Home > inerrancy, interpretation, philosophy, science > >Does the Bible reflect modern science?

>Does the Bible reflect modern science?

>I was hoping to discuss some ideas about ancient cosmology at some stage. In the meantime Greg has raised the more fundamental issue of presuppositions and modern evangelicals. My initial response is below though some items may need clarification.

Greg: …you seem to be concerned with the idea that the Bible has to reflect our current understanding of the world in order for it’s inerrency and infallibility to be upheld.

Well actually my view of Scripture means that I reject a lot of current popular theory. While I accept the world is spherical, I reject Darwinism which is by far the most popular understanding in modern science concerning the origin and development of the biosphere.

Your bias is constrained to a specific view of inerrency. He may prefer another, but each one tips either of you in a particular direction and to a particular interpretation that satisfies the requirements of that inerrency.

I presume “he” in this sentence refers to Gier. I am aware of different views. See here for inerrancy and infallibility. I also have a pastor who is neither a inerrantist nor a creationist whom I sit under quite happily. While I think that some passages appear difficult with an inerrant approach, I think that their resolution leads to deeper understanding of the way of God. This has occurred enough for me that initially contradictory passages do not send me reeling each time I come across one. I tend to look deeper into the context and some inferences turn out to not exist. We can read more into a passage than is often there.

More importantly, I think Scripture points to an inerrantist approach. See my comments on Jesus’ interaction with the Sadducees.

An aside, be careful how you use the term inerrancy, it has a meaning. If you propose another meaning preferably use a different word. Even the word “infallibility” seems to imply inerrancy however it has a theological definition that specifies inerrant doctrine which potentially allows for error of fact.

This concerns me because I see an initiative to interpret passages in a certain way that conforms it to modern science,

The idea that anyone before Bacon really understood science quite the way we do is questionable. I think you are better to talk about the worldviews of then and now. Even Gier uses the term pre-scientific which is better though can still be misleading. I am more concerned about having a biblical worldview than a Western one. While the current Western worldview gets much wrong, it is important to realise that the Western worldview developed from Christianity—likely with some added Greek philosophy (to its detriment I think). Because of this the Western worldview is very Christian unlike many other cultures including pre-Christian Europe and Briton.

You will need to give examples of specific passages.

when an interpretation that draws from the science of their day explains it much better.

Except is the interpretation drawing from their day? Much of what I see is a later construct of what the ancients supposedly thought based on a hyperliteralist interpretation of ancient literature.

I see this a lot in the church, and once again, if I am wrong about you, I apologize.

You may be correct about me, though I give my views considered thought.

A modern person who wishes to explain scripture in light of modern science has the burden of proof upon them first.

Why? If Scripture is consistent with modern science why insist on a different interpretation just to make it inconsistent?

They need to show how an ancient person could have known what we know,

This assumes an anti-supernatural bias. If God created the universe he is more knowledgeable about its intricacies than every scientist combined. God can reveal material that happens to be factually correct, even if simplified. I am not stating that this has to be the case, rather pointing out the bias which insists on human authorship sans divine authorship. Scripture suggests both human and divine. Peter adds that prophets did not always understand everything about their message (1 Peter 1). I am not suggesting that the message of the prophets was differential mathematics and quantum physics, just the importance of divine authorship.

what benefit it provided the ancients,

It may not offer a benefit, it may just be an accurate report.

why God would only make it truly relevant to moderns in the West,

Examples such as?

and why the church missed these interpretations all this time and had to wait until the 20th century before science could shed light on things.

The church didn’t. My previous post on the flat earth mentioned that theologians in general did not teach a flat earth. Several appealed to Scripture to “prove” geocentricism. The fact they could only do so by appealing to poetical passages should have been a concern. Both hyperliteralism (including the Jews) and over-allegorising have been practised in interpretation, but that does not deny that Scripture can be understood. Moderns possibly do this less than some previous generations. Though there is a trend to turn historical narrative into symbolic language.

This comment also seems to contradict your earlier comment,

Going forward we as Christians must always be willing to follow where God’s Word leads us and not be afraid to discard tradition if a new understanding can fit the picture better. Many doctrines, or the expression and depth of understanding concerning them, have developed, been lost and found again numerous times throughout our history. There is always the possibility old understandings will crumble in the face of new discoveries.

While I agree with discarding tradition, I am cautious about new interpretations. They may exist but one would want very good evidence.

On a slightly tangential but important note—and this does not apply to the shape of the earth—part of my concern is how little people understand the types of science. Operational and historical science are quite different and a reasonable argument can be made that the latter is not strictly science. Historical science is a claim about history. It is a claim that can be refuted by eyewitness testimony.

