Nature vs Scripture
by Luke Nix
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Several years ago, I was having quite a difficult time reconciling my faith with the findings of modern science. The Bible seemed to say one thing, while scientists said the complete opposite (or at least something that wasn't reconcilable). I was trying to integrate the finding of science with my faith under the idea that Scripture and nature were diametrically opposed in their truth claims. I was being pulled by Christians who told me that I had to accept what the Bible taught and reject modern science. Scientists were telling me that I had to reject Scripture and follow only science. For a while I sided with Christianity, then for a few days (really) I sided with science. I remember thinking that this could not possibly make sense since God was the creator of nature. I later thought that I would try an idea that states that science and theology describe separate areas of reality, but don't overlap with one another. This worked for a year or so, but then I remembered once again that Scripture teaches that God is the Creator, and that anything He states about His creation IS an overlap of Scripture into creation.
I was not aware that the problem was that I was trying to reconcile interpretations rather than the raw facts. People in the Christian community led me to believe that the doctrine of Biblical Inerrency applied to the interpretations, rather than the raw statements of Scripture. Scientists persuaded me to believe that their interpretations of the data could not be questioned, rather than the raw data. If we hold a certain interpretation of the Scriptures, then another interpretation of nature, and those two just happen to contradict, we must either reject one in favor of the other, or reconcile them by concluding that they are not speaking about the same "truth".
Believing these inaccuracies led me further to believe that my faith was based on emotion, and science was based on reality- the two could not be reconciled. I was in this state of confusion and conflict for quite a few years. Would I give up my Christian faith or believe that everything I observed was really an illusion? If I kept my faith, could I live with the ideas that everything I observed was illusory, and that the God I believed in was either not omniscient or was intentionally deceptive? Or could I believe that my faith and my knowledge of nature had nothing to do with each other? Either way, I was pretty much giving up the idea that my faith reflected reality. If I rejected my faith, what purpose do I have, and how could I even ground the idea that what I observed was actually real? I was caught between a life with no purpose and no ground for knowing anything, and another life with purpose given by an untrustworthy God and still no ground for knowing anything. Both were a leap of blind faith and neither sounded very appealing. I recognized these problems, but I still thought that the interpretations were the raw data. As soon as I was able to make the distinction, reconciliation came and made perfect sense.
About six years ago, I was shown the distinction between interpretation and raw data. Suddenly, I realized that my Christian faith could be consistent with reality. Many in both the Christian and scientific communities misunderstand the fact that all facets of reality are consistent with one another (this includes Scripture and nature). If their interpretations of the raw data from either conflict with the interpretations of other raw data, then something must be reinterpreted. If a religion is to claim to be true (a part of reality), then the interpretations of its revelatory source(s) must, not only be consistent internally, but must also be consistent with the rest of reality. Allow me to take some time to explain the processes and how this is possible:
"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. " Psalms 19:1-2
"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." Romans 1:20
The psalmist and Paul tell us that nature can be trusted as a source of truth. This truth is not limited to just God's existence and awesome power, as some like to claim. If it were limited to that here, it would be acceptable to say that the psalmist and Paul were telling us that God's existence and awesome power are the only truths that nature can tell us- meaning that we cannot appeal to nature for any truth. Proverbs 6 appeals to nature for truths about life, not truths about God. So these passages cannot be only speaking of nature revealing truth about God, but also the reality that God created. I would also point out that both of these authors are speaking post-Fall- sin has not corrupted the ability of nature to give us correct knowledge of reality. They even assume, by making such a claim, that man's senses have not been corrupted beyond the ability to apprehend such knowledge (whether the man is regenerated or not).
These verses are quite a relief. Since God is consistent and does not lie, his words (the Bible) will never contradict his creation (nature). What may (and many times will) contradict is man's interpretations of the Bible (theology) and man's interpretations of nature (science). Because of man's fallen nature we are sloppy in how we interpret data. We tend to get emotionally attached to a single interpretation when multiple ones are valid. We avoid evidence contrary to our interpretation to preserve the interpretation. We are so short-sighted that we value our "reputation" in the short-term, rather than secure it in the long-term by honest, further investigation. We have so little confidence that we must defend our pride (at that time) to the point of sacrificing the pursuit of truth.
To prevent such behavior and preserve the pursuit of truth, both science and theology incorporate a couple similar assumptions.
How does the scientific community deal with the issue?
The scientific enterprise operates on two assumptions (really more, but I won't go into those now): that the observations of nature can be trusted to accurately reflect nature; and nature is consistent. These two allow scientists to perform experiments and tests on nature to discover it. Based on the second assumption, if two experiments (or observations) are at odds with each other, they are repeated, reinterpreted, and new theories are formed until the interpretations of the data are consistent- this goes for interdisciplinary study also.
This is the process: http://goo.gl/XAicj
Notice that I only have room on the chart for two observations of nature or experiments regarding nature (legs). This is only the beginning. The actual process includes one leg for every observation and experiment. The interpretations of ALL must not contradict if the scientists want to find the truth about nature. Since no single scientist is an expert in all disciplines or even all aspects of a specific discipline, the scientific community requires and practices this method through the process of peer-review, repeating of observations/experiments, and development of multiple ways to observe and experiment with the same natural phenomena. Investigation continue.
