How Does Science Inform Biblical Interpretation?

by Steve Kindle

“By identifying the new learning with heresy, you make orthodoxy synonymous with ignorance.”
~Erasmus

What follows in this post is my personal reflection on Dr. Vick’s post which ran yesterday. Although I hope he finds this compatible with his own view, he may not. He is only responsible for prodding me to think through some of the implications of what he wrote.

Head-Brown smallThe heliocentric model of the universe changes everything.

Since the Copernican revolution, we can no longer accept the Ancient Near Eastern three-tiered universe with heaven “up there,” and Sheol “down below.” Paul’s vision of a man transported to “the third heaven” reveals a psychology steeped in that worldview. Elijah taken to heaven in a fiery chariot, and even the ascension of Jesus, can no longer be taken literally. Given the vastness of the universe, the psalmist’s question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” takes on deepened meaning. Can we still speak of God “in the heavens,” or literally understand that “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.”? I think not.

The biological Theory of Evolution changes everything.

No longer can we think of the world as created in six days, or Bishop Ussher’s 6,000 years ago, or the Creationist’s 10,000. The creation narratives in Genesis can no longer be taken literally, but as a poetic ode to creation and the Creator. Adam and Eve can now be seen as a primordial myth that speaks to the human condition, not of the actual First Parents. The Flood has shrunk to the area surrounding the Black Sea about 12000 BCE. (The universality of flood stories can be traced back to the melting of the great ice sheet that covered most of the northern hemisphere at the same period, and how it affected its people.)

The only answer that literalists can give in response is that the Bible is the word of God and must take priority over any other presumed authority…regardless of the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. “The Bible says” trumps scientific findings.

Literalists do claim a kind of science on their side, Creation Science. They marshal “evidence” that no scientist in the academies supports, even continuing to cite long overturned arguments from John Whitcomb, Henry Morris, and George McCready Price. The Creation Science movement proved too embarrassing for many scientists of faith, because it was tied too closely to biblical arguments. They began the Intelligent Design movement and eschewed any taint of religion in their deliberations. However, virtually all are aligned with some form of Christian Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism, which drives their efforts, not pure science. They have yet to make significant inroads into the wider scientific community.

So what does the consensus scientific worldview do for biblical interpretation and theology?

  • It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events.
  • God’s transcendence is not physical (out there), but “wholly other.”
  • Literalism is no longer the first and preferred reading.
  • The biblical notions of sin and salvation (atonement) need to be understood as arising from the ancient milieu, and not appropriate today.
  • The Bible, rather than being a scientific textbook, can be recognized as the record of a people trying to understand their world and their place in it. It is the people’s record, not God’s.
  • The apocalyptic undergirding of the New Testament needs to be seen as a yearning for hope in a world gone mad, not as a timetable for the ages.
  • It ends the dualism that turns the world into a battleground instead of a paradise.

What are some of the applications that can be made from these assertions?

It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events.

God can no longer be seen as acting from outside the cosmos upon the Earth shaping events and suspending natural law at will. Things have proceeded over the past 14.5 billion years in a natural fashion and continue to do so. We know that the Earth rotates about 25,000 miles per hour and orbits the sun, which is stationary (relative to the earth). The story of the battle for Jericho includes God causing the sun to stand still in the sky to allow for more daylight. This is a perfect example of the ancient worldview’s explanation for how Israel wins battles: God intervenes for them. This, for me, serves as an archetype for all such interventions.

God’s transcendence is not physical (out there), but “wholly other.”

By removing God from beyond the cosmos (heaven), we have not demoted God, but made God immanent—within all things. In certain ways, God is closer to humanity than before. Gone are such notions as “the Man upstairs,” “the Old Man in the sky,” and other figures of speech that make God remote and far removed from human life. God being intimately related to and involved with every aspect of life, from the smallest subatomic particle, to the fullness of the cosmos, makes everything sacred and gives humans motivation for proper care of creation.

Literalism is no longer the first and preferred reading.

