“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.