Friday, 21 September 2012

Is it Right for Science to Motivate Someone's Reading of the Bible?

I would have mentioned in the Relay update entries I did over a year ago that I spent some time on that programme reading around origins. That is, reading about the debate surrounding evolution, the age of the earth, and how to read Genesis (amongst other parts of the Bible). I'm sure I promised some sort of report of my findings. Yeah, well... anyway... here's some thoughts on just one related issue.

You can roughly divide Christians into two camps: those who think that there is a contradiction between what the Bible teaches and some important theory of modern science, and those who think the Bible is basically harmonious with mainstream modern science. I say roughly because there are all sorts of subdivisions to be found. There are Christians who think that the Bible can't accommodate evolution but can accommodate an old earth. There are Christians who agree that the Bible is compatible with both, but disagree on how exactly to interpret the text. But for the sake of avoiding endless qualifications, let's stick with the rough sorting-out and call one camp the Concord group and the other camp the Discord group. Obviously enough, the Discord group thinks Biblical teaching clashes with some orthodox scientific theory whereas the Concord group thinks they are really in agreement. 

I'm not, in this post, going to make a case for which group ultimately has it right. It's not my interest here to make a case for whether or not the Bible is compatible with evolutionary/old earth science (E/OES from here on). I am, however, going to criticise a particular argument/attitude put forward by some in the Discord camp. I could make criticisms of some Concord habits too but, as it happens, it's the Discord folk I want to interact with today.

Some Discord-ers are a bit suspicious of how Concord-ers approach the Bible. They observe that Concord-ers are interested in seeing the Bible as compatible with E/OES and it's thought that this “interest” makes for a spiritually or rationally dubious agenda. They think their pro-E/OES motivation, regardless of the conclusion reached, is dubious in principle. It's thought that it disrespects the Bible's integrity or authority, that it fails to treat it as Christian ought to. Describing Concord-ers, you might hear some Discord-ers say things like, “they do not start from the Bible alone, instead they take man's ideas and try to squeeze Scripture around it.” This critical attitude does, I think, have a proper target. But that target is often missed.

If you believe in something like inerrancy – that the Bible does not err but is wholly truthful in its teachings – then it's important to remember that, even if the Bible is always right, it doesn't mean that our understanding of it is. In other words, we can make a distinction between what the Bible in fact teaches, and our beliefs about what it teaches. Sometimes our beliefs about what the Bible teaches are right. Sometimes they're wrong. So while the Bible might be “infallible”, our interpretations of it have no such guarantee, even if on the whole they're broadly reasonable.

Bear that in mind and imagine a person – Rufus we'll call him – who's in the following scenario. Rufus is an honest-to-goodness, Bible-believing Christian. He's been doing some reading and thinking recently about science and how it relates to his faith and he's come to a tricky impasse. Rufus has always believed that the Bible teaches a young earth, mostly because that's what his church has taught him. But he's come to believe there's really compelling, perhaps unavoidable evidence that the earth is old. He really does trust that the Bible teaches truth though. In fact, after having what he thought were contradictions in the Bible satisfyingly ironed out a few months earlier, he's more convinced of inerrancy than ever.

He's in a bind. Unless he wants to embrace flat-out contradiction, his beliefs need some modifying. Recognising the distinction between his belief in the truth of the Bible's content and his belief about what that content is helps us to see that there are three beliefs he's juggling between and they can't all stay. He can't believe 1) that the earth is actually old, 2) that the Bible teaches it's young, and 3) that the Bible teaches truth. For if the earth is old and the Bible teaches truth, then the Bible can't teach that the earth is young. And if the Bible teaches a young earth and the Bible teaches truth, then the earth can't be old. And if the earth is old and the Bible teaches it's young, then the Bible can't always teach truth. You can accept two of the three beliefs together but not all of them. Each combo of two of ends up logically excluding the third. Rufus must give up one of those beliefs.

Naturally, it makes sense to keep the two beliefs one has strongest evidence, grounds, or assurance for. You keep the strongest two and, on their basis, conclude that the third, weaker belief is probably false. Say that in our scenario - and the details that were given make this sound likely - Rufus is very convinced of both the old age of the earth and the inerrancy of the Bible but less convinced that the Bible teaches a young earth (he trusts the teaching of his home-church overall but he's had differences with them before). If this is the case, then he is perfectly entitled to hold onto his belief that the Bible teaches truth and that the earth is old, and to conclude from both of these that the Bible does not teach a young earth. In fact, that would just be good practise for keeping his beliefs in some sensible condition.

In other words, it would be perfectly legitimate for Rufus to seek an alternate reading of the Bible's teaching – one that doesn't entail a young earth – out of the joint motivation of his belief in inerrancy and his belief in the old age of the earth. There is nothing arbitrary, unrighteous or otherwise improper about Rufus' practise here. He is perfectly entitled to try and find an interpretation of the Bible which accommodates the scientific theories he's convinced of.

