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Daniel Harrell on Embracing Science

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January 19, 2011 Tags: Education

Today's video features Daniel Harrell. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In this video, Pastor Daniel Harrell encourages the Christian community to embrace science as an element which can harmonize and strengthen, rather than attack and undermine their understanding of theology.

Science, Harrell says, helps us daily to understand our identity as biological beings. We are reminded frequently of our dependence on science: for example, when we have to visit the doctor or when we begin the aging process. Most of us, however, are sorely unaware of how the philosophical side of science affects our lives as believers. Many Christians are even afraid of science.

Harrell explains that he stopped fearing science when he began to study it. He realized that, while science is persuasive as an explanation for life, it cannot describe things like theological reality, psychological behavior, and other variables. It is a separate entity which can converge with the theological narrative that we already have and begin to strengthen our faith. In fact, since we believe as Christians that God created and redeemed the material world, we already have a convenient interface between scientific and theological camps.

Harrell wraps up this brief narrative by encouraging Christians to investigate science on their own. While there are, he admits, problems with this unconventional marriage of science and faith, there are also problems with theology in the absence of science. Understanding how the two different camps work together and strengthen each other is an important part of our faith journey.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

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penman - #49418

January 28th 2011

Jon Garvey - #49345
=It’s getting even further away from science undermining the “plain meaning” of Genesis=

I know. It isn’t my fault (he protests innocently). But at least we began in the right place - questioning this whole “plain meaning” view of biblical interpretation. In traditional exegesis, the clarity of Scripture is related to its saving message: what we must believe in order to be saved. How that applies to Young Earth Creationism, I have no idea, unless only YECs are saved.

Good Augustine quote, though! No doubt we’ll be told how sadly benighted the poor old duffer was not to see the plain meaning of the text…

Martin Rizley - #49436

January 28th 2011

You write, “At least we began in the right place—questioning the whole ‘plain meaning’ view of Scripture.’  Actually, we began this discussion, not with a discussion of hermeneutics, but with a discussion of biblical authority—whether or not one can place scientific declarations on the same level of authority with biblical declarations, since the former is based on human authority, whereas the latter is based on God’s own authority.  I made the point that since the Holy Spirit breathed out every word of Scripture, Christians must be prepared to go on believing the ‘plain teaching’ of Scripture even if scientists, whose words are not ‘breathed out’ by the Holy Spirit, draw conclusions from their research that directly contradict that teaching.  From there, the discussion moved to a discussion of hermeneutics.  Jon asserted that one cannot contrast the authority of Scripture with the authority of science, since Scripture only ‘comes’ to us through the human authority of theologians (or our own human authority as readers), so we are really talking about two equally fallible authorities—that of theology and science.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #49438

January 28th 2011

I disagreed, saying that Christians have immediate access to the ‘voice of God’ speaking to them when they read the Scriptures and can discern its clearest teachings through the internal witness of the Spirit, whereas scientific declarations give us no such immediate access to God’s voice, since they are not breathed out by the Spirit and are never ‘testified‘ to by the internal witness of the Spirit.  Scientific declarations, in contrast to those of Scripture, always represent provisional, fallible conclusions about the world based on limited information and a severely limiting methodology.  That led you and Jon to take the position that we never hear God’s voice with infallible clarity when we read the Scriptures, since we always read the Scriptures through our fallible human minds, which may distort what we hear, just as static may distort a radio transmission.  This forces us to admit that we never possess anything more than an educated, reasonable, but fallible interpretation of Scripture, which must always be open to ’correction’ by the extra-biblical authority of science.  (correction)

Martin Rizley - #49439

January 28th 2011

I took issue with that, saying that some teachings of Scripture are so unmistakably clear, they could never be overturned by science or by any ‘extra-biblical’ authority, because of the clarity and detail that God has given us with respect to those teachings, which puts them beyond all doubt.  Among those unmistakably clear teachings I mentioned the historicity of Adam, a teaching confirmed by many independent lines of BIBLICAL evidence (genealogies connecting Adam to Abraham, Jesus, and other historical figures; statements concerning Adam’s lifespan and the names of children born to him; a reference to other, unnamed children whom he fathered; apostolic teaching concerning the creation of Eve preceding that of Adam; and apostolic teaching concerning the historic fall of mankind into sin by the one sin of the one man, etc.)  Such teaching is so unmistakably clear it could never be overturned by any extra-biblical authority that speaks some two thousand years after the faith has been ‘once for all delivered to the saints.’  So our meanderings through discussions of biblical authority and hermeneutics ultimately leads us to the question of biblical sufficiency.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #49440

