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Can science and scripture be reconciled?

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In a Nutshell

In Christian belief, God reveals himself in both the written book of the Bible and the created “book” of the natural world.  Thus, the truths we find in scripture should not conflict with the truths we find in nature.  Yet at times the two revelations seem to be saying contradictory things about how God made the world.  Since God does not lie, the conflict must occur at the level of human interpretation: either a misunderstanding of what God is revealing in nature, or a misunderstanding of what God is revealing in scripture.  Conflicts motivate us to reevaluate both interpretations.  Christians may disagree on whether the scientific or the Biblical interpretation needs to change, but we can agree that God speaks to us in both revelations.

(Updated on March 10, 2012)

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In Detail

Two revelations

Psalm 19 begins with the well-loved words “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Scientists often turn to this Psalm to express their praise to the Creator when they make discoveries in the lab – the biochemistry of a cell also declares the glory of God! In the second half of the Psalm, David turns his thoughts from the God’s world to God’s word, writing “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.” David praises God for both revelations – for what God has revealed in both nature and scripture. In later centuries, theologians introduced the metaphor of two “books”1 where nature is seen as a book, parallel to the book of Scripture. The Belgic Confession of 1561 states in Article 2 that

We know God by two means:

First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe,
since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book
    in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters
    to make us ponder the invisible things of God:
        God’s eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.
    All these things are enough to convict humans and to leave them without excuse.

Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word,
    as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.2

Since both are revelations from God, they both carry God’s full authority and cannot be ignored. The primary purpose of any revelation is to teach us about God,3 but both of these also have something to say about how and why God created the world. Sometimes the revelations appear to be in conflict, but since God speaks only truth, the two revelations cannot be teaching us contradictory things.

So what is the source of all the friction? The conflict must occur at the level of human interpretation: either a misunderstanding of what God is revealing in nature, or a misunderstanding of what God is revealing in scripture. In debates over Genesis and evolution, Christians often disagree about which interpretation is in error. We can agree, however, that scripture and nature are complementary and faithful witnesses to their common Author.

For more on the relationship between nature and scripture, see "What is the proper relationship between science and religion?"

Science: Interpreting God’s revelation in Nature

Building scientific theories resembles map making. A map gathers different kinds of data like longitude and latitude, elevations, waterways, and climate to make a coherent representation of reality. The map is not reality itself but a model of reality. Scientific maps of reality are known as “theories.” Some theories are new and tentative (like string theory), while others are long-standing and well-supported by abundant observations and experiments (like photosynthesis). The process of science is to develop and test these theories: scientists follow the map, see if it matches the real world, then modify the map to match reality better.

How reliable are scientific results? Science is a human activity, so of course it can be in error at times. Self-promoting individuals can push for outcomes that advance their reputation. A desire for particular results or an assumption about the ways things are can result in manipulation of data, whether consciously or unconsciously. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of examples of such contrived data in the history of science. One chronicle of how such distortions were perpetuated can be found in Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man,4 which retells the tragic story of how 19th century science found alleged data to support prevailing prejudices about the relationship between race and intelligence.

However, science is self-correcting. All scientific publications are peer-reviewed, where experts check for errors in methods, over-stated claims, and other problems. Published measurements are tested by other groups of scientists to see if they get the same results. Published theories are vigorously debated and compared to alternate explanations. Sometimes even selfish motivations can help the self-correcting process, since scientists can advance their careers by publishing errors and proposing new theories. Inaccuracies in theories are corrected when new discoveries and experiments reveal a problem. When theories are new and based on preliminary data, biases such as those described above can have a large influence on results. But after theories are tested and refined by many scientists all over the world, they give a reliable interpretation of physical reality.

Interpreting God’s revelation in Scripture

For Christians, the Bible is not just a book of moral lessons or factual statements. Rather, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Scripture connects God’s action in real historical events with his purpose behind those actions. Scripture also draws us into the story, so that we are not mere readers, but citizens of God’s kingdom and part of God’s redemptive history. The Bible is the result of human-divine partnerships in which God inspired and commanded the human authors to communicate his word to his people.

Christians often disagree on the precise meaning of particular passages. Some scriptural teachings, like the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, have clear meaning which has been affirmed by the church throughout the centuries and around the world. Other teachings, like baptism of adults vs. infants, are ambiguous and their interpretation has been debated for centuries. Some teachings, like ownership of slaves, were viewed one way for centuries, then were reinterpreted as the gospel moved into new cultures. Church tradition can be a valuable guide to good interpretation, but at times should be challenged.

How can we find the best interpretation of scripture? One good strategy is to always start by studying and pondering what the passage meant to the inspired human author and the original audience. The style of language, the genre of literature, and the historical and cultural context are all helpful in understanding the original meaning. Once we better understand God’s revelation to the first audience, we can consider what God might have to teach us today in the 21st century. Without this strategy, we risk imposing our own modern culture and personal preferences on the text. This does not mean you have to be a scholar to understand the Bible. Even in confusing passages (like Genesis 1-2), the primary teaching of scripture is usually clear even to a child (God created the world and declared it good). The careful background work becomes important for scholars and teachers who want to explore the subtle meanings and implications of the text (such as how it fits with science).

