Science on Scripture
When science and scripture are in dialogue, even though they are very different languages, they sometimes genuinely sound quite similar. There is a theological approach in scripture where observations are made about the natural world and from that insights are drawn on the character of the one who made it. This is classically called natural theology which is done from the bottom up. When it is done carefully, being circumspect about what nature can tell us about its God, there are great examples of how it can be a very fertile endeavour. I also want to suggest that on the other hand biblical theology can prepare us to anticipate or at least come to terms with certain things about natural discoveries.
A great example of this is in a lecture N.T. Wright gave last year which you can watch here. Prof. Wright makes the astute observation that though in scripture God sometimes acts very dramatically in history, his usual way of accomplishing his purposes is through long, drawn out, meandering processes, that might often seem pointless and wasteful, yet he surprisingly and counterintuitively brings them to a marvelous end. With this in mind when we look at the evolutionary process, it is not all that surprising that it is quite analogous to how God operates in scripture. It is the type of thing we would expect if God created life using evolutionary processes. Of course this does not answer every question but it is a helpful way of thinking about the relation between creature and creator in the light of what the creator has revealed and what his human creatures have discovered. I wonder if our desire to cling on to miraculous creative acts is more of a reflection of how we would like God to intervene in our lives rather than being attentive to how he tends to take the long, patient route which inconveniences our own agenda?
Another more well-known example, this time from cosmology and astrophysics, is the Big Bang theory. While it does not correspond to or confirm the details of any of the creation narratives in scripture, it is the type of thing you would expect if God made the world ex nihilo. A lot of atheist scientists dismissed it because it didn’t fit their worldview but unsurprisingly Christians quickly embraced it like. It goes to show that science isn’t out just to support an atheistic agenda, no matter what some Christians or atheists will tell you.
Another natural phenomenon that I think the biblical worldview prepares you to embrace is the world of quantum physics. While I have virtually no training in the field, the wacky quantum world has fascinated me for a long time. There is almost a metaphysical quality to the realm of subatomic particles as exemplified by Schrödinger’s infamous cat. Things at the quantum level simply do not behave as we would expect them to at the macro level. In scripture of course, reality is not always what you think it is. It has strange and wonderful dimensions to it. For Christians who by definition believe in spiritual reality (forgive the pun) it is not hard to make the quantum leap. In a fascinating lecture by Old Testament professor Mark S. Smith which you can find here, he briefly explores how the idea of quantum entanglement might be a useful analogy for how the scriptures describe the way the spiritual and physical dimensions of reality interact.
Again what makes these interactions productive is not trying to find scientific details in the Bible or biblical details in the sciences but taking a step back and having a fairly broad perspective on both and how they compare. Science and scripture are distinct domains but their borders are not closed of to one another. Sometimes, as you are probably aware, science challenges what we think we know about scripture. The most recent examples are cosmology and evolution which I have already mentioned. Concordism is one way to respond to those challenges but there are others. These questions have pushed biblical scholars, as well as Christian scientists and philosophers, to reexamine the text to see if we are reading it right. In my book anything that pushes people to go back to scripture and take a closer look at it is at least doing something right. This pursuit is actually doing a lot right and has produced wonderful new and potentially constructive insights on how we understand scripture as well as its relationship to science. My mantra is questions should be seen as opportunities and not dangers. The worst thing that can happen is getting closer to the truth and as vexing as the truth sometimes is, it is better than the lie.
Geneticist and fellow believer Dennis Venema wonders if evolutionary biology is another copernican revolution for the church of this generation. For me this is an exciting yet also sobering way of thinking about what lies ahead. Last time something this momentous happened the Christian establishment did not take it too well and it took a very long time for Christians to come around. I do not think it is wise for Christians, or anyone for that matter, to jump on the bandwagon of a purported new discovery. Anyone one sufficiently educated in the sciences knows good science requires patience. In hindsight, given how we took it the last time we should learn from what happened and how much science has developed. However, as I think about Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and the paradigm shift they caused, I’m not so sure the church got all the right lessons from it.
I say this because when scripture makes references to astronomy, for example the sky being a solid dome the sun, which is a light and not a physical object, which moves across the dome, how we often interpret that is problematic. Some try to find a scientifically concordist way of reading it, which always does violence to the text and abuses scientific knowledge. Perhaps, a more popular tendency is to read it as metaphor some how implying the biblical authors had the correct astronomical understanding or that at least God would not inspire the authors of scripture to write something that is scientifically speaking incorrect. While I passionately advocate that we take scripture seriously as literature, purely literary readings of scripture are not always helpful for Christians.
The ancients had a sophisticated understanding of nature and physical reality which we can see right in scripture. They did however speak about the world the way they perceived it, given the investigative and conceptual resources they had at their disposal to understand it. We cannot tell what they thought about the precise composition of physical reality, whether they were strictly beholden for example to the idea of the sky being a solid dome or not. Being human I’m sure they would have had questions but frankly we cannot ever know the answer. More importantly it is beside the point for a faithful reader of scripture. We can be certain they lived in a pre-scientifc world and divinely inspired communication would contextually fit their era and its concerns and not our post-enlightenment world. I’m not sure it has dawned on us the differences between the ancient and modern cognitive environments. We still struggle to appreciate how even modern worldviews can be radically different and a lot more work needs to be done on that front, especially in teaching the church. As many others have said, the Bible’s truthfulness does not depend on scientific accuracy so we should not be uncomfortable with the Bible being unscientific because it’s just that way.