Bible vs. Science: Seven Approaches

John Paine has invited me from time to time to offer a “guest post” on some topic of interest on the Veracity blog. This is a real “step of faith” for John as you don’t always know what you are going to get when you allow a guest to post! That being said… here we go!

The Bible vs. Science. Is there an eternal conflict between the two, or is the warfare between them nothing more than a modern myth? Is belief in the Bible simply a matter of “blind faith”, contrary to contemporary scientific thinking? Should the contributions of modern science have any impact on how we are to interpret Scripture? These are important questions, and different Christians have arrived at different answers. The type of answers we adopt will have an impact on how we explain our faith to a non-believing co-worker, neighbor, or family member. So how do we make sense of the Bible vs. Science debate within the church and contemporary culture?

A few years ago, I shared in our Williamsburg Community Chapel small group a model of how different people have responded to these type of questions. After having worked as a computer engineer at NASA for 15 years and now at the College of William and Mary for 12 years with a lot of “scientific” types of people, I would suggest that there is a continuum of seven basic positions in the Bible vs. Science debate.

This continuum moves along a spectrum ranging from a purely biblicist view that opposes Science to a purely science-only view that opposes the Bible. In the middle are various views that seek harmony between the Bible and Science or that view the Bible vs. Science debate as a distraction to what really matters (Click on the picture below to enlarge the diagram, if you need to see it better):

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At the ends of the spectrum are two extreme positions. On one end is the Fideist approach. The term “fideist” is derived from the concept of having faith at the expense of reason. A Fideist approach argues that science is completely irrelevant to matters of biblical faith. It is a type of “blind faith” in Scripture. The Bible is the only real source of truth, and so the only purpose for Science today is to give us a means for predicting future events. Science does not tell us much about God’s actions in Creation, nor can it really tell us anything about God Himself. While an approach like this is common among church-goers who show very little interest in science, it is not a view held by that many serious thinkers. About the closest serious thinker that I know of who advocates a position close to this is the recently deceased John Robbins of the in Texas. Robbins’ intellectual hero was Gordon Clark, a popular philosophy professor for many years in the mid-20th century at Wheaton College.

On the other end is the Materialist approach. A Materialist approach argues that science is well on its way to fully describing all aspects of reality and human experience. At best, biblical faith is a relic of the pre-modern past. At worst, the propagation of biblical faith to future generations is nothing more than a form of religious “child abuse”. Obviously, this is not a Christian approach, but it is an approach advocated more and more by people who grew up in the church but who have eventually abandoned their faith with great disdain. Intellectual celebrities who champion this view include the “New Atheists”, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Most people today in America interested in these matters fall somewhere between these two extremes. Nearest the Fideist is the Handmaiden approach. The idea of “handmaiden” is derived from the medieval idea that the sciences should be employed to further aid the Christian in the traditional understanding of Scripture. In other words, Science is a handmaiden that helps us to better understand the Bible. However, the study of Science does not really exist as a field independent from the study of Scripture. One can not make an appeal to alter an interpretation of Scripture on the basis of extra-biblical data; that, is scientific data coming from “outside” of the Bible. The prime example of this approach is the Young Earth or Creation Science movement, the most popular today being Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. In this view, the literal six-24-hour-period of the “days” of Genesis has been the dominant interpretation of Genesis 1 throughout history, and we should therefore dismiss any supposedly scientific ideas that could be used to refute that interpretation. However, it is acceptable to promote any scientific views that might support a Young Earth view.

Going back in the other direction, near the Materialist is the Revisionist approach. A Revisionist argues that modern science has made it impossible to accept the authority of Scripture without seriously revising some of the essential teachings found within the Bible. For example, the concept of scientific evolution should force us to reconsider the whole notion of the Fall of Humanity. Humans did not Fall from a perfect state but rather have slowly evolved over the centuries and will eventually overcome “sin” as humanity progressively develops. The Revisionist view therefore uses biblical language but changes the content and meaning of biblical language to make it more palatable to materialist concerns. This approach is popular among many mainline or liberal Christian groups that seek to redefine the Christian faith to make it more “relevant” to contemporary people. Evangelicals who honor the full trustworthiness of Scripture protest against this view as something that abandons core elements of the Gospel. In other words, a Revisionist approach throws the baby out with the bath water. The former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey, John Shelby Spong, exemplifies the Revisionist approach.