An Historical Example

The story of Galileo is a well-known historic example of conflict between science and Biblical interpretation. In Galileo’s time there was a heated disagreement over the solar system, specifically whether the Sun or the Earth was at the center. This led to a debate over the meaning of Bible verses like Psalm 93:1 which state “The earth is fixed and cannot be moved.” If this verse is read scientifically, it would mean that the Earth was stationary and did not orbit the Sun. However, Galileo made astronomical observations that showed the planets did move about the Sun. Today we understand Psalm 93:1 to mean that the earth is established and secure, just as God’s throne is established. Galileo, who remained a loyal Catholic to the end of his life, makes his position clear in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina:

"[In] St. Augustine we read: 'If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation, not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.' "

"This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us."5

Galileo did not see his discoveries as contrary to the Bible, but contrary to certain human interpretations of the Bible. And rather than dictating what the correct interpretation should be, Galileo recommended that Biblical scholars work to better understand the “true sense of scriptural texts.”

Interaction between science and biblical interpretation

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; the Bible, after all, is more important to the Christian. This response, however, forgets that the Bible is always interpreted, and elevates a particular biblical interpretation to the authority of the Bible itself. It also discounts God’s revelation to us in the natural world, rather than listening to what science has learned about it.

Another response is to say that science is right and the Bible is wrong. This response, however, says that the Bible itself is in error, rather than that a particular interpretation is incorrect. It also elevates scientific knowledge as the best type of knowledge, even though science is ill-equipped to answer questions about ancient texts.

A better response is to reconsider the interpretations on both sides. When we hear a scientific result that seems to conflict with the Bible, we should look at it more closely. How strong is the evidence? Is there a consensus among scientists? Has the theory been tested extensively? What alternate theories are available? At the same time we take a closer look at Biblical interpretation. What did the passage mean to the original audience? What interpretations have been held throughout church history? What are the theological implications? Rather than rejecting one side or the other, we can study both more carefully, remembering that God is speaking to us in both scripture and nature. In this approach, science does not determine which interpretation of scripture is best. Instead, science motivates us to take a closer look at scripture, using good biblical scholarship to determine the best interpretation.

Occasionally, multiple interpretations of scripture seem equally appropriate when considered with the tools of biblical scholarship. In those cases, science can break the tie. By showing us what God reveals in nature, science can show that some interpretations are inappropriate. As Professor Donald Mackay writes:

Obviously a surface meaning of many passages could be tested, for example, against archaeological discoveries, and the meaning of others can be enriched by scientific and historical knowledge. But I want to suggest that the primary function of scientific enquiry in such fields is neither to verify nor to add to the inspired picture, but to help us in eliminating improper ways of reading it. To pursue the metaphor, I think the scientific data God gives us can sometimes serve as his way of warning us when we are standing too close to the picture, at the wrong angle, or with the wrong expectations, to be able to see the inspired pattern he means it to convey to us.6

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Further Reading

More from BioLogos

  • Harrell, Daniel. “Reading Nature and Reading Scripture” BioLogos Forum, 2009 (Blog)
  • Wright, N. T. “Understanding Ancient Texts” BioLogos forum, 2010 (Video)

Recommended External Resources

  • Lindberg, David C. and Numbers, Ronald L. “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter Between Christianity and Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 1987, 140. (HTML)
  • Lucas, Ernest. Can We Believe Genesis Today? The Bible and the Questions of Science. 3rd ed. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2005. (Book info)
  • Mitchell, Lynn and Kirk Blackard. Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God (Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing, 2009). The authors are members of the Church of Christ; you can read a detailed review by Daniel Brannan in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PDF).
  • Murphy, George. Toward a Christian View of a Scientific World. CSS Publishing Company, 2001. (Book Info)
  • Ratzsch, Del. Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective. InterVarsity Press, 2000. (Book Info)

Notes

  1. Tanzella-Nitti, Giuseppe. “The Two Books Prior to the Scientific Revolution,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 57, no. 3 (2005): 235-45. (PDF)
  2. de Brès, Guido, The Belgic Confession, 1561 (PDF)
  3. VandenBerg, Mary L. “What General Revelation Does (and Does Not) Tell Us,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 62, no. 1 (2010): 16-24. (PDF)
  4. Steven Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996).
  5. Galileo Galilei, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, trans. Stillman Drake (New York: Anchor Books, 1990).
  6. Donald MacCrimmon MacKay, The Open Mind, and Other Essays (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 151-52. Quoted in: Ernest Lucas, "Interpreting Genesis in the 21st Century," Faraday Papers, no. 11 (2007) (PDF), www.faraday-institute.org.