The following article is a fantastic testimony written by one of my college professors. His viewpoints have had a deep effect on the rational aspects of my faith. I pray his words will speak to you as well.
by John Burton, Ph.D.
Physics Professor Emeritus
I am endeavoring to articulate what I believe about science and scripture and how, together, they impact our lives. This is not based on extensive reading of literature, but on a lifetime of influence by Christian family, friends and churches, on regular personal Bible study, on trying to follow the Lordship of Christ and on training in physics and a career of research and teaching of physics, astronomy, computer science and mathematics. This essay is not intended to persuade anyone to believe as I do, but it is offered in the hope that this discourse will help others to formulate and articulate their own practice of both reason and faith.
For the purpose of this treatise, the word “science” is intended to comprise all systematic studies, including the natural sciences, social studies, studies of human behavior and systematic theology. Although my experience is primarily in physics, I believe similar principles apply to many areas of study. “Scripture” is intended to include the canonized Bible, as commonly recognized by most Biblical scholars, using any translation that is deemed to be reasonably faithful to the earliest available texts.
From my perspective, scientific study is often misinterpreted or misrepresented as a search for absolute truth, resulting in irrefutable conclusions. I believe most reputable scientists view their work as an on-going endeavor to find and refine useful theories by which to describe and utilize the world around us. Any conclusion drawn from their work is never absolutely proven to be correct, but is always subject to being disproved or shown to be inadequate for some purposes.
We have fallen into the misleading habit of referring to some theories as “laws.” However, many famous “laws” of physics have been shown to be incorrect. For example, Newton’s laws of motion, while adequate for describing the motion of billiard balls, rocket ships and satellites, we now know that calculations based on Newton’s laws are not precise. When speeds approach the speed of light or when objects are as small as atoms or as massive as stars, the observed behavior of these objects does not adhere to Newton’s laws! New concepts of relativity and quantum theory are required to accurately predict their behavior.
Such discrepancies do not obviate the value of a theory, however. For most directly observed motions, Newton’s laws yield results that agree with observations so closely that the discrepancies cannot be measured. Thus Newton’s laws are still used, as a practical convenience. The more complex theories are not needed, to obtain useful results. By extension, we should suppose that even the revered theories of relativity and quantum mechanics will one day be shown insufficiently accurate for some purposes. Even now, string theory seems to be gaining credibility for cosmological calculations and some evidence may be exposing inadequacies of the former theories.
Therefore, the value of a scientific theory does not depend so much on whether it is right or wrong, but on whether it is useful. If useful applications may be drawn from a theory, then it is of value to the scientific community and to humanity at large. If we are aware of the limitations of a theory, then we are appropriately equipped to make proper use of it. Otherwise, inappropriate application of a theory may become a stumbling block to progress.
A most daunting task of science is to unravel the overall structure of the entire universe and to understand the processes by which the universe has come into being and has developed into its present form. We may wonder if creatures can really fathom the processes of creation and describe the plan of the Creator. Nevertheless, I consider the remarkable mental capacity of mankind, to contemplate his own existence and to question his own place in the universe, as a divinely endowed challenge to explore the structure of the universe and seek to discover its origin. This is a part of God’s directive, “fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) God made the universe with great wisdom and intricately intelligent design. He has also endowed man with the capacity to discover principles of His creative design. If we are to be good stewards of His universe and of the capacities He has given us, we must diligently study this world and apply our minds to understanding it. We should be good stewards of His designs. (See Isaiah 6:9-13.)
Astronomers and cosmologists have responded to that challenge by studying the structure of stars, galaxies and clusters of galaxies. As farther reaches of space are explored, there appears to be an ever-increasing order of emptiness in our universe. There is more distance between neighboring stars than most of us can imagine. Yet, on a cosmic scale, our solar system is in a relatively crowded part of our Milky Way Galaxy, beyond which there is even more empty space between galaxies. Galaxies, in turn, are gathered in clusters of galaxies, which are separated by emptiness that is an order of magnitude larger than clusters themselves. Beyond that are super-clusters of clusters, spreading out even further into space. In principle, we could imagine that the order of clustering continues ad infinitum and thus avoid the perplexing quandary of explaining what exists beyond the observable universe. Most cosmologists, however, find it more useful to assume that the universe is finite in both extent and in age.
