Let’s Not Surrender Science to the Secular World! Part 4

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January 24, 2012 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Mark H. Mann. 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.

Let’s Not Surrender Science to the Secular World! Part 4

This is the fourth in the series of six blogs (see sidebar) looking at the relationship between science and Christian faith. I began in my first blog by arguing that, from a Christian perspective, science should properly be considered a task and tool of Christian faith rather than a secular enterprise that needs to be 'integrated' with Christian faith and theology. I have also been arguing that the anti-scientific attitudes found among some Christians today bear a strong resemblance to the ideas of ancient Gnosticism in which the material creation was viewed as being irreparably filled with evil and ignorance. Instead, I have argued, Christians should think about divine revelation in a more biblically sound and historically Christian way: spoken to us in both the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation.

I believe that a robust doctrine of the incarnation—that is, one that fully embraces the orthodox Christian teaching that God has decisively revealed himself in the fully human, fully material person, Jesus Christ—opens up for us a helpful new way of thinking about how God speaks in Creation. Creation itself is, I believe and the Bible declares, a means through which God continually speaks to us of his glory, beauty, and righteousness. Science, as the disciplined study of Creation, therefore should not be feared by Christians, but embraced as a tool for discerning God's voice in all of the cosmos.

The question that lies before us, finally, is how we might read the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation in concert. I am going to start by exploring how I think we ought to read Scripture. In my next essay, I will look at how we might use science as a tool for reading the Book of Creation.

Reading the Book of Scripture

The Bible is complex and filled with a wide variety of literary types—historical, sayings, parables, wisdom literature, poetry, teachings, prophecy, etc.—which all entail the use of different literary devices. Thus, we find scripture filled with metaphor, simile, hyperbole, irony, and numerous other literary forms that make it problematic to apply a plain reading to the entire Bible. I will explain more about this in a moment.

A second part of the complexity of scripture is the context in which various texts were revealed. Jesus told his parables primarily to first-century, lower class, rural Jews whose social world was very different from mine or yours. And Jesus, of course, knew his audience, and spoke in a language his audience could understand, using examples that would make sense to them. So, for instance, in order for us to understand the timeless truths of Jesus’ parables—as with all the timeless truths in scripture—we must take into account how his audience would have heard it. If we don’t do that we may miss Jesus’ message entirely.

Bible translators face these kinds of issues all the time. Indeed, it is why we have so many different versions of the Bible in English. Our scriptures were originally written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, and there are culturally embedded concepts, idiomatic expressions, and literary devices that are unique to each language and which do not translate well. A brief example: If I were to call someone a 'white crow', it would mean nothing to contemporary English speakers. But if I called that same person a 'black sheep' most would realize that I am saying that this person is someone who doesn't quite 'fit'. Yet, 'white crow' is the exact translation of the Russian expression (белая ворона, or ‘belaya vorona’) for a person who doesn't 'fit' within Russian culture, and a black sheep is to Russians merely a sheep with very dark wool. Nothing else. So, in fact, the best translation in English of a popular Russian expression would likely involve shifting 'white' to 'black' and 'crow' to 'sheep'.

Another example, this time from scripture. In Greek there are multiple words for love, all with slightly different meanings, while in English we have just one word, which must bear the weight of conveying all of the meanings found in the Greek words—divine love (ἀγάπη, or ‘agápē’), love between friends (φιλíα, or ‘philia’), erotic love (ἔρως, or ‘érōs’) or natural parental love (στοργή, or ‘storgē’). When we come across the English word 'love' in the Bible, we might misunderstand what scripture is saying if we have in mind the wrong kind of love! In other words, if we want to understand scripture, there are occasions when we must be prepared to set aside our own cultural assumptions and take into account the historical and social context in which it was revealed.

