Can the Bible Contain Scientific Fact?

Perhaps the most important question being asked in Reformed churches today is, What is the nature of the Bible? It is not that we do not know why the Bible exists. We believe the Bible tells us why it exists. Concerning its own existence, the Bible teaches that before the fall God revealed himself to man perfectly in creation. This revelation is general revelation. When man fell, he needed redemption, and God provided an additional, a special revelation of himself. This special revelation, the Bible, the record of God’s redemptive acts, was given to man in order that he might have redemption. Thus we know why the Bible exists. It is only natural, however, that we should then ask, What does this special revelation of God have to do with general revelation? One aspect of that broad question is the question, Can the Bible contain scientific facts?   One might be tempted to make this fundamental assumption about the Bible: The purpose of the Bible is to teach us faith and practice, but it contains secondary or peripheral matters which do not have scientific objectivity, i.e., they are matters which the scientist need not accept as “true” for his scientific work. Such an assumption would help remove certain difficulties in understanding the Bible. For example, one could then understand that the Biblical statements about the virgin birth are only indications of the glory of Christ and his special relation to the Father. It would not be necessary to hold that he was actually born of a virgin. The statements about the virgin birth would then merely constitute the vehicle carrying the truth of Christ’s greatness. The incomprehensibility of a virgin birth would thus be avoided.   Passages referring to devils being cast out could be understood if peripheral matters could be found in the Bible. It could be maintained that the “devil” statements merely mean that the persons referred to were mentally ill or epileptic, and that the Bible uses these statements to teach God’s power over the deepest psychological problems of man.   Even if we accept the idea that the Bible contains peripheral matters, important questions remain concerning the two examples cited. Whether or not Christ was actually born of a virgin might make a difference in the Biblical description of the relation between mankind and God. Similarly, if the devils mentioned in the New Testament actually exist, they are supernatural beings. Consequently, many of us consider the actuality of their existence to be a fact which must be included in our faith, a faith in the supernatural. The relevant question in this discussion is not the actuality of the virgin birth or whether or not devils exist, but whether or not one can categorically state that these ideas are peripheral.   Consider two other types of Biblical passages. Concerning one type, all Christians agree that there are no peripheral elements. Such passages might be found in epistles. Concerning the other type of passage, almost everyone would agree that such passages contain peripheral elements in the Bible can contain peripheral elements. Some of the passages containing minute details of Old Testament history might be in the latter category.   What are the Criteria?   These three types of passage must be considered when one considers the problem of peripheral matters. The basic question is, How can one know what in the Bible is peripheral? Anyone can devise a set of criteria for deciding what is peripheral material. But can he prove that his criteria are correct? Lack of such proof is a denial of II Peter 1:20 “…no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.” If determining the criteria for distinguishing the pheripheral is left to each person, then the Bible is “true” only in a subjective sense.   Suppose there are reliable criteria for distinguishing the peripheal. Let us consider the possible sources of such criteria. The source could be either Biblical or extra-Biblical.   An extra-Biblical source would possess an authority more fundamental than the authority of the Bible, since there cannot be two courts of last resort. If we postulated this source to be a human source, we would then be making Biblical teaching dependent upon man. Since man is fallible, such a source of criteria is also fallible, and does not meet the condition that it be reliable.   Could there be a divine source of extra-Biblical criteria? Christians do not claim private revelations from God concerning what part of the Bible is peripheral. Is it possible, however, that God speaks to us about the Bible in, for example. om scientific results? It has been suggested that God has given us two, non-contradictory, infallible sources of information, the Bible and general revelation, or nature, and that studying nature can help us understand the Bible. This suggestion is not denied here, but for two reasons such a suggestion does not give us a means whereby we may determine what in the Bible is peripheral.   (1) A logical difficulty arises if we use one infallible source to decide which “facts” of the other infallible source are peripheral, i.e., not necessarily objectively true. Even if we were to purge Source A of all that is inconsistent with Source n, we would have no defense against one who decided to purge from Source B all that is inconsistent with Source A. If one source of information can judge the other, we would ultimately be forced to decide which source is primary. We cannot make one source primary in one area, e.g., in natural science, on the grounds that the other source does not speak on natural scientific subjects. Such a procedure assumes an answer to the very question being investigated.) But a decision concerning which source is primary is of human origin, and therefore fallible.   (2) If it is possible to determine what is peripheral in the Bible by means of investigating nature, then the Bible does not provide us with a clear guide as to what is sinful, and we are forced to go outside of the Bible for necessary spiritual guidance. To demonstrate this claim, consider the frequently-made assertion that the Bible states that our universe is a three-story universe, with heaven in the sky, man on earth, and hell below the surface of the earth. The three-story idea is said to be peripheral. Yet, if the Bible does indeed contain the three-story idea, the idea should have been accepted by the first readers of the Bible, who would not have known it was a peripheral idea. It would have been wrong for these first readers to contemplate either space travel of an early equivalent of Project Mohole, a project to dig (in the Pacific Ocean) a hole penetrating the earth’s crust. Anyone contemplating either of these projects should have been warned that these projects are wrong because they imply travel to heaven or hell. Accepting the idea of the peripheral in the Bible limits us in om scientific work. In carrying out God’s command to subdue the earth, we would need to wait for the unbeliever to determine which lines of investigation are not sinful.   