Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature

Science vs Scripture. Reason vs faith. Why is it that these things are so frequently pitted against each other? Well, it’s not really a mystery. Doctrines of old oppose new scientific theories. Faith holds to things which are often difficult to understand. So of course these conflicts will arise. Yet I want to hopefully add some clarity to issues like this. I will use a simple case study to explain my thoughts.

The perfect example of the science-vs-religion mentality is the debate between evolution and creationism. Science, they say, teaches evolution, and the Bible teaches special creation. One must be wrong. The Christians who agree with this embrace creation and say that science is wrong,  while the skeptics who agree with this embrace evolution and say that the Bible is wrong. The problem with this is that “science says” and “the Bible says” are both completely wrong ways of framing the issue.

I want to put before you the thought that scientific theories are to the natural world what doctrine is to Scripture. The natural world is a great part of reality, and Scripture is a collection of writings which claim to accurately represent reality. So the natural world is real and cannot be wrong in any meaningful way. Scripture could be wrong in theory, since it is not the reality itself but describes it. Scientific theories and doctrines are interpretations of nature and Scripture respectively, and they can easily be wrong. Let me elaborate on this a bit.

What is “science?” Science is defined as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” The term is also used to refer to the entire body of knowledge which results from this enterprise. Now, evolution is a scientific theory. So let me be clear on something:

In science, “theory” does not mean “idea,” “guess,” or even “educated guess.”

To explain what a scientific theory actually is, I cite

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say it’s an accepted hypothesis.

Evolution summarizes several hypotheses about genetics, speciation, and related topics. It has been supported with repeated testing that has accumulated supporting evidence. So it is a scientific theory. Now, the question still stands whether enough evidence has also accumulated to disprove it, so it might be an invalid theory (as I tend to think), but that’s not certain.

Now to move on to what “the Bible says.” See, what “the Bible says” must be interpreted. There are different interpretations of various issues in Scripture, and collected interpretations and the reasoning behind them are called “doctrine.” Of course, there are correct interpretations and wrong ones. So correct doctrine is what the Bible actually says, while if a doctrine is incorrect it is not what the Bible actually says. And since there is always the possibility that we have made a mistake, saying “the Bible says” on controversial issues isn’t always helpful. Instead, we can better judge issues by saying, “This doctrine says” and clarifying that there are good reason to believe this doctrine is an accurate understanding of Scripture.

Did all that make sense? I hope so, because I felt like I rambled a bit. Now, moving on. To nuance the controversy of evolution and creation, we have to speak in this way: “The scientific theory of evolution and the Biblical doctrine of creation are in disagreement.” (Also, when I say refer to the doctrine of creation here, I am including all Biblical doctrines which reject evolution, regardless of the earth’s age or other details.) From here, there are four major possibilities.

Possibility #1: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

In this case, since nature is simply part of reality and Scripture describes reality, Scripture must be wrong. This is the view of most atheists and other skeptics, along with some liberal Christians, but those of us who believe in the inerrancy (or even infallibility) of Scripture reject this option.

Possibility #2: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

With this position, evolution is true, and it is compatible with Scripture. It is simply interpretations of Scripture which forbid evolution which are wrong. This view is popular among liberal Protestants, most Catholics, and a handful of Evangelicals.

Possibility #3: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

Most Evangelicals and all fundamentalists (but basically no one else) agree with this view, in which case evolution is entirely false and the Bible teaches creationism, which is true.

Possibility #4: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

This is a novel possibility in which the prevailing understanding of evolution is wrong, but so is the traditional doctrine of creation. Instead, some other theory/doctrine is true. I don’t know of anyone in particular who believes this.

I should point out now that out of these four possibilities, only #1 actually denies the truthfulness of Scripture. All three of the other options allow for the authority of Scripture to speak. A lot of people are uncomfortable with #2, but it is still a legitimate possibility. I myself find #3 the most likely, though I admit #4 is a very interesting (if pretty unsubstantial) possibility.

Now, the point of all this isn’t mainly about creation and evolution. Like I said before, this is a case study for how we should look at these issues. Any time some element of science, history, or philosophy seems to oppose Christianity, we need to think this way. Identify the interpretations, lay out the possibilities, and figure out which one is most likely. Don’t be afraid to examine your doctrine, and don’t be afraid to challenge theories. Either could be right or wrong in any given debate. So be rational. That’s why God gave us brains, after all.

