Are the Bible’s theological claims invalidated if they rest on literary rather than historical grounds?

This is another question that has been posed by a reader. Dr. Smith is answering it because it has to do with biblical interpretation.

Q. To what degree do claims involving spiritual matters depend on the correctness of the physical understanding that prompted them? Clearly, as with Jesus’ parables, you can have spiritual truth communicated through events that never happened. However, for those, the literary genre  precludes the historicity of the events described. Would you say that there are other categories of truth such as literary truth that might be somewhere in between physical and spiritual truth?

To take a different example, whatever view one takes of Jesus’ omniscience while he was a man on earth, one can always extricate him from any factual errors by arguing that, as God did throughout the Bible, Jesus was simply accommodating the knowledge of his audience to communicate spiritual and theological truths (e.g. with his statement about the mustard seed). When it comes to the apostles, though, they seemingly believed in a historical Adam and Eve, but one can’t really argue that in fact, they knew better but were simply accommodating the knowledge of their audience.

So if an argument that has spiritual ramifications is based on a reading of nature or history that is potentially flawed, how does one responsibly handle the spiritual points being made? Another example might be points made by the author of Hebrews based on Old Testament events that may or may not have happened quite as described in the Bible. Should one just abstract or extract inerrant theological truth based on the author’s likely understanding?

A. For one thing, many of these problems go away when we have a better understanding of the biblical culture and language. For example, Jesus’ statement that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds” is often cited (sometimes gleefully) as proof that he wasn’t omniscient, because there are all kinds of seeds that are actually smaller. However, this is the kind of statement that’s made in Hebrew all the time to express extreme rather than superlative meaning. It’s like when a person says, “That was the best party ever!” While that’s a superlative statement, we shouldn’t take it literally and undercut it by saying, “I don’t know, back in ’02 we had a party that I think was probably better.” The person is actually saying, “That was a very good party!” And Jesus, for his part, is really saying, “The mustard seed is a very small seed, but it grows into a large plant.” An additional shade of meaning may be, “The mustard seed is the smallest seed you’re familiar with,” i.e. “I bet you can’t think of a smaller seed than the mustard seed, but what a large plant grows from it!” We are taking our modern, rational mindset and trying to impose it on statements that are hyperbolic and poetic, and that’s where the trouble often comes from.

On the other hand, I don’t see any need to defend the idea that Jesus was omniscient on earth. I believe he actually could have had a limited knowledge of world-wide botany, among other things, because the Bible itself says very clearly that he “emptied himself” when he came to earth. Most interpreters understand this to mean that he emptied himself of the so-called “non-communicable” divine attributes, i.e. those that God doesn’t share with humans, such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. But Jesus retained the “communicable” divine attributes such as holiness, wisdom, etc. In that way he’s an example for us, showing us that we can share those attributes as well. So I would not argue that Jesus knew better but was simply accommodating the limitations of his audience when he made statements such as that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good.” We know that the sun doesn’t actually rise; the earth rotates. But Jesus, when on earth, may well have believed in a stationary earth around which the sun revolved. No biggie.

The book of Hebrews is a very interesting case not because it appeals to  events that may not actually have happened in history (I’m not aware of any cases of that), but because it relies on the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Scriptures and so makes some linguistic moves that would not be possible from the Hebrew text. For example, it quotes the phrase “a body you prepared for me” from Psalm 40 in the Septuagint as support for the idea of Christ’s incarnation and the efficacy of his sacrificial offering of his “body.” The Hebrew text, however, actually reads “my ears you have opened.” I’ve addressed this issue of quotations that seem inexact in a post on my other blog Good Question (where there’s a link to my study guide to Hebrews, where I discuss the issue even further). The author of Hebrews is always very careful with the text; he “sees Christ as culmination of the story of God’s covenant dealings with humanity, and so earlier figures, events, institutions, and objects are seen as prefiguring his life and work. There is always a close and appropriate thematic connection between the earlier context in the First Testament and the situation in the life of Christ.”

