Interpreting Scripture in Light of Scientific Evidence

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The idea of reevaluating long-standing scriptural interpretation because of scientific evidence was unsettling to seventeenth-century Christians [in relation to heliocentrism], and it continues to be unsettling today, often because of a sense that any reevaluation driven by science is “giving up ground.”

[One reason for this] comes back to our tendency to conflate God’s Word with our interpretation of his Word. God’s Word is immutable and true; our interpretation is not always so. Failure to recognize this has the potential to cause tremendous personal upheaval. If the weight of evidence begins to accumulate that my interpretation is in error, but I am unable to differentiate my interpretation from Scripture itself, I will begin to retreat into a world of contradictions where some truths must be ignored in order to cling to others.

This can be illustrated using a variation of the familiar parable of houses built on rock and those built on sand. In this reformulated parable, Scripture is the foundation and our interpretation is the house built upon it. Two builders both recognize the inferiority of sand and build their houses on rock. When small storms pass, both houses are damaged, but still stand. One builder recognizes defects, not in the foundation, but in the design of the house built upon it. He modifies the construction to anchor it more effectively on the undamaged foundation and weathers the next storm with few ill effects.

The second builder, unable to see the difference between structure and foundation, refuses to see damage as weakness and builds a second story with the same faulty construction. Living on the newly built second floor, the builder remains confident because the foundation is sure. Unrepaired and weakened by the weight of additional floors, the house eventually falls. Conditioned by years of belief in his own work, the builder’s last thought is that the foundation has failed him.

In this light, consider the plight of a group of eighteenth-century Christians still convinced that the now widely accepted theory of heliocentrism directly contradicts Scripture. Unable to distinguish between their understanding of Scripture and Scripture itself, they hold fast to belief in an earth-centered universe. As the evidence continues to build for heliocentrism, the group finds various ways of coping with the assault on their faith.

  • Some come to believe that scientists throughout the Western world have conspired to maintain the longest-running hoax in human history.
  • Others, unable to conceive of a conspiracy of such immense proportions, believe that scientists are accurately reporting what they see but that God’s natural creation does not reflect the way it was actually made. The universe was created with the appearance of heliocentrism, perhaps to test believers, or to mislead the godless who are unwilling to have faith in God’s eyewitness account.
  • A third subset argues that nature accurately demonstrates geocentrism if one has a biblical worldview. Ministries are established pointing out the ever-changing nature of science versus the immutable Word of God, piling up “evidence” against the biblically compromising position of heliocentrism, and linking the degradation of societal morals to the disregard of God’s clear teaching.
  • A final portion responds by simply insulating themselves from the discussion and believing what they wish without having to wrestle with difficult evidence.

With the clarity of hindsight, all four of these methods of dealing with the challenge of heliocentrism can be seen as poorly designed constructions built upon a foundation that is intrinsically solid, but of little benefit to the builders. So where does this leave us when considering more contemporary issues like the age of the earth or evolution? Are those standing against the prevailing scientific wisdom fighting the good fight, or are they building the same faulty construction as our unfortunate eighteenth-century holdouts described above?

This post is adapted from Friend of Science, Friend of Faith: Listening to God in His Works and Word.  Learn more or request a faculty examination, media, or blog review copy.   

“I have read about 100 books on the intersection of science and faith. This is one of the very best. This book is well written, clear, and understandable for the non-scientist and typical lay person. Even more importantly, the tone is gracious, respectful, biblical, and filled with wisdom.”

—K. Johnson, Amazon review

cover image of the book Friend of Science, Friend of Faith


About Author

Gregg Davidson is professor and chair of the School of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi.

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