January 28th 2011

The ultimate question is whether the Scriptures are capable of being so clear in themselves as to establish beyond all possibility of refutation the veracity of certain teachings—such as the historicity of Adam—which could never be revised or overturned by any extra-biblical authority which came along two thousand years later claiming an authority equal to or on a par with that of Scripture.  I believe the Bible has that capability of being unmistakably clear regarding certain of its teachings.  Moreover, I believe that clarity extends beyond the theological teachings of the Bible to its historical teachings as well, when there is sufficient textual data to be “really sure” that the Bible intends to give us historical information—such as, for example, historical information concerning the empty tomb, or the piercing of Jesus’ side by a Roman spear, or the floating of an axe head on the water.  What do you say?

penman - #49442

January 28th 2011

Martin & Jon
I may not be able to reply until Monday - sincere apologies! Got to catch a train.
However - remember, Martin, I actually agree with you on the historicity of Adam. Not convinced he’s the single genealogical father of all image-bearing humanity, but the representative head, yes - in whose fall the race fell. Romans 5 etc.
Not sure that I have infallible certainty even of that, though: but I do have mental certitude.

penman - #49672

January 31st 2011

Hi Martin
Right, back in action…

1st, I still say we have to distinguish between the infallibility of the Spirit & the scriptures, on the one side, & our fallibility on the other. At no point does the Spirit make US infallible in our understanding. If you can’t accept this, I can only conclude that you must think you’re infallible - & in that case, I’m not sure there’s much profit in a discussion!

2nd, the issue of clarity is quite separate from infallibility. A speaker could be clear but fallible, or unclear but infallible. I agree that scripture has clarity, but we can dogmatically ascribe that clarity to scripture ONLY on matters we need to believe for salvation. Nothing else is necessarily clear. This is the normal, traditional, confessional Protestant view of biblical clarity.

3rd, you don’t have to accept an anti-evolution, young earth interpretation of Genesis in order to be saved.


penman - #49673

January 31st 2011

(Continued from #49672)

4th, when you say that some things in scripture are so clear that science cannot possibly falsify them, I assume by science you mean study of the empirical world. That raises huge apologetic issues. Does it mean that the Lord’s resurrection is in principle unfalsifiable because scripture teaches it? I don’t think that’s what scripture itself says. The resurrection took place in history, & is open to historical scrutiny. Scripture doesn’t just assert the resurrection as a free-floating dogma; it points to historical evidence – the empty tomb, the eyewitnesses, the day of Pentecost (ie. the birth of the church as grounded in the reality of the risen Christ). So in principle, science – in this case historical evidence – could falsify the resurrection. In fact it supports it, but we can see that only if we do our historical homework.

Rich - #49774

February 1st 2011

Good points, penman.

The argument between Martin and several others (here and on other threads) boils down to:

Martin1:  The Bible’s fundamental truths are plain.
Reply1:  The Bible’s fundamental truths are plain regarding salvation and morals; its meaning is debatable on other matters.

M2:  The Bible’s plain truths go beyond matters of faith and morals.  Sometimes the Bible teaches history.  Genesis 1-11 is meant as a literal history.
R2:. No, Genesis 1-11 is not meant as history.

M3:  But look at the genealogies!  And Paul took it as history.
R3:  Biblical writers felt free to fabricate genealogies.  And it’s not clear that Paul did take it as history.  His remarks on Adam smell of midrashic exposition.

M4:  Well, it looks to me like history.
R4:  But many highly trained scholars disagree with you.

M5:  Only through the Holy Spirit, not through arrogant worldly scholarship, can we discern the true meaning of Scripture.
R5:  But when two Christian Biblical interpreters clash, how do we know who has the Holy Spirit on his side?

M6:  The one who is closest to Scripture.

And thus, all rational argument ends in a hermeneutical circle of which Martin is entirely oblivious.

