From the Mailbag: Why would God allow scientific errors in the Bible?

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Every week, we get letters from readers around the world, asking questions and giving feedback on BioLogos materials. We do our best to respond to every letter in some way. Today, we’d like to start a new series highlighting the best questions we receive through our Contact Us page, along with responses from members of the BioLogos community.

Evan writes:

I recently watched a video on YouTube where Hugh Ross, president of Reasons To Believe, and BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma had a discussion on their different creation models. At one point, Dr. Haarsma said that she actually believed the Bible taught that there was a solid dome above the Earth. Dr. Haarsma basically said that it's because God didn't see fit to correct the people's' misunderstanding of the natural world, so he condescended to their level and behaved as if their understanding was correct, because whether they were correct on their science wasn't important to Him. What was important to God was that they acknowledged that he is the Creator of everything that exists. She said it was "the who and the why" of creation that mattered, and that's what God was trying to convey.

However, I'm very uncomfortable, theologically, with Haarsma's view. This view seems to say that God would essentially put scientifically inaccurate statements in scripture just to appease the people of the time. I don't know why God would be willing to insert errors just because the people who initially receiving the text didn't know any different.

This doesn't seem like something God would do, because he seems very concerned with establishing truth and banishing falsehoods. For example, Jesus didn't tolerate theological error when he corrected the Sadducees misunderstanding of scripture concerning the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-46), and God corrected the Israelites’ belief in henotheism (belief in the existence of multiple gods, even if only one is worshipped) in the Old Testament (Isaiah 44:8, Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 45:5). If God would correct their theologically false beliefs, why wouldn't he correct their scientifically false beliefs as well?

Now, I agree that The Bible is not a science book, and that going into too much detail about how the creation unfolded would have confuse the ancients, and I also agree that “the who and why” of creation was of primary importance to God, but surely there was a way to avoid saying things about the natural world that weren’t true, wasn’t there? Why couldn’t The Holy Spirit inspire Moses to simply say that “God created the sky”, and leave the substance (or lack thereof) that the sky is made of an open question? 

Response from Christy Hemphill, BioLogos author and Forum moderator:

The subject of how God inspired Scripture, the degree to which the Scriptures are human products, and the issue of divine accommodation are all subjects that someone could write long treatises on, so the following is by no means an exhaustive response to the questions you bring up.

You object to the idea that “God put scientific errors in the Bible to appease people.” I don’t think anyone is claiming that to be the case. When we say the Bible was inspired, we aren’t claiming it was dictated verbatim by God. We obviously don’t think God got an advance copy from the biblical authors to do the final edit with a divine red pen before it went to press. There is a big difference between God “inserting errors” into Scripture and God allowing the worldview, cultural assumptions, and personality of the authors to permeate the text.

The ancients were not getting their cosmology from God, as if they were some kind of cultural blank slate just waiting for divine revelation to teach them everything they knew about the world. They had established worldviews; they had ideas and assumptions about how things worked and why. It was this pre-existing worldview that God challenged with his direct revelation in the areas he saw fit to challenge it.

Haarsma is not claiming that God proactively taught them lies because he thought they couldn’t handle the truth. She is saying he allowed some of their pre-existing misconceptions about the how and why of the universe to remain unchallenged, because they weren’t important to his divine mission in the world and because correcting them was not essential for what he wanted to communicate.

We see this accommodation in other areas too. You mentioned the ancient Hebrew belief that God was first among many lesser gods, which is something alluded to throughout the Old Testament. That is a good example. There is also the practice of polygamy and the taking of concubines and divorce, which God seems to have allowed and regulated.

I think almost everyone who has ever set out to study the Bible carefully comes away with questions about why God did it that way, or why that story is in there, or why God didn’t say it another way that would cause us less headaches. It is the nature of engaging with an ancient faith.

Response from Gregg Davidson, geologist and member of BioLogos Voices:

First, let me say that I have an appreciation for your discomfort. If told that the only way I can accept a scientific explanation of something is to accept that there is a mistake in the Bible, I am likely to either reject the scientific argument outright, or start to question the validity of my faith. Why put my faith on something that isn’t reliable? I get that!

So let’s say that we start with the assumption that the Bible is in fact reliable—the inspired word of God. It follows from this starting point that the Bible must speak truthfully, as a whole and in its parts. Many Christians enlarge upon this observation to insist that it speaks with authority on every subject it touches upon, including statements about nature. If it doesn’t speak truthfully about nature, how can it be trusted about spiritual matters? This seems to make perfect sense.

