Finally, after four chapters separately introducing science and faith, we can begin to relate the two. What we usually hear in the 20th century is that there is conflict between science and faith, especially Christian faith. In this chapter we must first deal with these apparent conflicts. Then in the next chapter we can proceed to the positive side, discussing the constructive relationship between science and Christianity.
Each category’s relationship with science
We will discuss each of the six categories introduced in ch. 3 sec. I.
This viewpoint rejects anything supernatural, and believes that science can explain everything by natural laws. For those who promote this position, science is their religion, so there cannot be any conflict between their science and their religion. They are reductionists, reducing all of human personality and society to the result of impersonal laws and processes (see the introduction of this term in ch. 2, IV). They object to the diagram at the end of ch. 2 showing the natural world as only a part of a larger reality. Materialists believe that the physical, material universe is all that exists. They believe there is nothing outside it that could be its cause, so it must be eternal, with no beginning or cause. They must believe that it “just happens to be” uniform and intelligible to our minds (the two basic assumptions of science), or at least believe that this is true of all that we have observed. They have no reason why it should be true, because such a reason would have to be something outside the material universe.
Atheists and many others hold the opinion that science is a war against religion in general and Christian theism in particular, and that Christianity in turn is inherently at war with science. As will be discussed in sec. F below, this view is not supported either by logic or by history.
Atheists often say that they choose to believe in an eternal and probably infinite universe, but Christians choose to believe in an eternal infinite God. They view this as simply a matter of philosophical preference, though of course they give many reasons why they consider their choice preferable. But in saying this they are at least honestly admitting that their opinions are a philosophical and religious choice, not a conclusion from facts or a necessary aspect of scientific thinking. In this they are inconsistent; in many other contexts they insist their position is a necessary conclusion from facts and is the only one consistent with modern science, not merely a personal choice. But, as atheists themselves would agree, truth is not determined by personal choice about what we like to believe or consider believable. There is an objective reality outside ourselves, about which our beliefs are either true or false (ch. 3, II, C). Christian belief is based on the Bible’s teachings, and we have many reasons why we believe the Bible is a true representation of reality, which is discussed in ch. 6, III. The origin of the universe, living things, and the Bible will be discussed in detail in ch. 6. An atheist has no way to explain many of these things, except to say they all must have just happened by lucky accident. Therefore, even if we view it as a choice, Christian teaching explains many more things than atheism, using simpler assumptions, so from a logical and scientific viewpoint it is a stronger theory. But of course the crucial question is not whether we like it nor how much it can explain, but whether it is true.
In their good-natured moments, atheists accept religious faith (for others) in a shadow world of uplifting fiction andpsychological effects, but it is clearly not allowed to encroach upon anything within the realm of science. Wherever faith and science overlap, science must come first. This is represented in the first, simpler diagram. What they really believe is represented in the second, more complex diagram: that all consciousness, thought and feeling is a subdivision of the natural world; humans and all other living things are merely complex physical and chemical systems, no different in principle from a computer. And personal religious faith is then a subdivision of this realm of consciousness.
The evaluation of atheism is continued in sec. V, A and B.
Agnostics often assume the same thing as atheists, or at least insist that religion is totally separate from science. For an agnostic who says “I don’t know whether there is a God,” we can discuss the many reasons to believe in the God of the Bible, and the many scientific questions that are left unanswered if we choose atheism.
But as introduced in ch. 3, sec. I, many agnostics also say “I know you don’t know either,” and the only thing we say in reply is to ask how he knows we don’t know. His answer is that it is impossible to know, and we then ask how he knows that!
Basically, he is saying that he does not dare be as presumptuous as the atheist who claims to know enough to prove God does not exist. We of course commend this glimmer of humility. But in denying that it is possible to know anything about God, he is denying that there could be any action into the physical world from a realm beyond it. The agnostic’s diagram places the X not on all wider reality beyond the natural world, but only on miracles. This makes God’s existence inaccessible to us, and if there is a God He is therefore irrelevant and indistinguishable fromnonexistent. So an agnostic’s view is in practice equivalent to atheism.
It may be true that, as many agnostics assert, we cannot by our limited human capacities locate or capture God. In fact, this is precisely what the Bible teaches, and therefore what Judaism and Christianity believe. But on what basis can agnostics assert that God, if He exists, might not wish, and be able, to locate and contact us? That possibility cannot be so summarily X-ed out of our diagram.
C, D Pantheism and animism
Pantheists and animists are unsure whether
science can or should succeed, because they have no reason to expect uniformity
or intelligibility in the physical world. Pantheists invert the diagram
of atheists, asserting that consciousness is most fundamental and the physical
world is a mere illusion or dream, an unimportant byproduct of our consciousness,
as represented in this diagram.
Animists leave the atheist’s diagram unchanged, but they believe reality is ruled by capricious spirits instead of inherent natural laws.
Both groups can only be amazed that the two assumptions of uniformity and intelligibility of nature have succeeded as well as they have. In fact, they should expect these two assumptions to be false, so it seems that these faiths contradict science, and it is no coincidence that science did not begin to develop in cultures dominated by these viewpoints (see sec. II).
The most favorable thing that can be said, giving them the benefit of the doubt, is that pantheism and animism have no connection with modern science. There are some purported analogies between these religions and science (see VI, C below), but no support for the two assumptions. There are of course many who believe these religions and also have learned to be top-rate scientists, but their science and their faith must be kept mostly separated with a wall dividing them, as represented in this diagram.
Most liberal Christians would draw the same diagram. Some conservative Christians have also adopted this viewpoint, but this is inconsistent and unnecessary, as will be discussed in F below. This kind of faith is detached from real life. Is this the kind of faith we want? That question alone of course does not determine what is true, but it is significant, as discussed in sec. V, B.
Hinduism teaches that time is endless and cyclic, with a very long period. This too seems to contradict science, especially the second law of thermodynamics.
These two types of faith simply assume, but do not explain, the existence of living things, apart from some creation myths that are generally not taken as historical fact even by believers. Even such myths start from some population of gods or beings, and a material world, whose origin is unaccounted for. These faiths can accept the idea of a form of supernatural revelation and “religious experience,” but they cannot accept the Bible on its own terms nor explain the details of its content and origin (ch. 6, III).
Perhaps the closest approach to a basis for science among such religions is found in Chinese Taoism. The “Tao” is a rule, or order, or truth, giving some support to the first assumption, that nature is orderly. So there is a germ of truth in attempts to relate this particular faith to science (again, see VI, C). But from ancient times Taoism in practice also incorporated much that is animistic. It developed a mystical approach to truth, considering it inexpressible, or inscrutable, and this failed to support the second assumption. This left no motivation for pursuing research of some very interesting discoveries that were made in China beginning several centuries before Christ: the compass, gunpowder, paper, printing, timekeeping machines, breeding of plants and animals, many medicines, etc.