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that all of us read and understand the Bible within a culture-bound tradition of interpretation. Another example of this is how Paul, speaking of the Israelites in the wilderness, refers to “the rock that followed them.” He’s adhering to a rabbinic interpretation that grew up in response to the question, “How could the rock that Moses struck in one place in the desert have provided water for the Israelites all throughout their journey?” The rabbinic answer was, “The rock must have followed them around, all the way to Canaan.” Now the Bible says nothing of the kind, and we can be pretty sure that this didn’t happen historically. But Paul is assuming this as a fact because he’s operating within a particular tradition of biblical interpretation.

This kind of thing is simply inevitable, because we are time-bound, history-bound, culture-bound humans. We can see it more clearly in the case of the biblical authors because we’re looking in from outside their framework. It’s harder for us to see in our own case because we’re within our own framework and so we don’t recognize what comes from it and what comes from the timeless redemptive work of God that the Bible captures. Perhaps it does not capture it completely, any more than a painting can capture an scene, but it does so at least as accurately as a painting captures a scene. (Though one limitation we experience because we are operating within a particular tradition of interpretation is a difficulty with statements that don’t make sense within our rational-scientific framework, e.g. that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. These difficulties should not cause us problems with our faith; they should make us recognize and contextualize our framework.)

However, I think that the issue of the New Testament epistle writers not only believing in Adam and Eve as historical individuals, but basing significant theological doctrines on this belief, is something different that goes beyond anything I’ve addressed so far. Still, many of their statements are actually not as problematic as some might feel. For example, consider Paul’s statement, “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” This is a warning against false teachers and an expression of Paul’s concern for his spiritual flock in Corinth. It would not be invalidated if the episode of Eve and the serpent were literary but not historical.

We also hear many appeals, especially by “complementarians,” to Paul’s supposed argument that women should not be in authority over men because Eve was created second and was deceived, while Adam wasn’t. But as I understand it, this is actually a refutation of a proto-gnostic myth that the creator God was not the true God and that Eve (or Zoe) brought the knowledge of that fact to earth. (I discuss this in another post on my blog Good Question.) In other words, the problem here goes away when we understand the true message of the passage.

Probably the most serious issue arises from Paul’s depiction of Christ as the “second Adam.” However, even in this case we need to realize that Paul sees Adam essentially as a representative human (the “federal head” of the human race, as some theologians would put it), not primarily as a historical individual. And this is in keeping with the portrayal in Genesis itself, where the term ‘adam refers sometimes to an individual, sometimes to the first couple, sometimes to the human race, and sometimes to the entire created order. I’m confident arguing that Paul, a rabbi steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, would have had this notion essentially in mind, rather than the modern individualistic notion of Adam being important and significant primarily as a single historical person. This is another case where the theological argument is not invalidated if Adam is a literary figure rather than a historical one, particularly when when we realize that in the original literary presentation itself (in Genesis), he’s not just a historical person.

Still, I may not yet have given a definitive answer to the question of whether a theological claim apparently built on a historical figure or occurrence is invalidated if that figure or occurrence turns out to be  literary instead. This is because example after example turns out to be not quite a case of that. But let me say generally that the real issue here is probably, “Where does the inspiration and authority of the Bible lie?” Some would say that it’s in the actual words of Scripture themselves (“verbal plenary inspiration”); others would say that it’s in the biblical authors’ intended meanings (many inerrantists argue this). But I believe that the authority of the Bible lies in its testimony to the redemptive works of God in history—in other words, it’s the divine acts that are authoritative and revelatory of God’s character and purposes. However, we don’t actually have those acts themselves. We have the story of those acts. So effectively, all we really have as an authority is the story. In that sense, maybe trying to draw too strict a distinction between what is “literary” and what is “historical” is not a meaningful exercise. God has given us access to his character and purposes through his acts in history, but he has given us access to those acts through the biblical story.

This is not all tied up in a neat bundle, I realize, but I don’t think it can be. In one sense, trying to use the discipline of history to validate the biblical account of God’s redemptive activity (or else to create a counter-story or meta-story to which the biblical story needs to conform if we are to respect and believe it) is a lot like trying to use natural-scientific disciplines to confirm the biblical account of God’s creative activity. We should recognize that we are dealing with different disciplines that answer different kinds of questions by following different “rules of the game.”

