Scientific Assertions in Scripture – True or False?

One often hears expressed openly or by implication that references in the Bible to natural phenomena are not necessarily correct, since the Bible reflects the views of the people living at the time it was written. It is said in defense of this view that the people living at the time the Bible was written would not have been able to understand statements about the physical world that were not expressed in the form of their own views of nature, views which often were mistaken and quite wrong. That is to say, in other words, that these statements regarding physical phenomena are historically conditioned.

A widely accepted but destructive view – This view of the Bible is widely accepted today and is also held to some extent in our Reformed community. To me this view is not satisfying and actually can be destructive of any real belief in the Bible at all.

By this, it is not meant that the Biblical record on physical matters is not historically conditioned in a general sense, for the Bible is preeminently a book rooted in history, and therefore has an interaction with the historical setting. This is one of its amazing and wonderful characteristics. But this interaction with the historical setting is such that the particular Biblical statement on physical phenomena, although reflecting in a measure the limited understanding and theory of the people of the times, nevertheless does not contradict the real and total truth that is involved in the physical phenomena referred to.

How can one believe less than this? It has been puzzling to me how one can accept the credibility of Biblical statements on spiritual matters, accept and completely rely on their truthfulness, and then not have a corresponding belief regarding Biblical statements on physical phenomena. The credibility gap on the physical cannot, it seems to me, be prevented from enlarging itself to include the spiritual phenomena as well.

From the Bible man is taught that the world, the solar system, the constellations, and all the groups of material bodies have been brought into functioning existence by the power and will of God. What a tremendous and awe-inspiring fact! How is it possible that this God would give us wrong views of His creation in the written record to man, a record that is held to be infallible, verbally inspired, inerrant, and wholly consistent with Himself? What are all the discoveries of physical science when viewed against the backdrop of the infinite wisdom, power, and perfection of God!

God didn’t allow us to fathom the structure of His marvelous creation in order to displace the grandeur of His being or the excellence of His special revelation, the Bible. The solution to the problem arising from our inadequate view of the Biblical statements on physical phenomena cannot, it seems to me, lie in the direction of embedding these statements totally in the culture of the times. They have a certain continuity with the total Biblical record; and this record is in correspondence to the whole course of the history of the universe. This means that a view of nature coming to expression anywhere in the Biblical record is not actually contradictory to any related statement preceding or following it in time, whether in the area of special or general revelation. The Biblical statement may not be expressed in all of its implications but is actually extensible to a more complete view which is wholly compatible with itself.

Scripture and Ptolemaic view – It is frequently suggested that the Biblical record implies a Ptolemaic view of the solar system, and that it gave no help in discovering the correct view, namely, the heliocentric.

Now, it surely ought to be clear that holding to such a view is rather precarious when applied to the theological doctrines taught in the Bible. Weren’t there those who held that the Bible suggested that Jesus was not God, and doesn’t a large part of Christendom hold today that the Bible suggests that the atonement of Christ was not a finished and complete work? These examples are cited merely to show that the Biblical record does not always suggest what many, and among them able scholars, suppose it does suggest.

I don’t wish to convey the impression that the Bible clearly points out the path to follow in discovering the facts about the natural order. All I wish to say is that the Bible’s statements in connection with natural phenomena are not incorrect and misleading. These statements may he cast in an unfamiliar form, but their substance can hardly be held to be incompatible with the facts.

When the Bible suggests that the earth has pillars (Job 9:6) and has foundations (Job 38:4), there is no necessity for supposing that the earth is a static body resting on a set of pillars or a foundation in the sense of a building on the surface of the earth. Job 26:7 certainly suggests that this is not so since it speaks of its suspension in space in the words “hangeth the earth upon nothing.” But even without this passage it should be plain to a present-day reader of the above passages that having “pillars” and a “foundation” is not incompatible with concepts we have today of a dynamically stable earth. The gravitational forces which hold the earth together as a cohesive body could correspond to the compressive forces that exist in a loaded pillar; and the dynamic stability of the earth in its orbit around the sun could correspond to the mechanical stability provided by a foundation of a building resting upon it.

Joshua’s long day – Again, how much useless argumentation hasn’t been expended on the “sun that stood still” in Joshua’s time. What an error the writer of the book of Joshua made! He didn’t even know that it is the earth that should have stood still.

But let’s be careful here. The appearance of a stationary sun did not require the cessation of the earth’s rotation. This result could be obtained by the continued rotation of the earth about an axis inclined more than 23.5 degrees to the normal of the orbital plane. Now, we don’t know that it happened this way, but merely wish to point out that we have been wrong by supposing that the earth’s rotation had to stop to produce the phenomenon that is described in Joshua 10.

So, you see, “the error” in the Biblical record is completely illusory and the statement about the sun “standing still” and “not hasting to go down about a whole day” is exactly the very best that could be said of this unusual occurrence without writing a whole book on celestial mechanics.

