The Bible and Science

The Bible is the greatest love story ever written. It is the metanarrative (drama) of redemption which culminates in the life and ministry of Jesus. Kyle Greenwood writes, “The Bible’s primary function is to demonstrate how God has worked in history for the redemption of humanity, ultimately pointing to the one who brings about that redemption.”[1] Thus, the Bible is not a science textbook. If this is the case, then why does science get such a prestigious seat at the metaphysical epistemological discussion table? If the Bible’s main focus is on the redemption of the human soul and on a metaphysical resurrection, and physical science cannot speak to such metaphysical concepts, then why do some elevate science in such a way that it needs to align with scripture? Narrative theologians would not make such an assertion in the other direction. They would not presume that the drama of redemption and science need to align at every point. Scientific propositions do not objectively prove the truth of the narrative and the narrative does not purpose to objectively prove scientific truth claims. For Christians, God’s illocution and perlocution as portrayed in the locution is sufficient. Thus, science should be put in its proper place and theology should dethrone herself as the “queen of the sciences.”

Greenwood quotes from Augustine,

Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these [scientific] topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn….If they [critics] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?[2]

Augustine argues for the use of science as an appropriate apologetic, which it certainly should be used when necessary. Greenwood writes, “Let us appeal to Augustine, who models for us an appropriate tension between the authority of Scripture and authenticity of scientific investigation.”[3] However, some questions need to be asked of Augustine’s comment concerning critics; Will the alignment with science really prove or disprove the metaphysical (i.e. resurrection, eternal life, heaven)? If a redemption narrative conflicts with physical science does that really mean that the narrative’s metaphysical claims are false? Do the scientific defeaters of the critics really defeat the metaphysical defeaters of the redemption dramatists?

In view of Augustine’s statement, one can see scholasticism and the enlightenment and its application to biblical studies on the horizon. This is the endeavor to scientifically prove biblical objective truth claims. This is the modernism approach which postulates that scientific methods and principles form objective meaning and truth. In other words, science, and its application to the Bible, is viewed as the universal authority in epistemology and truth.[4] This type of scientific method continues in many Christian circles today and contributes to the high positioning of science within theological discourse. However, postmodernism challenges such methods and rejects the stories that science uses to legitimize universal knowledge, truth and authority and rather prefers narratives of knowledge that are situated with individuals and communities. From the postmodern view, modernity has failed in its rational and enlightenment pursuits and has become implausible in its ability to contribute to philosophical and theological discourse.[5] Postmodernism has shown us the shortcomings of modernism’s emphasis on science, and thus we should acknowledge these limitations and resist from elevating science to an equal level of that of the scriptures.

For those who strive to align the scriptures with science, Greenwood explains that one way is by the divine accommodation theory. This theory proposes that God accommodated to his people by communicating with them in terms and by means based on their knowledge, understanding and experience within the ANE context. Greenwood compares this to parents speaking to their children in a way that is appropriate to the setting and in a way that they can understand.[6] While this is an interesting and perhaps a promising theory for some in the Bible and science discussion, I can not advocate for this position. Divine accommodation is an accommodation to science because it continues to approach the discussion with a modern mindset which demands that there be harmony between scripture and science in order to present objective universal knowledge and truth. Furthermore, divine accommodation begs the question, Do we need a divine accommodation theory with the end as some suggest we need with the beginning? The science of thermodynamics suggests that the heat death of the universe is very plausible, but the scriptures speak of an in-breaking of a future eternal kingdom. It is inconsistent for a Christian to attempt to harmonize scripture and science regarding scripture’s narration of a cosmological event and not scripture’s narration of eschatological event. Scripture and science do not need to align in eschatology nor do they need to align in cosmology; thus, the divine accommodation theory can be placed aside.

In conclusion, Christians should adopt some the the concepts of postmodernism and its emphasis on narratives by emphasizing the divine script’s presentation of the Theo-drama, God’s metanarrative of redemption. Greenwood writes, “Scripture is authoritative not because it answers all of life’s questions or resolves all the mysteries of science. Rather Scripture is authoritative because it testifies on behalf of Jesus (Jn 5:39-40), the one to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given” (Mt 28:18).”[7] The scriptures are one continuous redemptive story that leads to the life and ministry of Jesus. This is the Theo-drama that has been performed (lived out, testified to) by Christians throughout history, and we continue to perform this drama of redemption before the onlooking scientific audience.

[1] Kyle Greenwood, Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible Between the Ancient World and Modern Science (IVP Academic, 2015), EPUB edition ch. 7: Conclusion.[2] Greenwood, Scripture, EPUB edition ch. 8: The Authority of Scripture and Science quoting St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ed. J. Quasten, W. J. Burghardt and T.C. Lawler, ACW 41 (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 1:42-43. [3] Greenwood, Scripture, EPUB edition ch. 8: The Authority of Scripture and Science. [4] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity: a report on the knowledge of God” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology,ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Cambridge Companions to Religion (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 8-10. [5] Vanhoozer, “Theology,” 9-10. [6]Greenwood, Scripture, EPUB edition ch. 7: Divine Accommodation.[7] Greenwood, Scripture, EPUB edition ch. 7: Conclusion.

