all.  It’s that if the evidence for the “heavens” changing in both the past and the present can be taken at face value, it is hard to see why the evidence for life changing in the past and the present by very different processes should not also be taken at face value.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Beaglelady - #903

December 11th 2009

Excellent post, Gordon.


Mere_Christian - #909

December 13th 2009

“European astronomers would have considered the existence of heavenly guests contrary to theologically acceptable science. As a result, the supernovae were not seen as new scientific data to be analyzed and understood, but as omens and curses to be feared—as was the comet of 1066 which nearly threw medieval Europe into widespread panic.”

///

Maybe would should just stop caring about the influence of europeans on Christian truth. It is quite apparent that they have screwed up just about every aspect of the faith. 

And, since Americans are basically europeans, or better yet europeanized, we should expect a shakey theology. I mean, look at how pathetic Dr. Collins answers Bill Maher on the question of validity of the Gospel message.

There are exceptions of course (C.S. Lewis), but you have mentioned the silliness of thousands of denominations. There’s a reason for that.

That’s NOT the fault of Jesus or his (original) disciples. Their message is quite the done deal.


Charlie - #920

December 14th 2009

You stated “The lesson here is that we Christians must be careful not to ignore obvious facts and data…”  I agree but I think it is equally important for Christians to understand that there are also natural processes that we as humans are not even close to understanding.  I agree that everyone should believe in something if “obvious facts and data” support it, but keep their minds open and accept the unknown.  Do we know what happens after death? Scientifically, no.  Do you need to know the answer regardless of if there is evidence to support an answer?  I personally would like to know but humbly accept that we just don’t know; however I understand there are those that believe when science does not have the answer, religion does.  I just want to tell those people to make sure to keep your minds open and try to accept the unknown; it’s what we as a society strive for and it is what I feel makes humanity so special.


Martin Rizley - #936

December 16th 2009

Gordon,
“It is definitely possible for scientific data to be misunderstood, but if Christians can admit that the Scriptures can also be misunderstood, then there is hope for a constructive dialogue between science and faith.”
It is not only creationists who need to admit that their understanding of Scripture may need revision, but also theistic evolutionists.  The problem as I see it, Gordon, is that as long as TE’s dismiss the serious exegetical objections that conservative Christians have to Darwinism as owing to a “crabby” attitude; as long as they see their refusal to regard Genesis 1-11 as myth as a “knee-jerk reaction,” I believe there will continue to be “little hope for constructive dialogue” between YEC’s and TE’s.  Let me ask, do you attribute your own passionate opposition to the (alleged) mangling of scientific data by creationist writers to a “crabby attitude” on your part?  Does your rejection of creationist views stem from nothing deeper than a “knee-jerk reaction”?    I’m sure you would say, “Of course not!  My views on Genesis and geology have been formed through thoughtful, reflective, prayerful and informed meditation on this subject.”  Then why do you attribute to your opponents what you would never attribute to yourself—a close-minded, crabby, reactionary outlook?  Why can’t you admit that creationists (many of them, at least) have arrived at their views through thoughtful, reflective, prayerful and informed meditation on this subject, just like you?  They are fully aware of the difficulties in reconciling the data of Scripture with the data of science, and freely admit those difficulties; but they continue to hold their view of Genesis 1-11 as history based on their conviction that this is what the Scriptures teach, and to deny it would involve “mangling” the teaching of Scripture. 
  What you need to understand, Gordon, is that biblical inerrantists like myself are just as offended by the shameless “mangling” of data as you are.  We don’t believe the biblical data concerning the historicity of Genesis 1-11 is “nebulous” at all.  It is as clear as daylight that these chapters are to be interpreted as historical narrative, not myth.  Take, for example, the genealogy of Luke 3, which alludes to Adam as the earliest ancestor of Jesus.  It is clear that Luke intended his readers to regard the figure of Adam as every bit as historical as Abraham, David, or Joseph.  The data is not nebulous; those who say that it is cannot escape the charge of obscurantism.  From a biblical perspective, one can deny the historicity of Adam only by “mangling” the data of Scripture and engaging in an act of incredible self-deception (the very charge you lay against people like myself who say that God sent a global flood upon the earth.) 
  What I don’t understand is why you and all the people at the Biologos foundation are so concerned to see Christian ministers like myself repent of our alleged “dishonesty” when we “lie” to our congregations about Adam and Eve, the fall, the flood, etc.  You say that God in ancient times edified His people through such “lies.”  Well, if God edified His people in the past through such “lies,” why do you assume He would not do the same thing today?  I mean, if God blessed the presentation of myth as fact in ancient times, perhaps He will do the same thing today.  Instead of trying to get us preachers to repent of lying to our congregations, therefore, you ought to say, “Go right on lying, brother, for in so doing, God’s people will be built up in truth!”   
    Could it be that, deep down, Gordon, you know that God of truth is never served by lies, no matter how pious?  He cannot communicate truth to people through “cleverly crafted fables.”  He never has, and He never will.  That is the main reason why I regard the first eleven chapters of Genesis as historically factual; because I know that God speaks only truth.  I cannot “mangle” the data of Scripture by denying the obvious, nor can I impugn the character of God by saying that, in ancient times, He communicated truth to people through myths presented as facts.  Does that I mean I see no difficulty in reconciling the teaching of Scripture with the data of science; no, it simply means that, whatever difficulties exists, they will not go away by “mangling” the Scriptures to make them say what they clearly do not say.


