Monday, May 17, 2010

Should We “Harmonize” Science and Revelation?

Dr. Peter J. Wallace, a minister in the OPC and pastor of a PCA congregation in South Bend, Indiana, tries to answer this question by means of a historical survey of Christian harmonization attempts. The essay is entitled “The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church” and can be found here.

Wallace reminds us that while much of the present discussion focuses on the interpretation of the creation account, this is only one incident in the history of the church’s interaction with science, and a recent one at that. It did not begin until about 1800 when geologists, many of them Christians, concluded that the earth must be older than the generally accepted 6000 years. Before that time the length of the days had not really been “an issue” among Christians. What had long been an issue was to what extent science should affect biblical exegesis, not just in Genesis 1 but also elsewhere. And that question, Wallace observes, has been debated ever since the early Christian centuries. He places the present discussion within that larger context and shows that an acquaintance with the past can help us understand and evaluate positions on the issue that are held today.

As Wallace points out, Christians have traditionally followed two approaches with respect to science and revelation, namely conservatism (the church hesitates to accept the science of the day), and concordism (the church attempts to interpret the Bible in terms of the current scientific paradigm). He gives several examples. Among them is the initial rejection and ultimate acceptance of scientific arguments against a flat, four-cornered earth, of a solid, dome-like heavenly structure (Hebrew raqi’a) that prevents the waters above from flooding the earth, and of a moving sun, a stable earth, and an earth-centred universe. In none of these cases did the church justify its decisions on exegetical grounds. Scientific ones were decisive.

Wallace does not believe that we can eliminate the need for concordism. His concern is with the hazards of a concordist approach that tries to interpret the Bible as teaching the current scientific paradigm. Firstly, he observes, this constantly places the church a step behind the science of the day and has more than once led it to back the “wrong” science. Secondly, it threatens to interfere with a careful reading of the biblical message, and therefore with a proper exegesis. Attempts at harmonization, he believes, should never precede the exegetical work of ascertaining what the biblical text is in effect saying. If they do, i.e. if we try to harmonize our exegesis with the current scientific paradigm, we may well miss the theological meaning of the passage. Indeed, “harmonization at the level of exegesis is potentially fatal to a true understanding of the text.”

And therefore, to quote the conclusion of his essay, “If we find that the scripture portrays the sun as going around the earth, we should not seek to repress this but acknowledge that this was the scientific model of the biblical authors – which accurately expresses not only the ordinary observation of humanity, but the biblical teaching that the earth is the centre of God’s purpose in the universe. Likewise, if we determine that the raqi’a is portrayed in scripture as a solid dome or tent, then we should acknowledge that this was the common observation of ancient thinkers, and that it expresses the biblical teaching that the world was formed as a tabernacle where God is worshiped [see, inter alia, Isaiah 40:22, Psalm 78:69, Psalm 150:1]. In the same way, if we discover that the days of creation are portrayed as ordinary days, we should acknowledge that this expresses the biblical teaching that God’s pattern of six days of work and one of rest forms the pattern for our labors. We should not seek to harmonize our exegesis with modern science.”

A similar point has been made by the Dutch theologian A. L. Th. de Bruijne (in C. Trimp., ed., Woord op Schrift, 2002); see on this my article “How Do We Read The Bible?”(Part 3) (under “Collected Papers”; direct link here). De Bruijne deals with the biblical account of Christ’s ascension. In the ancient world that account caused no problems. According to the biblical world picture the earth was below the heavens, and therefore Christ indeed “ascended” – that is, he literally moved to a higher place. In the modern picture of the universe, however, space is boundless, the earth is no longer at the centre, and there no longer is an up and down, an above and below. Some therefore suggest that we are justified in changing the biblical presentation of the ascension with one that describes Christ not as ascending, but as moving to another dimension. De Bruijne disagrees and insists that we read the text as it comes to us. Not to do so, he says, is to misjudge the uniqueness of the language God uses in revelation. The presentation of a literal ascension, for example, involves associations and incorporates meanings that will be lost when we replace it with a modern one. The association of heaven with height is found throughout the Bible, already in the O.T., and again in the New. Jesus receives the highest place; he rises above sin and misery; we can lift up our eyes to heaven; from heaven he looks down to oversee and govern all things; he will come down from heaven to take us to himself, and so on. The fact that God presents the ascension as he does means that this presentation has a particular fitness to be a vehicle of revelation, a fitness that our substitutes lack. Of course, after the text has been explained we can, De Bruijne says, supplement the biblical presentation with a modern one, such as that of a multi-dimensional universe. We should at all times be careful, however, not to absolutize our modern world picture. The Bible should be understood on its own terms.