Of course Rufus might have a friend – we'll call her Molly – who is a Discord-er observing his journey. And she might find the new readings of key passages, say Genesis chapter one, that Rufus brings to the table thoroughly unconvincing. Molly might think that Rufus is, frankly, butchering the text and clearly going against the grain of its intended meaning. She might find his interpretations strained and clumsy, and tell him so. Fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Rufus may have done the best he could have faced with three mutually incompatible beliefs but that doesn't guarantee that he chose to abandon the one that actually was false. Rufus might, through further study, find the evidence for a young-earth reading of the Bible stronger than he thought, warranting a re-examination of which beliefs he held on to. Though he was rationally motivated to read the Bible differently, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll find an E/OES interpretation that fits, and perhaps Concord-ers do run into trouble there.

The point being, it is okay to think, if you are that way convinced, that Concord readings of the Bible are awkward. That they do not do justice to the text. That they quite obviously fail to allow harmony between the Bible and E/OES. You can legitimately target that and point out where you find the interpretations weak. But do not think that in seeking a harmonious reading, the Concord-er is being irrational, or poorly motivated. As I have hopefully demonstrated, it is perfectly proper, in some circumstances – those that Rufus found himself in for instance - to allow your scientific beliefs to motivate a change in your reading of Scripture.


rolo said...

Cheerio Old mate,
Hmmm... I don't know about this one. It seems as if you almost, but don't quite hit the target of the discordist camp's criticism of the concordist camp.
The way I understand the discordist argument isn't so much that they have a problem with the act of harmonizing per se, but with the notion that concordists start from a particular conclusion about what scripture says. In other words, they don't start from the standard perspective of "neutrally" asking what scripture says, instead they start from the inherently "biased" one of how science and scripture can be harmonized.
A further element of this critique which needs to be noted is the idea that Scripture is ultimately authoritative in the eyes of many discordist. Consequently, they accuse concordists of taking ideas derived from human science and applying it to the "word of God". In other words, they accuse them of putting Scripture and the Bible on equal platforms when in fact Scripture should have the higher authority.
I am certainly not saying I agree with the discordist critique, but I think this is a more accurate description of the discordist critique at least how I understand it. That said I think your post highlights a crucial factor ignored those on both sides of the debate; the fact that even if the Bible is infallible or interpretations may not be.

Martin said...

Hey man,

Thanks for the comment. I'm a bit confused though! The argument you take the Discorders to be presenting is exactly the one I thought I answered!

rolo said...

Yo Martin,
Well in all fairness perhaps I'm nitpicking at this point, and not reading your post generously enough, but my problem isn't so much with the way you formulate the discordist position, but with your response to it. I don't really think your response addresses the discordist argument.
You response addresses the issue of whether or not we can change our interpretation of scripture so that it better harmonizes, whereas the discordist argument is aimed at the perceived notion that concordists elevate science above scripture and thus interpret scripture from the perspective of science, and not from a "neutral" perspective.
Your response addresses a relevant issue of whether or not we can harmonize, but the discordist argument is aimed at the hermeneutical starting point of concordist. In other words it is an issue of through what presuppositions or approach we use to interpret the Bible.
Again I might be misunderstanding your posts and in that case don't be afraid to give me a much needed intellectual rebuke.
Been reading your posts on inerrancy, and it made me absolutely raving mad!!! Why, why I wondered can't more Christians have the intellectual clarity you display when discussing inerrancy?

Martin said...

Hey man,

I actually really appreciate the honesty of your comments.

Upon reflection I do think that this article has only addressed half the issue. I argued that it can be perfectly rational to approach Scripture presupposing that some theory of science is correct. But what it didn't address is whether this is really ideal.

Plausibly, there are some circumstances in which you are rationally required to do less than ideal things (less than morally ideal, or spiritually ideal, or practically ideal etc). And to argue, even successfully, that one is rationally compelled to take that less than ideal stance does not to counter the claim that it is in fact still less than ideal.

So the discordist can still, even if persuaded of the argument I give the article, grant that the concordist is being rational but continue to think that the concordists is, regardless, engaging in a less than ideal way of handling scripture. One that is exegetically or spiritually impoverished even though, in the case of some concordists, rationally justified.

I did not address the question of whether this "neutrality" or "starting with scripture first" really is an ideal to hold or not. Now I don't think it is, but you're right that I didn't argue that here. To be honest I thought of including a discussion about those central points regarding neutrality but I got lazy and thought my basic point could be carried without it. But it can't, not fully anyway.

(I'm glad you're enjoying the inerrancy series. It's probably the most heavy-duty series I've done.)

rolo said...

Yo Martin,
I guess it's because I'm autistic, but I'm always worried about my comments coming off as too harsh or critical so I'm glad you found my comments useful.
What!? You got lazy!!!!!! That's blasphemy to the God of reason and rationality!!!