The right tool for the right job: Approaches to faith and science

Legitimate, constructive approaches to issues of faith versus science

Timothy G. Standish, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California.

The right tool can make a major difference in getting a job done. On the other hand, the wrong tool may be useless, even damaging. For example, screwdrivers are good for working with screws, but almost use less for hammering nails or cutting wood. That's on the physical level.

When it comes to the world of ideas, we need a sharp, skilled, and developed mind; one that can reason logically, analyze and synthesize perceptively, and be able to communicate complex ideas into easily understandable forms.

Of the many tools the human mind employs to decipher surrounding reality, the scientific method is a significant one. Science may in fact be considered a superb tool for dealing with issues that have to do with how natural or physical phenomena work. This includes fields of endeavor as varied as medicine and agriculture.

Yet even this exceptional tool can be misused. For example, if we attempt to employ the approaches of science to "prove" that Scripture is inspired, or that there is such a thing as "inspiration," or to decipher how divine inspiration works, we are likely to come to strange conclusions that end up dis appointing and confusing us. Science is simply not the right tool for demonstrating or establishing the nature or authenticity of the Bible, even though portions of what Scripture says may have elements that are scientifically verifiable.

The assertions of science are always tentative, while the basic declarations of Scripture are not. Science encompasses our best under standing of nature at the moment, but does not claim to be ultimately definitive in its claims. As science progresses, its current tentative claims will no doubt be modified, perhaps significantly.

If we assert that Scripture is inspired and that being inspired means the Bible's basic claims are inherently correct, then for us the tentative claims of science cannot be used as a measure of Scripture's inspiration. Attempting to use science to establish the authenticity of Scripture is something like trying to use a hammer to drive home the belief that William Shakespeare was a great writer.

It may seem that this incongruity could be overcome if we gave up the contention that essential factual accuracy is included in the reach of inspiration. But if we did that, it would only mean that the nature of the problem would be shifted: Biblical claims dealing with the material world would then be as tentative as those of science. In that case both Scripture and science would be rendered impotent to throw light upon one another, and the inspiration of Scripture itself would become a merely subjective question.

Why study science?

Why, then, should Christians who believe in the accuracy and authority of the biblical message study science? What should motivate them to take on such an enterprise? I suggest at least four good reasons:

First, if the Bible is viewed as entirely reliable, the comparison of scientific claims with the Bible might provide a measure of the success of science.

Second, disagreements between the Bible and science encourage reexamination of how the Bible and scientific data are interpreted. Carefully considered scientific approaches can provide a lens for better understandings of the Bible.

Third, some who question the validity of their faith may find some reassurance as they discover the degree to which science and the Bible agree.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the study of nature reveals something to us about the mind of the Creator-God that is empirically understandable and may not be revealed in Scripture. The great physicist Johannes Kepler put this elegantly when he said: "To God there are, in the whole material world, material laws, figures and relations of special excellency and of the most appropriate order. . . . Those laws are within the grasp of the human mind; God wanted us to recognize them by creating us after his own image so that we could share his own thoughts." 1

For many Christians it is enough to know that Scripture records God's interaction with the material world and with humanity. However, many struggle with apparent contradictions between the claims of Scripture and those of the material world as interpreted by science. In addressing this concern, it is useful to have a clear picture of what science is, what the claims of Scripture are and how the two might reasonably be expected to interact.

In addition, Scripture, like science, must be interpreted. As mentioned above, correlation between the claims of science and Scripture may hint that the interpretations employed in both have merit, while disagreement between the two encourages reexamination of the assumptions underlying our interpretations along with the logic employed.

When doing this, it is necessary to ensure that the conflict between science and the Bible is real and substantial, and that examination of the quality of the claims being made are valid.

For example, consider 1 Kings 7:23: "And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about."

This passage seems to have an apparent conflict between science and Scripture, and it stems from the fact that a circle's circumference divided by its diameter equals a value called pi, which is approximately 3.14. Our text states the circumference of the molten sea was 30 cubits while the diameter was 10 cubits, and 30 divided by 10 equals 3.00, and not 3.14.

Quibbling over 14 hundredths in the quotient is ridiculous, and any thinking person can quickly generate reasons why the numbers may be accurate to however many digits after the decimal point they want.

While such exacting arguments may have some validity, the real point must be seen elsewhere. The text makes no claim about the value of pi; it describes the dimensions of the molten sea in Solomon's temple. Skeptics who argue that the text shows an error in the biblical under standing of pi expect that if Scripture is inspired its narrative of dimensions must be accurate to several positions after the decimal point. But any practicing scientist would understand that numbers are routinely rounded, ignoring any need to record small fractions of cubits, particularly when the issue is historical narrative and not mathematical verification. Thus a close examination of 1 Kings 7:23 reveals a frivolous base.

Questions about claims

If certain things that the Bible seems to be claiming are to be com pared with findings of science, at least two questions need to be addressed: Is the Bible in fact making a claim at all? and, Is the claim one that science can address?

