Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible
by John Polkinghorne
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Today, we begin walking through a new book by John Polkinghorne on the Bible. I believe this will give us a unique vantage point from which to consider the Scriptures? Why? — because Polkinghorne has a unique combination of vocations and expertise, as both an Anglican priest and a world-class physicist. (You can read his full biography here.)
John Polkinghorne is a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), a Fellow (and former President) of Queens’ College, Cambridge. His distinguished career as a Physicist began at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his PhD in 1955. He stepped away from his scientific work and began studying for the Anglican priesthood in 1979, and eventually became President of Queen’s College. He retired from there in 1996. He was appointed KBE (Knight Commander of the order of the British Empire) in 1997. Since then, Polkinghorne has been writing on the relationship between faith and science, serving on various faith/science-related commissions in the Church of England. He was awarded the Templeton Prize for Science and Religion in 2002.
In the introduction to his new book, Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, he writes, “Scripture has been very important to me in my Christian life. For more than sixty years I have read the Bible every day and when in middle life I was ordained as an Anglican priest, I undertook the welcome duty of saying the Daily Office. Every year this takes me through the whole of the New Testament and a good deal of the Old Testament.”
So, this book is not only written by a really smart guy (!) but by a man who has soaked himself in Scripture daily as a Christian and in his vocation as a servant of Christ. How could we not listen to the perspective of a brother with this kind of knowledge and experience? That is exactly what I’d like to do in the days to come. We will have a series of posts on his new book, listening and responding to John Polkinghorne’s unique point of view.
Having said all that, you should know that Testing Scripture is not an academic work. As its author tells us,“Its principal purpose is simply to help the contemporary reader to engage in a serious and intellectually responsible encounter with the Bible.”
“Ancient pictures of the four evangelists sometimes show them sitting at their desks while a small bird, representing the Holy Spirit, whispers in their ear to tell them what to write. Is that what the Bible is: a divinely dictated book, every word of which conveys absolute and unquestionable truth? I do not think so. For me it is something altogether more subtle. Just as God does not write universal messages in the sky but works more hiddenly, inspiring and guiding individuals and communities, so in a similar way Scripture is inspired by God but written by human beings, in order to be interpreted and understood by them in their succeeding generations.”
John Polkinghorne, a scientist, says the Bible is more like a laboratory notebook in which critical historical data have been recorded than a textbook that gives readers ready-made answers. This is helpful, but might be somewhat misleading. For the Scriptures do not record mere observations but interpreted history that advances particular theological perspectives. However, his main point stands: for the most part, the Bible does not transmit propositions as much as it gives a record of people and events through which God acted and made himself known.
Moreover, this revelation speaks to us of a personal God — “a God who does particular things with particular people in particular circumstances.” God’s “personal style” is reflected in the fact that he chose one nation through whom to reveal himself, interacting with individuals and families over the course of his dealings with Israel. Furthermore, this “scandal of particularity” becomes even more focused when we come to the New Testament and the spotlight falls on one man — Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we come to understand that “the Word of God” is not a written text, but a Person to whom the text witnesses.
For the Christian, the unique significance of the Bible is that it gives us indispensable accounts of God’s acts in Israel and in Jesus Christ. Without that scriptural record we would know little about Israel and very little indeed about Jesus of Nazareth. These events happened in the course of history and the accounts that we have of them necessarily originated at specific times and in particular cultural contexts. Yet the revelatory character claimed for them implies that insights of enduring significance are embedded in the pages of Scripture. A central task for the Christian interpreter of Scripture is to discern what in the Bible has lasting truthful authority, rightly commanding the continuing respect of successive generations, and what is simply time-bound cultural expression, demanding no necessary continuing allegiance from us today. Absolutely no one is free from having to make judgements of this kind.
This interpretive task of “discriminating between the time-bound and the permanent” is one that Polkinghorne promises will be a matter of discussion throughout the entire book. As recent books by Scot McKnight (The Blue Parakeet) and Christian Smith (Bible Made Impossible) emphasize, this is a key discussion of the moment. Those who insist on more conservative definitions of inerrancy often underplay the role this kind of discrimination and interpretation plays in our view of Scripture. Also, as is true with all great literature (and we might expect even more so with divinely inspired literature!), there is a richness and depth to its stories, poems, prayers, prophecies, and other writings that resists simple literalism and single strands of meaning.
John Polkinghorne is not a literalist, nor an inerrantist. However, he does take the Bible very, very seriously. Frankly, I like what I read so far of his approach: “Scripture, together with the worshipping experience of the Church and its accumulated traditions of insight, as well as the exercise of our God-given powers of reason, together form the context for Christian thinking and living.”