On reading both books

Last night a friend posed an interesting challenge to the question of whether science and religion can be properly reconciled. His issue was not with any particular theory, it was rather a challenge in principle to the notion that the immutable truth of God’s word could ever be fully reconciled with the continual change and adaptation of scientific theory. The Bible doesn’t change, but our understanding of the universe does – how can these be fully compatible? It’s an interesting question and a fresh take on the problem.

Francis Bacon, the founder of the modern Scientific Method, said that to understand the world we needed both books that God has provided: the Bible and the “book of Nature”. I mention this because it seems to me that it is in this duality of revelation that we find our answer.

When we first read a Biblical passage, it may be opaque or it may have immediately obvious meaning. But further study of the surrounding text and the context in which the passage was written will bring a deeper and fuller understanding. It is not dissimilar to science, where study in a particular field advances and builds on previous understanding. The Biblical text does not change, but our understanding of it does. Likewise, the underlying principles and workings of the universe do not (as far as we know) change, but our understanding of them grows with further study.

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A multidisciplinary approach

Closely related is the issue of uniform literalism in biblical interpretation, so let’s consider that as well:

The study of the “book of Nature” (or ‘Science’, for short) is not limited to a single discipline. At the most basic level, there are different techniques for experimental science (e.g. chemistry, quantum physics) and for observational / historical sciences (such as palaeontology or cosmology). To even attempt to use the techniques from one discipline in another is often impossible. We understand that there are appropriate ways of assembling and analysing data and of testing hypotheses, and we limit our techniques to those appropriate to our field of study.

Similarly, the Bible is not limited to a single style of writing. But there are clearly sections of history, sections of poetry, and sections of philosophy. Sometimes these overlap: the opening chapters of Genesis in particular are a poetic presentation of some fundamental (and actually very radical) philosophy and theology. They describe the nature of the universe and God’s relation to it, and give a philosophical explanation of the human predicament as an inevitable outworking of free choice. It is not a scientific treatise in itself, but interestingly it does provide a foundation for viewing the world scientifically. It indicates that the universe was created and is ordered by God, who exists outside of the universe but also sustains it. Importantly, it says that the created universe is not divine and is not to be worshipped: instead, it can be studied.

Works like Chronicles, Samuel, etc – and most importantly for Christianity, the Gospels and Acts – are historical. They record literal events in history. Archaeology and literary analysis of various sources (including records of historians ambivalent or hostile towards Christianity) can be applied to the historical statements in these books, and their veracity can be demonstrated. The evidence for these books is relevant to how seriously we take them, and any honest evaluation of the evidence indicates that their historical accuracy is extraordinary.

But to look at a passage in Isaiah such as: “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”, and say, “Well, that cannot be literally true and thus the resurrection must also be just a fable,” indicates a gross misunderstanding of the material under study.

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An unorthodox view

Reflecting on Galileo’s clashes with the scientific and religious establishments of his day (about which read more here), John Lennox observed the following:

“Ironically, it was Galileo, a believer in scripture, who correctly challenged the reigning scientific paradigm in the name of science. One important lesson is that those of us who take the biblical account seriously should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The biblical text just might be more sophisticated than we first imagined, and we might therefore be in danger of using it to support ideas that it never intended to teach.” (“Challenges from Science” in Beyond Opinion, edited by Ravi Zacharias)

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Related posts:

On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth

Believing and understanding

Seeing the gardener

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