Science is Incidental

lamoureux-coverChapter 5 of Denis Lamoureux’s new book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes looks at the way that “science” is presented in Scripture. Science is a modern concept, but Scripture certainly speaks about the nature of the cosmos and uses language that assumes a view of astronomy, geography, and biology. But the Bible is not a science book. It doesn’t teach new science, rather it reflects the typical views concerning astronomy, geography, and biology commonly held in the ancient Near East. These views are phenomenological – the result of observation by unaided physical senses. In contrast modern science often goes beyond this using instruments and theories to describe the cosmos. Denis argues that the scientific concepts are incidental to the message of Scripture. He explains this carefully:

The ancient science in Scripture is incidental because God’s central purpose in the Bible is to reveal messages of faith and not scientific facts about his creation. Using the term “incidental” does not mean that ancient science is unimportant. The ancient science in Scripture is essential for transporting spiritual truths. It acts like a cup that holds water. Whether the cup is made of glass, plastic, or metal is incidental. What matters is that a vessel is needed to bring water to a thirsty person. The word “incidental” has the meaning of “happening in connection with something more important.” Thus, the incidental ancient science in Scripture is a necessary vessel that delivers important spiritual messages to our thirsty souls. (p. 90)

It was necessary to use language to describe the shape and form of creation in order to convey the message that God alone is the creator, that his creation is good, and that there is no other deity involved, e.g. the sun, moon, and stars are merely created objects. The language and concepts used are, quite appropriately, those common place to the original ancient Israelite audience or the first century Jewish audience.

Denis runs through a number of examples of ancient science in Scripture. For example, Scripture often depicts a solid firmament stretched out over a flat, circular earth with a sea around the circumference. There is also a general view that stars are small and embedded in the firmament, from which they could be dislodged. Isaiah 34:4 and Matthew 24:29 reflect this view. The vast expanse of space and the immense dimension of most stars, far larger than the earth, is not reflected in Scripture.

The message of faith in Matthew 24 and Isaiah 34 is not a revelation about the structure of the heavens or exactly how God will disassemble the universe. The inerrant spiritual truth in these passages is that the world will come to an end and there will be a day of judgment. (p. 100)

One example of ancient cosmic geography that crops up quite often in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament is the three-tiered view of the universe with the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. Philippians 2:9-11 reflects this view: 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, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. We shouldn’t be dissecting this passage, worried about the physical location of “under the earth” and the identity of the beings that dwell there. The point is that every knee in all of creation should bow and every tongue acknowledge, not the precise structure of the universe.

To reveal inerrant spiritual truths, God accommodated and came down to the level of understanding of these inspired ancient authors. If the Lord had stated in the Bible that he created through the Big Bang and biological evolution, I doubt anyone in ancient times would have understood. Instead, God used incidental ancient sciences as vehicles to transport life-changing messages of faith. I have personally experienced this as well. My life was not changed by the ancient idea of a 3-tier universe, but rather by the spiritual truth that Jesus is Lord over the entire creation (Phil 2:10-11). (p. 110-111)

So what about evolution? The title of the book suggests that scripture says yes to evolution. Does this mean we should expect to find evidence for biological evolution in the pages of scripture? As with astronomy and geography, the Scriptures reflect a phenomenological understanding of biology common to the ancient Near East. There is no evidence of evolution coded into the text. Rather, there is an assumption that every creature and every plant reproduces according to its kind. This immutability of species is assumed to hold all the way back to the very act of creation.

In the eyes of ancient people, living organisms were immutable. In other words, plants and animals never changed and were always the same. Consequently there is no hint of transitional organisms or biological evolution in the Genesis 1 account of creation. (p. 104)

Nor is there any indication of rapid diversification of kinds following the fall or the flood, despite what Ken Ham and the Ark Encounter would like us to believe as they struggle to fit “kinds” into the ark. (See for example, Ark Encounter Common Ancestors: The Increasing Inclusiveness of Biblical Kinds and The Young-Earth Hyper-evolution Hypothesis: A Collection of Critiques along with other posts at Naturalis Historia.) The ancient perspective reflected in Scripture was ignorant of evolution and of the vast diversity of animals scattered around the globe, and for that matter of the globe itself.

waterThis shouldn’t concern us.

Denis argues that the absence of evolution in Scripture is to be expected as it was completely unknown in the ancient world. The clear assumption that all of today’s species were created as we know them, is incidental to the message of Scripture. “The main message in Genesis 1 and 2 is not to tell us how God created living organisms, but who created plants, animals, and humans – the God of Christianity.” (p. 110)

The scientific assumptions – of a flat earth, a three tiered universe, and immutability of species – is incidental to the message. It is the cup that holds the living water, not the living water itself.

Does this explanation of “incidental” details in Scripture help with understanding?

How can we tell if something is incidental or part of the message itself?

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