This is the third in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
This is the second in a series of posts that describe my observations of a recent symposium held by City Bible Forum and CrossCulture Church of Christ. The event was titled In the Beginning: A symposium of science and the scriptures, and was held from 30-31 August 2013 in Melbourne. The speakers represented worldviews ranging from atheist naturalism to young-earth creationism (YEC) and old-earth creationism (OEC). I attended the symposium as an interested audience member, but I was not directly involved with it.
So, in a previous post I talked about how Nature doesn’t have a voice, and that this makes it difficult to ask it questions. Today I want to talk about an alternative way of interpreting nature.
Francis Bacon talked about reading “both books” in order to gain insight about God. By this he meant that God is revealed in scripture, because the Bible is God’s Word to us, and God is also revealed in nature, because he is the Creator of the universe. It seems to me that asking questions of nature can be very similar to asking questions of Scripture, which in turn is very similar to asking questions of a novel. Let me explain:
In 1 Corinthians 1-6, Paul admonishes the church in Corinth because church members have been suing each other. In this age of incessant litigation, it’s a passage with a great deal of application.
Here’s how it reads in the NIV:
“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court — and this in front of unbelievers!”
There’s an excellent article by W. Grainge Clarke on the philosophy of science and how it relates to the Christian worldview.
On the topic of the underlying assumptions of the scientific method, he writes:
“These presuppositions are, by their nature unprovable, and some philosophers would consider them unacceptable. Behind the acceptance of these presuppositions lies the fact that modern science developed when the dominant worldview in Europe was Christian. If the Christian worldview is accepted they all make reasonable sense. However, on the atheistic worldview, that all is the product of matter-energy, time and chance, then none of these presuppositions are justifiable. To consider just one case: ‘The human mind is capable of rational thought’. If the human mind has been developed solely by non rational forces then there is no reason to believe that it can be rational and certainly it is not to be relied upon. Consider two computers one of which was designed and assembled by the IT staff at the local university and the other by the local kindergarten. Which is most likely to function well? Yet the kindergarten children have much more intelligence than blind chance.”
You can find the whole article here:
I really think that those who endorse a “plain reading”, strictly literalist interpretation of the Bible are missing out on some of the most awesome stuff that God has given us the Scripture. Let me give a bit of background to explain what I mean:
I was recently asked to preach on Mark 13, in which Jesus describes the end times (and also some more imminent times). It’s a complex chapter and I’m not going to try and unpack all of it here, but I was particularly struck by his description of the Temple desecration. Jesus starts by saying that the Temple will be destroyed, torn apart block by block, and also says that the fulfillment of this prophecy will give the listeners confidence in what he tells them about the end times. The destruction of the Temple will happen soon, in the lifetimes of his listeners, and then they will know that what he says about his second coming is also true.
So why do I say that this is a challenge to a literalist reading of Scripture? Well, let’s look at what Jesus says. He warns the listeners to flee from the destruction, and he does it using these words:
Recently, I’ve been reading through the Old Testament. I haven’t read the latter books of the Pentateuch for a while, so it was an interesting experience. The Pentateuch makes up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and also comprises the Jewish Torah. This collection is also referred to as the Books of the Law, which is what Jesus is talking about when he mentions “the Law and the Prophets” (e.g. Matt. 5:17, Matt. 7:12).
Genesis and the first half of Exodus are largely composed of narrative, but from that point on there are indeed large chunks of detailed instruction from God which dominate the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And when you hear people talking vaguely about “all those crazy rules and stuff in the Bible”, it’s generally the last three books of the Pentateuch that they have in mind. So as I worked my way through these books, I was expecting to find an endless list of obscure and arbitrary prohibitions.
In contrast, I was delighted at just how sensible all the laws are. But there are a few important things to bear in mind as you read them.
I’ve been reading Richard Swinburne’s Revelation, and it is a remarkable book. The first couple of chapters deal in great depth with analysing what the “meaning” of a sentence actually is, how (and if) it can be falsifiable, and how to discern exactly when such devices as metaphor, analogy and so on are being employed. (And yes, this really does need multiple chapters. Fortunately, Swinburne is an eminently readable philosopher and communicates so well that even this dry subject matter becomes fascinating in his hands).
Reading the book has gotten me thinking a lot about different literary genres: not just the reality of their existence, but rather the reasons that an author might choose to employ them.