This is why science constantly changes. People propose a theory, test the theory against the evidence and adjust their theory accordingly. More tests are conducted, and more adjustments are made. This is the process of gathering knowledge about anything. It does not follow that we cannot trust the process or a conclusion because theories keep changing, as is charged by some of the scientific enterprise. If that were true, then we could not trust the process of elimination for discovering truth. In fact, this would demand that we have immediate and comprehensive knowledge of everything (omniscience), and testing any knowledge against reality would be needless. The goal is to understand natural phenomena as much as possible, so the smaller the adjustments to a scientific theory (based on experiments and observations), the more confident we can be that the theory correctly reflects reality.
How does the theological academy deal with the issue?
The Christian Church has traditionally held that the Bible is inspired by God and has no errors (the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy), thus it accurately reflects reality and is consistent. Biblical scholars use this belief to help them interpret difficult passages. If the interpretation of two (or more) passages contradict, then they must go back to the text (sometimes even the original language) to reinterpret until the interpretations are in harmony. Context is also important: Greg Koukl (Stand to Reason)'s article Never Read A Bible Verse also comes in handy here.
This is the process: http://goo.gl/NEuCn
Notice, as with the scientific enterprise, that the chart only includes room for two scripture passages (legs). In reality, the entire process includes a leg for every scripture passage in the Bible. If theologians are to find a consistent interpretation of Scripture, they must find one that contains no contradiction among any passages. Once again, since no single theologian is an expert on every single passage of Scripture, theologians submit to a similar practice as scientists. They go through much study of the original language and context (both written and cultural) and submit findings to their peers, in search of any contradictions. This process continues until no contradiction is found in interpretation of all Scripture (it is still taking place today).
Archaeology is one discipline of study that provides great testing grounds for the truth of our interpretations of Scripture. As more relics of the past are discovered, we gain new insights into the history described by biblical passages and the meaning of the words in the original language. From time-to-time discoveries will cause a change in an interpretation. However, like with the scientific method, we would not disregard the interpretive method or the conclusion just because something has changed. Also, as more discoveries are made, the less that a specific interpretation has to be adjusted to be consistent with the finding, the more confident we can be that the interpretation is correct.
Combining both processes
Christians believe that both scripture and nature come from God. God tells us that we can trust the raw data of both.
Here's the flow: http://goo.gl/uAbYc
So, if we are correct that both our Scripture comes from the Creator of the universe, and that the Creator of the universe is the author of Scripture, it follows that the two will not only overlap, but when Scripture makes claims about nature, it is accurate. Our job is to find the interpretation of both Scripture and nature that will agree with one another. This is called the constructive integrationist method.
When all this is put together:
Scripture interprets Scripture
Nature interprets Nature
Scripture interprets Nature
Nature interprets Scripture
When the interpretation of one is unclear, we can refer to others for clarification. Also, if two interpretations contradict, man must go back to the raw data and re-interpret, but make sure that that re-interpretation does not contradict other interpretations. There may even be multiple interpretations of certain raw data that are viable. We can eliminate the incorrect ones by looking at the viable interpretations for the other raw data. Sometimes, many interpretations must be re-evaluated at the same time. The ultimate goal is complete consistency in our interpretations of Scripture and nature. See my posts Is Consistency Important and Consistency Among Disciplines. (This is not to say that Scripture will tell us everything there is to know about nature or nature about Scripture. When Scripture states something about nature, that statement can be interpreted then tested against interpretations of raw data from nature regarding the claim.)
This is the process when the three charts are combine: http://goo.gl/mEDVW
This process is extremely valuable for both the Christian and the scientist (even more so, if you're a scientist who is a Christian). This process helps us establish what is true about reality, by providing a reasonable way to resolve conflicts in interpretation. When we understand what is true about reality, it sets a firm foundation for what we believe. Over the past six years, I have used this process of data gathering, interpretation, and reinterpretation to build a more consistent worldview. However, I constantly operate on the assumption that I will always be filling in the gaps in my knowledge; the implication of which is that I will never be omniscient (got to keep that pride in check). All this, combined with the power of the cumulative case, provides me with great resources to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) and always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that I have with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15)
As we spend much time investigating nature and studying God's Word, we will learn more about God and continue to build a loving and trusting relationship with Him. The stronger our beliefs and our trust are established, the more passionate we become in our behavior. The more we test for consistency in our worldview, the easier it is to articulate in a way that makes sense to seekers, and defend against difficult challenges.
But consistency cannot stop at what we believe. Our behavior must be consistent with what we believe. To keep with the theme of "consistency", I will be have been blogging about the importance of consistency, not only in what we know, but consistency between what we know and how we act (Psychology Class Series (Parts 4-8); Right Living or Right Thinking).
Here is the link to the original posting of this article. It includes all images and multiple links throughout: http://goo.gl/fLWH3
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