Science and the Bible: Friends or Foes?

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Excerpt A strong temptation for Christians with advanced training in the sciences is to compromise on the plain sense of the biblical text when faced with apparent conflicts between it and popular scientific views. Some such views are clearly contrary to Scripture, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, and are promptly rejected by those who value the Bible as God’s revelation. Other views, however, are more subtle in the way they conflict with the Bible, causing some to wonder, “Maybe the ‘plain sense’ of Scripture is not the right sense?” Continue reading

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Introduction

A strong temptation for Christians with advanced training in the sciences is to compromise on the plain sense of the biblical text when faced with apparent conflicts between it and popular scientific views. Some such views are clearly contrary to Scripture, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, and are promptly rejected by those who value the Bible as God’s revelation. Other views, however, are more subtle in the way they conflict with the Bible, causing some to wonder, “Maybe the ‘plain sense’ of Scripture is not the right sense?” When this happens, the believer is confronted with an uncomfortable choice: either accept the straightforward reading of Scripture, or embrace what a scientific discipline accepts as normative “good science,” and seek a way out of the conundrum by reinterpreting the troublesome Bible verses to eliminate the conflict.

Although one might fault such believers for not having enough faith in God’s revelation, it may be uncharitable to frame the matter so starkly. Those who have achieved expertise in a narrow scientific specialty may feel they do not know the Word nearly as well as their science, and conclude that any apparent conflicts between science and the Bible would be cleared up if only they knew the Scriptures better. Perhaps, they reason, the plain sense they see in Scripture is not the sense God really intended. They view reinterpreting the plain sense of the biblical text as a harmless compromise that fosters the peaceful coexistence of their faith and their science. (On the other hand, there are also some folks who think their science-guided reinterpretation of Bible passages constitutes some sort of great, new insight to be proclaimed to the world! In this case, a big dose of humility is needed, with a willing spirit to change one's opinion if respected counselors advise it.)

Hold the Plain Sense of Scripture in Highest Regard

Most Christians have heard some variant of this quote from David L. Cooper (The World's Greatest Library: Graphically Illustrated [Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1970]): “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.” This is wise advice—if we do not make the mistake of equating “plain sense” with “literal sense.” They are not the same thing. Cooper’s quote continues, “therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.” Exegesis, therefore, is necessary in establishing the plain sense of a passage, and the translators who gave us our Bible versions may or may not have done the job for us. It pays to check. The plain sense of any particular passage requires consideration for the correct translations of terms, the use of symbolism, idiom, metaphorical language, etc.

But what happens if, after we have done our homework on a passage, the plain sense clashes with something science seems to be telling us? Which will we favor? I suggest that the words of Jesus apply here: “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). If one’s treasure is a considerable investment in study of a certain science discipline, that's where your heart’s arrow likely will point—one’s sense of identity tends to be defined by one’s area of expertise, real or imagined. The first reaction of such a person will be to read the Scriptures in such a way that the Bible and one’s scientific understandings can coexist, if not comfortably, at least on an ostensibly rational basis. But if the infallible, inerrant revelation given by God in the Bible is your true treasure, your first reaction will be to defend its plain sense. I suggest that this should be the normal response of anyone who knows he or she is saved by grace, grace revealed only in the inerrant record of the Word of God.

As Christians, we must start by accepting this premise: it is not possible for anything God reveals plainly in Scripture to genuinely conflict with the observations of science. He created the cause-and-effect principles that science is based on, just as He caused human writers to pen otherwise unknowable information in the Bible that saves our souls if we accept it by faith. But Scripture not only records salvation content. Even if incidental to the salvation message, it also records history, geography, biographical details, and information that overlaps into areas which science investigates. Accepting that these incidental details are likewise imbued with the characteristic of God’s infallible wisdom conveyed through inspiration, it follows that such details help us properly understand the objective data revealed by science. Therefore, when secular science interprets the raw data it uncovers in a manner contrary to the plain sense of the Bible, our choice as Christians is clear: we must view the raw scientific data first through scriptural glasses, rather than slavishly following the interpretation applied by the scientific establishment. If the straightforward sense of Scripture clashes with what the scientific world tells us, we have an obligation to look for alternative interpretations of the raw data that are in harmony with the Bible.

Science a Mixture of Objective and Subjective Data

At this point it is worth considering how the different disciplines we call “scientific” are pursued. All science yields data, but not all data is equally objective. Some types of data are meaningful in themselves, while other kinds derive their meaning from how they are interpreted. Truly objective data can be observed, directly or through reliable instruments, and the starting conditions can often be precisely known as well. This is the essence of the experimental method, which the sciences closely tied to engineering and technology rely on, and typically deals with matters of what, where, and when. Sciences characterized by this approach are often called “hard sciences” because they deal with firm, settled, unchanging, universally reproducible data. Good examples would be chemistry and physics, because the variables they deal with can be precisely quantified and yield consistently reproducible results.

