Saturday, May 15, 2010

Nature vs. Scripture

This post originally published in Jan 2009. I have updated it with more information and links several times since then:

Several years ago, I was having quite a difficult time reconciling my faith with the findings of modern science. The Bible seemed to say one thing, while scientists said the complete opposite (or at least something that wasn't reconcilable). Unfortunately, I was not aware that the problem was that I was trying to reconcile interpretations rather than the raw facts.

People in the Christian community led me to believe that the doctrine of Biblical Inerrency applied to the interpretations, rather than the raw statements of Scripture. Scientists persuaded me believe that their interpretations of the data could not be questioned, rather than the raw data.

Believing these inaccuracies led me to further to believe that my faith was based on emotion, and science was based on reality- the two could not be reconciled. I was in this state of confusion and conflict for quite a few years. Would I give up my Christian faith or believe that everything I observed was really an illusion? If I kept my faith, could I live with the ideas that everything I observed was illusory, and that the God I believed in was either not omniscient or was intentionally deceptive? If I rejected my faith, what purpose do I have, and how could I even ground the idea that what I observed was actually real? I was caught between a life with no purpose and no ground for knowing anything, and another life with purpose given by an untrustworthy God and still no ground for knowing anything. Both were a leap of blind faith and neither sounded very appealing.

About six years ago, I was shown the distinction between interpretation and raw data. Suddenly, I realized that my Christian faith could be consistent with reality. Many in both the Christian and scientific communities misunderstand the fact that all facets of reality are consistent with one another (this includes Scripture and nature). If their interpretations of the raw data from either conflict with the interpretations of other raw data, then something must be reinterpreted. If a religion is to claim to be true (a part of reality), then the interpretations of its revelatory source(s) must, not only be consistent internally, but must also be consistent with the rest of reality.  Allow me to take some time to explain the processes and how this is possible:

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." Psalms 19:1

"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 men are without excuse." Romans 1:20

These verses are quite a relief. Since God is consistent and does not lie his words (the Bible) will never contradict his creation (nature). What may contradict is man's interpretations of the Bible and man's interpretations of nature. Because of man's fallen nature we are sloppy in how we interpret data. We tend to get emotionally attached to a single interpretation when multiple ones are valid. We avoid evidence contrary to our interpretation to preserve the interpretation. We are so short-sighted that we value our "reputation" in the short-term, rather than secure it in the long-term by further investigation. We have so little confidence that we must defend our pride (at that time) to the point of sacrificing truth.

To prevent such behavior and preserve the pursuit of truth, both science and theology incorporate a couple similar assumptions:

The scientific enterprise operates on two assumptions (really more, but I won't go into those now): that the observations of nature can be trusted to accurately reflect nature; and nature is consistent. These two allow scientists to perform experiments and tests on nature to discover it. Based on the second assumption, if two experiments are at odds with each other, they are repeated, reinterpreted, and new theories are formed until the interpretations of the data are consistent- this goes for interdisciplinary study also.

This is the process:

The Christian Church has traditionally held that the Bible is inspired by God and has no errors (the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy), thus it accurately reflects reality and is consistent. Biblical scholars use this belief to help them interpret difficult passages. If the interpretation of two (or more) passages contradict, then they must go back to the text (sometimes even the original language) to reinterpret until the interpretations are in harmony. Context is also important: Greg Koukl (Stand to Reason)'s article Never Read A Bible Verse also comes in handy here.

This is the process:

Christians believe that both scripture and nature come from God, and God tells us that we can trust the raw data of both (even post-Fall).

Here's the flow:

When all this is put together:

Scripture interprets Scripture
Nature interprets Nature
Scripture interprets Nature
Nature interprets Scripture

When the interpretation of one is unclear, we can refer to others for clarification. Also, if two interpretations contradict, man must go back to the raw data and re-interpret, but make sure that that re-interpretation does not contradict other interpretations. There may even be multiple interpretations of certain raw data that are viable. We can eliminate the incorrect ones by looking at the viable interpretations for the other raw data.  Sometimes, many interpretations must be re-evaluated at the same time. The ultimate goal is complete consistency in our interpretations of Scripture and nature. See my posts Is Consistency Important and Consistency Among Disciplines. (This is not to say that Scripture will tell us everything there is to know about nature or nature about Scripture. When Scripture states something about nature, that statement can be interpreted then tested against interpretations of raw data from nature regarding the claim.)

This is the process when the three charts are combine:

This process is extremely valuable for both the Christian and the scientist (even more so, if you're a scientist who is a Christian). This process helps us establish what is true about reality, by providing a reasonable way to resolve conflicts in interpretation. When we understand what is true about reality, it sets a firm foundation for what we believe. Over the past six years, I have used this process of data gathering, interpretation, and reinterpretation to build a more consistent worldview.

I spend much time investigating nature, and studying God's Word. As an implication, I learn more about God and continue to build a loving and trusting relationship with Him. The stronger my beliefs and my trust are established, the more passionate I become in my behavior. The more I have tested for consistency in my worldview, the easier it is to articulate, in a way that makes sense, to seekers and defend against difficult challenges.

To keep with the theme of "consistency", I will be have been blogging about the importance of consistency, not only in what we know, but consistency between what we know and how we act (Psychology Class Series (Parts 4-8); Right Living or Right Thinking).

Reasons to Believe produced a documentary about the Christian doctrine of Dual Revelation. Here is a trailer:

Jeff Zweerink from Reasons to Believe talks a bit about the public's view on this in his blog post Believing Science and the Bible at the Same Time.

Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason wrote an article called "Is The Bible Sufficient?" This is also worth a read.

Dr. William Lane Craig from Reasonable Faith wrote this article on the topic: "What is the Relation between Science and Religion?"

Reason to Believe has a complete list of FAQs on their site here concerning science and the Bible.

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