So, I recently wrote an essay (“On Spherical Cows and the Search for Truth“) about modelling and its relationship to reality, and also how modelling helps to illustrate how scientific theories work. My main point was that models (and other theories) are limited by their assumptions, and it is generally disastrous to apply a model out of its original context and objectives, because we almost invariably end up inheriting inappropriate assumptions.
At the same time, I’m reading Fee & Stuart’s How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, and thus I’m thinking a lot about appropriate exegesis and hermeneutics in a Biblical context. I see many parallels between the ideas presented in the modelling essay and the approach described by Fee and Stuart. Thinking about this more, I’m wondering if there isn’t something to be said for a similar approach to scriptural interpretation as we use for scientific theories.
Let me try and explain what I mean.
With science, we believe that there is an underlying truth that is the natural order, and we build and test theories (and models) to try and understand that natural order better. Our theories are not the fullness of nature, but they represent (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) certain aspects of nature.
Similarly, we believe that the Bible contains God’s truth, and remains relevant to all of us at all times. But to understand a given passage, we must first understand the context and literary style of the writing (the exegesis part), and then interpret the text within that framework (the hermeneutical part). But our interpretation of the scripture remains a representation of the Truth, rather than being the fullness of the Truth.
In the same way that we cannot take a scientific theory which describes the interaction of sub-atomic particles at a quantum scale and apply it to larger scales, we cannot take a hermeneutic which is appropriate for one book and apply it to the whole Bible. Our hermeneutic for a particular passage incorporates assumptions that are specific to that book, and we risk inheriting inappropriate assumptions in using the same hermeneutic for another passage.
It is equally inappropriate to use a literal historical hermeneutic from (for instance) 1 Samuel and apply it to the Psalms as it is to use a theory from the field of genetics and apply it to psychology.
This is still very much at the idea stage, so I’d appreciate your thoughts!
This essay is part of a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as “conflicts” between science and Christianity.
This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.
“Not only by the plain and manifold testimonies of Holy Scripture, but also by light of reason well directed.” – James Ussher (A body of divinity: or, the sum and substance of Christian religion, 1641)
There is probably no name more indelibly linked with rigid church fundamentalism than that of Bishop James Ussher (1581 – 1656), who today is almost exclusively known as “the man who fixed the time of Creation at midday on October 23, 4004 BC”. As Stephen Jay Gould observed:
“One can scarcely find a textbook in introductory geology that does not take a swipe at Ussher’s date as the opening comment in an obligatory page or two on older concepts of the earth’s age (before radioactive dating allowed us to get it right). Other worthies are praised for good tries in a scientific spirit (even if their ages are way off), but Ussher is usually excoriated for biblical idolatry and just plain foolishness”
As with the essay on Galileo, I will argue that this interpretation of the events is based largely on a failure to adequately appreciate the scientific and social context of the work. Inappropriately applying a modern interpretation to historical events distorts our perceptions and generally does more to highlight current biases than historical truths.
To be clear, however, I do not intend to defend the substance of Ussher’s conclusion. I have great faith in cosmological and geochemical research and am happy to accept the postulated ages of approximately 14Gyr and 4.5Gyr for the Universe and the Earth respectively. But I think that it is greatly erroneous to blame work from a particular time and place for its accuracy regarding later and fundamentally different disciplines: we must evaluate the work in its proper context.
So what did Ussher’s work actually involve? The play (and later movie) Inherit the Wind, which is very loosely based on the 1925 trial of John Scopes, features a scene in which a fictionalised version of William Jennings Bryan named “Brady” presents the common impression of Ussher’s methodology:
Brady: A fine Biblical scholar, Bishop Ussher, has determined for us the exact date and hour of the Creation. It occurred in the year 4004 B.C.
Drummond: Well, uh, that’s Bishop Ussher’s opinion.
Brady: It is not an opinion. It is a literal fact, which the good Bishop arrived at through careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament.
We’ll deal with William Jennings Bryan in another essay – his participation in the Scopes trial has in itself an important place in the “conflict” mythos – but for now let us note that this exchange represents a common impression of Ussher’s work. In fact, it was nowhere near that simple, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible will realise. The question of the age of the Earth represented a major field of theological study, and within that context the quality of Ussher’s work was outstanding.
