This article was first published on November 10, 2015.
The chart above has been floating around social media for the past couple of months, and it recently appeared in my Facebook news feed. In trying to track it down via Google, I found many sites reposting it under the title “Modern Science is Catching Up to the Bible.” For many Christians who feel beaten down by atheist voices ridiculing the Bible as an ancient relic, this chart presses all the right buttons. I totally get this. One of the reasons I found young-earth creationism (YEC) so captivating in my childhood is that these sorts of “science prophecies” in the Bible gave me a thrilling sense of confidence and certainty in my faith. If the Bible, written thousands of years before modern science, contained scientific information that the authors could not possibly have known without divine revelation, then surely it was a supernatural book that could be trusted as God’s Word.
In middle school, I became an old-earth creationist (OEC) under the influence of Hugh Ross. The OEC interpretation of the Bible has even more science prophecies than the YEC perspective. Now, the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe, and many more modern scientific discoveries were all found in the pages of the Bible.
At the time, moving from young-earth to old-earth creationism felt like a large leap. In retrospect, I now realize that these two positions share an extremely similar approach to biblical authority and interpretation. They disagree on what “science” the Bible reveals, but they agree that the Bible is full of science prophecies that can be used to convince skeptics of the Bible’s authority. Both YEC and OEC ascribe to a viewpoint that Christian scientist and writer Richard H. Bube calls “arbitrary inerrancy.” In 1963, Bube wrote an influential essay for the American Scientific Affiliation (an association of evangelical Christian scientists) defending it against claims that members of the ASA were abandoning the Bible’s authority by accepting the findings of modern science. Bube’s words are just as relevant, 50 years later:
If it is assumed, without due Scriptural support, that the purpose of revelation is to give mankind a source-book of information on all phases of physical, mental, spiritual, sociological, artistic, and scientific life—a source-book which must have meaning for the people to whom it was addressed and to all the generations coming after them in spite of the changes which are continuously occurring—then we have the greatest difficulty in maintaining the doctrine of an inerrant Scripture. If, on this stand, we adopt the position of "arbitrary inerrancy," we essentially jeopardize the whole truth of Christianity by attempting to balance the great wealth and weight of God's revelation in Christ upon our ability to show that the words of Scripture can be judged inerrant even when we examine them on the basis of criteria they were not written to satisfy. How much of liberalism and rejection of Biblical revelation has been precipitated as a blind reaction against such a stand!
To understand Bube’s point, imagine a Christian sharing the chart above on Facebook with a non-Christian skeptic. This skeptic is intrigued, and begins to do some of her own research on the context of the biblical references in the chart. What she will discover is that, in every single one of the cases above, these so-called revelations of modern science are based on a barest of biblical evidence. In every case, they are plucked entirely out of context and turned into atomized truth nuggets. There is little evidence that the writer of Job actually meant to talk about astronomy, or that the writer of Hebrews was in any way addressing modern atomic theory. These meanings are imposed upon the text by Christians who, under the influence of the “arbitrary inerrancy” view, assume such information must be there.
A little help from Google will uncover an enormous library of articles by skeptics who have discovered hundreds of scientifically incorrect statements all over the Bible. Of course, when this skeptic confronts the Christian with this evidence, the Christian might respond that the Bible doesn’t really mean to say that our thoughts and emotions come from our kidneys (Psalm 16:7) or the sky is made of a hard, bronze-like substance (Job 37:18), or...or...or... But the skeptic will rightly see this as an entirely arbitrary approach to the Bible, in which the Bible predicts modern science whenever we can contrive a correct prediction, but when it seems to be at odds with modern science, suddenly that’s just poetry. The Christian has set up a standard for biblical authority under which the Bible cannot deliver. The net result isn’t a defense of the Bible, but instead an invitation for scorn and further unbelief.
How did we get to a place where it’s an embarrassment for the Bible—written by ancient people for an ancient audience—to reflect the ancient scientific mindset? In short, I think it’s because we’ve set up a false dichotomy between the Bible’s truth and its humanity. If God chose to communicate through and to ordinary people in real human cultures, then we should expect the Bible be written in such a way that reflects the cultural mindset of its original context. Here’s how Pete Enns puts it:
The Bible...was an not an abstract, otherworldly book, dropped out of heaven. It was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures. The encultured qualities of the Bible, therefore, are not extra elements that we can discard to get to the real point, the timeless truths.
This isn’t to say that Bible is “merely” a product of its culture, or that it ceases to say anything beyond its original context. It’s simply to clarify what sort of revelation the Bible provides. Let’s say, hypothetically, that God had revealed himself to the ancient Chinese people, some of whom thought the world rested on the back of a giant tortoise (that’s what the chart above means by “Earth sat on a large animal”). And then God inspires a certain Chinese person to write, “God has set the world firmly on the back of the turtle; it shall not be moved” (see Psalms 104:5). Can that statement still be God’s Word, even though it references an inaccurate picture of the world? Certainly! The inspired revelation in this statement has nothing to do with a turtle, and everything to do with God’s faithfulness. The turtle is part of the cultural framework which allows the revelation to make sense to the people who first said it! The same is true of the “ancient science” in the Bible. It can’t be used as a weapon against the authority of God’s Word, because it has nothing to do with what the Bible is ultimately trying to communicate.
Someone might also object that, since the Old Testament writers spoke of Christ without consciously understanding that they were doing so, then God could have certainly inspired them to write modern scientific discoveries into the text as well. Of course, the original context of the Old Testament should not be the only factor in determining what the texts mean. Christian tradition (starting with the New Testament authors) indeed sees a “progressive revelation” of Christ in the Old Testament.
But this is exactly the point. For Christians, the purpose of the entire Bible is first and foremost to reveal Christ. Therefore, it ultimately draws its authority from the fact that it truly speaks of God and his Son. Suggesting that the Bible’s authority rests on its scientific accuracy adds an artificial middleman to this chain of authority, wherein the Bible first speaks truly of science, and therefore is trusted to speak truly of Christ. As Bube argues, this is not only unscriptural but ultimately damaging to the Christian witness.
To summarize, a robust view of the authority of the Bible must begin with a clear understanding of and appreciation for the way in which God has chosen to communicate his message. As Old Testament scholar Kyle Greenwood, says, “a high view of the Bible employs a hermeneutic that accommodates the biblical writers’ immersion in their ancient, pre-Enlightenment cultural context.” Greenwood’s new book, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science, is an amazing resource on the fascinating pre-modern context in which the Bible was written. Greenwood explains how understanding this context—”ancient science” and all—actually aids us in applying God’s Word faithfully in our modern scientific times. Read the rest of this series for an in-depth look at his book.