The exegetical principle of which Wallace and De Bruijne remind us is not new, but it is sometimes forgotten in the heat of the controversy. It does not resolve every problem the Christian church meets in its interaction with science, but it is well to be reminded that the Bible’s message stands, independently of ever-changing scientific paradigms.

Note: Also of interest is Wallace’s study “The Archetypal Week: A Defense of the Analogical Day View” available here along with his other essays.

10 comments:

Bill DeJong said...

Dr. Wallace's sensible views on this are not unlike Herman Bavinck's. In his, Reformed Dogmatics (vol.2), Bavinck writes (p.484-485), "For Scripture indeed always speaks geocentrically and also explains the origin of things from a geocentric viewpoint, but in this matter it uses the same language of ordinary daily experience as that in which we still speak today, even though we have a very different picture of the movement of the heavenly bodies from that which generally prevailed in the time when the Bible books were written. It can even also be roundly admitted that the Bible writers had no other worldview than what was universally assumed in their day . . ."

What Bavinck says next is what needs to be underscored: "But we must state the matter still stronger: even if, in an astronomic sense, the earth is no longer central to us, it is definitely still central in a religious and an ethical sense, and thus it remains central to all people without distinction, and there is not a thing science can do to change that . . . The earth may be a thousand times smaller than many planets; in an ethical sense it is and remains the center of the universe."

Bavinck's point is that the Bible does not provide us with a scientific cosmology, but depicts the world with the language of ordinary experience. But he says more: the Bible gives us a theological cosmology which may in fact be at odds with scientific cosmology, and that discrepancies of this order need not bother us. Theologically, as Bavinck says, the earth is the center of the universe.

Bill DeJong
Hamilton, ON

Rick said...

A great essay by Wallace, and from rather closer to home (theologically) than Ham or Lisle. "...harmonization should not happen at the point of exegetical theology, but at the point of systematic theology" Well said.

--rick baartman, surrey, BC 

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Thanks, Bill, for this helpful information. The Reformed Churches have long acknowledged that the Bible writers used the language of common experience and wrote in accordance with the world picture of their time. In fact, Calvin already pointed this out. But what seems to be new in Bavinck is the explicit warning against trying to harmonize in our exegetical work the sacred text with the science of the day. Wallace shows in his essay that giving in to that temptation (in a vain attempt to assure the Bible’s “cultural respectability”) has characterized Christian exegesis from patristic times to this very day, with regrettable consequences.

To get an idea of the difference between a “concordist” exegesis and one that focuses on the real or theological meaning of the creation account, I heartily recommend to the reader a series of sermons by Dr. Peter J. Wallace on Genesis 1 available at SermonAudio.com. The first one appeared on January 2, 2009. (I thank the correspondent who drew my attention to this series.)

I also thank Rick Baartman for pointing out that Wallace does not reject attempts at harmonizing but insists that it be done at the level of systematic theology rather than at the exegetical level. Wallace’s own views on that particular issue can be found in the essay under discussion but also in some of the other “Essays on Creation” he posted here. I recommend especially the one entitled “The Archetypal Week: A Defense of the Analogical Day View.”

Ben Vandergugten said...

