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Science and the Bible: A Relationship Revisited

Science and the Bible: A Relationship Revisited

As it has often been said, "All truth is God's truth."

By Bruce E. Atkinson, PhD
Special to Virtueonline
January 20, 2024

This essay is an extended and updated version of an article I wrote for VirtueOnline in 2012, entitled "On the Bible and Science: Preliminary Principles Associated with God's Revelatory Purposes."

It is a horrendously false idea that the Christian faith and empirical science are enemies, that these fields can never come to agreement. While God has directly inspired and authorized the scriptures according to His divine purposes (Isaiah 55:8-11, 2 Timothy 3:14-17), we have to admit that He is also on the side of science. He supports (and has actually established) the real purpose of science among humans, that is, the search for truth. However, we can be sure that God is not for that 'science' which is done without integrity. He is not for research done for political purposes and which bends both the methods of fact-finding and the interpretation of the results so that that they support whatever the researcher wants to publicly promote. As an individual who had my dissertation research published in a scientific journal, I know how easy it is to falsify data. I could have easily done so and no one would have known the difference.

Fortunately, both deliberate manipulation of data and ignorant errors must eventually fall to the wayside, for all misinformation is short term. The truth will show itself again and again, and ultimately it cannot be covered up. This is why I believe that the evidence revealed from our scientific study of nature and scriptural truth (special revelation more directly from God) will eventually come together and be of one piece, a wonderful tapestry without contradiction or interpretive conflict. But yes, we still have a long way to go.

The Origins of Science: Historical Summary

The intense debate among Christians about the Apostolic faith and its relationship with empirical science has been a long one, beginning at least when God saw fit to bless the study of natural phenomena by human beings. Not a whole lot was happening in science prior to the advent of Jesus Christ, but human beings have always been curious about their environment and have sought some kind of control over it.

Before the Common Era, the world was regarded as flat and the sun was believed to revolve around the earth. But the ancient wise men were right about a few things, including the moon's orbit around the earth and how to find the newborn King Jesus through primitive (but true enough) astronomical and astrological principles (see the story of the Magi's visit in Matthew 2:1--12).

But of course scientific thinking, empiricism, and the process of the scientific enterprise goes back much further than this. As the Genesis narrative tells it: God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28, cf. Gen 2:15).

Note the key words in this passage: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue, and have dominion (rule). We had work to do from the beginning. The question of "how" do we subdue and gain dominion has to do the observation of the natural order, analysis, and then experimentation to see what works and what does not. In other words, God blessed the scientific enterprise from the very beginning of human existence.

My AI tool helped me to summarize the early development of science, as follows. The narrative unfolds on a continuum from primitive observation and storytelling to the systematic methodologies of the 'scientific revolution,' with truly amazing discoveries and developed technologies, all portraying the relentless human pursuit of knowledge.

During the Paleolithic and Mesolithic epochs, armed only with rudimentary tools, these early creatures gazed skyward, mapping constellations and weaving tales that sought to bridge the earthly and celestial realms. Here, in the storytelling of the cosmos, is revealed the seed of our innate desire to explain the world around us. Of course, like young children making guesses, we got most things wrong at first.

As we transition into the Neolithic period, we witness the dawn of agriculture and settlement. The farmer, attuned to the cyclical rhythms of the seasons, becomes an unintentional scientist, experimenting with cultivation techniques, observing annual patterns, and laying the groundwork for agricultural science.

The Bronze Age ushers in a newfound alchemy of thought, marked by metallurgy and the sophistication of material culture. Burial sites and artifacts bear silent testimony to a nascent awareness of cause and effect, as well as the recognition of patterns in the natural world. A subtle epistemic shift occurs, subtly intertwining the empirical and the metaphysical.

With the Iron Age, the cultural tapestry becomes more intricate. The transition from oral tradition to written records marks a huge juncture in the spread of knowledge, emphasizing the importance of documenting and transmitting information through generations.

The Classical era sees the Greeks embracing reason and systematic inquiry. Language becomes even more important. Philosophers like Thales and Pythagoras pondered the cosmos, while Aristotle laid the foundation for a systematic classification of the natural world. The pursuit of natural and technical knowledge was no longer relegated to isolated projects by a few brilliant individuals, it now became a collective endeavor, laying the groundwork for the scientific paradigm.