ANE and Modern Cosmic Geography

In his book, entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, John Walton explains that cosmic geography involves how people view the world they live in with a special interest on its form and functioning. People living in the present day have a cosmic geography that has been developed throughout the centuries by various scientific processes and discoveries. According to the present cosmic geography, humans live within a planetary solar system which is part of one of many galaxies that make up the universe. This planetary solar system revolves around the sun, and a moon revolves around planet earth. In view of this basic present cosmic geography, Walton points out that humans are relatively minuscule compared to the immensity of the universe.[1] Furthermore, this cosmic geography centers on the physical and the material while highlighting the uniformity based on the operating “physical properties and laws of motion.”[2]

Walton explains that the ancient world had a cosmic geography, and if one aims to understand the civilizations of the Canaanites, Babylonians, Egyptians or Israelites, then he or she should understand ANE cosmic geography. According to Walton, most of the ANE had a three-tiered view of the cosmos with the earth in the middle, the heavens above and the netherworlds below. They believed that the sun and the moon moved on similar spherical plans taking turns across the earthly sky and then into the netherworld. The earth was viewed as floating, with the support of pillars, on the cosmic waters. These cosmic waters were thought to be held back by the sky, and so precipitation was viewed as leaks from the sky.[3]

While ANE cosmic geography had a physical and material understanding of the cosmos, it was primary a metaphysical construct. In other words, what mattered to the ANE people is the role and function of the ANE gods. The physical world did not define existence or importance, but rather it was a tool used by the gods in order to achieve their purposes.[4] Walton explains the ANE context by writing, “To describe creation is to describe the establishment of the functioning cosmos, not the origins of the material structure of substance of the cosmos. Material substance had relatively little importance or relevance to their understanding of the world.”[5]

Therefore, in view of the differences of the present cosmic geography and the ANE cosmic geography, the “science” (e.g. cosmology, cosmic geography, astronomy) depicted in the Hebrew scriptures reflects the ANE understanding with some variations in order to account for Yahweh’s purposes and relationship with his storied people. Interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures should refrain from reading into the text modern science’s emphasis on physical laws, properties and structures. This would not have been the intended meaning of the writers. Readers should expect the Hebrew scriptures to reflect the purposes of Yahweh within the ANE contextual setting. Yahweh has specific relational purposes that guide his speech acts, so what one finds in Genesis for example is part of the scripted Theo-drama where Yahweh (the divine playwright) speaks and acts his part concerning beginnings, origins, covenant relationships and redemption.

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 165 [2] Walton, Ancient, 165. [3] Walton, Ancient, 166-167. [4] Walton, Ancient, 167. [5] Walton, Ancient, 181.

Yahweh and the Ancient Near Eastern gods

In his book, entitled Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts, John Walton gives several similarities and differences between Yahweh and other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) gods.  As for the similarities, Walton explains that wisdom was one of the most common attributes of the ANE gods. This was primarily related to their decision-making as opposed to their morality or ethics. The ANE gods were more looked to for wisdom divination and for a source of information. Likewise, wisdom is an attribute of Yahweh, and his wisdom is also related to his ability to make decisions and judge, but unlike the ANE gods, Yahweh is considered wise morally and ethically.[1]

Closely related to wisdom is the attribute of justice. The ANE gods were considered responsible for maintaining and carrying out justice within the world. The ANE people believed that for the most part the ANE gods acted justly and that they were consistent in their justice administration.[2] In the Gilgamesh Epic the god Shamash is described as showing “no favoritism” and as “a circumspect judge.”[3] However, there are times where the ANE gods appear to falter in their judgements, and so while they may strive to administer perfect justice, they are at times imperfect. Yahweh is also a just judge and responsible for administering justice. Yahweh’s justice was questioned by Job (40:8), but at the end of the story Yahweh is exonerated as administering perfect justice.[4]

A final similar attribute for this discussion is holiness, but for the ANE gods this had more to do with being “cultically pure” or as a “cultic status,” rather than moral status or character.[5] Yahweh is perfectly pure and holy in every aspect of his being, and he commands his people to “be holy because I am holy” (Lev 11:45).

One of the differences between the ANE gods and Yahweh is the concept of ontology. The ANE gods are believed to have come into existence by some means. Walton explains that typically in the ANE it was believed that the first god came into existence from the primeval waters and then separated into other gods.[6] Moreover, he states, “in the Egyptian literature it is most common to think of the earliest gods coming into being through bodily fluids (the creator god spitting, sneezing, sweating…), while the later deities are simply born to a previous generation of deity.”[7] Yahweh exists as a necessary being without a cause. He never came into existence; he has existed for all eternity past, and he is the creator of all things. He is the one, true, eternal, creator God, and he does not separate into many gods. This a clear monotheistic versus polytheistic distinction between Yahweh and the ANE gods.

Another difference is that Yahweh entered into a formal covenant relationship with his people, and he was always faithful in his covenant relationship. Walton writes, “Faithfulness is one of the most frequently affirmed attributes of Yahweh because of his covenant relationship with Israel. In contrast, it is difficult to find any such affirmation for the gods of the ancient Near East. Words that convey loyalty are never used of the gods in that way.”[8]

That Yahweh is relational is not only a compelling difference in ANE times, but it is also a major difference in the religious pluralistic context of the present day. God is love and is by nature relational, and so he desires to enter into loving relationship with humans. He loves us and wants a relationship with us. No other religion or god has the same posture. Thus, studying ANE history should encourage our faith as Christians because in the midst of religious pluralism in the ANE context, Yahweh’s love is the distinguishing attribute, just as it is in the present religious pluralistic context.

In view of these similarities and differences, I think the similarities are due to a shared ANE cultural background, and the difference are due to Yahweh’s redemptive love for humanity and his desire to be in relationship. However, this raises significant questions: how much did the interaction between the Yahweh community and the other ANE communities contribute to each community’s understanding and experience of their particular gods? And more specifically, to what extent did this carry over into their written documents?

[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 108-109. [2] Walton, Ancient, 107. [3] Gilgamesh Epic, xi:181-95 cited in Walton, Ancient, 107. [4] Walton, Ancient, 108. [5] Walton, Ancient, 111. [6] Walton, Ancient, 88. [7] Walton, Ancient, 88. [8] Walton, Ancient, 88.