For example scientific examination of Jericho cannot “prove” Joshua did not raze it. Both are claims in the same realm: historical truth. One is just playing a contemporary witness off against a non-contemporary interpreter. Either the first is a liar or the latter is mistaken in his interpretation of his findings.

Presuppositions are important. I think there is good reason to hold to inerrancy based on how Jesus and the apostles viewed Scripture. I think the Bible is historical and that it is correct when it makes historical claims. I think it important to understand what the author intended and the cultural situation into which he spoke. I disagree (in general) with hyperliteralism, but I think the bigger problem in this age is the priority of secular theory and hence unwarranted claims of symbolism, the explosion of interpretations, the invention of hermeneutic principles, the cherry picking of Scripture, the holding of contradictory ideas and anything else that lets us hold on to our favourite ideas; be that psychological, biological, sociologic
al, political or any other theory which we cherish.

  1. 2009 February 11 at 22:41

    I like a lot that you have to say here.
    It think the primary attribute that causes one to look for unity between the natural sciences and Scripture is the belief in objective reality. If Science is the study of reality, and Scripture accurately describes reality, then when both are properly interpreted, they should line up.
    I see only three ways around this:
    A)Deny the accuracy of Scripture
    B)Deny the ability of man to assess nature
    C)Deny objective reality
    I am willing to do none of these.

  2. 2009 February 13 at 13:12

    Have you listened to Walton’s talk?
    [audio src="http://www.logos.com/media/lecture/walton.mp3" /]
    To define inerrancy: Inerrancy is to be understood in terms of the Author’s intended meaning in the text which is discovered by historical, grammatical, theological interpretation.
    Meaning and understanding can transcend word definitions and literary context. Many times you have to step outside of scripture to understand it.
    Historical context comes about by studying broad areas and disciplines to establish a groundwork to base understanding off of. This implies the need to draw from sources other than the Bible for information.
    When these source’s terminology and ideas converge with the Biblical data, it sheds further light on scripture. We see that cultures in that geographical area and time period all had similar ways of looking at the world and understanding it. Some even drew us pictures, while others explained things in more detail. We’ve found that the Biblical witness happens to fit very nicely into this worldview.
    These extra-biblical details coincide with and enhance our understanding of the Biblical writer’s message. It helps us to understand as his audience would have understood. It bridges the 3,000 year gap between us.
    We like it when historical study confirms our long held beliefs and broadens our understanding of the Bible. K. A. Kitchen’s “On The Reliability of the Old Testament” is a solid example of this.
    Some do not like it when it questions certain pet doctrines, such as those dealing with cosmology, creation, and the flood. Some do not like it when it makes the fight against certain branches of science irrelevant.
    And yet even the Biblical witness hints at a need to reevaluate previously held positions!
    More than likely the kind of existence you have in mind when you read Genesis One is different than what the ancient Hebrew had in mind. This changes everything.
    Suddenly the focus of Genesis One shifts from the subject of material existence to functional existence. This affects how the opening creation sequence is understood.
    No longer is it about the material origin of the universe. That is how we like to read it. Now it is about the universe’s functional origin.
    Obvious to a person in the Ancient Near East, not so obvious to us. Further historical study provides good evidence that functional existence was more important than a thing’s material existence among cultures in that era.
    Our understanding of Genesis One has increased substantially, but only at the expense of a very traditional, and explicitly western, way of understanding the concept of existence.
    Walton explains this in greater detail in his talk. Please listen to it. If you don’t care for it once you have heard it, then that’ll be it. My intent from the beginning has been to inform others of these ideas. Not because they are just new, but because I b

  3. 2009 February 13 at 13:12

    Walton explains this in greater detail in his talk. Please listen to it. If you don’t care for it once you have heard it, then that’ll be it. My intent from the beginning has been to inform others of these ideas. Not because they are just new, but because I believe they explain scripture in greater detail and aid in resolving many harmful conflicts that the Church has gotten itself into.
    This is not a fringe idea, but one held by many highly respected Evangelical Old Testament theologians and scholars who are experts in their respective fields. John Walton, Bruce Waltke, and Victor P. Hamilton are a few of them.
    I think it deserves our serious consideration. I think it also starts by listening to Walton explain it himself.
    That’s all I have to say.