Four examples illustrate how the apparent claims made in Scripture may be viewed in a way that is consistent with faith in the inspiration of Scripture:

1. The four corners of the earth: "And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree" (Rev. 7:1).

This passage has led some to argue that the Bible claims (consistent with the prevailing popular views of the time in which it was written) that the earth is square or cubical in shape.2 If the text is indeed making such a claim about the shape of the earth, it could be scientifically tested. But the Bible is not in fact making any such claim. The only claim made in this text is that God is patient and forbearing, and is in control of what occurs on earth. Strained exegesis is necessary to turn the "four corners of the earth" from a figure of speech into a claim about the shape of the earth.

2. The death of Uzzah: "And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God" (2 Sam. 6:7).

Here a nonscientific claim is being made. The Bible contains the only known account of Uzzah's death. Even if an independent record of his death were to be found, at most it would show that people associated with Uzzah attributed his death to an act of God. Experimentation cannot be done to test the theory that it was God who was active in the death of Uzzah. Alternative explanations a sudden stroke, lightning, or a heart attack may explain the immediate cause of Uzzah's death, but it could not actually gainsay the possibility of God's direct role in the demise of Uzzah. A scientific claim should, at least in theory, be falsifiable. In this case, even if Uzzah's death appeared to be completely natural, it could still be interpreted as an act of God.

3. Hezekiah's tunnel: "This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all his works" (2 Chron. 32:30).

It is possible to accumulate data consistent with the Bible's claim that Hezekiah was involved in the construction of waterworks delivering water to the west side of Jerusalem.

The Gihon spring is well-known, and a tunnel exhibiting marks of human construction has been discovered leading from the spring to within the city walls. An inscription dating to the time of Hezekiah and describing the work has also been unearthed. The claim, however, is open to refutation, a vital characteristic of science. Active discussion of the relationship between this tunnel and the biblical claim of Hezekiah's activities continues as new evidence is brought to light.'

4. The destruction of Babylon: "And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there" (Isa. 13:19, 20).

Assuming this text makes an unambiguous claim about the permanent end of literal Babylon, testable hypotheses can be drawn from it. One such hypothesis is: Building a large tent city among the ruins of Babylon and filling it with Arab ten ants should prove impossible.

Biblical prophecies which are currently being fulfilled are as reliable as predictions made by volcanologists about the imminent eruption of vol canoes or by chemists about the violent reaction of elemental sodium with water. Perhaps this is why evangelists have discovered that explaining prophecy is an effective method for convincing skeptics of the reliability and inspiration of Scripture.

Science, Scripture, and the promotion of faith

Science is generally restricted to the study of the material world. In very broad terms, science can be defined as logical interpretation of data collected from the material world. This kind of science is capable of addressing questions such as how fast the speed of sound is, or what the pyramids are made of. It may there fore be able to infer how the pyramids were built, but theories are intrinsically more tentative when looking at the pyramids' history than when looking at their composition. This is because no experiments can be done in the present to definitively answer questions about the past.

At best experiments may show how pyramids can be built now. From these we can infer that similar methods were used in the past. On the other hand, samples of the stone from pyramids can be experimented with. As long as samples of stone are available, any scientist can experiment with them and draw conclusions consistent with their experimentation.

For this reason, Hezekiah's tunnel a historical claim is likely to remain more tentative than the experimentally testable claim about Babylon's destruction.

Because immediate observation and experimentation is possible in the present, science can be less tentative about what pyramids are made of than about the exact way in which they were built. In other words, science must be more tentative about historical claims than about claims experimentally testable in the present.

Many of the claims of Scripture that are tested using science, are historical claims, like the dimensions of the molten sea. Historical science operates at a disadvantage compared to experimental science which tests in the present. However, whether one is working with experimental or historical science, neither is a good tool for proving the inspiration of Scripture. However, both may be powerful faith-promoting tools.

Scripture reveals the wonderful interaction of the Creator with the creation, while science reveals the magnificent creative power of God. In the words of Paul: "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20).

1 J. Kepler, "Letter to Herwart von Hohenburg," 1599. In Carola Baumgardt, Johannes Kepler: Life and Letters (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), 50.

2 Rex Dalton, "'FLAT Earthers' in Battle with Creationism," Nature 398 (1999):453.

3 See H. Shanks, "Everything You Never Knew about Jerusalem is Wrong," Biblical Archaeology Review, 25 (1999) 6:20-30; J. A. Hackett, "Spelling Differences and Letter Shapes are Telltale Signs," Biblical Archaeology Review, 23(1997) 2:42-44; and J. Rogerson and P. R. Davies, "Was the Siloam Tunnel Built by Hezekiah?" Biblical Archaeologist, 59 (1996) 3:138-150.

 

 


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Timothy G. Standish, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California.

June 2003

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