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Science or sola Scriptura?

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December 2, 2011 Tags: Biblical Authority
Science or sola Scriptura?

Today's entry was written by Dennis Venema. You can read more about what we believe here.

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 professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer. Dennis writes regularly for the BioLogos Forum about the biological evidence for evolution.

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Jon Garvey - #66388

December 2nd 2011


Seems to me you have far too much extreme polarisation on that side of the pond - maybe it’s increasing over here too. This shows the other pole of the fight: http://www.springerlink.com/content/b04008g7w0781308/

Loren Haas - #66392

December 2nd 2011

   I hope you will discuss whether to flee or stay in a church that restricts your ability to express ideas contrary to those in authority. I chose to find a new church home that encouraged diversity rather than to supress it. I look forward to the rest of your series.

Dennis Venema - #66396

December 2nd 2011

Hi Loren, 

I doubt I will address these types of (important) questions, because despite a reluctance to have me present in an “official” capacity, there is no tension or animosity between me and my church leadership. Several of our lay leaders have taken the time to read pretty widely on these issues, and take (varied) but relatively nuanced stances. I am accepted as a faithful believer within my congregation. 

The “Truth Project” videos were shown about 2 years ago, if I recall correctly - and as you’ll see in upcoming posts, this time around our leadership did initiate a discussion on what the science actually says on evolution (and population size estimates). Stay tuned!
CF - #66393

December 2nd 2011

I think Driscoll would surely nuance his position a little more if he
were addressing such objections. For instance, he’d surely admit that
science might cause us to revise our interpretation of the Bible, rather than simply dismissing either the Bible or science as wrong.

In the case of the sizes of Saturn and the moon (akin to the mustard
seed as the smallest seed in the gospels), for instance, Calvin and
Driscoll would probably both say, in light of science, one’s interpretation
of the Bible needs revising if s/he is reading that passage in terms of
absolute size. IOW, the reader has flawed hermeneutics rather than a
flawed book, and “greater” does not mean what you think it means. Thus,
the Bible is still right that the moon is “greater” in a common sense
view, without contradicting a more “philosophical” account that also
takes into account relative distances.

This would not have even been an issue before the invention of
telescopes, and no one would have attempted to draw out of this passage
that it was giving relative sizes at the same distance. Surely, some did
buttress their geocentric cosmology (drawn from Aristotle/Ptolemy) with
Bible verses, but this turned out to be an invalid way to read the
scripture. Science corrected our interpretation of the Bible. And others
had a doctrine of creation based on a certain understanding of the
Bible, but these don’t contradict my thesis.

The above illustrates cases where our interpretation of the Bible is
adjusted because of science, but it is still conceivable that the Bible
could be the highest court of appeal and over-rule science at times, as
Driscoll says. For instance, if science, as interpreted and presented by
prominent public intellectuals, says resurrection doesn’t happen, but the Bible says it has and will, doesn’t the Bible “win”? I think it must, unless one
jettisons the central historical fact of the Christian tradition? (One
might counter that science doesn’t actually say that, but you don’t have
to search to hard to hear it coming from a lot of prominent scientists
that resurrection is just a fairy tale and superstition or a purely
spiritual occurrence, not a physical fact.)

Merv - #66404

December 3rd 2011

One need not limit themselves to science for examples of how extra-Biblical information forms and corrects our understandings of Scripture.  Personal experience and observations do too.  Clear use of hyperbole becomes apparent when Scripture speaks of “all people” being part of a certain event, or “all the earth” being covered by something (like locusts).


Menno van Barneveld - #66407

December 5th 2011

There is a clear difference between believers and nonblievers in scientists. Nonbelievers do not take the acts of God in account in their science while believers do. A believers knows that God is well able to bring a man to the other side of the sea on a piece of wood.
This is also true with the creation of mankind. God did not create a group of humans out of a group of homo erectus individuals. He created one human man called Adam out of one homo erectus ape man. God did do that by adding all necessary speech DNA in the fertilized male egg to the chromosome pairs. Then God took from this human chromosomes from Adam and and swapped this with the chromosomes in the fertilized female egg of a female homo erectus. This gave a human female, called Eva. The first 100 % Humans were there almost 1 million years ago. The sons of this pair Kain and Seth were 100 % human males. But they had to bread with 100 % homo erectus females, giving children that had 50 % human genes and 50 % homo erectus genes. But God made the ability of speach dominantly, giving human kind a compatitive benefit. And God had the ability to protect human kind untill all homo erctus was transferred into the the human race. From this it can be seen that the theory that human kind developed from a group called Adam and Eve instead of one pair Adam and Eve is useless. It also shows us that science without God brings us to the wrong conclusions.
Thusly science has to be changed to fit faith and not the other way around.