Peter Hansen - #957

December 17th 2009

Martin,

Your post is dripping with crabby sarcasm, knee-jerk remarks, and bad theology….I’ll comment on only one point:  if God can’t communicate truth through “cleverly crafted fables” then your going to have to disregard all of Christ’s parables.  Gordon is not the one “mangling scripture to make them say what they clearly do not say.”  In reality, Martin, you are the one doing this by dogmatically asserting that ancient myths, written within an ancient, pre-scientific culture where myths were the common parlance, have to be interpreted according to a modern notion of fact.  Thank you, Martin, you couldn’t have demonstrated Gordon’s point about crabby Christians and nebulous data more beautifully.


Martin Rizley - #967

December 17th 2009

Peter,
  Keep in mind that the Old Testaments prophets and the apostle Paul sometimes used sarcasm in their rebuke of individuals who were twisting the Scriptures to support heretical teachings.  Paul referred to his opponents at Corinth as “super apostles” and expressed his wish that those who tried to add circumcision to faith for salvation would go the whole way and castrate themselves altogether!  Jesus himself used a touch of sarcasm when he described the Pharisees as those who “strain at gnats and swallow camels.”  Admittedly, sarcasm should be used with discretion, but when the falsehoods being promoted are so outrageously and patently false, I believe sarcasm is well deserved.   
  Moreover, there is a difference between merely expressing a “crabby attitude” and using the rhetorical devise of “reductio ad absurdam” to expose the absurdity of false teaching by showing its logical implications.  That is what I have done in my response above, by showing that if God taught truth through lies in the past, then it is logical to believe He would use the same method for teaching truth in our own day; therefore, the people at the Biologos foundation have nothing to be upset about when Christian preachers today instruct their congregations to believe that Adam and Eve, the fall, the flood, etc., were real historical persons and events, for in so doing, they are simply teaching their congregations what Luke and Peter and Paul taught the churches of the first century!  If God blessed such “lying” from the mouths of Luke and Paul and Peter back then, why would anyone doubt that He would bless such “lying” from the mouths of Christian preachers today?  Or do you deny that Paul and Peter and Luke taught the first century Christians that Adam was a real historical figure, the first father of the human race, through whom the whole race fell into sin and from whom Jesus Christ is descended according to the flesh through Adam’s son, Seth?  Do you deny that they taught those early Christians that the flood was a real event that took place in the past?  If you deny that—then watch out, because you are in for a well-deserved rebuke dripping with sarcasm!  Why?  Because such a denial is so patently false, those who make it cannot escape the charge of deliberate obscurantism.  They are sticking their heads in the sand and mangling the Scriptures beyond recognition in a desperate attempt to marshal biblical support for their novel ideas.
  My point is simply this: if someone is going to deny the historicity of Genesis 1-11, then they ought to have the intellectual integrity to admit that they are teaching something different about that portion of the Scriptures than what the apostolic writers taught.  They ought to admit that, by calling Adam a “symbolic figure” and the story of the flood a “myth,” they are directly contradicting the teaching of the New Testament regarding both Adam and the flood.   
  You may not agree with the New Testament writers in their views of Adam, the fall, the flood, but you ought to be honest enough to admit that, at that point, you are departing from what the apostles themselves believed and taught.  Why can’t theistic evolutionists who deny the historicity of Genesis 1-11 admit that?  Why can’t they say, as I heard one liberal theologian say, “Matthew believed one thing; I believe something different.”  Let them have the intellectual honesty to say, “The New Testament teaches one thing about Adam, the fall, and the flood; I believe something different.”  Then those who believe the apostolic view of Genesis 1-11 can respond by saying, “Thank you for honesty; however, I will go on believing what the New Testament writers believed concerning these matters, for I regard the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament as normative.”  It is the patently false assertion that New Testament teaching on these matters is “nebulous” and “unclear” that elicits a well-deserved rebuke dripping with sarcasm.