In the middle are three approaches that are somewhat close to one another, but they differ in some important ways: the Concordist approach, the Accommodationist approach, and the Dualist approach. All three approaches commonly advocate what is called the “Two Books” model regarding revelation; that is, that God reveals truth to us in two distinct ways, through the book of Holy Scripture and also through the “book” of Creation. The “Bible vs. Science debate” is really a contemporary myth. In fact, there is no conflict between these two “books”. The Bible and Science are in harmony with one another. However, these three approaches differ in exactly what this harmony looks like.

The Concordist approach suggests that God fully reveals Himself in both Scripture and through Creation. We study Scripture to know God but we also study Creation through the principles of modern science to also know God. Furthermore, since God does not lie there must  be a full “concord”, or “agreement”, between what these two books say to us about Himself. A Concordist makes a distinction between the authority of the Bible and our interpretation of the Bible. The same logic also applies to our view of science. So if we find something in the Bible that does not match up with something in modern science, it means that there is some problem in interpretation. We may need to reconsider our interpretation of the Bible, or we may need to reconsider our interpretation of the scientific data, or we may need to review both. Reconsidering our interpretation of the Bible does not mean that the Bible itself is wrong. God is fully inerrant, but because we are limited humans, our interpretations of God’s book may in fact be wrong and in need of godly correction. Advocates of this point of view include the Old Earth Creationists, such as Hugh Ross and his organization, Reasons to Believe.

A good example of the Concordist approach is with Psalm 113:3, “From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised” (NIV). If you take the passage literally, it suggests that the sun revolves around the fixed earth. However, Copernicus and Galileo famously made the case that it is the earth, not the sun, that moves. The Concordist approach is that a sun-centered solar system is indeed the proper scientific way of looking at things. However, the Psalmist is merely figuratively expressing the phenomena of how the sun appears to move in relation to the earth. From the viewpoint of a person standing on the earth’s surface, the sun only appears to rise and set. The Concordist concludes that we should not interpret Psalm 133:3 in a literal fashion but instead understand it phenomenologically. This demonstrates the agreement between the Bible and Science.

The Accommodationist approach is very much like the Concordist view, but it differs at a significant point. Just as God accommodated to the limitations of humanity through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the same can be said of how God accommodated Himself to the limitations of the human biblical writers in Holy Scripture. God’s intention in the Bible is to reveal Himself and His character, so we can look to Scripture as the infallible guide to faith and Christian practice. But we should not expect the human writers to fully conform to a modern, 21st century understanding of science. From our 21st century viewpoint, perhaps the writer of Psalm 133:3 is merely giving us a phenomenological description of how the sun appears to move. But did the biblical writer himself really think this way, or did he actually believe that the sun literally moves about a fixed earth? An Accommodationist would argue that he probably did literally believe in a fixed earth universe with everything else moving around it, just as most everyone else did in the ancient world. To argue otherwise, as the Concordist does, is really an attempt to force the Bible to somehow fit into the details of modern science, and take the biblical text out of its original God-given context. However, this need not deter us from having confidence in how God uses the biblical writers to reveal to us God’s character and truth of salvation. The science as presented by the human writers in the Bible may be “erroneous” when compared to modern standards, but it is not fair to subject those ancient writers to a standard which is not relevant to God’s purposes. God uses the Bible to reveal to us the essential matters of faith and practice, but He uses science to reveal to us those matters that are non-essential to salvation. In Scripture, God inerrantly uses the limitations of the biblical writers to reveal his inerrant truth, even when those writers may get things wrong in relatively minor, scientific areas not essential to salvation when compared to modern scientific standards. Advocates of this point of view includes many scientists and writers for the BioLogos Foundation, the think tank started by Frances Collins, one of the mappers of the human genome.