Amidst the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the likes of Archimedes, Ptolemy, and Galen contribute to a scientific tradition that values mathematical precision, careful observation, and a rudimentary understanding of anatomy. All this set the stage for the Renaissance.

As the Middle Ages yield to the Renaissance, the empirical spirit surges forth. Renaissance geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci and Nicolaus Copernicus explore the natural world through art and astronomy, supplying further groundwork for the Scientific Revolution. The telescope becomes a symbol of empirical vision, propelling figures like Galileo Galilei to the forefront of scientific inquiry.

To summarize, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton ushered in an era where the empirical method became a cornerstone of scientific practice, marked by an insistence on systematic observation, experimentation, mathematics, and the formulation of testable hypotheses. As we witness from the historical summary provided above, this was a gradual developmental process which continues today.

On the Bible

Let me begin by reminding the reader of a biblical reality: God did not tell Abraham everything, nor did He tell Moses, nor David, nor Solomon. God has kept some information hidden even from His chosen people... for excellent teleological reasons. I submit that the Old Testament scriptures are designed to set us up, to prepare us for receiving the ultimate truths about God, Jesus Christ, and salvation as we find in the New Testament. At the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes: "Now to Him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey Him-- to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ. Amen." (Romans 16:25-27, cf. Colossians 1:26-27; to find many similar references in the NT, especially in Ephesians, use the key word "mystery").

To extend the words of the sage in Ecclesiastes 3, I believe that there is a time to reveal knowledge and a time to keep knowledge hidden. Here is a droll spiritual paraprosdokian which applies: "There are two great principles of life that God teaches us: 1) Never reveal everything at once."

In the following posted article, I examined some of the reasons why God temporarily withholds some of His mysteries from our curious minds: https://www.virtueonline.org/our-enigmatic-inscrutable-god-theologians-explain-why

If I were asked by a five-year-old about where babies came from, what would I say? (I happen to have some well-written picture books for his age on the subject-- which helps to get grownups like me off the hook.) But it is clear how we should do it: we must keep the information at his developmental level of comprehension. We keep it simple but true and we gloss over a lot of the details, almost to the point of deception -- because intellectually he will not be able to understand it and emotionally he just isn't ready to deal with all of the ramifications.

Now let's generalize this principle to God and His immature human creations, especially over thousands of years in the past when the OT ideas were originally received and then later written as scripture. This developmental principle is why we find the creation stories in the book of Genesis to be so simple and unscientific; they are true in generality but have none of the specific details that many of us would like to see.

The book of Genesis indicates that the creation of the universe occurred in stages, from the simple to the more complex, with human beings being the crown of creation. Human beings were created using both humble elements (clay) and divine elements (breath of God). Then through the rebellion of the first man Adam and his "one flesh" helpmeet Eve, they fell from their lofty position in relationship with God. Modern people are the living extensions of these first sinners, biologically, psychologically, and spiritually.

These essential truths are infinitely more important than any scientific details regarding how exactly God accomplished this creation or what other human-like creatures existed in the time of Adam. To focus on such details is to miss the point. God accomplished Creation and did it for own His divine purposes. The first humans sinned; thereafter, God has wisely informed, convicted, forgiven, redeemed, informed and transformed humans as a part of these divine purposes. As Jesus told us, true information can set us free from ignorance and deception, and this "good news" information is now available. More importantly, the gospel also sets us free from our enslavement to sin, but this is not our focus in this particular essay.

I believe that many unbelievers have a nefarious (if unconscious) purpose in obsessing on the assorted 'scientific' details associated with the Creation and other biblical narratives; it distracts potential believers from these saving truths.

The Bible is absolutely true and authoritative, even though God (the ultimate Author) chose to pass His revelations on to us through imperfect human disciples (see https://virtueonline.org/scripture-and-church-issue-authority-interpretation-scripture). Being chosen for this divine purpose, the prophets and Apostles were enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God's will.

However, it is clear that the Bible was never intended to be a scientific manual on cosmology, physics, time measurement, chemistry, biology, or even psychology (although it says a lot about fallen human nature and God's transformational process of salvation and sanctification). It is primarily about the history and destiny of the relationship between God and humankind. As one blogger put it, "Science tries to discover how the world works while religion answers the deeper questions of why are we here and how we ought to act. Science helps us to be more healthy, productive, and comfortable, while religion helps us to find the ultimate meaning and purpose to life."

