Monday, June 22, 2015

Two Beautiful Books: Science... err... correction: Nature and Scripture (Part 6)

Over the past several blog posts, I have been in a series on thinking about science biblical and consistently as a Christian. The previous post summarized the first four posts, so you can head back there fore that summary. It also began us on the journey of moving forward, using the biblical view of science that we talked about from Scripture to learn how to live in a world like ours, which puts a great deal of weight on science. To use the analogy that I have been using in this series, we started to put "walls" and a "roof" on the "foundation" and "framework" of the intellectual houses we are building, and we are going to continue to do that in this post. 

At the end of the last post, we talked about mutual correction: the idea that proper interpretations of scientific data can help correct misinterpretations of Scripture and proper interpretations of Scripture can help correct misinterpretations of scientific data. And, I left that post with a question I was asked by a student, which is quite relevant: "How can I know where I should stand firm with my theology no matter what a scientist says and how can I know where I can perhaps let their theories alter my interpretation of Scripture?" That is a good place to pick back up the topic of moving forward to learn how to live in our day and age with this biblical view of science. 

So, how can we know where to stand firm with theology and where we can perhaps let a scientific theory affect our interpretation of Scripture? Well, we will get into this in more detail below when I will give what I think is a helpful method for handling apparent conflicts between science and Scripture, but there are few things that can be said here that should help with this question: 
  1. First, you and I should never make that determination alone. Scripture is one of God's great gifts to the Church as a whole and we interpret it as a community. So, seek help from others by talking to a pastor, campus minister, Christian friends, reading books, etc. Do not try to make the determination by yourself. Sometimes you might end up disagreeing with some of the people with whom you discuss the issue, but the mere fact that you do it together will help keep you from gross error and keep you humble. 
  2. Second, the creedal statements of Christianity are non-negotiable. The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Creed of Chalcedon put parameters around the Christian faith. They leave a lot of room when it comes to many, many doctrines, but they define Christianity in its outermost limits. If we stray beyond the theology of those creeds, then we have strayed beyond Christianity. Any statement of a scientist that attempts to overthrow a statement of those creeds--like God being the maker of heaven and earth, from the Apostles Creed--is just wrong. Stand firm on them. (By the way, this does not mean we do not need to know how to defend these creedal statements to non-believers, for we should be able to give the reason for the hope they give Christians, but it does mean we cannot budge on them. If we do, we do not have Christianity anymore and therefore there is nothing to defend.)
  3. Take into account the great confessions of Church history. These things are not infallible like the Bible itself, but they are great statements of theology that have stood the test of time. They have not been around as long as the creeds, but they still have a lot to teach us and we should not just haphazardly dismiss them. For example, I, as a PCA teaching elder, am bound by the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Catechisms. I can differ from them slightly, which I do in a few places, but even there I do not do that alone. My presbytery, which is the other teaching elders in my local geographic area, corrects me if I go too far in my differences from the confessions. In the next post, I will give some resources I recommend, and in it I will put links to the historic Reformed confessions that are still quite helpful here.
  4. Finally, Do not jump to any conclusions one way or another right way, but pray a lot, study a lot, and talk a lot to other Christians.
Now, in what I have said here and in the previous post, let us not forget the mutual correction of science and Scripture. Scripture properly interpreted can also correct scientific theories where they misinterpret nature. Scripture does not give a lot of detail about most of the areas that scientists study, but where it does give details, they are details that are from God, have His authority, and provide interpretive parameters or corrections for scientific theories. One example of this might be scientific theories that attempt to claim that humans and animals have really no substantial difference other than cognitive abilities. Some scientists attempt to claim that animals are just as valuable as humans because the only difference between us is how smart we are. That, of course, comes from their interpretation of the evidence based on the assumption that naturalism and evolution are indisputable facts, which they are not. The Bible can help correct this error by pointing out that humans are made in God's image, while animals are not. God may have used a lot of the same building blocks to make humans as He did to make animals, but that does not mean He did not endow humans with a natural value and dignity that far surpasses animals. Furthermore, God gave dominion over animals to humans, thus further defining human value far above animal value. Now, that does not mean we can just abuse animals, but it does mean that animal life is not even close to being as equally valuable as human life.

Understanding how scientific data can help us correct a misinterpretation of Scripture and Scripture can help us correct misinterpretations of scientific data (mutual correction) is one way that we start putting "walls" and a "roof" on our intellectual and spiritual houses. The last thing we need to discuss is how to handle apparent conflicts when they arise because they will arise, and we need to know how to deal with them wisely. This will also help us put "walls" and a "roof" on our house. 

