Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Last night was Nick’s “Theology Monthly” where we discussed creation.  There was disagreement over the interpretation of “day” in Genesis 1-2 and even disagreement over its importance.  I believe that “day” refers to a literal 24-hour period of time.  It seems to me

  1. to be the most natural reading of the text
  2. to be the way later Biblical authors understood the text (cf. the 4th commandment)
  3. that there are no problems in the text that require a solution of a non-24 hour day
  4. that denying a non-24 hour day has implications or consequences I would deny (e.g. when and why do living creatures die?)
  5. that alternative explanations seems ad hoc
  6. that a consistent application of the logic behind denying a 24-hour day allows the interpreter to override any Biblical data–no matter how clear–with ostensibly scientific data.

During the discussion, Josh commented that there were many occasions throughout history where scientific findings were used to correct interpretations of the Bible.  I want to challenge such a reading of history.

First challenge – name at least 2 times that has happened.  The most obvious candidate is Galileo’s kerfuffle with the Catholic Church.  Even if I grant that incident (which I don’t, see below), what other instances are there?  One might suggest Christians using the curse of Ham as a justification for slavery.  But this gross misinterpretation was not overturned by scientific data.  The Red Cross still segregated blood donations well into the 50s until it was shown that blood from non-Caucasians  is identical to those from Caucasians.  Furthermore, the abolitionist William Wilberforce was working from an explicit Christian theology.  One last example – John Woolman in his journal came to similar convictions from a reading of the Bible in the early 1790s.  I do not believe that the interpretation of slavery in the Bible was fundamentally altered by a scientific discovery.

The way I read history, Galileo was a heretic in the eyes of the Catholic Church not because they were so convinced that the Bible demanding a geocentric solar system but rather because they had uncritically accepted the physics of Aristotle and Ptolemy.  Ironically, Galileo proves the exact opposite of what people usually claim! The church gets into interpretive difficulties when it accepts the scientific consensus of the age.  We must be faithful to Scripture – speaking where it speaks and being silent where it is silent.  If another field of inquiry speaks where the Bible is silent we can tentatively adopt those conclusions.  If another field of inquiry speaks in direct contradiction to where the Bible speaks, we must side with the Bible.

Posted in Christianity | 4 Comments »

4 Comments

  1. Nick says:

    I’ll have to get back to you on any other instances of this happening but in response you refute of the Galileo incident I have a comment.

    I don’t think that this discussion ever insinuated that science would correct an unbiased Biblical interpretation. However I don’t believe that any of us are capable of completely unbiased interpreting all the time. We are all at least partially a product of the unnoticed influence of our culture.

    While you are correct in saying that the physics of Aristotle and Ptolemy were the base error in the geocentric solar system I would venture to guess that the theologians of that day did not argue primarily if at all from those physics. Much in the same way we are influenced by our culture they were influenced by their’s which had been for a very long time accepting that the universe was geocentric as part of the argument for the primacy of man in creation.

    The work of Galileo did not in fact refute any Biblical facts but instead refuted a Biblical interpretation that was based on a, more than likely unseen, bias. It would be my argument that this is the role of science when used as an interpretive tool. Not to influence Biblical interpretation directly but to help us to identify our own incorrect biases.

    However I will also offer a caution that this is a slippery slope to step onto. While we can use science to correct our unseen biases we should be wary of it creating biases that distort our view of scripture and therefore create wrong interpretations.

    If you can interpret the Bible without allowing science or culture to augment at all then that is ideal but I don’t believe that is a workable possibility when we are all constantly influenced by culture and the science that goes with it.

    Just as you argued that we don’t do science in a vacuum we don’t interpret the Bible in one either.

  2. Jason says:

    Sounds like a fun discussion-disappointed I missed it!

    And while you’re on Galileo, just remember that the solar system is more barycentric than it is heliocentric or geocentric.

  3. Nick says:

    Woah, mind blown. Apparently I the barycentric universe model has not yet reach the halls of El Paso High School. Thank you Jason and Wikipedia for correcting my biased worldview.

  4. admin says:

    Nick,

    A few brief comments here.

    I’m not suggesting we have an unbiased interpretation of Scripture. In fact – exactly the opposite. We either are reading it as someone who sits under the Word in faith or someone who sits over it in judgment.

    As for what you said, “I would venture to guess that the theologians of that day did not argue primarily if at all from those physics.”, I believe that is precisely the case. Though this may be a gross simplification, Aquinas wed Aristotelean thinking with Christian theology in such a way that the church accepted both Aristotelean metaphysics and the Aristotelean physics uncritically. I can’t prove this assertion to the fullest, but that is precisely what I am asserting.

    Finally, you make this distinction between fact and interpretation which, while important in other contexts, I think is largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand. The assertion that I am denying is that there is or was a long history of using science to correct our Biblical interpretations. As a stronger statement, I would also deny that science has ever been used in such a manner.