Below is the sermon I preached today. Throughout the summer, I have been preaching a series of sermons based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. The previous few weeks have been spent overviewing the Old and New Testaments, and discussing what we mean when we talk about the Bible being “inspired.” Today we started the second half of the series, in which we will tackle some of the big questions that arise out of the Scriptures. Today we looked at the area of science and the Bible, and asked whether or not they can live well together.
I ad-libbed the beginning of the sermon, basically stating what is written above, and also making the people of my church aware that I am uniquely unqualified to speak with any authority on science, having royally failed GCSE Biology…
After that, I pretty much stayed on the script below. The Scripture reading for the day had been Genesis 1:1-2:3
The Bible & Science: Can They Live Well Together?
I can remember the conversation really clearly.
We had just played a game of rugby together, and now here we were in the club house, enjoying the usual post game festivities. I was stood with Jack and Phil. They were two young rugby players who were barely out of high school at that time. Phil was at university studying law. Jack was also at university where he was studying to become a doctor. It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A Lawyer, a Doctor, and a Reverend are standing at the bar…
We were standing there together and had been carefully dissecting the game together, when the conversation started to take a different slant. The boys knew what I was doing with my life – training for the ministry – and they knew I was a man of Christian faith. It was almost like they could not help themselves that day. They were hungry for conversation about the Christian faith.
Jack, the medical student, took a very common approach in making his point to me. He was/is a scientist by nature. He has learned the ways of objectivity; of hypothesizing, experimenting, and proving beyond doubt. For Jack, my faith in an unseen deity was just too much, and he began to question my faith and belief. We ended our conversation that day when I reminded young Jack that thus far, as far as I was and still am aware, no scientist had ever proved beyond doubt that no God exists, and until that became the case, I would continue to put my faith in God and in the Christian tradition.
The conversation that day was one of many conversations of that type that i have had over the years, with various people, in which the discoveries of science and realities of the physical world are set forth in an attempt to crush faith. Perhaps you have had similar conversations with family members, neighbors, colleagues or friends.
This gulf between scientific discovery and theology and religious belief has been around for literally centuries. Back in 1616 the Holy Office of the Roman Catholic Church condemned the view that there earth moves around the sun as false science which was contrary to Biblical teaching.
“It has come to the knowledge of [the Church] that the Pythagorean doctrine – which is false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture – of the motion of the earth, and the immobility of the sun…is now being spread abroad and accepted by many.”
Galileo himself, who had been teaching this “preposterous” idea that the earth moves around the sun, was asked by the Church to cease teaching such things. However he was courageous and kept going with what he utterly believed to be true. But, in 1633, he was summoned to appear before the Grand Inquisitor in Rome. He was found guilty of teaching falsehood, forced to recant what he knew to be true, and placed under house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life.
The gulf between science and religious belief has been around for a long long time. They are seemingly incompatible with each other.
But that doesn’t work for us. It can’t. Right?
We use science every single day. We need science every single day.
When we first moved here and my back was in bad shape, I needed a doctor who had studied the sciences; who knew his way around my nervous system and my spine. When I found that doctor who said he could help me, I was glad that he had studied, and that he did know what he was doing. And because of his knowledge and ability – I haven’t looked back, in terms of back pain and sciatica, since then.
That’s just one example – you all have your own examples, I am sure. So it is fair to say that we do use science every day and we need science every single day.
But we also need God. Humans do not live by proven, objective facts alone. We are not objective and emotionless beings. We have feelings and thoughts. We are moved in ways that are sometimes inexplicable. We seem to have this God shaped hole in our lives, that no amount of knowledge or science or stuff can ever fill.
We need facts and figures and objective proof. But we also need love and relationship, faith and belief, and feelings too.
So for there to be such a gulf between the world of science and the world of the bible and theology and faith, is not such a good thing.
And, therefore, we have an important question to ask and answer this morning:
Can science and the teachings of faith as they are found in Scripture live well together?
Of course, for us, the biggest way in which the seeming incompatibility of science and Biblical faith manifests itself is in the questions that arise over the beginnings of everything: the questions about creation.
That day that I was talking to Jack and Phil, the biggest question they had was around the bible’s creation narrative. And still, to this day, it is the biggest question on the lips of most people I meet who have questions or doubts about Christianity.
So how do we handle it?
How do we handle the fact that the Scripture dates the birth of creation at around 6000 years ago, and, in Genesis, accounts for creation by saying that God made the earth in 6 days. How do we handle the fact that the Bible says those things about creation, but most scientists in the world believe that the earth is around 4.75 billion years old, and is the result of something that we call “The Big Bang” In the Bible, humans, as we know them, are formed on the 6th day of the creation process. However, in science, the earliest humans (as we understand humans) are dated to around 200,000 years ago and have been evolving ever since.
Again, this all boils down to what our starting point with Scripture is.
Do you remember last week we talked about what it means to say that Scripture is the inspired word of God?
When we discussed that I said that inspiration is not the same as dictation or composition.
When we discussed it, I said that inspiration is not the same as perfection.
Last week we said that the words contained in Scripture are words that were inspired in the hearts of the writers by the power of the Holy Spirit. We said that these inspired words are living and breathing and that they continue to inspire you and me today. Hold that thought for a minute while I say the next couple of things I need to say.
