Is Science an Ultimate Authority?

Science History

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at the history of science and Biblical interpretation at the same time

by Thomas Purifoy Jr.

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at the history of science and Biblical interpretation at the same time. 

In 19th-century England, new views presented by geologists and paleontologists convinced some Bible scholars and pastors to begin interpreting Genesis according to an old earth, and (in some cases) a local flood.  At the time, those geologists pointed to the situation with Galileo and the Church in the 16th-century, saying the situation with geology and the age of the earth was the same.  No one should use the Bible to influence science.  (I have heard the  same argument made today.)

There is, of course, an important difference. Galileo was talking about something happening in the present that could be be observed (the rotation of the earth around the sun); the geologists and paleontologists in England were talking about something that happened in the past that could not be observed. Unlike Galileo, these early scientists were looking at the rock layers and the fossils, then interpreting them according to new assumptions about the way the earth developed and its consequent age.

This is why geology and paleontology are considered historical sciences. They are seeking to explain events that are not now happening. But, like all areas of science, they rely on numerous assumptions. In fact, a cursory reading of the history of geology and paleontology reveals that many of the assumptions and conclusions of those early scientists are no longer held today; they have been replaced with new assumptions and conclusions.

This is what we see in every area of science. Over time, the views of scientists are consistently replaced, often contradicting what had been held before as true. The actual history of science does not reveal a straightforward progression of knowledge as often presented in textbooks. Rather, it shows that scientific thinking is a series of changing “paradigms,” or ways of interpreting bodies of data that are ever-growing and necessarily re-evaluated.

In many instances, a new idea completely replaces a prior idea about the world. Whether one is looking at the history of physics, of geology, or of biology, one sees a fascinating series of shifts and movements that make one wonder how anyone can think science is an ultimate authority.  After all, if our views of the world have changed greatly since 1950, even more so since 1900, and radically so since 1850, then why would anyone think our views won’t change just as much (if not far more) by 2050, 2100, or 2150?

History Does Not Change

This is why history is so important.  The events of history never change.  We don’t debate whether Julius Caesar or George Washington really existed; we don’t wonder if the Constitutional Convention actually happened in Philadelphia.  We may not know every aspect of those people and events, but we do know there is an absolute fixity to them.  No one can change what actually happened in history. 

This is why the Bible is a history book, not a science book.  The events recorded in it may have an impact on science, but they do not change like science.  It is also why the Bible uses genealogies to track the passage of time: biological parent-child relationships can never be altered.  The Bible is about recording real people and real events in real time.  What happened in history does not change.

On the other hand, we can be sure that scientific ideas have changed and will continue to change.  That’s why we can’t use them to interpret the Bible…

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