55 Implications for students of the Bible (Part 1)

While our readers who are scientists will by now, we hope, feel affirmed and inspired, we can imagine that our readers who are students of the Bible may feel distressed. They are no doubt wondering, “How can the Bible be the inspired word of God, and how can we have confidence in anything else it says, if it presents such glaring inaccuracies on its very first page?”

We should note that while this question seems similar to the one we addressed in some earlier posts, it is actually different. The question there, asked in the contest of the larger question, “What is the basis of our confidence in the Bible’s moral authority?” was whether we could establish that the Bible is the word of God by appeal to the uncannily prescient information its authors supposedly had about the inner workings of the universe.

We have seen once more in these most recent posts that they did not actually possess such information. That is, the Genesis author specifically does not demonstrate knowledge far beyond what he could have had in the time and culture in which he lived. Like his contemporaries, he had little idea how vast and complex the universe actually is. He wrote from the perspective of an earth-bound observer. So we cannot ground our confidence in the Bible as the word of God in his observations. That confidence comes rather from the supporting authorities of tradition, reason and experience, as we established earlier.

But now we are addressing a different concern. We may instructively contrast two statements:

  • Because the Bible is scientifically accurate, it’s the word of God.
  • Because the Bible is the word of God, it’s scientifically accurate.

The first statement is the one we discussed in the earlier series of posts; the second is the one we are now addressing. It essentially expresses the expectation that that the “word of God” will reflect the divine omniscience of its ultimate Author. The mind of God, not the mind of man, will be its knowledge base. Anyone who has been led to hold this expectation will therefore wonder, “How could the Bible be the word of God—how could it have an omniscient author—if it’s so demonstrably wrong about cosmology?” Such a person might actually assert, “If the Bible is not scientifically accurate, it cannot be the word of God.”

But is this a reasonable expectation to have of the Bible? What is a fair test to apply? It is really only fair to judge the Bible by the standard it sets for itself. If the Bible did seek to ground its own identity as the word of God in an omniscient knowledge base, there would be a real problem. But the Bible rather describes itself as having been delivered through human authors. The implication is that while the author may have been given wisdom and insight, the human limitations on his knowledge were not supernaturally lifted.

Peter, for example, describes the inspiration of Scripture in this way: “Men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). He does not say, “God took over the minds of people and used their hands to record His omniscient thoughts.” Later in that same epistle Peter describes Paul’s letters as “Acripture,” but listen to how he describes their composition process: “So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him” (2 Peter 3:15)—not “through the substitution of the divine mind for his own.”

A Coptic icon of the apostles Peter and Paul. The two are often shown together in Christian icons to illustrate the harmony of their lives and teachings.

Indeed, when we look at Paul’s letters themselves, we find that, even as inspired Scripture, they do not just show that there were limitations on Paul’s knowledge (as we saw in an earlier post). They actually show that Paul himself was aware of the limitations on his knowledge, compared with God’s knowledge:

“For we know only in part, we prophecy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. . . . For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:9-10, 12).

“Now I know only in part.” Fine words for an inspired biblical author to utter, if the expectation of omniscience is warranted! But what we see here in this passage is rather that this expectation is not warranted. We see a biblical author, in the very act of writing Scripture, contrasting his partial knowledge with the divine omniscience. We should therefore not conclude that if the Bible is the word of God, it will demonstrate omniscience—among other ways, by transcending observational limits in its description of the natural world—and that if it does not, it cannot be the word of God.

Paul himself writes instead that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Bible itself, in other words, does not claim to be useful for knowing the distance to the sun, or the cure for malaria, or the distinction between a star and a planet. Its goal is to make us people whose lives reflect God’s intentions. And it can do that even within the limitations of observational description. (That’s a good thing, because we needed godly people around long before our descriptions became scientifically objective.)

We may press the point even further. Unlike Paul, the Genesis author does not seem to be aware of the limitations on his own knowledge. In other words, not only does he not know; he does not know that he does not know. While his description of creation and cosmology is observational, he believes it to be objectively accurate. Moreover, his readers would have understood it as such, and his fellow biblical authors certainly did: As we have seen, the rest of the Bible follows this same observational cosmology. Nowhere in the Bible is it “corrected.”

So even if we are comfortable with the idea that the Bible can be the word of God even if its descriptions are observational, it may still bother us that the authors didn’t know that the cosmos isn’t actually as it appears. They weren’t writing from the position: “We don’t know what it’s really like, so we’ll just tell you what it looks like” (intentional phenomenology). They thought it really was like what it looked like (unintentional phenomenology), and in this respect they were wrong. So how can this be the word of God?

We may simply reply that if the authors of the Bible really had known what they didn’t know, then the human limitations on their knowledge actually would have been lifted. Ordinarily humans hold some beliefs uncertainly and others with certainty, but they are almost always wrong about some of the things they feel certain of. Moreover, they discover in their lifetimes that some of the things they thought were correct weren’t, but there are other things they go through their entire lives believing to be correct that only later generations will discover to have been inaccurate.

To expect the biblical authors to have had this perspective of later generations is once again expecting them to have been uncannily prescient. If you know everything, you’re omniscient; and if you know exactly what you do know and exactly what you don’t know, that’s also being omniscient, in another sense. But as we have already noted, the Bible itself does not ascribe omniscience to its authors, and this would be true in either sense. They were rather people who were “moved by the Spirit,” who received wisdom and insight from God.

So not only didn’t they know everything, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. There were some things they thought to be correct that weren’t. This conclusion is consistent with the Bible’s own description of its composition process.

2 thoughts on “55 Implications for students of the Bible (Part 1)”

  1. These are great insights. I want to read Scripture as God intended and not to make it more and less than God intended, even for supposedly good reasons.

    I have a question. When Paul wrote what you quote above, the books of the NT were not collected, so I think Paul was referring to HIS Scripture which were the books in the OT/Tanakh. I agree that Paul’s words should be extended to include the books of both the OT and NT, but originally they were just for the books of the OT. So my understanding of Paul’s original meaning is that he was referring to just the books of the OT for the purposes he listed. I agree with this conclusion but wanted to hear what you thought.

    Like

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