Sunday, October 20, 2013


An article on science and biblical interpretation caught my eye last week (Oct. 13, 2013) not because Dr. Jason Lisle is a “young earth” creationist (he is the director of research at the Institute of Creation Research), an untenable position from my perspective, but because of his claim that people should not “rely on science rather than the Bible to answer questions about our origin, even for just parts.” Let me cite a portion of the article.

A "young earth" creationist, who also believes the universe is much younger than many astronomers calculate, says once people begin to rely on science rather than the Bible to answer questions about our origin, even for just parts, they are asking for trouble.

"It's a very slippery slope when you decide that there are some sections of the Bible that you are going to allow the secular scientist to tell you what it really means," said Dr. Jason Lisle, during an interview with the press shortly after his debate at the National Conference on Christian Apologetics with astronomer and pastor Dr. Hugh Ross, who argued for a universe that is nearly 15 billion years old.

"You've opened a very dangerous door," Lisle continued. "Basically, you've decided to say that 'I'm going to make the secular scientist my ultimate standard by which I interpret the scriptures' and if you are consistent with that, and most people are not, thank goodness, but if you are well, hey, most scientists don't believe the resurrection of the dead is possible."

In other words, people become susceptible to their own interpretations of the Bible at other points in its books and chapters as well.

The problem, he suggests, is that if one allows “the secular scientist to tell you what it {the Bible} really means,” “you've decided to say that 'I'm going to make the secular scientist my ultimate standard by which I interpret the scriptures'.” This creates further issues, according to Lisle, because “most scientists don't believe the resurrection of the dead is possible.” Finally, the article says, though it is not clear that these are Lisle’s words, if people doubt a portion of the Bible they “become susceptible to their own interpretations of the Bible at other points in its books and chapters as well.”

The article states that “Lisle's full-time apologetics ministry is focused on the defense of Genesis.” About the age of the universe, he says that “when you make an age estimate scientifically you have to make certain assumptions, and for that reason you can never really prove the age of something scientifically…You need a history book and fortunately we have a history book and not just any history book. It's the history book by the one who actually did the creating, the one who never lies and the one who knows everything – that history book is the one written by God.”

At the conference at which he spoke, Lisle was asked as to whether issues of the age of creation were related at all to salvation. He answered that

“in a sense it's not. You know, believing in six days [for the creation of the earth] is not a requirement for salvation … God makes it very clear in His word – we're saved by His grace received through faith in Christ and not by works. It's not requiring to have our theology exactly right, but that doesn't mean we should be sloppy in our theology. The time scale of creation does have an effect on Christian theology," he said.

"I would argue that although you can be saved apart from believing in six days, in a way, salvation does not make sense apart from creation in six days. If you believe in millions of years, if you believe the fossils are millions of years old, you have death before Adam sinned, in which case death cannot be the result of Adam's sin if it was already there for millions of years. If death is not the penalty for sin then why did Jesus die on the cross?

"The Gospel message which is predicated on death being the penalty for sin and Christ paying that for us. That itself is predicated on Creation, that goes back to a literal Genesis," Lyle concluded.

I wanted to outline the article carefully because I think there are a number of faulty or limited assumptions and claims made about the nature and process of biblical interpretation and its relationship to science and also one significant point he makes about the relationship of the age of the earth to Christian doctrine.

Let me first outline what I see as the faulty or limited assumptions or claims:

1)      We should rely on the Bible rather than on science to answer questions about our origin;

2)      We should not let secular scientists tell us what some sections of the Bible really mean;

3)      If people pay attention to science they “become susceptible to their own interpretations of the Bible at other points in its books and chapters as well;”

4)      Science causes you “to make certain assumptions,” with the implication that how Lisle reads the Bible does not rely on assumptions;

5)      The Bible is a “history book…written by God.”

The one significant point he makes is about the possible or potential implications of the age of the universe for Christian teaching about original sin and the purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross if physical death was not “the penalty for sin” but had existed for millions of years. There are possible answers to this problem, but he has here pointed out a significant theological issue.

As to faulty or limited assumptions or claims:

1)      Should we rely on the Bible rather than on science to answer questions about our origin? I think there is often a mistake about what the Bible is and what the Bible is intended to answer and this is related to the various genres of biblical literature. At some level, Genesis does tell us about our origin: creation was the purpose oriented result of a loving God, who created this world as very good. These are theological claims about the nature of creation, but it does not seem that Genesis can answer the questions related to the processes of creation. We can see the theological impetus in the mythological nature of the creation accounts, and that there is more than one creation account for instance in Genesis 1-3, but the claim that science has nothing to teach us suggests that interpretation is a literalistic enterprise, obvious to any reader and intended to be read as an historical narrative and not as a mythic-poetical theological account.

Such a reading is also anti-rational, in that it proposes that whatever reason can propose to us, in this case the empirical processes of natural science, must be rejected a priori because they disagree with a literalistic, historical reading of Genesis 1-3. This leads to the second assumption.