Sidestepping Abiathar: Arguing for Christianity without Fighting for Inerrancy

If you’ve ever had a debate with an atheist or other skeptic about Christianity, you’ve probably heard it. Those four terrible words. “The Bible contains errors.” Suddenly, at least from their perspective, your entire argument is worthless. For we know how it goes: If they’re convinced there is one error in the Bible, that should mean it’s not God’s Word for God cannot err, and if the Bible isn’t God’s Word, then Christianity is false.

Naturally, the first response that may come to mind is “Prove it” or perhaps “No there aren’t.” This probably isn’t the best way to go about continuing the discussion, because either you have put this person on the defensive and seem prepared to show up their ignorance, or you are about to be given a response that you can’t handle. For most people, the first problem is probably what you’ll face. Realizing they don’t actually know of any errors in the Bible and have instead just repeated something they have heard, they won’t be very happy and will up their defenses. However, this is not the case for all people. Some will actually meet your challenge and throw errors at you. In fact, these people may very well have quite a list, though they may also have one tough one alone.

If someone is convinced there is one error in the Bible, that should mean it’s not God’s Word for God cannot err, and if the Bible isn’t God’s Word, then Christianity is false.

Things only get worse from here. If they lob an easy “error” your way, maybe you can give them the answer and get back on track. But most of the time, you’ll instead find yourself sidetracked by debating one difficult text or scrambling to respond to a hundred different issues. Eventually, you’ll get stuck on Mark, Jesus, and Abiathar (if you’re curious, head here), and you’ll find that your entire evangelistic effort now hinges on your ability to explain one difficult verse. If you fail, you’ve basically confirmed to the other person’s mind that your religion is a sham.

Obviously, this is not a desirable outcome. Instead of weighing down our presentation of the Gospel with 30,000+ verses to prove have no errors, we need to realize something else. Christianity does not hinge on inerrancy, and even if inerrancy was a completely false doctrine Christianity would still be true. The core of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which are historical reality and would even be so if Scripture were errant.

Even if inerrancy were false, Christianity would still be true.

“How can this be?” you may ask. “Certainly if the Bible has errors, then it is not God’s Word, and if it is not God’s Word then we cannot believe its claims!” But that’s a pretty silly argument. Firstly, it is hypothetically possible for the Bible to be God’s Word and contain errors. How? Well, humans make mistakes. Even though the Word which the authors of Scripture were writing lacked error, they could have misspelled something, wrote the wrong name somewhere, or made other basic errors without making the writing no longer God’s Word. (This is similar to how I, if I transcribed a speech by our President, could still legitimately call my transcript the President’s word even if I made a few typos or misheard a word or two.)

But let’s assume something more radical. See, the skeptic you’re witnessing to may be quite difficult to speak to even with the assumption that the Bible is God’s Word with a few errors. So what if something even more crazy was the case? What if the authors of the Bible weren’t divinely inspired at all, but just writing regular human writing? I may not think this is the case, and you may not think this is the case, but whoever you’re talking to probably does think this is the case. Fortunately for you, even this weak view of Scripture is enough to demonstrate that Christianity is true. How so? Consider the following facts about Scripture even if it were not special in any way:

  • The Gospels were all written within the lifespan of witnesses to Jesus’ ministry, and claim to be by eyewitnesses, and could have been refuted easily if they were even exaggerations, so are most likely pretty reliable.
  • Even if the Gospels are unreliable in some ways and contradict each other, they all show a strong, unanimous testimony that Jesus existed, was crucified, and was absent from the tomb on the third day.
  • Furthermore, all the Gospels show that Jesus’ disciples did indeed believe He has risen from the grave.
  • Paul’s letters, the earliest New Testament writings, show a clear belief that Jesus physically died and rose for our sins. Paul is also historically associated with the Apostles, who certainly lived during Jesus’ ministry.
  • The Gospels, if understood as normal historical documents, constitute four sources for Jesus’ life. However, even if Matthew, Mark, and Luke share material, their age and widespread acceptance work to validate their shared content, and John serves as an independent corroborating source for the major events of Jesus’ life.
  • Paul in 1 Corinthians reveals that Jesus’ historical life, death, and resurrection were considered the key truths in Christian oral tradition by AD 54, roughly twenty years after Jesus’ death and far too soon for mythology to develop.
  • The book of Acts and many of the epistles show that Christians were already suffering persecution and martyrdom for their belief in Christ by 20 years after Jesus’ death. Most of these people would be old enough to know if Jesus didn’t actually live, die, and rise.

