I recently read the draft of a brilliant paper by one of the leaders in the science-and-faith field, my friend Denis Lamoureux. Denis is well known for his outspoken views and the fact that he is in possession of not one, nor two, but three doctoral level degrees, one in dentistry, one in evolutionary biology, and one in theology. In this paper (which I read as a draft, but which will be published shortly), Denis writes about one of his favorite subjects, the scientific consensus about the nature of the world in the ancient near east (ANE).
Reading his draft article gave me some ideas about the use of the word “inerrancy” as applied to Old Testament descriptions of cosmology, biology, and geology. What follows is a rough summary of those ideas.
At any period of history, there tends to be a general consensus about what is true about the world, whether based on basic observations or more scholarly efforts in logic and experimentation. This doesn’t mean everyone agrees or holds the same views as the consensus—we need only examine the present day to find millions of people who believe all sorts of nonscientific and extraordinary things. Likely this has always been true. But at least among the intellectual and cultural elite, scientific understanding about how the world works tends to spread and take root in the culture, and often the entire civilized world. This was no less true in the ANE than in Classical Greece, medieval or Enlightenment Europe, or today.
There is little question that the Biblical treatment of scientific knowledge reflects the scientific consensus of the ANE, including Egypt, Mesopotamia and probably other ANE cultures as well—with some regional variations, of course. Most of the details of that consensus have been since proven to be false or, at best, incomplete.
This fact has fueled a long-standing controversy about the issue of Biblical inerrancy. The thinking goes, if God inspired the writing of the Bible, why would He allow the human writers to get it wrong? God surely knows the truth: there is no firmament in the sky, and the Sun doesn’t circle the Earth. Why wouldn’t an omniscient God correct those mistakes?
One approach to this thorny issue has been various flavors of concordance, meaning attempts to interpret the words of Scripture in a way that would show that they weren’t really wrong, because instead of referring to actual physical reality, they were either allegorical or metaphorical, or somehow meant to imply something other than what they say.
Biblical literalists, including YECs, dismiss such arguments, based on the difficulty of knowing how to interpret Scripture. Of course Scriptural interpretation is always being done (by everybody) and we are able to distinguish between different kinds of Biblical texts (poetry, history parable, etc.). Still, the problem with concordance is that it doesn’t really address the central question of why God would allow something false to be written in His Book.
But where does that leave us? If we acknowledge that there are incorrect scientific statements in the Bible, we are admitting that inerrancy is a myth. That acknowledgment then brings into question everything in the Bible and weakens the basis of our faith. Or does it?
Let’s imagine that a group of scientists of Christian faith decided to rewrite the Bible today, in a revised modern version that would correct all the scientific errors of the original and produce a truly inerrant version. We would add our knowledge of the universe: the laws of physics, evolution, microbiology, and so on.
But would such a revision really be scientifically inerrant? Would it be true? Not likely. We now know that scientific truth is subject to rapid and dramatic change, and I am sure no one would doubt that our current version of the true nature of cosmological and biological origins and mechanisms would appear terribly errant to readers 5000 years in the future.
So we are left with the unanswered question posed by Pilate in John 18:38 “What is Truth?”
My point is that describing the complete scientific truth about our universe (which inerrancy would require) is impossible for any human at any time. This is a fact we now know, and clearly it has always been known by God, which is why He did not attempt to correct the erroneous information that the inspired Biblical writers committed to paper. On this view, it is a mistake to even discuss any scientific treatment as being either errant or inerrant outside of its historical context. Does anyone attack Darwin for not knowing about genes? Or Pasteur for ignoring viruses? Why didn’t Galileo discuss Black holes? And so on.
It has struck me that when God appeared on earth, hundreds of years after the composition of Genesis, He spoke of many things and taught many lessons, but He said nothing about science. Jesus could have corrected some of the earlier errors about nature. After all, the science of that time had progressed thanks to Greek philosophy, and some of that new knowledge probably had spread to Judea. But no such modernization of the original text was ever recorded among the sayings of Jesus. When He spoke of fulfilling the law, Jesus was talking about moral and behavioral statements, not the understanding of nature or how the world was built.
The theological statements of Scripture are inerrant. The scientific and nature-based statements of Scripture are errant because they must be, since we cannot know the final truth of any part of them. Therefore, I propose that when we discuss Biblical inerrancy, we remove any scientific descriptions of the world (including the details of its creation) from the discussion and focus on the universal and timeless truths of God’s Word.