As opposed to the Concordist, the Accommodationist would instead argue that there is broad agreement regarding what Scripture says about scientific matters in a very general way, so we need not quibble over the details. The sacred writers were using the best available science of their day when they wrote the sacred text. But we who live in the 21st century “stand on the shoulders of giants”, as Isaac Newton famously argued even in his century. With Science we have an advantage that the sacred writers simply did not have with hundreds of years of scientific research behind us. When you consider the ancient writers’ point of reference and the assumptions that they made, what they wrote regarding scientific matters was true in their original, ancient context. The “rising of the sun” is not technically precise language to the contemporary scientist, but it is close enough for God’s purposes. The biblical writers were not trying to deceive, nor was God. These ancient agents of God’s revelation were simply using the known science of their day to proclaim God’s unchanging Truth. The Lord’s name is to be praised whether you adopt the ancient earth-centered universe model or the 21st century sun-centered model. Both models are compatible with the biblical doctrine of God as Creator.

The Dualist approach differs from both the Concordist and Accommodationist in that it finds any attempt to reconcile the Bible and Science as inherently problematic and unnecessary. Comparing truth between the Bible and Science is like comparing apples and oranges. The Bible and Science serve very different purposes in God’s purview, and so there is no need to cross the lines between the study of the Bible and scientific study. The Bible does not really tell us about scientific truth, but likewise, science does not tell us anything directly about the saving God of the universe. Putting it simply, we look to the Bible to find God, but not to gain scientific knowledge. In like manner, we study science to learn about the nature of God’s universe, but we do not observe the scientific details of the sun “rising or setting” to find God Himself. This type of dualism leaves the Bible to the theologians and the observations of the Created order to the scientists. Exemplars of this approach include the 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, and perhaps the famous late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould.

Wow! That is a pretty detailed spectrum. But it shows that resolving the Bible vs. science debate is anything but simple, even among Christians. Nevertheless, if we are engaged in conversations with others who are confused about the relationship between the Bible and Science, it is our responsibility as Christians to think through this issue in a manner than honors our Lord so that we can be faithful ambassadors for God’s Kingdom in our response. Trying to find out where  you are along this continuum is a great place to start the conversation.

For His Name’s Sake,

Clarke Morledge

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

4 responses to “Bible vs. Science: Seven Approaches

  • Virginia

    CLARKE!! Thanx for this Very Informative overview. Methinks it’s kinda ‘both and’ – science is catching up (or will eventually) to the Scriptures (Genesis comes to mind!) ..as the Scriptures help us understand more of our amazing Creator Who obviously had to keep it simple for Moses 5,000 (or so) years ago.

    Tonight we watched “The Genesis Code” – a Really Interesting movie on this very topic (faith & science with ice hockey, physics, life & death family drama, & a fledging love story mixed in) .. Really cool scientific explanation of creation (!! understandable to non-scientists, even with some football inalogies) .. Highly recommend…

    grace, peace & Faith – Virginia : )

  • John Paine

    Outstanding work Clarke! Thank you for such an in-depth review. Wow! Can you do more? ; – }

  • dwwork

    I can see John made a great choice for a guest post. Really enjoyed it. I have always felt that science and religion were both trying to understand God’s creation and we will eventually see juts how compatible they really are.

  • Wat is ‘n Christelike siening van evolusie? | antwoord

    […] Die punt is dus dat die vermeende konflik tussen die wetenskap en die Christelike wêreldbeeld, te doen het met bepaalde interpretasies en onderliggende aannames wat in konflik staan. Aan die een kant is daar dus ‘n bepaalde interpretasie van wat God in die Bybel aan ons sou kommunikeer en aan die ander kant ‘n bepaalde interpretasie van wat ons uit die wetenskap oor die wêreld waarin ons leef, kan leer. Wanneer een of albei van hierdie interpretasies oor ‘n bepaalde saak nie akkuraat is nie, dan ontstaan daar konflik. (Vir ‘n kort genuanseerde uiteensetting, sien Bible vs. Science: Seven Approaches) […]

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