The Proper Place of Science in Biblical Interpretation

Local Flood

Over on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor, Jason Van Bemmel has written this post on the slippery slope of selectively pitting secular science over against biblical teachings. He begins by saying that Christian educators make two fundamental mistakes in preparing our teens for college:

  • We neglect their intellect, leaving them underequipped for the apologetic task.
  • We over-emphasize the intellect, and “out of fear,” we do all sorts of “intellectual gymnastics” in attempts to reconcile Scripture with the dominant secular ideology of our culture.

As a high school theology teacher myself, I share his concern with properly equipping our teens to face the intellectual challenges of their college years. And so I am in complete agreement with his first point. However, I do have some reservations about his second point. In some respects, this concern is valid—for example, I would share his objections to BioLogos’s rejection of the historicity of Adam and Eve. But in other respects, I think his point is too ambiguous. Let me explain.

To begin with, he appears to commit two informal logical fallacies: poisoning the well and equivocation. “Poisoning the well” is when one uses emotionally loaded terms in such a way as to prejudice an argument from the outset. Notice how he says that the motivation for reconciling Scripture and science is “fear” (he later puts it in softer terms of desiring “respectability” or “credibility” among unbelievers). Is that the only motivation that drives such efforts at reconciliation? What if a person seeks to harmonize Scripture and science because they think that science is a basically reliable source of knowledge about the world? What if they hold such a view because Scripture itself encourages us to see natural revelation that way? In such a case, fear (or gaining respectability) would have nothing to do with it.

Perhaps the bigger problem is equivocation. Exactly what does he mean by “science?” Is it automatically equivalent to the “dominant secular ideology” of our culture? He suggests that a consistent application of the principle of reconciliation/harmonization would lead us to question not only the historicity of Adam and Eve, but also such things as the Tower of Babel, Noah’s flood, Joshua’s “long day”—even the resurrection of Jesus. On this point, I begin to wonder whether he is really using a proper definition of science. If by science, he means the view that “supernatural events cannot happen,” then we are not dealing with science proper, but rather scientism. And scientism is certainly at odds with Christian faith. But science does not tell us that miracles cannot happen. Rather, science merely tells us that such events cannot happen solely by means of the ordinary laws of nature. But isn’t that precisely the point? We Christians worship a God who works above and beyond the normal operations of the universe, since he himself created the universe. The resurrection isn’t unscientific (much less is it anti-scientific); it is supra-scientific. This is not incompatible with a high view of science.

Lastly, I wonder whether Jason is conflating our view of the nature of Scripture with our view of its proper interpretation.[1] It is possible to hold firmly to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy—that Scripture is wholly true and without error in all that it affirms—without also holding to a literalist hermeneutic. Therefore, I would completely agree with him that there was indeed a first human pair known as Adam and Eve, there was a Noahic flood, a Tower of Babel, and so forth. Where I might differ with Jason is in his interpretation of the specifics of these supernatural, historically true events. Does the genre of these texts require us to see them in a strictly literalistic fashion? Might not science inform us about the scope and timing of these events?

In sum, Jason and I would both agree that any view of science that rules out a priori the possibility of the supernatural is bad science. Such a view does indeed lead to a slippery slope that undermines the core doctrines of the Christian faith. But there are other Christian views of science which wholly respect the inerrancy and historicity of Scripture, but which also allow science to play a supporting (ministerial) role in shaping our interpretation of Scripture. And this has nothing to do with elevating human reason over divine revelation; rather, it has everything to do with viewing creation (and our own reasoning/interpretive processes) in a manner consistent with what Scripture itself teaches.

Notes

1. This seems to be the primary sticking point between many of the contributors of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013).

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

3 Responses to “The Proper Place of Science in Biblical Interpretation”

  1. Kyle, I appreciate your helpful critique and correction of some of the weak points in my blog post. When I wrote, I did not define all of my terms clearly nor did I carefully draw out all of the nuanced reasons why some Christians have abandoned belief in a historical Adam and Eve. The focus of my concern is specifically the rejection of Adam and Eve as historical persons by BioLogos and others who believe in theistic evolution. I know that not all people who believe in theistic evolution reject a historical Adam and Eve. I also know that not all who reject Adam and Eve do so out of fear. I could have stated my case more carefully, and I was a bit sloppy for the sake of rhetorical effect.

    However, I do not hold to a literalist hermeneutic. I am a PCA pastor, not a fundamentalist. I agree with the principle of interpreting Scripture in keeping with its literary forms. I understand the use of hyperbole, rounded numbers, symbolism, etc. I am uncomfortable with the trend among some to reclassify Genesis 1-11 as mytho-poetic history or proto-historical. I believe they are historical narrative and should be treated as such, especially since that’s how Jesus treated them.

    Anyway, thank you very much for your critique. You are justified in much of what you say. I could be more careful in how I express myself so as to not come across so harshly. I very much understand and appreciate the distinction between science and scientism and I also very much appreciate science as a gift from God and do not believe that it is in conflict with Scripture.

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