Monday, September 10, 2007

Does Science Disprove my View of the Bible?

We've talked in the past about how Evangelicals today tend to approach the Bible. Steve Martin, who commented on my last post and blogs over at, had a guest blogger recently who has an excellent post on how Modernity has infected the Evangelical reading of scripture...

Did the writers of the Bible follow the stories and worldviews and cultural values of their time? Did they write "inaccurate" scientific facts like those based on ancient cosmology, where the universe is basically a globe, the earth is flat, the stars are attached to the globe's dome, and above that dome is an ocean of water? Of course they did.

Gordon, the guest blogger, puts this idea out on a hypothetical conversation after Moses comes down off Mount Sinai...

“Hey guys, check this out. God just told me about creation and guess what? You’re never gonna believe this, but the earth is actually round! No kidding! And there is no solid firmament holding back an ocean of water above us either—can you believe those silly Egyptians? No wonder God kicked their butt! And the earth is actually whirling though space at incredible speeds with the other planets, and there are two more planets that we didn’t even know about! As soon as we get to the PromisedLand, we’re starting a university!”

This would have been nonsense to the Hebrews, just like the Copernican/Galilean view was nonsense to the Church's leaders in their day. It's the proverbial problem of trying to describe water to a fish. Worldviews are usually so entrenched that that must be changed gradually over time. And God had much more important things he was teaching this group of Hebrews under Moses than scientifically accurate cosmology.

The Bible reveals God's love to us. It is the story of his work of redemption. It is not an instruction manual on science, history, or even theology, per se. It is a revelation. It displays a loving God who works passionately to pursue and redeem a bunch of obstinate people that reject him over and over. The Writings ought to be treated with the highest respect because of what they reveal about God and about life. But just because the scientific facts of today don't correlate to the (misunderstood or mysterious) scientific facts of yesterday does NOT mean that the Bible is untrustworthy when it comes to revealing God's nature and redemptive power.

1 comment:

BWolf30 said...

Hey Arnie, I know this post is late, but with everything going on I am way behind! Well, you know we have argued about this stuff pleny of times before, so I will try and hit the main points to prevent the rabbit trails which end up with multi-page emails that really don't solve anything.

First of all, I think you start out ambiguously by saying "Did the writers of the Bible follow the stories and worldviews and cultural values of their time?" This needs some serious clarification before further discussion - does this mean that the Bible is inevitably written in the current language and with reference to contemporary cultural understandings, which in and of itself is not a profound or threatening position? or does it mean the much stronger (and currently trendy) claim that all expressions of meaning are internal to their specific cultural situation and can't be adequately expressed or transmitted to other times or places, which is a subtle cultural relativism? or that the Bible is basically unoriginal and arose simultaneously with contemporary religions through borrowing, modifying, etc., which is basically a postmodernized historicism? (Of course this is simplifying the situation). There is a fundamental difference between expressing God's word in the language of the day and expressing the spirit of the age in the language of God's word. To act as if no evangelical scholarship accounts for cultural interaction or attempts to wrestle with the issue besides stinking one's head in the sand is just nonsense.

Next, there is a big difference between "'inaccurate' scientific facts" and non-scientific statements based on a phenomenal point of view. The Bible never does claim to be a scientific manual, but to acknowledge this and then claim error by contemporary "scientific" standards, albeit purposeful error, doesn't follow. Non-scientific doesn't mean unscientific. (Although I will bypass it, I would say historical issues are different.)

Now Arnie, I know how much you like to critique constructs - so here is a good one for you to deconstruct: the increasingly annoying (to me, at least) characterizations of modernity proffered by those who see themselves as representatives of the postmodern viewpoint. The construct is remarkably similar across the board, from Brian McClaren to Tony Jones to Nancy Murphy to the guest blogger you cite (Gordon), to certain secular thinkers, and on and on. The problem is while it has elements of truth, the whole plan is facile, superficial, and fundamentally misrepresentative of the issues. As David Wells says, it is rather convenient not as a proper intellectual tool but as a license to do whatever one wants with little regard to evidence, truth, right or wrong - just characterize whatever you don't like as "modern" and you have won the game! Take Gordon's original post you quote from. He begins by lumping all the "moderns" together, whether evangelical, atheist or liberal, and says that ALL people of this mindset have have unrealistic expectations about the nature of revelation and can't fathom any relation of ideas to the surrounding cultures. And not only that, apparently that attitude is confined to those poor souls with Enlightenment hangover (and must not have been present before or after modernism). Really? Are you kidding? Certainly this can't be taken seriously as a scholarly statement. Of course this puts us in the pincers: "Unfortunately, once we draw this shortsighted line in the sand, we have no choice but to defend the Bible against all archaeological evidence that challenges the Bible’s originality." Then some archaeological evidence that supposedly falsifies and renders the OT dependent on surrounding religions is invoked, and any attempts by those darn "moderns" to defend themselves (besides the wealth of evidence that goes against this view) are "actually subverting our Christian witness by being intellectually dishonest." From this point the only defense is "to attack those for whose salvation we toil." Now is this construct representative of reality? Perhaps it is of some, but isn't such rigid generalizing and forcing into false categories itself part and parcel of the ethos of "modernism," or at least the postmodern critique of it?

What about the idea of accommodation, which Gordon invokes and you do as well? The idea that God withheld the whole truth from the ancient Israelites and just adopted the common cultural outlook to somehow express his word through is by no means a new thought. As a formal theory it goes back at least to J.S. Semler well over 200 years ago. The idea that we today have reached the maturity and intellectual capacity to really grasp what God has to say smacks of the chronological snobbery that C.S. Lewis so disdained. This is not postmodern, but thoroughly "modern".

And the crux of the matter - if God accommodated himself through error (this last word being the key point of contention) scientifically, and as you say as well historically or possibly even theologically, why restrict it to just these? By what right do you do that? Why not extend it all across the spectrum as has been widely done over the past few centuries? Why is the story of redemption not an accommodation to an immature and unintelligent people just not ready for the truth? Certainly this argument has been made time and time again and must be answered.

Gordon says, "If the purpose of the Hebrew creation story was not to provide Israel (or us) with accurate scientific knowledge about the cosmos, why then do so many Christians reject any version of natural history that fails to conform to the Hebrew account?" In response I ask you, "If 'natural history' and 'science' by contemporary definitions automatically exclude God and his intervention in the world, why then do so many Christians accept the presuppositions of such theories and the slanted results that they produce?"

I am trying to be short, you know how off track and long-winded I get. But let me close by asking about the title of your post - who and what does science speak for? Dallas Willard cogently argues that Science as a coherent, monolithic entity is a false construct that just dosn't exist. Science doesn't say anything, individual scientists do, and when they step beyond the limited confines of their work they are speaking as philosophers and/or theologians, although they might be smuggling in the cultural authority of "science" to do so. Before opposing science and the Bible, shop-worn generalizations, bad old-school fundamentalist arguments, ambiguous rhetoric and the like need to be set aside. Then we perhaps can engage the issues more fruitfully.

Well, i have rambled enough, hope all is well in San Antonio!