Interpreting the Genesis creation story: an introduction

Image: by Ian Bailey-Mortimer
First, we need to lay down some foundations. I've written several posts on how we should interpret the Bible. I have said that:
The Bible, like scientific data, is sacred and infallible. We approach it accordingly.  
This leads us to certain well-established principles of Bible interpretation. 
Furthermore, the Bible should be interpreted using science when appropriate.
I have also written on the proper role of science and its relationship to Christianity. I have said that:
God infuses every human field of study, including all the sciences. Everything is ultimately based on God, and about God. 
Therefore, Christianity provides the firm foundation for doing science, and science in turn reveals to us a great deal of about God. 
Furthermore, science taken as a whole provides overwhelming evidence for the God.
With these as the foundations, I can finally begin this series of posts on the Genesis creation story. In this post I will lay out my interpretation, and give a short introduction for the posts to come. In those future posts I will further explain and defend my interpretation.

Here are the key points in my understanding of the creation story:
The seven-day creation week in Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 is not meant to be taken literally. It instead serves as a highly abstract, symbolic, and non-chronological introduction to the rest of Genesis and the whole Bible. Its primary purpose is to inform us that God created everything to be "very good", and that we are made in his image. 
Starting from Genesis 2:4, where the "second creation story" starts, the stories are pretty much "literal". From this point on in Genesis, there is a continuity of narrative all the way to the end of the book. Genesis 2-11 should therefore be interpreted the same way we interpret any of the stories about the patriarchs, in a very "literal", down to earth, matter-of-fact sense. 
This means that I also believe that Adam and Eve were historical persons who lived several thousand years ago. They are ancestors to all humans alive today, although they were not the only humans living in their time. By virtue of being their descendants we also bear the image of God, but also share in their original sin. 
Noah's flood was a local flood. 
On the science side of things, I hold to the standard Big Bang cosmology and the theory of evolution, which says the universe and the Earth are billions of years old. Standard scientific stuff. I believe that mainstream science is basically correct on these matters. My position is very much like the one taken by the BioLogos foundation, although my interpretation is more specific on certain points than they're willing to go. 
"But wait", you say. "How could you believe in a historical Adam and Eve, and also in modern science? Anatomically modern humans appeared 200,000 years ago, yet you say that Adam and Eve lived several thousand years ago?" That's right. It turns out that you don't need to be the first member of a species in order to be the ancestor to all the current members of that species. All this will be explained in the future posts.

These ideas are not set in stone. They are a working hypothesis that represents my best attempt at interpreting the Genesis story. I believe this interpretation to be correct, free from flaws and compatible with all biblical and scientific data. I can still be convinced to refine or reject this interpretation if sufficient scientific or biblical evidence warrants it. However, for me to completely reject this interpretation would require a great deal of evidence, as they would have to outweigh the considerable evidence I believe I already have for this interpretation.

In particular, although I had argued earlier that science should be used to interpret the Bible, I believe that my interpretation can stand simply on its strong scriptural support alone. Therefore, over the course of this series of posts, I will avoid mentioning science when the main point of a post is to interpret the Bible. Of course, if you do consider science in addition, my interpretation becomes more certain still.

At this point I would like to reiterate that we, as Christians, can disagree on this topic while still being loving, and that living out the Gospel is more important than being right. I have a number of people who disagree with me on this very controversial issue whom I respect. And I don't mean that in a flippant sense, like a bigot might say "I have friends who are [blank]". These are people in my personal life whom I deeply respect, whose knowledge of the Bible exceeds my own in many areas, whose walk with Christ are deeper than mine, whose actions I would consider to be a better witness than mine, and whose life I would like to live. Yes, we disagree on this important issue of interpreting the Genesis creation story, but that doesn't prevent us from loving and being in fellowship with one another through Christ.

Having said all that, the following are the remaining posts in this series, where I will explain and defend the interpretation that I've outlined in this post. Since so much has already been written on this topic, I will not reiterate all the usual arguments, instead focusing on what I hope will be original and rarely mentioned lines of thought.
Interpreting Genesis 1 by looking through John 1: John 1 is the best biblical tool we have for interpreting the Genesis creation story. When we interpret Genesis in this light, we see that the seven days of creation are a poetic prologue to the rest of the Bible, written using an abstract, symbolic, "big picture" style - which is exactly how the Gospel of John also starts.

