To what extent is the Bible ‘scientific’? Do Bible and science overlap?
If you’ve been gracious enough to read my previous articles in the Scripture & Science series, you may have begun to wonder: when is this guy finally getting off the fence?
Here’s my reasoning. Scientific discovery is in constant flux; claims made yesterday may be challenged today and refuted tomorrow. Likewise, our finite minds will never fully grasp the infinite God revealed in Scripture; there’s always more to discover. If then, both our biblical and our scientific insights are work in progress, perhaps we should avoid rash statements about how the two relate to each other.
For example, a Christian may point to the ‘Big Bang’ as proof that the Bible got it right: ‘In the beginning, God created …’ But what if, 20 years from now, the ‘Big Bang’ theory was debunked, and scientists were to tell us that the universe had no beginning? Would that undermine our trust in Scripture? Not unless we previously pinned our hope in its trustworthiness on current science.
Similarly, I’ve argued against reading Bible passages on natural phenomena as if they were from a scientific textbook. More often than not, their true subject is not creation but the creator, and descriptions of nature tend to be symbolic, rather than literal.
Nevertheless, Judaeo-Christian beliefs are certainly rooted in the material world. The God of the Bible chose a specific Middle Eastern tribe at a specific time in history. He sent his Son to a particular place during a particular era. Fundamentally, the backdrop to the grand biblical narrative is the world as we know it.
The prophets and poets of Rome, Athens and Babylon blamed the vagaries of life on the mood swings of the gods. The Bible, on the other hand, refers to God as a rock (Psalm 18:2). There is nothing fickle about him, nothing random or chaotic about the work of his hands.
In Genesis 1, a universe governed by rhythms and patterns emerges from a divine mind marked not just by power but wisdom. Some have argued that the Judaeo-Christian belief in a rational creator and an orderly universe gave rise to modern science: the search for universal natural constants. The cosmos, ruled not by forces of chaos, as the pagans believed, but by law and order.
Chaos shows up in Genesis 1, right at the beginning; but God speaks order into chaos, creating life and determining the exact conditions for it to thrive.
Read the rest of Genesis and, indeed, the whole Bible, and you’ll find that chaos keeps rearing its ugly head. As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, we live in a broken world. Theology and science grapple with this dilemma, each in their own way. Being a human endeavour, science has a mixed record of reducing chaos and creating chaos of its own. According to the Bible, only God has the ability to restore ultimate order. The writer of the Book of Wisdom was aware of this:
For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements; the beginning and end and middle of times, the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals, the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots; I learnt both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. (Wisdom 7:17–22 NRSV).
This Scripture passage speaks of the qualities of a scientist: knowledge, learning and wisdom. The writer has been observing nature and drawn rational conclusions about its workings. Crucially, though, the emphasis is not on nature or intellect but on the God of wisdom who ‘gives knowledge’ and ‘fashions all things.’ Human endeavour, therefore, will flourish only with reference to the one who gave us the power of reason in the first place.
So, let’s ask the question one last time: do Bible and science overlap? No, if by that, we mean reading the Bible like a scientific textbook. No, if we use temporary scientific theories to prooftext Scripture. But a resounding yes if we recognise the Bible’s search for order amidst chaos; yes, if we acknowledge the risks and limitations of science based on the biblical view of human fallenness. And yes, if we realise that the world which we’re subjecting to scientific study is, first and foremost, a signpost to the world to come, where the creator of both reigns supreme.
For reflection and discussion:
Read Genesis 1 and explore how God speaks order into chaos. What might the author want to tell us about what God is like?
It has been pointed out that, according to Genesis 1, God made the world good, not perfect. What do you make of this idea?
Does scientific progress excite you, worry you, or both?
Faith and Wisdom in Science, Tom McLeish, Oxford University Press 2014
Can We Believe Genesis Today? Ernest Lucas, Intervarsity Press 2005
Wonder and Wisdom: Conversations in Science, Spirituality and Theology, Celia Deane Drummond,
Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd 2006
We can understand only in the modes of understanding that we have, and these are both contingent and drastically limited.