James Ussher was born in 1581 and entered Trinity College Dublin when he was only 13 years old (in its founding class of 1594). In 1601 he was ordained as a priest and by 1607 had risen to professor at Trinity. In 1625, aged 43, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and head of the Anglo-Irish church – a difficult position to hold in a turbulent religious and political landscape. He was in England when civil war broke out in 1642 and remained there the rest of his life, devoting most of his last years to study and writing.
By temperament he was far more inclined towards scholarship than ecclesiastical administration. Although an effective bishop in a troubled time, he devoted much of his energies to works such as his 1639 treatise Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates, a comprehensive study of the history of Christian churches in Britain. In 1650 he published his most famous work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti, or “Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world”. It is on this work that we will focus our attention.
To understand his work, we must first rid ourselves of this notion that Ussher was working to “quench scientific knowledge and inquiry” with static dogma. To do so gravely misinterprets chronological thinking at the time. Attempts to establish a chronology of human history were a major scholarly pursuit in Ussher’s time, and his methods and conclusions were well supported by other researchers. The Venerable Bede, writing in about AD 723, had reckoned the dawn of humanity at 3952 BC, and more contemporary scholars such as Scaliger (3949 BC), the astronomer Johannes Kepler (3992 BC) and the great Isaac Newton (c. 4000 BC) had all come to similar calculations.
As to the scholarly merits of Ussher’s efforts, the calculation of such dates required some serious research and historical reckoning. James Barr emphasises this academic aspect in his study of Ussher’s chronology. Contrary to the common textbook presentation of simply adding up genealogies, Barr identifies three distinct periods of history that Ussher had to deal with to arrive at this dates:
- The genealogies (from Adam to Solomon). For this period, there is an unbroken succession of the male lineage with ages of each heir at the birth of their son. Even so, the Hebrew and Septuagint Bibles differ by nearly 1500 years in their totals. Ussher went with the Hebrew bible and added up the numbers.
- The period of kings (from Solomon to the Babylonian captivity, or around 930 BC – 586 BC). Here things get much more complicated: the succession of kings is not continuous, as regents sometimes rule for periods between successive kings, and there are even overlaps between reigns. Considerable cross-referencing is needed to correlate the Judean kings with other contemporaneous histories.
- Between the Testaments (from Ezra and Nehemiah to the birth of Jesus). The Biblical record of the Old Testament ends with the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Second Temple, which probably happened in about 515 BC. For this 5-century intermission, Ussher relied entirely on alternative timelines such as the Chaldean and Persian histories. By correlating significant events (such as the reign of Nebuchadnezzar), these histories could be used as a “bridge” to connect the Jewish and the Roman timelines, and thus ultimately arrive at the birth of Jesus in about 4 BC.
In all, it is reckoned that Ussher relied on the Biblical narrative for only one sixth of his chronology. The rest of his references came from his in-depth study of Chaldean, Persian, Greek and Roman history – which, we note, represented virtually all of ancient history know in Europe at the time. His dating of other historical events (such as the deaths of Alexander and Julius Caesar in 323 BC and 44 BC respectively) is in accordance with current estimates.
It may seem a little too neat that his estimate for “Creation to the birth of Jesus” comes out at exactly 4000 years. Indeed, it becomes even more suspicious in light of the common view (in Ussher’s day) that the Earth would last 6000 years. Barr considers this question in his study, but ultimately decides against the idea that Ussher “fiddled the numbers” according to a preconceived notion. Although he was no doubt delighted to calculate that the first temple was completed exactly 3000 years after Creation and was followed exactly 1000 years later by the coming of Christ (the fulfillment of the temple), Ussher appears to interpret these as confirmations of his work rather than a priori assumptions. Stephen Jay Gould comments on Barr’s analysis:
“First, Ussher’s chronology extends out to several volumes and 2,000 pages of text and seems carefully done, without substantial special pleading. Second, the death of Herod in 4 B.C. doesn’t establish the birth of Jesus in the same year. Herod became king of Judea (Roman puppet would be more accurate) in 37 B.C. – and Jesus might have been born at other times in this thirty-three-year interval. Moreover, other traditions argued that the 4,000 years would run from creation to Christ’s crucifixion, not to his birth – thus extending the possibilities to A.D. 33. By these flexibilities, creation could have been anywhere between 4037 B.C. (4,000 years to the beginning of Herod’s reign) and 3967 B.C. (4,000 years to the Crucifixion). Four thousand four is in the right range, but certainly not ordained by symbolic tradition. You still have to calculate.”
