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Biblical Language as Better than Scientific Terminology

It is a commonplace among scientistically minded skeptics of Christianity that any accurate, reliable, and useful description of the world ought to be expressed in proper scientific language. The Bible, most obviously in the Genesis accounts but elsewhere as well, clearly fails this test. Ergo, the Bible, Christian theology, and by implication the entire Christian religion is unworthy of the serious thinker.

Christians (and Jews, to be sure) have responded to this charge in various ways. Some have said that the Bible's main message is not about the physical world, but about theology and ethics and worship and the like. It would therefore be absurd to condemn the Bible by the demands of completely different disciplines aimed at completely different explanatory goals. (Non-overlapping magisteria—NOMA—is one version of this argument and it has been deployed by thinkers as diverse as Pope John Paul II and the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould.)

I belong to the crowd who maintain that there is considerable truth to NOMA, but the separation it poses isn't as stark as is usually suggested. The opening chapters of the Bible do deal with physical phenomena, after all, so how does Biblical language properly connect, if it does, with cosmology, paleontology, and so on? A blog post can't do much more than gesture, so let me fling my hands about for a few minutes.

The Bible's language about the natural world is mostly metaphorical. Most people will agree on that. Some people on the extremes will dispute it (certain kinds of "scientific creationists" and certain kinds of anti-Christian atheists prefer to take the Bible with a wooden literalness), but most will grant that Genesis 1 and 2, for instance, look and sound poetic.

Are there good reasons, therefore, why God inspired the Biblical writers to use metaphors here when God can be presumed to understand quite thoroughly the science of creation? The Creator could easily have revealed to the human authors of the Bible the exactly correct terms by which to describe the creating of the universe and the nature of that creation. So why didn't God do so?

Let's recall the purpose of the Bible. It is, as Paul says, "to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Some well-meaning Christians will say, "Aha! So the Bible is indeed about spiritual stuff, and scientific exactness is therefore not required." I suggest that we might consider two nuancing points here.

First, the Bible is divinely designed to communicate across all cultural lines in all ages. Think about that for a moment. The Bible is intended to be universally intelligible such that, properly understood and obeyed, it will be a tool of the Holy Spirit to produce Christlikeness in everyone everywhere.

I did pretty well in high school science and mathematics. Upon graduation, I received the top mark in Physics and was on the competitive math team. But I can't get more than a paragraph or two into most serious Wikipedia articles on science or mathematics without quickly being overwhelmed by terms and concepts I don't understand.

If God had indeed revealed the precisely accurate way to speak of creating and creation, only those with the requisite scientific knowledge would know what God was saying.

And which scientific knowledge? That of Ptolemy? Copernicus? Newton? Einstein?

Only the final, definitive science would be utterly correct. So that would mean only those who were scientifically trained in a civilization so advanced that God could use the exactly correct language could read those parts of the Bible.

Do we have any reason to think that our civilization has reached that stage such that any of us could read that kind of description? And what about everybody else?

The univocal language of scientific description is thus a kind of take-it-or-leave-it proposition. You can either follow the Wikipedia article or you can't. It's binary.

Metaphorical language, however, can shrink or expand with the understanding of the readership. Kids can "get" a lot out of the Bible stories of creation while our greatest sages pore over Genesis 1 and 2 to receive fresh understandings in every culture. Metaphors have expressive range, so to speak, and will grow with the ability of the interpreter—as any reader of great literature will attest.

"Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang" is evocative across the globe. "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?" works in a Canadian philosophy seminar as well as it does in its ancient Chinese context.

Metaphorical language, therefore, if wisely chosen (and presumably the Supreme Being can choose well), can serve all the people all the time. Precisely accurate scientific language will serve only a few people in a particular civilizational moment. Guess which way God should choose, then, to relate the story of creation.

Metaphors, to be sure, can stretch only so far. If the world is not created but eternal, or if the world is the result of gods struggling with each other, then the Bible's accounts are just wrong. Skeptics can still attack the Bible's teaching as scientifically implausible if they like, and intelligent believers will have to offer reasonable grounds to believe that the Bible's language does not mislead but instead renders truth useful for the producing of faithful Christians.

This truth will include truth about how the world came about and what the world is—scientific questions—as well as what the world is for—which is a religious question. The magisteria do overlap, and the Bible is vulnerable to scientific critique just as it is vulnerable to historical, philosophical, and ethical critique.

But that's fine. The Bible has stood up pretty well so far and I daresay it will manage to outlast its opponents.

What matters here, then, is that Christians need not be abashed about the metaphorical phrasing of God's Word. Believers instead can rejoice that the Bible's Author did not make a mistake or dodge a responsibility in inspiring Scripture's pictorial language in regard to the natural world.

One might argue instead that God gave us exactly the kind of language we need. I do.


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