Thus a golden opportunity was missed; a potential scientific revolution was stillborn. In the many centuries since, there have been some amazing individuals in China who accomplished great things in what would now be called science and medicine, but with such a worldview in the society as a whole, their work was not encouraged nor developed by others. There was no consensus that it can and should be done. It is impossible (and tragic) to estimate how many people with the talents of a Newton must have lived and died in the great populations of China, India, and elsewhere, but due to the limitations of economy, society, and above all religious assumptions, their gifts could not be applied and developed for the benefit of humanity.
Deists borrow from Christianity the concept that nature is created, therefore it can and should be studied. But since they do not believe God has acted since creation, they cannot explain the Bible or Christian believers’ experience. They are in practice equivalent to agnostics.
The only remaining category of religious faith is theism, specifically monotheism. Theistic religions include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (ch. 4 sec.1). We often refer to the Judeo-Christian faith as a single entity in its concept of God and creation. Islam has a concept of God which is different in some important respects, but conservative Islam shares most of the Judeo-Christian outlook on God and creation, and therefore on the relationship between science and faith.
Monotheism is in some way based on objective written teachings considered to be revelation from God, or scripture, so the above diagrams must be modified to reflect this difference. This is more specific than a nebulous “faith.” The nature of the connection between scripture and faith is subject to debate, which is the essential difference between liberal and conservative theology.
As with other types of faith, the content of scripture-based faith either does or does not have an overlap with the realm of nature, or physical reality. If there is no overlap, then it is isolated or separated, as represented in the diagram above for pantheism. If there is an overlap, the next question is the extent and content of that overlap. Once that is determined, there are two options in dealing with the overlap, priority or consistency. If they are consistent, then there is no need for priority, because there is no genuine conflict to resolve. Another common term for consistency is “concordist.” If priority is assumed, the question is the order of priority: Which comes first?
Liberal Christians almost unanimously assert that scripture and nature are separate, which agrees with the pantheist viewpoint, and in fact in practice is indistinguishable from the atheist viewpoint. Some atheists happily notice this, accept liberal theology as the final authority on the content of the Christian faith, and therefore pronounce that faith meaningless.
Among conservative Christians, who believe the Bible is an authoritative revelation from the Maker of heaven and earth, there is a wide range of opinions on the precise relationship between our faith and science. We are unavoidably concerned about any possible conflicts that might call into question the authority of the Bible as God’s inerrant revelation.
Although we do not accept the conclusions of liberal theology, some among us agree with it up to the point of adopting separation as a seemingly happy solution to all possible apparent conflicts, letting science and theology go their separate ways with conflict impossible by definition. This gives a feeling of safety. It also avoids the complicated business of working out some form of relationship between scripture and nature. Those who adopt this viewpoint criticize as misguided all those who advocate either a priority or a consistency.
However, for conservative Christians this position is inconsistent, as briefly stated above in C and D, and discussed specifically in point 3 below. The Bible does not permit theology to go its separate way. The two circles have an undeniable area of overlap, and in that area they sometimes appear to conflict. Bible-believing Christians must resolve that conflict, through either priority or consistency.
I believe that any attempt to assign a priority between nature and the Bible is misguided and impossible. But both possible orders of priority are widely propagated by people who profess belief in the Bible, and both must be considered briefly.
If priority is given to nature, then discrepancies with scripture are expected to occur and must be accounted for in a way that retains some sort of validity for the Bible as a revelation from God. Advocates of this viewpoint assert that God for various practical reasons had to write the Bible with a misleading apparent meaning in some respects, but this cannot be called deception because He made the truth apparent to us in nature. They insist that the Bible was not intended to give accurate information in areas of overlap with nature. Thus this viewpoint leans close to, and in practice overlaps with, the liberal viewpoint of separation.
On the other hand, if priority is given to scripture, then discrepancies with nature are expected to occur and must be accounted for in some way that retains the reality and rationality of nature as the work of a real and rational God. Advocates of this viewpoint assert that God for various practical reasons had to create nature with a false appearance in some respects, but this cannot be called deception because He informed us of the truth in the Bible. They insist that nature was not intended to give us accurate information in areas of overlap with the Bible. Thus this viewpoint leans close to, and in practice overlaps with, the liberal viewpoint of separation, though its advocates would be horrified at any such association. One specific example is nature’s apparent permanence and autonomous order, leading many nonbelievers to conclude that a Creator or Maintainer is unnecessary and even excluded. Another example is the universe’s appearance of an age of billions of years, which clashes with many people’s understanding of the Biblical creation account as teaching an age of a few thousand years; this is the subject of ch. 7.
This viewpoint is widespread and influential among conservative Christians. It is the reverse of the polite atheist’s outlook: “Revelation (e.g. the Bible) is certain, but science is man-made, uncertain, often changing, and any scientific theory therefore will certainly be overthrown eventually. So revelation must take priority over science.” This gives the appearance of loyalty to the scriptures, and of rushing to the defense of the faith against the onslaughts of unbelief which often wield science as their primary weapon. It sounds like what a lot of us want to hear.
There is an obvious symmetry in the logical structure of both orders of priority. The advocates of each one present their case as obviously correct and convincing, and also convincingly point out fallacies in the other’s logic. Neither side seems to realize how readily all their statements can be transmuted into the other’s statements by the interchange of the words “nature” and “scripture.” Despite the differences between scripture and nature, they have much in common, and any flaws in one logical position can be expected to be present also in the corresponding point of the other position. The two should stand or fall together. But since they cannot stand together, they can only fall together. At the very least, all attempts to defend one or the other as the way things “must” be would seem doomed to self-inflicted failure, and one side’s valid criticisms of the other would almost automatically correspond with valid criticisms of itself. It would take very careful analysis to evade such failure, and I have seen no-one in either of these groups who seemed aware of the problem, let alone successfully solved it.
It must be admitted that abandonment of the logical defense of one of these positions does not require abandonment of belief in it as true. Such an abandonment would itself be an assertion of what God “had to” do. God in His transcendent wisdom has done plenty of things for reasons that for now are unexplained and inexplicable to us, and we cannot exclude separation or priority from possible inclusion in that category. In the absence of logical guidance on the subject, we can only seek evidence to indicate whether He has in fact acted in one of these ways. I have seen no such evidence, after listening to both sides’ claims to present such evidence. Both sides would lose their appeal if deprived of their claim to strong logical necessity.