How is "light" used in the Bible, particularly in the creation story?: By looking at every verse in the Bible that mentions "light", we see that the Bible uses that word figuratively much more often than it uses it literally. This fact, combined with some other data on how the Bible uses "light", indicates that the "light" in Genesis 1 should be interpreted figuratively. 
The simple essential meaning of the Genesis creation story: In the midst of discussing the controversial details, we must not forget that the creation story has a simple, important message as the first passage of the Bible: God is the creator of the universe who created all things to be good. He made us in his image to rule over the rest of creation. Although we then sinned and fell, God still cares for us and interacts with us. The rest of the Bible is the story of that interaction.

Common arguments about the creation account (Part 1): I consider some often-heard arguments about the Genesis creation account, such as "Exodus 20:11 says the world was created in six days", "How could there be a literal day before there was a Sun?", and "The Hebrew word for 'day' is always meant literally when it's paired with a number". 
Common arguments about the creation account (Part 2): I consider some more common arguments, such as the "no death before Adam" position taken by some young earth creationists, the problem of sexual reproduction necessitating incest if Adam and Eve were the only human in the beginning, and many other such issues.
Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 1): Adam and Eve are ancestors to all of humans today and the first fully human beings. But this does not mean that they were the first biological humans, or that they were the only humans in existence in their time. Because they are our spiritual ancestors, we, too, are made in the image of God, but we're also affected by their original sin.
Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 2): The idea that Adam and Eve are recent common ancestors to all of humanity works very well in fitting all the data, but it raises some questions as well. In particular, it implies that there were "merely biological humans" who were not made in the image of God. I explore and resolve this issue by making one major modification to my model - by expanding the method of propagation for the "image of God" beyond just biological means.
Adam and Eve were historical persons. Who were they? (Part 3): I consider how the descendants of Adam and Eve could have spread throughout the Earth, addressing issues such as whether they could have spread quickly enough, or how they could have gotten to the Americas or reached isolated peoples. I then evaluate the certainty of this model, and address how it might change in the future.
Interpreting other Bible passages (Part 1: Cain and Abel): How does this model explain some of the other tricky passages in the Bible? In this post I look at Genesis 4, and look at several elements in the story that makes more sense in my interpretation than they do in rival interpretations. Who was Cain afraid of? Who was his wife? Why did he build a city? What does it mean that people "began to call upon the name of the Lord" around when Enosh was born? My interpretation deftly handles all these questions, while they are often troublesome for other interpretations.
 Interpreting other Bible passages (Part 2: Nephilim, Noah, etc.): I continue exploring the fit between my model and the other passages in the Bible, such as the story of the Nephilim, Noah's flood, tower of Babel, and the theologically important verses in the New Testament which touches on the creation story.
The biblical timeline of the universe: In this concluding post for the series, I lay out the timeline of the major events in the history of the universe, and connect them to the Gospel narrative, as well as to the important parts of this series of posts. 

Why we should interpret the Bible in light of science

Image: LH 95, public domain
The post title may already be controversial. So I would like to start by reminding everyone that loving one another is more important than being right. Christians, of all people, should be able to intellectually disagree with one another while still being loving, because our identity is not based in our intellect but in Christ.

