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.