“Why does it always seems to be science telling us that we need to change our interpretation of Scripture? Shouldn’t it be the other way around sometimes? Shouldn’t Scripture provide the lenses through which we look at the world?” I’ve been asked those questions by students, by pastors, and even by seminary professors. Sometimes the question has been even more pointed: “Has there ever been a scientific theory that you didn’t believe because it contradicted Scripture?”
I understand the frustration behind those questions, and I take them seriously. When we focus only on those historical cases where our interpretation of Scripture changed because of science (for instance, Galileo and the motion of the earth), it can feel like a one-way relationship in which science steps in from time and to time and dictates a new interpretation of some scriptural passages. But the relationship is not so one-sided. There are many ways in which, for Christians, Scripture provides the lenses through which we look at the natural world that we study scientifically.
Scripture and the foundational assumptions of science
Philosophers note that modern science has some foundational presuppositions which are supported by the success of science, but which originate beyond science. Historians of science have noted that many early scientists not only were Christians, but also explicitly justified their use of scientific methods in studying the natural world from their biblical beliefs about God and the natural world. Nearly all scientists today, regardless of their religious beliefs, believe a certain set of foundational principles which make it possible for them to do science. Some of these common basic beliefs include:
- Human beings can understand the natural world at least in part.
- Nature typically operates with regular, repeatable, universal patterns of cause and effect so things that we learn in the lab here today will also hold true half way around the world a week from now.
- It’s not enough to sit and theorize how the world ought to work, we actually have to test our theories; science is a worthwhile pursuit.
These beliefs seem obvious today, but for most of human history, many people did not hold all those beliefs. For example, animists who believe that gods or spirits inhabit many aspect of the physical world might doubt that nature operates on regular, repeatable, universal patterns of cause and effect; instead they would believe that nature is controlled by gods and spirits who need to be appeased or manipulated by ritual. Or for a very different example, some of the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world did not see the need to do experiments because they thought it was possible to derive from logic and first principles how the world ought to behave.
Some early scientists justified their belief in those foundational principles based on what the Bible teaches. We are made in God’s image and that is the reason why we have the ability to partially understand how the natural world works. God has given us the gifts to study his creation. Nature operates on regular, repeatable, universal patterns of cause and effect because nature is not filled by capricious gods, but ruled by one God in a faithful and consistent manner. God could have created in any way God chose consistent with his nature, but we humans are limited and sinful, so we need to test our theories with experiments. Science is worth doing because we are studying God’s handiwork.
All of this does not imply that only Christians can do science. As part of God’s general grace, Christians and non-Christians can work together to do science. But the first important idea here is that Christians find in Scripture not only a motivation to study God’s creation, but also teachings about God and the natural world which support the foundational assumptions of science.
Scripture and scientific hypotheses
Therefore, it should not surprise us if there are relatively few historical examples of genuine scientific hypothesis being at odds with what Scripture teaches. I can, however, think of a few examples. One might be Radical Behaviorism. This scientific hypothesis became popular after the discovery of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which behavior is modified through reinforcement and punishment. It was made famous by experiments by B.F. Skinner in which animals were trained to perform complex behaviors by a gradual build-up from simpler behaviors which were learned through reinforcement or punishment. The hypothesis of radical behaviorism was that all human learning and all human decision-making was ultimately built up from operant conditioning, and all human behavior was determined by this conditioning. This is a far reaching scientific hypothesis. It could be argued that the theory of radical behaviorism was never really a scientific hypothesis; it was only a grandiose philosophical addition to science, but that’s probably not a fair criticism. Radical behaviorism probably does deserve the status as a genuine scientific hypothesis that made testable predictions and was seriously considered by many scientists for several decades. Ultimately, additional research over the decades led most scientists to conclude radical behaviorism wasn’t true. Most scientists today conclude that, while operant conditioning does exist, it is not the case that all behavior is determined by operant conditioning.
What would Scripture say about this theory? It seems difficult to reconcile Christian theology with the scientific hypothesis of radical behaviorism. Most Christians would conclude that Scripture teaches against it. Several decades ago, when radical behaviorism was a more prevalent scientific hypothesis, it would have been appropriate for a Christian scientist to say, “Partly for scientific reasons, but also because of my biblical beliefs about God and the natural world, I think radical behaviorism is probably a false scientific hypothesis.”
Scripture and philosophical extrapolations of science
Perhaps the most common way that Scripture affects the way we look at the natural world, in relation to science, is in the philosophical and religious extrapolations which are added to scientific results. Very often, Christians and non-Christians look at the same scientific results, agree about the scientific theories which best explain the data, but draw very different conclusions based on their religious and philosophical beliefs. For example, Christians and non-Christians agree that planets orbit around the sun in stable, repeatable patterns which we can model with natural laws of gravity and motion. A deist might interpret this as saying that the solar system was set up by God, but God is now distant and no longer involved. A Christian could look at the same scientific data and theories through the lens of Scripture and come to a different interpretation. God is not absent from events which we can explain scientifically; rather, God continually sustains creation, and natural laws describe how God usually governs creation.
