Must We Interpret the Bible in a Vacuum?

I just started a new book, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth (2006) by Dr. David Snoke, a respected physicist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve been aware of Snoke and a few of his papers/essays for awhile, but I didn’t pick up his book until a few months ago, and I finally got around to reading it. (Or, at least, I will be reading it on my upcoming trip to Baltimore.) The first chapter — the only one I’ve read, as yet — is titled “Starting Assumptions”, in which he discusses the issue of “whether experience, including the expanded experience of science, may ever legitimately affect our interpretation of the Bible.” I liked the way he concluded the chapter, so I reproduce it here for you.

A Biblical Case for an Old Earth - book cover“All of these examples point to the legitimacy of allowing experience to affect our interpretation of the Bible. Why do we react against it, then? I have already mentioned two reasons. First, we rightly want to avoid any hint of concession to worldly views due to societal pressure. Second, we rightly want to avoid a ‘slippery slope’ that would allow us to ‘explain away’ any passage of Scripture.

In order to avoid the first pitfall, any argument for a new interpretation of Scripture should present a positive case; that is, it should not simply ‘explain away’ apparently obvious meanings of Scripture. It should show thematic consistency with all of Scripture, a truly biblical worldview. To avoid the second pitfall, a new interpretation should delineate boundaries, defining what is negotiable and what is not. I hope to accomplish both of these tasks in the following pages.

My goal is to help the church avoid the same errors in the debate over the age of the earth that have occurred in the above examples. In the case of the moving earth, forcing an interpretation that the world does not move makes God into a great deceiver who shows us false appearances of things that are not real. In the same way, some people’s views of the ‘apparent age’ of the earth make God into a great deceiver. In the case of modern apostles, demanding that there are people who can perform the miraculous works of apostles can lead us to succumb to gullibility as we latch on to any claim that supports our position, and to fail to apply rigid tests to those who claim to have supporting evidence. In the same way, demanding that there must be scientific evidence for a young earth can lead us to latch on to people with dubious credentials who tell us what we want to hear.

In the case of the early return of Christ, if we insist on a rigid rule of the ‘most obvious’ interpretation, we can cause people, including our children, to give up on the Bible, or reject Christianity outright as they lay what seems to be the most obvious interpretation alongside their experience. In the same way, every year the church loses children who go to college and find that the evidence does seem quite sound for an old earth, and who conclude that they must reject the Bible. In the case of the Babylonian king, rejecting new information about biblical times means that we force a modern (and uninformed) view on the Bible instead of listening to those who are most familiar with the context of the ancient world. In the same way, reading Genesis 1 and other passages only in the way that seems most natural to modern eyes may cause us to lose some of the deeper meaning in those passages. In this book I will present some very deep themes of Scripture that often are lost in modern discussion.

We would do well to remember that science was founded by Christians who insisted that God is not a great deceiver, that the natural world is ordered by a good God, and that we must reject superstition and hearsay; moreover, that we must subject all truth claims to rigorous examination, even claims of honored church leaders from generations past. They insisted that the general revelation of God in nature and the special revelation in Scripture are in agreement, not discord. It is no coincidence that the scientific revolution and the Reformation came at the same place and time in history — the Protestants supported Kepler and Copernicus in their revolutionary new interpretation of the Bible. One could almost say that the Copernican revolution was primarily a revolution of Bible interpretation: it revealed that the scholars of the church past were not always correct in their interpretation of Bible passages like Psalm 93:1 (which had been interpreted to mean that the sun goes around the earth), just as they were not always correct in interpreting passages dealing with moral and spiritual issues.”

I should point out here that, despite the above statements associating the Protestant Reformation with the Copernican Revolution, earlier in the chapter Snoke acknowledges that Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon all rejected the idea of a moving earth. They would be among those past church scholars who were not always correct, though we still hold them in high regard.

Copernicus & the solar system

Copernicus & the solar system

“As I said above, all scientific theories are provisional works of human beings, and therefore science does not ‘trump’ Scripture, which is unchanging and inerrant. At the same time, all theological systems are provisional works of human beings, too. By ‘provisional’, I do not mean ‘quickly changed’. The scientific method provides rules by which theories may be changed, and successful theories last for centuries. In the same way, there are rules of Bible interpretation that do not allow us to easily jettison elements of theology. Yet the Reformation was based on the belief that the traditional teaching of the church about the meaning of Scripture is not to be confused with Scripture itself. Even the Roman Catholic Church, though it rejects the Reformation, now affirms that the understanding of the church can evolve and grow in the light of new information.

My view of the ‘new’ interpretations of Scripture in the church is the same as for individuals — we should be able to grow in wisdom, not rushing to every new wind of doctrine, but carefully weighing new views and always able to learn. A wise person finds new things constantly in Scripture, even while holding to it as an unshakable foundation, and the church does well to do the same. While we must not take lightly the Bible interpretation of faithful scholars of the past, we can also hope that new generations have something to add as well.”

What do you think? Does he make sensible suggestions? Is his reasoning sound? I tend to think so, and I’m looking forward to seeing how well (or if) he accomplishes his goal(s) in the remainder of the book.

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