Westcoast Life - #66421

December 6th 2011

LOL!  Menno, you got it all backwards - it was Eva who was the genuine God-hand-made individual and Adam was the Neanderthal type - everyone knows when he made Adam, it was only a rough copy.

James R - #66410

December 5th 2011

I don’t claim to be an expert on Calvin’s thought, but I think he would distinguish between “errors” in the Bible of an appearance/reality kind (the sun setting, waters above the heavens, etc.), which are never of such a nature as to affect any central Christian doctrine, and alleged errors in statements which appear to be central to Christian doctrine.  If science shows that the reality is different from the appearance regarding the motion of the sun or the location of rainwater in the sky, nothing pertinent to faith is affected.  The teaching that God caused the Flood remains unaffected by the mechanics by which rainwater gathers and falls.  But since Scripture appears to directly testify, through explicit genealogies (which lead eventually to Jesus), that the whole human race sprang from a primal couple, and since that ancestral relationship appears to be central to the Pauline doctrine of the Fall, I suspect that Calvin, for whom Paul was central, would treat challenges to a literal Adam and Eve as much more of a concern than challenges regarding the motion of the earth, waters above the heavens, etc. 

Thus, it is debatable whether a general faith/science principle can be drawn from Calvin’s remarks that would allow a modern interpreter complete freedom of reinterpretation of any Scriptural passage in order to harmonize it with what modern scientists think that they know.  It is surely not Calvin’s principle that whenever theology appears to clash with the latest, best-informed science, the science must stand firm and the theology must be revised.  One can imagine Calvin saying, under some circumstances, that perhaps the scientists have come to premature conclusions and should not be quite so sure of themselves.

There has already been a critical response to this column on another site.  I do not comment one way or the other on the contents of that column, but merely report its location:


penman - #66424

December 7th 2011

I don’t think it’s as simple as science vs scripture, or (to get rid of the adversarial language) science and scripture. In reality it’s always the exegete’s fallible interpretation of scripture & the scientist’s fallible interpretation of nature.

When interpretations do conflict - exegete vs scientist - both sides (if the scientist is a Christian) should be prepared to think twice. Neither has a monopoly on wisdom.

My own view is that we can believe in a literal historical Adam & Eve as covenant-heads of humanity, complete with the biblical genealogies of their bloodlines (the lineage of the chosen seed), without necessarily insisting that they were the single genetic source of the race. They might have been the federal king & queen of an existing race. That way we can have the best of both worlds: a proper biblical doctrine of the fall, & a scientific perspective on the genetic history of humanity.

Jeff Brown - #66612

December 16th 2011


I wanted to comment on one point. Please excuse my coming late to the conversation.

I wonder, is the
recommendation here to learn from Calvin or from Davis Young? I am not quite
sure what Young’s source is. As Young’s book is pricey, I am not in a hurry to
purchase it and find out which work he referenced. Calvin stated more than once
that Genesis 1 is literal history: i.e. the world is now ca. 6000 years old,
and its age can be determined by reckoning the genealogies (see his Institutes,
chapter 14).  Calvin likewise stated
explicitly that the sun and moon were formed after, not before vegetation began
to grow on the earth. His arguments expressly do not support the idea that God
was telling something that is not true (see his Commentary on Genesis, at 1:11 and 1:12).

With regard to the size of Saturn vs. the moon, Calvin stated unequivocally that Saturn was larger than the moon. He states that God used popular language to describe the sun and moon, so that no one would be able to use the pretext that the passage is too obscure. Here is the text, from his commentary on Psalm 136, which can be found online http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc12/cc12019.htm:

Who made the great lights, etc. — Moses calls the sun and moon the two great lights, and there is little doubt that the Psalmist here borrows the same phraseology. What is immediately added about the stars, is, as it were, accessory to the others. It is true, that the other planets are larger than the moon, but it is stated as second in order on account of its visible effects. The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and, in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated persons, he made use by Moses and the other Prophets of popular language, that none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity, as we will see men sometimes very readily pretended an incapacity to understand, when anything deep or recondite is submitted to their notice. Accordingly, as Saturn though bigger than the moon is not so to the eye owing to his greater distance, the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned. The same remark may be made upon what the Psalmist adds regarding God’s having assigned the sun and moon their respective parts, making the one to rule the day, and the other to rule the night, by which we are not to understand that they exercise any government, but that the administrative power of God is very manifest in this distribution. The sun in illuminating the earth through the day, and the, moon and stars by night, may be said to yield a reverential homage to God.”

Davis surely was not quoting this text, unless he has a quite different translation. If the translation he uses is a correct one, I wonder why Calvin would have contradicted himself so plainly. Do you know which text Davis was citing?


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