The great pursuit of knowledge
Finally, and most inportantly, let us note the intent of Ussher’s chronology. He was not attempting to impose the authority of rigid dogma: rather, he sought to illuminate and give meaning to human endeavour by giving it a proper historical context. As Barr wrote:
“It is a great mistake, therefore, to suppose that Ussher was simply concerned with working out the date of creation: this can be supposed only by those who have never looked into its pages. . . . The Annales are an attempt at a comprehensive chronological synthesis of all known historical knowledge, biblical and classical. . . . Of its volume only perhaps one sixth or less is biblical material.”
Contrary to the common presentation of Ussher struggling to refute geological timescales, his scholarship was actually at odds with the Aristotelian notion of an eternal Earth, in which human history has neither context nor consequence. Ironically, Ussher was more concerned with why God had chosen to take a whole six days for Creation, when surely he could have achieved it all in an instant. Gould writes:
“We castigate Ussher for making the creation so short–a mere six days, where we reckon billions for evolution. But Ussher fears that six days might seem too long in the opinion of his contemporaries, for why should God, who could do all in an instant, so spread out his work? “Why was he creating so long, seeing he could have perfected all the creatures at once and in a moment?” Ussher gives a list of answers, but one caught my attention both for its charm and for its incisive statement about the need for sequential order in teaching–as good a rationale as one could ever devise for working out a chronology in the first place! “To teach us the better to understand their workmanship; even as a man which will teach a child in the frame of a letter, will first teach him one line of the letter, and not the whole letter together.”
Note: This essay was motivated by Stephen Jay Gould’s Fall in the House of Ussher, which I recommend as further reading. The Gould quotations in this piece are all taken from that essay.
I was at Alpha a few nights ago, and Nicky Gumbel gave a wonderful illustration of the hazards of using the Bible as a “magical answer generator”, and also of reading verses out of context. I might be paraphrasing it slightly, but here’s the gist of it…
There was a man who was feeling depressed and confused, and he thought he’d look for answers in the Bible. So he opened it up at random, closed his eyes and dropped his finger on the page. When he opened his eyes, he saw that he had selected Matthew 27:5, and he read:
And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
“Oh dear”, he thought, “that doesn’t sound very encouraging! Let me try it again.”
So he repeated the exercise and this time his finger fell on Luke 10:37, which said:
Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
“This really isn’t working very well,” he thought. “But let me give it one more try.”
Again he opened the book and selected a verse at random. Again he looked at where his finger lay, this time on John 13:27, and he read:
Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”
This essay is the first in a series which explores historical encounters which are often presented as conflicts between science and Christianity.
This article has been expanded – the full version can be found here.
“The laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics” – Galileo Galilei (Il Saggiatore, 1623)
Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642) was a brilliant mathematician, astronomer and physicist. He was appointed to the chair of Mathematics at the University of Pisa in 1589, and spent the next 20 years conducting excellent astronomical observations and making significant discoveries in pure and applied science. He did groundbreaking work in the mechanics of falling bodies under gravity (although, contrary to that other myth, he never dropped anything off the Tower of Pisa), and made significant improvements to the design of telescopes. In 1610 he published his observations of the moons of Jupiter, and it is at this point that our interest in him really starts.
Astronomical understanding in the early 17th century was still rooted in the Aristotelian model, the core of which was that the heavens were composed of concentric circles, with the Earth at the centre. The celestial bodies themselves were perfect circles made of “incorruptible aether” and were eternal – subject neither to generation nor decay.
This was the reigning scientific model which the secular universities were adamant to maintain, but Galileo’s observations of sunspots and lunar craters cast doubt on the “perfect circles”, and his observation in 1604 of a supernova contradicted the immutability of Aristotle’s heavens. Moreover, his observations of Jupiter’s moons challenged the notion that all celestial bodies orbit the Earth. Galileo endorsed the heliocentric system developed by Nicolaus Copernicus, a Catholic priest who published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543.
In 1611 Galileo travelled to Rome to present his findings, and was greeted with great acclaim. He demonstrated his observations of Jupiter to Christopher Clavius, a Jesuit at the Collegio Romano and the most respected astronomer in Europe at the time, who confirmed Galileo’s observations and parts of his theses of planetary motion.
The secular university professors were not as accommodating to this activity as the Jesuits had been, however. After several years spent as a public advocate for the Copernican theory, Galileo wrote in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615 that his theories had “stirred up against me no small number of professors”, and that these academics had agitated strongly for ecclesiastical support in their cause.
