Should Science Inform Our Reading of Genesis 1–3?

April 03, 2019

by Vern Poythress

Overlapping Spheres

How should we think about the relation of science to the Bible? What about the relation of science to Genesis 1–3 in particular?

These are challenging questions. As a general principle, it makes sense for us to take into account everything that we think we know when we are making life decisions. And the times for decision-making include the times when we read the Bible and the times when we think about science. It is not wise to block off one source of knowledge and tell ourselves that we will not let it influence us beyond some narrowly defined sphere.

Nevertheless, there are special challenges when we consider the relation of Genesis 1–3 to science.

The Authority of the Bible

First, the Bible has a special authority. It is unique, because it is the Word of God in verbal form; it is what God says. In a short article, we cannot review the many evidences and arguments for this claim. It is well to remember that our personal attitudes or doubts or convictions do not change what the Bible intrinsically is. If it is not the Word of God, our believing that it is will not make it so. If it is the Word of God, our disbelieving will not destroy its intrinsic character. As the Word of God, it deserves our unreserved allegiance, unlike any merely human source, including the claims of modern scientists.

The Bible has a special authority. It is unique, because it is the Word of God in verbal form; it is what God says.

So we must beware of trying to mold the meanings in Genesis 1–3 to fit the claims of science. Consider the question, “Should science inform our reading of Genesis 1–3?” That depends crucially on what kind of “informing” we have in mind. It is far more important that Genesis 1–3 should inform our reading of science.

We should not treat the two sources of knowledge as if they were on the same level. We should certainly resist the widespread Western perception that science is the premier source of knowledge of all kinds, and that the Bible is obsolete. It is easy to be carried along by fascination with gadgets, with technological innovation, and with practical successes that build on science. But we need to be careful, because practical success can be combined with human flaws.

One of the major flaws in the foundations of contemporary science is the widespread influence of philosophical materialism, a philosophy that says that the world consists in matter and energy and motion, and that is all. There is no God; or if he exists, he is uninvolved and irrelevant.

Reexamining

So when we compare scientific claims with the Bible, we need to be aware of what assumptions drive the understanding of science. We also should be aware of what assumptions drive the understanding of the Bible. In both areas, human sin and the distorted assumptions that come from it can have an effect. Sin affects the understanding of science when philosophical materialism comes in, and scientists think of the world as merely a mechanism or the result of random motions of atoms, rather than the personal domain that God rules.

Sin can come into our understanding of the Bible if we ignore the fact that it is the Word of God and has special divine authority. But sin can also affect our understanding of the Bible in subtler ways. Though we might verbally acknowledge that it is the Word of God, we can still discount what it says about the far past and the origins of the world, because we view it as naive. Another faulty alternative claims that it merely inherits naive views from its ancient Near Eastern environment.

It is true that God chose to give Genesis 1–3 originally to people who lived in the ancient Near East. But because God is God, he can say something different from what the surrounding cultures believed. And indeed he does. Genesis 1–3 contrasts markedly with the ancient Near East because it proclaims that there is one God who made everything. It departs from the surrounding polytheism. Likewise, if God wishes he may say things different from what the ancient cultures may have believed about the natural environment.

Sin can come into our understanding of the Bible if we ignore the fact that it is the Word of God and has special divine authority.

We can also subtly miss the point of the Bible if we think that it has to be technically precise in a scientific way, in order somehow to “measure up” to the quality and prestige of modern science. God in his wisdom chose to write Genesis not primarily to technical specialists in sciences, but to all kinds of people in all kinds of cultures, including prescientific cultures. He, therefore, speaks in ordinary ways, on the level of ordinary experience. As full human beings, we need to know what he says about sin and redemption, more than we need to know technical insights from science.

Dealing with Apparent Discrepancies

So what do we do if we find an apparent discrepancy between Genesis 1–3 and what modern scientists claim about the origin of the world? It should be an occasion to reexamine Genesis 1–3 and to reexamine the claims of modern scientists. Misunderstandings can creep in within both areas.

But it would be a mistake to force Genesis 1–3 into a mold already formed by modern scientific claims. That would result in a distortion of the meaning of Genesis 1–3. And it would also involve naively accepting scientific claims, rather than critically sifting them.

Actually, the sound approach is to try to fit science into the view of the world that the Bible gives us, especially in Genesis 1–3. We live in God’s world. And we are made in the image of God, which gives hope for scientific investigation: scientists made in the image of God can try to think God’s thoughts after him on a creaturely level.

. . . continue reading at Crossway.

Read More On creation, genesis, science

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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