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

5 comments :

  1. I'll post any other comments separately, so feel free to delete this one. There's a broken link "darkly as in a mirror", meant to be a Scripture link but actually is trying to go to blogger.com.

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    1. Thank you. It's been fixed now.

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  2. Ultimately, this all comes down to one fundamental: There is one self-consistent God who created the world we live in and who also inspired every writer of what we now call the Bible. Since He cannot violate Himself, no fact in the Bible can contradict any other fact in the Bible, and no fact in the universe can contradict any other fact in the universe - and equally, the Bible cannot contradict the universe. So far, not too controversial - I hope. :) But I'll be interested to see your subsequent posts; that's where things will get a bit more conflicted.

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  3. Yes, science and the principles of Bible interpretation really help me understand the Bible. Until now, maybe no one really knows what the "heavens" is in Genesis 1:1. Maybe until the end of our universe no one will truly know it. I remember in one of your previous posts, you said the universe must be much more larger to reflect God's glory. Some people attack the Bible, saying it's against science. Haha! Galileo's experiment of two balls is also 'sorcery' to Aristotelian professors!
    History is more interesting and useful, especially for the interpretation of the Old Testament. I don't understand people's behavior and God's work in that time. Why God smote all firstborn of Egypt? Why did God killed 185k Assyrian troops? How evil the cannanites were such that God commanded their complete eradication? History and the principles helps me understand some of them!
    Several days ago, one of my colleagues asked me a question: why doesn't the Bible mention some other civilizations in the ancient world to show God's omniscience and convince him it's God's word? From the style the Bible is written, even the 'heavens' are covered in only one single sentence, so are all nations and civilizations covered in the scattering of people after the Babel Tower. Any splendid wonder can't be compared to our God who is Alpha and Omega.
    Each time I got confused while reading the Bible, I try to persuade myself "my God can't be wrong, it's my ignorance makes me confuse".
    History is better than science, Sven, don't you think I'm right? Lol. Science in only helpful in the very basic layer of the Bible, but history can help further, then other principles (especially the first) can take us more further. But I must note here, all new bible versions are corrupt! Only 1611 King James Version is trustworthy (of course I'm speaking of only English version :P). We'll probably be lost if we use a corrupt Bible!
    http://jesus-is-savior.com/Bible/1611_authorized_king_james.htm and Dr. Gail Riplinger's book 'New Age Bible Versions'
    May I express my concern and suggestion here, please change all the Bible reference links to the KJV.

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    1. Truly, there is much to still know. I hope I can get around to addressing some of your very good questions in future posts. Actually, the whole issue of "KJV only" is another issue that I hope I'll have time to look into more in the future. But for now, I think I'll just have to use the versions I feel comfortable with. If God can still be glorified in us despite all the things that we're still ignorant about, I think he can also work through a different translation of the Bible.

      But yes, I very much look forward to perhaps addressing some of your excellent questions in the future, and understanding God a little bit more!

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