Honestly, I could go on and on. But the truth is that, even if they are regarded as normal historical documents, the books of the New Testament are sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Jesus did indeed die and rise again, and in that case Christianity is true. At this point, Christianity is true, period. Even if the Bible isn’t inerrant, or even inspired at all. Of course, if we accept that Jesus is truly the Son of God, and that the Gospels are reliable sources of information regarding His life, this naturally leads to a view that embraces the authority of the Old and New Testaments, and if they are authoritative, inspiration is easy to reach, and if they are inspired, they are probably inerrant. Not to say that someone can’t be a Christian if they stop lower on the ladder than I do. If someone convinced organically of the Gospel by these evidences comes to believe in the authority of Scripture but not its inerrancy, I can’t condemn them. Jesus, after all, is the center of our faith, not the Bible. The Bible is vital, and is the most important element of our faith tradition, but ultimately the written word is second to the Incarnate Word. And if we understand this, and we do not burden our evangelism with difficult defenses of Biblical inerrancy, then we can find ourselves much more convincing to a skeptical world looking for excuses to disbelieve.

How to Know God’s Will for You (Without Gimmicks, Funny Feelings, or Voices in Your Head)

“What is God’s will for my life?” This question consumes the minds of many believers perpetually. Taught from birth to seek God’s will in everything, many find themselves stuck on major (or minor) decisions trying to discern what God wants them to do.

I come to free you.

Okay, as dramatically as I imagine saying that in my head, I’m really only trying to point out a Biblical truth which actually is somewhat liberating. Ready for it? Here it goes.

You don’t need to constantly seek out “God’s will”—i.e. mysterious plans God has for your future—to actually be in God’s will.

What is the meaning of this? See, we have to be careful about how we conceive of God’s will. As given in Scripture, God’s will does not refer to the secret plans of the future which God has ready for us. In popular usage, though, people seem to imagine that God’s will is just that: a secret plan for their future which they are obligated to follow but can only be found out by intently praying and listening to God (a suspiciously Gnostic-sounding notion). Yet when the Bible speaks of God’s will, it is actually pretty clear cut. For example, 1 Thessalonians is one of a handful of places in Scripture which explicitly speaks of God’s will for us:

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-6

In this case, we are given specific instructions that are called “God’s will for us.” Avoid sexual immorality. Control your body in a holy and honorable way. Don’t wrong or take advantage of each other. Not much is left to the imagination, or left to be sought out by prayer.

People seem to imagine that God’s will is a secret plan for their future which they are obligated to follow but can only be found out by intently praying and listening to God.

See, the idea we have of “phoning home” to God to figure out what we need to do is just not right. Consider parents: do they raise their children to call them every time they need to make a decision, or do they raise them to have the wisdom and teaching needed to make good decisions on their own? Likewise, God is not interested in teaching us to sit around waiting for Him to tell us everything to do, but instead wants us to grow in wisdom and love so that we can make the right decisions on our own using the tools He has given us.

Having said this, I want to give a simple, five-step method for finding God’s will for your life. It’s pretty straightforward, and I believe it honors the order God has given us for making decisions.

