While we are on the subject of the Bible today, let’s look at a point of view quite contrary to that of John Polkinghorne, the renowned physicist whose book we are working through (see this morning’s post). Christian Post reports that “Pastor Rick Warren launched his ’40 Days in the Word’ biblical literacy campaign over the weekend by preaching that the Bible is not only historically and prophetically accurate, but scientifically trustworthy as well.”
I commend Rick Warren for working to increase the Biblical literacy of his congregation. Unfortunately, I think he is misleading them when he portrays the Bible as “scientifically trustworthy” and gives examples like the following:
“You might expect the Bible to say the world is flat because for thousands of years, everybody thought the world was flat,” he explained. “But, 2,600 years ago the Bible said in Isaiah 40:22, ‘God is enthroned above the sphere of the earth.’ Two-thousand, six-hundred years ago, the Bible said the world is not flat. It’s a sphere. It’s a globe. It said it long before anyone started coming up with that idea. Nowhere in the Scripture does it say the world is flat.”
With all due respect to Pastor Warren, that’s bad reading.
The Hebrew people, like other Ancient Near Eastern people, had a cosmology like that pictured in the diagram above and the Bible reflects this cosmology consistently throughout its pages. Scripture does not give us clues to later scientific discoveries such as the earth being a globe. The Israelites, like their ANE neighbors, saw the earth as a relatively flat, circular disk. This is how it appears to anyone phenomenologically, as we scan the horizon. This disk is covered by a “vault” or “firmament” that appears as a rounded dome over the earth (imagine a snow globe). Beneath the land, upholding the “circle of the earth” are the “pillars of the earth.” There are “waters under the earth” that feed the surface waters, and “waters above the firmament” that are sometimes released upon the earth through “the windows of heaven.” The clouds and the heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars, have been placed in firmament above. There are several other details, but these will suffice to make our point.
When Warren quotes Isaiah 40:22 as saying, “God is enthroned above the sphere of the earth,” he translates and interprets the text in contradiction to how all major English versions understand the Hebrew word chûg. What Isaiah said was that God’s throne sits above “the circle of the earth.”
Isaiah is portraying God as sitting above the circular disk of the land below or perhaps beyond the rounded dome of the firmament (see the diagrams). Whichever it is, either interpretation reflects ANE cosmology and has nothing to do with earth being a spherical globe. God did not reveal that thousands of years ago through special revelation. Scientists came to understand it in their study of his general revelation.
Nevertheless, in his message, Rick Warren asserts, “The reason the Bible is scientifically accurate is because the laws of the universe were invented by God. God knows the scientific laws of the universe better than we do.”
Well of course God does, but that is not the point. The point is whether God guided the Biblical authors to write in such a way that they spoke better than they knew about future scientific findings. I, for one, don’t accept that. I trust the Bible as God’s Word, but not because it contains up-to-date scientific information that was supernaturally revealed by God thousands of years before humans discovered it. It doesn’t, and we should not expect that. Nor do we need to maintain that perspective in order to stand against a tide of atheistic naturalism promoted by “modern science.”
If you stop and think about it, Warren’s claim is an untenable idea anyway, for our knowledge of the natural world is always incomplete. If we claim dogmatically that the Bible confirms today’s scientific positions, then we will be in trouble tomorrow when scientists make new discoveries.
This view of Scripture won’t cut it, and the sooner we abandon it the better. God spoke his Word in our language, fully respecting the limitations of its writers. He inspired it to be written within their cultural and scientific perspectives.
The real point upon which we should be focused is the Story Scripture tells in its ancient narratives and poetry — how that God prepared the way and then sent the true and living Word. He is the Word of God to whom the Bible witnesses, who became flesh and dwelt among us to save us from our sins, inaugurate God’s rule in the world, and bring about a new creation.
Let’s become literate about that message and how the Bible tells it.