A question from a reader about methodological naturalism

The following question was submitted by a reader. The response is from Dr. Smith, since the question arises from his part of the story.

Q. In your book, following the Alters, you describe and define methodological naturalism over against metaphysical naturalism. These terms have become fairly mainstream in the science-faith discussion, as they potentially divide what theistic evolutionists consider valid science and what other groups like the Intelligent Design community consider scientific (e.g. scientific evidence of an intelligent designer in nature). Intelligent Design advocates are very critical of methodological naturalism and prefer the term methodological neutralism, or simply reject the distinction altogether. Some have defined methodological naturalism as either hard or soft (or strong/weak), where soft methodological naturalism simply excludes supernatural intelligence from consideration in science, and hard methodological naturalism excludes all intelligence from consideration in science. How would you potentially view the term?

A. I hadn’t been aware before of the discussion between theistic evolutionists and Intelligent Design proponents about methodological naturalism versus methodological neutralism, so I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. It makes perfect sense to me that Intelligent Design advocates wouldn’t want to accept methodological naturalism as an intrinsic commitment of science, because they want science to be able to declare that it has found evidence of supernatural activity. So this is really a debate about what science is.

People might understand and define the term “science” in a variety of ways, of course. But my belief is that science is rightly a discipline that limits itself to what can be observed and measured, and to explanations that involve causes that can also be observed and measured, i.e. natural causes.

One key principle of science is that findings have to be able to be replicated. I think we have to accept at least that as one of the “rules of the game.” But the findings of faith cannot be replicated by people who don’t have faith. So you really can’t mix the two categories. That being the case, if you’re looking at something that can’t yet be explained naturalistically, it’s not consistent with science to say that this must be due to a supernatural agency.

I personally don’t find the distinction between supernatural intelligence vs. all intelligence very meaningful. If something isn’t simply a process of nature, then any intelligence at work has to be super-natural. I guess on the spectrum you describe, I’d be considered a “hard” methodological naturalist, in that I don’t think science has any business positing supernatural explanations. But I don’t think it has any business denying that the supernatural exists, either; questions like that are the purview of a different realm—religion. (But I imagine it’s already clear from our book that this is my position!)

Is Genesis describing the creation of photons before the sun?

A reader has shared this observation about one part of Dr. Smith’s story:

I have a comment that you may find useful regarding the concern you express about the creation of light before the sun.

In my more recent reading, or at least since I took an interest in cosmology, I’ve taken a decidedly universal view of the creation account. That is, I see it as an account that refers to the creation of the Universe and not merely the Earth. In this view, the most resoundingly impressive statement is God’s very first act of creation, in which he creates light. I don’t see this as the creation of the light that strikes Earth, but rather as the creation of light itself—that is, photons—as well as the electrodynamic laws underpinning it that allow for a self-propagating electromagnetic wave.

In this context, the formlessness and void of the Universe before God’s creative work takes on a whole new depth. God did not merely create the Sun and the Earth, but created also the “form” of the Universe—previously without form, in addition to being empty—that allowed the Sun to create light and allowed light to travel to the Earth, and which allowed the Sun to hold the Earth through the force of gravitation. This is also the glorious power that I see in Jesus’ statement in his teaching on the Sabbath in John 5, where he says that His Father is always at His work. Indeed He is, as he sustains the physical laws as part of His perfect lordship of the Universe.

Dr. Smith replies:

Thank you very much for sharing your perspective on this. I think your understanding and interpretation of the creation of light before the Sun is certainly one of the positions that can validly be held about the Genesis account. But it does assume that the writer was allowed at least to describe things that would have been beyond the view of an earthbound observer, not to mention far beyond anything he could have understood meaningfully a thousand years or more B.C. So we have to ask whether God was simply using the Genesis writer to record words that would only be meaningful later, which raises questions about the “fully human and fully divine” nature of the Bible, or whether the writer thought the words meant something else, and humanity has only been in a position to recognize their real meaning and import in recent decades, which would raise similar questions.

