Re: [asa] Bible as scientific text

From: Kirk Bertsche <Bertsche@aol.com>
Date: Thu Aug 13 2009 - 16:52:53 EDT

I think the answer below is good. My only concern is with some of
the terminology. In specific, the repeated reference to biblical
information as being (scientifically) "accurate" or "inaccurate."
Such a judgment requires an a priori assumption that the material is
intended to provide scientific information, so that it can be judged
on its scientific accuracy.

If the text is not making scientific claims, then they should not be
interpreted or evaluated as such. They may still be "accurate"
phenomenological descriptions of appearance, or "accurate"
metaphorical descriptions consistent with the cultural style of the
times, or "accurate" simplifications of reality in accommodation to
the limited knowledge of the times. If a statement is not intended
to be scientific, I'm not sure that it even makes sense to comment on
its scientific accuracy or inaccuracy. (E.g., the morning newspaper
prints the times for sunrise and sunset, and we don't complain that
this is scientifically "inaccurate".)

Kirk

On Aug 12, 2009, at 9:53 PM, Jon Tandy wrote:

> Richard,
>
> 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.
>
> Sincerely,
>
> Jon Tandy

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Received on Thu Aug 13 16:53:09 2009

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