The heavens declare the glory of God...The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. Psalm 19:1,7 (NIV)
In Christian belief, God reveals himself in both the written book of the Bible and the created “book” of the natural world. Because of the consistent character of God, these two cannot conflict. Yet at times they seem to say contradictory things to us about the origin and shape of God’s creation. What do we do when the results of science disagree with common biblical interpretations?
One response is to say that the Bible is right and science is wrong, but this often elevates a particular biblical interpretation to the authority of the Bible itself. Scripture is always given and received within a cultural context. As we attempt to understand the Bible in today’s context, Christians sometimes disagree on the meaning of particular passages. Some scriptural teachings, like the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, have clear meanings that have been affirmed by the church throughout the centuries and around the world. Other teachings, like the baptism of adults vs. infants, are ambiguous and their interpretation has been debated for centuries. Some interpretations have been challenged and changed as Christians re-evaluated them in light of the whole of Scripture (the ownership of slaves serves as a dramatic example). Church tradition has also been appropriately challenged as new historical or scientific evidence presents itself. Consider the scientific work of Galileo, which overturned an earth-centered worldview and thus irrevocably affected our interpretation of passages like Psalm 93:1.
Just as the Bible is always interpreted by fallible humans, so too science is the human interpretation of nature. Thus, its theories are subject to critique and revision. A good example is the racist ideas of “eugenics” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were rightly questioned by many Bible-believing Christians. But science also has internal methods for reviewing evidence and weeding out errors (eugenics was eventually rejected by mainstream science). After theories are tested and refined by many scientists all over the world, they give an ever more reliable interpretation of physical reality. This is true of many aspects of evolutionary theory, which have been tested and confirmed by numerous scientists in many fields over a long period of time.
Scientific data can sometimes serve as God’s way of warning us when we are standing too close to the scriptural “picture,” or at the wrong angle, or with the wrong expectations. The purpose of science is not to verify nor to add to inspired Scripture, but science can help us eliminate improper ways of reading it. Likewise, Christians should thoughtfully and appropriately encourage science to rigorously test its own theories and question its own assumptions, especially when science appears to contradict Scripture. Yet because they are both means of God’s revelation of himself to us, they must work together towards an ultimate harmony.