In other cases it is impossible to know the initial conditions, and we have to make what are (we hope!) reasonable assumptions. This subjective aspect comes into play when we start asking questions like why and how. To the degree we do not know the precise starting conditions of whatever we are studying, to that degree we leave the realm of the objective for the subjective and the interpretational. Sciences that largely focus on answering such questions are known as historical sciences, because they attempt to take present observations and extrapolate them back into the past, trying in this way to reconstruct the initial conditions. Such sciences are called “soft sciences” because the things they deal with resist being precisely quantified, and in some measure depend on the validity of unproven assumptions.

But this observation does not mean an entire discipline of science that routinely performs measurements or observations can automatically be regarded as completely objective. More often than not, there are both “hard science” and “soft science” aspects within a single discipline. In the field of geology, for example, objective, observational aspects are invollved in finding out such things as the temperature of magma in a volcano and its chemical composition. Others include establishing the mineral composition of a rock layer, identifying fossils found in them, and determining the ratios of radioactive isotopes and their daughter products. On the other hand, there are also subjective, interpretational aspects to geology which cannot be known with absolute certainty, because to do so one would have had to be there when the process began. Examples include trying to answer why particular fossils characterize a particular rock layer, how fossil trackways were able to survive burial by later sediments, or determining the age of a rock by measured isotope ratios despite not knowing the initial concentrations of both isotopes, all potential sources of contamination, or how changing levels of atmospheric C14 due to fluctuations in solar radiation or volcanic activity impact our conclusions. To absolutely, definitively answer such questions requires one to have been there at the outset. An unavoidable subjective element enters into our interpretations.

Christian scientists should endeavor to remove, or at least minimize, the subjective elements in a science by viewing it through the lens of Scripture. When the Bible is allowed to speak in a straightforward manner to raw data it is applicable to, it serves as a disciplining check on hypotheses that assume the correctness of certain interpretations built on soft data.

Trust, but Verify: Be Wise as Serpents with Science Journals

In our day, when we hear of repeated episodes of fraud in science fields such as the doctoring of climate records to support political agendas tied to global warming, we cannot be too ready to accept scientific claims just because they appeared in peer-reviewed science journals or because a respected “authority” makes them. It is widely acknowledged that creationists cannot get published in typical science journals because, regardless of whether their objective science is sound, if their conclusions do not further the evolutionary story in some way, they will not pass peer review or be published. In this way the journals function more as gatekeepers to ensure the party line is followed, rather than as guarantees of scientific integrity. The Christian scientist, therefore, needs to view what gets published in today’s science journals with a skeptical eye. As President Reagan famously said, “trust, but verify.”

Because nearly all science performed by creationists is done without deep pockets to fund it, it depends greatly on funded research done by others. This research not only makes valuable raw data observations, but also draws much less reliable inferences from them that are colored by the secular worldview of those funding and publishing the research. This means that when creationists attempt to build on research by secular scientists, they need to carefully examine their work, read between the lines, and separate out the objective, truly factual material from that which is subjective interpretation or built on undemonstrated assumptions.

Yet, even when performing this due diligence, the creationist is prone to allow his own assumptions to simply replace those of the evolutionists. To help ensure that the best possible interpretation is being applied to the raw data derived from secular scientific research, it must be framed by the plain sense of Scripture. To the degree Christian scientists fail to allow appropriate Scriptures to influence how they view objective scientific data, they simply repeat the same mistakes secularists make. The biblical text provides objective input from God in understanding the world He made, but only if what Scripture says is not first filtered by expectations that cause it to be reinterpreted in other than its plain sense.

The best way to illustrate this problem is to compare the plain sense of some Scriptures with certain currently popular creationist teachings. I trust that any without a vested interest in a specific creationist model will see what I am getting at below, and I hope that even some who do have such a vested interest will be motivated to re-examine how they apply the Bible to science. My purpose is to call well-intentioned brothers and sisters in Christ with advanced science degrees to view the world primarily through clear, plain-sense biblical glasses, rather than biblical lenses that have first had a secular science tint applied to them, resulting in reinterpreting Scripture passages so they do not directly clash with favored scientific claims.