It seems that the advocates of both positions do subconsciously sense the weakness of both the logical and the factual basis they present, and therefore they keep switching from one basis to the other, hoping that the two approaches cumulatively are reinforcing and convincing. But in fact it is the weaknesses of both that are cumulative and convincing.
I believe there is another alternative position with a better basis in both logic and evidence. I and many other Christians consider consistency between the Bible and nature to be more nearly correct, represented by a somewhat more complex diagram.
The first question is where to place God in the diagram. Neither inside nor outside the circle of reality seems right; God is neither merely a part of reality nor unreal. So we must first clarify the label on reality, calling it “created reality.” Then God is placed outside of created reality, as its source; all that exists outside of Himself was created by Him. (My thanks to Del Ratzsch for suggesting this point in personal correspondence.)
The information we can obtain from the Bible and from nature are mostly different, and each has its limitations. But they are not totally separated; the Bible makes many references to the everyday material world. They can be represented by two overlapping circles within the larger circle of created reality, with the Bible’s circle of information stretched beyond created reality to include what it tells us about God. This of course does not mean it tells us all about God.
Conservative Christians believe that the Bible is a revelation from the one true God, therefore it is absolute truth, not subject to correction by anything else (The concept of “inerrant” is discussed later in this section, and in ch. 6, III, A as “inspiration.”). But we believe that nature, the physical universe He created, is also an absolute thing, independent of our thoughts about it. Nature is as inerrant as Scripture.
If the Bible is God’s Word, and nature is God’s work or world, then it is impossible that there could be any genuine conflict between these two. Or they could be referred to respectively as His handwriting and handiwork. It is the same God and the same hand. Therefore we have neither basis nor need for assigning any priority to one or the other where they overlap. It is unnecessary and mistaken to try to say one or the other is “first,” or has priority.
The burden of proof is on any such assertion. All attempts to make this assertion have led to blunders. Liberal theologians say science and philosophy overrule the Bible, and they proceed to depart from all the basic Biblical teachings of God’s supernatural power and actions, Jesus Christ’s deity and role as Savior, etc. Church leaders in Galileo’s day, and present-day advocates of recent creation, say the Bible overrules science, and they stumble into countless embarrassing scientific errors; see ch. 7.
The fact that a particular assumption has led to errors does not in itself prove that assumption false. All truth has been misused. Perhaps the deductions were mistaken. Not all who accept these assumptions of an order of priority have fallen into all the errors associated with them. But these assumptions seem to have no inherent self-correction built into them. Whether priority is assigned to scripture or nature, they are both slippery slopes with no rocks or trees to stop the slide at any point. Those who stop partway down do so only by clinging to a rope attached to the path of balance at the top, though they often do not realize or admit that that is what they are doing.
Let us consider two aspects of priority: time and content.
Regarding priority in time, we contact nature sooner than we contact the Bible, and the Bible assumes and refers to this prior contact as teaching us some things about God (see examples listed in sec. 1). For instance, in Psalm 19 the wonders of nature are described in the first half, then the teachings of God’s word in the second half.
In many passages the Bible uses things in nature to teach us about God’s greatness, wisdom, and love: Psalm 8; 19; Job 38 to 41; Romans 1:18-20; and many more. Understanding nature helps us to understand God who created it. Job, Proverbs, and Jesus’ teaching contain many lessons drawn from weather, crops, flocks, trees, beasts, ants, etc. This all clearly means that God was very much involved in the origin of nature, and continues to act in various ways as the controller of present events. We are to observe and understand what we see. In John 10:38, Jesus said that if people could not believe His words yet, they should begin by believing because they saw His miracles. A major theme of the Bible is recording events which are interpreted as God’s action in the visible physical world, intended to teach us something about Him. This includes both His miraculous, or exceptional, actions, and His “natural” actions.
There is no indication in the Bible that the appearances of nature will mislead us (the second logical possibility listed above), or produce contradictions with the Bible, so there is no Biblical indication that there is even a need to assign priority between nature and the Bible. So there is no basis for the suggestion, as some said in the 19th century, that in order to test our faith God created fossils and many other things that appear to prove that the Bible’s story of creation is wrong. The same is true of the present-day assumption of “apparent age” or “created age” of the universe in order to explain the many evidences that the universe is billions of years old. These facts are there to tell us something, and we need not fear that it will overthrow the Bible. That is the subject of ch. 7.
Regarding priority of content, the Bible is verbal, and therefore more direct and personal than nature, and able to tell us things nature cannot: heaven, hell, God’s love and plan, forgiveness, the Trinity, inerrancy, etc. This certainly rules out any assertion that nature takes priority over verbal revelation, or can be considered equivalent to it. The Bible claims to be our sole guide for faith and life, true in everything it asserts. As the leaders of the Reformation put it in Latin, “sola scriptura.” But they said this primarily in response to conflict between the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church’s centuries of accumulated man-made tradition and philosophy. The reformers were not responding to any apparent conflicts between the Bible and the natural world that God made. It never occurred to them that there were or could be any such conflicts.
The Bible and nature are just objects, which become meaningful to us only as we study them. Meaning is the product of research and interpretation. Verbal and material subject matter must of course be approached with different methods, but both methods can be regarded as research. And here is the source of problems. Theology is our interpretation of the Bible. Science is our interpretation of nature. Both may be mistaken. Neither the Bible nor nature is entitled to priority in correcting our understanding of the other where they overlap. Theology does not determine science, nor does science determine theology. Rather, both are determined by the truth, and are two means in our search for truth, which must be self-consistent. Neither one can be, nor need be, overruled by the other. Both are seeking the truth, from different directions, and together they guide us toward the truth.
This means that theology must not be ruled by the current consensus of the scientific community, but it also meansthat science must not be ruled by the current consensus of the theological community. There must be a symmetry and balance in the relationship of the two.
When something in the area of overlap is approached from both directions, usually consistency results. But there may be, and in fact has been, conflict between theology and science, which is often misunderstood to mean there is a conflict between the Bible and the facts of nature. But it actually means that we have misinterpreted the Bible or nature or both. Our theology or our science is mistaken, or perhaps both. Conflicts between science and theology must be handled on a case-by-case basis, not by a rule of “science first” or “the Bible first,” which in fact means a particular theological viewpoint first. Inconsistency means our work is not yet done.
Christians often discuss the topic of “the Bible and science,” meaning resolving the apparent conflicts between them, but as can be seen in the diagram this is a mistaken phrase. The Bible and science are on different levels, and do not touch, let alone conflict. I myself sometimes lecture on this topic, and then proceed to explain what is wrong with it!