Therefore nothing outside the Bible can determine for us what part of the Bible is peripheral.   Can the Bible Answer the Question?   The Bible itself might provide the criteria for determining what in the Bible is peripheral. The Bible could instruct us in this matter in two different ways. First, since in some passages we are shown how other passages arc to be used, we might observe an inspired writer separating the non-peripheral from the peripheral. But it is a hopeless task to derive the sought.for criteria from the passages in which other passages are discussed. An idea in, for example, an Old Testament passage which we might have considered peripheral, is shown by the New Testament commentary on the passage to be absolutely essential to the message. If we were to go one step further and attempt to separate the non-peripheral from the peripheral in the Old Testament passages not discussed in the New Testament, it would be impossible to use the method of examining how some passages interpret others. Interestingly, even those who claim that there are peripheral matters in the Bible do not attempt to prove their point by citing these explanatory passages.   Second, a Biblical answer to our question might be obtained by examining statements which the Bible makes about itself. The Bible makes no direct statement about peripheral matters. It does, however, describe itself and its purpose. The Gospel of John was written “…that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: and that believing yc might have life through his name” (John 20:31). Concerning the Scriptures in general, Paul says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16). These are typical of the passages which describe the Bible and its purpose. Can we derive from such statements criteria enabling us to separate the non-peripheral from the peripheral?   In one approach, Paul is said to define “all scripture” as that which is profitable for doctrine, etc. The peripheral matters are then those which are not profitable. But those who claim that Christ was born of a virgin maintain that the virgin birth is both non-peripheral and profitable for doctrine. They also claim a Christological significance for the smallest, most obscure Biblical detail of middle eastern geography or history. Evidence that there is such a significance has been explained in commentaries, and need not be repeated here. We can conclude that we are unable to derive from Biblical statements about the Bible criteria for separating the non-peripheral from the peripheral.   We have exhausted the list of possible sources for such criteria. We cannot use the human mind; nor can we use anything in nature which we find and analyze. God has not given us a special private revelation providing the answer. We might find such criteria in the Bible if they were there, but we do not find them. Thus we conclude that there is no means of identifying any peripheral matters in the Bible. An equivalent conclusion is the following: We cannot state that there are any peripheral matters in the Bible.   The Bible Does Teach Scientific Facts   Can the Bible contain scientific facts? With the elimination of the question of the peripheral, we can now state that the Bible can speak on any question. A suggested interpretation of a Biblical passage cannot be ruled out because we believe that the Bible is not a textbook of science, or of history, or of any other subject. The Bible teaches what it teaches; whether or not it is a textbook is irrelevant.   Thus, if a botanist is interested, he can lise with complete confidence the idea that cedar trees grew in Lebanon 3,000 years ago. How the botanist uses that fact may have no discernible relation to the doctrine, reproof, etc., we are to derive from the Bible. But the fact is given in the Bible, and we cannot state that it is peripheral to what God intends for us to learn from the Bible. This fact is objectively true. The cedar trees were there.   Nothing that has been said here suggests that there are many scientific facts in the Bible. Nor can it be stated a priori that any scientific facts we might find there are important ill our science. When we consider what the Bible actually says, we will probably conclude that some of the scientific facts recorded there—such as the existence of cedar trees in Lebanon—add virtually nothing to our scientific knowledge.   But more important for our discussion, we will probably conclude that the Bible gives us information related to some of the great scientific questions of our time. One of these questions is concerned with whether or not the steady-state creation theory (in which it is claimed the universe had no beginning) can be correct. In another question, we ask whether or not the Bible provides information which can help us decide for or against the general theory of evolution, a theory which has become a unifying principle underlying a world-and-life view. To study these questions. careful, Biblical interpretation is required, but one inadmissible principle of interpretation is the principle that the Bible cannot give us reliable scientific information. We may well conclude (as I have concluded), by comparing Scripture with Scripture, that the “days” of Genesis 1 were long periods. We will also want to compare Scripture with Scripture as we attempt to decide whether or not “after its kind” means there were separate creations of living thing…. , if Genesis 2:4 begins the history of man, with his separate, historical creation being described in Genesis 2:7, and if the English translation of Genesis 2:7 misled some into believing that God added a soul to a pre-existing animal. We may he able to answer such questions correctly if we allow the Bible to speak on science.   I believe that much of this necessary, careful study concerning origins has already been done. We ought to realize that such study shows that the Bible denies general evolutionary theory. We Christians have debated the all-important question of evolution, a question of which unifying principle will be our world-and-life view, for too long a time. Other great scientific problems, problems peculiar to our times, await the attention of the Christian man of science. The Bible may he able to aid us in the solution of these problems. We must gel on with the task.   Dr. Maatman is professor of Chemistry at Dort College, Sioux Center, Iowa. (Reprinted in part from the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN SCIENTIFIC AFFILIATION)