So what do I do when I encounter verses that say the sun does not just rise and set, but hastens back to its starting point (Eccl 1:5), that the Earth is fixed on its foundations and won’t be moved (Ps 104:5), that there are waters above a solid dome above the Earth, even describing it as being like a cast metal mirror (Job 37:18), that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4:30-32), or that seeds die when they fall to the ground (John 12:24)? If the authority of the Bible and my standard of truthfulness rests on accurate statements about nature, I have a serious problem. None of these biblical statements reflect the actual workings of nature as we understand them today. In verse after verse, descriptions of nature are consistent with the cultural and historical understanding of the time in which it was written, without apparent regard for advances in knowledge that would come with the scientific age.

I am then left with two choices. Either the Bible is riddled with errors and should be set aside, or perhaps I don’t have a sufficient understanding of biblical truth. Suppose God’s intention in these verses was to communicate profound truths about the kingdom of God, illustrating these truths using examples from man’s common experience with nature? If the intention was not instruction on the technical nuances of the workings of the natural realm, is he not free to condescend to the contemporary knowledge of the audience in painting his word pictures? If this makes me a little uncomfortable (as God often does), it might help to remind myself of what the Bible claims for itself. 2 Tim 3:16-17 says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Note the claim is in its usefulness and authority in correcting and training in spiritual matters. Correcting misunderstandings about nature is never claimed.

This is actually a rather exciting realization for me, because it means that instead of having to rationalize why this verse or that verse doesn’t really conflict with what we know today about nature, I can appreciate the biblical illustration from the perspective of the original audience. My understanding of the text is enhanced, not diminished! And I am less likely to put a stumbling block in the path to faith for seekers by telling them that they must close their eyes to the wonders of nature in order to embrace the Creator of the same.

Response from Ted Davis, Biologos Fellow for the history of science, and member of BioLogos Voices:

I agree with the other comments here, but let me speak historically and to the point.  Ever since Augustine, Christian authors have understood that the Bible was written to a specific audience in a specific historical/cultural context.  As a necessary consequence, the conceptual and verbal vocabulary of the Bible are “accommodated” to that particular time, place, and people.  The message of the Bible transcends that particular situation, but it must be embedded within that situation or it will not be understood.

The analogy I like to make is to foreign missions.  When a missionary from one culture brings the gospel to people in another culture, she or he must carefully learn the verbal and conceptual language of that other culture.  Otherwise, the gospel cannot be understood and the mission is pointless.  This might mean, from time to time, that the missionary accepts erroneous conceptions of nature or history that are widely held in that culture, and does not bother to correct them as part of her or his ministry to them.  Indeed, a missionary might even use such erroneous conceptions when explaining the gospel to them.  At least I can imagine such things occurring.  If the goal is to communicate the gospel, then communication is an indispensable part of the goal, and communication will inevitably be somewhat limited by verbal and conceptual language.

Historically, this attitude has been held by numerous great theologians, long before modern times.  Perhaps the most important example would be John Calvin, who appealed to accommodation quite often. In a passage from his commentary on Genesis, he discusses the relative sizes of the Sun, Moon, and Saturn, in connection with Gen 1:16, which speaks of the “greater light” and the “lesser light”:

“[Moses] assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. … If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage.

In other words, Moses wasn’t concerned about scientific accuracy, since he was writing for the “ordinary person” and it was best to “adapt his discourse to common usage.”  As Calvin says a few paragraphs earlier (when writing about the “waters above the firmament”), “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere [than the Bible].”

Likewise Galileo appealed to accommodation when arguing against those who used the Bible as a set of proof texts for geocentrism.  I wrote about this in a 2-part BioLogos series.

Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "From the Mailbag: Why would God allow scientific errors in the Bible? "
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 15 Sep. 2016. Web. 20 October 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2016, September 15). From the Mailbag: Why would God allow scientific errors in the Bible?
Retrieved October 20, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/from-the-mailbag-why-would-god-allow-scientific-errors-in-the-bible

About the Authors

Christy Hemphill

Christy Hemphill and her husband are linguists who work on a minority language preservation and Scripture translation project in southern Mexico. She has been reading BioLogos articles since she first heard of the website’s launch in 2009. As the primary educator of her three children, she is particularly interested in quality science/faith resources for parents who homeschool. Christy is also one of the moderators at the BioLogos Forum

More posts by Christy Hemphill

Davidson Gregg

Dr. Gregg Davidson is chair of the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi and conducts original research in geochemistry and hydrogeology, often employing radiometric dating methods to determine the age of groundwater and sediments. In 2009 he published a book about his keen interest in integrating a lifetime of studying geology with his firm conviction about the infallibility of God’s Word, When Faith & Science Collide – A Biblical Approach to Evaluating Evolution and the Age of the Earth.

More posts by Gregg Davidson

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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