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10/09/2017 / Sanghwan A. Lee

SCIENCE VS. SCRIPTURE?

Sanghwan A. Lee

The rise of modern science has brought about many impressive and triumphant accomplishments. However, this victory comes at a steep price for those who believe that Scripture is the final authority for discerning all truth. Along the way, science has attained many divine attributes (e.g., omnipresence, eternity, immutability) and supplanted Scripture as the final authority. Sola scriptura[1] gave way to sola scientia, science as the final authority. Society’s shift in thinking has inevitability led to scientific materialism. This worldview has manipulated people into believing everything that is deemed scientifically factual and deceived people into rejecting anything that claims to exist outside the material world. In other words, the rise of modern science has led to critical biblical scholarship. As a result, it has become naïve and primitive to believe anything that is incompatible with the today’s scientific theories, which have yet to be proven true.[2] Unfortunately, this attitude has caused a tragic departure from sola scriptura to sola scientia.[3] However, one should be able to look back and ask several fundamental questions: Is science the proper tool to judge the veracity of any historical events? Should Christians seek scientific approval to maintain the biblical view? Searching for these answers should come prior to the removal of the biblical view because the answers might overturn alternative solutions.

This article will attempt to layout several methodological points that should be raised. First, I will present a few myths about science by illustrating its limitations and suggesting that science cannot be the final authority of discerning the source of all truth.[4] Second, I will also present a famous hermeneutical mistake that Bible interpreters once made in history and suggesting that theologians are subject to errors. Finally, I will share what I believe to be the best attitude of treating this issue mentioned above.

 

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A Few Myths About Science

Today, most modern people tend to accept, without hesitation, anything that has been accepted by mainstream science. This attitude comes from the assumption that science is the final authority of discerning the source of all truth. However, it should be noted that impressive as modern science may be, it still has its limitations. I will introduce four major limitations in order to argue that sola scientia cannot be used to undermine the reality of the biblical events.

Preconception of Scientists

“Follow the evidence where it leads” is what Socrates suggested to those who want to find the ultimate truth.[5] The statement has the presupposition that people can always interpret the evidence as it is without any bias that can deflect what the evidence tries to show. However, one should realize that humans are not self-transcending beings since they are unconsciously shaped by the social world they inhabit. As a result, they look at the evidence through lenses shaped by their environment. This not only makes the evidence deceptive, but it also makes the interpretation of the evidence extremely complex. This inevitably makes their perceptual experiences differ from raw data. Unfortunately, scientists are also bound by this same limitation.

In his famous 1962 manifesto, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn deconstructed the myth that scientists are purely objective in dealing with data.[6] For Kuhn, scientists who approach data do not exercise a neutral interpretation, but a “theory-laden interpretation,” which springs from the congeries of subjective elements that are already deeply rooted in their unconsciousness. In other words, scientists never passively receive data. Rather, they actively manipulate them with their theory-laden perspective to choose whatever best fits into their hypothesis. For example, if a scientist approaches the flood account in Genesis with presuppositions about the impossibility of the universal flood already in mind, he will never be able to render a fair verdict.[7] Karl Popper, a philosopher of science of the 20th century, honestly admits, “We are prisoners caught in the framework of our theories; our expectations; our past experiences; our language.”[8] Gerald R. McDermott also forcefully contends, “The scholar who claims to be free from all prejudice and tradition is naïve or dishonest. There is no scholar whose presuppositions do not influence the way he or she sees, and indeed what he or she sees.”[9] Scientists, of course, are no exception. They are no more than ordinary people who tend to see only what they are trained to see. In many cases, their assumptions predetermine the evidence, and the predetermined evidence affects the results of scientific data. In other words, a scientist’s worldview unconsciously drives them to arrive at explanations that agree with their preconceptions, thus leading them to misleading conclusions. This is why many scientists do not even agree on how to approach the available evidence. Indeed, scientific theories are subject to correction, revision, alteration, and even supersession. Therefore, those who claim that they can make independent judgments “only show their own lack of self-knowledge.”[10]

As seen above, scientific theories are subject to correction, revision, alteration, and even supersession. This effectively challenges the blind faith of people who assume that science provides an absolute reality. “What science gives,” William Dembski notes, “is indeed real; but it is one aspect of reality, one perspective”[11] that may need to be overthrown. Because of this unpleasant truth, one should not naïvely assume that scientists make infallible and inerrant scientific interpretations when observing the evidence. Scientific theory and scientific fact are not the same. There must be a sharp distinction between the two. It is one thing to say that scientific theory is not in line with Scripture, and another to say that scientific theory disproves Scripture. Therefore, the current “discrepancies” presented between Scripture and science cannot be taken as solid proof that Scripture is scientifically fallacious.[12]

