Towards a Christian View of Science: How Big is Your Bible?

I. Introduction – New Departure in the Study of Scripture

Within recent years, there appears to have developed a trend in evangelical Christian circles towards a new attitude to Scripture. It is thought by some to indicate a shift away from the orthodox Reformed doctrine of Scripture.1 This trend is characterized by a move from the deductive method of studying Scripture to the inductive method. The point at issue is the nature of Biblical inspiration. Are the Scriptures divinely and verbally inspired, and therefore inerrant in the original autographs, as the Reformed doctrine of Scripture teaches?2

What is the distinction between these two methods? The deductive method starts from the Biblical proof texts on inspiration and then studies Scripture in the light of the resultant doctrine of inspiration, i.e., the whole system of doctrine is validated by appeal to the Biblical teaching on the Bible itself. The inductive method, on the other hand, starts with the various phenomena of Scripture and by exhaustive study point by point builds up a picture, from which it mayor may not be concluded that the orthodox doctrine may require some modification.3

This latter method, it has been argued, treats verbal inspiration more as a human theory about the Bible than as an essential and inherent feature of the written Word of God. Hywel Jones claims that this new approach in effect means starting from anti-Biblical presuppositions in an attempt to defend Biblical teaching.4

The trend is now sufficiently developed to warrant description as a “school of thought”—now termed new evangelical or neo-evangelical to distinguish it from what is understood as evangelical in the historic Reformed sense.5

II. Creation – The Neo-Evangelical Interpretation of Genesis One

1. Conflict or complementarity?

Neo-evangclicals believe themselves to be custodians of evangelical Christianity. At any rate they do not appear to recognize in their own views any doctrinal deviation from the historic Reformed position on Scripture, with all that that must entail for the whole system of truth. The doctrine of the inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible is, after all, a fundamental tenet of the Reformed faith6 and although neo-evangelicals, with some justification, can claim to uphold Biblical teaching, their laxity with respect to Scripture must prevent the attainment of a consistently Biblical position.

This new attitude to Scripture manifests itself particularly in discussion of the relation of the Bible to modern science and never more than in respect of the doctrine of creation and the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis. The key words in this discussion are conflict and complementarity.7

(i) Traditionally, almost, there has been conflict between the Biblical account of origins and that rendered by science; particularly since the emergence of Darwinism and, of course, even more so with the ascendancy of the modern synthetic theory of evolution, replete as it is with antitheistic presuppositions and assumptions. This conflict was inevitable because the Genesis account of creation was taken to be a record of what E. J. Young, in referring to Genesis One, has called “sober history.”8 On the basis of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, together with the application of Scriptural hermeneutics9 to the best texts available, the creation of the cosmos was understood to have taken place in six days of creative activity10 some thousands of years before the present. Naturally, it is impossible to square this with a theory of origins involving the evolution of the world and its inhabitants over thousands of millions of years. Here we have the root of the matter. Genesis One taken as a historical outline of origins, together with the chronological studies linking Adam and his descendants on a time scale, cannot but clash with vast ages of evolutionary development.11

Conflict has proved unacceptable to many evangelical scholars. Bernard Ramm has called the traditional interpretation of Genesis One the “naive-literal view.”12 It is held only by “hyper-orthodox” evangelicals.13 This is the “approach that creates disharmony.”14

(ii) The alternative is complementarity, by which is meant the independent yet inter-dependent, different yet non-contradictory, views of reality given, on the one hand, by the Bible, and on the other hy modern science (assumed to be the study of natural revelation).15 The relationship is analogous to that between different elevations of a house drawn on a blueprint—the views are all different hut they are complementary since all give essential true information which only gives meaning to the plan when taken as a unity.16 The Bible, as special revelation, has its own unique view on reality. Likewise, science as the study of the works of God in creation has its special sphere of activity and its own unique view to reveal. Furthermore, the two must be carefully distinguished so that we understand that the Bible does not teach science and science does not reveal what we are to understand concerning the faith.

When this is applied to Genesis 1 it is clear that the traditional view must be modified. Since, it is claimed, the Bible does not reveal scientifically describable mechanisms,17 it is error to interpret the Genesis account in terms of literal days and a literal first man, Adam, made from the actual dust of the earth on the sixth day. This, affirms Ramm,18 is a “crass literalistic interpretation.”

One would have thought that the assertion that the Bible does not give a historical account of creation would be supported by appeals to exegesis of the relevant textual material. Ramm certainly claims exegetical backing,18 but he docs no more than mention it there is little actual exegesis in his treatise The Christian View of Science and Scripture. One genuine exegetical attempt to avoid a sober-historical interpretation has been made hy N. H. Ridderbos.20 This has been ably refuted by E. J. Young.21

If Biblical exegesis is not the source of re-interpretation, then what is? R. H. Bube informs us that “this re-interprelation based on the establishment of the validity of uniformitarianism and of an aged earth has been a necessary consequence of scientific discoveries.22 Putting it another way, the scientific evidence “is so compelling that traditional Biblical interpretations have been seen to be inconsistent with the basic revelation of the Bible.”23 Apparently it is modern science, in this case historical geology, which has revealed to us the “error” of our previous interpretation of the Genesis record of creation. This is surely a new concept of the role of natural revelation in evangelical circles. When did it become a Scriptural practice to inform Biblical interpretation (of special revelation) with principles derived from natural revelation, with, at the same time, the scantiest regard for exegesis? Even at that we are allowing the gratuitous assumption that modern science is a valid study of God’s natural revelation—an assumption which itself is not demonstrably Scriptural.

