No Scientific Revelation in the Bible!

I have had the opportunity on a few different occasions to listen to John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, discuss the question of origins as related in Genesis. The most recent in fact was just yesterday. John is the author of the Genesis (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) and of a popular book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate and a number of other books. His emphasis is on the interpretation of the text of the Old Testament, especially Genesis, in its ancient Near Eastern context. He is an engaging speaker with a deep understanding of the language, culture, and text; a text he desires to reads both in ancient context and through eyes of faith.

Walton Cosmology ImageOver the last six or seven months John has been speaking around the world on the topic Genesis Through Ancient Eyes (he says about seventy times in seven months). If you are interested you can find a version of his talk on the BioLogos site (linked through the title). The talk has been divided into four segments of 8 to 15 minutes or so for your viewing pleasure. The image above is a screen grab from the first segment (well worth a look … it is less than 9 minutes long). illustrating the waters above and the waters below as describe in Genesis. Today, though, I would like to look just briefly at a concept introduced in the second segment – Science and the Bible. John opens up this segment:

(0:20-1:20 )I just want to make two quick points here. The first one is that in the Bible there is no scientific revelation.That’s such an important point. Israel is not getting any new understanding of the material world, its mechanisms, its operations, or anything of that sort. No new information. Now they can observe the world, and they might make some of the same observations we make when we observe the world in our modern times. But they didn’t get that by revelation.

In other words, anything that is in the Bible about the workings of the material world were things that Israel already believed and that all the nations around them already believed. Like I mentioned with the waters, the waters above and the waters below in Genesis One. Everyone in the ancient world believed that. That’s not kind of a breakthrough revelation. And that is true all the way through the Old Testament.

He goes on to use an illustration of the heart and “mind” in the ancient context. They knew nothing about the brain and its role in cognition. The word we translate mind is entrails. But we don’t need to try to understand how a blood pump and entrails produce thoughts. This is ancient “science” in the text. It was not corrected as God revealed himself to his people. The second point John makes concerning science and the Bible is that “the observation of natural cause and effect does not remove God from the picture (Ps 139:13).” We need to avoid a false dichotomy – either God or natural process.

A few years ago I posted on a book by Denis O. Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution. (For those who find the full book (400+ pages) somewhat daunting Dr. Lamoureux has condensed the book into a more accessible version as well I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution.) You can find all of the posts on this book in the Science and Faith Archive (scroll down to the section Books on Scripture). Dr. Lamoureaux makes the same point that John Walton is making. In chapter four of Evolutionary Creation, after running through a number of examples of ancient science that are found in the Old Testament, from the waters above and below mentioned by Walton, to that bird the bat, the cud chewing rabbits, and the understanding of reproduction (the male plants a seed in the womb … no egg, no mixing of DNA, a womb is barren when it will not accept the seed).

If we expect scientific concordance between the text of scripture and our present understanding of cosmology, geography, biology, reproduction, and more we have two choices – we can search for reasons why the language doesn’t carry the apparent meaning, the meaning that fits in context with noncanonical texts and other sources, or we can accept that the ancient science is incidental to the meaning. Many, of course, take the first approach – looking at the language as phenomenological or as figurative and poetic. But this doesn’t hold water. It doesn’t hold up under close examination, especially as we learn more and more about the ancient Near Eastern view of the world. And we now have, John Walton told us last night, some one million cuneiform texts to help us understand the ancient context (although not all have been translated yet).

In the same segment I quoted above Walton notes:

(2:12-2:22) God uses what they knew to communicate. This is happening in their world OK. So God’s not giving them new science. He’s giving them what they need to communicate in their context.

God accommodates his message, his communication, to the local culture and context on issues that are of no importance to the theological point. And this isn’t entirely consistent throughout the Old Testament, because the text comes from different times and contexts. Thus we can have differing views of the earth showing up in different texts, with the earth on pillars in Psalm 75 and Job 9, but established on waters in Psalm 24 and Psalm 136. These texts reflect different times and different views.

Dr. Lamoureux introduces what he calls the message-incident principle to guide interpretation of passages that refer to the physical world and to help Christians think through the impact of ANE “science” in the text. This approach acknowledges ANE “science” and phenomenological language, yet suggests that it is the theological content, not the scientific content, that is the significant content of the text.

This approach contends that in order to reveal spiritual truths as effectively as possible to the 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. … According to this interpretative principle, biblical inerrancy and infallibility rest 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 spiritual truths. … In other words, the ancient science in Scripture is “alongside” the “more important” Message of Faith. (pp. 110-111)

There is no new scientific revelation in Genesis, or indeed in the Bible as a whole. Rather God revealed himself to his people in language that they could understand. Scientific concordism, a strict correspondence between the Bible and the physical world, is not to be expected. On the other hand, theological concordism, that is a correspondence between the theological truths of the Bible and spiritual reality, is found in scripture through and through. The central purpose of Scripture is to reveal God, including His character, laws, and acts.

What do you think? Is there scientific revelation in the Bible?

Should we expect to find such revelation?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

If you would like to comment please see No Scientific Revelation in the Bible! at Jesus Creed.

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