This letter is also an excellent illustration of some personal aspects of Galileo. He was monumentally arrogant, belligerent and abrasive towards any who opposed him. He wrote concerning the professors:
“I should pay no more attention to them than to those who previously contradicted me – at whom I always laugh, being assured of the eventual outcome.”
It was in this letter, also, that Galileo himself defined the astronomical debate as being irrevocably rooted in interpretation of the Bible. Under pressure from both sides of the dispute, the Church was drawn into the fray. Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII and a friend of Galileo, cautioned him to drop the matter. Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, the “Consultor of the Holy Office and Master of Controversial Questions” (don’t you just love that title?), wrote a letter to Galileo in April 1615 outlining the Church’s official position. He pointed out that Copernican theory was perfectly acceptable as a working hypothesis, and if there were proof that the earth circles around the sun, “then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary.”
In effect, he challenged Galileo to offer some proof for his theory or stop pestering the Church publicly with it, but that if proof were offered he was open to hearing it.
(Interestingly, the heliocentric model had been considered by Aristotle and rejected – he wrote that under such a system we should see stellar parallaxes. In other words, the change of position of the earth from one side of its orbit to the other should change the relative positions of the stars in different seasons. The scientific strength of this objection is illustrated by the fact that stellar parallax was only observed in 1838 by Friedrich Bessel.)
Galileo had no astronomical proof to offer, partly because his own observations did not align properly with his theory. He insisted that planets move in perfect circles (based on Aristotle’s hypothesis) and rejected the theories of Johannes Kepler, who proposed in his Astronomia nova (1609) that planetary orbits are elliptical. Instead, Galileo proposed as proof a flawed and unconvincing theory that the tides were evidence of the Earth’s rotation (and, incidentally, specifically denying that lunar attraction was involved). In 1616 the Church ordered him to cease and desist his public advocacy of the unproven theory.
For the next seven years, Galileo acquiesced to the Church’s injunction, but in 1623 his friend and supporter Maffeo Barberini ascended to the papacy, and Galileo confidently re-entered the public fray. In the same year he published Il Saggiatore (“The Assayer”), in which he launched a vicious assault on a treatise on comets by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit mathematician at the Collegio Romano. Grassi used observations of parallax to argue that comets are further away than the moon; Galileo ridiculed this idea and claimed rather that comets are an optical illusion. His factual error notwithstanding, the harshness of Galileo’s tone permanently soured his relations with the Jesuit order. Pope Urban VIII thoroughly enjoyed the rhetorical flourishes of Galileo’s prose, however, and composed a poem in his honour.
Like Galileo, Urban was a vain and irascible man. After listening to Galileo’s arguments for years, he declared that the possible ways of arranging the universe were so numerous that it was impertinent for mortals to claim that they had discovered the unique truth. He insisted that Galileo include the Aristotelian alternative in his presentations of the universe.
In 1632, Galileo published his response to these arguments: Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. In it, he presented his astronomical theories as a conversation between Salviati, who is referred to as “the Academician” and represents Galileo’s own views; and Simplicio (or “The Fool”), who bumbles about and contradicts himself as he ineptly offers a straw-man version of the Aristotelian / Ptolemaic perspective – and more importantly, represents the Pope’s views.
Not too surprisingly, this didn’t go down very well with the Pope. His hubris and vanity would not tolerate public ridicule, and Galileo was called before the ecclesiastical court. He was condemned by the Catholic Church as “suspected of heresy” – about the strongest charge that could be brought, since Copernicanism had never been declared heretical – and was then whipped tortured killed burned housed with a personal valet in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens. He spent the remainder of his life in comfort (albeit technically under house arrest), working on his final masterpiece, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences. Published in 1638, this book was the grand summation of much of his work in physics over the preceding thirty years.
So what shall we make of this tale? Although our 21st century perspective makes us indignant that the “truth” was being muzzled and declared heretical, I think there are some important misconceptions in that attitude:
- First, the obvious: Despite the fact that prominent atheists love to invoke Galileo as an example of the supposed “conflict” between science and religion, Galileo was a Christian. He responded to the secular professors who attacked his theory from a distinctly Christian perspective: in Letter to the Grand Duchess he invokes arguments by St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas regarding Biblical interpretation.