On to the topic at hand: we are in a series of posts discussing how we should interpret the Bible. In the last few posts, I had argued that in studying the Bible, we should take a similar approach to studying nature. For the Bible and nature are two books written by the same Person for the same purpose: namely, revelation. This lead to the usual set of commonly accepted principles for interpreting the Bible. These principles, as summarized in my previous post, are as follows:
1. We approach the Bible with complete faith in God, trusting the Holy Spirit to illuminate its texts and enlighten our minds. We believe that God reveals himself through the Bible, and enables us to understand that revelation. 
2. We interpret the Bible in its full context - starting from the meaning of specific words in the context of the language and the sentence, all the way up to the context of a book in its historical and cultural setting. 
3. We interpret the Bible in a logical, self-consistent manner. Therefore, we use scripture to interpret scripture, and use clear passages to interpret the confusing ones, checking for logical consistency every step of the way.
4. We allow the Bible to speak for itself, rather than reading our own agendas into it. We therefore do not cherry pick the verses we like, or interpret a particular verse without regarding the rest of the Bible. We allow the Bible as a whole to speak to us.
In this post, I will slightly expand the above principles, and argue for applying scientific facts directly to interpret certain pertinent passages in the Bible. Note that this is distinct from using science only as an analogy for a general approach to the Bible, which had been the focus of my last few posts. The argument here is simple: if we are to use historical facts to interpret the Bible, we should also use anything more certain and more relevant than these facts, which includes some scientific facts. Essentially, I am expanding the above-mentioned principle of context. The Bible should be interpreted not only in the context of history, but also in the context of nature - and what science has revealed about it.

The motivation for this expansion is unchanged: because of our utmost respect for the Bible demands that we interpret it using the fullest context possible, using all relevant information, so that we may reach the correct interpretation. If we ignore the relevant historical facts when we interpret a passage, we are taking that passage out of context, and we are likely to err in our interpretation. Likewise, we commit the same error - taking a passage out of context - when we ignore the relevant scientific facts.

For instance, when Apostle Paul says "there is neither Jew nor Greek [...] for you are all one in Christ Jesus" in Galatians 3:28, we understand that in this historical and cultural context, he actually means people of every ethnicity or nationality, rather than just Jews and Greeks. This is not explicitly stated in the text, but interpreting that text in the proper historical and cultural context - that is, as part of a letter sent to culturally Greek citizens of a Roman province about Jewish religious practices - sheds light on its true meaning.

Likewise, by studying astronomy, we come to a deeper understanding of Psalms 19:1, which states that "the heavens declare the glory of God". We now sing songs about the wonders of God beyond our galaxy, despite the original text never mentioning galaxies. We've gained this new appreciation of God's glory by placing Psalms 19:1 in its proper context with respect to the nature and the universe it exists in, which we understand using science.

Another way to see that we should interpret the Bible in light of science is to expand on the principle of logic and self-consistency in biblical interpretation. These principles say that the Bible must be interpreted self-consistently, and also in light of its historical context. Taken together, this means that the Bible must be interpreted consistently with historical facts. This much is uncontroversial - nobody would deny, for instance, that the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 is important for the interpretation of the New Testament. No interpretation that contradicts this historical fact could possibly be correct. All this is true even though the event is not mentioned explicitly anywhere in the Bible as a historical fact.

Now, we simply extend the self-consistency of the Bible to turn it into self-consistency of the totality of God's revelation to us. Again, this should not be controversial; we believe that our God revealed himself using many different methods, in varying degrees - fully in Jesus Christ, but also in the Bible, in nature, in history, and in our own conscience and consciousness - and that all these different revelations are in harmony.

But taking these manifestly true steps in logic leads to the conclusion that the Bible should be interpreted consistently with the facts of nature, which we know through science. If it's true that God's revelation is self-consistent, then the Bible must be in harmony with nature, as they're both a part of God's revelation. Therefore the Bible must be interpreted, in part, by using science, just as it must be interpreted by using history. No interpretation that contradicts the facts of nature could possibly be correct.

Incidentally, this line of thought is also why we interpret the whole Bible Christocentrically. God is revealed fully in Jesus Christ. Therefore the Bible, which is another one of God's revelations, must be consistent with the person of Christ, and therefore must be interpreted in the light of Jesus. If you believe that the Bible has Jesus at its thematic center, you've already implicitly ratified this line of thought, which is the same line of thought which leads to the conclusion that the Bible must also be interpreted in the light of science.

This is not a radical new proposal. It is already common practice. We already interpret "four corners of the Earth" figuratively, because we know from science that the Earth is a sphere. We interpret the verses involved in the Galileo affair in light of the Copernican Revolution. We interpret God's declaration of the goodness of his creation in light of the order and beauty found in nature. We already interpret the Bible in light of science. This is only the consistent application of the most conservative, well established principles of biblical interpretation.