Perhaps it is coincidence, but I have been thinking and reading about how Christians throughout history have dealt with new models and theories of the universe. I read a little of Cosmas Indicopleustes' "Christian Topography" (available online here). He vehemently argued against the Ptolemaic system as contrary to scripture and evil. He argued against the sphericity of the earth and heavens, and saw grave theological implications for accepting the Ptolemaic system. Here is one quote:

Cosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography Book IV:
"It is necessary for those who wish to be considered Christians to enquire into which of these eight or nine heavens Christ has ascended, and into which they themselves hope to ascend, and what is the use of the other seven or eight heavens. For having already delineated the world in accordance with the scriptural view, we assert that two places were created, one adapted to the present state of existence, and the other to that which is to come, since we have such a hope, one that is better than the life here. And you, if as Christians you hold such a hope, will of necessity be asked what is the use of the seven or eight other heavens. For the pagans who hold the theory of the sphere, if consistent with themselves, neither entertain such a hope, nor allow that there are waters above the heaven, nor are found to acknowledge that the heavenly bodies and the world will come to an end; but expect that the world in the state of corruption will continue for ever."

In AD 547 it seemed quite legitimate to Cosmas that he use scripture to determine the structure of the cosmos. At the time, there were limited instruments that would aid a person in determining the shape of the earth (though Eratosthenes had roughly determined its circumference 800 years earlier). By using scripture as his primary source, Cosmas came up with a flat earth under a solid firmament. Above this firmament was the Kingdom of Heaven, to which Christ ascended, to prepare a place for the faithful. As Dr. Peter Wallace states in another essay, “The biblical authors present the earth as flat. Not one whit of special revelation indicates anything else.” But today we use modern observations to unquestionably accept that the earth is a sphere.

God bless
Ben Vandergugten
Surrey, BC

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Ben Vandergugten said...

If Cosmas Indicopleustes were to get a whiff of our modern cosmology, he would probably die of cardiac arrest. The Ptolemaic system of the medieval age at least had the Empyrean, the final sphere where God dwelled. Today, we have galaxies as far as the telescopes can see, but no obvious place for God to sit on His throne. I can understand why Cosmas was so troubled. I often wonder how, based on our current view of the cosmos, Christ physically ascended to heaven. What is the locale of heaven? Our modern observations have shown us a universe that is unrecognizable and immensely more vast when compared to that of either Cosmas or Dante. However, though I may find the modern view more theologically unsettling, I do not reject it in favour of a flat earth and solid firmament. I think the fact that we accept that the earth is a sphere, that stars are much larger than the earth and very distant, and that we inhabit but one of a vast number of galaxies in this universe, demonstrates that we have already deferred to modern science for the structure of the universe.

The lesson I learn from this is: If it is imprudent for us in the 21st century turn to scripture to determine structure of the cosmos, then I think it is also imprudent for us to use scripture to determine the time scale of the cosmos. This will raise some troubling theological questions, but denying or obscuring what God’s creation, or scripture, tell us is not the answer. Ultimately both scripture and creation declare God’s glory, but they do it on their own terms, and we must respect the languages by which these respective modes of revelation speak.

God bless
Ben Vandergugten
Surrey, BC

Frederika Oosterhoff said...

Ben raises some important questions about the relationship between the reigning cosmology and Scripture. He also shows that exegetical concordism brings no solution, since it implies a constantly different interpretation of God’s Word. For that reason I welcome Dr. Wallace’s message. Concordism is inevitable, but it should be done not at the exegetical level but at the level of systematic theology. In other words: We should take care not to let current cosmologies determine our interpretation of Scripture. After all, worldviews, world pictures, and cosmologies change throughout history. This means that, if we try to incorporate them into the biblical text, we can never be sure of what the Bible is really telling us. Its meaning changes then “with every wind of (scientific) doctrine.”

As to the theological difficulties Ben mentions – I very much agree and thank him for pointing them out. It seems to me that in this particular case Dr. de Bruijne’s suggestions regarding multiple dimensions can be helpful (see the introductory post). I recently reread Edwin A. Abbott’s classic on the topic, namely Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (first published in 1884 but still in print and as popular as ever). It suggests possibilities and at the same time shows the strict limits of human understanding. Perhaps some mathematician wants to review it for us?

Jitse van der Meer said...

I would like to offer my response to Peter J. Wallace: “The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church” which Freda introduces in her post. Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for this and the other essays by Dr. Wallace addressing the relationship between science and scripture. I am writing in support of his main concern that the interpretation of Scripture not be distorted for the sake of harmony with science.

Throughout the history of scripture interpretation texts have been interpreted in light of the cosmology of the day. Wallace is concerned that this may distort the meaning of the text. He recommends that “…we ought to refrain from bringing the scientific questions into the equation until after we have ascertained what the text says. […] Harmonization should not happen at the point of exegetical theology, but at the point of systematic theology.” This seems like a good recommendation. But can it work? It assumes that a clear cut distinction between the interpretation of scripture and nature can be made so that harmonization attempts can be recognized as such and rejected. I question this assumption for historical, exegetical and philosophical reasons.

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Jitse van der Meer said...

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1. Let me begin with the historical reasons. Wallace writes, “in all of the historical debates regarding the relationship of science and theology, science has taken the lead in provoking theologians to reconsider their exegesis. […]. In none of these cases did the transformation begin with exegetical work. Exegetical arguments have invariably followed from philosophical and scientific arguments that caused the church to reconsider her traditional exegesis.” I assume that the philosophical arguments that have shaped exegesis refer to the role of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy as an intellectual framework for the development of patristic and medieval theology. That much is unproblematic.

The role of scientific arguments in exegesis is another matter. The examples of harmonization Wallace describes include patristic and medieval times. Historians of science have come to recognize that up to and including the Middle Ages there was no science in the current sense of the word. The study of nature (natural history, natural philosophy) was aimed at knowing God, not at knowing nature. Therefore, the study of nature was part of theology and the interpretation of nature was part of the interpretation of scripture. Exegetes needed a better understanding of the text and this is what drove the inclusion of natural history – as it was then called – in exegesis. Exegetes needed to understand plants and animals mentioned in Scripture in order to understand the text. For example, if you don’t know that ants are industrious, how are you going to get the point of Proverbs 6:6?

In sum, nature was studied as a source of knowledge of God and not for its own sake. Thus, up to the sixteenth century, there were no scientific arguments external to the knowledge of God that could have been considered as an external source of distortion in exegesis.

During the sixteenth century, and perhaps earlier, the study of nature for its own sake began to emerge gradually. Thus it became possible to distinguish the interpretation of nature from that of Scripture. But even then it is not always possible to separate matters internal to scripture from external ones. A celebrated example is the question of Adam’s ancestors. When Isaac La Peyrère raised it in 1655, he did so to interpret Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans: “Until the law, sin was in the world; but sin was not imputed, when the law was not.” He argued that the law referred to in this text was not the Mosaic law, but the law given to Adam. Paul’s text then meant that sin was in the world before Adam and must have been committed by his ancestors, but was not imputed to them. This exegesis also explained, for La Peyrère, where Cain got his wife and of whom he was afraid. But extra-biblical concerns were also implicated. Among others, scholarly work on the chronology of ancient cultures challenged Christian chronology. In sum, there are two historical reasons why harmonization attempts cannot be identified as such. Up to the sixteenth century the interpretation of nature and scripture are inseparable. Following the sixteenth century the two can be distinguished although only gradually and to different degrees in different disciplines. But now the complexity of the engagement of distinguishable influences makes it difficult to attribute a particular exegesis to external influences. Even in the celebrated case of the days of Genesis, it is difficult to determine whether a 7/24 interpretation is read into the text under the influence of contemporary scientism or is informed by knowledge of Hebrew. I conclude that if Wallace’s recommendation can be applied at all, its application is limited to the most blatant attempts at harmonizing the interpretation of nature and scripture.

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Jitse van der Meer said...

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2. There is also an exegetical reason why I question the solution recommended by Dr. Wallace. Historians of scripture interpretation distinguish between the context of the original recipients of God’s revelation and the context of later scripture interpreters or exegetes. The context of the original recipients includes their languages, their knowledge of plants, animals, and heavenly bodies, their cosmology, their political, social and cultural circumstances and more. Exegetes use these extra-biblical sources in their interpretation of scripture. Such use does not fall under harmonization. The question is whether attempts at harmonization can be excluded from the use of extra-biblical sources by exegetes. I am concerned such attempts will actually hamper exegesis.

