Science and the Sacred

Science and the Sacred

The Message-Incident Principle

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CAPTION: The Message-Incident Principle

This post is a follow up by Denis Lamoureux on his earlier “Science and the Sacred” guest article “The Ancient Science in the Bible“.

As I argued in a previous contribution, the Bible presents a 3-tiered universe. One of the most important passages in the New Testament is the Kenotic Hymn, and it employs this view of the structure of the cosmos. Highlighting the fact that God emptied (Greek keno?: to empty, pour out) Himself and came down to the level of humans in the person of Jesus, the apostle Paul writes:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, [1] in heaven and [2] on earth and [3] under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.                                                         – Phil 2:5-11 (NIV)

Ancient peoples understood the universe to be made up of three physical levels. Regrettably, English Bibles do not translate fully the original Greek. “Under the earth” should be rendered “the underworld.” In fact, the Greek word katachthoni?n in this verse refers to the beings down (kata) in the chthonic (chthovios) or subterranean world. A more accurate and literal translation of this verse is this: At the name of Jesus every knee should bow–of the beings in heaven, of the beings on earth, and of the beings in the underworld (cf., Matt 12:40; Eph 4:9-10; 1 Pet 3:19). For the biblical writers, the underworld was every bit as real as the heavens above their head and the earth upon which they walked.

So how should modern Bible-believing Christians interpret Phil 2? When Paul wrote this passage he understood the structure of the universe from an ancient phenomenological perspective (in contrast to our modern phenomenological perspective). Viewing the natural world with unaided physical senses, most people at that time accepted that the cosmos was literally made up of three tiers. In other words, this apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, employed the science of his generation in order to declare the Messages of Faith that God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus to become a servant, and that the Father made Him Lord over the entire creation. Paul’s intention in this passage is not to inform Christians of the structure of the cosmos. It just happens to be that when he wrote this letter to the Philippian church, the 3-tier universe was his understanding of the construction of the world and that of his readers. In this way, ancient science assists to deliver the Divine Theology in Scripture.

The diagram above presents the Message-Incident Principle for the interpretation of biblical passages that refer to the physical world. This approach contends that in order to reveal inerrant spiritual truths as effectively as possible to ancient peoples, the Holy Spirit used their ancient phenomenological perspective of nature. That is, instead of confusing or distracting the biblical writers and their readers with modern scientific concepts, God descended to their level and employed the science-of-the-day. Similar to the central message in the Kenotic Hymn, the Creator humbled Himself through the use of ancient human ideas about nature in the revelatory process. Therefore, passages in the Bible referring to the physical world feature both a Message of Faith and an incidental ancient science. According to this interpretive principle, biblical inerrancy rests in the Divine Theology, and not in statements referring to nature. Qualifying ancient science as “incidental” does not imply that it is unimportant. The science in Scripture is vital for transporting the inerrant spiritual truths. It acts as a vessel similar to a cup that delivers “living waters” (John 4:10). However, the word “incidental” carries meanings of “that which happens to be alongside” and “happening in connection with something more important.” In the case of Phil 2, the 3-tier ancient astronomy is “alongside” the “more important” Message of Faith that Jesus is Lord over the entire universe. Amen!

For more on the Message-Incident Principle see Denis O. Lamoureux’s book I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution (2009), pages 44-50 and his website.


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Daniel Mann

posted September 8, 2009 at 2:00 pm

There’s much I can agree with here. Clearly, the Bible does use phenomenal language, the common language of the people, and this language generally carries worldview connotations. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Paul’s language reflects the ancient cosmological worldview, but without him actually endorsing that worldview.
The use of this phenomenal language is not only unavoidable but also necessary, as you have pointed out. We use it also when we say that “the sun rises.” Another example is the way that the Bible often rounds off numbers. For instance, Paul wrote that “23,000 fell” among the Israelites because of their sin with the Moabite women (1 Cor. 10:8). It would be wrong to take issue with the inerrancy of the Bible when it uses inexact numbers. This is because the Bible never intended to teach exactitude in THIS regard.
We therefore have to apply the concept of inerrancy to those teachings INTENDED by the Bible. We can’t hold the Bible accountable for something it never intended to teach. You wrote something somewhat similar to this: “Biblical inerrancy rests in the Divine Theology, and not in statements referring to nature.”
However, your statement is very extreme and doesn’t follow from what came before it. There are times when words and details must be taken literally and exactly, because theology rests upon it. For instance, take Jesus’ argument against the Saduccees who denied an after-death existence. Quoting from Exodus 3:6, He argued:
“’I AM the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22:32)
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “I WAS the God of Abraham…” Jesus is making a statement about the “nature” of the present state (science, if you will) of the patriarchs, pivoting on one little word.
Questions of what the Bible is intending to teach and what is incidental must be determined exegetically and contextually and not with a meat-ax. Ruling out “statements referring to nature” as possibly inerrant is like saying, “Well, since Paul wasn’t concerned about using an exact number on this occasion, then it follows that all uses of numbers are incidental and don’t attach to theology.” Such a conclusion would clearly be unwarranted, especially as we regard the many verses that proclaim that there is ONE God.