To do this, below I will first raise a topic drawn from the book of Genesis; derive what I hope is an evident plain-sense understanding from pertinent texts; and then show how some creationist models, influenced by current scientific understandings, clash with that plain sense. We will see that an unfortunate tactic used to resolve such conflicts is choosing to creatively reinterpret the Scriptures, rather than questioning the current understanding of science. My challenge to scientific readers is for them to instead reinterpret the raw data of science differently, not the Bible. They already do that in most cases, replacing secular subjective interpretations with more biblically consistent ones, but they do not go far enough when they set aside the plain sense of the biblical text for a less clashing alternative sense.

Common Compromises with the Plain Sense of Scripture

The universality of Noah’s Flood

The verses: Genesis 7:2–3, 19, 21—“You shall take with you…birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring alive upon the face of all the earth…And the water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered….And all flesh that moved on the earth perished, birds and cattle and beasts and every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth, and all mankind.”

The plain-sense understanding: “All the earth” means “the whole world.” This means the Flood was universal, affecting the entire dry land surface of the Earth.

What science says: A worldwide Flood is not possible because it asserts that the earth’s rock strata were laid down by it, making the Earth too young. The flood, if it happened, was “universal” only from the perspective of someone in Mesopotamia.

The basic problem: Reinterpreting what Scripture says and assigning to it a meaning different from the apparent one. Yet, birds are taken on the Ark because they were unable to simply fly elsewhere to escape certain death, as they could have done easily to avoid a local flood. Further, if all high mountains are covered, what was retaining the water over Mesopotamia? More high mountains elsewhere? But Scripture says all were covered.

The continuity of the mountains of Genesis 7–8

The verses: Genesis 7:19, 8:5—“And the water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered…in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains became visible.”

The plain-sense understanding: The mountains that the Flood covered were essentially the same ones that were uncovered when the waters retreated. They may have been eroded or sedimented over by Flood processes, but were otherwise the same entities.

What creation science says: The mountains that the Flood uncovered were new, different mountains that were products of tectonic activity taking place during the Flood. No true continuity exists between the mountains covered by water in Genesis 7 and those uncovered in Genesis 8.

The basic problem: Reinterpreting the plain sense of Scripture to avoid conflicts with a science-influenced model that requires massive, magma-generating tectonic activity to have occurred during the Flood.

The water-only nature of the Flood

The verses: Genesis 7:11, 17–20— “All the fountains [reservoirs] of the great deep burst open, and the floodgates of the sky were opened, and the rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights…and the water increased and lifted up the ark…and the water prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water…and the water prevailed more and more upon the earth…the water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered.”

The plain-sense understanding: Only water was involved in the Flood, not tremendous worldwide volcanic activity with prodigious release of magma. Fountains, such as those at Pennsylvania's famous Longwood Gardens, do not “burst open”; the verse refers to reservoirs of subterranean water under tremendous pressure, not water jets.

What creation science says: Although the specifics depend on the particular model, they all propose that tectonic activity and the release of magma on a grand scale took place, along with the release of subterranean water under tremendous pressure.

The basic problem: The word translated “deep” in Genesis 7:11 is the Hebrew word tehom, used elsewhere in Genesis to refer only to water. If the “fountains of the great deep” were caused to “burst open” (possibly by being punctured by a meteor swarm), the primary result would be the release of tehom water, not magma. Rock would tend to collapse downward with minimal creation of magma, generally regarded as a product of horizontal friction that causes rocks to melt. Hence, reinterpreting the water-focused story of Genesis 7 as an event characterized by tremendous horizontal tectonic activity and all its side effects, is starting with a science model and reading it onto the biblical text. In other words, it is reinterpreting the plain sense of Scripture through science-tinted glasses.

The Earth-dividing nature of the "Peleg event"

The verses: Genesis 1:9, 10:25, 11:16–19—“Then God said, ‘Let the waters [Hebrew tehom] below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear’; and it was so.” “And two sons were born to Eber; the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided; and his brother’s name was Joktan…And Eber lived thirty-four years, and became the father of Peleg; and Eber lived four hundred and thirty years [464-year lifespan] after he became the father of Peleg…and Peleg lived thirty years, and became the father of Reu; and Peleg lived two hundred and nine years [239-year lifespan] after he became the father of Reu…”

The plain-sense understanding: The original tehom waters covering the globe were gathered into “one place,” hence all the land surface was likewise originally in one place. That original single continent, Pangaea, emerged from the Flood undivided, since Scripture indicates it was a water-only event. The present separation of the continents, therefore, was due to a post-Flood event. If anything in Scripture alludes to this, the most likely candidate is the earth-dividing event in Peleg’s day recorded in Genesis 10:25. Human lifespans were also abruptly cut in half beginning with Peleg, which implies the Genesis 10:25 earth division was an environmental disaster, one having abrupt and continuing deleterious effects on human longevity.