Theories have been developed which help us understand the functioning of stars and other astronomical phenomena with remarkable success. This, in spite of our inability to travel much beyond our own planet or see beneath the surface of the sun or detect any detailed features of any star other than the sun. Only by thorough analysis of tiny specks of light and painstaking application of principles of physics have we illuminated some of the mysteries of the heavens. Not all phenomena are explained to everyone’s satisfaction, however, and there are still competing theories, which remain to be adjudged as to which is most consistent with observations.
One theory that has gained credibility with many scientists is the “Big Bang” theory, which posits that the origin of the universe occurred at an instant when all the matter-energy of the universe was released in a tremendous explosion at a tiny point. That theory is consistent with observations that galaxies are receding from each other at a great rate, as though driven by a large explosion. Background radiation from empty space and other acutely measured phenomena also seem to support the notion of such an explosive beginning of the universe. By careful measurement of current conditions in the universe, physicists have been able to deduce conditions that would have existed just an infinitesimal moment after the beginning of time. There are always discrepancies and dissenting views, but the “Big Bang” notion has produced some interesting and useful conclusions. Since scientists cannot conduct experiments regarding the creation of the universe, nor can they observe more than one example of the process, any degree of success in this field is rather remarkable.
At the other extreme end of the scale, physicists have probed the inner workings of matter. The term “atom” derives from a Greek word implying the smallest indivisible particle of matter. Although the modern concept of the atom includes clearly separable components, the term applies to a very useful concept of physics and chemistry. The atom is much too small to be observed with visible light, being a thousand times smaller than the wavelengths of light by which we see. The tiny world of the atom does not conform to the principles of motion that we readily observe around us. Rather, the position and momentum of electrons and other sub-microscopic entities appear to be governed by mathematical equations of probability rather than Newton’s predictable equations of motion. Yet, evidence is quite convincing that quantum theories regarding the structure of atoms provide accurate results regarding chemical reactions, bonding of atoms into molecular structures, the emission and absorption of light and other phenomena.
As we delve into the interior structure of the atom, we find another rather startling degree of emptiness. The nucleus of the atom, which comprises over 99.9% of its mass, resides amidst a swarming cloud of electrons at a tiny point of space one hundred thousand times smaller in diameter than the minuscule atom itself. Our most useful theories of this tiny nucleus indicate that its major constituents are protons, neutrons and number of medium-sized mesons, which serve to bind these parts into the unbelievably small volume of the nucleus. So the “indivisible” atom appears to be incredibly divisible! As nuclear physicists were just becoming comfortable and familiar with these constituents and were attempting to unravel their mysteries, evidence began to mount that nuclear particles are themselves composed of an entirely new class of particles called “quarks.” Theories regarding the behavior of all these basic particles of matter stretch one’s mind beyond what seems intuitively plausible and well beyond the mathematical skills of most of us. One may now begin to ask, “what are quarks made of?”
If I may stray a bit from the field of physics, I would like to comment on evolutionary theory. Evolution has been hotly debated and often misunderstood and misinterpreted, in my view. From what I have learned from biologists, I believe that principles of evolution have been demonstrated as useful tools for classifying various life forms and for explaining their existence and survival through the ages. These principles seem to be well supported by substantial evidence, gathered and interpreted by a large number of reputable biologists. Many of these biologists are also devout believers in God and in His divine creation and sustenance of life.
Some people view evolution as a theory that attributes the development of life forms to mere chance, devoid of any divine origin. I rather believe that evolution is a very plausible description of a divinely ordained process by which life came into being and flourished on earth. While some isolated observations may appear to be inconsistent with evolutionary principles, the preponderance of evidence seems to support the occurrence of evolutionary processes. The concept of evolution of life does not obviate my faith in God, but reinforces my conviction that God creates and sustains life in a marvelously patient process, with an orderly plan that stretches our imagination. I can certainly perceive God working in my life and in various living beings around me through natural, gradual processes of change. Our notions of evolution might be inaccurate, but they are nevertheless useful and even inspiring.
