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Can You Trust the Bible?

Is the Bible Anti-Science?

One of the many things that I do that annoys the easily annoyed is that I complicate supposedly simple things. When people denounce the Bible as “anti-science,” I annoy them with questions about the definition and limits of science. Then I challenge their perception of Scripture as merely a collection of unsophisticated children’s stories. 

While doing my Ph.D., I worked as a security guard at a hoity-toity high school. Once, while reading my Bible, a student said, “Why are you reading the Bible when Science has proven that there is no God?” I retorted, “My goodness, Science sure has come a long way. Last I checked, Science was limited to the material world, and was incapable of proving the non-existence of anything.” He scoffed and went on his way. This assumption was not generated in a vacuum, sadly. The student learned this disposition towards “science” from his science teacher, who once boasted to me that ‘science’ has solved nearly every great mystery of the world and has disproven the existence of the immaterial world. 

Perhaps you yourself have wondered if the Bible is anti-science. It is, after all, filled with miracles, talk of angels and demons, odd creation stories, visions, prophetic dreams, and the like. So, is the Bible anti-science? 

Quick answer: NO. 

Annoying answer: Define Science. Articulate the limits of Science. Describe the “pre-scientific” understanding of reality. Then ask me that question again.

Let’s unpack… 

Define Science

In modern times, the word science has taken on mythic proportions. Thanks to Thomas Dolby, it even has its own theme music. Unfortunately, its legend has incorporated many elements that go well beyond its definition. “Oxford Languages” defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In other words, science is a methodology for studying our physical world where knowledge is gained through observation and experimentation.

The Limits of Sciene

So, science is an inductive method for studying the material world. That’s it. It is limited by the human capacity for observation, measurement, and the ability to conduct experiments with consistent outcomes. Scientists can be considered experts in many matters pertaining to the physical world, and their knowledge should be both welcomed and questioned. Unfortunately, this does not prevent some scientists, or the “Scientific-minded” from venturing authoritatively into the realms of the unobservable and unobserved.

People like the teacher and student I mentioned above believe science can “inform” or “prove” many more things than it actually can. For instance, logical and mathematical truths are outside the realm of science and must be presupposed in order to do experiments. Math is rooted in deduction, not induction. Questions about morality or the observation of aesthetic qualities such as goodness or beauty are not determinable through the scientific method. Metaphysical truths, like believing that there are other minds than one’s own, cannot be proven in laboratory experiments. Even the scientific method itself cannot be validated by the scientific method!

The Pre-Scientific Understanding of Reality

Being raised in a science-minded civilization, we tend to divide history into two pieces… scientific and pre-scientific. When we say Pre-scientific, we typically mean “ignorant of reality” and “governed by silly religious superstitions.” This is quite misguided. 

Ancient documents, like pagan myths and even Scripture, were not pre-scientific attempts at science… far from it. Humans of every age and place have observed the cause-effect structures of the material world, continually adding to the compendium of human knowledge over the millennia. We are still learning, and still find ourselves having to unlearn many things that we were absolutely certain we already understood. No, what changed between the scientific and pre-scientific eras of man is, rather, the interest that our respective societies have in the world, our perceptions of the nature of reality itself, and our purpose in seeking to understand the world around us. 

Most scientific-minded people believe they live in a world of only physical things, governed by material laws alone. They accept only material causes as explanations for all phenomena. 

Pre-scientific people were functionally-minded, living in a world of human striving to survive and thrive. They were trying to discover and describe the behavioral patterns that lead to spreading human flourishing… at least for their group. While they were attentive to material cause-effect and implemented that knowledge practically, they were also concerned with the ultimate cause behind material causes. 

We might imagine a No-Smoking sign. Some will talk about the material that went into the sign, or about the script used to deliver the message, or even the dynamics of its support. These are material-minded thinkers. The functional-minded man reads the sign and puts out his cigarette. So… who really understands the sign?

Regarding creation, we modern folk want to know how old the earth is, where all the stuff came from, the processes by which it became what it is… and we imagine that by discovering this we have come to truly understand the world. 

