Mar 19 2009

The Next Great Awakening, part 6: Biblical inerrancy and science

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 7:42 pm

The previous post in this series is here.

A long lost high school friend (recently rediscovered on the internet) and I have been having an amiable conversation about the Creation, particularly the age of the universe.  This is especially fun since in high school I was mostly an atheist or agnostic, I suppose, and I was unaware of any religious leanings in my friend.  But these days, I am probably best described as an “old earth Creationist” who finds some form of “progressive Creation” to be a coherent explanation of the facts of scripture and science.  He appears to be a “young earth Creationist” who thinks the universe is maybe 6,000-10,000 years old.

Both of us would say we “believe the Bible”, yet we disagree.  The nub of the conversation is what is meant by “Biblical inerrancy.”  Historical Christians, including the early church fathers in the Patristic period, have had various points of view on that.   I think almost anyone will have to agree that no definition of “Biblical inerrancy” can remove from us the responsibility to understand what the Bible is really saying, and what it was intended to say by those who wrote it, though I think sometimes God found ways to say things in the scripture that the writers themselves may not have fully understood, and whose meaning would not become clear until later generations.  We see that happen in the Old Testament, especially in prophecy, though not necessarily only that, and we certainly see it happen in the New Testament, as well.

But to get a flavor:

The medieval church clearly believed that its commitment to scripture required it to embrace a geocentric universe, instead of a heliocentric solar system.  In the end, it didn’t matter what the church thought the scripture meant; the facts were the facts.

It is clear that what was errant was not scripture itself, but the interpretation of it.  That sorry episode has been used by a good many would-be scripture-debunkers down through the centuries.

We see some verses in the NT that very clearly suggest that the writers believed the end-times were quite near.   Even Jesus seems to be suggesting this.   I find those to be interesting passages, because I think God wanted to tell us something in them, but it clearly was not what the writers thought.   There is evidence that some in the first and second generation of readers of those scriptures (the first generation after they were written) believed they were saying the end was quite near, within their lifetimes.   But it didn’t happen that way.  So what are we to do?  Throw up our hands (as the skeptics do) and say that proves the Bible is sometimes wrong or error-prone?   Or do we seek ways to harmonize the plain facts (we’re still here, aren’t we?) with the scripture in a way that does justice to both scripture and the facts, denies the truth of neither, and seeks a way of understanding each in the light of the other?

But historical truth isn’t the only kind of truth.  There really IS such a thing as scientific truth.  In fact, historical truth and scientific truth are two sides of the same thing, in many ways.  If there isn’t such a thing as historical and scientific truth, then there is no such thing as Biblical truth, because we have no means other than essentially historical and scientific ones to determine if a particular manuscript is reliable or fake, to determine if we have translated it correctly, to determine the cultural (archaeological, too) facts surrounding the scripture, etc.  We know that the Gospel of Judas is not a reliable guide to much of anything for basically scientific and historical reasons that locate it outside of the early, reliable revelation.  There is no scripture that says, “ignore the Gospel of Judas,” for very good reasons; it didn’t exist yet, a fact we know from history and science, not scripture.

There are other kinds of science, of course, and the question is always how reliable are the conclusions of a particular scientist, or the implications of a particular theory.

There is a point (and believers will locate that point differently, depending on what they know of science, and on the degree of their commitment to a particular interpretation of scripture) where a scientific “theory” is so validated, so supported by every conceivable piece of evidence, that it cannot be gainsaid by anyone who has enough faith in science to use it for any other purpose, say, for example, to trust an airplane to fly and land safely.   No modern Christian believes it is an article of scripturally required faith that the Earth is the center of the solar system.  And similarly, there are many of us who are utterly convinced that the universe is indeed very, very old, that the Earth has been around a very long time, and that there have indeed been billions of years of life on Earth.

We are no smarter, nor more faithful, than the scientifically and hermeneutically confused medieval clergy who persecuted Galileo.   We simply have access to information they did not.   Indeed, I think it safe to say that if any of those worthies could be brought forward in a time machine to review modern evidence on the matter at hand, they would be likely to agree that the Sun is the center of the solar system.

Some of us are pretty sure that the tipping point has been well-passed, similarly, in the matter of the age of the universe.   I find the astronomical evidence utterly convincing.   That’s probably partly because I find it easier to understand than the geological evidence for the age of the Earth, not that I doubt either.   On the other hand, I have very large doubts about macro-evolution, finding it highly unsatisfactory both in its own terms and in scriptural terms, requiring as it does a God who “cheats at solitaire” by using a “random” process to “create” us, if that randomness is understood as a process that didn’t HAVE to lead to us (the standard understanding among evolutionists).  That’s why I continue to find “theistic evolution” such a stretch.   But I am always entertained by the efforts of materialist scientists to explain the origin of life, concerning which many have adopted the X-Files explanation.

But my central point is that I am not impervious to evidence that my interpretation of scripture may be awry.   So, I try to “keep an open mind” about what scriptural passages might mean when they appear susceptible of multiple interpretations (especially when those interpretations are all equally capable of supporting historical understandings of “salvation history.”   I don’t think it is evidence of lack of faith or distrust of the Bible to look for extra-Biblical sources to aid my understanding of scripture, including science.   Indeed, Paul tells us to test everything, and hold to what is true.

It is said by some that, “God’s word is inerrant and sufficient.”   The question is, inerrant with what interpretation, and sufficient for what?  The answers, I think:  it is inerrant when we understand how to interpret it (i.e., there seems to be no “fixed target” for peripheral matters, but plenty of clarity for central teachings), and it is sufficient for us to know enough about God for His purpose of salvation.

But there can be no such thing as inerrancy without correct interpretation (and there will be things we simply do not and cannot know), and there is little sense in claiming the Bible has all we need to know to live our lives, if that is what is meant by “sufficiency.”  Most of us have jobs that require us to know something beyond the Bible, just to take the simplest example.

And it is completely clear that in the history of the church, the most influential strands have always been among the best educated in disciplines outside the study of the scripture.  In fact, the church was the preserver of such studies when others had forgotten or ignored them.

The final irony, for me: there is an awfully high proportion of Ph.D.s among the scientists most often quoted by “young earth creationists,” who are the ones likely to assert that scripture is “inerrant and sufficient” without the qualifications I listed above.   And those Ph.D.s usually aren’t in Biblical studies, implying that some kinds of knowledge and study other than the Bible are important, even to those making the “inerrant and sufficient” claim.

One of the things I pray for is a rapproachment between believers, so that those who believe in a “young earth” (which I believe places an unnecessarily large road block to believing the Bible for many modern, educated people) and those who embrace the findings of science regarding the age of Creation can just “get along.”  Some of the ad hominem attacks and imputations of ill motives made in the discussions do not serve the King.  To quote one writer, responding to the assertion that old-earth creationism is heretical:

Of course, there are Christians on both sides of age-of-the-earth debate who are guilty of poor behavior. To this end, we must always be mindful that it is love that builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1) and our conversations should always [be] full of grace (Colossians 4:6).

I love to discuss, and, I admit, to argue. But I hope always to do so in a spirit of love and fellow believer-ship, and to “keep it in the family”, i.e., keep it from becoming a stumbling block to those we want to attract to the Faith.

The next post in this series is here.