Does this mean that we are placing the Bible below science in authority? Not at all. It only means that we're placing some of our relatively uncertain interpretation of the Bible below some of our very certain scientific interpretations of nature. Apart from these human uncertainties in interpretations, both the Bible and nature are part of God's self-consistent revelation, and are therefore in perfect harmony. In fact, if anything the Bible is superior in many ways, because it speaks more clearly on all the important spiritual topics, such as morality. On these topics it's nature and science that's relatively less clear and therefore must be placed below the directness and clarity of the Bible.

But could not our current science be wrong, blinded by the presuppositions we're using, susceptible to being overturned in the future? Certainly. But all this is equally true in history, yet we still use history to interpret the Bible, according to the historical-grammatical method. After all, no human activity is perfect, nor is any individual human who interprets the Bible. We use our imperfect tools and our imperfect brain to interpret the perfect Bible, knowing that even though we only see darkly as in a mirror, we still discover a sufficiently accurate picture of God.

But we use the historical-grammatical method to discern the intent of the original authors, who wrote to make sense in their own time and place. How could we extend that to science, which is a modern product? Well, while it's true that science can't reach backwards in time to influence the intent of the original authors, we can certainly say that these divinely inspired authors didn't intend for us to be wrong about nature. This is sufficient to eliminate any interpretation that contradicts scientific facts. Furthermore, sometimes the original authors did not fully understand what they were writing. It is reasonable that God still worked through these unknowing authors to ensure the self-consistency of his entire revelation, which allows us to interpret the Bible in light of science.

So, that is the case for interpreting the Bible in light of science. This is not a radical suggestion. It is no more than the conclusion from starting with the most conservative, well established practices of Bible interpretation, and reasoning things out using uncontroversial facts about God's revelation.

Now, it's probably no secret at this point that I intend to soon tackle the question of the creation story in Genesis. This is a controversial topic. So I would like to end by reminding everyone again that loving one another is more important than being right. Christians, of all people, should be able to intellectually disagree with one another while still being loving, because our identity is not based in our intellect but in Christ.


You may next want to read:
Key principles in interpreting the Bible (Previous post of this series)
How physics fits within Christianity (part 2)
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

Key principles in interpreting the Bible

Image: by Trounce, on Wikipedia commons
In my previous post, I said that there are strong parallels between the proper approach to the biblical texts when we're studying the scriptures, and to scientific data when we're studying nature. For the Bible and nature are two halves of God's unified revelation, two books written by the same Person for the same purpose. In both cases, we treat the text or the data with the utmost respect. They are sacred in a way that mere interpretations or theories could never be. For the text or the data judges the interpretations or theories, but they are themselves infallible and beyond reproach. By "infallible", I mean that the biblical text is the actual record of how God actually worked in human history, like scientific data is an actual record of what nature itself actually did in an experiment. In both cases, this infallibility does not mean that they don't need to be processed or interpreted, but it does mean that our interpretation must be based firmly on the text or the data.

All that was in the last post. In this post, I intend to introduce the usual set of commonly accepted principles for interpreting the Bible, and show that these principles come from approaching the Bible like we approach data, as in my last post. There isn't an "official list" of these principles, but you can get a good, cohesive idea of what they are by simply searching for them on Google. For the purpose of this post, I have categorized them to the following four principles:

FIRST, WE ARE TO APPROACH THE BIBLE WITH COMPLETE FAITH IN GOD, trusting in the Holy Spirit to illuminate its text and enlighten our minds. We must believe that God reveals himself through the Bible and enables us to understand that revelation. Without this faith it is impossible to sensibly interpret the Bible, just as it is impossible to do science without faith in its fundamental axioms. The same faith in a perfect God who wants to reveal himself to us underlies all our attempts at understanding, whether we're trying to understand the Bible or nature.