Francis Bacon and others referred to “two books,” meaning the Bible and nature. Some people refer to nature as “the sixty-seventh book of the Bible.” This expresses a legitimate point, which applies only in the area of overlap. Within this limitation, “two books” is no threat to “sola scriptura.” But referring to nature as a book is vulnerable to misunderstanding, as if it can be placed on a par with the Bible in areas where only verbal revelation is adequate. This may be one factor that led to overzealous attempts up to the 19th century to develop a “natural theology” in which all truth about God is obtained from nature alone with no reference at all to the Bible, and thus science and philosophy virtually displace theology. This overestimates the area of overlap. But the failure of such attempts is no excuse for going to the opposite extreme of neglecting the importance of consistency between our theology and our science, which amounts to underestimating the overlap or denying that there is any, or applying an arbitrary priority within it as represented by the earlier diagrams.
Unfortunately the conflicts between theology and science have generated a large amount of heat and smoke which has injured many people, and their faith in the Bible has never recuperated. Many people have the mistaken impression that wherever there is overlap there is conflict. The main reason is that this is not merely a detached matter of reconciling two systems of thought. Thought is done by thinkers, viewpoints are viewed by people, theology is produced by theologians, and science by scientists. So the conflict is not between theology and science but between theologians and scientists, who each have a deep sentimental attachment and investment in the products of their respective labors.
Both science and theology have a spectrum of certainty. While science is technically incapable of absolute certainty, some things are now beyond reasonable doubt (ch. 2, III). Things that were once unconventional speculations are long since in the category of simple fact and common knowledge. They are no longer even theories. If the planets, including the solid earth beneath our feet, are not really circling the sun, and many diseases are not really caused by microbes, then our sense perceptions are meaningless. Despite the limitations of language (sec. 4), theology can regard as certainties the doctrines of God’s divine attributes, the deity of Jesus Christ, salvation by faith alone through Jesus Christ, and many more. If these are not true, then Biblical language is meaningless.
The conflicts between science and theology are in areas of lower certainty. Each one’s area of highest certainty is mostly beyond the realm of the other, while their overlap is mostly in areas of lower certainty. The trouble is that it is difficult to admit that a long-accepted point has a low certainty. There is a very human tendency to develop a mind-set, which a layman would call a rut. Theologians who devoted much labor to developing a particular theological position tend to assume that when conflict occurs it must of course be science that is wrong, though even the most conservative theologian when pressed will not claim that his conclusions are as infallible as the inspired Scriptures on which they claim to be based. Similarly, scientists who spend long years on research and analysis leading them to a particular conclusion tend to assume that conflict must indicate an error in theology, though of course no scientist will claim that the final unquestionable interpretation of nature has flowed from his pen (well, computer keyboard). To make such a claim would be to invite unemployment. Thus the conflicts are polarized and exaggerated. A calmer bystander viewpoint is more objective and constructive. I attempt to take such a viewpoint, though I stand well within both camps, with my official credentials mostly on the scientific side.
Another phenomenon is that only conflict is news, so attention is attracted to problem areas, giving the impression that those areas dominate the overlap. We will never read an article or hear a news broadcast beginning with the information that today theologians and scientists agreed on 100 things. But we will hear about one thing they disagree about.
Many previous “conflicts” have been solved when an interpretation was found to be wrong. Sometimes theology has been wrong. For instance, Christians were misinterpreting the Bible when they thought it says the earth is immovable at the center of the universe. I believe the present-day young-universe recent-creation interpretation of the Bible is also wrong (see ch. 7). Sometimes science has been wrong. Many anti-Biblical interpretations of history have been proven wrong when further historical information was discovered. I believe the evolutionary interpretation of biology is wrong (see ch. 6, II). Both recent creation and evolution are deeply-entrenched mindsets that inspire great attachment and loyalty but in fact have a low degree of certainty based on their respective data sources. But neither camp is ready to agree to those assessments.
The Bible and nature can provide input to each other’s interpretation, even to the extent of correcting errors that have become widespread. The Bible clearly teaches that there is no natural origin of the universe, living things, design, or human consciousness. It tells us miracles can and do occasionally occur. The scientific community should have heeded these teachings long before it belatedly discovered so much natural evidence for a beginning of the universe (ch. 6, I), and the scientific community still is resisting the overwhelming evidence regarding the origin and design of life (ch. 6, II). The universe clearly shows that the earth moves about the sun, and we now clearly see that the theologians who denied this misinterpreted the Bible and resisted the evidence for too long. The Bible was not wrong, but their interpretation was. Many facts about the universe also clearly indicate that it has been around much longer than a few thousand years, and this should be allowed to direct us to a different interpretation of the Bible no matter how popular or widespread the recent-creation viewpoint may be. This requires hard work to pinpoint where that viewpoint goes astray and what contrary textual information it overlooks (see ch.7).
An objection, in defense of the supremacy of the BibleVery conservative Christians who have listened to this presentation nod approvingly up to the point where theologymust accept input from science, and then they suddenly raise startled objections to this conclusion. They insist that theology must be immune to influence from science, but must be guided by study of the Scriptural text alone. They insist that science must be interpreted through the glasses of Biblical revelation, and not vice versa. But they have not yet been able to show me a flaw in the reasoning that led to my conclusion. It seems obvious and irresistible, and it seems that any different conclusion must therefore be false.
To support their contention against this conclusion, they invoke a doctrine called “perspicuity,” which is a big word for clear, direct meaning. They insist this means that the text must be interpreted by itself with no input from scientific considerations, and that to accept such input is compromise, accommodation, and abandonment of the principles of inspiration and perspicuity. The concept of perspicuity has become so deeply entrenched in their minds that it is maintained even in the face of such a conflict with the logic represented by the above diagram of the relationship between theology and science.
Another logical flaw is in defining “clear, direct” meaning. We are all influenced by our background in countless ways, of which we are mostly unaware. Once a particular way of understanding a concept has become widespread, it becomes a habituated mindset that is rarely brought up for careful review. A perspicuous word for this phenomenon is “rut.” We must preserve some sort of check and balance on our interpretation or there is no hope of getting unstuck from our ruts.