Theories of the sciences have achieved moderate success in describing observations ranging from the very smallest nuclear particle to the most far-reaching galactic structures of the cosmos, from the inanimate to the living, from the individual cell to society at large. Theories in many fields of natural science have reached such a complexity and level of sophistication that only experts trained in that narrow field can fully comprehend their ramifications. I doubt that any one person or even a collective team of physicists could claim a thorough understanding of the whole of physics. Consistency of theory with observation is not perfect and understanding of phenomena is not complete, however. Similar statements may be made regarding all areas of science. It is my conviction that our quest for understanding the natural world will never be completely satisfactory. Theories will continue to be disproved or found lacking. There will always be questions about what lies beyond or beneath our current understanding. As long as a child can ask “why?” or “what is this made of?” there will always be a need for scientific inquiry.
Having discoursed beyond what I fully comprehend of scientific studies, I would like to discuss what I believe about scripture. I believe the Bible is a uniquely inspired book containing a divinely ordained message from God. The Bible is inspired by God in its origin, in its preservation and canonization, in its translation and dissemination and in its illumination and interpretation for our lives.
I believe the content of the Bible was produced by genuine people of faith, as they experienced divine revelation from God. I am not comfortable, however, with the term “inerrant” in connection with the Biblical text. Some claim that the original words were inerrant, but that is not a practical conclusion, since no such original record of words exists and some parts of the Bible most likely came from multiple oral traditions with no singular origin. God surely communicates His message with perfection, but the human aspect of the Biblical record renders it less than perfect. As soon as man contemplates God’s message I believe it becomes less than perfectly understood. When he communicates it to others it is corrupted by man’s limitations. I think if we ignore the human background of scripture, we are in danger of misunderstanding its message and we may be guilty of an idolatrous attitude toward the book. If our God could be adequately described in a book, then we have made Him too small. If all that God requires of our relationship with Him could be prescribed in words, then there would be no need for faith.
Beyond the difficulty of recording a divine message for human understanding, there is the problem of transmitting that message through ages of changing languages, cultures and literary styles. We must rely on trained biblical scholars to help us understand what the text said and what it meant in the day it was recorded. The process of translating words and meaning into our language always involves interpretation by the translators, which affects the meaning we derive from scripture. It also appears that much of the Bible is written in figurative terms, which, when taken literally, may convey a very different meaning from what was originally intended. Our own interpretation of the words of the Bible becomes an important key to the meaning we find in the message.
Words of the Bible have certainly been used in ways that seem contrary to God’s intentions. In the Garden of Eden, Satan turned God’s command into a question,
“Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?“ (Genesis 3:1 KJV)
When tempting Jesus, Satan used scripture to cast doubt on God’s providence (Matthew 4:6). Some have used scripture to justify war, racial prejudice and gender discrimination. Others, by insisting that their own interpretation of scripture is the only way to believe the Bible, have driven wedges between peoples of faith. Such divisive use of scripture may well do more to impede the cause of Christ than anything the devil could imagine! In these instances, I would not call those passages the word of God. Like any other powerful words, passages of scripture can be used for ungodly purposes. The Bible is the word of God only when His message is used for His purposes.
The phrase, word of the Lord, in scripture often refers to the expression of all that God is: His power in creation, His character of righteousness, His standards of living in holy communion with Him, His awesome command for reverence. Whenever and however His Word is expressed, we must pay careful attention and ascribe highest priority to the divine communication. We must thank the Lord for His holy, powerful and commanding Word and pay reverent attention to every expression of His Word. (See Jeremiah 1)
The word of the Lord comes to His spokespersons with overwhelming force, so that in spite of reluctance or misgivings, he is able to bring words of warning and encouragement, of prophecy and judgment, of grace and peace. Even in the face of opposition and disaster, God is always about fulfilling His word through the events of history. Faithful spokespersons have bravely proclaimed God’s message in difficult circumstances. We must speak boldly the message He has for our generation. (Ezekiel 13:1-16)
It is an awesome responsibility to declare the word of the Lord. Those who do so must be sure that God has really spoken to them and that they are not declaring false hopes from their own imagination. The false hopes for a false peace, which they have built up, will be destroyed in a mighty crash by God’s wrath. We must discern between our own false hopes and the true word of God that comes from God. We must only hear and declare what is truly God’s word. (See Acts 13:40-52)
Given the seemingly impossible prospect of recording, transmitting and understanding a message from God, the Bible appears to me as a divinely ordained miracle. That miracle includes the recording, preservation, canonization, translation, reading and understanding of the divine message. Therefore we should approach our reading of the Bible with the same awe with which we would view a raising of the dead, the birth of a child or the redemption of a sinner. Unless we are reading and understanding scripture with divine guidance, we may be assimilating a message derived from our own inclination, from someone else’s determination or from satanic urge, rather than from God.