When seeking to repair my kitchen plumbing, I may pray for guidance (I need it), but the Bible will be of no help in the repair job. When it comes to most of the questions that fall under the umbrella of science, I am not going to look for answers in the scriptures. The answering of such questions is not among the purposes of the Bible.

The Bible is about human beings because it was written to and for us. It tells us that we were made in His image, with the capacity for choice beyond that of other creatures; it tells us about our fall, our potential redemption, and our ultimate dual destiny (glory or separation). In terms of the Mosaic Law and its New Testament refinements, it also has the purpose of teaching us moral right from wrong. The Bible is a love letter from God so that humans can become more than just stubbornly fallen creatures... so that they can be transformed into His children. That is enough for one book, don't you think?

Scripture is eternal, scientific theories are temporary

Following the "special revelation" that is Holy Writ, almost as an afterthought, God also attended to "natural revelation." He made sure that humans, as a result of their God-given curiosity, would eventually discover the details of their world (scientific facts), so that they could better interact with it and protect it -- as its stewards. Because God is sovereign, He has been intimately involved in directing the scientific enterprise from its beginning. God remains in control, even if it does not always seem so due to the misinformation of those who would take God out of the picture (i.e., ignoring God in the pursuit of natural knowledge).

It is also true that empirical science is not just about facts, it always promotes hypotheses and theories. These theories are continually changed and updated by new facts and more plausible interpretations of the facts. With regard to spiritual things, progressive revelation (as in revisionism) is always questionable, but it is the essential nature of science. Scientists discover new facts and revise their theories accordingly. Who knows what will be discovered tomorrow that will change how we understand the physical universe? This is not so for spiritual things-- because scripture has once and for all delivered the essential realities, even many truths that were once clouded mysteries. What esoteric information is yet to be revealed is not crucial for our salvation, and nothing new that God reveals will contradict what has already been revealed. God does not change (Malachi 3:8, Hebrews 13:8), nor does He contradict Himself (Psalms 33:11, James 1:17).

These basic points must be kept in mind whenever we allow the scriptures to interact with science. If we do so, then we can present God's truth in such a manner that it will reduce the quarreling between conservative evangelical Christians and secularly-minded scientists. When we get caught up in unimportant details, then we often "cannot see the forest for the trees." We must always keep "the big picture" in mind.

Because some Christians do not understand these basic principles of human development and divine revelation, and because they want to make the Bible into something it was never intended by God to be, they actually make Christians and their Bible appear ridiculous and make it harder for evangelism to be successful in a scientifically sophisticated culture.

Remember what God shared with us through the prophet Isaiah (55:8-11): "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."

In summary, the Bible is completely authoritative because it was inspired by the Author of everything. But we must remember two things: the fallen and immature nature of the creatures He has been addressing, and also His ultimate revelatory purposes in the salvation of humanity. God knows exactly what He is doing, even when, in His wisdom, He temporarily refrains from telling us all the details concerning His creation. What He does tell us in the scriptures is more than enough for our spiritual needs. His grace is sufficient: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." (Ephesians 1:3)

It is God's purpose to reveal His mysteries according to His own timing, the primary mysteries being Christological and soteriological, not scientific. What could be more important than the gospel message we hear in John 3:16-- the salvation of mankind that comes only through Jesus Christ? Here is how Paul explains it: "Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Ephesians 3:8-11).

The ultimate situation for believers includes complete unity and understanding: "My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge." (Colossians 2:2-3)

Because all truth is God's truth, eventually, scripture and science will come together without conflict or contradiction.

Some applications to current controversies?

Time. Where we easily go wrong in our hermeneutic efforts to interpret the early chapters of Genesis has to do with the issue of time. Living simultaneously in the eternal past, present, and future, God is not limited by our chronological, linear view of time. This is why God can easily prophesy through His chosen prophets. He is all-knowing and prescient; He knows exactly what has occurred in the past and what will occur in the future. He knows all the causes and effects. Exactly. And as the scriptures point out, to God "a thousand years is as a year and a year as a thousand years" (Psalms 40:8, 2 Peter 3:8). I believe that the scriptures could have said a billion years and it would have been just as true. God's perception of time is different than ours.

