Thursday, June 4, 2015

Two Beautiful Books: Science... err... correction: Nature and Scripture (Part 3)

In the past couple of posts I have been attempting to give Christians a framework for living as believers in a world that puts a great deal of weight on science, and what I have been trying to do is to help my Christian readers learn to think biblically about science and consistently as a Christian. I am using the analogy of building a house--I want to help you build an intellectual and spiritual house in which you can "live" as a Christian in our world. In the first two posts, we have started to do that by talking about God's revelation of Himself and His truth:
  1. In the first post of this series, I defended the idea that all truth is God's truth, and in some fashion all truths point us to God, which is the concrete for our foundation in the metaphorical houses we are building. 
  2. In the second post of this series, we looked at the Belgic Confession and saw that God reveals His truth and we discover it through the two "books" of nature and Scripture. From that I argued that God has revealed Himself infallibly in the books Scripture and nature, and since God is the author of both books there is no inherent contradiction between the two. When it comes to the house we are building, this is the foundation upon which we will build everything else.
At the end of the last post, however, I posed an objection that I think will likely come to mind when this foundation is laid: "Okay, you're saying there's no contradiction between the two, but I see contradictions in a number of areas." If you are thinking that, that is a good observation that points us in direction of the next biblical truth at which we will start to look today: human fallibility. (By fallibility, I just mean that humans are prone to make mistake because we are not perfect.) The first two posts were about God's revelation, and in this post and the next we will look at the topic of human fallibility and how understanding that helps us to think biblically about science and consistently as Christians. (And, hopefully if you are familiar with Internet memes, you get the relevance of the Picard picture.) By the way, this will also help us understand the nature of the apparent conflicts that we seem to see between "science and Christianity."

First, we need to talk about tools for understanding God's revelation in the books of nature and Scripture. When it comes to understanding the books of nature and Scripture, there are tools or processes that we use to discover the truth in them. In many cases, the actual teaching of Scripture--what God is actually revealing through it--does not just jump off the pages for us to receive as truth, and in most cases, the actual truth about our physical reality--what God is actually revealing through it--does not just jump up out of nature to us to receive as truth. In both cases, study must be done to get at the truth God is revealing through each of these books. And, we use tools in this study:
  • For Scripture, the main tools are exegesis and interpretation. Exegesis is the study of a text to bring out its meaning--what God is actually teaching us through it. This is what we all do on some level when we read Scripture. Sometimes it might be as simple as reading the context of a verse or passage and then asking the question of what a particular statement means in the overall context of a story or teaching of Scripture. Sometimes it might be a rigorous, detailed study of a just a sentence or two by looking at the original languages, consulting commentaries, etc. Either way, when we attempt to get at the truth of the actual teaching of Scripture, we are using the tool of exegesis to give us the data. But, our study does not stop there. Then, once we think we understand the teaching of a passage, we have to interpret that bit of data for our lives based on the passage as well as how it fits with the rest of Scripture, and when we do that, we form theologies of Scripture. Through that process we attempt to find the truth God is actually teaching in the Bible. 
  • For nature, the main tools are science and interpretation. Science can be defined simply as the systematic study of the natural universe in which we live through observation and experimentation. Again, we all do this at some times in our lives. Even my two-year-old son does this almost naturally. He learns about cause and effect, gravity, the states of objects, hot and cold, and many other things by trying it out. He takes a toy, stands it up, and then pushes it over, and from that he learns to intuit cause and effect and even a little bit about gravity. But, his research does not stop there. He then takes the toy somewhere else and repeats the experiment. And, what does he find? The same thing happens in a different place! Amazing! Even a two-year-old does low-level science. And, of course, science can take the form of formal, rigorous observation and experimentation in a lab, on a dig, or with a telescope. But, again, our study does not stop there. Our use of the tool of science gives us data, and then we have to interpret that data for our lives based on the laws of physics, our presupposed beliefs (which we will talk about in a later post), and other scientific theories, and when we do that, we form other theories or scientific models for understanding the universe. Through that process we attempt to find the truth God is actually teaching us in nature. 
When thinking about discovering truth in this way, we can see that the process in both cases is pretty much the same: we collect data (through exegesis or science) and we interpret data. And, the end of each is an attempt to understand truth.

