I am enjoying our exchange very much and appreciate the civility of our conversation, which is on an often hostile topic that generates ad hominem attacks. I believe we are successfully exploring representative positions rather than simply having a contest to see who can out-argue the other.
Let me start with your most interesting question: You ask me how I can be “absolutely certain” when I say “I don’t believe we have absolute certainty anywhere….” I think I am obligated to say here that I am not “absolutely certain” about this! What I would say, rather, is that there is no evidence that humans have access to any absolute sources of truth. And absolute truth is such an extraordinary and even dangerous claim that we should have some compelling motivation before we assume we have it in our grasp.
But I don’t understand why we need absolute sources of truth. Every day we make countless decisions, large and small, on the basis of probabilities. We choose doctors for surgery, we buy cars, we propose marriage, we decide what charities to support. We make all these decisions, some quite significant, on the basis of probable knowledge. And, when the probability is high, we can make decisions with confidence.
Why, when it comes to origins, do you need an absolute certainty that you don’t need or find anywhere else in your life?
I am puzzled by your comment: “The only way we can be absolutely certain about anything is if we have a basis in an absolute authority–which is what the Bible claims for itself.”
I don’t see how you can say this. I will set aside the obvious circularity in accepting a claim that the Bible makes about itself. Instead, I will point out that the Bible does not even make such a claim about itself. New Testament references to the “Scriptures” are referring to the Old Testament and often just a portion of the Old Testament. And even then the comments–“Scripture is God-Breathed” or “Holy men of old wrote as they were moved by the spirit”–are not claims of absolute truth in matters of science. Scripture can be inspired and still be written within the worldview of the biblical authors. If Genesis emerges from a culture where everyone believed there was a dome in the sky, what is the problem with a creation story that tells us that God put that dome in the sky? Would not every generation, in affirming that God was creator, mention things in their world that they thought were real? How does this undermine the affirmation of God as creator?
What, exactly, is the role of the authors of the Bible? It looks like you have dismissed them as irrelevant secretaries. Can Paul’s worldview enter into his letters? Can the Psalmist’s cosmology show in a Psalm? Or does God prevent the Psalmist from making references to the worldview of his culture, since those ideas will someday be replaced?
More importantly though, is the way you obtain this absolute authority. You simply announce that the 66 books of the protestant Bible are absolute! And then–like magic–you have an absolute foundation. But this seems like a very human move to me, motivated by the desire to eliminate the uncertainty that is a part of life.
And finally, we have the thorny problem of interpretation. You are quick to dismiss this problem, claiming that you don’t really interpret the Bible–you just read it. But I have to keep coming back to the very, very different meanings that faithful Christians have gotten from the Bible. Galileo’s critics tried to read the Bible faithfully. What could be more natural than to read the story of the Joshua’s long day as the sun stopping in the sky? It requires interpretation to claim that the language is “observational” rather than scientific. And why is it that this interpretative approach was adopted only after everyone was forced to accept that the sun does not move? Martin Luther, featured prominently in AIG’s Creation Museum, was convinced that the Vatican was the “Great Whore of Babylon” mentioned in Revelation, and he expected apocalyptic judgment. But what Christian would claim this today?
If God had intended the Bible to be an absolute source of truth, it seems odd that it is so easy to misunderstand. You seem trapped in a “presentist” mode of interpretation where your current understanding is the only legitimate one. But people past and present, just like you, with identical beliefs about the nature of the Bible, find conflicting claims in its often difficult and confusing passages.
For my final comment on the implausibility of treating the Bible as absolute truth in all areas, I would ask you what this verse (I Corinthians 15:29) means: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?” This seems like an odd verse to me, and I have a hard time imagining that there is some “natural” reading of this that will yield an “absolute” propositional truth. My guess is that the staff of AIG, if placed in separate rooms with this verse, would all come up with different interpretations of this. Correct me if I am wrong.
Throughout your responses, I detect a consistent “all or none” approach to these issues. For example, you state that I claim “we cannot understand the Bible unless we first understand God’s revelation in nature.” But this is not what I claim. I claim that there are some passages in the Bible–like the story of Joshua’s long day–that were misunderstood until after they were illuminated by science. I think of truth as something in the clouds on top of a tall mountain. We make our way up this mountain along various paths, occasionally finding a new path that works better for a while and then returning to our original path. Sometimes we must walk two paths at once.
