How Does Science Inform Biblical Interpretation?

by Steve Kindle

“By identifying the new learning with heresy, you make orthodoxy synonymous with ignorance.”
~Erasmus

What follows in this post is my personal reflection on Dr. Vick’s post which ran yesterday. Although I hope he finds this compatible with his own view, he may not. He is only responsible for prodding me to think through some of the implications of what he wrote.

Head-Brown smallThe heliocentric model of the universe changes everything.
Since the Copernican revolution, we can no longer accept the Ancient Near Eastern three-tiered universe with heaven “up there,” and Sheol “down below.” Paul’s vision of a man transported to “the third heaven” reveals a psychology steeped in that worldview. Elijah taken to heaven in a fiery chariot, and even the ascension of Jesus, can no longer be taken literally. Given the vastness of the universe, the psalmist’s question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” takes on deepened meaning. Can we still speak of God “in the heavens,” or literally understand that “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”? I think not.
The biological Theory of Evolution changes everything.
No longer can we think of the world as created in six days, or Bishop Ussher’s 6,000 years ago, or the Creationist’s 10,000. The creation narratives in Genesis can no longer be taken literally, but as a poetic ode to creation and the Creator. Adam and Eve can now be seen as a primordial myth that speaks to the human condition, not of the actual First Parents. The Flood has shrunk to the area surrounding the Black Sea about 12000 BCE. (The universality of flood stories can be traced back to the melting of the great ice sheet that covered most of the northern hemisphere at the same period, and how it affected its people.)
The only answer that literalists can give in response is that the Bible is the word of God and must take priority over any other presumed authority…regardless of the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. “The Bible says” trumps scientific findings.
Literalists do claim a kind of science on their side, Creation Science. They marshal “evidence” that no scientist in the academies supports, even continuing to cite long overturned arguments from John Whitcomb, Henry Morris, and George McCready Price. The Creation Science movement proved too embarrassing for many scientists of faith, because it was tied too closely to biblical arguments. They began the Intelligent Design movement and eschewed any taint of religion in their deliberations. However, virtually all are aligned with some form of Christian Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism, which drives their efforts, not pure science. They have yet to make significant inroads into the wider scientific community.
So what does the consensus scientific worldview do for biblical interpretation and theology?

  • It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events.
  • God’s transcendence is not physical (out there), but “wholly other.”
  • Literalism is no longer the first and preferred reading.
  • The biblical notions of sin and salvation (atonement) need to be understood as arising from the ancient milieu, and not appropriate today.
  • The Bible, rather than being a scientific textbook, can be recognized as the record of a people trying to understand their world and their place in it. It is the people’s record, not God’s.
  • The apocalyptic undergirding of the New Testament needs to be seen as a yearning for hope in a world gone mad, not as a timetable for the ages.
  • It ends the dualism that turns the world into a battleground instead of a paradise.

What are some of the applications that can be made from these assertions?

