Science Vs the Bible – is there really no conflict?

St Helen’s Church in London (of which I am a big fan) have produced some videos about Science and the Bible. Please take a look at them here.

It’s mostly good stuff, but I think that in their attempt to show that there is no conflict between science and the Bible they have presented a limited view of the Bible’s scope. A number of the videos contain a point along the lines of

“I see no conflict between science and the Bible because they relate to completely different questions. Science deals with “how” (i.e. how things work etc.) but the Bible deals with “why”. Science is limited and can’t address “why” questions, so we need to go to the Bible to answer those. There is therefore no conflict because they address different issues.” [my paraphrase]

I think this position is right about science but wrong about the Bible.

This position is particularly applied to the early chapters of Genesis. We’re told that if you try to use these chapters to ask “how” questions then you’re doing it all wrong, as these chapters are not there to tell us how creation happened.

However, when you read the text of these chapters, you see that the contention that the Bible is about “why”, not “how”, doesn’t stand up. These chapters actually don’t have very much at all to tell us about “why”, but mainly answer other questions, and “how” questions are probably answered more than any other type.

For example, the first verse of chapter 1 says:

“In the beginning [this is a “when”] God [this is a “who”] created the heavens and the earth [this is a “what”].”

Most of the rest of chapter 1 of Genesis doesn’t deal with “why”, but actually deals with “how”. For example:

“God said, ‘let there be light’ – and there was light”.

This tells us the “what” – that God created light, and tells us the “how” – that he created it with his word. Chapter 1 from verse 2 onwards mainly sets out the “how” of the “what” of verse 1. Verse 1 says that God made everything, and the rest of the chapter explains how God made everything. If you look for verses that explain why God made everything, you actually won’t find very much at all. Perhaps the odd hint here or there, but very little is said in this respect. We do find more on this explained later in the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 1), but there is very little scriptural support for the position that the early chapters of the Bible are about “why” questions.

The next few chapters of the Bible after chapter 1 are similar in addressing lots of different questions, not just “why”. For example, the flood narrative explains in detail how the flood happened as well as why it happened.

I get the sense that some Christians, if they had their way, would quite like to rewrite some of the early chapters of the Bible, as they are frustrated with the conflict they see these chapters as having created between the secular worldview of our day and the Christian worldview. They see this as being due to a misreading of these chapters, which they try to explain away by saying they are just about “why” questions. They see these chapters as a stumbling block getting in the way of the important stuff about Jesus, and would rather keep the focus there.

The problem with seeing the Bible as a “why, not how” book is that this view spreads through the whole Bible and actually conflicts with the way Bible talks about the events regarding Jesus, in particular his death and resurrection. In this area there is no conflict between Christians, as there is with how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis. If the Bible is just a “why” book, then it is strange that the gospel writers spend so much time on “how” aspects as well. Of course, we are told the “why” in that Jesus died so that we might be saved from the punishment due for our sins, but we are also told lots of “how” points, such as that Jesus’ death was by crucifixion, that the crucifixion was ordered by Pontius Pilate, after Jesus had meetings with Jewish religious leaders, etc. The “how” parts of this account help to show us that it was a historical event, and the Christian faith depends on this being an historical event. It’s therefore vital that the Bible tells us how it happened, not just why, so we know it was a real historical event.

If we tell an unbelieving scientist that the Bible is a “why” book (in an attempt to remove the stumbling block of the early chapters of Genesis), why should we expect them to put their trust in the “whats” and the “hows” in the Bible regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection?. They would be likely to see the Bible as little more than a book of moral guidance.

If we try to restrict the “why” part of the Bible to just the early chapters of Genesis, they would see an inconsistency and ask, “how do you know this is just a “why” part while other parts of the Bible are more than this? Who gets to decide which parts of the Bible are which?”

Therefore, I think the attempt to separate the Bible and science into two distinct domains (“why” and “how”) actually diminishes the relevance of the Bible and undermines its authority.

I’d say that a better position would be to say that the Bible has something to say on all of life’s big questions (who, what, when, where, how, why…), but only says a finite amount about each. It tells us as much as we need to know to be able to satisfactorily answer these questions and restore our relationship with God. It mainly therefore gives us the big picture of things, leaving out the details. We can then (starting from the Bible) use science and other disciplines to find out more details about things. In doing science, we’re not exploring territory that the Bible doesn’t address at all, but we are finding out details where the Bible gives only a broad outline.

The Bible tells us certain things about the historical context of the time of Jesus, and we can do archaeology to find out more details about what life was like at that time. Similarly, the Bible tells us that there was a flood that covered the whole earth, and we can use science to find out more about the effects of that and why the world now looks how it does.

We know that we are fallible people but that God’s word is perfect, and so when we do science, we should treat God’s word higher than our own ideas and interpretations, and so we should trust God’s word in every area that it touches. If we come up with an idea or interpretation that contradicts what God’s word plainly teaches, we know that the idea is wrong. (This might seem unscientific to some, but actually science can’t operate without biblical assumptions anyway – see here.)

A better response to the “Bible Vs Science” conflict starts with the same point: that science is limited to “how” questions. However, the Bible doesn’t operate in a different domain but actually science only covers one of many domains that the Bible covers. The Bible has a wider scope and is more authoritative because it is God’s word.

The conflict we have today is not between science and the Bible but is between the Bible’s view of history and a view of history devised by fallible humans with a disposition against the existence of a divine creator. That is why the prevailing view in the secular world of science is that life essentially created itself.

Unfortunately there are many Christians who, in the event of such a conflict, are too quick to appease the views of those who don’t believe the Bible, and to try to make the conflict a non-issue so that they can get to the good news of Jesus. However, in many cases this won’t work as in doing this they have already undermined biblical authority, as I’ve explained.

Instead, we should first stand on the authority of God’s word in whatever it says in all domains, including “how” questions. We should then build our science on that, and not be afraid of disagreeing with scientific experts even if they know more than us about their field. God knows more than them (and us) and has given us broad answers to the big “how” questions in his word. So we know with certainty that if a clever scientist proposes something contrary to God’s word, the scientist is wrong. It’s not actually science that is wrong, just the belief of the scientist.

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One thought on “Science Vs the Bible – is there really no conflict?

  1. Beautifully put. I’ve been getting more and more of the impression that scientists confuse the “why” and “how” questions of life themselves. If you ask them, “why does a bird fly?” They will respond by explaining wings!
    Only God can give us the true, “whys” of life. It’s also delightful when He gives us enough of the “hows” to direct our scientific inquiries. 🙂

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