  1.  Check with Scripture. The first and most basic step is to submit to the authority of Scripture. If you are trying to make a decision, start by verifying that what is in alignment with what God has revealed to us of His will. After all, everything we need to be told explicitly about God’s will can be found in Scripture. For a blatantly obvious example, if you are trying to decide whether to kill someone or not, you should know what to do as soon as you read “You shall not murder.” As a more practical example, if you are wondering whether you should give more to people in need, you may very well have your answer when you read, “God loves a cheerful giver.”
  2. Listen to your conscience. Sometimes you just know that something is wrong, even if you’re not sure why and you can rationalize it away. Don’t go that way. If you have that niggling voice of “no,” they don’t do it. On the flip side, sometimes you know you should be doing something, even if you’re good at convincing yourself otherwise. Don’t keep fighting it. When you already know what’s right or wrong, and you have already checked this out with Scripture, just do what’s right.
  3. Submit to the authorities over you. If something is okay with Scripture and with conscience, you still need to verify that it is right by the people God has put in authority over your. Maybe it’s okay Biblically and wouldn’t violate any dictate of conscience, but you shouldn’t share a beer with friends if you’re under 21 because that’s illegal. And perhaps there is no reason why it should be wrong to watch Frozen 18 times in one week, but if your parents tell you to knock it off you need to obey them.
  4. Use your brain. If you still have options after checking with Scripture, conscience, and your authorities, now it’s time to check with your own brain. Be reasonable about your decisions. Don’t be an idiot. Sure, maybe the Bible doesn’t say “Do not jump off of a bridge using rubber bands for a bungee cord,” but God did give you reason, and reason should tell you to stop. And honestly, sometimes this can be the most difficult step, because sometimes you just can’t seem to figure out what is the smartest choice (I’m thinking especially of picking a college here). I should also point out that following your reason isn’t always the same as doing what intuitively makes sense. For example, selling everything you have and giving to the poor may not seem to make any sense, but when you reason it out and realize that you will gain better treasures in Heaven, the rational choice is to give.
  5. Follow your heart. What? Did I really just say that? Yes, I did, but I put it as the last step for good reason. Seriously, if something is good with Scripture, checks out with your conscience, leaves you in good standing with your authorities, and is a reasonable decision, then you should just do what you want with it. Now, just because you want something or feel something doesn’t mean you can disregard the higher priorities in this process, but if it makes it all the way down to this step 5, just do what you want to do. There is seriously no reason not to.

At the end of this, you’ve probably found God’s will. Of course, it’s possible that you still missed it. Maybe you messed up on the way down, or maybe God’s planning something that wasn’t even on your radar before. But in the former situation, God gives us grace and will work it out for your good. In the latter situation, I am convinced that God will control the doors. If what you conclude by the end of this process isn’t what God wants, you are not doing wrong; instead, God will open the doors He wants open and close the doors He wants closed until you end up where He wishes. But if you really follow through these things well, you cannot go wrong in any meaningful way.

Of course, just because you try to go this route doesn’t mean you will find it easy. Steps 4 and 5 can be particularly difficult sometimes. That’s okay. When we get stuck, God has an answer. See, the ability to navigate these steps and arrive at a good decision has a name: wisdom. Wisdom is what allows us to see things properly so that we understand what we should do. It will help you with every step of this process, and fortunately God has promised to provide us with it if we ask Him. So if you need help making a decision, the solution isn’t necessarily to pray, “God, tell me what to do” or “God, show me Your will,” but instead “God, give me wisdom to make good decisions.” This, after all, is why wisdom is “more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold” (Proverbs 3:14).

Love, Selflessness, and Pleasure

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

You Might Be a Whovian If…

  • Every time you see a porta-potty, you think of the TARDIS.
  • Every time you hear “Don’t blink,” you think of Weeping Angels.
  • You think the opposite of YOLO is Rory Williams.
  • You’ve said “wibbley wobbley” since you were 8.
  • You’ve ever said “timey wimey.”
  • Hearing the word “regenerate” makes you both excited and depressed.
  • You think bow-ties are cool, but didn’t think so prior to 2005.
  • You are under 50 and would wear a fez in public.
  • The word “silence” always makes you think “..will fall” or “in the Library.”
  • You see in this picture a Dalek instead of a shower.
  • You traveled more than 60 miles to a movie theater in November 2013.
  • Stone angels freak you out.
  • The sentence “I’m married to my best friend’s daughter who I met when she died before I ever met my best friend, who I met before my wife was born” actually makes sense to you.
  • Using a screwdriver for medical scanning doesn’t phase you.
  • You would run from anyone offering to take you to Utopia.
  • You think James Bond is a Time Lord.

So if one of these things applies to you, you might be a Whovian. If two apply, you’re probably a Whovian. If any more than that apply, I believe you’re one of us.