2. The meaning of Genesis One

A reinterpretation of Genesis 1 has been necessitated, say neo-evangelicals, by new scientific discoveries of a compelling nature. Before detailing this new interpretation, we should summarize the reasons given to justify rescension of the older view. They are as follows,

(i) The Bible and science will always be in conflict as long as the former is understood as revealing a historical account of creation.24

(ii) The Bible and science cannot, in principle, be in conflict since they represent different revelations of the one God. They are complementary. Any conflict is only apparent and is due to error on one side or the other, or both.

(iii) The scientific evidence compels us (neo-evangelicals) to reinterpret traditional and hitherto inviolable doctrine.

(iv) The Bible is to be understood as revealing the “why” of creation and not the “how,” which is the proper field of investigation for science. The purpose of the Bible is not to teach science but to reveal truths to man on the level of faith.25

We shall only note, in passing, that there is more than a little truth in statements (i), (ii) and (iv) above. The basic fallacy is to be found in statement (iii) and is incipient in statement (ii)—is modern science, undertaken as it is mainly by non-Christians, to he equated with true science, i.e., the consciously God-centered and God-directed science of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28?

Genesis 1, then, is not to be read as if it were a scientific account of the mechanism of creation. It is rather “a brief but beautiful poetic narrative.”26 It also has a prophetic function analogous to that of the last chapters of the Bible, Revelation 20–22.27 Accorrling to M. A. Jeeves, Professor of Psychology at SI. Andrew’s University, who is mild in his criticism of the traditional interpretation when compared to Ramm, “The first chapter may be considered as a presentation of a majestic account of creation in which we are given a picture of God, the omnipotent One, expressing His will so that at 1·lis word the worlds are called into being and ordered aright.”28 Genesis chapters one to three are valuable for the “truths they indubitably teach.”29

This seems fine, as far as it goes, but Jeeves has earlier denied the historical nature of these chapters by describing the sober-historical interpretation as “an example of the point of view which we have endeavoured to avoid.”30

Genesis 1 has been thus effectively removed from history and so is sealed off from the difficulties which inevitably arise if the propositions of Scripture are made normative for the cultural activities of men (e.g., science). There is an obvious attraction in this position, for, by separating the spheres of Scripture and science in this way, we allow the possibility of retaining evangelical Christian belief and “scientific respectability.”31

(In a concluding article we shall evaluate the neo-evangelical positions, as stated above, and positively state a Reformed approach to the problem of the relation of Scripture to science.)

1. H. Jones, The Doctrine of Scripture Today, London 1969 (B.E.C./E.P.), pp. 3–4, cf. C. Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture, Ripon, Calif. 1967.

2. Westminster Conf. of Faith, Ch. 1, viii.

3. J.C. Whitcomb, Jr., The Origin of the Solar System, Philadelphia, 1964, pp. 7–8.

4. Jones, op. cit., p. 17.

5. ibid., pp. 21 ff.

6. West. Conf. of Faith, Ch. I, see also articles, L. Boettner, Evangelical and C. Van Til, Calvinism in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, Grand Rapids, 1960.

7. E.L.H. Taylor, Evolution and the Reformation of Biology, Nutley, N.J., Craig Press, 1967, p.34.

8. E.J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament, London, Tyndale Press, 1966, p. 49. cf. Young, Studies in Genesis One, Philadelphia, 1964, pp. 82 ff. where the author shows historical nature of Genesis 1. Young notes that the length of “days” is “net stated” (p. 104) and, while appearing favourable to the interpretation of them as 24-hour days (pp. 101–2), he leave the matter open.

9. L. Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 11.

10. West. Conf. of Faith, Ch. IV.

11. On the subject of O.T. Chronology see E.R. Thiele, Chronology, O.T. in Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, 1969, pp. 166–170.

12. B. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, London, 1967, pp. 120–123.

13. ibid., p. 18 (on the use of the term, see Mixter et al, Evolution and Christian Thought Today, London, 1961, footnote, pp. 168–9.)

14. ibid., pp. 21–25.

15. F.H.T. Rhodes, Christianity in a Mechanistic University in D.M. Mackay, ed. symposium of same name, London, 1966, pp. 16–19; cf. Ramm, ibid., pp. 25–32.

16. Rhodes, op. cit., p. 45; Spanner, op.cit., p. 15.

17. R.H. Bube (ed.) The Encounter between Christianity and Science?, Grand Rapids, 1957.

18. Ramm, op.cit., p. 224.

19. ibid., p. 224.

20. N.H. Ridderbos, Is there a Conflict between Genesis One and Natural Science?, Grand Rapids, 1957.

21. E.J. Young, Studies in Genesis One, pp. 55–76.

22. Bube, op. cit., p. 105.

23. ibid., p. 103.

24. Ramm, op. cit., p. 23; cf. Jones, op. cit., p. 23.

25. D.F. Payne, Genesis One Reconsidered, London, 1968, pp. 6–7; cf. Jones, op.cit., p. 24; also Whitcomb, op.cit., p. 8.

26. W.R. Hearn and R.A. Hendry in Mixter, et al., op. cit., p. 8.

27. M.A. Jeeves (ed.), The Scientific Enterprise and Christian Faith, London, 1969, p. 108.

28. ibid., pp. 107 ff.

29. ibid., p.108.

30. ibid., p. 106.

31. Ramm, op. cit., p. 168.

Reprinted from THE BANNER OF TRUTH.