An additional problem with universally applying a plain reading to scripture is that it is tied to a 'propositional' view of truth according to which truth is found only in statements or propositions that have a correct denotative correspondence to the reality to which they refer. So, for instance, the proposition 'the sky is red' is untrue because it does not correspond to the reality of the sky's correct color: blue. This is, of course, one important way of thinking about truth, but it is not the only way. What do we do, for instance, with the scriptural statement that 'God is my rock and my fortress' (Psalm 18:2)? A literal, plain propositional reading of this passage would lead one to affirm that the infinite creator of the entire universe is at once a boulder and a castle, which all Christians know to be nonsense. Instead, as we should, we read the truth of this passage metaphorically: that is, God is like a solid rock upon which our faith rests and like a fortress who protects us from evil! Scripture is full of metaphors, allegories, parables, and other literary forms that require us to read it in a far more careful and nuanced way than a literal, plain, propositional reading will allow.

Even more problematic with the claim made by plain reading advocates that all truth is propositional is that this view is actually contrary to scripture! As we saw in the last blog, scripture claims that JESUS is the "Word of God." In John 14:6 Jesus himself states that He is 'the way, the truth, and the life....' This point is driven home a bit later in the gospel when Jesus stands before Pilate and states that "everyone who is of the truth hears my voice" to which Pilate responds, 'What is truth?' Whether Pilate means this sincerely or not, Jesus' response is deafening silence. There, right in front of Pilate, stands the truth—Truth Himself, in the form of frail, mortal flesh. When God chose to speak truth into the world he did so most decisively as a person, not a proposition.

To put it simply, the Book of Scripture cannot always be read plainly. That is not to say a plain or propositional reading is always a wrong reading. When Jesus commands his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5:44), I am convinced that he actually wants us to love our enemies, plain and simple! Nor does it mean that truth is never propositional. When scripture says that Jesus was raised from grave on the third day, clearly this is a proposition that is true!

But, what do we do with the affirmation that 'God is love' in I John 4:18? That is certainly a proposition, but not as clear and simple a statement as 'The sky is blue.' So much of ultimate importance for Christian faith is packed into those three words, and even to begin to understand all that is embedded there we must use a wide variety of tools (Which Greek for 'love' is it? What does it mean in the larger context of John's letter and all of John’s writings? What is the context of the particular audience to which John was writing, etc?) in order to understand the fullness of that statement and appropriately 'hear' what God is saying to us.

The same goes for other complex and extremely important passages like the first three chapters of Genesis. Does a plain, propositional reading do this passage justice, especially when that reading comes into conflict with what we read from the Book of Creation? I think not, but before I can clarify this point I need to address the issue of how science can be for Christians a tool for 'reading' the Book of Creation.


Mark H. Mann is the director of the Wesleyan Center, Point Loma Press, and Honors Program at Point Loma Nazarene University. Mark received his bachelor's degree from Eastern Nazarene College and went on to earn both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies (2004) from Boston University. Mann previously served at Colgate University where he was both chaplain and professor. Mann has previous experience in editing, student development and staff ministry at the local church level.

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CF - #67357

January 24th 2012

You said, “What do we do, for instance, with the scriptural statement that ‘God is my rock and my fortress’ (Psalm 18:2)? A literal, plain propositional reading of this passage would lead one to affirm that the infinite creator of the entire universe is at once a boulder and a castle, which all Christians know to be nonsense.”

I’m with you in principle in this post, but here your argument is weak because you’re refuting a view that no one holds. A literal reading of a text by even the most die-hard hyper-literalistic interpreter (e.g., a YEC) takes account of genre and figures of speech, perhaps excepting isolated cases like Luther’s insistence on the meaning of “hoc est corpus meum”—“this is my body”—requiring real bodily presence. In short, no YEC would be confused about God actually being a mineral or building.


HornSpiel - #67358

January 24th 2012

Obviously the  brevity of a blog post can never address the entirety of a subject such as this. Pete Enns (God bless him, I miss him here) devoted several multi-part posts to biblical interpretation.

I am afraid though that Mann used most of this post to addresses some relatively easy issues of translation, rather than the much more difficult ones of situating the text in a specific cultural context. The former issues require  insights into language structure and usage the latter, additional insights into the culture, authorship and intended audience. It is the latter issues that are of course far more contentious, for example the various documentary hypotheses of the composition of scripture texts.

It is an uncomfortable truth, for many of us who identify as evangelical TEs, that holding a TE position forces us to rethink our assumptions about the historical contexts of scripture texts. I can no longer just believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch. I can no longer just assume every thing written there is rooted in the context of the Exodus. Who wrote Genesis? and Why? and When? suddenly become open questions. So I now find I listen with an open ear to voices that are far more likely to be heard on NPR than on my local Christian radio stations.

