Scripture and Science – must they agree?

This should not be a difficult question.  It does require care in answering to be understood fairly.  Rightly understood, the Word of God will be, in the main, in cheerful agreement with the physical facts around us if these facts are rightly understood.  Early in ecclesial life, brethren like Jardine (1864) observed

“The inconsistency spoken of between nature and scripture, arises not from antagonism, but from the misinterpretations of both. It is man’s interpretation of the one set against man’s interpretations of the other. It is not nature versus scripture, but false science against true theology, or false theology against scientific fact”[1]

I suggested the Word will, in the main, be in cheerful agreement.  Why this qualification?  Because, without questioning inspiration (expressed in the foundation clause of the BASF), we have long accepted Scripture does at times use language which accommodates the scientific ignorance of the people of the day.  A simple example of accommodation is the Scriptural use of the heart as the place of thought/imagination and the bowels as the location of deep emotion.  God speaks in such language describing human nature eg:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?  I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins [literally “try the kidneys”], even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.”  Jer 17:9-10 KJV

This reflected the incorrect understanding of the times (eg David asked God to test his heart and kidneys Psa 26:2).  In Scripture the terms are used literally or figuratively reflecting this incorrect understanding – there is no evidence of the correct functions being understood as attested by the Bible dictionaries I have to hand (Easton’s, Naves, Torreys, Vines, TWOT).  The physical/scientific reality of such descriptions being technically incorrect is of no doctrinal consequence and some of the expressions have moved (with modifications) into English as a common figures of speech.

heart

The use of body organs incorrectly is consistent with the medical misunderstandings of cultures around Israel.  As depicted, Egyptians believed the heart was weighed against a feather as part of the judgment process post death (compare Prov 21:2 where “every way of a man is right in his own eyes but God weighs the heart” and similarly Prov 24:12).  The heart was believed to the center of the person and their intelligence – the same way it is used in the Old Testament.[2]

The brain, by contrast, was regarded as worthless and discarded as almost the first step of the embalming process.  So too in Scripture the brain is never mentioned or the head identified as the origin of thought.  The head is used as a symbol of leadership and priority (not thinking).  Hence in Gen 3:15 there is no warrant to impose science on Scripture and see a figurate message about the thinking of the serpent destroyed.  This contradicts the meaning of the head as understood by everyone from Moses to Paul.  The leadership/dominion of the serpent was figuratively to be destroyed.

Slightly more challenging is the use of demons in the Synoptic Gospels, Acts and James to mean the source of mental illness and various afflictions.  As Bro Ron Abel noted, “Jesus simply used the vernacular of the times”[3].  This assessment is well founded, there is no doubt about the beliefs of Jesus contemporaries.  Josephus clearly believed in demons, recounting stories of Solomon driving them out in Antiquities[4] and mentioning demons again in Wars [5].  The Dead Sea Scroll 4Q560 demonstrates the belief in demons driving disease of many types was not limited to Josephus’ circle[6].

Bro Roberts stated in more detail, that demons being mentioned was

“conformity to the language in which such afflictions were described in the days of Jesus.  That language no doubt had its foundation in the Pagan and widespread belief that mental maladies were attributable to the presence of “demons”—(myths of Pagan imagination); but the employment of the language does not carry with it a profession of faith in the idea expressed[7].

Boulton states plainly “the language used is accommodated to the thoughts and ideas of the times then current[8].  Similarly, Bro C Crawford & E Whittaker recognized that “Christadelphians usually subscribe to… [the view that Jesus] accommodated himself to the idea held at the time”[9].  Bro Harry Tennant put it that

“Jesus had to use for the sufferer language which was helpful to him. The sufferer had been told by those around him that his trouble was demon possession. Jesus had to deal with that fact in the process of his healing work. …It is very difficult to see what other kind of language the Lord could have used when speaking to a deluded person.[10]

Other explanations have been offered – eg Bro P Watkins who postulates the language is all parabolic[11] – although such an assertion across five books and despite the environment of superstition seems less likely than Roberts and Abel’s interpretation and is not supported by the evidence from scripture or contemporary materials.  A right understanding of the whole of Scripture would dispel any notion of literal demons.  However at the time of interaction, and when it was recorded, Christ and the gospel writers under inspiration used factually incorrect terminology which echoed the misunderstandings of the local audience but communicated the essential truth that the problem was internal.

Further examples of accommodation include the rotating of the sun around the earth (Ecc 1:5, Josh 10:13), the earth being established on pillars (1Sam2:8, Job 9:6, Psa 24:2, Isa 24:28).  James 5:14 instructs that the sick should be both prayed for and have oil rubbed on them for healing (in line with then current medical practice cp Isa1:6, Luke10:34, Josephus (Antiq. XVII, 172 [vi. 5]) and Galen (De Simplicium Medicamentorum Temperamentis 2.10ff)[12]).  Those who claim to take the bible literally choose not to obey this clear advice – why?  They choose to read this passage in cultural historical context, an approach they inconsistently reject elsewhere.