What creation science says: It would be impossible for mankind to have survived the tectonic upheaval of continental division if it happened after the Flood. It would have involved geophysical upheaval on the order of the Flood itself. Also, many creationists prefer to interpret the “division” in Peleg’s day as the confusion of languages at Babel due to their views of chronology, where subjective interpretations come into play.

The basic problem: Reinterpreting Scripture so that “earth” and “divided” in Gen. 10:25 are regarded as figurative language, instead of the sort of objective, non-figurative narrative which characterizes the rest of Genesis. In addition, overlooking the parenthetical nature of the expression “for in his days the earth was divided,” which grammatically indicates no connection exists between it and the Babel event described in Genesis 11 (see also http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2014/11/25/Revisiting-the-Peleg-Event.aspx). Finally, failing to associate the halving of human lifespans, which started with Peleg (Gen. 11:16-19—a drop from 464 years to 239 years in a single generation), with the Gen. 10:25 division of the earth which started in Peleg’s days. No reasonable cause-and-effect mechanism can be proposed by which God’s miraculous reprogramming of the speech centers in every human brain also brought about a simultaneous drastic, abrupt reduction in human lifespans. This question remains unanswered by those who equate the Peleg event with the confusion of languages at Babel: “What is the connection between the confusion of languages at Babel and the halving of human lifespans?” It makes more sense to believe no connection exists, leading one to conclude Peleg’s “earth division” was not the Babel event.

The Present is Not the Key to the Past

In addition to the above examples, we also lack objective data that allows us to extrapolate, from present day indirect observations about the structure of the Earth’s interior, to its geophysical properties right after the Flood. If we don’t believe Lyell’s assertion about the rock record that “the present is the key to the past,” why must we accept that dictum in reference to the geophysical properties of the Earth? To do so is inconsistent.The present is NOT the key to the past. Something that apparently cannot happen according to today’s subjective, interpretational scientific understanding—the movement of the Earth’s crust over the asthenosphere—was not necessarily impossible during the first few centuries after the Flood.

I could add other examples, but these few suffice to make my point. When science and Scripture clash, the first response of too many Christians in science is to look for a way to view Scripture in other than its plain sense, instead of questioning what science tells them. It should be the other way around. Except for prophetical passages where God Himself tells us that He has closed mankind’s understanding of them until the proper time (e.g., Daniel 12:9), there is no reason to think He would have guided those who penned the narrative and historical sections of Scripture to express His ideas in anything less than clear language. It is only resistance to that plain sense which sees a problem with it.

The bottom line is, all truth is God’s truth, though not everything is God’s revelation. Since our very salvation is dependent not on things we learn from science but upon what God has revealed in Scripture, we must diligently cultivate the mindset that when the plain sense of the Word of God conflicts with our understanding of science, the Bible wins the battle. We must subject our wills to His revelation instead of seeking creative ways to reinterpret it. We should settle it firmly in our minds that the God who inspired the Scriptures knows best. The challenge before us, when faced with apparent clashes between science and Scripture, is simply to strive to understand our scientific data better. We can trust God that whenrather, ifwe get it right, the apparent conflicts will disappear.

Conclusions

Therefore, we need not fear allowing the Bible to provide the glasses through which we view the factual, objective, raw data that emerges from scientific investigation. Let us distinguish between such raw data and any interpretations drawn from it, allowing the plain sense of Scripture to supply the latter. Scripture may clash with science’s currently favored interpretations, but so what? Our mindset should be to question the way science understands the data, rather than reinterpreting the straightforward sense of Scripture. Our first allegiance, after all, is to the Lord, not scientific authorities. We have an obligation as Christians to accept the plain sense of Scripture even when it’s tough to reconcile with certain scientific ideas. We even have an obligation before God to accept the plain sense of Scripture over current popular creationist models, if they owe more to scientific views than to the Bible.

Let us take to heart this verse from the Psalms: “I have more insight than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation” (Psa 119:99, NASB). The Word gives true insight, not science. What God has revealed in His Word cannot and does not conflict with what He has done in this world. We can have confidence that when we start with careful study of Scripture, as ABR archaeologist Dr. Bryant Wood did with his initial research on the “problem of Ai” (no evidence of occupation of Et-Tell at the time of the Conquest), we have a firm foundation on which to understand what history and science tell us. Reversing that order and placing science first constitutes a shaky foundation built on human “wisdom”:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

– 1 Corinthians 1:18–25, NASB

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