2)      Is it problematic to let secular scientists tell us what some sections of the Bible really mean? I must admit that I interpret the Bible, not with an eye toward secular scientists, but with my full attention on the text of the Bible, using all of the resources available to an interpreter, such as historical context, the creation myths of other ancient peoples, the literary genre of the text, and human reason. Human reason is where secular science might come into play, but it is not because they are “scientists” as such, but because what such scientists propose about the nature of reality seems reasonable. The reality is that we all must pay attention to reason and the reasonableness of our claims. We can certainly have foundational disagreements about what we accept as reasonable evidence for interpreting biblical texts, but the fact that evidence begins with scientists does not mean that they are “interpreting” biblical texts, only that we accept some of their evidence as valuable for interpreting certain texts. There is a major difference in these stances, as I still accept the revealed nature of the Bible, which many scientists (and non-scientists for that matter) would find unreasonable, but which I find reasonable to maintain along with some scientific evidence about the age of the cosmos and the origin of human beings through the processes of evolution. The fact that I see evolution and creation guided by God would set me apart from many scientists, yet I see it as reasonable, and can accept both the theological claims of Genesis and the scientific claims of science.


3)      The claim that if people pay attention to science they “become susceptible to their own interpretations of the Bible at other points in its books and chapters as well” supposes that Lisle does not have his own interpretation of the Bible, but “an” interpretation of the Bible which is “the” biblical interpretation. This sort of naïve realism is common among some interpreters, who do not see themselves as influenced by bias, prejudice, limitations of understanding, or their own historical time period, but only by “the truth,” or “the proper interpretation” of the Bible. Yet, all biblical interpretation is personally and historically conditioned and has not always been agreed upon or accepted at other stages of history. This is not a relativistic position, but one that takes into account perspective and the need to constantly have one’s own interpretations placed under scrutiny in the cold light of evidence and reason.

4)      So is it true that science causes you “to make certain assumptions”? It does; it makes the assumption that you will pay attention to evidence, even if, ultimately, you reject that evidence or disagree with that evidence. If scientific evidence is the product of human reason then we ought to pay attention to that evidence. Science does not cause you, however, to make the assumption of a non-theistic world, if that is what Lisle means by “make certain assumptions.” All interpreters make certain assumptions about the world. I assume that there is a God and that the Bible was revealed by God through human beings in history; I also assume that this world can be studied and understood empirically, although that is not the extent of human knowledge or knowing.

I would suggest that Lisle reads the Bible with a number of assumptions – that it is the literal world of God, that it is inerrant, etc., - and that he would be willing to support these assumptions if called upon. Every interpreter brings assumptions to his or her reading of the text and science, which relies upon reason, is one of the assumptions that rational readers of the Bible must bring to the biblical text, that is, that the biblical God acts in ways which make sense to human readers, though they ways of God are not always obvious or clear. If rationality does not underlie our reading of the Bible, it is not clear how interpreters can speak to one another.

5)      One assumption I do not make, however, is that the Bible is a “history book…written by God.” There is history in the Bible, and there are historical realities upon which Christian faith is based, but not every text in the Bible is intended as “history” or as “historical.”  Some passages are mythic, some are poetic, some are prophetic, and some are historical. This does make the task of the interpreter more complex, as the interpreter must make decisions and arguments as to the genre of the text and propose why a text must be construed in one way or another, but it is the proper task of the interpreter. I would certainly argue for the historicity of Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection, though not every interpreter would, and this is the job of the interpreter.

The second issue is what is meant by the Bible being a book “written by God.” This implies that God has transcribed the Bible, or inspired human beings almost as automatons to write the Bible as directed by God. The nature of inspiration is a difficult issue for Christians of all sorts, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, but the general Christian understanding is that human beings used all of their abilities, knowledge, skill and personality to write texts which are, in some way, guided by God, but that these are texts which emerge from and reflect the historical time periods in which they are written, the scientific limitations of those ages, and actual skills and abilities of the authors. If the claim that the Bible is a book “written by God” is meant to suggest that there is no human involvement in the writing of the Bible, this does not make sense of the human production of the texts or the actual texts in their historical context.

Lisle is correct, though, that scientific understandings might impact the nature of Christian theological claims about an actual “Adam and Eve,” or the doctrine of original sin. I wrote about this a couple of years ago at America Magazine and it is a more complex issue than many Christians might think. Catholic theology itself is not as clear cut on this issue as it might first seem. I wrote there,

 Apart from the general claim that we cannot ignore the relationship between science and theology, significantly he {Pope John Paul II} stated  that “theology will have to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history.” This is a task that will be perpetually unfinished in some ways, as both science and theology are perpetually unfinished, but it seems that clarity is still needed in determining the basic implications of what even a theistic understanding of evolution implies for human origins. This is quite apart from the literary study of Genesis, which has clearly outlined the complex nature of these myths of human origins, their relationship to and dependence upon other ancient Near Eastern accounts of human origins and the theological not historical nature of these accounts. As John Paul II asked,


These are all excellent questions, but for those of us who have thought the answers of human origins in Catholic theology were more clearly in line with the findings of evolutionary theory, there seems to be more ambiguity than I was aware. Even if Catholic theology is long beyond Mohler's unease that the Bible is more than history or his rejection of evolutionary theory, it seems that the questions he asks regarding Adam and Eve still have answers vaguely similar to his.

The theological issues Lisle raises are significant, but biblical interpretation will not be able to answer them if it rejects science out of hand, for the rejection of science as such is the rejection of reason and biblical interpretation must rely on reason. There is no other option.

 John W. Martens

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