There is an extenuating circumstance that helps understand these Christians’ attachment to their position on perspicuity. Objections to the principle of equal authority of the Bible and nature are in fact objections to the abuse of that principle, and I agree with those objections, but I believe this should lead us to reject the abuse but not the principle. As already stated, it does not mean uncritically accepting the current consensus of the scientific community even if that contradicts our theology. I myself reject that consensus on naturalistic evolution, and fortunately find strong scientific reasons for that rejection as well. But those who insist on the priority of scripture over science must respect the integrity of fellow believers like myself who feel that what we know about nature is irreconcilable with a particular theological viewpoint purportedly derived from the Bible. Others must not impugn our motives, accusing us of insufficient faith in God’s Word, attempting to win the approval of the non-believing scientific community, or protecting our careers. We cannot in good conscience ignore either nature or the Bible, and must seek a resolution consistent with both. We believe there must be one, and cannot rest until we find it. We take very seriously the limitations of verbal communication (discussed below), and believe in the perspicuity of both God’s Word and works.
This means that science and theology are different parts of our worldview, spectacles through which we view all reality, including the Bible and nature. If the views seem different through different spectacles, then there must be something wrong with at least one of the spectacles. Over-conservative theologians insist on viewing science through their theological half of the spectacles, but object to viewing their theology through the scientific other half. This leaves their vision fuzzy.
In this imprecise world, absolute certainty is never attained, only approached, both in theology and in science. No matter how certain a particular theological or scientific point may seem, there must be some threshold beyond which a sufficient degree of evidence from nature or theology respectively can require a reconsideration of the other. When that reconsideration is done, it may be discovered that the threshold was placed far too high. If both thresholds are high and lead to conflict, then at least one of the thresholds must be too high. I repeat: God’s Word and God’s work cannot conflict.
This points out another difference between science and theology. There is far more input of new information in science than in theology. The Bible text seems for now to be completed, with no additions made for 2000 years, nor expected (see ch. 6, III, A). New information regarding its meaning comes from ongoing research in history, archaeology, and ancient languages, but this still does not begin to compare with the rate of expansion of scientific knowledge. Therefore the threshold concept will almost always be applied when increasing scientific evidence reaches a point which requires reconsideration of a theological viewpoint, rather than vice versa, although in principle both are possible.
To raise the classic case of Galileo once again, the theologians felt there was overwhelming Biblical evidence that the earth does not move, and no amount of natural evidence could indicate otherwise. It was considered to be tied to other essential doctrines, and if this was not what the Bible taught, then language is meaningless. To be fair to them, we must note that there was not a strong scientific case yet, and some of Galileo’s arguments were later found false. Review this history in ch. 1; observational proofs that the earth rotates and moves were not found until 100 to 200 years later. So it often happens that some people are wrong for the right reasons, and some are right for the wrong reasons. It is advisable for all of us to remain humble and open to correction.
The limitations of verbal revelationWhile the Bible is not overruled by nature, it does have some inherent limitations. All verbal communication, even divine revelation, is limited by the language, culture, and people through which it comes. Christians believe God created language and culture in general, and prepared a few particular ones as His means of communicating His revelation to us in the Bible. The Bible is limited by these languages and cultures, though it certainly stretches those limits, introducing new concepts never before heard or thought of. And it contains truths that even the authors themselves probably did not fully understand, but were clarified in succeeding centuries of theological debate. God was of course aware of these limitations. There are many things that this vehicle could not possibly contain, and accepting such limitations on the vehicle does not at all imply any limitation in God’s knowledge. When the Bible was being written, God knew about energy, Maxwell’s equations, relativity, the structure of DNA, global ecology, nuclear reactions, the age and size of the universe, and the detailed mechanism of its formation. He could have carved the equations of physics in their late-20th-century form on Moses’ stone tablets, and preserved the tablets from then until now. But the Bible gives no reason why He would wish to do so, and that would make it incomprehensible to everyone before the 20th century, and after as well. There is nothing eternally final about our particular generation’s mathematical notation and terminology for these concepts.
Communication is a fearful and wonderful phenomenon. We do not have a clear concept of what concepts are as they reside in one person’s mind. That concept is then transferred to another mind, expressed through a totally arbitrary language system of sounds, motions, or symbols, and the resulting concept of the comprehender hopefully has a degree of resemblance to that of the expresser. The world contains literally thousands of such language systems. Our concepts and languages are woefully inadequate to express what is going on in the expression of concepts.
Verbal communication almost always has a range of possible interpretations. Within that range, we must select an interpretation based on various criteria. In fact, it is very possible that the range is larger than we at first realize; sometimes an interpretation exists that we had not thought of. We encounter this problem every day, in our little routine misunderstandings. The problem rarely is that we selected the wrong one of several possible apparent interpretations, but that the correct one did not even occur to us. Or, to give a less routine example, have you ever thought of the other two possible interpretations of “time flies like an arrow” (see below)? Scientific considerations must not be allowed to lead us outside the range of possible interpretations of the Biblical text, but they can be consulted for guidance within that range, and they may even point out a possibility that had previously been overlooked. If God has given us minds and access to this information, what justification is there to reject it? Such a prohibition seems baseless, foolish and dangerous.
In taking the principle of sola scriptura to the extent of claiming to interpret the text with no other considerations, it seems this cure is worse than the disease. It is similar to taking an antibiotic that kills a particular harmful bacteria, but kills all the beneficial ones in our system too. That may be necessary sometimes for our bodies, but I do not think it is necessary in the case of Bible interpretation.
In insisting on interpretation of the text alone, the advocates of this policy are trying to keep the sheep always in the fold and the wolf out, by welding the gate shut. But the fold alone cannot possibly contain all the sheep’s needs, and the wolves are not all outside the fold. Healthy sheep need to get out to exercise and find pasture (and other body functions), and the wolf will find other ways in if the shepherd does not maintain constant vigilance. There is no simple solution, and the “text only” weld must be removed. We must keep watching the gate and the flock, whether in the fold or out. The Pharisees tried to have answers to prevent every possible problem, such as their intricate Sabbath regulations, and Jesus soundly rebuked them for inventing man-made rules that violated God’s intended principles instead of protecting them (Mt. 12:1-14).
Speaking of input from sources outside the Bible
text, it is interesting to note that the most conservative Bible scholars
very happily accept guidance from the study of history, geography, archaeology,
and ancient languages. There is not always a clear line between these fields
and science. These studies may indicate what the text meant to its contemporary
listeners, which is ordinarily what we assume to be the correct interpretation,
and is certainly the starting point in the study of the text. This sometimes
is very different from the interpretation that seems natural after the
text is transmitted through a translation and large time and culture gap.
It is also common to view current world events and conditions to guide
our interpretation of prophecy about the end of the world. So even the
staunchest defenders of Biblical authority and perspicuity in fact credit
considerable authority to at least some information outside the text itself,
and outside the opinions of generations of Bible scholars.