I disagree that we must decide which path is better–the Bible or Science. They both have value for the Christian and we should trust them both. But we must let each of them speak in their own domain. When your children were ill, you looked to medical science to cure them. I am sure you also prayed for them–what parent doesn’t?–but your primary “solution” to those endless ear infections was medical science. But when you wanted to teach your children about Jesus, you used the Bible. Imagine if medical science was based entirely on the Bible and we had learned nothing beyond the homey wisdom in the Old Testament! There would be so much suffering in the world and plagues would rampage without ceasing. And our children would have never ending earaches.
I cannot see the Bible as propositional truth, as you do. I am not sure what this could even mean. To me the Bible seems like a collection of narratives–The Story of God, as my friend Mike Lodahl titled his book. Propositions are lifeless and non-relational–the opposite of the Bible, which seems like a grand adventure.
You offer an example of how I might relate science and the Bible. Just as I would suggest that science helps us interpret some passages of Scripture, that same Scripture offers insights of interest to science. The deep rationality of the natural world and the astonishing ability of our minds to penetrate that rationality are mysteries not dispelled by scientific investigation. I agree with you that, in some sense, science is “borrowing from the Christian worldview” when they take these things for granted. Scientists can certainly just assume these truths and go on their merry way without reflection. But many scientists seek a deeper understanding of the world and are drawn to religion as they seek this deeper understanding. John Polkinghorne calls this “Cross-traffic,” a term I like very much.
Most scientists, as scientists, are not interested in such questions however, so this is something of a moot point. And I am not suggesting that we “take the majority opinion of secular scientists as our ultimate authority” in matters of faith, as you rightly caution. Science is not equipped to assess miracles like the resurrection of Christ, for example. The resurrection, of course, cannot be explained by natural science since it is by definition, supernatural. Ditto for eternal life and other mysteries of the faith that transcend human understanding and experience.
In your “all or none” approach to authority you seem to want to oversimplify the world so we always know where the trump cards are. You seem to think that, unless they are all held by the Bible, then we must concede everything to science. But this is not the world that God created. Life is messy and negotiating the many sources of truth in the world is a part of what makes life interesting.
You tell me that I have an “inconsistency” in my worldview. This is very generous of you, considering that I have countless inconsistencies in my worldview. For me, the miracle is that the world is even marginally intelligible, all things considered. The world is filled with inconsistency. Love generates pain and bliss. Quantum Mechanics contradicts General Relativity. Children are both glorious and terrible. Taxes are both good and bad. The world is not a tidy place.
But, in this messy world we discover things. We discover that dead people don’t come back to life, which makes the resurrection a miracle. And, since you have asked me about this specifically, I would point out that the Christian doctrine is not that Jesus came back to life, but rather that God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is thus an act of God and thus outside the purview of science.
I would like to close this third and final post with an explanation for why I am motivated to engage this topic in the first place. I think science is a wonderful gift that God has given us–a fascinating world to be explored by our curious minds. And it grieves me that so many evangelicals are energized to oppose science, rather than embrace it. There is evidence for common ancestry in our genes and almost all scientists accept this. You are being unfair to honest scientists when you say “Only if we already knew that all organisms are biologically related would it make sense to use similarities in traits or DNA sequences as a measure of their relatedness.” This is just plain false. Science is not, as you repeatedly claim, a circular exercise where assumptions and starting points determine outcomes. The picture of the world that we have today came across the threshold of science kicking and screaming, vigorously opposed by the scientific community. The Copernican Revolution, to take the first major example, was deeply disturbing. John Donne expressed this angst in these memorable lines, written in the year the King James Version appeared:
And new philosophy casts all in doubt
The element of Fire is quite put out
The sun is lost,
and th’ earth
And no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
Similarly, nobody wanted quantum mechanics; it was just too creepy. The Big Bang was a pejorative label mockingly attached by Fred Hoyle to a theory that he despised for being so supernatural-looking. Evolution was disturbing and unsettling to Darwin and his generation. Darwin, as I discuss at length in Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (take a peek inside the book here), started his career as a Christian, with a biblical worldview. He did not board the Beagle looking to rationalize his unbelief, as so many have unfairly claimed. Over and over again, the great breakthroughs of science arrive as unwelcome guests, not the rationalization of prejudices. That such foreign ideas can take root in unwelcome soil and eventually grow to health speaks of the integrity of the scientific enterprise.
I wish that Christians could “come to peace with science,” to paraphrase my friend Darrell Falk’s book on evolution. So much energy is expended fighting the wrong battle, trying to undermine science instead of understanding it as the creative work of God.
Thanks, Ken, for this stimulating dialog and for forcing me to think harder about how I make sense of all this.
All the best,