Similarly, Christians and non-Christians together can conclude scientifically that many events in the natural world have outcomes which include an element of randomness. The final outcomes cannot be completely predicted in terms of initial conditions and natural laws, but must be modeled probabilistically. An atheist might look at randomness in the natural world and conclude that random events are fundamentally uncaused and undirected. A Christian can look at the same randomness in the natural world and conclude that this is another means that God can use in governing the natural world. In fact, a Christian might quote Proverbs 16:33, “the lot is cast in the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord,” to say that God can directly influence the outcome of events that appear random to human beings.
There are many examples—most notably the theory of evolution—where Christians and non-Christians can agree on which scientific theory best fits the data but disagree about the philosophical and religious implications of the theory. For Christians who are scientists, Scripture provides a lens by which we see the natural world as God’s handiwork and something for which God continually cares. Scripture helps us take scientific data and theories and fit them into a larger theological framework of God as Creator and humanity as God’s image bearers.
“Science is a human invention. Scripture comes from God. How can it be right that science affects our interpretation of Scripture?”
Christians have asked whether human learning should affect how we read Scripture since the time of St. Augustine, and still ask it today. Good answers to that question have been written by many Christian scholars. They usually start by pointing out that God created the natural world. We don’t believe that God would teach contradictory things in two parts of Scripture (when properly interpreted), and we don’t believe that God would teach contradictory things in Scripture and in nature (when properly interpreted). If science can discover a truth about the natural world, ultimately, that truth is God’s truth. I wholeheartedly agree that this is the right starting point.
I want to talk about two more points, less commonly discussed, about how and why science can sometimes be an important tool in helping us to interpretation some parts of Scripture.
It is theology, not science, which determines how we re-interpret Scripture.
Science by itself never dictates how we interpret Scripture. Science only alerts us to new theological problems that we had not considered before.
For example, prior to Galileo’s work, there were very few theological problems with interpreting Psalm 93:1 and other passages as actually teaching that the earth is fixed in place. Galileo and others made scientific discoveries that strongly indicate that the earth moves. However, these scientific discoveries do not require us to change our interpretation of Scriptures. It is still possible today to believe that Scripture truthfully teaches that the earth is fixed in place. One possibility is that God is tricking (or permitting the devil to trick) all of our scientific measurements into giving false data about a moving earth. A second possibility is that we humans simply should not trust our senses and our reasoning ability despite the mountains of evidence that the earth is moving, because we are finite and sinful. A third possibility is that there is a vast conspiracy among atheistic scientists who create false data because they want to undermine belief in God and Scripture.
Christians overwhelmingly reject those three possibilities because each of them carries vast theological problems. They are inconsistent with what we believe about God and about ourselves as God’s image-bearers. The scientific evidence for a moving earth, by itself, does not require us to give up a fixed-earth interpretation of Scripture. The scientific evidence only points out theological problems with a fixed-earth interpretation of Scripture of which the church was not previously aware.
Every time science prompts us to think again about our interpretation of Scripture, science does not dictate that new interpretation. Science makes us aware of new theological problems with old interpretations. Ultimately, it is theology which decides which interpretation of Scripture is best.