The Bible invokes input from common sense and experience even in matters of spiritual truth, for instance in the scathing ridicule of idol worship and Jesus’ denunciations of the Pharisees’ rules and interpretations (ch. 3, VI, A). Jesus Himself emphasized the necessity for logic in theology.
The final authority is the mind of God Himself. Even the contemporary listeners, even the inspired writer himself or herself, may not have completely understood, and may have somewhat misunderstood, the message (see the following section). Following generations are even further removed from the message. Science may many centuries later discover things that tell us more about what God was thinking than those present at the time ever dreamed of.
Some Christians try to define the limits of the Bible’s revelation by limiting the scope of the knowledge that God intended to reveal to us. But I have seen no satisfactory basis for that limitation; it seems to be based only on their own opinions projected onto God. Who can presume to speak authoritatively on God’s intentions, beyond what He Himself has told us? So the only limits I am convinced of are the limits of the medium of communication itself.
Let’s discuss those limits. There are experts in languages, who have highly developed their skills in analyzing many languages. I am not an expert in either theology or languages, and deeply respect those who are, so I will not attempt to beat them at their own game. But I will make some comments about the rules of the game. Am I qualified to make such comments? I criticize linguists who make mistaken comments about my field of physics, so am I presumptuous to make comments about language? Most linguists have had little contact with physics, but I have had much contact with language, beginning very soon after I was born. I have made a career of teaching and communicating in Taiwan, using Mandarin Chinese, which is as far removed from my mother tongue as you can get. So I do have a very practical, albeit it non-professional and non-technical, basis on which to comment on language and culture.
Language and culture are limited and imprecise. Language is not a code; there is an irreducible subjective element left after all the tools of linguistics have been applied. No living language is as simple and certain as theologians often assume Old Testament Hebrew was, and the same is true of New Testament Greek. I would like to ask these experts, who are so confident of their interpretation of these ancient texts, how often they experience misunderstandings with their wife/husband (and many others) using their own current native tongue, and how often what he/she meant had never even occurred to them, let alone been on a mental list and ruled out. Of course casual conversation and scholarly analysis are not the same thing, but I still think the question is relevant.
Analyzing a languageHow would an archaeologist studying ancient English documents 10,000 years from now interpret our language, given a sample comparable in size and content to the Old Testament? It is often a surprising experience trying to explain English to someone just learning it, who asks you “What does this sentence mean?” And the most humbling question of all, “Why? How do you know?” Often all you can say is “It just does.” I just know.” It is your native tongue. The meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of the meaning of the words.
Examples are endless. Here are some I have noticed and collected. Never mind (why do those two words together mean what they do?!) full-fledged idioms, which assume background in history and culture for their meaning. Let’s consider expressions that are considered proper grammatical English. We say “I could care less,” but mean “I could not care less.” We say “Everyone doesn't do it,” when we mean “Not everyone does it.” Of course purists can object that these examples are not proper grammar. Let’s continue. What does “quite a few” mean? Why is there such a difference between “It must be lost” and “It must be found”? There are at least three ways to analyze the sentence “Time flies like an arrow.” Is “time” a noun, an imperative verb, or an adjective describing a type of flies? How do we know that “Once upon a time, long, long ago” means it never happened at all? We say “I have something I need to get.” If we have it, why do we need to get it? Would a scholar in the distant future be able to deduce the correct meaning of the question “What's the matter?”? Would he understand the difference between “He got away,” and “He got away with it”? Would he comprehend the sentence “I can hardly come shortly”? Picture our future linguist trying to compare the phrases “just a minute,” “just right,” “just dessert,” “just a desert,” and “just deserts.” Given the meaning of “dis-” and “cover,” would he understand “discover”? Or “dis-“ and “ease”? How come “how come” means what it means? And so on endlessly; language is inherently a habituated arbitrary association of meaning with sounds, not always closely tied to strict logical structure. We can only wonder how much we do not know about the meaning of words and phrases in Bible times. Look at the commentaries for many examples of words, especially in Psalms and other poetic passages, which do not occur frequently enough in the Old Testament to be understood with any certainty by present-day scholars, or even past scholars whose writings are available to us.
I have come across at least two interesting examples of common misunderstandings of the Old Testament. A familiar verse is Nehemiah 8:10, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” We even sing it. We understand it to mean that the Lord gives us joy, and that gives us strength. But the word translated “strength” could also mean “fortifications,” and the joy could be going to the Lord not us, so that the verse may mean that the Lord receives joy from the city wall the people had just finished rebuilding. The Lord does give us joy and strength, but that may not be what this verse means. Another familiar verse is Proverbs 3:5, 6, which in the King James Version is “Trust in the Lord,… and He will direct thy path.” Generations of Christians have taken this as a promise of guidance from the Lord. I have heard that a Bible scholar, who was a member of the New International Version translation committee, had from childhood understood it that way, until in the course of doing the new translation he discovered that in the Hebrew it means the Lord will make your way smooth and straight. It says nothing at all about guiding you. Of course, many other verses do say so, so there is no doctrinal issue at stake here, only the meaning of this particular verse. This is probably a slip in translation into English, not an ambiguity in the original.
If we attempt to make language more precise than it is capable of being, it is like trying to make a high-precision machine part out of rubber, or measure the diameter of a cloud to the nearest millimeter. This does not mean rubber or clouds do not exist, only that we must deal with their characteristics sensibly. Thus we might imagine an over-conservative theologian and a liberal theologian looking at the same cloud. The first tries to measure the cloud within a millimeter, the second doubts the cloud really exists, and neither one notices that it is raining.
TranslationFurthermore, there is the complexity of translation, which is the only means of access most of us have to the Bible text. This brings two languages into the process of transferring the concepts from the authors’ minds to ours. Translation between modern languages still cannot be done reliably by computers. Add to this the complexity of cross-cultural understanding. In the case of the Bible, add to this the complexity of understanding across the ages between then and now.
The Old Testament itself spans a 1000-year period. During those centuries great changes in society and language occurred, so Old Testament Hebrew was not a single, unchanging language. Determining the precise definition of a given word is aiming at a moving target. Look at the “generation gap” we experience within a decade, with new phrases and uses of words. Consider the differences between American and British English that have arisen in a couple of centuries. We must use caution in making comparisons of word usage in passages written at widely different times, and cannot assume the usage was constant. That is precisely the assumption made in “word list” studies on which are based the interpretation of a particular word in a particular verse. Such studies are very informative, but not mathematically precise.
