[asa] Bible as scientific text

From: Jon Tandy <tandyland@earthlink.net>
Date: Thu Aug 13 2009 - 00:53:09 EDT



I was interested in your comments. Following John's lead, I have copied the ASA list as well as a few other participants, as many on the list are regularly involved in such discussions. If this seems inappropriate, I would be glad to keep the discussion private or bring it to an end.


I cannot speak for Randy in order to put words in his mouth, nor can I answer what source of knowledge would give him the confidence to assert that God did not plan the Bible to be a source of modern scientific knowledge. Note that my e-mail was not directed to you, only perhaps indirectly through John. I also agree that the comments jumped the gun a little in the discussion; you simply asked questions of clarification, and my response made some assumptions that in your challenge to Randy, you may believe that God did intend the text to convey scientific information (or that the text should do so).


So let me start again to attempt to answer the question as I see it. If it's simply a debate over "I think the Bible should convey scientific truth" versus "No, you're wrong, that was not its purpose", then each party can simply part ways with a philosophical disagreement, a difference in personal viewpoint. However, if there is any way to arrive at a more conclusive answer, I believe empirical evidence and sound reason should help guide our spiritual discernment of what is (or are) God's purposes in scripture. There is an old saying from John Adams, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." At the same time, we have to acknowledge our human and scientific knowledge is by definition tentative and partial.


I would pose the question simply, and not rhetorically, "Did God intend the Bible to convey scientific truth to modern culture?" Let me suggest some possible answers and see where they lead.


A. The Bible is absolutely a scientific text, and when it is speaking about nature, it always gives accurate information about the workings of nature.

    Follow-up questions:

            - What would it take to falsify this proposition?

            - If our scientific knowledge is tentative and partial, and if the Bible appears to contradict our present understandings of science, how would we know if a discrepancy is due to our limited knowledge of the world, as opposed to the Bible being wrong about nature?


B. The Bible NEVER gives accurate information about the workings of nature.

    I dismiss this one immediately, because no one that I know claims the Bible is 100% inaccurate, and it would require disproving every single statement about nature made in the Bible.


C. The Bible sometimes gives accurate scientific information, and at other times it gives metaphorical (but not inaccurate) statements – these may appear to be incorrect, but weren't meant to assert scientific facts.

    Follow-up questions:

            - How can we tell the difference between those that were meant as scientific facts and those that were meant as metaphor?

            - If a seemingly "scientific" statement becomes clearly disproved by the facts, is this reasonable justification to declare it metaphorical?

            - If some verses give the appearance of being "scientific" statements but aren't, of what value is holding the Bible as a scientific text at all, when it may be forever indeterminate how to tell them apart?


D. The Bible sometimes gives statements that are technically inaccurate by modern standards, but which made sense to the understandings of the people at the time it was given.

    In this case, as in the previous, the difficulty is telling the difference.


E. God didn't intend the Bible to give instruction in science, but for "doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2Tim 3:16).

    This position is compatible with all the above positions, with a few clarifications:

            - Where the Bible does give accurate scientific information, it is incidental to the main purpose and/or it was providentially made to be both technically correct and spiritually edifying.

            - A and E could be compatible, by rephrasing it to say that God's purpose was _both_ spiritual truth and scientific accuracy.

            - Where the Bible gives inaccurate information, it is incidental to the main purpose, because it was meant to convey a message of spiritual motivation, not mental information.

            - Where the Bible gives metaphor, it was clearly meant to convey principles of righteousness, not technical knowledge.


I believe in the cases of (B, D, and possibly C) above, it is reasonable to suggest that God did not intend the Bible to be a scientific textbook. Let me know if you think this is an unjustified conclusion.


This has already gotten too long, so I want to briefly conclude with a few examples of what I look at when trying to weigh the evidences and reasonableness of the positions above.


- The Bible describes the heavens as a solid firmament, with waters above, that come down to earth through windows that open and shut (Gen 1; Gen 8:2; Job 36:27-30; Job 37:18; Psa 148:4). This conveyed information to "modern culture" in the ancient Near East, in keeping with their understanding of the cosmos. Today we know this is not an accurate scientific description of the heavens.

- The Bible describes a flat earth (Dan 4:10-11; Psa 135:7; Jere 10:13 , and many others that speak of the "ends of the earth"). This was once taken as a scientific truth, in rejection of the concept of a spherical earth.

- The Bible describes an earth that doesn't move (Psa 93:1). This was once taken as a scientific truth, in rejection of an earth that moves on its axis and in its orbit.

- The Bible describes the scientific process of creating hail and rain – God creates them, and stores them in treasurehouses and bottles in the heavens (Job 38:22,37). However, it isn't a very useful concept to inform our modern scientific understanding of meteorology. Unless someone identifies these treasurehouses and bottles, or disproves the understanding that rain and hail are formed by the condensation of water in the atmosphere, I think it is fair to say these scriptures are inaccurate, scientifically.

- The Bible says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, but grows into the greatest of all herbs (Mark 4:32). I believe it's fair to say that both of those statements, as written, are not true in a scientific sense, if taken literally.


These are just a few examples of where the Bible is at best speaking metaphor, and in several cases pretty clearly giving inaccurate scientific facts. This doesn't even get into contentious questions of the age of the earth, animal death before Adam, biological antiquity or common descent, etc.


It is these difficulties that causes many people to believe that the Bible was not meant to convey scientific truth, but spiritual reality. For myself, I would be glad to accept A along with E, but for the fact that some of the evidence seems to contradict it.


