Editor’s Note: This “parable” was posted several months ago (on April 7th) on the blog Uncommon Descent. At the time, a video by Dr. Bruce Waltke, which appeared on our site, had become a big point of discussion at science and theology blogs. The author of this post, writing under the screen name “Timaeus”, turned the discussion surrounding Waltke’s words into a story, in the process asking readers to consider when, if ever, it is appropriate to rethink our understandings of Scripture in light of modern information.
So why are we posting this parable almost five months later? While the controversy surrounding the Waltke video has faded from the limelight, the recent dialogue between BioLogos vice-president Karl Giberson and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler centers on many of the same topics. Here too, the point of contention is whether new scientific understanding (or what we believe to be understanding) should have a bearing on how we think about Scripture, especially if it requires us to back away from a “literal” reading of the Scripture.
Ultimately, however, the questions raised in Timaeus’ parable don’t need to be related to a current event or leading figure or discussion, because the questions themselves will continue to remain as major points of reflection for Christians while we continue to wrestle with the relationships between science and religion. With that in mind, here is the parable:
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that many centuries ago, in a certain inland part of rural and small-town Christendom, a large number of Christians, including the clergy in the area, understood a number of passages in the Bible to say, or imply, that the world was flat. Suppose also that, in the same time and place, all the learned people in this inland, rural, small-town area also thought that the world was flat, on the basis of everyday observation. So we have these Christians, happy that common sense, the opinion of the learned, and the apparent teaching of Scripture all agree that the world is flat.
Now suppose that a number of people from this area travel to the coast. While there, they encounter some learned men who say that the earth is not flat but curved, and when they ask how a learned man could hold a view so silly, so much against common observation and against the apparent teaching of Scripture, they are instructed by the learned men with geometrical arguments based on the observation of ships’ masts and so on. (I will assume you know the usual arguments.) Now suppose these people resist these arguments, saying: “But Scripture teaches the opposite, so even though we cannot refute your argument, we do not accept it; we will not trust the fallible science of man, which is always capable of error and always in need of revision; we will stand on Scripture which is always true and reliable.”
My first question is: Supposing that these people were in fact able to produce passages of Scripture which did appear to imply that the Biblical narrator regarded the earth as flat, what would you say to them? Would you try to argue: “Those passages do not mean what you say; if read carefully, they show that the earth is round, or at least, they are non-committal on the question of roundness or flatness?”
If you were to do this, let us say, for the sake of argument, that the peasants were able to provide enough passages, and clear enough passages, that this answer would not do; let us say that there was at least one passage, and maybe more, of which any unprejudiced reader, of any religious faith or no faith, would admit that the author consciously had the flatness of the earth in mind and was consciously trying to convey it. What would your next approach to these peasants be, if you yourself were convinced of the roundness of the earth?
Would you say something like this: “Yes, the narrator does speak in terms of a flat earth, but he was trying to communicate with people who lived with that cosmography, and correcting bad cosmography was not part of his religious purpose, so he delivered his religious message in terms of the world as they understood it; but this is no threat to the true theology of the Bible; we can disregard the incidentally incorrect scientific statements of the Bible without damaging the teaching of the Bible; the Bible is inerrant in all matters of faith and morals, which does not preclude errors on less important matters.”
But suppose that the peasants were to persist, and say: “We think the Bible is inerrant in everything. If we cannot trust its geography, its history, and its other factual statements, then we cannot trust its statements in faith and morals, either. It is all or nothing with the Word of God. Therefore, we hold to the flatness of the earth, and we think this argument of yours must be fallacious, though we cannot see the error. Also, God may be trying to test our faith by causing you to speak to us. He may be trying to see if we will believe that natural, human, unaided reason is more reliable than Scripture. We therefore reject your argument.”
Now suppose a group of people sails around the world for the first time, and the feat is repeated on several occasions, and all the learned people of the world, even the learned priests and lawyers back in the inland village of the peasants, now come to accept the roundness of the earth, and adopt various methods of harmonizing that roundness with the teaching of the Scriptures. But suppose the peasants hold out, and say: “We reject this rationalistic, naturalistic reasoning. The people who sailed ‘around’ the world must have misinterpreted the geometry of their journey. God does not lie, and the earth is surely flat. We will no sooner reject a flat earth than we will reject the Resurrection of our Lord.”
Now suppose there is one of the peasants — call him Schwarzert — one previously known and respected by all of them as one who has never caved in to the conceits of the learned and skeptical when it comes to Christian truth. His doctrine, his morals, his Christian leadership have always been beyond impeachment. Now suppose he says, about this geographical dispute: “If the roundness of the earth should turn out to be overwhelmingly supported by empirical evidence, and geometrical reasoning, and by the testimony of many sailors and passengers who have no reason to conspire against the truth, then, if Christians should resist the teaching about the roundness of the earth, they will no longer be taken seriously in the eyes of the world, and will become a cult, and their religion will no longer have any hope of influencing the morals of the world, or of converting the heathen who are convinced by reason and experience that the earth is round. At that point, surely Christians would have to at least consider whether Scripture might be interpreted in such a way as to allow for the roundness of the earth.”
What would you say to this Schwarzert? Would you say that he had “sold out” to rationalism, naturalism, liberalism, unorthodox theology, etc.? Would you say that he should have stood his ground with the peasants, and against the geometers, the sailors, the traders, etc., and insisted on maintaining the literal sense of the Bible? At stake, of course, is the question of when, if ever, it is appropriate for Christians to re-think their interpretation of the Bible in the light of new information about the world (or at least, in the light of what they sincerely believe to be new information about the world). Is it always and everywhere wrong for Christians to do this?