SECOND, WE ARE TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE IN CONTEXT. Here, I mean "context" in the entire range of the word - from the context of what a word means in a language (its definition), to the context of how that word is used in a sentence, to the sentence's placement in a paragraph, to the context of a paragraph in a chapter, a chapter in a book, a book in a sequence of books, and so on, all the way to placing a book in its proper literary genre, and its proper historical and cultural setting. Depending on all this context, we may interpret a particular word or a passage or even a whole book literally or figuratively, with different degrees of applicability for a specific question that faces us today. This is the historical-grammatical method of Bible interpretation. It's the way to treat the infallible word of God with proper respect, by interpreting its message in the fullest context possible.

The same is true in science: we interpret the data in the fullest context possible. If we have "data" only as a sequence of numbers, it's meaningless. We must ask context-related questions, such as "what are the units on these numbers? What are their uncertainties? What instruments were used to acquire these numbers? Where were the samples collected, and by whom? How were the samples treated beforehand? What was the goal of the experiment for which these numbers were generated?" If we do not interpret the data in the fullest context possible, we are not treating it with the respect it deserves, and we are likely to err in our conclusions. For both the biblical text and the data, the utmost respect accorded to them requires that we interpret them in their proper context.

THIRD, WE ARE TO INTERPRET THE BIBLE IN A LOGICAL, SELF-CONSISTENT FASHION, and thus use scripture to interpret scripture. For instance, we use the clear, specific passages to interpret vague, general passages. We do so because we believe the Bible is the infallible work of our infallible God, free of any contradictions or errors. This is the same approach we take in science: we build our theories in a logical, self-consistent manner, using more specific, more precise data to refine our theories in areas where they are vague. We do so because we believe that nature, being the work of God, is free from contradictions or errors. Remember that data cannot contradict data; it can only be misinterpreted. Only theories can contradict data or one another.

To illustrate this point, consider a quantum mechanical experiment where we measure electron spins in a given direction. We prepare two utterly identical electrons in exactly the same way, and perform the exact same measurement, but then get two different results - two different pieces of data. Did the data just contradict itself? Surely, if it were possible, this would be clearest case for data contradicting data. But, of course we don't interpret this experiment that way: we say instead that the data only contradicts a classical interpretation of the universe, but not one another. By finding a better theory - namely, quantum mechanics - we can resolve this apparent contradiction in data. Other experiments designed with more specificity can further help us refine our theory.

We are to interpret the Bible in the same way: when we run into passages that seem to conflict with each other, we don't simply give up. We instead say that it's only our current interpretation that leads to a contradiction, and search for a better interpretation. Other passages which are more specific and clear can help us further refine our new interpretation. In this way, our faith in the Bible as the work of our infallible God helps us to better understand it.

FOURTH, WE ARE TO LET THE BIBLE SPEAK FOR ITSELF, rather than reading our preconceptions into it. We therefore look at the Bible holistically for our interpretations: we are not to cherry pick the parts of the Bible that suits us while ignoring the parts we don't like. We also don't base important interpretations on a single verse while ignoring the sense of the rest of the scriptures. Note that this does not mean that we have to follow every single command that God gave to different people in different circumstances. That would quite clearly violate the rule of interpreting the Bible in context. However, it does mean that if you decide that a particular verse doesn't apply in a particular situation, this decision must make sense in the context of an interpretation that agrees with the Bible as a whole.

For example, Jesus once commanded a rich young man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor. Are we therefore also subject to this command? Well, since Jesus gave this command to a specific person, in the context of this person essentially saying "am I not already perfect?", we can reason that this command does not apply to all Christians. Furthermore, this is nearly the only time that God asks someone to give up their entire wealth, but there are numerous other times where God asks someone for only a part of their wealth, or commends giving everything as exceptionally praiseworthy, or blesses someone by making them wealthy and letting them keep that wealth. This is further evidence that this "sell everything" command doesn't apply to everyone. We therefore conclude that this command was given only to the rich young man, tailored to his specific situation and spiritual condition. This is a correct way to interpret the Bible. It is not cherry picking. We've decided to "ignore" a particular command, but that makes perfect sense in the interpretation of the Bible as a whole.