Martin Rizley - #971

December 17th 2009

Peter,
One further point.  Jesus’ parables are not “cleverly crafted fables.”  They were made up stories or illustrations (understood as such) which were designed to illustrate spiritual truth.  When Peter in his second epistle denounces “cleverly crafted fables,” he is talking about made up stories presented as historical fact in order to deceive people.  In other words, a cleverly crafted fable, in contrast to a parable, is a lying account of what took place in the historical past.  Peter points out that the gospel narrative of what took place on the Mount of Transfiguration was no “cleverly crafted fable” but an eyewitness account of what really took place on that “holy mountain.”  Later in that same epistle, Peter denounces those who would dismiss the flood narrative as if it were a cleverly crafted fable by referring to them as “scoffers. . .walking according to their own lusts” (2 Peter 3:2-7).  So I repeat what I said—God never has, and never will, communicate truth through cleverly crafted fables.  He can and did communicate truth in the form of parables during the ministry of Jesus, however.


Gordon J. Glover - #985

December 18th 2009

Martin,

The purpose of blog comments are to engage the subject matter in the original post.  Never once did I mention the historicity of Adam and Eve and the only comment I made about our use of Scripture was reference to how medieval Europe mistakenly conflated Aristotles cosmology with Christian theology.

And the title of the post is obviously a play on words with reference to what’s known today as the Crab Nebula—which is about 6500 light years away.  Since the photons generated by its explosion did not reach earth until 1054, that means the event occurred about 1500 years prior to creation.  Moreover, before a star can even reach the supernova stage, it must burn for millions (or billions) of years depending on its mass. 

So, Martin—did this event really happen?  Or is it an illusion God created to test our faith in Young Earth Creationism?  Or perhaps the YECs are making the same mockery of Scripture that medieval Christians made when they tried to build a scientific worldview via biblical exegesis? 

Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.


Martin Rizley - #991

December 18th 2009

Gordon,
I understand that you are making a play on words in your title; even so, the implication of the title is that Christians who reject the evolutionary paradigm do so because of a crabby attitude, rather than because of a very serious theological objection to jettisoning the principle of “self-referentiality” in the interpretation of Scripture.  This is a very serious theological divide between those professing Christians who believe the Scriptures can be interpreted in a self-referential manner and those who do not, and it doesn’t help to trivialize matters by suggesting that this divide is caused simply by a “crabby” attitude on the part of some Christians who are simply unwilling to grow in knowledge.  The issue is much deeper than that, and the theological stakes of abandoning the principle of self-referentiality in the interpretation Scripture is much higher than you let on.


Martin Rizley - #992

December 18th 2009

Gordon,
As far as the example concerning the Crab Nebula, the first question I would ask when it comes to interpreting the scientific data is this:  what light does the Scripture itself throw on the question of the age of the universe?  I personally believe the Scriptural data allows for either an old or a young universe (as opposed to an old or young “biosphere”).  Since the first three days were not solar days, strictly speaking, we cannot be dogmatic (in my opinion)  about their precise duration.  Clearly, they were 24-hour like days, in that each day involved a complete rotational cycle of light and darkness, but that does not mean that all six days were necessarily of uniform duration.  It is possible that the initial period of darkness described in Genesis 1:2 lasted for a very long time.  So while I reject the idea of creation days that are purely metaphorical, I see no reason why some of the days could not have been “stretched” by God to any conceivable length (God “stretched” a day to twice its length in Joshua 10).  That would have allowed time for light to travel from the Crab Nebula even in the way that modern science claims.


Gordon J. Glover - #995

December 18th 2009

Martin, if you really take the self-referential interpretation of scripture, why bother trying to engage the extra-biblical data, like supernova explosions, while doing exegesis?  Your explanation of solar days vs. non solar days is mere special pleading. 

In fact, were it not for modern astronomy, there would be no issue with the Genesis days.  According to anceint astronomy, the light that separated day from night eminated from the firmament itself and was completely independent of the solar disk.  Therefore, what we might refer to as a solar day had nothing to do with the sun, but rather the daily turn of the celestial sphere (or firmament) which was illuminated on one side, dark on the other.  The sun was believed to merely “add to the splendor of the day” (to quote Origen).