It is God's stated purpose in scripture to promote righteousness and to bring souls to Himself -- I don't suppose we have any disagreement there. But I can't think of any stated goal where God has said that He intended the Bible to convey anything like "scientific mysteries" or "modern science" or "exact [biological] processes" in the sense intended by Randy's statement. Can you? If so, I'd be glad to consider them. If not, why question Randy's statement to that regard?


I hope these thoughts may be helpful, and I would be glad to receive your response if you are able to reply.




Jon Tandy


From: John Walley [mailto:john_walley@yahoo.com]
Sent: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 7:01 PM
To: richard@richardghowe.com; AmericanScientificAffiliation; Randy Isaac; Jon Tandy
Subject: Fw: [asa] Olasky on Collins


Randy, Jon,


Below is a combined response to both of your emails from my friend Richard Howe.


Richard, Jon replied to you indirectly because I removed your name to protect your privacy but will now copy you to allow you to correspond directly. I would like to keep this on the list to invite others who may want to participate in this discussion to do so as well.






----- Forwarded Message ----

John, et al.


Thanks for the emails and responses. Let me give some "in brief" responses of my own to Jon Tandy. (His original comments are indented.)


However, your friend doesn't really offer any positive critique on the subject, "Did God intend the Bible to be scientific textbook, intended to convey accurate information to inform the 20th century scientific community of greater knowledge in their fields of study?" So my question to him is, do you really think that God intended the Bible to be that sort of information source?


Let me acquaint Jon with the context of my comments (in case it perhaps got lost in the email exchanges). I received an (unsolicited) email from John Walley which had the comments by Randy regarding the issue of (presumably) Olasky's questions posed to Collins and intercepted by the ASA (I assume via World magazine; John sent me the link to the article but I was not able to read the article since I am not a subscriber to World online. The link I received required a membership to read all but the opening few paragraphs). I was happy to receive such an email (as I am with all of the emails I get from John (a good friend) even if I don't or can't take the opportunity to response to each of them). I responded to one numbered item which contained several points by Randy. I am also appreciative of your Jon's comments (even though they seemingly were directed to John Walley instead of to me directly; perhaps because my email had gotten lost in the exchange or for some other understandable reason).


First, my questions were straightforward and occasioned by Randy's categorical claims to know (among other things) what God intended and what God (or the Bible) meant. My questions were completely fair. I simply asked how Randy got the knowledge he claimed to have. But instead of a direct answer, he suggested that perhaps he should have "done a little more editing" and that he used "more anthropomorphism" than he should have used. That's fine. I'm sure I've written things on which I later wished I had done more editing. But it is interesting that he characterized his own comments thus in light of him introducing these very comments with "we do want to ensure that there is a clarity [sic] of dialog with accurate and fair analysis of all sides."


Second, Jon now poses questions indirectly to me about what I think God intended for the Bible. This is unacceptable at this point in the dialog. I was not the one who made any assertions about what I thought God intended about anything. Randy was the one who used such language. He is the one who said what God intended. My straightforward question was to the effect "Where did he get such knowledge?" If he now wants to say that he does not have such knowledge (i.e., if this is something that he wishes he could have edited or expunged as an anthropomorphism), then that is fine. But I am not going to take the bait and let someone else redirect the conversation as if my original questions were either unfair or answered.


Third, it is irrelevant that I did not "offer any positive critique on the subject, 'Did God intend the Bible to be scientific textbook, intended to convey accurate information to inform the 20th century scientific community of greater knowledge in their fields of study?'" At this point, I am under no obligation to offer such a critique. I am not the one who introduced the language of what God's intentions are. So I repeat: Where did Randy get the knowledge that he claims to have about what God did not intend the Bible to be? How does he know what God meant it to reveal? Why (to modify the form of my previous question) should one not dismiss what Randy says God meant as "a certain human interpretation"? How can he know what message God has intended for the text? Where does he get this knowledge?


How would he substantiate such a position from a theological point of view? Would the facts and observations about the natural world have any bearing in determining whether such a viewpoint is valid, and if not, why not? If the evidence from the natural world isn't relevant to a discussion of scientific concerns (presuming that is what the Bible is meant to be), how can one consider such a position to have any scientific merit? On the other hand, if evidence from the natural world is allowed to give independent testimony, what if such evidence contradicts what seems to be a straightforward reading of the Bible?


Would it shake his faith if he were to learn that the Bible gives some rather inaccurate scientific statements? If so, I would wish him well and probably drop the conversation, but ask him to come back if he ever has an interest in discussing it further or if he runs into a crisis of faith over such issues, so we can have a more profitable discussion. If he were interested in an open-minded discussion, I would go into some of the questions I posed in an e-mail several weeks ago.


While all these questions are interesting, important, and relevant to an overall discussion of these topics, they are somewhat premature in the exchange. Perhaps if time allows (and the questions are not rhetorical) all interested parties (and others who might want to join in) can explore them. I am very interested, as a matter of principle, in an "open-minded discussion." Whether such a discussion can take place in these emails, or, indeed, by emails at all, remains to be seen. My experience has been that it is those with whom I am having the discussion that tire of the discussion before I do.


I hope that all parties will take my questions and comments in the spirit of friendship in which they are intended.



Richard G. Howe



Richard G. Howe, Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics and Director of the Ph.D. Program, Southern Evangelical Seminary

Home Email: richard@richardghowe.com

Seminary Email: rhowe@ses.edu

Internet: http://www.richardghowe.com/

Blog: http://quodlibetalblog.wordpress.com/

Faculty Web Site: http://ses.edu/Academic/FacultyPages/RichardGHowe/tabid/477/Default.aspx

"Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered." C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory


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Received on Thu Aug 13 00:53:48 2009

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