Science as an Aid to Interpreting Scripture
Last year I came across a blog post from George P. Wood titled Science as an Aid to Interpreting Scripture. Wood is the executive editor of the Assemblies of God magazine Enrichment. The post is a response to geocentrists – give it a read first to understand the context. Here’s a summary:
I find it odd that anyone would stake the inerrancy and authority of Scripture on a particular scientific theory, especially a disproved scientific theory. Actually, I find it blasphemous, as it makes God out to be an incompetent astronomer. But I also find the authors’ error instructive. So let’s consider their argument.
Stated as a syllogism, the geocentrists’ argument looks something like this:
- Geocentricity is a biblical doctrine.
- Whatever the Bible teaches is true.
- Therefore, geocentricity is true.
This is a deductive argument. If its conclusion follows logically from its premises, then it is valid. If its premises are true, then it is also sound.
Clearly, the geocentrists’ argument is valid. The question, then, is whether the argument is also sound. Since Premise 2 is true, the question must be whether Premise 1 is true. In support of Premise 1, Bouw cites Psalm 93:1 (KJV), “the world also is established, that it cannot be moved”; 1 Chronicles 16:30 (KJV), “the world also shall be stable, that it not be moved”; and Psalm 96:10 (KJV), “the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved.” These are not the only Scriptures he cites, but they are representative.
Quoting Scripture is not enough to prove Premise 1, however. For example, I could quote Proverbs 14:30 (KJV) to prove that envy is the cause of osteoporosis: “envy [is] the rottenness to the bones.”In fact, however, “Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone.” Envy has nothing to do with it. The proverb writer is not speaking literally here, but figuratively. This is an important point.
…I don’t see why science itself can’t be used as a tool of interpretation. If we know, from medical science, that envy is not the cause of osteoporosis, why can’t we know, from astronomy, that Sun does not revolve around Earth? And if we know that, interpret the Bible accordingly?
…good science—as opposed to “junk science” or “the latest scientific study”—can correct bad interpretations of Scripture, can’t it? Can’t it be an aid to interpretation of Scripture? I see no reason why not.
There is some good interaction in the comments section of his post, and I added a few thoughts there as well. I find this to be a wonderful example of the dangers of exactly what Wood is arguing for. He is using “good science” to determine the literary form of Scripture. Anything in Scripture that is contrary to “good science” must be metaphorical.
Science and Truth
The first and primary problem is that Wood has a poor understanding of science. We cannot “know” anything from science. All scientists admit that science does not “prove” anything. They admit that it may only disprove a theory. But they throw out the idea that we can ever know truth and settle for a continual progression “towards truth” that never reaches it’s destiny. Scientific philosopher Karl Popper explained:
First, although in science we do our best to find the truth, we are conscious of the fact that we can never be sure whether we have got it. We have learnt in the past, from many disappointments, that we must not expect finality. And we have learnt not to be disappointed any longer if our scientific theories are overthrown…
Thus we can say that in our search for truth, we have replaced scientific certainty by scientific progress…
But this view of scientific method . . . means that in science there is no ‘knowledge’, in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science, we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. What we usually call ‘scientific knowledge’ is, as a rule, not knowledge in this sense, but rather information regarding the various competing hypotheses and the way in which they have stood up to various tests; it is, using the language of Plato and Aristotle, information concerning the latest, and the best tested, scientific ‘opinion’. This view means, furthermore, that we have no proofs in science
So, to answer Wood’s question “why can’t we know, from astronomy, that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth?”: because we cannot know anything from astronomy. We can hold it as useful opinion that the Sun does not revolve around the Earth, but we cannot know that. Gordon Clark, in a discussion of archaeology, noted:
To test any Scriptural historical account by means of any theory of archaeology is to test that which cannot be false by means of that which cannot be true. It is the height of absurdity… Scientifically, we do not know if the Bible is true, and we never will. That, of course, does not derogate from the truth or authority of Scripture, for two reasons: Scripture is self-authenticating; and science cannot prove anything true.
Archaeology and the Bible, see also The Biblical View of Science
Furthermore, Wood claims we need to interpret Scripture based upon “good science” as opposed to “the latest scientific study”. But what is good science other than the latest scientific study? He, like most people, have a ridiculously high and inaccurate trust in the institution of science. In an excellent article in The New Atlantis titled The Folly of Scientism, Austin L. Hughes discusses the inherent problem in defining what good science is:
the “institutional” theories, which identify science with the social institution of science and its practitioners. The institutional approach may be useful to historians of science, as it allows them to accept the various definitions of fields used by the scientists they study. But some philosophers go so far as to use “institutional factors” as the criteria of good science. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett, for instance, say that they “demarcate good science — around lines which are inevitably fuzzy near the boundary — by reference to institutional factors, not to directly epistemological ones.” By this criterion, we would differentiate good science from bad science simply by asking which proposals agencies like the National Science Foundation deem worthy of funding, or which papers peer-review committees deem worthy of publication.
The problems with this definition of science are myriad. First, it is essentially circular: science simply is what scientists do. Second, the high confidence in funding and peer-review panels should seem misplaced to anyone who has served on these panels and witnessed the extent to which preconceived notions, personal vendettas, and the like can torpedo even the best proposals. Moreover, simplistically defining science by its institutions is complicated by the ample history of scientific institutions that have been notoriously unreliable. Consider the decades during which Soviet biology was dominated by the ideologically motivated theories of the geneticist Trofim Lysenko, who rejected Mendelian genetics as inconsistent with Marxism and insisted that acquired characteristics could be inherited. An observer who distinguishes good science from bad science “by reference to institutional factors” alone would have difficulty seeing the difference between the unproductive and corrupt genetics in the Soviet Union and the fruitful research of Watson and Crick in 1950s Cambridge. Can we be certain that there are not sub-disciplines of science in which even today most scientists accept without question theories that will in the future be shown to be as preposterous as Lysenkoism? Many working scientists can surely think of at least one candidate — that is, a theory widely accepted in their field that is almost certainly false, even preposterous.
Confronted with such examples, defenders of the institutional approach will often point to the supposedly self-correcting nature of science. Ladyman, Ross, and Spurrett assert that “although scientific progress is far from smooth and linear, it never simply oscillates or goes backwards. Every scientific development influences future science, and it never repeats itself.” Alas, in the thirty or so years I have been watching, I have observed quite a few scientific sub-fields (such as behavioral ecology) oscillating happily and showing every sign of continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. The history of science provides examples of the eventual discarding of erroneous theories. But we should not be overly confident that such self-correction will inevitably occur, nor that the institutional mechanisms of science will be so robust as to preclude the occurrence of long dark ages in which false theories hold sway.
The fundamental problem raised by the identification of “good science” with “institutional science” is that it assumes the practitioners of science to be inherently exempt, at least in the long term, from the corrupting influences that affect all other human practices and institutions.
As a wonderful example of how these principles apply to Wood’s scenario, consider osteoporosis. Wood said
I could quote Proverbs 14:30 (KJV) to prove that envy is the cause of osteoporosis: “envy [is] the rottenness to the bones.”In fact, however, “Osteoporosis occurs when the creation of new bone doesn’t keep up with the removal of old bone.” Envy has nothing to do with it.The proverb writer is not speaking literally here, but figuratively. This is an important point.
First of all, Wood doesn’t acknowledge the difference between a description and an explanation. What he quoted is a description of osteoporosis, not an explanation of its causes (which is what he’s trying to refute). Gordon Clark has a great discussion of this problem as it relates to gravity:
Gravity is used chiefly to explain why planets “fall toward” or revolve about the Sun instead of continuing in a straight line according to the first law of motion. But now that the law of gravitation has been worked out with the mathematical precision of inverse squares, do we find explained quod erat demonstrandum?
The difficulty may be illustrated with a still simpler example. If we ask a person why a stone, when dropped, falls to the ground, and he replies, “Oh, that is because of gravity,” has he explained anything at all?… The general law of gravitation is that any two particles attract each other in proportion to the product of their masses and inversely as the square of the distance…
The questions have been asked, Why does a stone fall? What makes it fall? What makes it fall faster? The usual answer is, the law of gravitation. This law as applied to freely falling bodies is that the body falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. Now, to substitute the law itself for its name, the question, Why does a stone fall? is answered by saying that it falls because it falls with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second per second. But how does a statement of the rate of the fall explain what makes the stone drop in the first place? And how does the rate, ever so carefully measured, explain what makes the stone fall constantly faster? Does it not become clear upon reflection that the law of gravitation is not an explanation? It explains neither the fall of the stone nor the revolution of the planets.
The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God, Gordon H. Clark
Second, apparently Wood has not kept up with his PubMed reading. Clearly, if he wants to be consistent in his theory, he needs to buy a Logos PubMed packaged add-on so that pastors can consult the 22 million medical papers (aside from all the other fields of science) that are so necessary to properly interpret God’s Word. And if they don’t stay up to date with “good science”, then they could end up preaching false doctrine. While it may have been true previously that the author of Proverbs was speaking metaphorically, it is now true, according to good science, that he was speaking literally:
Negative emotions can intensify a variety of health threats. We provide a broad framework relating negative emotions to a range of diseases whose onset and course may be influenced by the immune system; inflammation has been linked to a spectrum of conditions associated with aging, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, frailty and functional decline, and periodontal disease. Production of proinflammatory cytokines that influence these and other conditions can be directly stimulated by negative emotions and stressful experiences. Additionally, negative emotions also contribute to prolonged infection and delayed wound healing, processes that fuel sustained proinflammatory cytokine production. Accordingly, we argue that distress-related immune dysregulation may be one core mechanism behind a large and diverse set of health risks associated with negative emotions. Resources such as close personal relationships that diminish negative emotions enhance health in part through their positive impact on immune and endocrine regulation.
Emotions, morbidity, and mortality: new perspectives from psychoneuroimmunology. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, McGuire L, Robles TF, Glaser R.
Department of Psychiatry The Ohio State University College of Medicine, 1670 Upham Drive, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA. Kiecolt-Glaser.firstname.lastname@example.org
Psychonueroimmunology is the study of the soul’s (psyche) affect upon the body.
The empirical evidence in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (Ader, R., 1981) has shown that immune activity, as well as some psychological parameters, can be modified by classical conditioning processes. This young discipline is providing scientific facts of the interrelations between emotions, stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and the immune system. Proinflammatory cytokines play a key role in cardiovascular disease, arthritis, Type II diabetes, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, periodontal disease and some cancers . Negative emotions like depression and anxiety enhance the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, leukocytosis and increased natural killer cell cytotoxicity, as do psychological stressors .
Here we explore connections between religion/spirituality (R/S) and endocrine functions involved in the stress response (i.e., stress hormones). While many neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and hormones are involved in the stress response, we restrict our discussion to glucocorticoids (cortisol), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and epinephrine (adrenaline). These chemical messengers are thought to mediate the relationship between psychosocial stressors and immune function, and may help to explain how R/S influences immune functions…
As more research emerges on how the immune system affects the brain and influences sickness behaviors, there has also been a tremendous expansion of information on how the brain modulates immune functions through the action of stress hormones. Recent studies indicate a complex circular relationship that involves psychological states influencing endocrine functions, which in turn affect immune functions, which feed back to affect endocrine functions, with both influencing psychological states (see Irwin and Miller 2007)…
As noted above, cortisol increases in response to psychological or physical stressors, and is often viewed as a primary mechanism by which psychological stress gets inside the body to cause disease (G. E. Miller, Chen, and Zhou 2007). Cortisol has many physiological effects aimed at either maintaining homeostasis or regaining it after a stressful experience. These effects include increasing blood glucose, increasing retention of sodium and water, increasing excretion of potassium, increasing sensitivity of vascular system to epinephrine and norepinephrine, anti-inflammatory effects (reducing histamine release and stabilizing lysosomes), increasing vigilance and cognitive performance, and increasing memory of short-term emotional events (called “flash-bulb memories,” designed to remember what to avoid). Many of these functions serve to incrase arousal, focus attention, enhance fear memory and learning, and mobilize energy (glucose) for confronting short-term threats. While in the short term these effects of cortisol are highly adaptive, over the long-term (as in chronic stress or depression) these effects can result in numerous problems: elevated blood pressure, accelerated atherosclerosis, insulin resistance, osteoporosis, slower wound healing, cognitive impairments due to damage to hippocampal regions of the brain, and especially, impaired immunity (McEwen 1998; Graham et al. 2006).
Handbook of Religion and Health, Second Edition, Harold G. Koenig, Dana E. King, Verna Benner Carson; p. 420-421
(See also: Psychotropic Drugs & Biblical Counseling for more on psychoneuroimmunology from a Biblical perspective.)
The Bible and Science
Given all of the above, what should our approach be to the relationship between the Bible and science? John Byl offers some helpful thoughts in his book “God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe”
One possible approach is that of concordism, which strives to reinterpret the Bible so as to bring it into harmony with modern cosmology… [Wood’s approach]
Others, convinced that such concordist interpretations are invalid, may adopt more drastic methods. Perhaps the Bible, written in a prescientific age, is in error when it addresses scientific matters. Perhaps the Bible is concerned only with theological matters. A view that has recently become quite popular is that of complementarianism, which sees cosmology and theology as totally independent, each dealing with different matters: they give complementary descriptions of the same reality…
An alternative approach is to adapt cosmology to the Bible, or at least, to the traditional reading of the Bible as it has been accepted by the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages.
He notes the plethora of scientific theories of the universe.
In short, a major problem in reconciling science and Scripture is what we can refer to as the problem of scientific knowledge: we have no justifiably valid criteria for finding true theories… science in general – and cosmology in particular – is plagued by the lack of definite, objective criteria that might allow us to easily separate true theories from false ones. It is at this crucial point that we must often be guided by extra-scientific factors.
And finally, he addresses the problem with concordism:
But what would constitute a valid proof of the correctness of any item of extra-biblical knowledge? Since the sixteenth century, with the advancement of scientific investigation, various aspects of the traditional interpretation of Scripture have been challenged: for example, its apparent geocentricity, the account of Noah’s flood, biblical chronology, the story of Adam and Eve, and the existence of heaven and spiritual beings. Some Christians have held on to the literal reading of Scripture, denying that the ne w scientific ideas had been adequately demonstrated. Most, however, felt the need to modify their reading of Scripture, at least to somedegree.
At first the troublesome portions of Scripture were merely reinter- preted so as to be reconciled with modern learning. Elastic methods of interpretation were advocated. To take just one typical example of this concordist school, consider Davis Young, a Christian geologist, who writes:
We need not twist or misinterpret the facts in order to get agreement between the Bible and science. Christians m u st realize that the Scrip- tures donot require us to believe in six twenty-four-hour days of creation. There is legitimate internal biblical evidence to indicate that the days of creation may have been indefinite periods of time. Moreover, the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 need not be taken in a rigidly literal fashion . . . It is not entirely clear that the Bible is talking about a geo- graphically universal flood . . . There is considerable room for legitimate variation of interpretation of the creation and the flood.‘
The obvious difficulty with such a flexible approach to Scripture is the danger of merely reading out of it what we put in. Scripture is reduced to a mirror of human thoughts rather than a source of divine light. The inadequacies of concordism have been stressed by none other than Young himself in a more recent work, where he repudiates his earlier concordistic position:
All the variations of the concordist theme give us a Bible that is constantly held hostage to the latest scientific theorizing. Texts are twisted, pulled, poked, stretched, and prodded to ‘agree’ with scientific conclusions, so that concordism today undermines honest, Christian exegesis.‘
In short, concordism is inconsistent with an epistemology that stresses the supremacy of God’s Word. It is crucial that we adopt a hermeneutic that is not unduly influenced by human theorizing. If we are to listen to God’s Word with an open ear, then we must strive to interpret the text objectively, applying sound hermeneutical principles. The most direct, natural interpretation is thus generally to be preferred, unless internal scriptural evidence indicates otherwise.