Wallace writes: “The solution may be to refuse to allow modern scientific theories any place in our exegetical work. Harmonization at the level of exegesis is potentially fatal to a true understanding of the biblical text. If we find that the scripture portrays the sun as going around the earth, we should not seek to repress this, but acknowledge that this was the scientific model of the biblical authors–which accurately expresses not only the ordinary observation of humanity, but the biblical teaching that the earth is the center of God’s purposes in the universe. Likewise, if we determine that the raqi’a is portrayed in scripture as a solid dome or tent, then we should acknowledge that this was the common observation of ancient thinkers, and that it expresses the biblical teaching that the world was formed as a tabernacle where God is worshiped. In the same way, if we discover that the days of creation are portrayed as ordinary days, we should acknowledge that this expresses the biblical teaching that God’s pattern of six days of work and one day of rest forms the pattern for our labors. We should not seek to harmonize our exegesis with modern science. If we seek to harmonize exegesis with science, and make Moses teach our present scientific theories, then we put our grandchildren in the awkward position of having to alter our exegesis in order to fit the science of the twenty-second century. The place for harmonization is at the level of systematic theology. We may seek to demonstrate that scripture is consistent with various scientific views, but we should not seek to make scripture teach one particular scientific theory.”

I value Wallace’s point that the meaning of the text should not be sacrificed on the altar of harmonization with science. The earth may not be the geographic or physical centre of the planetary system, but it is the spiritual centre of the cosmos. The heavens may not be a solid dome, but the expression could refer metaphorically to a tabernacle. Such meanings should not be lost. But I don’t think exegetes want to lose the help offered by the scholarly study of extra-biblical sources including science. This, however, I believe would be the implication of Wallace’s solution. The examples of unacceptable harmonization he cites span Western history from the early church. I have just argued that it is difficult or impossible to separate out harmonization from the use of science as an extra-biblical source in exegesis along the lines of archeology and history. I am concerned that a justifiable rejection of harmonization will hamper exegesis because it includes the rejection of scientific knowledge in its constructive function as extra-biblical source.

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Jitse van der Meer said...

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3. Finally, there is a philosophical reason why I am skeptical about the possibility of distinguishing the interpretation of Scripture from the interpretation of nature. Is it possible for exegetes to avoid reading the cosmology of their day into scripture? Historians of scripture interpretation have the benefit of hindsight. They can see this methodological error because they can distinguish between the background beliefs of exegetes and the exegesis shaped by these background beliefs. But exegesis produces tacit knowledge in the sense of Michael Polanyi. The exegete is usually not aware of his or her background beliefs. So how could an exegete avoided reading contemporary cosmology into scripture? More importantly, the work of the exegete always includes the history of exegesis. But in critically reflecting on the work of past exegetes, the current exegete cannot avoid considering the tacit influence of the context of the interpreter of the past. Moreover, the current exegete also brings background beliefs to Scripture interpretation as well. As a result there is a tacit harmonization that must be distinguished from an intentional and explicit harmonization. The latter can be kept out of exegesis, but the former cannot. Yet I believe the spirit of Wallace’s recommendation is valuable and I suggest it can be honoured in a different way that covers both types of harmonization.

What I have in mind is the principle that any interpretation of Scripture be justified on scriptural grounds. Science can provide the occasion for considering different interpretations, but not the justification for any particular interpretation. I have this principle from the Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder who formulated it when he was addressing controversy surrounding the interpretation of, among others, Genesis. Dr. Freda Oosterhoff has offered a translation of the text (“Klaas Schilder on Creation and Flood (2)” Clarion v. 52 (2003) pp. 161-64; posted under our ‘Collected Papers’; direct link here). This approach moves the consideration of harmonization to the level of exegesis. It acknowledges that harmonization cannot be avoided at the level of exegesis. Interpretations that cannot be justified on the basis of Scripture alone are exposed as shaped by tacit background beliefs and can be eliminated. Thus it offers a more powerful protection from distortion of the text in that it is not limited to intentional and blatant attempts at harmonization between science and Scripture.