What you cannot do is to simply say, "well, the Bible is thousands of years old and things were different then, so I don't have to give anything to the poor". That is an interpretation made to avoid the clear and universal command for all Christians to help out our neighbors. That is cherry picking. That is reading our preconceptions into the Bible. That violates the principle of interpreting the Bible by letting it speak for itself. That is wrong.

Science works the same way. Say you measure the masses of multiple samples that are suppose to be identical, and get 6.45g, 6.46g, 6.48g, 6.48g, 6.50g, and 8.49g. Should you ignore that outlier of 8.49g for the purpose of computing an average? Well, upon checking your lab notes, you see that this sample was prepared and recorded by that new freshmen undergraduate intern. You know that a 6 can look like an 8 in the particular digital scales in your lab. You know that sample contamination, scale miscalibration, or a simple statistical accident are all possibilities. Based on all this, you decide to exclude the 8.49g sample data from further calculations. You're "ignoring" data, but that's okay, as it makes sense in the context of all the other data you have about this experiment, and you're still letting the data as a whole speak for itself. What you cannot do is to simply say, "I don't like this data point because it brings up the average to a higher value than my initial hypothesis, so I'm going to throw it out".

These are the principles of Bible interpretation. They make good sense, they are widely accepted, and they share strong parallels with how we study nature, which is God's other "book". All these facts lend credence to their correctness. However, as this is an immensely important topic, you may disagree with some detail of these principles. And while these disagreements are important, I would like to end with a reminder that they are still not the most important thing. There is more to being a Christian than being correct about your theology, and we would be poor Christians if we valued being right over living out the Gospel.

In my next post, I will discuss the use of specific scientific facts as a tool in interpreting the Bible.


You may next want to read:
Why we should interpret the Bible in light of science (Next post of this series)
How should we interpret the Bible? Look at it as scientific data. (Previous post of this series)
How physics fits within Christianity (part 2)
Another post, from the table of contents

How should we interpret the Bible? Look at it as scientific data.

Image: by Trounce, on Wikipedia commons
"How should we interpret the Bible?" is an enormously important question. Your answer to this question will both cause and settle many controversies around you, and the history of entire people groups have been shaped by their answer. Fortunately, the critical, basic elements of Christianity do not depend on any specific interpretative paradigm. They're based on simple, straightforward Bible verses whose meaning is clear - you don't need to be a biblical scholar to start understanding "Believe in the Lord Jesus" or "Love one another". However, if you wish to move beyond the basics, you'll need an answer to the opening question. You'll need an interpretive framework for the Bible.

The Bible falls under one of the two ways that God reveals himself to us. The first of these is general revelation, where God shows us what he's like through his works. These include the universe he's created, and our own consciousness. The second way is special revelation, where God tells us about himself directly. The Bible belongs to this "special revelation" category. Then, in trying to understand the Bible, it behooves us to look to the other half of God's revelation, to see if there is a good way to understand God's general revelation to us. It turns out that there is: there exists an interpretive framework for the physical universe that's been so wildly successful for the last several centuries that it's completely transformed our understanding of God's creation, and revealed God's character and glory to an awesome new degree. Of course, this interpretive framework is none other than science. Encouraged by this positive parallel, let's try to understand the Bible in a way that's analogous to science. In this analogy, the Bible is like scientific observations, or data.

In science, data is sacred. Have you ever taken a laboratory science class where you kept your data in a lab notebook? If you did, you know that a lab notebook is often messy. It's got wet pages and burnt pages and torn pages and things scribbled out and illegible handwriting and loose scraps of paper and that one page with that nasty stain from the sample you spilled on it. And yet, this lab notebook is the most important document you produce in your class, because it, and it alone, contains the raw initial data, which is infallible. What do I mean by "infallible"? I mean that it is a real record of what nature really did in your experiments - uncertainties and all. Now, the data still needs to be processed and interpreted so we can understand it, but it is folly to try to gain any understanding without relying on the data.

None of this changes when you move up from a classroom setting to "real research". Often, data is ambiguous and frustrating and messy. It sometimes seems confusing or downright contradictory at times. And yet, it remains the most important part of your paper, because it is the real record of how nature itself actually worked in your experiments. If we are to understand nature, then we have to take this ambiguous, frustrating mess and make sense of it.