So, how do we handle them? Well, let me say upfront that there is probably more than one "right" way to handle these things. What I am about to give you is a method I have found helpful and others have found helpful too. It is not foolproof, for nothing is, but I think it can help you make your "houses" livable enough to help you live confidently and comfortably as a Christian in our day and age.
  1. Remember what the biblical view of nature and Scripture is: Remember, as we learned in the previous posts, God is the author of both books, as we talked about yesterday, so this conflict that arises is only apparent; it is not real. Now, sometimes it may take a lot of work to figure out which book is being interpreted incorrectly and how to think about them properly, but while we work on that, we can rest in this truth. And, rest keeps us from anxiety, which helps us think more clearly about the issue. Christians have nothing to fear from scientific research because the scientist is researching God's domain--God's book. I meet many Christians who are afraid of science, but it is a tool God has given us to discover truth from His universe, so we have nothing to fear from it. 
  2. Remember the world in which we live, and do not be surprised: As we discussed in part four, we should expect there to be cases where a scientific theory appears to conflict with our interpretations of Scripture. Many scientists are interpreting the data from the worldview of naturalism, which does conflict with Scripture's theistic worldview, and, as we have talked about a lot, we are simply fallible beings, so we make mistakes. Because of those things, we know apparent conflicts will arise. A biblical view of science tells us to expect this, so do not be shocked when they come. Shock only increases our anxiety of these issues, which, again, clouds our ability to think through them, but if we can look at it and say, "Huh, that's odd, but it doesn't really surprise me that they might think that," then we will remain calm enough to think through the issue biblically and rationally.
  3. Remember not to jump to any conclusions too quickly: A biblical view of science and Scripture reminds us that either our interpretation of Scripture or the scientist's interpretation of nature is incorrect or both, and we need to be humble enough to jump to any conclusions before we have thought it through. 
  4. Check the source and wait: Things that come up in popular media via news, blogs, books, etc. all have a source behind them that points to the scientific research, and very often claims in the popular media are either reported incorrectly, too early, or are overturned by further scientific research. For example, here as some things to think about:
    1. When you read something in the news, did it come from a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal like Science, Nature, or The Astrophysical Journal or did it come from something someone present at a conference? There can be a big difference in the reliability of the data. At conferences, researches often share raw, infant ideas that can range from Nobel prize concepts to junk and dead ends. Sometimes unpublished, un-peer-reviewed claims are portrayed as scientific fact by the media when even the researchers would not say that. Whenever I presented a paper at a conference, I cringed when I saw journalists sitting on the front row because I new generally that they would not understand what is going on or report it as fact when it was not. Now, luckily for me, my research was not really important enough for them to report, but it does happen often. Check to see if the source is a journal or something less reliable like a conference. 
    2. If you have the ability, check out the source yourself. Even if it comes from a journal article, I have seen several occasions where the author was not saying anything close to what the news article claimed. If you do not have access to the journal through a university or a friend, then see if you can find someone who does. There are great ministries on that can help you think through these things here. One I really like is called Reasons to Believe. Email and ask them. They may have a resource that can help you or they may plan to comment on it. I would not mind helping you either, though I would be a distant second to the brilliant men and women at RTB, but feel free to ask me. 
    3. And, remember to wait. Stuff in the best journals is still debatable, and further research may change the claim. For example, does anyone remember the fossil Ida that was introduced back in 2009? It was claimed to be a "missing link" that would totally change the way scientists view human evolution and would solidify the theory of evolution. It was introduced with a huge media circus and got so much hype that even Google dedicated a logo to it. Well, after several months, other papers started coming out questioning how helpful the fossil really was, and eventually the scientists who introduced it had to admit that their claims were far overblown. Just waiting would have shown many stressed-out Christians that this "discovery" does not really change anything at all and does not solidify anything with Darwinian evolution. 
    4. So, check the source and wait. And, waiting can be done very easily with Google's handy "Google alerts" tool. If you are concerned about an apparent conflict, create a Google alert that will send the most recent information your way without you having to go looking for it, and then see what comes up. 
  5. Attempt to separate the data from the interpretation of the data: Again, a biblical view of science reminds us that science is a tool that produces data and then that data is interpreted within a worldview. The data itself will not conflict with Scripture if it is properly extracted and recorded, but the interpretation might easily conflict because it might come from a scientists whose worldview is naturalism. But, if we can separate the data from the interpretation, then we can take a clear look at it and see how it fits within Scripture. Sometimes a biblical interpretation will look almost identical to the original; other times there will be significant differences. Now, this may take a lot of time and discussion with colleagues, friends, or consulting books or ministries that help Christians with apologetics, but if we really believe God wrote the books of nature and Scripture, then we know the data will fit within a biblical model, we just have to do the work of separation and interpretation within a biblical worldview. If you want an example of this, check out my posts on Adam and Eve here, here (this one especially illustrates this point), here, and here.