Knowing that we are reading ancient documents that are informed by a worldview vastly different from our own, we can no longer accept their understanding at face value. Taking the text literally is to overlook this fact. We begin interpreting by asking what informed the author to understand the text in this way, and then compare it to how we find things in our world today.

The biblical notions of sin and salvation (atonement) need to be understood as arising from the ancient milieu, and not appropriate today.

Can you imagine anyone operating out of the modern worldview attaching the remedy for sin to blood atonement? The gods of the Ancient Near East were capricious and vengeful. In agrarian societies, the only thing they had to offer the gods to appease them were what they grew or the livestock they raised. They saw these things as an extension of themselves, and, in a way, the offering of themselves. Blood, life, in exchange for their lives.

Even the Bible comes against this notion from time to time. From Amos: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

 Even the pagans such as King Nebuchadnezzar found peace with God away from blood atonement. From Daniel: Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness, and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged.”

Not all the atonement theories arising from the New Testament and later required a blood sacrifice for efficacy. Specifically, Luke sees salvation arising out of being faithful to the end, even as was Jesus, who models our means of salvation.

The Bible, rather than being a scientific textbook, can now be considered a record of a people trying to understand their world and their place in it. It is the peoples’ record, not God’s.

Rather than this being woeful, it is an amazing realization. Humans are capable of spiritual insights and profound realizations about the world and themselves. God will be seen as a participant in this, but the record is from humans. Therefore, for humans to engage the Bible as human to human is to do precisely what the ancient people were doing that resulted in the Bible. The tradition continues into our own time and much spiritual good is reaped in the process.

The apocalyptic undergirding of the New Testament needs to be seen as a yearning for hope in a world gone mad, not as a timetable for the ages.

Apocalyptic theology, that is, the understanding that God shapes all world history according to God’s will, and that good will ultimately triumph over evil, arose out of a need, indeed, a longing, that this is the case. I believe that God will ultimately prevail in securing a world typified by shalom, and I recognize this as a faith statement. But the notion of God superintending history, much as a mother hen, doesn’t give free will its due.

The Hebrew Bible is full of instances where God is depicted as “changing his mind.” First, with being sorry, actually repenting making humankind, and rectifying this by the genocide of the race. Then there is Moses pleading with God in the wilderness not to destroy Israel. God relents when Moses argues that the Egyptians will laugh at him. These and many other examples suggest that not all things are set in place “before the foundation of the world.” That the future is unknown and not predicable, as apocalyptic would have it.

It ends the dualism that turns the world into a battleground instead of a paradise.

Religious dualism is the idea that there are two supernatural forces diametrically opposed to one another vying for dominance. For nearly 4.5 billion years of the formation of planet Earth, down to our own day, dualism was irrelevant. Actually, the idea that there is God and an anti-god (Satan), is very new to humanity. In fact, the Hebrew Bible’s recording of the history of Israel from creation to the return from Babylonian exile got along without it. Satan, as known in the New Testament is absent. Dualism emerges in the Intertestamental period and flourishes in the New Testament. Many scholars believe that Jewish theologians were introduced to dualism during the Babylonian captivity with their exposure to dualistic Zoroastrianism. Dualism tends to divide people, institutions, and things into good or evil. Monism (the metaphysical and theological view that all is one, that there are no fundamental divisions) promotes world unity and peace and is the basis of Shalom.

Conclusion

We in the 21st century have been given a marvelous inheritance in the Bible. If we can learn to view it as a human enterprise encapsulating the wisdom of a people who earnestly sought to find answers to the human predicament, we, too, will find our way out of darkness and into the light. But only if we are not imprisoned by an outmoded and now harmful worldview that would keep us from finding our own way.


Steve’s books can be viewed and ordered here: https://energiondirect.com/authors/authors-d-k/steve-kindle

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13 Comments on "How Does Science Inform Biblical Interpretation?"