It is a critical point.  All modern brethren and sisters come to Scripture and read expressions as ‘metaphoric’.  There are no grounds in Scripture to take the function of the heart as a thinking organ as a metaphor, or the earth to be settled on something other than pillars.  However, the words are understood as symbols because of science not because of the text.  This principle is widely applied.  But when we come to Genesis 1-3 it is not.  Why?  The logic of ‘God says He created’ is no different to “every imagination of the heart”.  We cannot pick and choose what is literal and what is accommodating the pre-scientific thinking of the day.  Those who accuse me and others of elevating science over Scripture (a charge rejected) themselves unknowingly use science to guide them on reading various passages.  Before we can progress this discussion we need to be consistent, brutally consistent, in our approach to God’s Word.

As Bro Clement noted in 1884 “The Bible does not speak in the literal and strictly scientific language of the nineteenth century, but in the language of the day in which it was written”[13]

Imperfect understanding is our lot this side of the Kingdom, both of the Word of God and the physical facts around us.  Eg as Bible students we don’t claim to appreciate all elements of prophecy, but one day we will!

Back to my comment on the alignment of God’s Word and the physical world and slightly rewording it.  Assuming our understanding of both is perfect, there will be no disagreement – saving for some accommodation of the original hearer’s misunderstandings where such errors don’t compromise your doctrinal understanding.

Such a conclusion of consistency between correct Scripture and correct Science was promoted by previous Christadelphian writers as per the following few examples (of which more can be found):

  • J Thomas “The grand divisions of this testimony are twofold—first the evidence he has given of his Eternal Power, and Divinity in what is termed Nature; and, secondly, that which is contained in the Historical Books and the Law of Moses, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Apostolic Writings.”[14]
  • Robert Roberts “There are facts that compel such a conclusion: and as all facts are of God, they must be in agreement”[15]
  • Jardine “The inconsistency spoken of between nature and scripture, arises not from antagonism, but from the misinterpretations of both. It is man’s interpretation of the one set against man’s interpretations of the other. It is not nature versus scripture, but false science against true theology, or false theology against scientific fact”[16]
  • Welch “Their pious dread, however, comes from their needless gross ignorance of the Bible. Old mother earth will reveal no secrets that will hurt the Bible, for the same God is the author of both, and He is no liar”[17]
  • Walker ““Moses and Geology” are in agreement when both are rightly understood[18]
  • Walker “we seek an interpretation which shall accept impartially all the facts, alike of divine revelation and of well-established science. And we have not the slightest fear of any real conflict between the two[19]
  • Carter “the Psalm [19] asserts that the revelation of God is two-fold – in nature and in His word”[20]
  • Hayward “There are some Christians who take the attitude, “If science contradicts the Bible, so much the worse for science. Who cares?” And there are some scientists whose reaction is the exact opposite…Both these shut-minded attitudes are sadly mistaken. They do no service to Christ, to Science, or to Truth.”[21]

Those who reject EC will claim, among other things, that the science changes and consequently examining the Word of God gives a better line of sight on the facts than science.   This argument is not without merit however it is far more limited than the Special Creationist is necessarily aware of.  Usually unbeknown to the anti-evolutionary pleader is the depth and breadth of observations lined up in concord against their understanding of Scripture.  These observations extend beyond “evolution” as if it were a standalone branch of science.  Areas of observable challenges to Special Creation include (and I’m sure experts might add more):

  • Evolution (obviously)
  • Biology
  • Geology
  • Atomic Theory
  • Dendrochronology/Botany
  • Climatology
  • Genetics
  • Parasitology
  • Archaeology
  • Epidemiology
  • Chemistry

These are not mere speculations but fundamental facts which are applied in the lives of all first world believers from the generation of their power, running of electronic devices to life saving health care practices.

In 1916, Bro Walker as editor of the Christadelphian Magazine engaged with a brother (who was not without support) who insisted the earth was flat based on a literal reading of Scripture.  Bro Walker responded:

“Professed respect for Moses and the prophets often degenerates into obscurantism, as when men try to establish from their writings the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. It is so also in the case of a brother who tried to establish from Moses and the prophets “the flat earth theory.”