  4. Starwind
    2009 February 13 at 21:54

    Ok, at Greg’s insistence I have listened to Walton’s lecture (1 hour and 22 minutes, 75MB download) and he presents little biblical support for his views and avoids addressing obvious, inconvenient conflicts.
    He essentially argues that Gen 1 is not an account of a material creation but an account of a “functional” creation. At 22:11 into his lecture Walton states “in the Ancient world the line between existence and non-existance is a functional line … Creation is to cause something to exist, … creation is to cause something to exist functionally”.
    Walton further asserts (at 23:55) that he is not “taking something from mesopotamian Egypt and slapping it down on the bible and saying this is so, [but that he] came to this understanding of ontology and view of creation from reading the bible. Only after seeing it in the bible, from reading these ancient texts for 30 years – that’s what’s there too”
    But the only textual support Walton offers is that Gen 1 text uses the word ‘bara’ for creation and then he questions what ‘bara’ meant in context, but Walton ignores that ‘asah’ is used 7 times for creation in Gen 1 while ‘bara’ is only used 3 times. Nor does Walton’s “functional creation” theory resolve any of the creation event sequence difficulties. Walton ignores them.

  5. Starwind
    2009 February 13 at 21:56

    Walton also makes the point that it is important for us to recognize “How is Israel understanding this text?”. Well the ancient Hebrew sages were perfectly clear on what, in context, their own language meant:

    Now after having said that with one command G-d created at first the heavens and the earth and all their hosts, Scripture returns and explains that the earth after this creation was tohu, that is, matter without substance. It became bohu when He clothed it with form. Then it [Scripture] explains that in this form was included the form of the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. The word ha’aretz (the earth) includes these four elements. In this verse, the element of fire is called “darkness” because the elemental fire is dark. Where it red, it would redden the night for us. The element of water with which the dust was kneaded is here called “deep.” This is why the waters of the oceans are called “the deeps,” as it is written, The deeps cover them; The deeps were congealed; The deep was round about me. The bottom of the ocean is also referred to as “deep:” And He rebuked the Red Sea, and it was dried up, and He led them through the depths, as a wilderness; He led them through the deep as a horse in the wilderness. And the element air is here called “spirit.”
    Ramban Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah – Genesis, translated by Dr. Charles B. Chavel, Shilo Publishing House, 1971, pp 25, 26.

    The ancient Hebrew sages understood from their own text that creation was not of functions, but of material elements.
    Walton asserts (31:27) the creation account “starts with material already in place, but without functions” and Walton acknowledged the presence of the word bohu (“void”) but ignored addressing what “void” would mean in a functional creation with material already present.
    Walton also argues that God created time on Day 1 with day and night being functional creations of periods of time (34:20), but later (47:40) argues “7 days don’t tell us anything about the age of the earth… the day/age debate presumes a material account, when it should be a functional account, so Gen 1 doesn’t actually tell us ‘how long'”
    That is a glaring contradiction (to put it charitably). We’re to believe functional periods of time can’t tell us how long those functional periods added up to?

  6. Starwind
    2009 February 13 at 21:59

    Walton stated early on “The text must be allowed to stand on its own”.
    Yet throughout his entire lecture all he did was prop up the text with his interpretations of ANE cosmology from non-biblical texts. His only substantiation was the use of “bara” while ignoring the use of “asah” and ignoring other internal conflicts.
    Walton argued (42:07) “Gen 1 ought to be recognized as a kind of ANE ‘temple text’ because like ANE temple texts wherein gods rest in their temples, God also rested in his ‘temple’ of creation on the seventh day”. And that “this isn’t a matter Israel borrowed from the ancient world, but this is what a temple is for Israel … a Temple doesn’t exist until there is an inauguration, until God comes in and rests in the holy of holies. The material phase did not bring it into existence, the inauguration brought it into existence” (44:47).
    That is not letting the Gen 1 text stand on its own, that is imposing an ANE cosmology on both it and Israel.
    To further apply Walton’s ANE cosmological theory that something doesn’t exist without it having a function: a golden calf isn’t a golden calf until it is worshipped, until it served a function. When God forbids making graven images, it’s ok to fashion or form one and they don’t really exist in the material, until that graven image is functionally worshipped, at which time it exists and becomes forbidden.
    Walton argues that “it was good” means it was functional for people, and that by contrast in Gen 2 it was “not good” for man to be alone (~52:00). Here the ambiguity of Walton’s fuzzy, equivocal definition of functional vs material is exposed. Is woman a material creation or is she a functional one? Was Adam’s being alone by definition a lack of functional mate or a lack of a material mate? Is aloneness a function or a state?
    Lastly, in the Q&A at 1:06:00 – 1:09 Walton answers that he “doesn’t think Genesis is ‘myth’ because Genesis is believed as truth … Science serves the same function in our society that mythology served in Babylonian society … Gen 1 answers the same questions of how does this world work, how do I fit in to it, what is God doing … Neither science nor Genesis is called myth even though they serve the same functions (1:06:45)
    In what world does science, myth and scripture all serve the same function, and how can an OT Professor have such a distorted view of what Genesis 1 portrays: “How does this world work, how do I fit in to it, what is God doing”? That is not the Genesis 1 account in my bible.
    OTOH, if one believes that functional periods of time (as opposed to material time) is mythical, then it can certainly be argued Gen 1 and science are consistent in what they tell us of it. And of what theological use is such “insight”?

