Thursday, May 24, 2007
The Infallible Bible and Modern Science
I wrote this article with the Evangelical Christian in mind, but it is poignant to anyone who is interested in faith, even if only to argue against it. I am a Christian and I am also an aficionado of paleontolgy, archeology and ancient history. I have pondered the nature of Biblical truth for many years and here I present a very brief summary of some of those thoughts.
The Bible is infallible. There are no false concepts in the Bible, and all that is written in the Bible is either inspired by God or in the case of the Gospels is actually the word of God spoken by Jesus Christ and written down by Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. Only the Scripture as spoken by Jesus is made up of words spoken by God. It is infallible word for word. The rest of the Bible is inspired by God, not written or spoken by God. It is nonetheless true and holy, but must be understood in a different way from the Gospel of Jesus.
The prophets who wrote the Old Testament did not fall into a state of bliss where God took control of their hands and wrote words which were not processed in their minds but flowed out of the quills in their hands as new and unknown to them as to any other reader. Rather, God enlightened them and put ideas and concepts into their minds. Those ideas were processed and understood within the confines of their language, historical perspective, cultural reality and their knowledge of the natural world.
Their understanding of history and the rest of the human race was limited as was their knowledge of the natural world. For instance, they could not really understand any number over one thousand nor could they express it in writing. So God enlightened them to the fact that He created the universe out of nothing, but He did not enlighten the prophet who wrote Genesis with an understanding of astrophysics and advanced calculus sufficient to understand just how God did it. If He had miraculously taught the man astrophysics, none of his readers would have understood a word.
We are now quite certain that He created the universe out of nothing in the event that we call the Big Bang. He did not arm the prophet with any words that could express a concept like 14 billion years, nor to even grasp a tiny corner of that idea, so the prophet wrote of a week of work. It is what he could understand. The key and most important fact for me is that Genesis is exactly right in the important details and the lesson that the story teaches. The universe was created out of nothing by God, first the heavens (galaxies, nebulae, etc.) then the earth, then the plants and fishes, finally the animals and then man. That is exactly what happened. Only God could create everything that exists, billions and billions of stars and planetary systems spread out over unimaginable stellar distances. He did it in one moment through nothing more than His Word. That is the point, and to me it is especially awe inspiring when we consider the size and complexity of creation.
No other religion's "creation myth" comes even close to reality.
So it does not surprise me that the story of Adam and Eve is also real and tremendously poignant to us today. The lessons to be learned are greater when we read the story while thinking of what science and history have taught us about early civilization. Adam and Eve reflect our real fall from grace and it coincides perfectly with what anthropologists, archaeologists and geneticists have discovered about the beginnings of agriculture based civilization. Agriculture tied man to a given spot. He was no longer free to wander through the garden, and studies of genetics in Europe show that it was the women in the nomadic hunter gatherer societies that embraced farming (and farmers). It was Eve that recieved the fruit of knowledge and therefore led men out of the garden of Eden into a life of travail.
The person who cannot accept my premise, who insists that the Bible is literally true, word for word, must consider the accumulated knowledge of science as either lies or errors in method and logic. Science postulates evolution over eons of time going backward; a literal reading of the Bible disagrees. So is it possible that all science is mistaken? If not, is it possible that there is a conspiracy to defraud everyone by evil scientists?
Consider that there are millions of people in the world today with sufficient education to understand pieces of our accumulated knowledge about geology, evolution, astrophysics, genetics, island bio-geography, tree ring history, chemistry, etc, etc. These different scientific disciplines are not independent and in fact there is a growing tendency to actively cross reference information. In other words some of it can't be wrong without making much of it wrong. Carbon 14 dating of an archaeological site might be wrong, but the date is also established by pollen types, early climate, geology and tree rings. They aren't all wrong and here's why. Random errors will always tend towards chaos. They will not point in the same direction. So look at the fact that all the scientific disciplines point in the same direction as far as how old things are, how continents move, how one species changes with time, etc.
The only way that scientists could all be wrong would be if God planted infinite false clues to lead them astray. Would a loving and reasonable God give us curiosity and cognizance and then seed the earth, the heavens and the microscopic details with false clues that all point to what we now know? Is our God a trickster? Those of us who have been saved from despair and destruction through the grace of God KNOW that He is not a trickster. He does not lie ever for any reason. Our accumulated knowledge is therefore not wrong.
If the Bible is literally exact, then the other possibility is that our accumulated knowledge is not wrong, but rather that is made up of lies, that it is faked by evil men and women who wish to drive us from God. This would be the greatest conspiracy of all time, beyond what anyone could dream. It would be the nightmare of nightmares, great cabals of devil worshiping scientists meeting around the world to synchronize their lies. How many people can keep a secret? How long can they keep a secret? Could a secret that continues to develop in complexity and in the number of people involved that easily surmount fifty million in the world actually be coordinated? Would each evil scientist take the conspiracy to the grave? None would have a change of heart and tape some conference where lies are coordinated?
Given a little critical reflection the idea that all science is made up of lies or errors is not tenable. It is also not a very Christian way to think because it involves tremendous hubris. We do not respect those who have studied, we do not respect tradition, we only respect our own pathetic understanding of the Bible.
So I feel that as in all parts of the Bible, and in particular in Genesis, there is the Word of God which is perfect for all time. When we read the Word in the context of the limited mortals who wrote it, we can better see the message and lessons of our great and loving God. If we consider the limitations of the prophets in regards to their understanding of history and the physical universe we can better see the miracle of His message as it grows in meaning and fits perfectly into all times and cultures. The Word of God is too miraculous for us to understand completely. As our knowledge grows, the lessons and messages of the Bible grow ever more powerful and awe inspiring. To take the teachings of God as literal is to make them finite, closed ended. His wisdom is not closed ended, but perfect and infinite; as we grow we will always be able to learn more from his Word.