Tag Archives: Christianity

Science and the Bible in Late Modernity

One of the principles key to the protestant reformation was the idea of Sola Scriptura: that the Bible is sufficient of itself to be the source of Christian doctrine. John Wesley further clarified this idea when he stated, “In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church.”[1] However, at some level, all Christians are forced to make some judgment about the scripture in the form of interpretation.

How is a person to interpret the scriptures? “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture [however] is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’”[2] This idea is more commonly known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral; every person forms their theology through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Theology is at its best when all four areas are attended to.

As we look at the debates over science in the late 19th and early 20th century it is easy to see that many of the warring factions clung to one corner of the quadrilateral. Many of these groups were unwilling to explore how the other three points of the quadrilateral would affect their theology.

In the early 20th century there were two extreme camps and (as usual) the majority in the middle. The first extreme was the group that believed that the end of religion was in sight. This group, inspired by the enlightenment, believed that humanity was moving out of an age of religion and into an age of reason. Inspired by Darwinian evolution, scientists such as John Wesley Powell believed that religion was a necessary step in the evolution of ethics. Humanity needed to go through the process of creating and living out religion in order to develop morality; now that this morality had developed religion would be allowed to fade away and it could be replaced by science. Powell called this “the metamorphosis wrought on religion by science.”[3]

The other extreme is exemplified by characters such as T. DeWitt Talmage (a popular preacher) and William Jennings Bryan (a lawyer and politician). Talmage spoke vehemently against evolution because he believed the Bible contradicted evolutionary theory. He said, “I do not care so much where I came from as where I am going to.”[4]

Bryan, in his written out but undelivered closing statement at the Scopes trial, spoke eloquently of the evils science has wrought upon the world. He then got to the heart of his message:

The world needs a saviour more than it ever did before, and there is only one name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved. It is this name that evolution degrades, for, carried to its logical conclusion, it robs Christ of the glory of a Virgin birth, of the majesty of His deity and mission, and of the triumph of His resurrection.[5]

Both Talmage and Bryant felt that science was not only wrong, but was a danger to the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

Many people stood between these two poles; among them James Cardinal Gibbons (a Roman Catholic Cardinal), Joseph Le Conte (a professor of geology), and James McCosh (a Presbyterian clergyman). Each of these individuals believed that science, rather than being a threat to Christianity, was in fact a blessing. Le Conte wrote, “In every case Christianity has risen from the contest stronger and purer”[6]. Cardinal Gibbons wrote:

Science and Religion…are sisters, because they are daughters of the same Father…Now since reason and revelation aid each other in leading us to god, the Author of both, it is manifest that the Catholic Church, so far from being opposed to the cultivation of reason, encourages and fosters science of every kind.[7]

This group was enabled to see scientific advance as a blessing because they were not trying to defend the Bible. They felt that the Bible could defend herself. Rather this middle group of people was attempting to understand the truths God was speaking to them through the Bible by first understanding a little better the world around them.
Can a conclusion for today’s young scientists be made? What are the lessons we can learn from our past? I would suggest that we need to stay rooted in the biblical revelation, our ecclesial traditions, human understanding, and the experiences which we and the spiritual community around us live out. At the same time we need to allow ourselves to explore ideas that make us uncomfortable. Evolution was a very uncomfortable idea for many in the early 20th century because it forced a drastic shift in worldview. It changed completely the way they thought the world worked.

As we move forward into this young 21st century we need to be prepared for the day when we realize that we are wrong. We need to prepare for a time when our worldview, our personal paradigm, is forced to shift and completely rearrange our perception of how the world works. When this happens, we can remain grounded in our faith by recognizing that God has not changed; it is only our perception that has changed.

Endnotes

[1] Popery Calmly Considered (1779) in The works of the Rev. John Wesley, vol. XV, p. 180, London (1812)

[2] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church-2004, p. 77

[3] Powell, John Wesley. The Monist. 8 (1898), 199-200,203-4.

[4] T. DeWitt Talmage. “The Missing Link”, in Live Caols. (New York: Wilbur B. Ketcham, 1885), pp.271-75.

[5] Allen, Leslie, ed. Bryan and Darrow at Dayton. (New York: A. Lee & Co.. 1925) pp.195-6.

[6] Le Conte, Joseph. Religion and Science. (New York: D. Appletion & Co. 1874) pp227-30, 231-33.

[7] Cardinal Gibbons, James. Our Christian Heritage. (Baltimore: John Murphy & Co. 1889) pp.301-4,9-10,19-20.

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Judges 13 – We all faith differently

Maciejowski Bible, Leaf 14: Manoah and his wife give a sacrifice.

So Manoah took the young goat with the grain offering and offered it on the rock to the LORD, and He performed wonders while Manoah and his wife looked on. 20 For it came about when the flame went up from the altar toward heaven, that the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell on their faces to the ground. 21 Now the angel of the LORD did not appear to Manoah or his wife again. Then Manoah knew that he was the angel of the LORD. 22 So Manoah said to his wife, “We will surely die, for we have seen God.” 23 But his wife said to him, “If the LORD had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have let us hear things like this at this time.” 24 Then the woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson; and the child grew up and the LORD blessed him. – Judges 13:19-24 (NASB)

***

I am a big fan of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (WQ). In a nut shell, the WQ says that our faith is formed by a combination of four elements: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (including experiences of the Holy Spirit). When I have introduced Christians to the concept of the WQ they tend to bristle at the thought of one of those elements being the foundation of their faith; but it is a different element for everyone. Some want to reject tradition, saying that instead we should abandon all tradition and go back to the first century church. Others want to reject experience, saying that our experience is fallible and should not be foundational to our faith. I, personally, have the least comfort with including reason as I have seen damaging theologies emerge from trying to “figure out” God. However, in the end, I believe all four elements are foundational to faith and I believe that our faith is formed be the interplay of all four elements.

