Science or sola Scriptura?
The church I attend is currently working through a series of video sermons by Mark Driscoll, the well-known pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. The series is entitled Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, and my church is offering these videos as part of a adult Sunday-school type course on the basics of Christianity. (For those interested, the series is posted for free viewing on the Mars Hill website here).
Having had only very limited prior exposure to Driscoll’s work, I was interested in attending the course to see how he handled certain issues (such as the doctrine of Creation, the nature of Scripture as it relates to science, and so on). Part of the reason for my interest was the fact that our church had explored some of these ideas previously in a similar setting by offering the Truth Project lecture series featuring several prominent advocates of Intelligent Design. That experience led me to request an opportunity to explain the mainstream science position on evolution to the members of that class. This request was denied by my church leadership despite interest within the group – at which point an interested friend hosted an unofficial evening session in his own home (that was recorded and eventually found its way on to YouTube, generating an audience far larger than I had anticipated.) So, given the announcement that the church was offering Driscoll’s series, I signed up. A little online research suggested that Driscoll’s series would indeed generate interesting conversation. I also found that the series has been adapted in book form, so I picked up a copy as well.
Science and sola Scriptura
It wasn’t long before material relevant to the science / faith conversation arose. In the second lecture of the series (Revelation: God Speaks) Driscoll sets forth his views on the nature and roles of general and special revelation in Christian life. For Driscoll, the guiding principle is the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, which he interprets in the following way:
Now, some also called this Prima Scriptura, but the point is that there are lesser courts of authority. Let me distinguish Sola Scriptura from Solo Scriptura. Solo Scriptura is that Scripture alone is our authority. We don’t believe that. We believe that Scripture alone is our highest authority. The Scriptures, for example, don’t tell us how to perform open heart surgery. The Scriptures don’t tell us how to repair a carburetor on an old vehicle. The Scriptures don’t tell us how to turn a double play. If we want to learn any of those things we need to find that information elsewhere. All of the time we go to science, we go to medicine, we go to sociology, psychology, we go to history, we go to all kinds of disciplines and we learn. And that’s all the result of general revelation, okay?
Back to one of my first points. The sciences, the social sciences, other means of learning all falls under the rubric of God’s image bearers working with general revelation. Some people know things about technology and about the environment and about the human body and about medicine and about diet and nutrition and all these kind of things. And we believe in Sola Scriptura, and that is we have lesser courts of lower authority. You can go to college, go to the doctor, read a philosopher, study medicine, science – whatever it is, that’s wonderful and good. That’s enjoying general revelation in its full, and then testing general revelation by special revelation. That whatever we’re learning there we have to check by Scripture and to see that it agrees with Scripture. If it doesn’t disagree with Scripture, then we have freedom.
Recently, Driscoll has applied this approach to the genomics evidence that indicates humans derive from an ancestral population, rather than one individual couple. This allows us to examine how he applies his view of sola Scriptura to a specific, current scientific issue he feels is of pressing concern for believers to address:
Problems arise, however, when we find truths that seemingly contradict the truths of Scripture and, rather than subject those truths to the authority of Scripture, instead consider those truths to invalidate the truths of Scripture. Such is the case today when it comes to the biblical account of Adam and Eve and some modern scientists’ disbelief of the scriptural account in favor of the scientific account. Believers who are scientists bear the primary responsibility for affirming scriptural truths over scientific ones and figuring out how the truths of science affirm the truths of Scripture—not the other way around. It’s impossible to serve two masters.
So, what are we to do in the face of seemingly contradictory truth between science and Scripture? We have two choices: exchange the truths of Scripture for the truths of science and wash our hands clean (Paul is clear in Romans 1:18 and 1:22–23 that many people choose just this option), or we take the truths of science and place them within the context of the truths of Scripture as the highest authority.
So, for Driscoll, the choice is a simple dichotomy: Scripture or science. Scripture is the highest court of authority in all matters, and the role of believing scientists is to affirm Scripture. To fail to do so is to “exchange the truths of Scripture for the truths of science” and to fall into the grievous, idolatrous error Paul describes in Romans 1:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth…
22 Claiming to be wise they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. (NRSV)
Even if one chooses not to question the assumptions that might undergird such a view of sola Scriptura (for example, that Scripture and science are “courts of authority” potentially in conflict with one another, or that one’s interpretation of Scripture might possibly be incomplete or even in error), the fact remains that Driscoll’s view sits somewhat in tension with how one notable leader of the Reformation, John Calvin, approached the science / faith issues of his day.
Learning from history: Calvin and science
One issue of potential concern during Calvin’s time was the growing understanding of the relative sizes of the various heavenly bodies. For example, astronomers had determined that Saturn was in fact much larger than our own moon. While this comes as no surprise to us now, nor of any theological importance, at that time this discovery was seen by some in the church to contradict the Genesis proclamation that the sun and moon were the “greater” and “lesser” lights created by God. If indeed Saturn was larger than the moon, would not it be named as the “lesser” light instead? While it might be tempting in the present to dismiss this discussion as trivial, we must remember that for its day, this was a significant concern for some. Which was correct? Science, or Scripture? Could the Bible really be trusted when it spoke about things in the natural world?
Calvin’s approach to this topic may be surprising for some: he advocated for the view that Genesis was accommodated to a scientifically unlearned audience, and not necessarily written with the intent to provide scientific accuracy. As Davis Young recounts in his excellent book John Calvin and the Natural World:
He reminded his readers that … Moses did not treat the stars in a scientific manner, as a philosopher would do. On the contrary, he described the heavenly bodies, “in a popular manner, according to their appearance to the uneducated, rather than according to truth, two great lights.”
This last quotation may be jarring to contemporary Christians who place great emphasis on the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture… Calvin, however, maintained that Genesis 1 is not speaking “according to truth” when referring to the Sun and the Moon. In effect, he said that the Bible does not represent to us the actual reality about the heavenly bodies by providing an accurate picture of their true size. (p. 181)
So, for one of the key leaders of the Reformation a simple science-or-Scripture approach was not seen to be a defining mark of sola Scriptura. Rather, Calvin readily interacted with the scientific findings of his day, even if they posed apparent theological challenges. He was also willing to consider how God may have used inspiration to accomplish His purposes in Genesis in light of what (then) modern science was indicating.
Accordingly, it follows that one can hold a robust view of Scripture and yet explore how general revelation (science) and special revelation (Scripture) work together: not as competing authorities, but as complementary forms of revelation with the same Author. If Calvin can engage the discussion, we are free to do so as well.
In the next post in this series, we’ll examine the third sermon in the Doctrine series: Creation: God Makes.
For further reading:
Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears: Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. Crossway, Wheaton Illinois, 2010.
Davis A. Young: John Calvin and the Natural World. University Press of America, Lanham Maryland, 2007.
Dennis Venema is Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.