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Definition

Although both scientific inquiry and interpretation of the biblical text attend to God’s self-revelation, the fact that the Bible is a more directly available form of God’s speech, called special revelation, gives biblical revelation an interpretive priority over the claims of scientific research.

Summary

The biblical worldview holds that human knowledge is only possible in light of God’s action, which does not allow for scientific inquiry to claim to have the ability to discover all knowledge. Scientific discovery is possible because the observable world does reveal truth about itself and about God, but this truth is never really in contradiction to the truth of God in Scripture. Whereas scientific investigation infers God’s speech in his creation, special revelation recorded in the Bible is a more direct, verbal witness to God’s speech. Therefore, while both modes of inquiry, both scientific and biblical, are fallible as human process, biblical investigation takes interpretive priority over the scientific because it is the word of God rather than merely being a nonverbal effect of some word of God that is standing behind it.

How do we think about the relation of the Bible to modern scientific claims? What do we do when we find apparent discrepancies?

The Biblical Worldview

We must begin by briefly considering how a biblically based view of the world differs from the secularism and scientism dominant in the Western world. The circles dominated by modern secularism consider the Bible to be obsolete and consider science to be the preferred way of advancing in knowledge. Supposedly, human knowledge has no need of God. But this view has defective foundations. It simply assumes a certain view of the world and of science. It assumes that God, if he exists at all, is absent from the world. And it assumes that modern scientific investigation unproblematically shows us the true nature of the world.

The Bible, by contrast, sets before our minds a God who not only created the world but is continuously involved in it. His personal purposes may include exceptional events, which we call miracles. But he is also intimately involved in the ordinary course of nature: “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock” (Ps. 104:14). Scientific investigation depends day by day on his faithfulness and constancy, which are the source for the regularities that scientists study. Scientists are made in the image of God, and in their scientific investigations they are—many times without recognizing it—trying to think God’s thoughts after him on a creaturely level. Because scientists live in a world that God rules personally, they cannot rightly forbid God from acting contrary to a customary regularity when he works miracles.

Distorted Conceptions in Science

Modern scientists rely on the regularities of nature that are a product of God’s wisdom and faithfulness. But for many, a distortion enters in, because they think that the regularities or “laws of nature” are ultimately impersonal. If they are impersonal, they are basically like a mechanism, for which there can be no exceptions. So before even reading the Bible or listening to the evidence, they think they “know” that there can be no exceptions and no miracles.

This antibiblical view of the world has consequences. Science can still succeed in many ways, because the distorted conception is close enough to the reality to enable advances. At the same time, it is bound to come into conflict with the Bible when it comes to reconstructions of the past.

The Role of God’s Speech

The Bible gives us a way of thinking about these challenges by its teaching about God’s speech. We are accustomed to thinking that the Bible is God’s word; indeed, it is. But the Bible itself indicates that God speaks in other ways as well. God’s speech is what governs his acts of creation:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Gen. 1:3)

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” (Gen. 1:6)

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,

  and by the breath of his mouth all their host. (Ps. 33:6)

He also subsequently governs the world in providence by speaking:

He sends out his command to the earth;

  his word runs swiftly.

He gives snow like wool;

  he scatters frost like ashes. (Ps. 147:15–16)

[H]e upholds the universe by the word of his power. (Heb. 1:3)

Because God is one God, all his words harmonize with one another. We can have confidence that there is no real discrepancy between his words that he speaks to us in Scripture and the words that he sends out to govern the world. These two types of word correlate naturally with two technical terms from theology. (1) “General revelation” comprises God’s work in revealing himself in the world; it corresponds to God’s words sent out to govern the world. (2) “Special revelation” comprises God’s work of revealing himself to human beings at special times and in special ways, as when he appears to the people of Israel at the top of Mount Sinai. The Bible is special revelation in the form of words.

These two ways of God’s speaking are set forth graphically in Psalm 19. Verses 1–6 are about general revelation, through the sun and moon and stars. Verses 7–11 focus on special revelation in the form of “law,” “testimony,” and “precepts,” which are found especially in the commandments given through Moses, but more broadly in the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy.

In sum, special revelation includes the words that God speaks to human beings. It results in the production of the Bible, which is God’s verbal revelation in permanent written form. Scientific investigation focuses on the world, which is closely connected with general revelation.

Dealing with Two Spheres: General and Special Revelation

What then do we do if we find an apparent discrepancy between the two? If we bear in mind God’s comprehensive rule over the world, and bear in mind his faithfulness, we should conclude that there is no real discrepancy. But we may still have to deal with apparent discrepancies, because God is God and we are not. God is infinite and his knowledge is infinite. We are creatures and our knowledge is finite. Even apart from sin, we are limited. But human sin introduces additional challenges, because our thinking and our judgments get distorted by sin. We saw one effect above, when we considered how the assumption that laws of nature are impersonal leads to denial of the possibility of miracles.

Side-By-Side Spheres, or Priority of One?

When we find apparent discrepancies, should we simply lay the Bible and scientific claims side by side? It is not so easy. The Bible and science are not equal authorities. Our modern secular culture wants to believe that the authority of science is almost absolute, while the authority of the Bible has been eclipsed. But the reality is the opposite. The Bible is the very word of God. It is therefore completely trustworthy and true in what it claims. Science, by contrast, is a human endeavor. Misjudgments are possible. And the history of science shows that on occasions there can be massive re-evaluations of what was formerly thought to be true.

As we observed, the word of God governing the world is one form of God’s speech, alongside the speech of God spoken to us as human beings in the Bible. Both are completely true. But the work of scientists is one step away from the word of God that governs the world. The scientists observe the effects of God’s governance within the natural world. They do not literally hear God speaking with their ears. They infer the speech of God, the real law that governs the world, by observing the effects. These inferences may be right, but they are fallible. They are like an approximation to the real thing, namely the speech of God. By contrast, in the Bible we have the word of God in verbal form. We are not in the position of merely guessing at it by observing effects.

Both scientific investigation and investigation of the Bible are human endeavors. Both are fallible as human endeavors. When we find a discrepancy, we cannot immediately say whether it is due to a misunderstanding of the evidence in science or a misunderstanding of the Bible—or both kinds of misunderstanding at once. We have to patient. But the Bible has a priority because it is already available in verbal form. It is the word of God rather than merely being a nonverbal effect of some word of God that is standing behind it.

God’s Purpose for the Bible

The Bible also has a priority because of the unique purpose for which God gave it. Ever since Adam’s fall into sin, sin has contaminated all human beings, except for Christ himself. Sin corrupts the mind, not only the flesh. It disorders human thinking. Christ came into the world to accomplish the remedy for sin, through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The Bible tells us about Christ, in order that we may believe in him and be saved. Through his Holy Spirit we begin to be renewed in our minds (Rom. 12:1–2). The Bible has a key role in this renewal: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). The renewal of the mind then extends outward to encompass all our thinking about the ways of God in this world.

To start with the Bible is to start at the right end, to work out the remedy in the only way that God designed it to be worked out, through fellowship with Christ. Then we grow into a position in which we have renewed ability to consider the areas of detail where apparent discrepancies occur.

This does not mean that we will always find a resolution easily or quickly, but it does mean that we are following the right way for exploring the difficulties.

Further Reading