Pre-modern folk, however, wanted to know how the world works, so they could work well within it. Biblical literature is, therefore, as is most of the literary arts of the ancients, wisdom centered… at least in intention… and should be read so. 

The Bible is Not Anti-Science

The answers that ancient people gave about the struggle for human thriving—often articulated creatively in their myths—vary slightly from society to society, but most systems fall naturally under the label “pagan.” In Scripture, we find a radical departure from the pagan struggle for human thriving, but not a departure from their functional orientation to the world. It is important, therefore, to understand what we are reading in Scripture—a wisdom approach to reality. 

Applying a supposed scientific model of interpretation to pre-scientific stories about creation is a grand mistake. This does not make Scripture anti-science. It simply recognizes a completely different orientation to reality, to human need, and to biblical content. We must not demand that Scripture satisfy our modern curiosity about the material world; it is not written to do so. Rather we need to discern what the Bible intended to communicate about living in God’s world as it uses terms, grammar, literary relationships and structure, as well as genre to preach truth to minds struggling with a pagan worldview. 

Properly-applied scientific method, if freed from its enslavement to philosophical materialism and from the agendas of world power players, may add much to our knowledge of the processes of God in His world. Faith has nothing to fear from facts. This does not suggest that “scientists” have figured it all out, nor that what they think they’ve figured out is true. It merely holds out the possibility that man could, if unfettered by hubris and agenda, discover much more about the material world, and more easily escape their enslavement to unprofitable philosophical commitments so as to use this collection of facts wisely… i.e. to promote spreading human flourishing. 

Properly-understood Scripture, if freed from modern attempts to force its ancient texts into a scientific mold, would in turn, more easily bequeath to the modern reader its message of wise action in God’s world. 

Armed with this understanding, we are better prepared to address each instance in which some have proposed a conflict between “science” and Scripture, and can do so without fear. Neither Scripture nor faith has anything to fear from the truth. The Bible is NOT anti-science, but its authors have a different orientation to life… one outside the purview of the scientific method. The Bible is NOT anti-science, for it is the book inspired by the Creator of all.

 

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Can You Trust the Bible?

Can You Trust the Bible?

One of the questions I get asked the most about the Bible concerns some element of its trustworthiness. “Can you trust the Bible?” 

In fact, I was asked to speak at a philosophy conference many years ago, in which my question for the evening was, “Is the Bible Reliable?” In the weeks leading up to the event, I asked the moderator for a few more specifics on what he meant by reliable, qualifying “reliable for what?” He laughed and told me to take it where I felt inclined. 

He was less than pleased when I opened the lecture part of my discussion with a list of things that we could absolutely rely on the Bible to accomplish. For instance, your Bible will hold up one corner of your couch if its leg is broken. It may be a sacrilege, but it will work. I have a friend who once used a bible to defend us against a street gang intent on robbing us. It was efficient. Indeed, a good Bible will even stop most bullets… assuming it’s not a digital one on your smartphone. 

I followed with a list of things that one could NOT rely on the Bible to do. You cannot rely on all of Scripture to be easy to understand, or to give up all its secrets to the casual observer. You cannot rely on the Bible to reflect your own cultural or personal sensibilities back to you, or to use all your own categories for understanding the world. Scripture is neither a math text, nor encyclopedia, nor dictionary, nor comprehensive history of the world written with modern standards of what does and does not constitute history. It is not a manual on psychology, philosophy, economics, nor is it a textbook on biology, archaeology, linguistics, physics, chemistry, anthropology or medicine. 

This does not make its literature primitive babble, nor insist that the Bible is utterly useless when discussing these matters, but it does mean that the authors’ orientation to the world, their vocabulary and categories will not replicate our own. It does mean that the intention of the writers is not to satisfy inquiring minds, but is to impart a specific body of understanding and wisdom to the diligent student. 

While we categorize the animal world with mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and the like, it is perfectly acceptable for the inspired writers to present a world organized around different categories, like swims, crawls, or flies. In that case, a whale can be called a great fish, a bat can be classed with birds. My inability to trust Scripture to organize reality as my modern mind does is NOT a testament to its frailty, but to the important distinction between wisdom and knowledge. 