A completely faithful and true reading of scripture requires complete access not only to the text, but also the context. Ultimately we will never know for sure if we truly have the complete original texts, much less the complete cultural contexts of the texts. In a profound sense therefore, we must always be humble in our theology, particularly in areas where other  believers (contemporary and historically) have differed.


beaglelady - #67359

January 24th 2012

“Obviously the  brevity of a blog post can never address the entirety of a
subject such as this. Pete Enns (God bless him, I miss him here)
devoted several multi-part posts to biblical interpretation.


I also miss him and his scholarly posts. But he does have an active blog here:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/

“Ultimately we will never know for sure if we truly have the complete
original texts, much less the complete cultural contexts of the texts.”


It’s a lifetime journey in search of understanding, isn’t it?




KevinR - #67362

January 25th 2012

I have also been arguing that the anti-scientific attitudes found among
some Christians today bear a strong resemblance to the ideas of ancient
Gnosticism in which the material creation was viewed as being
irreparably filled with evil and ignorance.


The “anti-scientific” attitude is simply a refusal to accept and believe in the atheistic god of evolution. There’s nothing “scientific” about it - evolution, that is. It’s a religion followed by those who do not want to submit to the creator of everything.

I am amused at Mr Mann’s whole approach - namely that TEs should not surrender “science”, i.e. evolution, to the secular world when in reality it should be a case of “Let’s not surrender the word of God to secular and ungodly belief in evolution”. Unfortunately, those who believe that evolution is true and doggedly cling to it even when it’s pointed out to be wrong, have already done so.
One can become a true Christian and believe in evolution. This is a simple thing to grasp since many people do have a background laden with indoctrination in the evolutionary thought when they first accept Christ as Lord and Saviour.
BUT: Once these true believers get pointed to the fact that a believe in evolution contradicts what stands in Genesis [ billions of years instead of six day creation; plus death and suffering before the sin of Adam ] they

humble

themselves and throw away the idea of evolution. Simply because if there’s no original sin, their belief in Christ is really in vain. One either accepts the bible as the word of God as it is or one should stay away from it completely - trying to pick and choose and mix to one’s hearts content is simply establishing one’s own religion. One will then always be embroiled in trying to reconcile the contradictions between the bible and man’s “scientific” statements about origins - and claiming there’s a conflict between science and the bible or that science should not be surrendered to the secular world.
There really is nothing to lose in throwing away the rubbish called evolution - and much peace to be gained.


HornSpiel - #67376

January 25th 2012

KevinR,
When I came to Christ at 18 I threw out evolution. I thought I had to accept the six days of creation as literal to believe the Bible was trustworthy.

I distrusted and misunderstood those  who call themselves evolutionary creationists, or theistic evolutionist (I did not know the terms at the time.) However I could not deny what my eyes saw. Coal reefs hundreds of feet tall that surround islands. Sand dunes sandwiched between mud flats in geologic layers. The YEC explanations seemed so contrived and the old age of the earth so patently true that I really was  conflicted.

Then I found out that historically the 6,000 year age of the earth has never been considered a sign of orthodoxy in the church. In fact, its current vogue can trace itself back to  a vision of Seventh-day Adventist prophetess, Ellen G. White. Moreover the old age of the earth was established in the 19th c. by believers seeking to find traces of Noah’s flood, but finding something quite different.
 
I realized that for integrity’s sake needed to reconsider my position on the subject of the old earth. 

So you can see my trajectory has been quite the opposite of what you claim a Christian’s should be.


beaglelady - #67377

January 25th 2012

<blockquote>
There really is nothing to lose in throwing away the rubbish called evolution - and much peace to be gained.<blockquote>

A lobotomy would accomplish the same thing.


beaglelady - #67379

January 25th 2012

oops!

1) I didn’t close my tags
2) This site doesn’t even let you use tags!

mea culpa


Roger A. Sawtelle - #67392

January 26th 2012

Jesus, the Logos of God, is the Meaning of both the Bible and the Universe.


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