Interpreting Creation, Part 3: The Scientific Method

Interpreting Creation, Part 3: The Scientific Method

We note that the Bible outlines a method for developing more reliable interpretations of both Scripture and nature’s record.

In part 1 of this four-part series on Reasons To Believe’s interpretation methods, I reviewed the different apologetics methods used by Christian leaders and explained why I believe all the methods need to be fully integrated in apologetics and evangelism ministries. In part 2, I described four different classes of models used across the creation-evolution spectrum for addressing science-faith issues and noted which one we employ at Reasons To Believe (RTB) and why. Here, in part 3, I will describe the biblical testing method for gaining more complete and more accurate interpretations of Scripture and nature’s record and how our RTB scholar team uses this method to build our testable biblical creation model.

We note that the Bible outlines a method for developing more reliable interpretations of both Scripture and nature’s record. First, the Bible demands that all interpretations be put to the test. That is, no belief is to be adopted until it first has been shown to have passed all relevant tests.

In his first letter to the Thessalonians the apostle Paul commands:

Test everything. Hold on to the good.1

And in his first epistle John echoes Paul’s sentiments:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.2

In Acts, Luke notes the positive example set by the Bereans’ reaction to Paul’s teaching:

Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.3

Jesus Himself commended such diligent and thorough testing:

You have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.4

Paul exhorts us that such testing, to be effective, will require education and training:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.5

In the Old Testament, Job makes the same exhortation:

Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good.6

The Bible not only commands us to put everything to the test, it shows us how. Christian scholars throughout church history, from early church fathers to present-day evangelical scientists, philosophers, and theologians, have noted a pattern in biblical narratives and descriptions of sequential physical events such as the Genesis creation account. Bible authors typically preface such depictions by stating the narrative or description’s frame of reference or point of view. In the same statement or immediately thereafter comes a listing of the initial conditions for the narrative or description. The narrative or the description itself follows. Finally, the author describes final conditions and conclusions about what transpired.

Furthermore, there is not just one narrative or description of physical events in the Bible. There are dozens. Because the Bible is inspired by God––for whom it is impossible to lie or deceive––these dozens must be consistent with one another. Therefore, each of these dozens of descriptive accounts can be used to test the validity of the interpretation of the others.

Another way to describe this biblical testing method is as a series of steps:7

  1. Identify one or more of the physical phenomena that the particular biblical text investigates, describes, and/or explains.
  2. Identify the frame(s) of reference or point(s) of view to be used in studying and describing the phenomenon or phenomena.
  3. Determine the initial conditions for the phenomenon or phenomena.
  4. Take note of the description of the phenomenon/phenomena and determine what takes place when, where, and in what order.
  5. Note the final conditions for the phenomenon/phenomena.
  6. Form a tentative explanation, or hypothesis, for how and why things transpired as they did.
  7. Test the hypothesis with additional biblical texts that address the same phenomenon/phenomena.
  8. Revise the hypothesis accordingly.

Step 8 is not the end of the biblical testing method. Since only God knows everything, the human investigator needs to return to steps 1, 2, and 3, for example, and determine if there is any need of revising, augmenting, and/or subtracting from one’s initial identification of the physical phenomena, the frame(s) of reference or point(s) of view, and/or the determination of the initial conditions. That is, the biblical testing method works best when practiced continuously and cyclically. It moves researchers closer to truth, or to a more complete grasp of it. Each time they cycle through the steps they uncover new information and insight. Changes will be necessary. New questions and challenges always arise. But that’s how knowledge and understanding advance. The process never ends.

The Reformation gave everyone the right to read the Bible for themselves. Reformers passionate about studying the record of nature took note of the above-described biblical testing method. They applied it to their research of the natural realm. This application spawned the scientific revolution and within a few generations became known as the scientific method.

It is, thus, no accident that the scientific revolution arose from Reformation Europe. Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance has written and edited book-length discussions about how Christian theology—Reformed theology in particular—played a critical role in the scientific method’s birth and development and in the amazing achievements by Western science.8

As noted in part 2 of this series, Reasons To Believe is committed to seeking out an interpretation of each biblical creation text that is consistent with all the others and with all other biblical texts impacted by creation passages. As we constantly remind both our Christian and non-Christian audiences, it is not enough to interpret the Bible literally (unless the context clearly indicates otherwise), it must also be interpreted consistently.

We also continually remind our audiences that our creation model is and always will be under development and subject to revision. The biblical testing method implies that there is always more testing that can be done to improve our model and much more we can learn about both the record of nature and the words of the Bible.

In saying that our creation model requires ongoing revision, we are not saying that we lack confidence in our model’s validity. We take note and pleasure in that over the past thirty-five years (even before RTB’s official launch 25 years ago) the revisions have become progressively smaller, less numerous, and less problematic. We see that consistent trend in the revisions as confirmation that our model is basically correct. Our model’s track record in passing proposed tests yields another affirmation. Our success in predicting what scientists and theologians will discover in their future research provides yet additional substantiation.  

The biblical testing method means, however, that we are never satisfied with our creation model’s status. We are constantly seeking new ways to put our model to the test. We invite scholars who hold to different models to offer constructive critique. In resolving a problem or anomaly in our model we look for additional concerns that the process of resolution may uncover. We see these issues, no matter how minor, as pathways to making new discoveries and, thereby, gaining new knowledge and understanding.

The Bible calls us to be peacemakers, not peacekeepers. Peacekeepers ignore or isolate those with different models; or in a call for unity on the important matters, they attempt to suppress differences and controversies. Peacemakers, on the other hand, seek to bring resolution to competing models, to differences, and to controversies. The biblical testing method provides the body of Christ and the scientific community with the tools to resolve, rather than paste over or cover up, controversies, differences, and competing models of interpretation.

In part 4 of this four-part series I will describe over a dozen hermeneutical principles we employ at Reasons To Believe to approach science-faith issues and how our scholar team uses those principles to build our testable biblical creation model.

  1. 1 Thessalonians 5:21.
  2. 1 John 4:1.
  3. Acts 17:11.
  4. Revelation 2:2.
  5. Romans 12:2.
  6. Job 34:4.
  7. My book The Genesis Question applies this biblical testing method to the Genesis creation account.
  8. Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965); Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology (Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Academic Press, 1985); Thomas F. Torrance, “Ultimate and Penultimate Beliefs in Science,” in Facets of Faith & Science, Volume I: Historiography and Modes of Interaction, edited by Jitse M. van der Meer (New York: University Press of America, 1996), 151–76.