Development of Science

Because of the limitations of science mentioned above, some scientific theories have been altered, superseded, or abandoned because they were not in line with newer scientific discoveries. What is shocking is that some theories that have been recently abandoned by newer discoveries were believed to be eternal truths when they were first formulated.[13] Kuhn was correct when he demonstrated that today’s scientific certainties are routinely overthrown by a later generation.[14]

For example, several parts of Newton’s theory suffered a setback when Einstein examined it with Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism.[15] Sooner or later, Einstein also proved that Newton’s major assumption regarding an absolute fixed space and time was flawed.[16] As a result, Einstein’s general theory of relativity revised Newton’s theory. Now scientists know that Newton’s laws can only provide approximations. Ironically enough, Einstein’s theory of general relativity was also subject to revision since it could not be harmonized with today’s quantum field theory.[17] Does this mean that the theories of quantum mechanics have no flaws? The answer is no. There are two quantum theories that have competed with each other. Interestingly, what puzzles scientists is that both theories seem to explain quantum phenomenon very well even though they are built on completely different foundations.[18] The logic speaks for itself; both theories cannot be correct. Either one of them is right or it is possible that both may be wrong. There might be an unknown theory waiting to be discovered that explains quantum phenomenon more accurately. It is not certain which might be the case, but it is certain that scientists will continually reexamine quantum theory in light of future discoveries with greater knowledge. It would not be an exaggeration to contend that science is itself a hermeneutic enterprise.

I will provide three more examples. Consider a brief example from geology. In the nineteenth century, scientists accepted the geosynclinals theory in order to explain how mountain ranges are formed. The majority of geologists asserted that this theory decisively answered what they were looking for. However, within a few years, this theory was severely overthrown by the theory of plate tectonics.[19] Consider another example from cosmology. Cosmologists traditionally believed that the sun was motionless, and no scientist challenged this view until twentieth-century. However, recent astronomy has found that the sun travels in a very large orbit around the center of the Milky Way galaxy.[20] As a result, the motionless theory was subject to revision. A last example occurred in the nineteenth century. Empiricists argued that the concept of an atom is merely a convenient fiction because the evidence for atoms remained on the frontiers of science.[21] Surprisingly, this theory was widely held by many critical scientists since atoms were not optically observable. However, in the twenty-first century, the invention of atomic-force microscopes effectively overthrew this view, enabling scientists to construct an image of a single atom.[22]

As seen above, modern science was not born overnight. Rather, it has taken a long time to arrive where it is now. In fact, it has not arrived at its final destination yet. Science will continue to advance as its claims that it once confidently asserted are changed.[23] Because of this consistent state of change, science textbooks need to be rewritten at least once every generation and the “majority of them will be obsolete within ten years due to the new possible discovery that will alter and supersede that of the old.”[24] Based on this, William Dembski correctly notes that science is “an interconnected web of factual and theoretical claims about the world that are constantly in need of revision and for which changes in one portion of the web can induce far-reaching changes in another.”[25] Therefore, one should realize that even the most advanced scientific theories are always tentative and subject to revision.

Single Event

Scientists heavily depend on the assumption that there are constant regularities in the universe because it searches for causes.[26] Regularities enable scientists to research data and predict possible outcomes. To put it another way, science is a body of knowledge that has been carefully acquired by observation, experiment, and induction. Therefore, all scientists believe in the existence of such regularities.[27] Because of this, scientists have trouble confronting one-time events. Many scientists admit that the majority of data comes to light only when a large number of cases are examined together. However, since one-time events do not offer any kind of regularities, scientists cannot possibly obtain any raw data from those occurrences. This tremendously troubles scientists and is why there are massive discrepancies among scientists regarding the origin of life, and the origin of the universe. These are extremely unique events that cannot be reproduced in a laboratory. Since scientists do not know much about these events, many hypotheses, unproven assumptions, suspicious speculations, and shifting evidence are inevitably required when dealing with such events.

For example, the Big Bang model of the cosmos “includes assumptions, and the theory on which it was built has not been proven.”[28] To elaborate, out of a myriad of scientific assumptions for building the Big Bang cosmology, the fundamental ones are the universality of physical laws, the cosmological principle, and the Copernican principle.[29] However, the problem is that none of these assumptions have been proven to be correct.[30] It is possible that what scientists assume to be obvious today may not be so certain tomorrow. It should also be noted that there are numerous other cosmological theories that scientists have labeled “non-standard theories.”[31] These theories, which were developed under different assumptions or by assuming features that contradict the Big Bang model, also provide explanations of the origin of universe.[32] Of course, these alternative theories were also built on theories that can never be proven. Therefore, scientists must be cautious not to jump to conclusions when they deal with data that does not contain any regularity.