All the rest of science exists to explain data. In this way, scientists are an undignified lot. For instance, physicists sometimes pretend to say to themselves, "oh, look at me, I do hard math, I'm so smart, I'm so educated". But if they discovered a new theory which generates a better account of the data by dancing around dressed like a chicken with a banana in their mouths, they would be doing precisely that. That's what makes them scientists - their commitment to the data. Data is sacred.

The Bible is like scientific data. It's sometimes messy and it's got things that you can't make sense of right now. There are even things that you don't like, things you think can't possibly be right. That's okay. It's no less than what we expect from the Creator of the universe, who also makes us wrestle with messy data in the sciences. But a good theory in science makes sense of the data , just as a good interpretation of the Bible will make sense of the text. Your job when you do science is to develop such a theory, just as your job when reading the Bible is to find such an interpretation. You must be ready to accept a theory that better explains the data, even if goes against your initial hypothesis. Likewise, you must be ready to accept an interpretation that makes better sense of the Bible, even if it goes against your previous notions.

We do all this, because the Bible is sacred, like data. The same faith in a perfect God who wants to reveal himself to us underlies our faith in them both. Like data, the Bible is sacred and infallible, because it is the true record of how God actually interacted with humanity at critical moments throughout history.

For both the Bible and scientific data, this means that we do not ever give up on trying to better understand them. This incidentally takes care of the irksome practice of finding contradictions in the Bible. A contradiction simply means that your interpretation is wrong, and that you should look for an alternative that's free of contradictions - which is trivially easy to find. After all, in studying the universe or the Bible, data cannot contradict data. Theories can be contradicted by the data or other theories, and this is in fact how we judge whether a theory is right or wrong. But data cannot be wrong; it can only be misinterpreted. For the same reason that we don't give up on understanding the universe when we can't make sense of data, we also don't give up on understanding the Bible when we can't make sense of the text.

Also, for both the Bible and scientific data, we are to never outright ignore any part it as a "mistake", or "just because". It may be that there are good reasons to ignore a particular biblical passage, in certain contexts, for a specific application or situation. But all such reasons need to be justified within a comprehensive interpretation, which must prove itself by explaining the rest of the text. The same is true for science - simply replace "interpretation" with "theory", and "biblical passage" and "text" with "data". So, for example, we can look at the Old Testament commands about animal sacrifices, and ignore it in our own Christian ceremonies, because these commands were given specifically to the nation of Israel as a symbol of the coming Messiah. Likewise we may ignore a particular data set for the purpose of making a specific linear regression line, because it was a calibration run or because there was a power outage during the run. But in all these cases, the exceptions make sense in the context of a comprehensive understanding, which is supported by the rest of the whole.

This also means that we are to acknowledge that the act of interpreting the Bible is both necessary and good. Some people speak as if the Bible would require no interpretation if it were taken absolutely "literally", then say that this is the way that Christians would interpret the Bible if they were really serious about it. This is nonsense and no body of Christians actually hold to it. Even a "literal interpretation" is still an interpretation, and nobody believes that any particular passage could be taken "literally" to the point of excluding the proper context of the passage. In fact, even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy - which is a solid document that affirms the inspiration and infallibility of the scriptures, and takes the Bible as seriously as possible, states very clearly that "the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices". Interpretation is necessary and good.

We do not expect this process as a whole to be easy. There is much to understand about God, and therefore much to understand about the Bible. Complete, total truth about the Bible, or the universe for that matter, is probably beyond our reach within the circles of this world. But this doesn't bother me - it excites me. There's plenty of things for us to work on from just what we already know, and plenty more for us to learn. Meanwhile our increasing understanding as we study more of the Bible assures us that we're on the right track, as we dig deeper into God's infinite mysteries. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever".

The next post of this series will go into more specific details about the principles of Bible interpretation, which makes sense in the context of approaching the Bible like science approaches data.


You may next want to read:
How to interpret the Bible: key principles (Next post of this series)
Science as evidence for Christianity (Summary and Conclusion)
How physics fits within Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents