Part of what is at issue here is the difference between sola scriptura and what at least some writers have begun calling nudis sciptura.
The latter idea moves from the idea that Scripture is the sole authority in the Church to the idea that it has to be interpreted without reference to anything outside it. The best way to read the Bible, which can never be achieved in reality, is to know nothing of the world, have no human thoughts to get in the way, and know nothing of how the Bible has been traditionally understood. The best Bible reader would come to the Bible with a tabula rasa (a blank slate). Traditional readings, readings that fit with what we know of the world, readings that make rational sense are all suspect precisely because they are traditional, fit with the world, and make rational sense. All human knowledge and wisdom just gets in the way of the word of God. (I suspect that this view is part of the cause of the phenomena that Bruce has labelled ‘ClergyBibleWorld’ in his comments on this blog). The Bible should be interpreted in a hermetic vacuum, as far as possible.
If such a view does have any pedigree within Protestantism, then I think it should be traced to the Anabaptist end of the spectrum of the 16th Century, than to Calvin, Luther and the like. My growing suspicion is that this wrong view of the nature of Scripture is one of the reasons why the Anabaptists eventually turned on guys like Calvin and Luther and declared them to be a false church as much Rome. Just as the split between the Reformers and Rome was over both the nature of the gospel and the nature of the authority of the Word, so the split between the Reformers and the Anabaptists was over the nature of the gospel and the nature of the authority of the Word.
The Magisterial Reformers held to a different view of the nature of the Bible’s authority, and that was sola scriptura. On this view, the Bible is the final authority in the Church. It is the final authority because it alone is the source for theology, for the knowledge of God. Sinful people cannot come to know God except through his word, whatever we may debate about whether creation would have sufficed for Adam and Eve before they ate. However, as was implicit in the Reformers, and was spelled out more explicitly in the centuries after them, the Bible is not intended to be read in a vacuum.
Three other authorities exist and serve us in the way we hear the word of God. These are normally stated as Reason, Experience, and Tradition (listed here in no particular order, at least as far as I’m concerned). Unfortunately, as Liberalism has gotten a stronger hold on much of Church life in the West, there is often talk of the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ or the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’. This is unfortunate, because it often gives the impression (wrongly in my view) that Scripture is just one of four equally ranked authorities, and so can be trumped by another authority in theology. Classically, Scripture is the sole authority when it comes to the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of salvation. The other three exist to serve us as we receive and submit to that authority. They themselves are ruled by Scripture.
However, I would suggest that there are several things to note with this basic position on the relationship between Scripture on the one hand, and Reason, Experience, and Tradition on the other.
- Each of the three subordinate authorities are authorities in their own right when it comes to issues of life in this world that are not part of knowing God and are part of their ‘portfolio’. It is entirely right and proper for one country to enjoy pasta while another enjoys potatoes. One country can adopt a Parliamentary Democracy, another an Athenian, and still another a Presidential (and seeing democracy is almost unquestioned these days, it’s worth saying that another country can be undemocratic) and it be a valid form of government. In areas such as national foods and styles of governments you’re in the realm of Tradition. If you’re pursuing logical arguments, philosophy, or mathematical theorems, then Reason is King. And experience is a powerful authority—Proverbs itself indicates that it is a mark of the fool and the simple that they do not learn life lessons from the events in their lives.
Science, like the Arts, doesn’t really fit neatly into this schema, which shows that the Tradition/Reason/Experience break-up is not an infallible tool, and shouldn’t be used as a Procrustean Bed where everything is shoved into one and only one category. Science is a community of shared and inherited wisdom that rationally reflects upon experience. It makes use of all three categories as it undertakes its endeavours. Nonetheless, what this suggests is that there is a right and proper domain where Science is King, and where its findings should not be challenged by the Word of God. Because God has set up the world so that the Word of God isn’t the sole authority about everything in the world.
- Because the Bible speaks about the world and about life in the world, what it says about such matters are a source for other disciplines. The Bible’s descriptions of events and cultural practices in the history books of the OT and NT can be validly used by history and even such disciplines as psychology and anthropology. Much of the wisdom of Proverbs (so the commentators assure me, I’ve never learned another dead language to check it out for myself) have parallels in the traditional wisdom of other people groups—some aspects of living wisely in this world are part of common grace, even as the Bible issues them as part of its special revelation. And I’d want to hold that when the Bible does say things on such matters that are part of the ‘portfolio’ of other disciplines or spheres, it does so without error (which for me is a distinguishing feature of inerrancy as opposed to infallibility).
- Because the Bible is a book that is entangled in this world, in that it isn’t speaking of some ideal world hovering above our world, or some kind of ‘spiritual truth’ that bears no reference to the world we live in, it can in principle be overthrown by a challenge from one of the three subordinate authorities. If Jesus’ bones were discovered tomorrow I would cease to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. As a result I would reject the entire NT at least (I’d then have to look carefully at Judaism). Irrespective of what Scripture said, Jesus can’t have risen from the dead if Jesus’ bones are still in the ground. At this point Scripture’s claims hang upon the reality of the world matching the state of affairs that the NT describes. While not the focus of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 1:1-19, it does seem to me that Paul is implicitly acknowledging this point. Paul doesn’t respond to what appears to be a view going around the Corinthian Church that there will be no resurrection from the dead by simply stating that Christ rose and that, as the Word of God says it, it must be believed. He points out the different witnesses who could all independently testify. The logic of his argument suggests that if many or most of them came back and said, ‘actually this whole thing is a fabrication’ then Paul would be found to have testified falsely of God.
In other words, even the heart of the Christian faith is ‘vulnerable’ to an attack from our knowledge of the world. Which is why Christians have taken a lot of interest in the historicity of the Gospels.
And I think that’s a good thing. Ideas and beliefs that are not falsifiable even in principle are not genuine views of the world. They’re conspiracy theories. Human knowledge is knowledge of finite creatures, which means it is never free from the possibility of error, or the need to repent. Part of the great strength of Christianity is that it is at least theoretically able to be falsified, and so reflects the nature of human knowledge. (And if you think that has anything going for it, you’ve got an easy answer to the solipstic concern of ‘what if I’m a brain in vat and I’m just hallucinating all this’ a la The Matrix. The doubt can’t be falsified, which means it is automatically suspect. You can avoid Descartes’ attempt to locate an absolutely certain foundation to build all knowledge upon, and accept that human knowledge, like human beings, is limited.)
- Finally, there is a place for the subsidiary authorities to serve us in the way we understand Scripture. We do read the Bible in certain ways because the Word uses Reason, or Tradition, or Experience to teach us to read it that way. I’ll offer two examples, neither of which, it has to be said, are uncontroversial. However, even if neither specific example is accepted by someone, they should still illustrate the general point sufficiently for it to be grasped.
The first is the issue of the law of non-contradiction. A cannot be non-A. An idea cannot be right and wrong simultaneously in the same sense. (For example, it can’t be the case that 1+1=2 and that 1+1=3 given standard bases and the like). It seems to me that the Bible presupposes this very basic law of rational thought throughout. Because the Bible regularly argues that ‘Because X, therefore Y’. If things could be both true and false simultaneously then no rational argument has any force. No rational argument would have any force because the argument could be true and false at the same time. And one could legitimately draw both one conclusion and the opposite conclusion at the same time from the same premise. The fact that the Bible argues that ‘because X, therefore Y’ is implicit testimony to the validity of the law of non-contradiction.
Guys like Tertullian, Luther and Barth all probably rejected the law of non-contradiction either due to a radical view of God’s omnipotence or a radical view of the noetic effects of sin. Nonetheless, in practice Bible scholars recognise the law of non-contradiction whenever they say, “This view cannot be right, because it contradicts what the Bible says over here.” Without the law of non-contradiction, a contradiction would not be a good reason to reject something. In other words, the Bible is rightly read when it is read in a rational way.
The second example is the doctrine of the Trinity. Christians today learn to read the Bible to see how it teaches the Trinity. It happens fairly naturally and tends to be taken for granted. But it is a gift to us from the first five or so centuries of Christians. It took hundreds of years to work together a clear grasp of what the Scriptures were saying, and there were a lot of mistakes made along the way—and not just by the heretics, even what the orthodox theologians said in most of the centuries leading up to Nicaea can make one’s hair stand on end. We avoid those struggles and difficulties precisely because of tradition. We pick up where earlier Christians left off.
Most people find that the more they sit with Scripture, the more they see, the more connections they perceive, the more implications shine through. Tradition works like that on a bigger scale. The whole people of God pass on an inheritance to the next generation that enables them to see more than if they had to start again from scratch. And this is why the Church’s historic understanding of doctrines and passages needs to be respected and taken seriously. It is not to be taken as automatically right—the Reformation showed just how badly off track the Church could get. But it does need to be recognised as a gift from God to us for our good and accepted as such.
It is this last point about subsidiary authorities serving us in our reading of Scripture that I think is the key one for the issue of reading Genesis in the light of science. Generally speaking, Creationists tend to give just two options. Either Genesis one and two are historical accounts that are roughly analogous to modern historical accounts and so are eyewitness narratives. Or they’re false, and the Bible isn’t what it claims to be. It is pitched as a basic conflict between science and Scripture.
But this setting up of an opposition doesn’t take into account that our knowledge of the world is supposed to be something that helps guide our reading of the Bible. I’ll offer four examples that I hope will illustrate the point:
First, there is the following statement by Jesus:
Matthew 19:23-24 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. "Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
There are two basic options here. Either Jesus is using some kind of poetic device when talking about a camel going through the eye of a needle, or he’s speaking of an actual physical gate in Jerusalem known as the Needle Gate, where it was difficult to get a fully laden camel through. It’s either a historical reference or it isn’t.
It seems to me the only way such an exegetical decision can be made is to allow what we know of the world to shape our reading of Jesus’ words. There is no evidence anywhere (last time I checked) of a gate referred to as either “The Eye of the Needle” or “The Needle Gate” in Jerusalem. And so most people take it that Jesus’ words here are a metaphor, they aren’t speaking of a gate because we know from sources outside the Bible that no such gate existed.
We could, however, run the standard Creationist arguments used for Genesis 1 at this point:
- Jesus was actually there, modern historians aren’t.
- Surely Jesus’ words can be trusted, for he says, “I am the truth”.
- Just because there is no evidence that it existed, there is nothing that says categorically that it didn’t exist.
- Human beings (modern historians, Jesus’ contemporaries) have evil hearts and so their views can’t be trusted.
And so we conclude that there really was a Needle Gate, and we can only trust the Bible for this knowledge of the world.
Once again, there’s nothing in Jesus’ words that indicate that it is a metaphor. The only way you can decide it is, is if you think that our knowledge of the world has a legitimate role in determining how we are to understand the Bible. At this point most of us work from our knowledge of the world, to how we read Jesus’ words: Because we know there’s no Needle Gate therefore it must be a metaphor.
The second is Paul’s words to Timothy:
1 Timothy 5:23 No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.How again are we supposed to take such words? They’re in the Bible, so they must give some kind of reliable information about the world. I’d suggest that if we took the kind of view that seems implicit in creationism’s arguments then we should see this as important medical advice, and would hold that regularly taking a little wine is an important aspect of dealing with frequent ailments. Sickly people should regularly drink some wine.
Let’s run the arguments again: Who knows the human body better? Doctors, or God who made the body? This isn’t poetry, it’s a statement about an actual historical Timothy and his actual historical stomach. It’s either reliable medical information or it’s false, and so the Bible’s claims about itself fall to the ground. And who should Christian doctors or modern Christians receiving medical advice believe? God? Or unbelieving modern medicine?
If we knew nothing about wine or about ailments, then I’d suggest we’d probably take Paul’s words as offering a reliable way to better health for the sickly. Our instincts (quite rightly) are to see the implications of what the Bible says as widely as possible. We don’t see these words as normative counsel on dealing with ailments simply because we allow our knowledge of medicine to shape how we take Paul’s words. And so we see it as advice for Timothy in particular, or as like much folk medicine of earlier centuries, capturing something, but not the final answer on dealing with ailments.
The third is the relationship of the sun and the earth:
Joshua 10:12-14 Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, "O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon." So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There was no day like that before it or after it, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.
Psalm 19:4-6 In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.I suggest that if we had no knowledge of astronomy, and were looking to the Bible to give reliable astronomical information, then the most natural way to read these two passages is as they straightforwardly appear. The sun moves around the earth in the same way the moon does. The psalm fairly clearly presupposes that the sun runs a course each day. And the Joshua passage draws a parallel between the sun stopping and the moon stopping, which would, if you hadn’t already known about the earth being a sphere that rotates, suggest that both sun and moon move around the earth in the same way. And it occurs in a historical narrative, where the narrator himself (and not just Joshua) says that the sun stopped.
There’s nothing in the text that suggests that such descriptions should not be taken in a strictly literal sense. We could run the same creationist arguments again (but I’ll spare you, you should be able to do it yourself now), and show how here too we have a conflict between what the Word of God declares and what Science declares and so we have to choose who we’ll believe: God or the unbelieving astronomer. As far as I can see, the only reason why someone doesn’t take such descriptions literally is that:
a) they don’t think that the Bible is particularly concerned to give good astronomical insights
b) they read these statements in light of what they already know about the world.
And so we conclude (quite rightly) that such descriptions are not intended to give a strictly literal account of ‘what actually happened’. It speaks of historical realities, but not with an eye to teach good astronomy.
In this sense, it’s a bit like Judges 4 and 5, our final example. Both chapters relate the same event: the overthrow of Sisera’s dominion over Israel and his death at the hands of Jael and a trusty hammer-and-tent peg combination. Chapter 5 is a song that, by and large, seems to be retracing the event in fairly historical terms, not in metaphors. But then we get statements like the following thrown in:
Judges 5:4-5 LORD, when You went out from Seir, When You marched from the field of Edom, The earth quaked, the heavens also dripped, Even the clouds dripped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of the LORD, This Sinai, at the presence of the LORD, the God of Israel.
Judges 5:20-21 The stars fought from heaven, From their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent of Kishon swept them away, The ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon. O my soul, march on with strength.Like other details that we would consider more obviously historical, these lines in the song these words don’t relate to anything we find in the account in chapter four. So what do we do with them? Some commentators will try and suggest that there were some miracles that occurred in the battle—particularly that the river Kishon swept away some of Sisera’s forces. Their reason seems to be, as far as I can see, that the song overall reads like a historical account. And hence, they slot it into the historical genre and so look for some kind of strictly literal referent to these words. But that just seems a bit odd given what we know about the historical event from chapter 4. If God had entered the field of battle in some kind of physical manifestation, why would he call for a small army of human warriors? Why go for a miracle with the Kishon river getting involved, but not also argue the same about the stars joining in the battle?
For me, such a feature of the song suggests that the Bible doesn’t always draw the strong distinction between ‘historical fact’ and ‘theological interpretation’ that we have inherited from the Enlightenment. The Bible recounts the past to tell us about God and about how to live. It’s not interested in the past for the past’s sake. And so what is for us two separate steps: what happened, and what it means, are often interwoven in the Bible. And sometimes the meaning is more highlighted than the historical reporting. This means, I would suggest, that the Bible does at times not follow principles that we consider important for a factual account.
You can see this in the way in which it is hard to reconcile the different accounts of who saw what at Jesus’ tombs in Matthew, Luke, and John. Matthew says there was one angel, Luke and John says two. John gives the impression that Mary was on her own, Matthew and Luke name the other women who were with her. John indicates that Mary saw the angels and Jesus after fetching Peter and John. Matthew implies that the women saw the angel and Jesus before going to see the disciples. And Luke tells us that the women saw two angels (and doesn’t mention seeing Jesus) before they went and fetched the disciples.