Out of Scope

A last limitation of science is that its domain is strictly limited to the material world. It has no authority to speak about matters concerning metaphysics, such as a miracles, angels, and God. There are indeed overlapping areas of investigation between science and Scripture, but also non-overlapping areas as well. This makes science’s expertise narrower than that of Scripture. Vern Poythress points out that science “does not undertake to study God’s word comprehensively, but only those aspects of God’s word that address the regularities,”[33] because Scientists typically have a prior commitment to naturalism, whereas Scripture clearly contains numerous supernatural events. This means that many parts of Scripture are surrounded by walls that science can never climb up.[34] Therefore, scientists should not pass judgment on miraculous events.

 

A Few Myths About Biblical Hermeneutics

The fact that science has limitations does not mean that it cannot contribute to biblical hermeneutics. History shows us that using proven scientific discoveries as a secondary authority actually helped Christians understand several uncertain verses in Scripture (e.g., Eccles 1:5, Ps 93:1e) more accurately and deeply. One of the most famous examples is the church’s departure from the heliocentric view to a geocentric cosmology.

Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer, had maintained that the earth is the stationary center of the solar system; therefore, the Sun traveled in orbits around a stationary earth. Nearly all people had no problem with this view and accepted it. However, Nicolaus Copernicus challenged this view by presenting a totally opposite view: the geocentric theory. For Copernicus, it was the earth that traveled around the Sun. Since telescopes had not yet been invented in the time of Ptolemy and Copernicus, people did not know what to believe. In the midst of confusion, the church stepped up and indicated that Copernicus’s geocentric theory must be rejected because it was threatening the authority of Scripture. To elaborate, the church back then believed that Ecclesiastes 1:5 and Psalm 93:1e unmistakably referred to a heliocentric cosmological view: “The Sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again” (Eccles 1:5); “Indeed, the world is established, it cannot be moved” (Ps 93:1e). They took the claim of these two verses to mean that the earth was stationary, implying that Copernicus must be wrong. Soon after, Galileo Galilei, whose view was in line with Copernicus, wrote a letter to Grand Duchess, and some portion of it is worth quoting at length:

It is most pious to say and most prudent to take for granted that Holy Scripture can never lie, as long as its true meaning has been grasped; but I do not think one can deny that this is frequently recondite and very different from what appears to be the literal meaning of the words. … However, by this I do not wish to imply that one should not have the highest regard for passages of Holy Scripture; indeed, after becoming certain of some physical conclusions, we should use these as very appropriate aids to the correct interpretation of Scripture and to the investigation of the truths they must contain, for they are most true and agree with demonstrated truths.[35]

For Galileo, Mark A. Noll explains, to think that one could interpret Scripture on scientific questions without “dialogue between natural and biblical observations was to guarantee a misunderstanding of Scripture”.[36] Soon after, the rise of modern science effectively proved the traditional interpretation of Scripture to be wrong. As a result, Copernicus’s geocentric theory displaced Ptolemy’s heliocentric theory and eventually even the most ardent supporters of biblical literalism had to reject an earth-centered cosmological system. From this experience, the church learned that interpretations of Scripture could go wrong.

As seen above, there was time when the church rejected Copernicus’s account of a heliocentric universe because it was thought that Ecclesiastes 1:5 and Psalm 93:1e depicted a geocentric universe. In this case, it was not Scripture, but theologians and their hermeneutics that were wrong since the Bible does not speak of a geocentric universe. This teaches us a valuable lesson: (1) As the theories of data science presented could be finite and fallible, so do the interpretations of Scripture because the scientific theories and biblical interpretations were derived from limited and sinful men. (2) A proven scientific discovery can be used to bring light to biblical verses that do not provide a clear scientific explanation.

People who are passionate about defending Scripture can become too certain that they know what biblical verses truly mean. They then may not listen to what scientists say about recent discoveries. In cases like this, it would be appropriate to reexamine the verses in Scripture to see whether or not they really teach what they are assumed to teach because scientists and Bible interpreters are subject to errors.[37] Therefore, one should keep in mind what Dembski had to say: “When we talk about the Bible and science as possibly conflicting, we are really comparing two hermeneutic enterprises and are doing so in a way that could be confusing, mixing apples and oranges. Hermeneutics is about explaining data. There is the datum that needs to be explained.”[38]

 

A Balanced Approach for Christians

However, this does not mean that Scripture and science are not to be read side by side. Even though an interpretation of Scripture can receive help from proven scientific discoveries, it has to be Scripture that controls science. One should not accord equal weight to science and Scripture as if they carry equal weight in every respect. Christian faith always needs to depict Scripture as the ultimate and final authority: Sola Scriptura.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral encapsulates this point well. The quadrilateral consists of four different authorities: (1) Scripture, (2) tradition, (3) reason and (4) experience.[39] Out of these four, Scripture is the ultimate and final source of Christian authority that controls the other of three. In other words, tradition, reason, and experience are criteria that support the claims of Scripture. Notice that science consists of tradition, reason, and experience, but not Scripture. This means that even though science is a possible source of authority, it cannot overrule Scripture, which is of a higher authority. Rather, it can only support the claims of Scripture. Therefore, when one finds discrepancies between an unproven scientific theory and a certain interpretation of Scripture, he or she must let a certain interpretation of Scripture overrule the unproven scientific theory. Based on this, Loraine Boettner aptly notes,