You see this problem; this conflict; this thought that we must choose either science or religion in life, only comes about if we take a literalist understanding and view of Scripture. By literalist view, I mean taking each word of the Scripture as literally dictated by God; taking each word from Genesis and understanding it as God’s account of precisely how, and how long ago God created the world and everything in it. The problem that arises when we take a literalist view of Scripture is that it creates a conflict for us when science suggests anything other than what we are reading in the Bible. It puts us in a position where we must believe one and reject the other.
Now I might be preaching to the choir here, and this might be a church in which no Biblical literalists exist, but the polls would suggest otherwise. In 2012 Gallup reported that 46% of Americans indicated a belief that God created human beings, fully formed, not evolved, less than 10,000 years ago. This poll would indicate that. potentially, almost half of us here today would happily adopt a literalist view of creation.
Of course, that is okay – but it presents its own problems in the face of science.
In the Genesis account that we read today we read a specific order of creation as it is noted there.
Day 1. Light and darkness
Day 2. An atmosphere
Day 3. Dry land and plant life
Day 4. Sun, moon and stars
Day 5. Fish in the sea and birds of the air
Day 6. All other animals and, lastly, human beings
Day 7. Rest.
This order is fine, but it presents a problem when we think of some of the things that we definitely know and have proven to be true in the world. Namely the fact that Genesis 1 teaches us that the earths atmosphere, dry land and plants were created before the sun. But we know that it is the sun’s gravitational field which makes the earth’s formation possible. We know that sunlight is needed in order for plants to grow.
Is science wrong? In this case it certainly is not wrong. Did God give us a deliberately misleading account of creation? If that is the case, then God is not very nice at all. Right?
But, friends, what if Genesis was never actually supposed to be a science lesson? What if the purpose of the creation accounts in Genesis was not to communicate the specifics of our origins, but rather, to teach us something about God instead?
This passage in Genesis 1 is an absolutely stunning passage for sure, but it was never meant to form the basis of our science lessons in school. Rather, I think, the these accounts, like the rest of the Scripture are inspired so that they might keep on inspiring humans to a greater existence. Friends, Genesis 1 is not a science lesson – it is poetry. It is poetry written so that humans like you and me, will see and begin to ponder and fathom the greatness of God. Genesis 1 is not science. It is theology. It is a statement that says there is a God, and this God is good. There is a God and this God created all things. There is a God and God’s creation is good. There is a God and God made humans, male and female, in the image of God. There is a God who has given the gift of life – and it is a precious gift. There is a God, and God is the rightful creator and ruler of all things.
Genesis 1 is not a science lesson, friends. It is a theological poem which reveals, from the get go, that God is God and we are not. These inspired words were written to inspire in us thoughts and reflections on the greatness and goodness of God. They were never written in order to develop in us a knowledge and understanding of our origins.
Of course then, there is the other account of creation in Genesis 2 and 3, which is completely different in so many ways from the account in Genesis 1. God makes everything, yes, but everything is made in a different order in this account. Man is made first and then the Garden is planted. And in this story there is much more detail and instruction for man from God. We learn about the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil in this account. And we learn that humans were not to touch it. We learn in this account that God walked with humans in the Garden. We learn that humans were made for relationship when God declares that it is not good for the human he created in his image to be alone. And then we learn the story of the fall of humanity.
God loves his created beings and enjoys them. God gives them one rule. God tells humans they can enjoy everything in the garden except for one thing – they are not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately though, Adam and Eve are humans. When they see a “Do Not Touch” sign they immediately want to touch what they are commanded not to touch. When they are told not to eat the fruit of one tree, they immediately want to eat the fruit of that tree. They hear the serpent whispering in their ear all the reasons that they ought to try the forbidden fruit…
As Adam Hamilton says in the book – this is not ancient history. This is your story, and it is my story too. Which of us has not heard the whisper of the serpent in our ears, beckoning us to do what we know is wrong? Which of us has not been Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit, feeling ashamed, and blaming someone else for our mistake; for our sin?
Again, I want to say to you, that like the different account in Genesis 1, I do not think that this account in Genesis 2 and 3 was meant to set the curriculum for any science class on the origins of the universe. Rather, this second story, like the first is a story, is told in order to engender a deeper meaning. This story is told in such a way that it is to be a defining story for our lives.
And that’s what it is.
Friends, the Bible was not written to be a science manual. The Bible was written to point our hearts and minds to a loving, merciful God; the Bible was written to speak to us about the existential realities of our lives; the Bible was written to help us understand that there is a good, good God who created all things, and included in that creation the human minds that have the ability to investigate, discover, understand and apply scientific knowledge in our world.
After my surgery in 2014, a friend approached me and, tongue in cheek, said the following words (or words to this effect):
“Well, Charlie, isn’t it great what science can do?”
I believe the implication was that my religion had not helped me with my back pain and that science had.
I replied by saying that science is absolutely wonderful, and that I was (and still am) grateful to God that created minds, greater than mine, exist in this world to understand how gamma backs like mine can be fixed.
Can science and Biblical faith exist together?
Absolutely they can.
Absolutely they should.
They were always meant to exist well together.
If you have made science and Biblical faith an either or option, I wonder would you let me set you free of that this morning? Your Christian faith is not threatened by science, and neither is science threatened in any way by Christian faith. The two ought to live well together and give their very best to one another, because when they do, the world around us is better for it.