  6. Remember to consider your interpretation of Scripture as well: In these apparent conflicts our goal is not to prove ourselves right (at least it should not be). Our goal should be to discover God's truth in order to bring Him glory. While we have considered so far how to think about the scientific side of the apparent controversy, we cannot skip over the possibility that the error may be on the theological side. We need to examine our exegesis of the Scripture passages that address the issue, we need to consult others like a pastor or campus minister, we need to do some reading on the subject, and we need to be as certain as we can be that the error is not in our interpretation of Scripture. And, like with the scientific research, sometimes this takes time. Sometimes we have to consider a number of different views before we can try to determine which seems the most faithful to God's revelation in Scripture and in nature. But, if we are resting in a biblical view of science and Scripture, we can take the time without becoming anxious because know there is a resolution, even if we cannot find it right away. 
  7. Strive to be humble: Honestly, this is contradiction in terms because one cannot "strive" to be humble, but what I mean is that in this whole process, we must remember that we are just as fallible, biased, and sinful as the most hardened, virulent "new atheist." The only difference between us and them is that we have God's grace, forgiveness, salvation, and Holy Spirit (not from anything in us but as a gift so no man can boast, Eph. 2:8-9). The only reason that you and I understand and believe the Scriptures is the Spirit's illumination (1 Co. 2:9-12), therefore we need to be humble when responding to critics, evaluating someone's work, or discussing apparent conflicts with others.
  8. Do not go it alone: I have already said this several times, but this is not something we need to be trying to do alone. We need the wisdom of the Christian community. We need friends, family, campus ministers, pastors, etc. to help us think through these things. Some of the people we consult might not be helpful in the pursuit of truth but some probably will be, and even if we end up not agreeing with them, their viewpoint will help us refine our own. 
  9. Pray: When Nehemiah stood before the King Artaxerxes to request permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls around the new Temple, he was in a tenuous spot. He could have been killed for his request. In 2:4 the king asks the question "What are you requesting?" and before Nehemiah responded, Scripture tells us that he prayed. In that moment--a second or two--he prayed for wisdom and God gave it to him. We need to pray for wisdom when trying to figure these things out. Sometimes they are very difficult. We need to pray that God will help us sort out the truth from interpretation, and we need to pray that He will help us come to a proper understanding of both His Word and His world, for His glory and our good. 
  10. Remember that God is still God and Jesus is still coming back: Sometimes you will not be able to figure it out, even after having studied the scientific data and Scripture. Sometimes you will not be able to figure out which interpretation is in error. Even the best scholars and academics have to say, "I don't know" sometimes. Hopefully these times will be rare, but they will probably happen every now and then. In those times, a biblical view of science and Scripture reminds us that just because we cannot figure it out does not mean there is no solution, and we need to be humble enough to admit that. The issue might be a paradox, but a biblical view of science and Scripture reminds us that it is not a contradiction, so we can rest in that truth. Do you know the difference between a paradox and a contradiction?
    1. A paradox is something that seems contradictory but actually is not. The reason it seems contradictory is because we cannot find the solution, but we know there is one. Every theology and scientific model has its share of paradoxes. For example, in theology, Scripture upholds the sovereignty of God over everything, including man's salvation, and Scripture also upholds human responsibility for their actions. Are those contradictory? No, because God teaches them both and cannot contradict Himself. There is a solution to how those two work together, but God has chosen not to share it with us. When Paul considers this paradox, he does not even try to pose a resolution but simply says, "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" (cf. Ro. 9), and if it was too much for Paul writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is too much for you and I. Another example from the sciences would be wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics. This is the evidence from nature, that a subatomic particle exhibits both particle and wave properties. How can something be a point in space and also a wave at the same time? No one really knows, but we do know that it happens. It is a paradox because there is a solution, we do not have it yet.
    2. A contradiction means there is no possible solution. It is like saying 1+1=2 and 1+1=5. There is no way to reconcile those statements, so they are contradictory.
    3. A biblical view of science and Scripture tells us that God is the author of both books, so there is no contradiction, but sometimes paradoxes will arise because either God has chosen not to give us all the information we need to solve the problem or we just have not figured it out yet. We live in a fallen world full of sinful people who do not know everything and make mistakes, so sometimes the solution is beyond you and me, and that is okay because God is still God and Jesus is still coming back. I hate not being able to figure something out as much as the next guy, but sometimes (rarely but sometimes) we need to admit it is too much for us, trust God, and go get a milkshake.
Alright, that is my general "method" for handling apparent conflicts between what scientists say and what we read in Scripture. Hopefully you will find it helpful enough to help you put "walls" and a "roof" on your intellectual and spiritual "house." This also brings my discussion of a biblical view of science to a close. Certainly there is more that can be written on this topic, but I hope and pray this will give you a solid start as you consider the tool of science. Please feel free to ask me any questions you might have or check out my "science" tag for stuff I have written on various subjects. 

In the next post, I will list out a number of resources that you might find helpful for various sub-topics of science and Christianity. It will not be an exhaustive list by any means, but it will give you enough material to keep you reading for a while. 

By His Grace,

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