In the sight of God by Leonardo

The story of Manoah and his wife is a wonderful example of the interplay between the different elements of the WQ. Manoah speaks from scripture a tradition. He knows that Exodus 33:20 taught that those who see God would die. He also knew of the cultural traditions around him that spoke of the dangers of interacting with a deity. The gods of the Ancient Near-East tended to be violent and capricious; a dangerous combination for anyone mortal who may encounter a deity.

Meanwhile, Manoah’s wife, unnamed in the Bible but traditionally known as Hazelelponi (“shade coming upon me”), speaks from reason and experience. He husbands yells, “we will surely die”, and she examines the situation and makes the reasonable deduction that if God had wanted to kill them, God would have done it already. Hazelelponi also has the advantage of past experience; the Angel of the Lord had first appeared to Hazelelponi alone (v3 ff). Hazelelponi had previous experience with the voice of God and so was more easily able to put this new experience into context.

Brittle Heart by Doran

Taking some time to evaluate our beliefs in the light of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral can help us to have a more fully formed faith. It can help us to overcome obstacles to our faith, and assist us as we struggle with doubts and concerns. An attitude of “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” can lead to a brittle faith. I believe that taking the time to understand faith within the context of reason, personal experiences, and the broader faith tradition is hard, but builds a more robust faith.

Application:

  • Write down the part of the quadrilateral that you struggle with the most (scripture, tradition, reason, or experience). Why is this part of the quadrilateral problematic for you?
  • Write out why others might struggle with the other three aspects of the quadrilateral.
  • This week, when you encounter someone with a different belief, consider what scriptures, traditions, experiences, or logical reasoning would cause that person to believe in that way.

Queries:

  • How has scripture influenced my faith?
  • How has my faith tradition influenced my faith?
  • How has reason influenced my faith?
  • How have my experiences influenced my faith?
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Judges 12 – Including outsiders

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Say now, ‘Shibboleth.’” But he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim. – Judges 12:5-6 (NASB)

***

The Battle of Lawrence

When I was six years old my family moved within six blocks of Allen Field House on the campus of the University of Kansas. I never really had a chance of being anything but a rabid fan of the Kansas Jayhawks. You can tell a Kansas basketball fan from most other fans. There is a certain amount of pride, which borders on arrogance, which seeps into any discussion of college basketball. We know our history and take pride in the history of the Kansas basketball program. And we hate Missouri. It does not matter that Missouri has left the conference and we no longer play the program to the east, we still despise Missouri. For the historical roots of this rivalry take a moment to read about Quantrill’s raid and the burning of Lawrence.

In college sports we have devised a number of systems to make sure we can separate the strangers rooting for “our” team from the strangers rooting for “their” team. Kansas fans wear blue and red, Missouri fans wear yellow and black. Kansas fans rally around our Jayhawk mascot; Missouri fans rally around their tiger. Kansas fans chant “Rock Chalk” in the closing minutes each home victory; Missouri fans have little experience in celebrating the closing minutes of a home victory. We have developed systems to know who is on our side. Whenever I see a Kansas hat or shirt at the gas station or at work, I stop and make a positive comment to my fellow Jayhawk fan.

People are very good at spotting outsiders. There is something in our brains which cause us to make a nearly instantaneous decision that a person is “one of us” or “one of them”. This tendency is not limited to our college basketball affinities. In fact this tendency has a very dark side and has been a plague on humanity resulting in genocide, holocaust, enslavement, discrimination, and all sorts of evil.

Bronze by Jenny Downing

Our first instinct should not be to look for an outward sign to know if a new person is to be included or excluded. Rather, our first instinct should be to care for the stranger and meet their needs regardless of their affiliation. It does not matter if the stranger I meet is a part of a different group. The thing that matters is that we were both formed by our creator and placed on this earth under a divine mandate that we work with God to create a new and greater world. The strangers I meet are as fully known by God as my neighbors. My enemies are as loved by God as my family.

When I look at a Missouri fan, it is important that I first recognize that they are valued by God and they are worthy of my love, respect, and assistance. It does not matter if they say Shibboleth or Sibboleth; what matters is that I have an opportunity to reflect the light of Christ into their lives.

Application:

  • Write down all of the people you walked by today without acknowledging their humanity (take your time, you’ll be surprised how many there are).
  • Make a goal for one day each week, that on that day you will not let a person go by without acknowledging their value.
  • Reach out to an individual or group you would normally exclude and be a part of their lives for one evening.

Queries:

  • Who do I exclude?
  • Do my actions truly demonstrate that I believe all people are valuable and worthy of love, honor, and respect?
  • Do I actually help people? Do I only think about helping people? Do I even think about helping people?
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