Martin Rizley - #49852

February 1st 2011

Penman and Rich,
I don’t have much time this week to dialogue back and forth, but let me just make a few responses to what you have both said above.  First, penman, I agree that there is a difference between infallibility and clarity.  I agree that we are fallible creatures, but I believe that the Spirit of God is infallible and that He speaks only truth.    I also believes the Spirit speaks directly to the human soul as people are reading or hearing the Word of God, and that He grants understanding of the Word.  Although His testimony cannot reasonably be doubted,  there is always room for doubting ourselves and questioning whether or not we have accurately ‘heard’ what the Spirit is saying.  The effect of that self-doubt will be to drive us back to the Scriptures to ‘test’ our understanding of particular texts by carefully reading and re-reading them carefully in their context (linguistic, historic, cultural, and biblical).  Thus, our assurance of the Spirit’s witness to us will grow (if genuine) the more we confirm the accuracy of a particular interpretation of Scripture by in-depth study.  If we have ‘misheard’ what the Spirit is saying, however, our assurance will diminish the more we study the text.

Martin Rizley - #49854

February 1st 2011

I disagree that the Bible is plain ONLY regarding matters of salvation and morals.  There may be a special guarantee of clarity regarding matters of salvation and morals, but that is different than saying that these only matters about which the Bible speaks clearly.  I also disagree that one can make a sharp distinction between matters of faith and matters of history.    It is a matter of faith that Jesus rose from the dead, but it is also a matter of history.  So I do not think you can make a hard and fast distinction between matters of faith and matters of history.  How does one decide, therefore, what is veryl clear in the Bible and what is not?  The same way you decide which details are clear in a painting and which are not.  You look carefully at how clearly and minutely the painter has ‘painted in’ those details.  So, God has ‘painted in’ certain doctrines on the canvas of Scripture more clearly than others.  (continued)

Martin Rizley - #49855

February 1st 2011

.  I would place the historicity of Adam among the ‘very clear’ matters.  You, apparently, would not.  With regard to scholarship—sometimes I believe that scholars can actually confuse matters which are quite clear to the average reader.  Scholarly training is no guarantee of greater insight into the meaning of Scripture.  In fact, sometimes it can become a hindrance.  How so?  Scholars tend to adopt a critical, skeptical mindset toward the authority of tradition.  That skeptical mindset may lead them to doubt, quite unreasonably, matters of interpretation that are really quite obvious to the unlearned reader with common sense.  There are things so clear in Scripture, one does not need scholarly training to understand them, any more than one needs scholarly training to tell whether or not an emperor is wearing clothes.

Rich - #49872

February 2nd 2011


Re 49852:  Thanks for indicating that you don’t automatically assume that your reading of Genesis is the Holy Spirit’s reading.  Now we’re making progress. 

Re 49854:  The Bible’s sense may be “plain” on matters other than faith and morals, but it doesn’t need to be “infallible” in all matters.  If it contains geographical errors, incorrect datings of battles, incorrect statements about the eating habits of some animal in Job, etc., I don’t see how such things affect its truth.  Truth is not the same thing as fact.

Re 49855:  Even if Adam is meant historically, it doesn’t follow: (a) that all the narrative details about him (snake, trees, etc.) are meant historically; (b) that human sinfulness originates in his actions.  And I’m all for readers with “common sense,” but “common sense” doesn’t guarantee that a reader will get Genesis right any more than it guarantees that a reader will get Shakespeare or Plato right.  As for the skepticism of scholars about tradition, well, modern Biblical scholarship is the child of Protestantism, so where do you suppose the Biblical scholars got the idea that they could reason things out for themselves from the text alone, and set aside tradition?

penman - #49886

February 2nd 2011

Martin Rizley #49854

=I disagree that the Bible is plain ONLY regarding matters of salvation and morals=

Rich construes it a bit differently, but what I’m saying is that clarity can be dogmatically ascribed to scripture ONLY concerning its saving message. See the various Protestant confessions of faith etc. Then I argue that unless one wants to say that only YECs can be saved, it follows that the YEC interpretation doesn’t have the clarity of scripture’s saving truth. That truth is surely centred in Christ, not particular views of cosmic origins.

I’m trying to get us away from the absolutist rhetoric about “the bible clearly, plainly teaches” anti-evolution & a young earth, so that if a person doesn’t see it, he must be (a) dishonest, or (b) spiritually unilluminated, or (c) denying the authority of scripture, or (d) an idiot. None of those conclusions follow from a proper belief in biblical clarity.

The historicity of Adam is clear to ME as well, but it doesn’t fall within the sphere of dogmatically guaranteed clarity, such that all Christians must see it. And Rich is right to point out that (apart from Rom.5 & 1 Cor.15) the NT makes nothing of Adam in the structure of its theology, even its theology of sin.

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