Scripture and Science
All Truth is God’s Truth
At Ligonier’s 2012 National Conference, Dr. Sproul and the other panelists were asked about the age of the universe and asked whether it was an intramural discussion. Dr. Sproul began his response with the following words:
Not for some people. For some people it’s an all or nothing issue. When people ask me how old the earth is I tell them “I don’t know,” because I don’t. And I’ll tell you why I don’t. In the first place, the Bible does not give us a date of creation. Now it gives us hints and inclinations that would indicate in many cases a young earth. And at the same time you get all this expanding universe and all this astronomical dating, and triangulation and all that stuff coming from outside the church that makes me wonder, and I’ll tell you why. I believe firmly that all of truth is God’s truth. …
In saying that “all of truth is God’s truth” Dr. Sproul strikes squarely at a misconception that many Christians seem to uncritically accept, which is that the only reliable truth available to us is the revealed truth of scripture. However, that’s a mistake – Scripture assures us that God is revealed in his creation to such an extent that “what can be known about God is plain” because “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:19 ff)
After stating that the church’s understanding of special revelation had been corrected by students of natural revelation, Dr. Sproul went on to illustrate his point.
Both Calvin and Luther rejected Copernicus as a heretic in the 16th century. I don’t know anybody in orthodox Christianity today who’s pleading for geocentricity. Do you? Do you know anybody? In that case the church has said, “Look, we misinterpreted the teaching of the Bible with respect to the solar system, and thank you scientists for correcting our misunderstanding.”
And so I think that we can learn from nonbelieving scientists who are studying natural revelation. They may get a better sense of the truth from their study of natural revelation than I get from ignoring natural revelation. So I have a high view of natural revelation is what I’m saying.
Augustine on Science
Augustine of Hippo called attention to the fact that when we make ill-advised claims about the natural world, and an unbeliever can empirically demonstrate that we are wrong, it can bring God’s word into disrepute:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.
This is why it matters that the Christian be able to present a well-reasoned and articulate defense of his or her faith. Some Christians approach evidence about the material world that God has created as if it’s suspect, as if we fear that there is some risk that reality will somehow undermine scripture. But the fact is, if it’s true it comes from God by very definition, since he is Truth.
Often we conflate the facts and interpretations of the fact; and we do it with both scripture and science. It’s a fact that if we drop anything that has mass sufficiently close to the Earth’s surface, it will be drawn toward the planet. This is a fact and it should not be confused with gravitational theories which seek to explain that fact.
The point is, that God’s general revelation in creation and his special revelation in scripture are two sides of the same coin – they both lead us towards God, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. If scripture and science appear to be in conflict then our understanding of one or the other, or both is at fault. And here’s the critical point – we should not automatically assume that it’s the science which is at fault, since it might very well be that we have a faulty interpretation of scripture.
Moving With the Times
While the Galileo affair was more political that it was some imagined conflict between the church and science, the lesson should be learned rather than repeated. Sometimes our observations of God’s creation will demonstrate that our fallible interpretation of his infallible word is flawed.
In interpreting scripture we must employ the very best hermeneutic principles, with the best available knowledge, together with investigation of the original language. All too often we end our studies with the English translation, failing to understand or appreciate the rich nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages with which our Lord rendered his word. In so doing we commit the grave mistake of under-valuing God’s word.
In like manner, we should interpret scientific data utilizing the best science available to us. We must appreciate that science is a cumulative and progressive endeavor and that ideas and theories change with time and as more evidence is accumulated. Indeed we should expect that ideas change over time; if they don’t then the enterprise has stagnated.