Again, I think such discrepancies can be reconciled. But such discrepancies don’t fit the way we tell history. We wouldn’t accept saying there was one angel if there was two. Nor would we be all that inclined to pass over the fact that the women saw Jesus if we were giving an orderly account (you mentioned that the women saw angels, but passed over the fact that they saw Jesus? Just what sort of account is this?). Such features reflect an approach to history that subordinates just recounting facts for a broader purpose in showing the the meaning of the events. That such surface discrepancies arise, shows that the Bible’s concern isn’t to give us our kind of account of ‘how things really happened’. There’s more options in the Bible’s reporting than either ‘absolutely precise history’ or ‘false’, and they have to ascertained on a case by case basis.
(If you want my take on Genesis 1-11 in a nutshell, that’s pretty well it. I think it’s historical, but is an account that is speaking of the historical reality it narrates first and foremost in terms of its meaning. And this means, like Apocalyptic, or like Judges 5, the details mightn’t be historical records in our sense of ‘historical’.)
In other words, there is nothing wrong with reading the Bible in light of what we know about the world from other sources. Every time we appeal to archaeological findings, or even turn to a Greek lexicon to ascertain what a word meant, we are reading the Bible in light of our knowledge of the world. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. The Bible is designed to be read that way, that’s how its authority is supposed to be expressed over us.
Our knowledge of the world is supposed to serve us, by guiding us to read the Bible rightly, and this is part of what it means to correctly understand the nature of the Bible’s authority. Sola scriptura not nudis scriptura.
To sum up:
What this means is that the relationship between the Bible on the one hand, and experience, tradition, and reason on the other is not simply dictator to functionaries. The Bible has a central concern. The Westminster Shorter Catechism calls it the principal teaching of the Scriptures:
Q. 3. What do the Scriptures principally teach?In this kind of area, then Scripture speaks fairly much on its own. It gives us the knowledge of God, and how we are to live so as to please God.
A. The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
But Scripture also makes statements that bear upon the world we live in. In those areas where Scripture speaks to spheres where other authorities have a legitimate role, there is more give and take between what we think the Bible is saying, and what we know (acknowledging that human knowledge is fallible) about the world from other sources. Despite what creationists claim, this is not, in itself, a liberal failure of nerve about the Bible. It is recognising that the Bible has its own area of concern, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism indicates, and so what it says focuses on that sphere.
Each case of an apparent conflict between what we thought the Bible was saying and what we think of the nature of the world therefore needs to be addressed on its merits. God hasn’t promised the church that it would get everything right in its reading of the Bible. And science is anything but infallible (and scientific popularises have a long history of using the respect that science is held in to claim certain views as 'scientific' that are outside the field of science).
In seeking to address such tensions, I’d suggest the test that should be applied is not some criteria of literalness. I’d suggest that the proper test is theological, because that respects the fact that the Bible’s primary teaching is the knowledge of God and how to live. Does a possible revision of our understanding of the Bible’s teaching about the world undermine our knowledge of God in Christ Jesus or what it means to walk in the light? If so, then that needs to be resisted. If not, then the proper domain of science needs to be respected.
Such a test doesn’t force an issue—in practice literary features of the text, tradition, knowledge of the world, how such a text is treated by other parts of Scripture, and the implications of a possible reading for the Bible’s teaching as a whole are all going to be factors that will need to be weighed. Someone, could, in my view, weigh everything up and still decide that Genesis 1 is a fairly strictly literal account of things.
Nonetheless, the basic point from this should (hopefully) be clear. There’s nothing wrong with a reading of the Bible arising because we know something about the world that we didn’t before. There’s no such a priori formal law that governs the word of God. Each case must be looked at on its own merits. And so, for example, it can be entirely consistent to accept current scientific consensus about cosmological age and biological evolution on the one hand, and reject homosexual practice on the other.