In a sense, it probably can be said that the Biblical description of the unusual events as recorded in the book of Joshua influenced men such as Martin Luther to reject the Copernican theory that the earth and planets revolve around the sun. In view of the great stature, and deservedly so, of the astronomer Ptolemy, it is understandable to me that some theologians, and no doubt other professionals, tended to interpret certain statements in Scripture as support for their views which had prevailed for so many centuries.

Further, it should be remembered that with men like Luther, there was at stake during their time the view that the Bible alone is the only rule for faith and practice and that the veracity of the Scriptures had to be maintained at all costs. To me it seems a small price to pay for a correct view of Scripture, namely a temporary mistaken view of some of the aspects of the natural order.

But such mistakes have no doubt been made since Luther’s time, even when all the data being considered were derived from observations of physical phenomena. Sometimes both contenders in a controversy were right, as for example, in the dispute between Newton and Huygens on the nature of light. And still Huygens was considered to have the correct theory until later discoveries showed that Newton was also right in his corpuscular theory on light. And this precisely demonstrates, at least to me, that God has made man, so that even in his fallen state he has a certain amount of freedom in his choice between wrong and correct theories. This means that man will sometimes take a wrong position, not of necessity, but because truth in the area of thought does not automatically and mechanically reveal itself.

Prophetic character of Scripture – Along with the arguments presented above for the view that the statements in Scripture on natural phenomena are not in contradiction with subsequent discoveries and correct theories, there is another argument that can be based on the prophetic character of Scripture.

In particular I wish to employ the predictive aspect of prophecy. There are passages in the Psalms, prophetic and other books which predict the identity and/or the time of future events.

In Daniel 9, for example, we have a rather clear prediction of the atoning work of Christ and the time when it would take place, although admittedly the unit of time to be used is not defined. In some instances, as in the one cited, the predictive element is plainly present, whereas in others it may be present in a less obvious manner. Predicting the time of a future event is equivalent to making a statement about natural phenomena, since “time” is a property of space and matter.

Admitting this, it follows that, in the case of the prophetic passages of the Bible, the language and thought forms used were such that their meaning was not limited essentially to the understanding of the people of the time when the prophecy was made or recorded. If this is true for the prophetic passages in the Bible, there is no reason for supposing that it is not true for all of the Bible, and in particular for those parts which deal explicitly with physical phenomena, since it has been shown that predictive prophecy deals, in part, with natural phenomena also.

The Daniel 9 passage is a truly remarkable prophecy and shows clearly that the truth of the statements on physical phenomena cannot be separated from the truth of the spiritual teachings of the Bible. Much of the material I introduce here is taken from a published series of lectures1 delivered in Chicago between 1940 and 1945 by the late Professor A. Cleveringa, my former teacher in the sciences and mathematics at Grundy Academy.

Professor Cleveringa demonstrated in these lectures how “the whole prophecy is originally addressed to Daniel’s people, yet the promised blessings were intended for the whole human race.” What particularly interests me is the correspondence between the subdivisions of the 70 weeks (sevens in the Hebrew, I am told), interpreted in years, and the known events of history.

The prophecy speaks (vs. 2.5) of the 69 weeks of time units, or 483 units, from the decree of Artaxerxcs to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple to the coming of “Messiah the Prince.” From the first decree of Artaxerxes in 457 B.C. to the baptism of Christ in about 27 A.D. is a time span of 483 solar years (solar year – 365 1/4 days), which checks closely with the 483 time units referred to above when the units are taken as years. Now, if we start with the second decree of Artaxerxes in the month Nisan, 444 B.C. and count to the crucifixion of Christ (vs. 26) the span of time in lunar years (355 days, and the usual chronology used by the Hebrew people) is close to 486 years, which i3 nearly equivalent to the 69th weeks of time units referred to in verse 27 (midst of the [70th] week).

Not a hopeless task – Undoubtedly, this prophecy was given in answer to Daniel’s fervent prayer for his people and was certainly given to comfort and encourage the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. Hence, if the prophecy and chronological prediction had been given in the language and chronology of the time, this purpose would have been achieved. Well, the prophecy was given in the language of the times, as for example, seventy sevens, midst of the 70th week for 3 1/2, and no definition of the time unit. But it so happens that the chronological predictions couched in forms not familiar to us today were correct and compatible with future events, those events that are known to us today from history.

In conclusion, it should be said that the view presented here is not new and that the suggested explanations given here of various passages from Scripture are not presented as being final and without need for improvement. Rather, it is the intent of this article to develop a model for dealing with the Scriptural references to various physical phenomena, a model that is capable of accommodating the discoveries made in the realm of nature. Many say that this is a hopeless task; with this I do not agree, for although the task may be difficult, it should be equally promising of a greater appreciation for both Scripture and the natural sciences.

1. Studies In Divine Prophecy by A. Cleveringa. Published by the former Holland-American Printing and Publishing Company of Chicago in 1950; now out of print.

Jacob Heerema, a graduate of Calvin College, has a masters degree in chemistry from the University of Iowa and has done graduate work in Mathematics at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He is a research chemist with CPC International at the Moffett Technical Center, Argo, Illinois. Affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church of Oak Park Illinois, Mr. Heerema has also been active as an elder and clerk of the consistory.