Obscurantism is “Opposition to the advancement and diffusion of knowledge, a tendency or desire to prevent enquiry or enlightenment.” Such is the attitude of those who, however estimable they may otherwise be, set Moses and the prophets in opposition to science through a misinterpretation of their writings.”[22] 

In 2015 bro Alan Eyre felt compelled to write an open letter explaining how young earth creationism doesn’t fit the facts, particularly the inconvenient reality of dating systems (which also discredit old earth models) and said:

“When visiting Australia recently I was given to understand by certain prominent brothers that unless I believe, and agree to teach, that every word in Genesis chapter one is absolutely literal, and that therefore life on earth and the sun, moon, stars and galaxies in the sky did not exist before 4004 BC, I cannot be considered a genuine Christadelphian.”[23]

It is worth quoting an extensive passage from Bro Walker who, while rejecting evolution, 104 years ago had the intellectual honesty to say the following:

“As with fishes, so with birds, many remains are found in the rocks, of a kind not now found upon earth. Our museums contain footprints of gigantic birds impressed in sand now turned to rock, and remains actually embedded in rock. If we understand Moses as teaching that the earth and all that therein is came into existence some 6,000 years ago, we shall scarcely be able to account for these evidently very ancient remains of creatures that do not now exist. If we suppose a sudden and absolute break some 6,000 years ago, or before, resulting in the destruction of all life, and that the creation account of Genesis describes a new creation following, we ought to find some evidence of the break, and we cannot well account for the apparently close relationship that obtains between extinct and existing forms. There are forms becoming extinct in our own day from slow and natural causes. May it not have been so in pre-Adamic times? The professors tell us for instance that some of these ancient birds, whose strides we can see for ourselves from their footprints were from four to six feet long, were like gigantic ostriches. Supposing that it were ever established that they were the actual progenitors of our smaller forms (“There were giants in the earth in those days” might apply to birds and beasts), would the credibility of the Mosaic narrative suffer? Not at all, in our estimation. We should indeed have to revise somewhat our interpretation of the brief cosmogony of Gen. 1.; but should not waver as concerning its divinity, nor await with less faith and patience the reappearance of Moses in the land of the living.”[24]

More than a century on and it is clear that there is no break in life and DNA studies have definitively linked past and present life.  However rather than adjust our understanding, we have adopted some of the (admittedly mythical) habits of the ostriches Bro Walker refers to.

As I said earlier I will repeat again – I will not and cannot debate that God could create the world in 6 days, He could do it in 3 minutes if He wanted.  However, suggesting we should be prepared to review our interpretation of Scripture based on repeatedly proven science shouldn’t be controversial.  As previously pointed out, all believers do it repeatedly on many subjects – often unconsciously.

 

[1] Jardine, ‘The Bible as a Law of Life and Immortality’, The Ambassador of the Coming Age, (1.6.93), 1864

[2] http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/mummies.htm

[3] Abel, Ron “Wrested Scriptures” first edition, page 163

[4] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 214). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[5] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged (p. 759). Peabody: Hendrickson.

[6] Wise, M. O., Abegg, M. G., Jr., & Cook, E. M. (2005). The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (p. 566). New York: HarperOne.

[7] Roberts, R “The devils and the swine” The Christadelphian, 8(electronic ed.), page 98 (1871).

[8] Boulton WH “Jesus as Luke portrayed him” The Christadelphian, Volume 84 page 193 (1947).

[9] Crawford, CK & Whittaker E “The problem of demons”  The Testimony Magazine volume 35 page 117 (1965)

[10] Tennant, H. “The Christadelphians: What They Believe and Preach” (1986), 167

[11] Watkins, P “The Devil, the great deceiver” page 70

[12] Refer to the Expositors Bible Commentary and IPV Background Commentary on James 5v14 which support this understanding

[13] Clement, D. “The Christadelphian” Vol 21 Page 176 (1884)

[14] Thomas, The Apostolic Advocate (3.260-261), March 1837

[15] Roberts, R. ‘The Visible Hand of God’, The Christadelphian (18.205.308), 1881

[16] Jardine, ‘The Bible as a Law of Life and Immortality’, The Ambassador of the Coming Age, (1.6.93), 1864

[17] Welch “Knowledge – No. 12” The Christadelphian, Vol. 28 page 344 (1891).

[18] Walker. “Genesis” The Christadelphian, 47(electronic ed.), 359. (1910)

[19] Walker “Genesis” The Christadelphian, 47(electronic ed.), 270. (1910)

[20] Carter, J “God’s Way” page 26

[21] Hayward, A.  “God’s Truth” Marshall, Morgan & Scott page 83-84 (1973)

[22] (1916). The Christadelphian, 53(electronic ed.), 402.

[23] Eyre, Alan (2015) Should Christadelphians reject the sciences, become biblical literalists, or teach‘young earth creationism’?  Open letter

[24] Walker “Genesis” The Christadelphian, Volume 47 (electronic ed.), page 501. (1910).

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3 thoughts on “Scripture and Science – must they agree?

  1. Pingback: The Lampstand July 2017 insert – the Bible and science (part 1) | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

  2. Pingback: An example Creationist attack | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

  3. Pingback: Misleading accusations at Rathmines | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

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