Ultimately, good reinterpretations of Scripture are the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would “guide us into all truth” (John 16:13). One implication, I believe, is that on those occasions when some scientific discovery prompted the church to reexamine an interpretation of Scripture—and that new interpretation is sound theologically—ultimately it was the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit has prompted the church to reinterpret Scripture in a variety of ways. One way is through the giving of spiritual gifts. Acts 11 tells the story of the Apostle Peter and the centurion Cornelius. After Peter’s visit to Cornelius, the other Apostles criticized Peter for going into a Gentile’s house and breaking the Law of Moses. Peter told them about his prophetic dream, and then told them how the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household even before they were baptized. This stopped the argument (v. 19). Through the clear giving of spiritual gifts to many individuals, the Holy Spirit led the church to understand that Jesus, the Messiah of the Jews, was also granting Gentiles repentance of sins and new life in Christ. Similarly, the Church Council in Jerusalem several years later was debating whether new Gentile believers scattered all over the Roman Empire should follow the Law of Moses. We can imagine the scriptural arguments made by both the traditionalists and the non-traditionalists. What settled that argument (described in Acts 15:12-15) was when Paul and Barnabas described the miraculous signs God was doing among the Gentiles. God gave the gifts of the Holy Spirit to Gentile believers without them first having to obey the Law of Moses. This convinced the assembly that Gentiles can be followers of Christ without following the Law of Moses. The church’s interpretation of an extremely important theme throughout the Old Testament Scriptures—the importance of obeying the Law of Moses—changed to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
At times, the Holy Spirit has used the suffering caused by social evils to prompt the church to reinterpret Scripture. Consider the evils of slavery. For many centuries, some Christians quoted Scripture to justify the practice of slavery. But the Holy Spirit confronted the church again and again with the suffering caused by slavery and forced the church to rethink its interpretation of those passages. Likewise, for several centuries before and after the Reformation, some churches tortured and killed people judged to be heretics. Some churches encouraged political leaders to use violence and warfare to suppress theological disagreements. At the time, these practices were justified from interpretations of Scripture. Today, most Christians look back with abhorrence against the idea of using torture and murder as means to maintain theological correctness within the church. Until just a few decades ago, it was common for some Christians in North America to interpret Scripture to justify racial segregation. Through the courageous action of those who opposed segregation and through witnessing the violence inflicted upon those who opposed segregation, many Christians finally came to see the injustice and suffering caused by institutionalized racism. While racism is still a problem in our societies, far fewer Christians today try to interpret Scripture to justify it.
At times, the Holy Spirit has used the good caused by social innovations to prompt the church to reinterpret Scripture. For centuries, many Christians justified monarchy as a divinely instituted means of government and quoted Scripture to support it. Yet reflection on the abuses of power that often occur under monarchy and reflection on the social goods which come with democracy, eventually led many Christians to decide that democracy is a form of government more in line with what Scripture teaches about human nature. Today, few Christians would say that monarchy is a more biblical form of government than democracy. Or consider banking practices, specifically giving and receiving interest on loans. There are several passages in the Bible which speak against charging interest on loans. There are no passages in the Bible which speak favorably about it. For many centuries, the church said that Scripture clearly teaches that Christians should never charge interest. But eventually the church saw that when banks are allowed to set modest interest rates to attract savings and give out loans, tremendous amounts of social good can be generated by allowing people to buy houses, get an education, start businesses, save for old age, and so forth. Today, very few Christians believe that Scripture teaches that banks should never be allowed to give loans and receive savings at modest interest rates.
Of course, just because a reinterpretation of Scripture fits well with modern scholarship on some topic does not mean that it is correct reinterpretation. Church history gives us a long list of ways of reading Scripture which arose and became popular for a long while, but were ultimately rejected by most of the church. The church needs the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern truth.
My point, in all of this, is to remove the fear that scientific discoveries will lead us into errors when interpreting Scripture. Within the history of the church, scientific discoveries are just one of several ways that the Holy Spirit might prompt the church to reexamine its interpretation of certain passages of Scripture. That work needs to be done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit using all of the resources which the Spirit gives us, including science, including all of Scripture, and including centuries of theological scholarship from church history. Ultimately, it is not a matter of science having authority over our interpretation of Scripture or our interpretation of Scripture having authority over science. It is about God having authority in all of our human endeavors.
“If God created using the Big Bang and evolution, why didn’t God just say so in Genesis?”
When I hear this question, I usually answer by talking about the pre-scientific picture of the world in the ancient Near East when Genesis was written. Cultures of that time believed in a flat earth, with waters below the earth and waters above the earth held in place by a solid dome firmament. I often mention John Calvin’s principle of accommodation. God, when inspiring Scripture, spoke in ways that were understandable to the original audience, making allowances for their language and general level of understanding. Calvin wrote in his commentary on Psalm 136:7, “The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated person, He made use by Moses and other prophets of the popular language that none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity.”
I grew up in a tradition which accepted Calvin’s principle of accommodation. So when I first learned of the ancient Near East cosmology reflected in Genesis 1, I was delighted. I saw how I could affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture while embracing the discoveries of modern science. But I have also talked to Christians who reacted with horror when they first encounter the idea that God inspired a Scripture which talks about a solid dome firmament. “Are you saying that God lied in Scripture?”
Our modern, scientific culture is not the culture of the original audience of Genesis. We cannot avoid the influences of our modern culture on ourselves when we read Scripture. I wrote the following story to illustrate.
Once upon a time, there was a large tribe—more like a small nation—living in a remote part of the New World. They had their own language and culture. One of their central rules was, “Any story involving human characters must accurately describe what really happened to real people.” All children were taught this rule, and it was strictly enforced. As a result, this culture had very little malicious gossip, and very little bearing false witness in legal matters. Also as a result, this culture had no fictional stories with human characters. But they also knew the usefulness of having fictional morality tales, and the value of having fictional stories which explore human motivations, and even the simple value of having entertaining fictional stories to share with friends and family. So this culture had another rule, “Fictional stories must have talking animals as characters.” So if you lived in this culture, if ever you heard a story involving talking animals, you immediately knew it was a fictional story, although it might still be a story with an important lesson. And if ever you heard a story involving human characters, you could be assured that it described real events that really happened the way they were told.