That’s why I consider the account to have been written instead from an observational perspective by an earthbound observer and to say things that would have been meaningful at that time. From such a perspective, there really is light in the sky before the sun becomes visible, and the conclusion can be drawn that light creates a realm—day—in which the sun is the most conspicuous resident.

Nevertheless, I appreciate you sharing your perspective on the Genesis creation account. I think it’s very valuable for each of us to put our understandings and interpretations in conversation with those of others. Thank you!

Paleontologist Peter Dodson on science and faith

These reflections on science and faith were offered by Dr. Peter Dodson, a vertebrate paleontologist who is one of the world’s leading experts on dinosaurs, at the June 2017 Cosmos and Creation conference at Loyola University Maryland. His comments are shared here with his permission and have been edited slightly for length. They include a brief description of how our book Paradigms on Pilgrimage has been an encouragement to him.

What most interests me is the intersection of science and faith. Faith was as natural to me as breathing. I grew up in a Catholic household, attended Catholic high school and Catholic university. At Yale during my Ph.D. program my friends were for the most part Catholic. To be candid, I led a sheltered existence and was never seriously challenged in my faith. I never went through a period of doubt.

My bubble was burst in 1988 when I attended a seminar at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The topic was “The Evolution of Human Morality” and the speaker was the late Wil Provine, an evolutionary biologist and evangelical atheist from Cornell University. His message was that we should face up to the consequences of what evolutionary biology teaches: “There is no God; there is no soul; there is no life after death; there is no such thing as free will. A scientist who professes to believe in God is a hypocrite. You MUST check your brains at the back of the church. Not more than a handful of evolutionary biologists believe in God.”

As I sensed the tacit or vocal approval of this message by the assembled scientists, I slouched deep into my seat, feeling most decidedly alone. I had never before heard such a crude expression of scientific naturalism, the gratuitous philosophy of materialism that science does not require. I of course knew that there are atheists in science but nobody before had tried to tell me I could not believe.

Father Hermann Behrens once said to me, “Peter, we should thank God for our enemies.” So true! Provine set me on a path that I am still following today, even this very morning. I became depressingly familiar with the village atheists—the Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, Coyne, etc. crowd. But who could speak for the scientist as believer? My first task was finding those role models. Initially it was an effort. But they were there—first I found Polkinghorne, then Ian Barbour, Owen Gingerich and above all Gerogetown theologian Jack Haught.

But happily the literature has blossomed since and there are many titles we can turn to. Two of the highest profile books are The Language of God by Francis Collins and Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion by Francisco Ayala. I am a huge admirer of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. To this list I may add paleontologist Stephen Godfrey’s Paradigms on Pilgrimage, which documents his personal journey from Fundamentalism to acceptance of evolution while retaining his Christian faith.

For a number of years I thought my mission was to combat the errors and calumnies perpetrated by Dawkins and his legions. I no longer think that. Rather I believe it is much more important to make the case for our views and not against his. And here is the important part. We discuss our beliefs in the compatibility of science and faith because of the faith that we hold dear and cherish. We must be firm and bold in this faith. We must be willing to confess our faith and trust in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Harvard astrochemist and Catholic convert Karin Oberg stated that she expected “a little martyrdom” when she arrived at Harvard. I find her courageous witness inspiring and worthy of emulation. Dare I say that we must be evangelical? By this I mean that we must encounter Jesus in the Scriptures and share what we learn.

St. Jerome states: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, who is the living center of the Word of God.” Luther thought of the Gospel as sacrament—here we encounter Christ and his saving grace. We may read a familiar passage in Scripture 99 times, and the hundredth time it erupts “with an explosion of dazzling flashes” to use a Teilhardian phrase (via Tom King).

Such was my experience with Psalm 33, when I read in verse 4, “the works of the Lord are trustworthy”; and when I read this paraphrase of Romans 1: 20, “We shall know the Creator through the works of Creation.” Do these and a hundred other verses not give scientists like ourselves warrant to study the natural world as an act of praise to God? I do not regard the Bible as a scientific account of the natural world, but that in no way undermines my appreciation for the majestic words of Genesis 1 that we have just heard, concluding with its affirmation of the goodness of Creation.