In this book we will be especially concerned (in ch. 7) about the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, the beginning chapters of the Bible (but not necessarily the oldest), written by Moses during a time of uniquely rapid change in the cultural environment of the Jewish people. The transition from slavery in Egypt to occupation of Canaan was a tremendous cultural change, and is certain to have been reflected in major changes in habits of speech and thought. Moses wrote at least several centuries before very much more of the Old Testament was written. Therefore even early pre-Christian Jewish scholars are centuries and worlds removed from Moses, and not necessarily infallible guides to the meaning of every word as Moses understood it fresh from his Egyptian education.
Old Testament Hebrew is a dead language, and therefore unable to defend itself against misinterpretation by 20th-century theologians. There are very few samples available to us outside the Old Testament. Most theologians are only proficient in using reference books to decipher Old Testament Hebrew. This is a valuable skill, but it still is true that even most seminary Hebrew teachers cannot possibly be fluent enough in Old Testament Hebrew to ask Moses for a drink of water.
New Testament Greek is a far different case. Unlike the Old Testament, it represents a single generation, a virtual instant in history, and it is documented by a vast literature of extant material contemporary with the New Testament. But many key New Testament words are given new aspects of meaning when adopted from their pagan cultural origins into the Biblical world-view: God, sin, salvation, redemption, etc. For these meanings we are dependent on the rest of the New Testament, and usages were not even standardized between different authors, e.g. the apparent disagreement between Paul and James about “justification” and whether it has anything to do with our actions. This has led to endless theological debates over these uncertainties. There is much more possibility for error in our understanding of Old Testament writers' thoughts, especially in details and in poetry.
Scholars have made amazing strides in the study of dead ancient languages of the Middle East and elsewhere, including China. This produces an interesting situation. There are scholars of classical Chinese literature (written more than 2000 years ago) who cannot speak or understand a word of either ancient or modern spoken Chinese. I do not for a moment discredit their achievements. But I do harbor a deep suspicion that there still is far more guesswork and error in their work than they care to admit. If Confucius and Mencius (the best-known ancient Chinese philosophers) could read these modern scholarly tomes, I have a hunch that at many places they would laugh themselves into exhaustion. But they and the scholars are safe from this fate. And so are the scholars of ancient Hebrew.
I would like to know how often scholars who study a modern language which is not their mother tongue are found to misunderstand things that are plain to native speakers. This is the reality check on the accuracy of linguistic expertise.
Divine inspirationAll the discussion to this point is applicable to any document or text. In studying any other document besides the Bible, the basic question is what the author meant. We will not get into the current debate over “deconstruction,” in which the original author’s meaning is disregarded and words are considered to mean whatever the observer feels theydo. That battle is being waged in the halls of secular academia, and we wish them well. A widely-quoted book on the conservative side is by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).
Some conservative theologians have applied these principles to the interpretation of the Bible, claiming that the final authority in Bible interpretation is the author’s intended meaning. They have placed great emphasis on Hirsch’s principles. Their goal is a worthy one, of preventing drift away from faith in the Bible as God’s authoritative revelation, or the principle of sola scriptura. But in adopting this approach, they seem to be defending too much, and losing something in the process, namely the divine aspect. Hirsch never says anything about divine inspiration or the Holy Spirit. To limit the meaning of the Bible to the author’s intended meaning is to introduce an anti-supernatural bias in practice, however much these same conservative theologians may reject such a bias in principle, and deny that they have such a bias in this case.
We must carefully guard against any approach that introduces an unrestrained subjective element that could lead to almost any interpretation the reader may prefer. This has led to the chaos of liberal theology and higher criticism, and the abuses of Roman Catholic theology. We must reject all imaginative inventions of “scholarship” or “inspiration” which have no basis in the content of the text nor the facts of history. But avoidance of that error is no excuse for committing an opposite error, and it is counter-productive, making the first error look more reasonable.
In most cases there is no reason to doubt that the author’s intended meaning is the inspired God-given meaning. But this may not always be the last word. What is most important is not what the human author was thinking, but what God was thinking.
The Bible is undeniably a document which must be analyzed by the same basic principles as other documents. However, we who believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God must take still another factor into account. Even if we could be certain what the Bible authors were thinking, our belief that they were divinely inspired introduces another whole dimension to the possibilities of interpretation, which does not arise in the interpretation of other ancient or modern writings.
Theologians use the term “verbal, plenary inspiration.” “Verbal” means the words, not just the ideas, were guided by God. This rejects the theory that God gave the writers some spiritual insights but left it up to their limited human abilities to write it down as clearly and correctly as they could, which inevitably would result in some slipups. “Plenary” means all of it, not just part. So the Bible does not just “contain” the words of God, it is all the Word of God. Once we assume that some parts might be wrong, and have no standard for determining which parts, we cannot really trust any part. “Inspiration” literally means “in-breathed,” in this case meaning God was speaking through the authors. This does not tell us specifically how God did it. In fact He must have used various methods in different cases. It does not mean they were only typewriters putting down words God spoke; the different authors’ background andpersonalities are plainly evident. But it does mean that God acted in a unique way in the process of the writing of the Bible, so that the outcome was a document expressing precisely what God wanted expressed.
This is called the doctrine of inerrancy. This is impossible to define precisely, because the meaning of language is imprecise (ch. 5, I, F). The doctrine of inerrancy is a teaching of the Bible itself, which we believe because we believe the Bible is God’s Word, and we have other reasons for believing that. We need not, and must not, fall into a logical circle on this point. God could conceivably have chosen to communicate His truth to us through a book in which He allowed some errors; we cannot decide how He must do His work of revealing His message. We can only observe that He Himself in that message told us that it contains no errors. The Biblical passages involved in this doctrine are too extensive to even begin to list here. We cannot prove exactly what the Bible means in every detail, let alone prove that what the Bible means has no errors. We can only look at purported errors, and find that there are no proven errors at this moment. See the discussion of historical accuracy and internal unity in sec. III, D and E.
What all this means for our present topic is that there may be more meaning in some Biblical passages than even the writer himself or herself dreamed. David had no inkling of what we know about how “the heavens declare the glory of God,” Ps. 19:1; 8:3. Also, the prophets studied their own prophecies, I Pet. 1:10-12. On the other hand, it could be argued that here Peter is only saying the prophets wondered about further details, such as time and circumstance, which were not explicitly stated in their writings, so this does not prove they did not understand what was stated. But there are other examples. Some prophecies are not even obviously prophetic, and the writer was probably unaware of their implications as later generations saw them: Jer. 19:1-11; Hos. 11:1; Zech. 11:2 (see ch. 6, III, G). These verses are quoted and interpreted in the New Testament, so we must consider that interpretation to be an inspired, inerrant one.