One part of the Bible that is particularly hard to interpret is the account of creation found in Genesis. A literal analysis of the text implies that creation of the universe took place in six days, about six thousand years ago. That appears to be in distinct contradiction with considerable physical evidence that the universe is ten to fifteen billion years old, that many transformations occurred over billions of years and that life has developed for many millions of years.
There are several ways to try to resolve these apparent discrepancies. Some deny the validity of the Bible and accept only what can be “scientifically proven.” Some relegate validity of the Bible only to “spiritual” matters and leave science to the scientists. Some deny all of science and accept only what is written in the Bible (as they literally interpret it). There are various shades of resolution in between these extremes.
In trying to bring harmony between the Biblical account of creation and physical evidence, we may examine the literal meaning of the words in Genesis 1. The word “day” may not mean a 24-hour period, as we experience a day. After all, the sun is not mentioned until the fourth day. One rather useful sense of the word “day” refers to an undetermined period of time is as, for example, “in Abraham’s day.” Certainly, God’s day could be eons in length!
In jest, here is an amusing calculation that illustrates how God’s day differs from ours. In 2 Peter 3:8, we read “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (KJV).” So one day is like 365,000 days and each of those days is like 1000 years (since the factor is mentioned twice), making one day like 365 million years. The six days of God’s creative activity could thus literally be claimed to have lasted nearly two billion years, which is remarkably similar to what physical evidence seems to indicate.
Rather than focus on literal meaning of words, I believe we should examine the significance of the message of scripture. To me, the important message of Genesis 1-2 is that God created the entire universe by His own power, according to His divine plan and in an orderly fashion. I don’t think the six days were intended to be taken literally, but they speak to the orderliness of the process. We must bear in mind that ancient man had no means of comprehending billions of years, so six days of creation provided a symbolic picture of God’s creative process, which spoke adequately to him of God’s method. Now that we are able to express numbers in the billions, we can begin to comprehend the great patience with which God created the universe.
The order of the stages of creation presented in Genesis 1 is not the same as the order that seems to be apparent from physical evidence or logical reasoning. For example, it seems a bit strange that plants should be created before the sun, moon and stars. This apparent contradiction does not hinder my belief in the message of Genesis, however. God, in His divine time frame, is not limited to a one-dimensional aspect of time, which marches only forward. We may think of God as having many different dimensions of time. From His perspective, He can cause an event before or even after it happens. His order of events is not bound by our one-dimensional time frame! More significantly, I believe the message of the order of events presented in Genesis 1 is found in the two series of three progressions, from non-living to living: light, sky, plants and then lights, creatures of sea and air, creatures of land. God is the source of light and life, both literally and figuratively. When we impose our modern, western standards of technical accuracy on the ancient, eastern style of writing, we may miss the message of the Bible.
God communicates to us through messengers, through His word and by His Holy Spirit influencing our hearts. But we can never fully comprehend His identity or invoke His name in a way that fully honors Him. We honor Him by obedient faith in God, whom we can never fully know in our mortal state. (See Judges 13:15-21.) Knowing, understanding and observing God’s word is tantamount to successful living. By following God’s directions, the Israelites were able to conquer far more powerful peoples and occupy their land. Only by keeping God’s laws would they be able to remain fruitful in the land. Other peoples, who did not understand God’s laws, were not as blessed, nor were they chosen as His people.
True wisdom and understanding do not come from man’s efforts alone, nor do they reside in nature or the principles of the universe. They cannot be purchased, inherited or gained by our own efforts. True wisdom and understanding come only by the grace of God, as He allows us to gain insight through scripture, revelation from God’s Holy Spirit, instruction from godly teachers and study on our part. All study is vain unless we depend on God. (See Psalms 119:97-104.)