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Bob MacDonald
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Good – but distant. We are so involved in our ‘beliefs’ that we cannot allow ourselves to be separated from these violent abstractions. Our behaviour demands something more of science than it gives us, for it too is distant, as Biblical Studies is distant from faith. I said in another comment on another blog – Jewish-Christian intersections, that I think we need to explore the need for redemption – from guns, the violence of self-protection, from religious violence, the violence of purity, and from all areas of exploitation, the violence of finance. These are a real controversy. Utterly close and… Read more »
Steve Kindle
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Very true, Bob. The root problem, it seems to me, is in my last point, a dualistic “us versus them” construct on the world. We need to be redeemed from that, as it is the progenitor of all the ills you note. Unfortunately, the Bible reinforces dualism at too many points.

Rev. Dr.Bob LaRochelle
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Rev. Dr.Bob LaRochelle

Steve-This is an outstanding essay. You raise significant questions…Thank you, Bob

Elgin Hushbeck
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Steve, While I agree with some of your points, the problem I have with many is that, while they claim to be based on science, they really are based more in certain philosophical assumptions rather than any actual finding of science. Nor are these assumption required for science to work. For example you claim, “It removes biblical supernaturalism as an explanation of events” and cite the sun standing still in the sky. Yet science can say nothing about what they saw, other than that there is currently no known scientific explanation for it. They certainly cannot say this is not… Read more »
Steve Kindle
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You argue from the position of what we may not know. I begin with what we know for sure. What we can say FOR SURE is that the ancient Near Eastern understanding of a three-tiered universe, which is reflected in biblical cosmology, has been overturned by modern science. Therefore, we need to reexamine all those biblical instances that are based on it.

I think you are trying to live in both worlds and I have chosen not to. That’s why you can entertain the possibility of a “young earth. And why I cannot.

Elgin Hushbeck
Guest
Steve, You claim I argue from what we may not know. Not quite, I am only pointing out that many of your conclusions which you claim are derived from science, are in fact derived from philosophical considerations, not the findings of science itself. As I said I agree with some of your points, and it was perhaps my fault for not being more specific. In particular I was thinking about the series of bullet points, found in the middle of your argument. These are not scientific statements, they are statement of belief. For example, you claim that “God can no… Read more »
Bob MacDonald
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20 minutes – nice – the length of our attention span! Thanks for a little background on yourself.

Steve Kindle
Guest

Bob, you are certainly correct. What really matters is how you conduct your life, and Jesus provides for you and me the best example.

There are those of us, including yourself, who are charged with teaching others. Although the bottom line that answers the question, “What does the Bible mean?” is “look to Jesus”, there are a host of issues that precede this understanding that require us to examine carefully the texts. This, properly done, issues in clarity and resources for following Jesus. So I see faith as a combination of understanding and doing.

Elgin
Guest
Steve, I realize these are not statement of science and that was somewhat my point. Accepting or rejecting them does not make a person more or less scientific. What I reject is that a 21st century view of the Cosmos somehow mandates an anti-supernatural worldview precluding any intervention by God. One does not follow from the other. While I do not think it valid even in a universe government by Newtonian physics, such a strictly mechanical worldview at least gave a pretext for rejecting any supernatural intervention. However given the realm of quantum physics where probability is dominate and the… Read more »
Steve Kindle
Guest

Elgin, the only point I wish to make is that the ancient cosmology that undergirds the Bible’s view of God and the world calls for reinterpreting those texts that depend on it. How one goes about doing that can vary, but it must be done. This post doesn’t posit that science can answer biblical questions. It only says that science makes reinterpretation necessary.

Elgin
Guest
Steve, I would say any reinterpretation would be minimal at best. So, for your example of 2 Cor 12:2-4 speaking of a third heaven, I see this as meaning in context that he was “snatched away” into the presence of God. The sense of confusion in this is clear in that he does not know if he was “in his body or outside of his body.” That Paul said this in a fashion that would have been understood by his readers troubles me not. For me a central question when trying to understand a passage in the Bible is to… Read more »
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