It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events.
God can no longer be seen as acting from outside the cosmos upon the Earth shaping events and suspending natural law at will. Things have proceeded over the past 14.5 billion years in a natural fashion and continue to do so. We know that the Earth rotates about 25,000 miles per hour and orbits the sun, which is stationary (relative to the earth). The story of the battle for Jericho includes God causing the sun to stand still in the sky to allow for more daylight. This is a perfect example of the ancient worldview’s explanation for how Israel wins battles: God intervenes for them. This, for me, serves as an archetype for all such interventions.
God’s transcendence is not physical (out there), but “wholly other.”
By removing God from beyond the cosmos (heaven), we have not demoted God, but made God immanent—within all things. In certain ways, God is closer to humanity than before. Gone are such notions as “the Man upstairs,” “the Old Man in the sky,” and other figures of speech that make God remote and far removed from human life. God being intimately related to and involved with every aspect of life, from the smallest subatomic particle, to the fullness of the cosmos, makes everything sacred and gives humans motivation for proper care of creation.
Literalism is no longer the first and preferred reading.
Knowing that we are reading ancient documents that are informed by a worldview vastly different from our own, we can no longer accept their understanding at face value. Taking the text literally is to overlook this fact. We begin interpreting by asking what informed the author to understand the text in this way, and then compare it to how we find things in our world today.
The biblical notions of sin and salvation (atonement) need to be understood as arising from the ancient milieu, and not appropriate today.
Can you imagine anyone operating out of the modern worldview attaching the remedy for sin to blood atonement? The gods of the Ancient Near East were capricious and vengeful. In agrarian societies, the only thing they had to offer the gods to appease them were what they grew or the livestock they raised. They saw these things as an extension of themselves, and, in a way, the offering of themselves. Blood, life, in exchange for their lives.
Even the Bible comes against this notion from time to time. From Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
 Even the pagans such as King Nebuchadnezzar found peace with God away from blood atonement. From Daniel: Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.”
Not all the atonement theories arising from the New Testament and later required a blood sacrifice for efficacy. Specifically, Luke sees salvation arising out of being faithful to the end, even as was Jesus, who models our means of salvation.
The Bible, rather than being a scientific textbook, can now be considered a record of a people trying to understand their world and their place in it. It is the peoples’ record, not God’s.
Rather than this being woeful, it is an amazing realization. Humans are capable of spiritual insights and profound realizations about the world and themselves. God will be seen as a participant in this, but the record is from humans. Therefore, for humans to engage the Bible as human to human is to do precisely what the ancient people were doing that resulted in the Bible. The tradition continues into our own time and much spiritual good is reaped in the process.
The apocalyptic undergirding of the New Testament needs to be seen as a yearning for hope in a world gone mad, not as a timetable for the ages.
Apocalyptic theology, that is, the understanding that God shapes all world history according to God’s will, and that good will ultimately triumph over evil, arose out of a need, indeed, a longing, that this is the case. I believe that God will ultimately prevail in securing a world typified by shalom, and I recognize this as a faith statement. But the notion of God superintending history, much as a mother hen, doesn’t give free will its due.
The Hebrew Bible is full of instances where God is depicted as “changing his mind.” First, with being sorry, actually repenting making humankind, and rectifying this by the genocide of the race. Then there is Moses pleading with God in the wilderness not to destroy Israel. God relents when Moses argues that the Egyptians will laugh at him. These and many other examples suggest that not all things are set in place “before the foundation of the world.” That the future is unknown and not predicable, as apocalyptic would have it.
It ends the dualism that turns the world into a battleground instead of a paradise.
Religious dualism is the idea that there are two supernatural forces diametrically opposed to one another vying for dominance. For nearly 4.5 billion years of the formation of planet Earth, down to our own day, dualism was irrelevant. Actually, the idea that there is God and an anti-god (Satan), is very new to humanity. In fact, the Hebrew Bible’s recording of the history of Israel from creation to the return from Babylonian exile got along without it. Satan, as known in the New Testament is absent. Dualism emerges in the Intertestamental period and flourishes in the New Testament. Many scholars believe that Jewish theologians were introduced to dualism during the Babylonian captivity with their exposure to dualistic Zoroastrianism. Dualism tends to divide people, institutions, and things into good or evil. Monism (the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that there are no fundamental divisions) promotes world unity and peace and is the basis of Shalom.
Conclusion
We in the 21st century have been given a marvelous inheritance in the Bible. If we can learn to view it as a human enterprise encapsulating the wisdom of a people who earnestly sought to find answers to the human predicament, we, too, will find our way out of darkness and into the light. But only if we are not imprisoned by an outmoded and now harmful worldview that would keep us from finding our own way.


Steve’s books can be viewed and ordered here: https://energiondirect.com/authors/authors-d-k/steve-kindle

13 Responses

  • Good – but distant. We are so involved in our ‘beliefs’ that we cannot allow ourselves to be separated from these violent abstractions. Our behaviour demands something more of science than it gives us, for it too is distant, as Biblical Studies is distant from faith. I said in another comment on another blog – Jewish-Christian intersections, that I think we need to explore the need for redemption – from guns, the violence of self-protection, from religious violence, the violence of purity, and from all areas of exploitation, the violence of finance.
    These are a real controversy. Utterly close and present to us.

    • Very true, Bob. The root problem, it seems to me, is in my last point, a dualistic “us versus them” construct on the world. We need to be redeemed from that, as it is the progenitor of all the ills you note. Unfortunately, the Bible reinforces dualism at too many points.

