The Bible is Not a Science Textbook
God is known by nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.
Galileo is famous; a significant figure in history largely because of his impact in the field of modern science, and also because of his trial with the church. I’ve heard a lot of people postulate him as the author of conflict between science and religion. A part of me thinks it was inevitable for the church and science to be in opposition to one another, but I don’t think it needs to be that way. Nor do I believe God wants it to be that way.
Modern science (that is, science as we know it today) began in the 16th century, which incidentally is the period in which Galileo lived. To provide some context the prevailing belief of the day was that the Earth was the centre of everything and the Sun, Moon, stars and everything else revolved around it (geocentrism). Galileo advocated heliocentrism, the idea that the Earth and planets revolved around the Sun. Suffice it to say, the church was unimpressed and felt certain Scriptures argued against the notion.
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.
Joshua 10:13 (ESV)
Did the sun actually stand still? I don’t know, I wasn’t there. This passage is allegedly one of the ones called into question when Galileo presented his case.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
Ecclesiastes 1:5 (ESV)
Another alleged Scripture the church said contradicted Galileo’s assertion.
While theories abound about the passage from Joshua, Ecclesiastes is a little more straightforward.
The Bible is a narrative: a story told in an art-form that describes a journey between people and their Creator. In it we discover truths and falsehoods about both—but in it we discover. As those who follow Christ we believe the Bible is God’s Word to us; as I’ve previously mentioned God loves us to the extent that He does not allow the narrative of our journey to be told without our being a participant in that telling. Simply put: He’s not writing the story on His own. He’s writing it with us.
This helps us better understand the text from Joshua and Ecclesiastes. Whether God literally stopped the Sun and Moon becomes somewhat irrelevant. What matters is that when Joshua penned those words from his perspective it seemed that way.
The reality is that certain parts of the Bible must be taken figuratively (this is what Galileo argued). The Sun does not circle the Earth, yet from our perspective it does seem that way. The story of creation in Genesis chapter one describes events that unfold over the course of six days; yet the Sun, which we use to measure our day, wasn’t even created until the fourth day1. As much as I love the technical details, describing orbital dynamics just isn’t as poetic as illustrating with words the unending journey of the Sun and Moon as they chase each other across the sky night and day.
For his part Galileo didn’t have it all right. While he correctly believed the Earth orbited the Sun, he incorrectly believed the universe orbited the Sun. The point being that no one knows everything. In fact, Galileo wasn’t able to prove his scientific viewpoint, he merely presented it.
For the church’s part it was supporting the mainstream view of the time. Most people living during the period of time in question believed the Earth was at the centre of everything. Today this would be similar to the church vehemently promoting Darwinian evolution.
When we study the Bible we must approach it with the understanding of what it is and is not. It was penned during a period of time when there was little to no understanding of science. To approach it as the authoritative scientific source limits what we can learn in the field of science.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Genesis 1:28-30 (ESV)
Even from the beginning it’s evident God wanted us to explore creation. It’s not something we need to avoid, it’s there for us to discover. At the same time it’s not something the Bible documents. As people we’re invited to grow in our understanding and knowledge of the creation around us. The Bible’s focus is elsewhere:
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
John 10:10 (ESV)
This passage is part of a larger message shared by Jesus and it describes His reason for coming—to facilitate the restoration of creation to God’s original, intended design—and it highlights the over-arching message of the Bible.
Scientific understanding does not detract from faith in Jesus and belief that the Bible is God’s Word. God’s Word is a collection of narratives that detail His interaction with creation (us) and our interaction (or lack thereof) with Him. The over-arching message speaks of a Creator who wants a relationship with His creation. How we understand the universe in which we live is a discovery that we can make either in that relationship or out of it, but the discovery itself is something that should be openly pursued.
Genesis 1:14-19 ↩