- Although we view Galileo’s theories as an obvious improvement over the Aristotelian model of a geocentric solar system, it is important to reiterate that this was not provable by Galileo’s own evidence. His observations of the moons of Jupiter and the craters of the moon suggested problems with the pure geocentric model, but he certainly could not prove his case. In fact, an objection could have been made on purely scientific grounds that the heliocentric model offered insufficient improvement in explanatory power to justifiably replace the reigning paradigm.
- I make no excuses for the Pope’s abuse of his position to silence a critic, but the church’s treatment of Galileo was remarkably restrained by the standards of 17th century Europe. Giorgio de Santillana, Professor of Humanities at MIT, wrote that “We must, if anything, admire the cautiousness and legal scruples of the Roman authorities”. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote:
“In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.”
Consider, in closing, this analogy:
John is a brilliant employee in a major corporation. He is also in charge of producing the company newsletter. The CEO of the company holds a view that John disagrees with. John publishes an article featuring a caricature of the CEO named “Retard Boy”. He gets fired.
The point in that scenario is not whether John’s views will eventually be proved right by later scientific discovery – he still exercised supremely poor judgement.
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.
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.
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)
Discussions concerning certain passages of the Bible are difficult. How do you explore dispassionately the accounts of judgement and destruction? How do we examine a passage concerning slavery in light of prevailing social attitudes?
Let’s focus the discussion for now on the Old Testament, particularly the passages of biblical law. I won’t go into too much detail – if you have a working knowledge of the Bible you’ll be familiar with the sort of thing I mean, and I don’t intend to attempt a verse-by-verse breakdown in a single blog post. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, I can strongly recommend that you take a look – it’s a great read! (Although I’d recommend starting with Matthew or John and reading the New Testament first – it will make more sense that way).
Let’s start with the simple stuff: the passages of law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are literal. When it says “Don’t eat camels”, it means not to eat camels; when it says “Cancel all debts at the end of every seventh year”, that’s what it means, too.
But they are also instructions made to a specific people who lived in a particular cultural context. That is not to imply that they have nothing to offer us today: just that we need to understand the context in order to understand the intent behind the instructions, rather than simply focussing on the letter. The people to whom the Law was given were surrounded by all sides by barbarous and cruel peoples. Come to that, they were pretty barbarous and cruel too. The Law was given to teach them how to transcend that state and become a people fit for God. Some of it is practical, and has obvious health or social benefits. Some of it is ceremonial, and seems more arbitrary to us, but these customs may have had important psychological motivations. Some of the customs may have been simply to differentiate God’s people from the surrounding nations. But the context is the key.
The oft-quoted passage of “an eye for an eye”, for instance, is not saying “revenge is good”. It was said in a cultural context of escalating blood feuds (which, come to think of it, still describes large portions of the world), and the intent was to stem that escalation. “Don’t exact vengeance beyond what is dictated by justice” may be a better way of understanding that passage. That is to say, that if someone wrongs you and you are justly recompensed for that crime, do not take further revenge on him.
Likewise, I believe that many of the historical passages of instruction and law must be understood in a historically and culturally contextual way if they are to impart meaning that we can relate to today.
Here’s the problem, though: How do we interpret today, in our cultural contexts, what the “intent” of the law was? How do we avoid mis-using scripture to inappropriately justify our own ideas and prejudices, given that we have so little understanding of ancient Hebrew culture?
I suggest that the correct “filter” (and I use the word cautiously) through which we should interpret scripture is trying to understand how it relates to Jesus’ teachings and to the Epistles.
A recurring theme in the Gospels is Jesus correcting pious Jews who have followed the letter but missed the intent of the law. His teachings and actions, as recorded in the Gospels, reveal to us the character and person of God at work in human society. As such, they provide the “author’s perspective” when trying to understand some of the more confusing and difficult passages in the OT.
I would suggest the writers of the epistles as more appropriate guides than the Old Testament prophets, too. This is not to say that I consider Paul or Timothy or James to have been more “spiritually enlightened” or “in tune with the mind of God” than the great prophets of the OT were, but because the epistles were written within the context of the New Covenant in which we also live. The epistles were also mostly written for Christians living and worshipping in communities and churches which were at least conceptually similar to our own.
The death and resurrection of Jesus changed many things about the law and the way in which it relates to our interaction with God. It did not change the intent of God’s will for our lives, but it did change how we are able to live our lives in God’s favour and following His will.
Paul gives us some indication of what that would look like in his epistle to the church at Colossae:
“… you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.” (Col. 3:12-15, NLT)