At the very outset, let me say that my experience in science has affected my interpretation of the Bible. For some people, this is a cardinal sin. This is one of the most important issues before us. Is it ever permissible to allow our experience to affect our interpretation of the Bible? Or should I strive to study the Bible in an interpretive “vacuum,” with no reference to any of my life experience? Is that possible?
To put it another way, it is very improbable that I ever would have come up with the view that the earth is millions of years old if I had never studied science. If I had never studied science, I also probably would not have come up with the idea that everything is composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons, or that life is based on DNA, or many other things that I believe. At first blush, one might say, “So what?” There are many things about the natural order that God has seen fit to let us discover by experience, which he does not discuss in the Bible. Most people have no trouble affirming that the theories of electrons, protons, and DNA, while not in the Bible, are compatible with the Bible.
The difference between an old-earth view and the theory of electrons is that the Bible talks directly about the origin of the world in several places, while it does not talk much about the composition of things. In saying that the earth is millions of years old, and at the same time saying that I affirm the Bible is true and has no errors, I must argue that those places where the Bible speaks on origins are compatible with belief in an old earth. With electrons and protons, I do not have to compare my theories to any particular Bible passages.
I believe that an old-earth view is compatible with the Bible. Nevertheless, I admit that my interpretation is a “possible” one, not an “obvious” one. The question that lies before us is therefore, “Is it ever legitimate to prefer a ‘possible’ interpretation over a simpler, ‘obvious’ interpretation, based on our experience?” I will argue that it is often legitimate.
Before making this argument, I want to make clear that there are also illegitimate ways of letting experience affect our interpretation of the Bible. First, some people might argue that when I say that “science” has affected my interpretation, what I really mean is that “peer pressure” has affected my interpretation. In other words, they might say that I have changed my interpretation of the Bible because it is unpopular among my colleagues. If they were right, my approach would be illegitimate, but I hope that they are wrong, and that I have not caved in to peer pressure. I will not argue that there have been no Christians who have capitulated to prevailing views for social reasons, nor will I argue that there is no anti-Christian social pressure among scientists. Many Christians in the sciences have capitulated, in my opinion, and many of us are familiar with the intolerant spirit of political correctness on our campuses, as expressed in such things as speech codes.
Some of us are familiar with pressure from the right, as well—from “fundamentalists” who use peer pressure to insist that anyone who rejects their view is “liberal.” All of us, including scientists, need to carefully distinguish between what are really facts, and what is merely the opinion of a lot of people. It is illegitimate to change our view of the Bible because we want a more popular interpretation.
At the same time, we should recognize that no view that says that the Bible is true will be popular in the modern scientific world. In recent years, many scientists have joined together to form the “intelligent design” movement, which questions the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution while remaining open about the age of the earth. This movement has met with scorn in the secular academic world, as “creationism in a cheap tuxedo.”1 I hope that people will recognize the courageous stand that these scientists are taking.
Second, I want to make clear that science is not some kind of higher authority that trumps the Bible. Because something has been observed through a microscope or a telescope does not make it more important than Scripture. Science is just a way of expanding and organizing our experience; therefore, science has the same authority as any human experience. It is illegitimate to place anything generated by human beings in a position of unquestioned authority over the Bible.
The issue before us, then, is whether experience, including the expanded experience of science, may ever legitimately affect our interpretation of the Bible. I argue that honesty demands it in many cases.
For an example, let’s first consider the old debate that involved Galileo, of whether the earth moves. Many young-earth advocates resent being compared to Ptolemaics, because these days no one seriously argues that the earth does not move. In the sixteenth century, however, many intelligent people did argue that the earth does not move. Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon all rejected the idea of a moving earth—Luther is quoted as saying of Copernicus, “This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy, but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth”; even John Wesley many years later said that the Copernican system “tends to infidelity.”2
These people were not stupid. On one hand, there was little scientific evidence for a moving, round earth, and that scientific evidence was available only to a few experts; on the other hand, there were apparently sound biblical arguments that the earth does not move. Psalms 93:1, 96:10, and 104:5 say in very definite terms “The earth is firmly established; it can not be moved.” What has changed since then—why doesn’t anyone debate whether the earth moves any more? Primarily, our experience has changed. Many of us have the experience of changing time zones and seeing the sun rise at an earlier time, perhaps even flying around the world, looking at planets through a telescope, seeing pictures of the earth from outer space, etc. Perhaps the most famous historical demonstration of the earth’s motion is Foucault’s pendulum, which showed that an object in linear motion, with no sideways forces, rotates relative to us as the earth moves.
It seems obvious to us now that passages like Psalm 93:1 are poetic, referring to God’s protection and maintenance of the earth, and not meant to imply that the earth does not rotate. Even the passage quoted by Luther, Joshua 10:12–13, in which the sun stands still, does not change the opinion of most Christians that the normal behavior of the earth is to move. Various explanations of this miracle have been proposed, such as a complete, miraculous suspension of the laws of momentum to stop the earth in its orbit, or more mundanely, a miraculous optical effect that kept the image of the sun in the same position in the sky even as the earth continued to rotate to accomplish the purpose stated in the text, namely to give Joshua more light. But in the sixteenth century these would not have been obvious interpretations at all! A critic might have said, “If you allow Psalm 93:1 to be taken as ‘poetic,’ why not other passages in the Psalms, for example Psalm 2:7–8, which teaches that God has a Son, or Psalm 32:1, which teaches that we can have our sins forgiven? Aren’t we on a slippery slope to allowing us to reinterpret anything in the Psalms we don’t like?”
The answer to this criticism is that many scholars have defined clear guidelines for interpretation of the Psalms to help us discern the meaning of the symbolism. Perhaps sometimes we err and “explain away” a passage in the Psalms that we should take more literally, but this does not mean that reading some things in the Psalms as symbolic or poetic makes interpretation of the Psalms entirely subjective. A sixteenth-century critic might answer, however, that our interpretation of the Psalms is suspect because no one ever would have deduced a moving, round earth from reading the Psalms. We have allowed our experience (in the sixteenth century, this would have been the experience of just a few elite scientists with telescopes) to affect our interpretation of the Bible.
Note that the Roman Catholic Church at the time of Galileo was perfectly willing to admit that the earth “appeared” to move.3 It simply insisted, on the basis of the most natural interpretation of Psalm 93:1, etc., that the earth does not, in fact, move. Galileo could have published anything that said that the earth “appeared” to move, or that the simplest mathematical theory invoked the “useful fiction” of a moving earth. It was when Galileo moved from scientist to philosopher that he got into trouble, by insisting that the earth “really” moves.
Even today, one could change one’s physics to put the earth in a fixed, non-moving reference frame. In that case, however, one would need to invoke numerous new forces to explain the Coriolis and centrifugal forces that occur in such a system and which give rise to things such as hurricanes. The observation that planets seem to move backward in the sky at times, known as retrograde, would also need an explanation. At some point, the sheer complexity of such a system leads one to say that if the earth does not “really” move, then God is a great deceiver to have made an entire universe that is perfectly harmonized to make the earth look like it moves, when it does not. One is faced with either utter complexity in analyzing experience, or a relatively simple change to a “possible” interpretation of the Bible.