Science and the Bible

Science and the Bible

Friends or Foes?

by Rick Lanser. MDiv

A strong temptation for Christians with advanced training in the sciences is to compromise on the plain sense of the biblical text when faced with apparent conflicts between it and popular scientific views. Some such views are clearly contrary to Scripture, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, and are promptly rejected by those who value the Bible as God’s revelation. Other views, however, are more subtle in the way they conflict with the Bible, causing some to wonder, “Maybe the ‘plain sense’ of Scripture is not the right sense?” When this happens, the believer is confronted with an uncomfortable choice: either accept the straightforward reading of Scripture, or embrace what a scientific discipline accepts as normative “good science,” and seek a way out of the conundrum by reinterpreting the troublesome Bible verses to eliminate the conflict.

Although one might fault such believers for not having enough faith in God’s revelation, it may be uncharitable to frame the matter so starkly. Those who have achieved expertise in a narrow scientific specialty may feel they do not know the Word nearly as well as their science, and conclude that any apparent conflicts between science and the Bible would be cleared up if only they knew the Scriptures better. Perhaps, they reason, the plain sense they see in Scripture is not the sense God really intended. They view reinterpreting the plain sense of the biblical text as a harmless compromise that fosters the peaceful coexistence of their faith and their science. (On the other hand, there are also some folks who think their science-guided reinterpretation of Bible passages constitutes some sort of great, new insight to be proclaimed to the world! In this case, a big dose of humility is needed, with a willing spirit to change one’s opinion if respected counselors advise it.)

Most Christians have heard some variant of this quote from David L. Cooper (The World’s Greatest Library: Graphically Illustrated [Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1970]): “When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.” This is wise advice—if we do not make the mistake of equating “plain sense” with “literal sense.” They are not the same thing. Cooper’s quote continues, “therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.” Exegesis, therefore, is necessary in establishing the plain sense of a passage, and the translators who gave us our Bible versions may or may not have done the job for us. It pays to check. The plain sense of any particular passage requires consideration for the correct translations of terms, the use of symbolism, idiom, metaphorical language, etc.

But what happens if, after we have done our homework on a passage, the plain sense clashes with something science seems to be telling us? Which will we favor? I suggest that the words of Jesus apply here: “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). If one’s treasure is a considerable investment in study of a certain science discipline, that’s where your heart’s arrow likely will point—one’s sense of identity tends to be defined by one’s area of expertise, real or imagined. The first reaction of such a person will be to read the Scriptures in such a way that the Bible and one’s scientific understandings can coexist, if not comfortably, at least on an ostensibly rational basis. But if the infallible, inerrant revelation given by God in the Bible is your true treasure, your first reaction will be to defend its plain sense. I suggest that this should be the normal response of anyone who knows he or she is saved by grace, grace revealed only in the inerrant record of the Word of God…