The cosmology of Scripture, for instance—the vision of the structure and nature of the world—has the disadvantage of being almost entirely presented in poetry, making their beliefs about material world forces difficult to discern with precision. For instance, it is plain from the historical texts written in prose—normal talk—that the ancients understood quite well that rain came from clouds and that clouds were made of water, but that does not keep their prophets from recording God’s poetic challenge to Job and his friends saying, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail…?” Just so, sailors have known for ages that the earth is round, witnessing at sea as the hulls of ships disappeared from view before their sails, exposing the curvature to view. In fact the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes discovered the circumference of the earth with a stick and a shadow almost three centuries before Jesus walked the shores of the Mediterranean. 

There is a big difference between what the arrogance of modern souls imagine about the ignorance of the past and what the ancients actually knew. We can trust the Scriptures to present to us the divine wisdom of the ages in an ancient husk, if we are wise enough to wrestle our way to it. Hubris will sabotage us.

Let’s finish with one more. You cannot rely on Scripture to be a science book. The scientific method was articulated millennia after the writing of even the newest Scriptures. Our particular way of thinking about and talking about the world as scientific-minded readers (However poorly we do at it) will not be reflected back at us. This does not make Scripture untrustworthy or wrong, rather it qualifies the kinds of discussions we can and cannot have with the Biblical text. 

For example: The Creation story of Scripture, which in truth stretches from Genesis 1 through Genesis 11 is not interested in our modern ontological curiosities about the origin of the material world. The Biblical Creation story is more interested in functional ontology than material ontology. Scripture tells us not about the origins of all the stuff, beginning its tale with the material world in place, unformed as it was, but does tell us about the nature of divine order in creation as God takes that material and turns it into a functional world. 

We want to know “when” and “how,” but the author of Genesis wants to talk about “Who,” and “Why,” and “What.” Who made the world? What did He make the world to be? Why did He make the world? How did He make it to function? The ultimate question then becomes a wisdom question: How can I function best in the world that Yahweh made and that man has influenced? This is the Bible’s bailiwick. 

The inspired descriptions of creation are made within the bounds of interest for the inspired writer, dealing with the realities of a world drowning in paganism. Therefore, I cannot rely on him to dazzle me with a scientifically definitive answer to questions of “when” and “how,” but I CAN rely on the prophetic writer to tell me the truth about life before the one Holy Creator of all. I can trust him to tell me the truth about the fundamental problem in the world’s systems. I can trust the Bible to speak true about the hope that we have for redemption and restoration in the salvation plan of that Holy Creator. 

This does not mean that the inspired writers are ignorant clods on all matters we would regard as scientific. They lived and prospered in their world far better than most of us would if magically transported there. True, we understand many things that they do not. We know how far the moon is from the earth. We know what the bottom of the ocean looks like. We even know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. But we don’t know many things that they understood intuitively and that they learned by lived experiences so different from our own. 

It reminds me of the punch line in the majestic poem in Job 28, which after detailing all the then-modern accomplishments of man, asks the more meaningful question. We find boasts like those in verses 3 & 4, saying, “Man puts an end to darkness, And to the farthest limit he searches out. The rock in gloom and deep shadow. He sinks a shaft far from habitation, forgotten by the foot” But, the poet turns to the important counter in verses 12 & 13, “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? “Man does not know its value, Nor is it found in the land of the living.” We can put an astronaut on the moon, but living peaceably with our fellow man is often beyond us. We can map the human genome, but do not know how to cultivate truth and integrity. We may rightfully boast the former, but it is Scripture that will guide us in the mastery of the latter. 

As we continue to unpack the question, “Can you trust the Bible?” let us escape the simple-minded approaches to Scripture common to modern readers who have not learned to think reasonably or wisely about their own questions and expectations. Instead, let us articulate exactly what we mean (and don’t mean) when we ask, “Can I trust the Bible?” and continue the investigation in coming posts.