  • Steve,
    While I agree with some of your points, the problem I have with many is that, while they claim to be based on science, they really are based more in certain philosophical assumptions rather than any actual finding of science. Nor are these assumption required for science to work.
    For example you claim, “It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events” and cite the sun standing still in the sky. Yet science can say nothing about what they saw, other than that there is currently no known scientific explanation for it. They certainly cannot say this is not how it appeared to those there at that time. Such a statement would not be a statement of science.
    Then of course there is the problem that much of this is based on what we think we know. One thing a reading of history has taught me, is that it is very common for the then current age to look down on those who came before and to think they now have the answers. As classic example of this is the pejorative naming of what historians now call the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, when they were no such thing.
    The history of science up now is full of examples of the “consensus” being wrong, and scientist of the day just ignoring evidence that conflicted with their view. In my book Christianity and Secularism I give the example Wegener, which was not rectified until the 1960s. In fact, in my lifetime, I have been on the “wrong” side of some of these issues only to have since been shown to have been right on at least some of them.
    But in any case give past history, I think it would be supremely arrogant to assume that now, finally we have it all correct. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the core of science is disagreement, not consensus. Frequently it has been the lone voice, the outsider that has turned out to have been correct. Even when they apparently are not, such as in the case of Einstein and quantum physics, the objections he raised has led to several valuable experiments that have advanced our understanding (if one can use that word in relation to quantum physics).
    Thus, while I hold an old earth view, I do not reject or dismiss those who are young earth. After all, it was only in my lifetime that the current ages for the universe and earth were arrived at. Who knows what remains to be discovered? I currently believe that a young earth view does not fit with the current theories of science, but many of those theories themselves were rejected at one point as not fitting the earlier “consensus” and likewise those holding such views were ridiculed, shun, and rejected. So in some respects not much has changed.
    In some respects this reminds me of a gloss on an early manuscript of Hebrews, where the editor was ridiculing the “fool” who had correct the word of God, and changed it back to the earlier reading. Currently the consensus is that the “fool” who made the earlier correction was right.
    Will young earth turn out to be correct, I do not think so, but I do not want them to stop trying to make their case.
    Elgin

    • You argue from the position of what we may not know. I begin with what we know for sure. What we can say FOR SURE is that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of a three-tiered universe, which is reflected in biblical cosmology, has been overturned by modern science. Therefore, we need to reexamine all those biblical instances that are based on it.
      I think you are trying to live in both worlds and I have chosen not to. That’s why you can entertain the possibility of a “young earth. And why I cannot.

      • Steve,
        You claim I argue from what we may not know. Not quite, I am only pointing out that many of your conclusions which you claim are derived from science, are in fact derived from philosophical considerations, not the findings of science itself. As I said I agree with some of your points, and it was perhaps my fault for not being more specific. In particular I was thinking about the series of bullet points, found in the middle of your argument. These are not scientific statements, they are statement of belief.
        For example, you claim that “God can no longer be seen as acting from outside the cosmos upon the Earth shaping events and suspending natural law at will.” Exactly how does science do this? This is not science, this is a statement of faith, and one I would disagree with.
        I would also point out that with the possible exception of some aspects of physics and chemistry, and perhaps not even there, there is no such thing as “pure science” nor can there be as long as long as scientists are people.
        One aspect where we agree is in your statement that we know for sure that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of a three-tiered universe is false. We may, however, disagree as to its impact on Biblical interpretation. I believe God speaks to us where we are.
        As for trying to live in both worlds, perhaps. I certainly do not claim any sort of perfection in any realm. Still, I would view entertaining the possibility of a young earth as being open-minded. As I said before, many of the current theories were once rejected as impossible and not legitimate science.
        In addition, I do not see any valid reason for all the fuss, and a potential for good. Young earth sciences, while failing to convince me, have already done some good in exposing some of the frauds, in raising inconvenient questions, and in revealing the bias in some of their opponents.
        My view is that if there is nothing to it, then there is no need to suppress it. The evidence will speak for itself. When those I disagree with are making argument that are persuading people, then it is my job to develop better arguments.
        For me, the attempts at suppression of even a consideration of Intelligent Design demonstrate the bias among some scientists, but then I do not see this as anything new. The history of science is full of this, and sadly people in all endeavors often seek to suppress that which they do not like.
        Finally, you claim I “argue from the position of what we may not know.” Not quite, as there is no “may” about it. I come at this as an Electrical Engineer who started at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of a team developing the then new GPS receivers for measuring the movement of the earth’s crust, and who by the grace of God, got to play a small role in Voyager’s encounter with the Planet Neptune. Since that time I have worked both in hardware and software design. In addition I have read widely and even written a bit in these areas, so I am not completely uninformed. As the old saying goes, the more I know, the more I realize I do not know.
        One of the things I try to do is to look not just at the claims, but at the reasons and justification for them. This helps me spot the underlying assumptions and the gaps in our knowledge, and to see other possibilities. While you cannot even entertain the possibility of an earth 10,000 years old, I remember reading in the noted physicist Brian Greene’s book the Fabric of the Cosmos a discussion of how the universe might only be 20 mins old. In fact, from a matter of pure physics, a 20 min old universe would be more likely than that the universe is 13.5 billion years old. But after making this case, Greene goes on to point out that for obvious reasons, physicists including Greene opt for the older version as it is easier to think about.
        Add to this the relatively new and unfolding science of quantum physics, and I think there is plenty of room to keep an open mind, even about the age of the earth.
        Elgin