And as I’ve said many times, a truly self-referential scientific hermeneutic would drive one to embrace a geocentric cosmology.  So either be consistent and ignore all extra-biblical evidence that was unknown to the original authors/audience, or drop the pretense that you are somehow more “true” to the Bible than the rest of us.


Martin Rizley - #998

December 18th 2009

Gordon,
We engage extra-biblical data while doing exegesis, because sometimes extra-biblical data helps to bring to light pieces of biblical data that are being overlooked.  Classic example:  Christians used to think that the Bible taught geocentricity because of the fact that the Scripture says that the world “cannot be moved.”  However, Galileo’s studies “nudged” the church to examine the Scriptures more closely,  leading to discovery that it had misunderstood biblical teaching.  Since the psalmist says of himself, “I shall not be moved,“ clearly, this phrase has nothing to do with physical immobility.  It means that no one will be able to throw the psalmist “off course” as he commits his way to the Lord.  Likewise, the earth will not be moved, not in the sense that it will remain immobile at the center of the universe, but in the sense that it will never deviate from the course the Lord has ordained for it!  Thus, the church never had any biblical reason to believe in geocentricity.  Shoddy exegesis was the culprit, not the insufficiency of Scripture to interpret itself; but God used the data of science to bring shoddy exegesis to light.


Martin Rizley - #999

December 18th 2009

Gordon,
Recognizing the fact that the six days of creation were not necessarily of uniform duration involves no special pleading.  Genesis 1:5 defines a day in compositional, not durational, terms.  A day is a period of time made up of a day and a night—one complete rotational cycle of light and darkness.  In our own solar system, we have examples of solar days (on Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, etc.)  that vary in their duration from our 24 hour days.  The first three days of creation were not even solar days, so how can we say that we know for sure their precise duration?  Calvin acknowledged that the light of the first three days may have enveloped the entire globe simultaneously, being withdrawn at intervals by God with no physical mechanism (such as earth’s rotation) governing the transition from day to night.  The text clearly says that the sun, moon, and stars were not set in place to rule the day and the night until the fourth day.  So I see no special pleading in acknowledging that we are ignorant of the precise duration of the period of creation.  To say that we know for sure that God brought all things into being in a period of 144 hours assumes too much concerning our knowledge of the duration of the creation days.


peter Enns - #1033

December 19th 2009

Martin,

You wrote, “We engage extra-biblical data while doing exegesis, because sometimes extra-biblical data helps to bring to light pieces of biblical data that are being overlooked.”

Replace “sometimes” with “always” and then you are on the right track. There is nothing Scripture says that does not REQUIRE “extra-biblical data.”  Even a statement like “the grass is green” would require extra-biblical knowledge “grass” and “green.” This is why truly orthodox theology understands that necessary interplay between general and special revelation—which is why no one should be on the move to force an unworkable separation between them.

Great post, Gordon.


Martin Rizley - #1062

December 20th 2009

Dr. Enns,
I think we are using the term “extra-biblical data” in two different ways.  I am not denying the fact that there is a certain measure of “common knowledge” that human beings share which makes it possible for words to serve as a vehicle of communication.  The Bible assumes that people generally know what “grass” and “green” means, for example.  But when you say that extra-biblical knowledge is needed to interpret the Scriptures, you want to press that to mean that some type of hidden, esoteric, highly specialized knowledge is needed to interpret the Scriptures correctly—knowledge that was literally inaccessible to the apostles and to the church of the first nineteen centuries of the Christian era and which has only recently come to light.  You make the knowledge of ANE literary forms, unknown to Christ’s apostles, the essential “key” to unlock the true meaning of the Scriptures.  That makes the Bible sort of like a puzzle box with certain pieces missing—pieces available only to those initiated in the esoteric “mysteries” of ANE literature; they alone are qualified to “complete” the puzzle, for they alone have the “missing pieces.”


Peter Enns - #1063

December 21st 2009

Martin,

Hidden? Esoteric? Every high school student who has taken a “Bible as Lit.” course is aware of the basic outline of the impact of ANE lit.

Also, there is no need to personalize this if *I* am pressing the importance of these materials for understanding the Bible. No one—no one—can turn a blind eye to what our growing knowledge of the ancient world has affected how we understand Scripture.

The fact that we understand things about, say cosmic origins, that Moses, Isaiah, and Paul did not is fact that has to be dealt with theologically—as many people have.


beaglelady - #1076

December 21st 2009

Martin,

The ancients really did believe that the earth was fixed and did not move. They believed in a 3-tier universe with the heavens, above the earth and the underworld below the earth. Please consult a Bible dictionary. But if the earth was believed to be rotating, did it take the heavens and the underworld along for the ride?


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