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posted September 9, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Great post, Dr. Lamoureux, and let me tell you right here how much I enjoyed your book “Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution”
BTW, perhaps your students would like to participate in this blog.

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posted September 10, 2009 at 5:50 pm

Denis, nice post.
For what it’s worth:
“Denis Lamoureux has a plain-vanilla and good redux over on BeliefNet on what we’ve tackled here …. Lamoureux would have us read Gerald Schroeder’s Divine Name (“I Will Be What I Will Be”) simpliciter …. God is concerned about the message. … We do the cosmology. God does the theology. Perhaps the two twain like Chaitin discovering chance by accident. Schroeder wants a radical redescription of the message through the science of cosmology inter alia. And Schroeder’s concept of the message (“I Will Be What I Will Be”) merges in form and function in a non-optimal partition of errors – in errors in our subjective experience Of God, and, in errors in our systematics (our ontological language as Patricia Latourette has called it here). With Schroeder, we get two accidents for the price of one. With God on the uptake to correct us all around. “God According to God” (according to Schroeder).
Lamoureux is qualified to go toe to toe with Schroeder.”
For replies, I’ll check here.

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posted September 10, 2009 at 7:22 pm

Your link is broken.

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posted September 10, 2009 at 9:39 pm

Thank you very kindly!
I hope one of the two links below will get you there.
General link (in case the specific link fails):
Specific link to the Lamoureux discussion:

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Denis O. Lamoureux

posted September 12, 2009 at 10:41 am

Dear Jim,
You write:
“Lamoureux is qualified to go toe to toe with Schroeder.”
In fact I had dinner with Gerry 10 or so years ago at Ohio State. Really great guy. And very funny. However, I did press him on the meaning of raqia’ (firmament). He said it was the Milky Way. I said that that is not the meaning of the Hebrew. There was no discussion after that.
Words are important in Biblical interpretation, and if we are not going to submit to them, then there really isn’t any point in reading Scripture.

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posted September 13, 2009 at 11:59 am

Perhaps studying parables will provide a stable starting point for explaining language and coming to conclusions about anything one finds in the Bible (as if anything is lost there).
You’ve concluded that “…the Bible presents a 3-tiered universe.”
That conclusion may have relevance for you and your followers; how does it spread the gospel of the kingdom? How do you feel about the amount of time you spent coming to that conclusion and was the time well-spent?
Your reference to Phil 2:5-11 (NIV) was, possibly, a distraction as the NIV does not interpret adequately the first verse, the NIV having become the laughingstock attempt to rearrange the pure meat of the word into some milky childish substitute.
Bottom line, what service does it provide, your conclusion? More importantly, where is your fear and trembling, your servant heart, your willingness to empty yourself?
You are in the same category of those who will say, “I love you, Jesus.” Yet it is a jesus of your own making; and He will say, “I never loved you (you never fed my sheep).”
We live in a world, at a time of great sorrow and as we progress toward the day of the LORD, we are being given opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to repent in sackcloth and ashes…yet we refuse.
Perhaps we are at a place where we can begin to understand the passage, “Jesus wept.”

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Daniel Mann

posted September 13, 2009 at 7:47 pm

You raise a good question: “How does it [evangelizing the church for Darwin] spread the gospel of the kingdom?”
If only the theistic evolutionist would evangelize the Darwinist for Christ! Sadly, I only see the opposite taking place. (Francis Collins is an exception to the rule).
Instead, what I am repeatedly reading here is that we conservative Christians should be humble about our interpretations of the Bible, without any concommitent warning for Darwinists to be humble about their conclusions regarding evolution!

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posted September 15, 2009 at 10:48 pm

That’s known as marginalization, a well-known and widely-used tactic often initiated by those who have no ability to argue on point. Sadly, since there is no evidence for evolution, there can be no argument about evidence and the, what shall I call it at that point: conversation? generally deteriorates a la the 2nd law of thermo becoming just-so stories.

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Sacred Heart University

posted November 25, 2009 at 12:02 pm

We have a few college students online from Sacred Heart University and we love your blog postings, so well add your rss or news feed for them, Thanks and please post us and leave a comment back and well link to you. Thanks Jen , Blog
Sacred Heart University

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