One day, the gospel of Christ came to this nation. Many received it with joy. The Bible was translated into their language. The believers learned much from it and frequently discussed it.
One thing (among many) that these people occasionally talked about as they studied Scripture was Jesus’ parables. They were amazed that Jesus knew so many stories involving people which also perfectly illustrated the spiritual lesson that Jesus was teaching. How did Jesus know so many perfect stories? They all agreed that Jesus throughout his lifetime must often have been listening for and remembering such stories. Some people speculated that many other religious teachers of Jesus’ time must have done this as well, and perhaps they built up a collection of such stories that they shared with each other. They all agreed that Jesus was God’s Son, so of course nothing was too hard for him.
Three decades later, the leaders of this nation sent some of their brightest young people to the best seminaries of the old world to learn all that they could about the Bible and church history. These young seminarians did so and returned to their nation to pass on what they had learned.
One day, as the people were discussing Jesus’ parables and speculating as usual about how Jesus came to learn all these stories, some of the seminarians said, “Actually, we learned something interesting in seminary about the customs and culture of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. In that culture, in that time and place, it was not considered wrong for them to make up fictional stories involving human characters, provided all the listeners knew that it was a fictional story involving fictional humans, rather than a false story about real humans. It was common practice, in Jesus’ day, in that culture, for religious teachers to make up fictional stories about fictional humans in order to teach a true spiritual lesson. Everyone at the time knew this. It was an accepted practice of their culture. So it’s probably the case that Jesus did the same thing when he told his parables.”
You can imagine the shock and horror, as nearly all the listeners exclaimed to the seminarians, “Are you saying that Jesus told lies?”
We are that fictional nation. We have inherited, from the Enlightenment, certain cultural practices and expectations about what sorts of literature are appropriate for teaching certain sorts of truths and what sorts of literature are not appropriate for teaching certain sorts of truths. Scientific truths and historical accuracy are held in high esteem. Like the culture of that fictional nation, these cultural practices that we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment are not bad practices. Indeed, they have served us well over the centuries and much good has come from them. But we also need to understand that our particular cultural practices were not the cultural practices in place when Scriptures were written.
Back to the story: Later, when people got over the shock and horror of their first reaction to what the seminarians said, some of them began to ask, “We understand what you’re saying about the culture of Jesus’ time. We sort of accept that maybe it was OK for people at that time to tell fictional stories about fictional humans, as long as everyone understood what was going on, and that even the human religious leaders did this. But why do you insist that Jesus did it, too? Wouldn’t it have been possible for Jesus’ parables to also have been true stories about real people that Jesus happened to know? Even if some of Jesus’ listeners at that time thought he was just making up fictional stories to make a spiritual point, like the other religious teachers of the time, Jesus wasn’t limited like those human teachers. Couldn’t Jesus’ parables also have been true stories about real people?
The seminarians answered, “Yes, it’s possible that Jesus’ parables could have been true stories about real people. But they probably weren’t. That wasn’t the cultural practice at that time.”
And the people asked, “Why do you say that? Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus’ parables, in addition to teaching a true spiritual point, were also true stories about real people, rather than fictional stories about fictional people? Ever since we received the Bible, we interpreted Jesus’ parables one way. Now, decades later, you would have us change our interpretation based on this so-called historical scholarship. Aren’t you subjecting the authority of Scripture to the authority of human scholarship?”
At this point in the story, I’m not sure how to have the seminarians respond. Most days, I hope they would say, “No, by insisting on our traditional interpretation of the parables—by insisting that it would be unworthy of Jesus to tell fictional stories about fictional people—we are subjecting Scripture to the authority of our own particular cultural practices. Our cultural practices are not wrong. Our cultural practices have served us well, and we’re not suggesting that we should change them. But our practices were not the cultural practices in place when the gospels were written. Our cultural practices were not the cultural practices in place when Jesus taught his parables. Whether you accept our new interpretation, or stay with your traditional interpretation, the fundamental message of Jesus’ parables hasn’t changed. But the Scriptures were written at a time and place with different cultural practices for what sorts of literature could be used to teach certain kinds of truth. It seems to us that the best interpretation is one which accepts that and uses the best modern scholarship to understand the literary and cultural practices of that time, rather than one that insists that the truths of Scripture must be taught and Scripture must be interpreted according to our own cultural practices today.”