Since Jesus also felt obliged to study God’s law and inquire into its meaning, we must be diligent to study, understand and obey God’s word in the scriptures. (See Luke 2:41-52). Study of the scripture does not necessarily lead us to its real message, however. The Jewish scholars had thoroughly studied the scriptures, yet missed its message about Christ. Only if we study God’s word with our hearts open to its message and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit will we find the gospel message of salvation through faith in Jesus. (See John 5:36-47.)
I am certain that my interpretations of Genesis and many parts of the Bible will be disputed by others who have studied the Bible. There are sure to be elements of my theology that are wrong. In fact, I believe every interpretation of the Bible by man has flaws. If we could somehow distill every thought that anyone has had about God that is true and in keeping with God’s divine nature and formulate those thoughts into a coherent discourse on God, that discourse would fall far short of God’s glory. By nature, we all interpret the Bible and contemplate the nature of God according to our own limitations and biases. Since none of us has a perfect perception of God, we must not look down on anyone’s ideas about God or interpretation of the Bible. The good news of the gospel is that God loves us in spite of all our misinformed notions about Himself. The demand of the gospel is that we love each other in spite of all our mistakes and differences.
Therefore, I try not to inflict my own way of understanding the Bible on other people with undue force. I am eager to share my views in hope of inspiring others. I also try to appreciate the divine inspiration that comes through another person’s differing interpretation of scripture. One may find inspiration in accepting that there were six literal days of creation. God could certainly have created a 15 billion year-old universe in six days. I find greater personal inspiration in the thought that God exercised unimaginable patience by ordaining those six days to unfold for billions of years. Some scientists try to circumvent the notion of a creator by proposing a theory in which the universe has no beginning point at all. That doesn’t bother my faith, for God is old enough to have created a universe of infinite age!
“From everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.” (Psalm 90:2, KJV)
If we are to maintain effective fellowship with other Christians and if we are to relate in a redemptive fashion with those outside the Christian faith, we must be accepting and understanding of a wide range of interpretations of scripture and world events.
Lest we fall into the trap of relativism in our faith, we need some standard by which to form an opinion regarding interpretation of scripture. I take the view that an interpretation of scripture is most nearly valid if it is consistent with the overall message of the Bible and if it inspires me in a divine manner. What may be inspiring to one person or age may not be so to another. God’s revelation is not static, nor carved in an idol of stone. We must allow God’s dynamic message of scripture to speak differently to different people in different circumstances. Each of us has the responsibility and the privilege of experiencing God’s Biblical message in ways that are tailored to meet our particular needs. That responsibility requires on our part diligent study of the entire Bible and faith in the Holy Spirit to guide our understanding of its message. Living out the message of the Bible requires that we practice creative accommodation in the context of Christian fellowship.
If we ask for wisdom from God, He will grant the sort of wisdom that guards us against all kinds of enemies, both spiritual and physical. God’s wisdom keeps us from temptations of all kinds and helps us to discern the best path to take and the most just of relationships among our fellow human beings. God’s wisdom can even confound Satan and all those who oppose the cause of Christ. Sharing instruction from God’s wisdom will build a community of good will and peace. Therefore we must seek God’s wisdom above all other reason. We should rely on His wisdom rather than our own or anyone else’s. (See Proverbs 3:13-20.)
It is my firm conviction that scientific study and Biblical faith are intended to be employed together in our lives without contradiction. There is no area of legitimate study that will contradict faith, when pursued with integrity. While faith is not derived from scientific study or logical reasoning, many conclusions of science can serve to under-gird and reinforce our faith.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Psalms 19:1 NIV)
A scientific explanation of creation reinforces my belief in an intelligent creator. The biologists’ description of the evolution of life deepens my reverence for the source and sustainer of life. Conversely, my faith in an omniscient creator motivates me to endeavor to explain mysteries of matter and the universe. Someone has said, “Science without faith is blind. Faith without science is lame.” (A paraphrase of a quote attributed to Albert Einstein) By relying both on faith that is based on God’s Biblical message and on scientific discoveries derived from careful observation and skilled reasoning, we can live a life blessed with both spiritual sight and physical vigor.