  7. Starwind
    2009 February 14 at 00:54

    Consider the problem of Schroedinger’s golden calf:

    If one person looks at a “golden calf” and recognizes its function in pagan worship, does the figurine exist? If another person looks at that same figurine but fails to recognize its purpose and sees only a shiny, yellow figurine, does the “golden calf” exist?
    Can the same physical figurine simultaneously exist for one observer but not for another? Can it simultaneously exist functionally and materially for one observer, but only materially for another? If it exists materially for both, does it not exist absolutely for everyone?

    Are we to believe God revealed eternal truths of His creation in terms of mistaken pagan myths? Is God not able to communicate His truth in His terms, without limitation?
    How might God ensure that Moses record the one true creation account, free of any mythical viewpoints held by pagans? If God actually wanted to convey a material creation account rather than a functional one, what words would God have used? What words did God use?

  8. 2009 February 14 at 23:06

    I have heard of the functional/material distinction before, and from what I remember, the theory was debunked. The ancients, in general, didn’t make the strong kind of distinctions that Westerns make. They were far more holistic.
    Now, I’m not sure if quoting Nachmanides is that great. He isn’t really ancient enough, and there are clear Greek influences in that quote. I would rather see some commentary out of the Talmud.
    I’ll get back to you on the content of the audio file. I still have to listen to it.

  9. Starwind
    2009 February 15 at 05:05

    The Talmud is the written commentary on the Mishneh, the Oral Law. The Rabbis, and Orthodox Jews in general, were obsessed with legalistic regulations (The Law) and most of their oral teachings related to behavior, purity, judicial process, etc, but not history. The Talmud consequently is an excellent source for information on observing Jewish Festivals, for example, but a poor source on the creation account, simply because it wasn’t something the Rabbis argued about or taught. Even the Targums (Aramaic versions of the Old Testament) have very little commentary or ‘margin notes’, and are of little help.
    The best Hebrew sources for background on Genesis 1 Hebrew text are Maimonides and Nachmanides.
    I omitted Maimonides as Nachmanides had a slightly fuller treatment. But here is Maimonides on the same subject:

    Among the things you ought to know is that that earth is an equivocal term used in a general and a particular sense. In a general sense it is applied to all that is beneath the sphere of the moon, I mean the four elements. In a particular sense it is applied to one element, the last among them, namely, earth. A proof of this is his saying: And the earth was unformed and void, and the darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God, and so on. Thus sometimes all the elements are called earth. Afterwards he says: And God called the dry land Earth. That also is a great secret; namely, wherever you find him saying, God named something thus, he does this in order to differentiate between the particular notion envisaged and the other notion equally signified by the term. For this reason I have interpreted to you the verse [Gen1:1] as follows: In the origin God created what is high and what is low. Hence the earth mentioned in the first place is what is low – I mean to say the four elements – whereas the earth of which it is said, And God called the dry land Earth, is the element earth alone. This is now clear.
    Among the things you ought to know is that the four elements are the first to be mentioned after the heaven. For, as we have said, the term earth mentioned in the first place applies to them. For he mentions earth, water, spirit and darkness.
    Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed Vol II, translated by Shlomo Pines, University of Chicago Press, pp 350, 351

    Consider also that both Maimonides and Nachmanides are “pre-science” as Bethyada uses the term, and thus their commentaries are not influenced in the slightest by modern scientific thought. It isn’t evident to me they are even influenced by ancient Greek thought, so I’d be interested in specifics of to what you alluded in the Nachmanides’ quote.

  10. Bert Dupree
    2009 October 12 at 14:00

    Although the Bible shows meticulous detail, the interpretation is always suspect. My problem has always been the idea of a God creating something out of nothing, until I read an article by “Professor Ellen van Wolde”. ‘She claims she has carried out fresh textual analysis, that suggests the writers of the great book never intended to suggest that God created the world — and in fact the Earth was already there when he created humans, and animals.”
    Her article can be found at:

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