        • Elgin, the bullet points are not intended to be scientific statements. What they are are the implications for biblical interpretation that the demise of the ancient Near Eastern cosmology suggests. If you re-read those points with this in mind, they may make better sense to you.
          I agree with your statement, “I believe God speaks to us where we are.” Where we are is the 21st century with a totally different understanding of the cosmos than our biblical writers. You can choose to believe that axes float, bears killed juvenile delinquents for laughing at a prophet, and Jesus literally lifted off the earth and soared into wherever, if you like. If so, you are taking these on faith, not from what science tells us about our world. I don’t think God expects us to believe for belief’s sake. That’s why we have brains.
          I could also say, as with Bertrand Russell, that the cosmos is actually someone’s dream (let alone 20 minutes old) that we’re participating in and therefore isn’t old at all, or even exists. But that is idle speculation. I prefer to go with what we do know: the heliocentric reality and Evolution are my benchmarks. I don’t have the luxury of taking biblical stories literally when they don’t make sense against these realities. Anselm’s view of theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Since I can’t look at the world with the ancient’s view, my understanding may not always accord with theirs. In fact, it can’t. I don’t live in their world.

          • Hi Steve, there are a number of careless phrases that we use with respect to ‘believing’ and ‘faith’. One of them is ‘taking this on faith’. I think we must confine faith to the obedience of heart and action that comes through the knowledge of God on the face of Christ Jesus. In that Spirit, faith is doing what Yahweh does, caring for the widow and orphan, freeing captives, showing hospitality to the least of these, (including those that we despise),. Faith/belief of that sort has nothing to do with proposition or intellectual assent to something or other.

  • Bob, you are certainly correct. What really matters is how you conduct your life, and Jesus provides for you and me the best example.
    There are those of us, including yourself, who are charged with teaching others. Although the bottom line that answers the question, “What does the Bible mean?” is “look to Jesus”, there are a host of issues that precede this understanding that require us to examine carefully the texts. This, properly done, issues in clarity and resources for following Jesus. So I see faith as a combination of understanding and doing.

  • Steve,
    I realize these are not statement of science and that was somewhat my point. Accepting or rejecting them does not make a person more or less scientific.
    What I reject is that a 21st century view of the Cosmos somehow mandates an anti-supernatural worldview precluding any intervention by God. One does not follow from the other. While I do not think it valid even in a universe government by Newtonian physics, such a strictly mechanical worldview at least gave a pretext for rejecting any supernatural intervention. However given the realm of quantum physics where probability is dominate and the observer at least seems to play a role, such miracles can no longer be ruled out.
    A person can of course hold to such a worldview, but that is a statement of faith, not of science. It is a worldview that I think conflicts with the available evidence. But you are correct that I do not get my religious views from science, but neither do I get my scientific views from the Bible. And yes, I do think I use my brain for both.
    I look to science to tell me how the natural world works. It is pretty good at doing this, but the more it get away from an ability to independently test, the more problematic it becomes. It is like so many things, good at what it is for, not so good elsewhere. So I do not see science as the only means to truth, nor is such a view even rational.
    I think you may have misunderstood the example of the 20 mins. This was not simply idle speculation but a line of reasoning from a noted physicist about the evidence and science concerning the origin of the universe and more particularly how entropy works and how truly unique the conditions for the Bing Bang where.
    Elgin

  • Elgin, the only point I wish to make is that the ancient cosmology that undergirds the Bible’s view of God and the world calls for reinterpreting those texts that depend on it. How one goes about doing that can vary, but it must be done. This post doesn’t posit that science can answer biblical questions. It only says that science makes reinterpretation necessary.

    • Steve,
      I would say any reinterpretation would be minimal at best. So, for your example of 2 Cor 12:2-4 speaking of a third heaven, I see this as meaning in context that he was “snatched away” into the presence of God. The sense of confusion in this is clear in that he does not know if he was “in his body or outside of his body.” That Paul said this in a fashion that would have been understood by his readers troubles me not.
      For me a central question when trying to understand a passage in the Bible is to ask; what was the main point that the author was trying to communicate. Here it was not a lesson on cosmology, but rather that this man, most likely Paul, was taken into the presence of God. I do not see that our tremendous advancements in understanding affects this understanding one bit.
      Elgin

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