And finally there are the prophecies which are still unfulfilled, relating to the end of the world, scattered through the Old Testament and concentrated in the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament. Who can make any claims as to the degree to which the writers understood these? How much could they possibly have understood? Even if God gave them a direct vision of future people and events, what comprehension could they possibly have of visions of automobiles, airplanes, rockets, atomic bombs, laptop computers, and rock concerts? Whatever they comprehended, how could they express it in their vocabulary?
The early Church spent several centuries hammering out its concepts of the nature of Jesus Christ and salvation, sorting out the facts of Jesus’ simultaneous human and divine nature, and of God’s sovereignty and human free will as they both relate to our salvation. Many acrimonious arguments, books, and church councils struggled through these issues. Their primary authority in these debates was the Apostle Paul’s writings. But can we believe that Paul anticipated all that would be questioned in the next few centuries, and had a clear concept of all the answers that would need to be included in his epistles? Not to mention the other New Testament writers, whose writings are also important, but who were nowhere near the scholar Paul was. We can only believe that God oversaw the process of writing so that all that is needed for following generations was included, far beyond the writers’ own comprehension of those needs and their answers.
Another category of problem passages is statements that are not precisely true, yet their meaning is correct. e.g., in Gen. 22:17, it is God Himself speaking, so this is not even a question of the author’s ability to comprehend. God told Abraham that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars. Four thousand years later, his descendants are far more numerous than the number of stars visible to the naked eye (a few thousand), but nowhere near the actual number of stars known to modern astronomy (at least 1022). But neither of these facts obscures the meaning God was expressing to Abraham.
The Ten Commandments, with their reference to the days of creation, are yet another special case, being the direct words of God, not of Moses. While this gives them a unique status of authority, it also allows even greater distance between what God meant and what Moses understood.
Could the author himself actually misunderstand?The doctrine of inspiration means that we must even cautiously allow the possibility that what the scripture writer thought was wrong in a few instances. It is remarkable that the Bible is so free of mistaken concepts that were common at the time. The Bible claims that inspiration produced inerrant teaching. Inerrancy is a complex subject that has been dealt with in endless theological discussion, and was briefly introduced above. But while upholding this belief, we still must acknowledge that some wrong ideas may be caught peeking around the edges of that teaching. For instance, Paul early in his ministry seems to have expected the return of Jesus within his lifetime, though that is not directly taught (I Thess. 4:17, “we who are still alive.”). And Jonah glaringly misunderstood God’s intention for Nineveh, though in the end he confessed to having had a hunch.
This is a complex and sensitive subject, which skeptics and liberals have often abused, but the possible abuse of these facts is no excuse for the opposite error of denying them in a misguided attempt to defend the authority of the Bible and protect others from misunderstanding it. Just because some people have taken an inch and gone a mile, that does not justify trying to take back the legitimate inch. That only makes those people look good, and brings further disgrace on the very position we are trying to defend. Some truth may be dangerous, but it is more dangerous to try to conceal it than to deal with it. If we try to conceal part of the truth, and this is discovered and causes offense, we bear responsibility for that. It is sadly humorous to try to conceal truth in order to defend the truth. It may be dangerous to raise such questions as we are raising here, because it will cause confusion for some who are easily confused. The truth will always be abused by some, and they bear responsibility for doing so. As Peter commented, Paul’s epistles contain things easily misunderstood (II Peter 3:15, 16), but Peter did not say Paul should not have written them. Justification by grace through faith alone is a dangerous and often misconstrued teaching, but we must teach it. God does.
My purpose in pointing out the limitations of language is of course not to undermine our hope of understanding God’s Word to us. As has been mentioned in ch. 3, and in regard to some of the questions discussed in ch. 4, lack of complete understanding is not complete lack of understanding. Some things are stated so extensively and repeatedly throughout the Bible that there is no reasonable doubt about their meaning. The threshold for reconsideration of these points is so high that it is inconceivable that science could produce sufficient and relevant information to reach that threshold. In fact it seems that any reconsideration would amount to questioning the authority of Scripture itself, because there seems so little room for other possible interpretations. But we must be willing to discriminate these things from others that are detailed points mentioned only peripherally in a few places, and therefore their threshold is far lower, and the authority of Scripture itself is not necessarily at stake. This allows us to discriminate theologians’ fallible opinions from inerrant revelation, which may be the key to a particular apparent conflict between theologians and scientists.
The current flash-point is the age of the universe, or the date of creation. This section is written as background for that discussion in ch. 7.
The opinion of church leadersThere is one other authority which is often invoked in questions of Biblical interpretation, and currently in the date-of-creation debate. That authority is the consensus, or at least majority, of the great leaders of the church down through the centuries. This is a very significant authority. Most conservative Christians accept the early creeds, produced by the great church councils, as accurately representing the teaching of the Bible. We hardly dare disagree with these heroes of the faith who contended for the truth with such devotion. But they still are not infallible, especially on details which were not the crux of the historic theological debates. Examination shows a number of areas in which we do disagree with them. None of them objected to monarchical government, nor advocated democracy. They had nothing to say on socialism versus capitalism. As already mentioned elsewhere, some of them had a repressive outlook on the role of sex and marriage. The early church within a century of the end of Roman persecution began committing persecution itself, and a thousand years later the great reformers became enmeshed in forceful suppression of those with divergent theological views.
The beliefs of Christian leaders and most followers through the ages are a very important reference point, but not infallible.
A similar authority often cited, particularly with reference to the Old Testament, is the ancient Jewish community of scholars, both before and after the time of Christ. This too is a valuable reference, and this too is fallible. The most obvious example of their errors is Jesus’ scathing denunciations of the teachings and traditions of the religious leaders of His day.
To conclude this discussion, I present two more diagrams, which are mostly self-explanatory. The first is a more detailed version of the previous diagram, representing more of the factors involved in our understanding of reality. The important addition is our experience, observation, and self-consciousness, which are parts of created reality. At least from a Christian perspective this does not totally overlap with the realm of nature, as discussed in V, A, 2 below. Our observations and self-perception are influenced by our understanding of the world, science, and theology, so there are arrows going both up and down. Progress in research is a circular process. I have put considerable thought and struggle into these arrows and overlaps, and some is still debatable. How would you modify it?
In this diagram, conflicts can occur in many places, in all areas of overlap between theology, natural science, social science, and world-view.
The second diagram represents the sources of our understanding of various basic doctrines. They come initially from the Bible, of course, but other sources also give varying degrees of understanding.