Distinction should always be made between the speculations in the realm of science and its clearly proven facts. … The Bible has not been shown to contradict so much as one proven fact of science … The conflict which some people suppose to exist between the Bible and science simply does not exist. Perhaps the primary reason there has been so much confusion regarding the relationship between religion and science is the failure on the part of so many people to discriminate between facts and opinions. True science deals only with established facts; opinions may be as varied as the people who express them.[40]

Neglecting this rule will cause many spiritual catastrophes.[41]

 

Conclusion

I will leave this section up to all of you to finish the article. God bless you! 🙂

 

Endnotes

[1] It needs to be noted that my definition of Sola Scriptura is not “Scripture is the only authority,” but “the final authority”.

[2] Ronald H. Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching For a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 47–48.

[3] It is true that proponents of the two theories would say otherwise. They would probably assert that they have not compromised sola scriptura since they are not denying the essential teachings of the Bible (thus not denying the inerrancy of Scripture). They would also argue that they are simply reinterpreting Scripture in light of science, seeking to harmonize the two.

[4] It should be emphasized that I do not deny the use of science in Biblical hermeneutics. In fact, science will be used as the secondary authority that supports Scripture, which is the final authority.

[5] John C. Lennox, “How Do I Account for the Existence of Consciousness, Thought and the Human Self?” in The Missing Link: A Symposium on Darwin’s Framework for a Creation-Evolution Solution, edited by Roy Abraham Vargheses (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2013), 233

[6] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[7] In the same manner, Gerhard F. Hasel also warns the opposite situation: “This pre-understanding leads them to read the Biblical writer in such a way that any conflict with their preconceived ideas is avoided. From the hermeneutical perspective, it is evident that modern pre-understanding serves as a key for the interpretation of Biblical data.” (Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Biblical View of the Extent of the Flood,” 79.)

[8] Karl R. Popper, “Normal Science and Its Dangers,” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, eds. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 56

[9] Geral R. McDermott, Can Evangelicals Learn From World Religions: Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2000), 21.

[10] Poythress, Redeeming Science, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2006), 57.

[11] Dembski, “Does the Bible Conflict with Science?” in In Defense of the Bible, 220.

[12] Along a similar vein, another problem exists. Scripture clearly reveals that every aspect of a human being is deeply corrupted by sin. When scientists, who are no more than human, engage in science, they continue to be sinful. They observe scientific data as sinners, interpret them as sinners, and derive conclusion as sinners. This is a massive obstacle that makes scientists unable from making an unbiased and accurate judgment about the scientific data.

[13] I will provide several examples shortly.

[14] See Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

[15] Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006), 43.

[16] Ibid., 218.

[17] Quantum field theory requires a fixed structure of space and time, whereas general relativity requires continuous changes in the structure of space and time influenced by matter and energy.

[18] Poythress, Redeeming Science, 202.

[19] William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 206.

[20] Poythress, Redeeming Science, 218.

[21] Ibid., 198.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Dembski, “Does the Bible Conflict with Science?,” 373.

[24] Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1947), 34.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Norman L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind: A Defense of Biblical Miracles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 52.

[27] Poythress, Redeeming Science, 193.

[28] Delmar Dobberpuhl, The First Four Days: The Creation of the Universe – An Annotated Account (Enumclaw, WA: Wine Press Publishing, 2011), 13.

[29] Rupert W. Anderson, The Cosmic Compendium: The Big Bang & the Early Universe (Electric Book: Lulu Press, 2015), 91.

[30] Delmar Dobberpuhl, The First Four Days, 13.

[31] Anderson, The Cosmic Compendium, 91.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Poythress, Redeeming Science, 184.

[34] Dembski, In Defense of the Bible, 364.

[35] “Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess,” in The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History, ed. Maurice A. Finocchiaro (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 92–94.

[36] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 206.

[37] Poythress, Redeeming Science, 44.

[38] Dembski, “Does the Bible Conflict with Science?” in In Defense of the Bible, 369-370.

[39] Donald G. Bloesch, A Theology of Word & Spirit: Authority & Method in Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 208.

[40] Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1947), 35.

[41] Sometimes evangelical Christians make a mistake by trying to vindicate Scripture with the modern unproven scientific theories by elevating them to a position of greater authority than Scripture. Even if their intension is praiseworthy, their method is to be criticized. Christians need to be carefully not to put more credibility and confidence on scientific data than Scripture.

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