I happily affirm that I am a Creationist—or more specifically a theistic evolutionist. The dialogue on science and faith that brings us together is enormously important, but it is not itself worship. It is incumbent on each of us to continue to grow in faith, in friendship with Jesus, and in knowledge of the Bible. As scientists we enjoy a certain status in society, and the more successful our science, the greater our potential for spreading the Good News—to our students, in our parishes, in our professional societies, on our web pages, in society at large. Be the best scientist you can be, and be the best Christian you can be. Who else is there to spread the message?

57 Implications for readers of the Bible (Part 3)

Some of our readers may recognize that this conclusion is valid, but they may nevertheless still be a bit reluctant to accept it, simply out of disappointment. Having been led to think of the Bible as a source of superhuman knowledge on natural-scientific subjects, and having grown accustomed to thinking of it this way, they may now feel that they are “trading down” in accepting a Bible that is really something else. They may even feel embarrassed by the preceding demonstration of how the biblical authors were limited in their knowledge, even though they were nevertheless not limited in their relational capacity and they were therefore still in a perfect position to tell us about, and introduce us to, the God they knew.

Let us speak to these concerns. We have come to understand that the Christian faith is ultimately all about relationships: with God first, and then with our neighbors. Experiencing relationships of the quality that a true biblical faith can lead to actually far surpasses having (or thinking one has) a book that discloses the inner workings of the universe. Power and knowledge, in other words, are not the greatest things in life; the greatest thing is love. In fact, to be led to the point where we recognize that Christianity is an invitation to embrace God’s love, and to share it with others, is actually worth the pain we may experience, if necessary, in discovering that Christianity is not something else.

This, after all, is what the Bible itself says it’s all about. “If I have all
knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). “Jesus replied,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with
all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). “Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

This is also what the most mature teaching recognizes the Christian faith to be about. For example, Jonathan Edwards, the theologian who is considered the “father of American evangelical theology” (and on whom Dr. Smith wrote his doctoral dissertation) did a classic study of the marks of a true Christian. He wrote in his Treatise on the Religious Affections that “holy persons . . . love God, in the first place, for the beauty of his
holiness or moral perfection,” and not primarily for “his natural attributes, of strength, knowledge, etc.” Edwards goes on to observe that getting more power or knowledge gives a good person a greater influence for good, but it gives a bad person a greater influence for harm. So these things should not be pursued as ends in themselves, and they are not offered to us by God as ends in themselves. So the purpose of the Bible is not primarily to impart greater knowledge or power to us, but to lead us to love God and neighbor, and thereby to be transformed.

In his late teens and early twenties, Dr. Smith was exposed to many influences from the charismatic movement. Some of the teachings he heard asserted very strongly that the Christian faith was about exercising power; “name it and claim it” was the motto. At one point he was given the idea that he could actually tell a locked door to open if he commanded it in the name of Jesus. Naturally he tried it. The door stayed locked! It certainly would have been convenient to have that kind of power. But as the Bible itself says, power without love is nothing. And if the pursuit or even the possession of this power kept us from love, it would in no way be worth it.

Similarly, it would be nice if the Bible provided a guide to the inner
workings of the physical universe, so that we’d know just where to look in
our research and investigations, and so that we’d be able to compare our work with the “right answer” to make sure it always turned out right. This would also enable us to “know” that Christianity was true, without having to take it on faith. But that’s not what the Bible does. Rather, it tells the story of how people throughout human history have come into relationship with God, and it invites us to experience that same relationship. We may never realize that this is what it is all about, however, unless we first become disillusioned with the idea that it is all about magical power, or about superhuman knowledge.

In our own pilgrimages, we are grateful for every indication that what now fills our lives is not a “deprogramming” from earlier ideas of power and knowledge, but rather life in relationship, in community, with others who are “on the way.” We need simply caution those who will take this same path that they will need to take it on faith. Greater knowledge and power can be exercised immediately, while relationships of a higher quality must be grown into over time. We can’t make an instantaneous trade, giving up magical knowledge and power for relationships in all of their fullness. In the end, however, if we pursue them, we will realize that these higher-quality relationships are worth far, far more than anything we might have thought we had, based on our earlier ideas about the Bible.

“Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”


56 Implications for readers of the Bible (Part 2)

But this leaves a further question: Even if we can believe in a Bible that is the word of God, though some of its observations are not accurate by modern standards, how can we tell what parts of the Bible reflect accurate knowledge, and what parts don’t? It would be just as big a mistake to say, “If it isn’t all correct, then none of it is correct” as it would be to say, “If it’s going to be the word of God, then all of it has to be correct.” All-or-nothing thinking rarely leads us to the truth, which we typically find nestled in a more elusive and nuanced place.

If the Bible was written by people working under the same human limitations as the rest of us, then the Bible itself, by definition, cannot contain or provide criteria by which we can determine which things in it reflect accurate knowledge and which things don’t. That’s still expecting omniscience of it, in a certain way. Rather, we should recognize once again that while the Bible is the supreme authority for the Christian, all Christians (whether explicitly or only tacitly) rely on other authorities to support the Bible, specifically tradition (church teaching), reason and experience. We can and must use these external authorities to assess biblical statements.

For example, if we include under “reason” all scientific enterprise, then the discovery that the solar system is heliocentric, not geocentric, reveals that biblical descriptions of a stationary earth and moving sun are not “accurate” in an objective sense. This same process can lead us to all kinds of interesting discoveries about the geography, climatology, medicine, etc. of the Bible, and we may find many things we feel we can helpfully update. But eventually we will reach the limits of this process, without having addressed everything in the Bible. In fact, we will not have addressed the most important things in it, because what the Bible is most concerned with are those things that are not accessible to scientific investigation.

If there is indeed an invisible spiritual world, we have no means of verifying what the Bible says about it through science. We could assume that there is no such world, but that would be a faith stance, as much as to believe that there is such a world. We can argue that if the biblical authors were wrong about so much in the natural world around them, they must also have been equally wrong about much in the supernatural world, but this is not really logical. It presumes that we have access to the supernatural world through the same faculties that give us access to the natural world—a claim we have already seen not to be true—or else it presumes that the human race is somehow in a better position now to make use of the faculties that do give access to the supernatural realm than people were in biblical times, which is by no means obvious.

At its core the Bible is a story of relationships. It is a story of relationships of faith and trust that people enter into with God and with one another (“covenants”). And the world of relationships is one that we have access to freely, even if our knowledge of the natural world is limited to what we can discover through naïve observation. The capacity for faith, through which we enter into relationship with God, is not one that human civilization has slowly cultivated and perfected over time. Faith is something every human has always capable of, just as every human, in every age, has had the potential to love. We would not assert that the love described in the Bible was somehow defective compared with our own because it took place in a primitive culture, and we should not make the same assertion about the faith described in the Bible, either.

So we may conclude the following things:

  • The Bible’s claims can and should be tested by supporting authorities;
  • There is a limit to what these authorities can verify;
  • While the human authors of the Bible would have had limitations when it came to their knowledge of the natural world, they would not necessarily have had similar limitations when it came to knowing God, relationally and experientially.

What this means, ultimately, is that if we retain the expectation that the Bible will have an omniscient knowledge base, we cannot continue to hold that it is the word of God. However, as we have already seen, there is no biblical basis for this expectation. Our reading of Genesis through new eyes should therefore fill us not with distress but with delight. It shows us that the Bible has not come to us from an ethereal, other-worldly realm divorced from the present human condition. Rather, real people, immersed in real places and times, have left us a record, inspired by God himself, of how they came into a life-transforming relationship with their Creator. (As a pastor, Dr. Smith saw daily evidence of similar transformations in the lives of those around him who  also entered into relationship with God.)

The characteristics of the Bible that show it to be time-bound and culture-bound even as it discloses universal principles are its marks of authenticity. This book was not made up in a corner; it’s a travel diary, written on the road. That road is still open to all of its readers today, to all who will join in the same adventure of faith that its authors embarked upon. This faith is not hostile to reason or to science. Rather, it can and must work with them to show us the nature of our world and the meaning and purpose of our lives.

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 context 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 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 “Scripture,” 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 to be correct were not, 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.