Now, in talking about those tools we start to get a bit of the next biblical truth that builds on the foundation we laid in the first two posts. The study of nature and the study of Scripture are processes done by humans to get at the truth. Science and exegesis are the tools of that process, which give us data that we interpret. So, from this we must remember that properly speaking, science and Scripture, science and faith, science and religion, or however we entitle the alleged conflict, those things do not actually interact, per se, people do. The science of nature and the exegesis of Scripture no more interact than a hammer and a circular saw do. They are tools, and tools do not interact or conflict. But, people interact all the time. People who use these tools can run into conflict. And, with that, we begin to move in the direction of understanding the apparent conflicts we hear about between "science and Christianity."

Alright, so we said in the previous post that God's revelation through the books of nature and Scripture will never conflict, and today we have add to that by saying that the science and exegesis are tools we use for interpretation of these books to form theories or theologies, so these tools do not really interact; people do. So, knowing that, what do you think would be the nature of the apparent conflicts that we hear about between science and Scripture? The problem is not God's revelation in either book; they are both infallible (see the previous post). The problem is not the tools, for they are essentially neutral. The problem is the people. We are fallible people using tools to study and interpret God's infallible revelation. In fact, we could update our chart from the previous post a little more here:

Special Revelation
General Revelation
God’s Word in Scripture
God’s Word in nature
Exegesis -> Interpretation -> Theology
Science -> Interpretation -> Theory

God's revelation exists in the top row. But, we humans live in the bottom row. Remembering this helps us to think biblically about science and Scripture. Scientific theories are not infallible like God's revelation in nature is. And, theological systems are not infallible like God's revelation in Scripture is.

Really what we are talking about here is the effects of the fall on our study of both nature and Scripture. Before the fall, man was sinless; so when Adam and Eve made an observation and interpretation of nature, it was one unsullied by sin that conformed to the truth of reality--the way things actually are. When Adam and Eve considered and interpreted something God said to them (i.e. His Word for them), it was untarnished by sin and conformed to His actual teaching. But, now that we are sinful men and women trying our best to study both Scripture and nature, our minds, hearts, and even our actions are tainted by sin. Sin makes us fallible in many ways. So, when we come across apparent conflicts, there are really three options for where the problem/mistake lies:
  1. Sometimes we make mistakes in our exegesis and interpretation of Scripture. We as Christians must be humble enough to admit this because it is simply a fact of life. There would not be debates over the length of days in Ge. 1, between Reformed and Arminians, about the end times, or about many other theological subjects if we were not sinful, fallible humans. 
  2. Sometimes we make mistakes in our scientific research and interpretation of nature. We as Christians need to understand this and remember this when a scientific theory appears to conflict with the Bible. The men and women who propose those theories are fallible, sinful humans as well.
  3. Sometimes (maybe even often) we make mistakes in our study of both books. Sometimes we have interpreted our Scriptures incorrectly and we have interpreted the data from science incorrectly, and therefore a conflict may arise from that. (In fact, I would argue that this is probably the case more often than not.)
Now, at this point, we need to caution ourselves and be humble enough to remember that just because an apparent conflict arises does not mean we should automatically jump to the conclusion that the scientist is the one in error. We also do not automatically jump to the conclusion that our theology is in error. We can see sad examples of both knee-jerk reactions in Christian history, and maybe a couple historical examples of this would be helpful here. Here are two opposite examples:

Take the example from Christian history of the geocentric model of our solar system--i.e. the earth being the center of our solar system--vs the heliocentric model of our solar system--i.e. the sun being the center of the solar system. For hundreds of years both Christians and non-Christian scientists believed that the earth was the center of our solar system. Ever since Ptolemy of the second century AD, it was held as incontrovertible by all "thinking" people that the earth was the center of the solar system and the sun moved around it. This view was held by scientists because of simple observations of the world around us (think about it, even today we still use phrases like "the sun moving across the sky"). It was also held by Christians because it was thought to be the plain implication of Scriptures that talk about the sun's movement, like Jos. 10 where it specifically says, "the sun stood still, and the moon stopped." Then, Copernicus came along in the sixteenth century and published his heliocentric model. Now, at the time, his model was not generally accepted by either scientists or Christians. And, the two great reformers--Luther and Calvin--had some strong words for Copernicus. Luther wrote in his Table Talk booklet in 1539:
There was mention of a certain new astrologer who wanted to prove that the earth moves and not the sky, the sun, and the moon. This would be as if somebody were riding on a cart or in a ship and imagined that he was standing still while the earth and the trees were moving. So it goes now. Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth [Jos. 10:12].
Calvin was less direct towards Copernicus, but he did make an indirect statement that was strong in a sermon on 1 Co. where he warns against those who say "that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that moves." And, he calls them "stark raving mad" and demon possessed.

I do not know of anyone today who still tries to claim that the earth is the center of the solar system, but Luther and Calvin were convinced that the their interpretation of Jos. 10:12 and other Scriptures was infallible and therefore Copernicus was obviously wrong. Now, I am not saying they should have immediately overturned 1500 years of interpretation, for even the scientists of their day did not agree with Copernicus, yet this example does show they jumped to a conclusion too quickly. Brilliant men like Luther and Calvin immediately jumped to the conclusion that the scientist was wrong, not being humble enough at this point even to consider the other possibility. We need not to make the same mistake. Over time both scientists and Christians realized that Copernicus was right for the most part. But, it took a while. Even with Galileo, the controversy did not end. It really did not end in the sciences until Newton--about 200 years after Copernicus.

An alternate example might be Steady-State cosmology. In the early twentieth century because of conclusions from general relativity, cosmologists knew that the universe could not be static, so they postulated that the universe had no beginning but that matter was being continuously created as the universe expanded. As silly as that sounds to us today, this theory was very popular until the 1960's when observations of the universe showed it was simply untenable. In the early twentieth century, this theory gave atheist scientists intellectual reason to reject God's creation of the universe in any fashion because their model said the universe had no beginning (so it needed no Beginner), so we can understand why they latched onto it. Yet, a quick survey of Christian journals in the 1930's and 40's will find dozens of papers arguing that Christians must accept Steady-State cosmology and treat Ge. 1 like an allegory, which is just a story or poem that has no historical basis but is written simply to teach a moral truth. Well, with the rise of Big Bang cosmology, scientists had to admit they were wrong about Steady-State cosmology and that the universe did have a beginning (which was a hard thing for an atheist to admit), and suddenly all those Christians who said we had to agree with Steady-State cosmology had egg on their faces. Here, we have an opposite example: Christians who assumed theologians had to be wrong, and they regretted it.

The effects of the fall are a biblical reality that should remind Christians not to jump to any knee-jerk reaction about the latest scientific theories that appear to conflict with common interpretations of Scripture. We will talk more about how to handle them later, but for now, we need to remember that both theologians and scientists are fallible, and this gives us another key component to our biblical view of science and our metaphorical houses: When apparent conflicts arise, it is not because science and the Bible are in conflict but because we human beings are either interpreting Scripture wrongly, the scientific data wrongly, or both wrongly. This is the framework for our house that we are building. Sometimes what seems like a conflict with Scripture from the sciences is actually a truth from God's revelation in nature that helps us refine our interpretation of God's revelation in Scripture, as the example of Luther and Calvin shows us. Sometimes what seems like a conflict with Scripture from the sciences is actually just a popular theory that may be corrected later with better observations of nature. Sometimes it might be a combination of both.

Now, when I say science and Scripture do not conflict, people do; and when I say apparent contradictions are a result of fallible humans interpreting Scripture wrongly, the scientific data wrongly, or both wrongly, I am telling you the nature of the apparent conflicts. But, what gives rise to these conflicts? From where do they come? That is the source of the clashes, and it is a clash of worldviews. But, this post is long enough, so we will pick that up next week in part four.

By His Grace,

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