Let me ask two questions. They are not my questions, they are adapted from the great little book by Kevin Mathison, A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture,
Do we believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?
Do we believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible?
The answer to both of these questions should be a resounding, “Yes!”
These questions and the affirmative answer that they both demand is what Deborah Haarsma has described as the Two Books Dilemma. It is illustrated below.
At the top is God, the source of all revelation. All truth that exists anywhere in our world has its source in, and comes from, him.
On the left we acknowledge that God has revealed himself in Scripture, this we call special revelation (actually Scripture is the record of God’s special revelation, but we won’t get into that at the moment).
On the right we acknowledge that God has also revealed himself in nature, this we call general revelation.
At the level of Scripture and nature God’s truth is faithfully revealed. There is no conflict between them at this level.
Yet at the lowest level, after human interpretation, we know that there is a great deal of error and thus conflict. Typically when the there is a discrepancy between faith and science most Christians deem science, not faith, to be in error.
The reasons why this is, I think is that most conservative Christians make the following fundamental assumption about the relationship of Scripture to science – the true interpretation of Scripture corrects a misinterpretation of general revelation (nature).
Yet they don’t believe in its corollary (as seen in the above diagram) – the true interpretation of general revelation (nature) corrects a misinterpretation of Scripture.
This is where the problems arise. Let me explain. Since all truth is God’s truth, when Scripture and nature are understood correctly they WILL NOT disagree. The reason why they do sometimes come into conflict is on account of the fallible human beings who are interpreting both books. Both the scientist AND the theologian may wrongly understand the book they are reading. We must affirm that error is possible on both sides – theology and science. As R.C. Sproul has observed, when there is a contradiction between a human interpretation of nature (science) and a human interpretation of Scripture (theology) “someone is wrong”. BUT, he goes on to say, “I don’t leap to the conclusion that it has to be the scientist. It may be the theologian. But neither do I leap to the conclusion that it has to be the theologian. It could well be the scientist. We have fallible human beings interpreting infallible natural revelation, and fallible human beings interpreting infallible special revelation.”
I agree fully with Sproul and with the eminent theologian Charles Hodge,
It is admitted that theologians are not infallible, in the interpretation of Scripture. It may, therefore, happen in the future, as it has in the past, that interpretations of the Bible, long confidently received, must be modified or abandoned, to bring revelation into harmony with what God teaches in his works. This change of view as to the true meaning of the Bible may be a painful trial to the Church, but it does not in the least impair the authority of the Scriptures. They remain infallible; we are merely convicted of having mistaken their meaning. (Systematic Theology, 1:59)
In short, while scientific theories can help the church correct wrong interpretations of Scripture, they cannot negate what the Scriptures actually teach. Scripture teaches clearly, for example, that Jesus rose from the dead. Any scientific theory that denies the possibility of resurrection from the dead, therefore, is necessarily wrong. Scripture teaches that God is the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is within them. Any scientific theory that claims natural phenomena arose from purely materialistic causes is necessarily wrong. (Mathison)
What does this mean? (cf. Mathison)
Fundamentally, it means that when there is conflict, for example regarding the age of the earth, scientists should not assume that it is the theologian who is in error, nor should the theologian assume that it is the scientist who is in error. Both scientists and theologians are fallible persons interpreting infallible revelation and thus interpretive errors will be made on both sides.
Christians, at least the ones I interact with, have a negative view of science. They view it as an enemy of their faith. This must change. To be fair, some scientists are clearly enemies of the Christian faith. Guys like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins fall into this category. But we must acknowledge that it is their faith commitment that leads them to atheism, NOT their science. The philosophical commitments that underly their science, naturalism and scientism, lead to their rejection of faith and not their science. As Christians, we need to be careful to recognize this important distinction and not throw out the truth revealed by science with the scientists themselves. The argument – “you don’t believe in God so your science is all wrong” – Is narrow-minded and does not take general revelation seriously as God’s infallible revelation. Unbelieving scientists discover God’s truth ALL the time. We must respect these discoveries as discoveries of God’s truth, even if discovered by an unbelieving, atheist scientists. Presuppostions will skew the interpretation of the science, but it will not alter the science itself. (Note: this is true of Chritian scientists as well) Brent Dalrymple a non-Christian geologist working for the United States Geology Society sums it up,
A favourite claim of creation “scientists” is that geologists have somehow devised the geologic time-scale and an ancient age for the Earth in order to provide adequate time for the biologists’ theory of evolution. The idea that the theory of evolution and the age of the Earth are the result of a conspiracy is absurd. I have no reason whatever to want the age of the Earth to be any more or less than it happens to be. I would take great delight in proving that the Earth is only 10,000 years old if it were possible to do so. . . If there is a conspiracy of “evolutionists,” neither I nor my colleagues were invited to join.
We can relax and not be afraid that a scientific theory is going to disprove Christianity. I think this is a great fear of many Christians, but it is truly unnecessary. God is the source of all truth, and ultimately there will be no real conflict between what God reveals in Scripture and what is true about His created works. We must remember that perceived conflict is not actual conflict – we can have confidence in both of God’s revelations, in scripture and nature.
We must recognize that our goal in science is to discover the truth in order that we might not bear false testimony regarding God or his created works. In order to do so, we must recognize that the perceived conflict may be due to a misinterpretation of creation, a misinterpretation of Scripture, or a misinterpretation of both. This means we need to do thorough examinations of both the scientific theory and the biblical exegesis to discover the source of the conflict. We must make sure we are dealing with the actual teaching of Scripture as opposed to a mistaken interpretation of Scripture. And we must examine the evidence for the scientific theory in question to discover whether we are dealing with something that is true about God’s creation or something that is merely speculation.
We must be willing to work. No matter which of God’s books we are called to interpreters of, laziness is not an option.
Let me end with a couple of questions:
How old is the earth? – I don’t know. The Bible dosens’t tell us. Science, the area of study that studies these things, suggests that it is very old. But their views fluctuate as new discoveries arise. So nobody really knows how old the earth really is. I am, however, fine with allowing scientists to speak freely on this question.
Does the above question matter to the Christian faith? – No. There are certain aspects of the biblical witness that come into conflict with science but these occur on the area of biology and not cosmology or universe origins, such as the evolution of the human couple from a common ancestor. The age of the earth is not an area of scientific discussion that, I believe, raises serious biblical difficulties.