Science - Introduction

There are many books about the Bible and science, but this one is different. In this book I assume that both the Bible and science are sources of knowledge. I won’t be seeking either to “correct” the Bible by using science or to “correct” science by using the Bible. My aim is to use science to provide additional insights that will help us choose between different ways of understanding various Bible texts.

My assumption is that if two different interpretations of the Bible are equally founded on the text but only one of them agrees with what we know about the natural world, then we should take this as an additional factor in its favor. We shouldn't easily dismiss an interpretation that has been long-accepted, but neither should we regard an interpretation as more important than the text itself.

       My expertise is in the Bible – especially its languages and historical background. However, I have also done a lot of academic training in the sciences. I have taken university exams (and sometimes retaken them!) in biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, psychology, sociology, pharmacology, neurology, psychiatry, microbiology, and various other -ologys. I know how to read and evaluate scientific papers, and I do my best to keep abreast of various fields. I do this because I’m immensely curious about all aspects of the natural and human world.

       My experience in these two fields leads me to approach science and the Bible with a few assumptions.

5-minute summary

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How to think about miracles

My working assumption about miracles is that they are possible, though, as the Bible suggests, they are rare. Science can’t be used to explain away miracles in the Bible because they are, by definition, outside the remit of scientific investigation. Since we cannot study the mechanism of an action we cannot reproduce, we can’t study the mechanisms behind a once-only miracle. It is like taking a car to a mechanic to find the source of a mysterious noise that happened only once; if the mechanic can’t replicate it, there is no way for him to investigate it. However, we can still use what we know from the various sciences to try to understand what actually happened, as described in the Bible text, just as that mechanic might recognize what happened when you describe the circumstances.

       I also assume that God’s preferred method is to carry out his will by using the creation that he made. Of course, since the time of Adam and Eve, God’s will is often being frustrated, so he may have to use extraordinary methods to fix things. His creation includes agents such as angels whom we can’t perceive, who may be used by God to get his will done. Nevertheless, in general we should assume that God wants to get things done by using his creation – because that’s why he made it. This means that when investigating what God did in the Bible, we should first consider whether it could happen within the confines of what his creation is capable of – and the sciences can tell us a great deal about that.

How to evaluate scientific theories

When looking at science, we have to be aware that some areas are more established and certain than others. However, this doesn’t mean that we should dismiss everything that is called a theory. This technical term is used for everything from the well-established theory of gravity to things as uncertain as a theory of mind. A theory is an explanation that incorporates all the currently known facts as simply as possible. It is called a theory because if other facts come along that can’t be fitted into that explanation, it may need to be revised. Therefore, Newton’s theory of gravity was revised when Einstein discovered that light bends around massive objects – though the refinement was so small that it doesn’t make any practical difference to our everyday lives.

       When science stories get into the news, it is because exciting new things have been discovered. This can give us the false impression that the world of science is always changing and that most conclusions are uncertain. The vast majority of scientific findings never need revising, so they never get into the news, though they become part of our everyday lives through technology. If all this science wasn’t reliable, we’d never be able to make an electric car that is safe, or interpret signals from GPS satellites to find out where we are driving.

       There is no conspiracy by scientists to pretend things are certain when they are not. Every scientist longs to find evidence that will overturn a currently accepted theory and thereby move knowledge forward – and make themselves famous. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to work in science merely to find supporting evidence for what is already accepted. So the idea that scientists are motivated by a plot to undermine religion or the Bible is (as far as I can see) an unbelievable conspiracy theory. There are some antireligious scientists, and there are just as many scientists who are devout believers, but their faith or lack of it makes no difference to the scientific method. As in all professions, a few individuals cut corners to progress their careers, but they are almost certain to be found out eventually because every scientist longs to win fame by proving something wrong. Promotion and funding comes by finding new facts that change the consensus, and hopefully finding a more elegant and useful theory to describe reality.

How to evaluate Bible theories

This same methodology can be used to study the Bible. Just as a scientist regards facts as more important than the current theory, we should regard the text as more important than the current interpretation. If an interpretation of a particular passage agrees with some but not all other texts in the Bible, then the interpretation clearly needs to be developed further – just as scientific theories are constantly refined when new facts are discovered.

       Let’s attempt, for example, to elucidate a theory about answered prayer. We may start out by interpreting the Bible as saying:
God grants the prayers of his followers.

But then we read about Cornelius, whose prayers God responded to even before he became a Christian (Acts 10:4), and how God loves seekers (Heb 11:6). So we revise our interpretation to:
God grants the prayers of those who seek him.

Then we remember that God doesn’t always answer prayers in the way we expect. For example, Paul asked God to release him from his “thorn in the flesh,” but after praying for this repeatedly, he was told the thorn would not be removed because God was using it for his good purpose (2 Cor 12:7-9). This makes us revise our interpretation again:
God grants the prayers of those who seek him, in accordance with his good will.

Some believers, such as prosperity preachers, think that the simple interpretation we started with is correct. But most Christians incorporate the extra facts found in the Bible and revise their interpretation to encompass the whole of what the Bible says.

Bible + science = better understanding

In this book we will go a little further. We will look at the facts that we find in the Bible and add to these the findings of science. Scientific ideas help us understand how things work, and in this book I attempt to apply science to help us understand what the Bible says.

       I do not want to elevate scientific knowledge above what is clearly taught in the Bible. The Westminster Confession of Faith usefully makes a distinction between those “clearly propounded” doctrines that are “necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation” and those areas of Scripture that are “not alike plain in themselves nor alike clear unto all.”1 This book is wholly concerned with that latter group, where there is insufficient information in Scripture for us to be certain what the correct interpretation is. As I have said above, when the facts in the Bible are capable of more than one interpretation, our scientific knowledge can help us decide which interpretation is likely to be correct.

       This is similar to the way that we use archaeology to help fill in the details that the Bible doesn’t mention. For example, the Bible describes the Philistines dominating the Israelites because they had the technological advantage of “chariots of iron” (Josh 17:16-18; Judg 1:19; 4:3, 13 ESV). But a chariot made completely of iron wouldn’t be fast or agile and would often sink in the mud, so the text is difficult to understand. However, archaeology supplies the detail that although they used iron for wheel rims, hubs, and other hard-wearing parts, the rest of the chariot was built from wood to be as light as possible for speed. This additional information from archaeology doesn’t correct the Bible, but it does help us understand it. And information from science can do the same.

       Many books attempt to show that the Bible is true by arguing that it agrees with what scientists have found out, and others try to tell scientists they are wrong by citing interpretations of the Bible. This book tries to do something else: it seeks to use science as one of our tools to help understand what the Bible says. I’m not interested in proving anyone wrong or right; I’m interested in employing every available piece of knowledge to help understand the Bible in context. And in this book, we are going to use science to help us do that.

1^ Westminster Confession of Faith 1:7 ( Note that this book shortens internet links using to make them easier to type into the address bar of your browser.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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