For example, our own measurement of time is always associated with the relationship between the earth and the sun and the moon, that is years, months, and days. But it is interesting that the first "day" was defined as such by God before the sun was even created. God is in no way dependent on our limited perspectives on time measurement. A "day" is as long or short as He decides it will be. And we have no idea of whether the earth has sped up or slowed its rate of rotation (days) or its revolutions around the sun (years). The same goes for the movement of the moon. These possibilities could greatly change our concepts of time measurement with regard to cosmology and the ancient genesis of our planet Earth.

Both the issues regarding the limitations inherent in the scientific measurement of time and Bible interpreters getting the literary genre wrong (literal/historical vs. metaphorical) often interfere with our correct interpretation of passages such as the Genesis creation narratives. Hence, unnecessary conflict occurs within the body of Christian believers.

Definitions matter. In taking a quick overview of paleoanthropology, I have to say that much comes down to who gets to define what is "human." Whose authority should hold sway? As for me, I will allow the authority of the scriptures (God's definition of human) to be far more trustworthy than the definitions of paleoanthropologists and archeologists (whose dating techniques and ideas are entirely theoretical and not verifiable without a true time machine).

Obviously, God was around at the time of Creation and also when the scriptures were written. God has always known exactly what we would be dealing with today regarding these controversies. He is, in essence, asking us whether we are going to trust His Word about it... or instead, trust postmodern practicing scientists (who have only their fallible opinions and interpretations of the existing evidence).

If you say that "human" archeological remains exist that can be dated as old as 3 million years ago, then you are saying that Adam was not the first human. However, Genesis very clearly says otherwise, even with a chronologically and genetically related family tree from Adam to Jesus. You cannot have it both ways. Either you accept God's view of the first human or you do not.

I believe that near-human hominid creatures did exist anciently (including around the time of Adam and Eve), but that the first true humans were separately and uniquely created by God (named Adam and Eve) much more recently. The Creator used both nature (clay) and His own spirit (the breath of God) to do so. It is not too complicated. I will never call other pre-Adamic hominids "human" no matter how many paleoanthropologists want to do so. Again, whose authority matters when it comes to defining "human"? I think we can trust the Creator on this.


Note: I recommend a recent article by Roger Olson on the topic of science and theology. https://virtueonline.org/why-science-and-theology-need-not-conflict

Christian anthropologist Alice Linsley also wrote a series about the Bible and science in 2017, beginning with this article: https://virtueonline.org/bible-and-science-part-1-first-four-parts

Some interesting quotes regarding science and the Bible:

Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430 AD) wrote that "the book of nature and the book of Scripture were both written by the same author, and they will not be in conflict when properly read and understood."

Pope John Paul II said in 1987, "Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes."

Atheists accuse Christians of having a "God of the gaps." The esteemed Anglican professor and clergyman John R.W. Stott provided an excellent response:
"The God of the biblical Christian has sometimes been termed the 'God of the gaps' because it is supposed that we resort to him only when we cannot fill the lacunae in our knowledge. Now that scientific discovery is steadily reducing the number of these gaps, the argument runs, God is being squeezed out. One day there will be no gaps left, and we shall then be able to dispense with Him altogether. Long before the current fashion of the 'death of God' theology had been thought of, this notion had been expressed. In a manifesto adopted by the Secularist League at Liege in 1865 it was said: 'science has made God unnecessary.'

What is utterly bogus about this confident claim to have closed the gaps and dispensed with God is that at least two gaps are as wide as ever and will never be filled by human ingenuity. The first is the gulf between God and man caused by man's sin and God's judgment upon it, and the second is the gulf between man as he is and man as God meant him to be. Technology cannot span these gaps, nor can secular education teach us to build our own bridges. Only God can 'cross' this great divide. And he has taken the initiative in Christ to do so."

Bruce Atkinson is a practicing psychologist and Christian counselor in the Atlanta area. He earned a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary; he also received an MS in research psychology from Illinois State University and a BA from Beloit College, WI. He is a USAF veteran (medic) who served in Vietnam. He is also a member of the Anglican Church in North America and is Moderator and a frequent contributor to VirtueOnline.org

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