Science and Faith

Science as we know it began only 400 years ago, in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Before this, Plato and his pupil Aristotle were two of the first to develop the use of mathematics and deductive reasoning.  Aristotle went further, using observation and inductive reasoning to reach universal truths.  The development of science was interrupted by factors such as the division of the Roman Empire, the Mongol Conquest and the Black Death.  Modern Science in Europe restarted during the Protestant/Catholic reformation.

The scientific revolution is considered to have started in the mid-16th century.  It was a time when it became possible to question the orthodoxy that had survived.  Many previously universal beliefs were now discredited, such as the earth at the centre of the universe and Aristotle’s four elements – air, fire, water and earth.  Under Aristotle, it was observation and reasoning that led to knowledge.  Leading up to and during the scientific revolution, science began to incorporate empiricism – that the only, or primary, source of knowledge is through sensory experience.  This contrasts with rationalism, which holds that knowledge is reached through reasoning.

In relation to the truth of his own existence, God advocates both rationalism and empiricism.  He tells us that his reality is shown through creation.   “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”[1]  God also tells us that we can verify what his disciples – previously Jews, now Christians – say by the acts that accompany them.  A prophet is only a prophet if his prophecies come true.  “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs.”[2]  “Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.”[3]  “God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”[4]

As regards anything else, the Bible is not a scientific book.  It consists of records of history, records of prophecies made and fulfilled, songs and wise sayings, and letters of theology written to the young church.  Some statements have been interpreted as science: “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?”[5] is taken to be referring to hydrothermal vents and ocean troughs.  “When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters,”[6] (literally, made weight for the wind)is considered to refer to the fact that air does have mass, a concept that is held to have not been around until recently.   Yet, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?”[7] is not similarly construed as referring to the literal base of a (presumably flat) earth.  Nor is “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,”[8] taken to be literal.

It is important that we do not read into the Bible anything that is not intended to be there.  Nowhere does the Bible make a deliberately scientific statement.  There are books of poetry and prophecy which contain metaphorical and allegorical statements, some of which turn out to have correlation with natural processes.  There are statements of history which refer to perceived processes.  The world began; the Red Sea parted; the Jordan dried up; Jericho’s walls fell down; the sun rises and sets; a new star shone over Bethlehem.  The Bible records these as facts.  What it doesn’t do is go into detail about how they happened.

We can use science, historical artefacts and our knowledge of the world to work out how these happened.  Perhaps God created through evolution – maybe he even enjoyed watching all these diverse species live and change.  After all it’s his creation and he is entitled to get enjoyment out of his creative process.  The Red Sea may have been literally blown back by winds and the Jordan stopped by a landslide upstream.  Jericho’s walls may have been structurally weakened by the rhythmic marching of thousands of people.  The sun doesn’t move but the earth does rotate, creating the appearance of the sun moving.  Various explanations have been put forward to explain the Bethlehem star.

There are times when the Bible and science are in conflict.  The Bible says that the universe has a beginning, but it was only in the 1960s that the notion of a non-eternal universe became acceptable in modern science.  Up until then, science was in conflict with the Bible as regards this issue.  The idea of special creation vs evolution is another area in which some consider the Bible to be in conflict with science.

I would argue that the most important thing here is to not make either the Bible or science say something that in fact they don’t say.  There are areas of disagreement between ‘science’ and ‘the Bible,’ but these may be because of misinterpretation of the Bible or of science, or because of a lack of knowledge.  We don’t know everything, and should be able to recognise that this limits our ability to judge accurately in all matters.  It is acceptable, even logical and rational, to be agnostic over some things.

 


[1] Romans 1 v 20

[2] Acts 2 v 22

[3] Acts 2 v 22

[4] Acts 14 v 3

[5] Job 38 v 16

[6] Job 28 v 25

[7] Job 38 v 4

[8] Psalm 19 v 4

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