If the Bible is divinely inspired, then is it factually true? Or is there another approach to the Bible that embraces mystery as well as logic?
Ever since I took an interest in the relationship between faith and science, I’ve essentially come across two Christian views.
One group treats the Bible like a scientific textbook: if it is divinely inspired, then whatever it tells us about nature or history must be factually true. If the Bible says that the sun stood still (Joshua 10:13), then that’s what happened. Literally.
The second group believes that the first one is committing a category error: mixing science and Scripture, they argue, is like comparing apples and oranges.
Who is right? Those in the second camp may stumble across the occasional passage, scratch their heads and think, where did the Bible writer get that from?
The book of Job – possibly the oldest text in the Bible – says that God ‘hangs the Earth upon nothing.’ (Job 26:7)1 There’s no mention of a three-storey universe: underworld, flat earth, heavenly dome above. Instead, Earth is suspended in the emptiness of space. Job sounds a bit like a modern astronomer.
‘All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:7) Is this a poetic description of the water cycle, penned aeons before scientists systematically defined it?
And what about ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’? (Genesis 1:1). The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had taught that the cosmos was eternal. Right until the twentieth century, the scientific community agreed with him. In the 1930s, however, Belgian priest and scientist Georges Lemâitre did the maths to show that the universe must have had a beginning. Lemâitre and measurable evidence for his theory led scientists to dump the old steady-state universe for their new darling, the ‘Big Bang’. Space and time must have had a beginning, after all, which is what the Bible had said all along.
So, did God inspire people from a pre-scientific era to make accurate statements about nature, thousands of years before the scientific community caught up? Have the people in the first camp – the literalists – got it right?
Not so fast.
The first thing we need to bear in mind is everyone’s, and therefore also the literalist’s, reader bias. We, 21st-century people, rely on science and technology in every sphere of life. Our market economy, and therefore our schools, have been focussing on science over and above the arts and humanities. Things that can be counted, weighed, measured and which equip us to be first-rate producers and consumers, have priority. Therefore, we are conditioned to reading, not just life in general, but also the Bible through a rationalistic, pragmatic, scientific lens.
So, when Job speaks of the earth being suspended in space, our science bias prods us to conclude that he is talking astronomy. But what if he was just writing Hebrew poetry? When he refers to celestial bodies having a song contest (Job 38:7), is he pre-empting the scientifically established fact that stars give off radio signals? Or is he using imagery? Any Bible scholar will assure you that the latter is the case. They’ll also tell you to remove your Western, science-tinted glasses and read the Bible on its own, Near Eastern, Bronze Age terms.
My second reason for veering away from literalism and towards the apple and oranges camp is that no matter how many interpretive hoops we go through, some biblical statements are irreconcilable with modern science.
For instance, how could we harmonize evolutionary theory, which swiftly gained general acceptance as we learned more about genetics, with a literal reading of Genesis 1? Evolution means, one species emerges from another over millions of years. In Genesis, on the other hand, every species, including humans, is independently created in a matter of days.
Sirach 17:6 states that God gave us a heart to think. In ancient Jewish thought, heart referred to personhood. So, as a metaphor, this Scripture verse makes perfect sense; but the moment you take it literally, you’re in trouble.
Or consider Jesus’ parable of God’s kingdom being like a mustard seed. Any botanist will assure you that our Lord got it wrong when he described the mustard seed as the smallest seed in existence. But who cares about botany when Jesus wasn’t delivering a science class but, as was common among rabbis in his day, used exaggeration to make a theological point?
The problem for biblical literalists is that, by definition, they trust Scripture only as long as they remain convinced that every word is literally true. The literalist imposes secular, scientific concepts of truth on the Bible, rather than entering its world of parable and metaphor, which often approaches truth from a completely different angle.
So, when all is said and done, do we have to acknowledge that the connection between science and the Bible is tenuous at best? If, like this author, you conclude that the literalist approach is misleading, does this mean that Scripture and science are like apples and oranges? Should we take this position to the extreme and relegate 90 percent of the Bible to the realm of myth and mystery?
Or might there be a third way?
Until next time …
For reflection and discussion:
Generally speaking, do you find it difficult to live with unanswered questions?
Do you experience looking for the truth as a fact-finding exercise, or do you prefer to use your intuition?
Which of the two approaches mentioned in the article – a literal and a metaphorical reading of ‘scientific’ statements in Scripture – do you find more convincing? Why is that?
Mystery of Creation, Paul Haffner. Gracewing Publishers, 2017.
The Creation (chapter 1 of Alive and Active: The Old Testament Beyond 2000,), Adrian Graffy, Columbia 1998.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Gordon D Fee, Zondervan 2003.
Quote: The art of interpreting the scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be masters. St Jerome
1) All quotes from NRSV Anglicised Catholic.