Scriptural Interpretation (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
The history of the relationship between scriptural interpretation and the rise of modern science is complex and convoluted. Within the so-called Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the relationship was intimately close from the Middle Ages to early modern era but became distant during the final decades of the twentieth century.
When scholars in the Abrahamic traditions have addressed the relationship of science and religion, they have emphasized scriptural texts that assert God's role and activity as creator, sustainer, and governor of the universe. Key texts from the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity include the following:
- Genesis 1:18 31; 2:15; 5:1; 9:6
- Exodus 20:11
- 1 Samuel 2:8
- 2 Kings 19:15
- 1 Chronicles 16:26
- Nehemiah 9:6
- Job 9:8; 10:3, 8; 12:7; 26:73; 28:236; 37:16, 18; 38:48
- Psalms 8:3; 19:1, 4; 24:1; 33:6; 65:6; 74:167; 78:69; 89:112, 47; 90:2; 95:4; 96:5; 102:25; 103:22; 104:2, 5, 24, 301; 119:901; 121:2; 124:8; 136:5; 146:5; 148:5
- Proverbs 3:19; 8:269; 16:4; 22:2; 26:10; 30:4
- Ecclesiastes 3:11; 7:29; 11:5
- Isaiah 17:7; 37:16; 40:12, 26, 28; 42:5; 44:24; 45:7, 12, 18; 48:13; 51:13, 16; 66:2
- Jeremiah 5:22; 10:123, 16; 27:5; 31:35; 32:17; 33:2; 51:156, 19
- Amos 4:13; 5:8; 9:6
- Jonah 1:9
- Zechariah 12:1
- Mark 10:6; 13:19
- Acts 4:24; 7:50; 14:15; 17:246
- Romans 1:20; 11:36
- 1 Corinthians 8:6; 11:12
- 2 Corinthians 4:6; 5:5, 18
- Ephesians 3:9
- 1 Timothy 6:13
- Hebrews 1:1; 2:10; 3:4; 11:3
- Revelation 4:11; 10:6; 14:7
Key Islamic texts from the Qur'han include the following: 2:230, 3:190, 4:1, 6:38, 6:98, 7:189, 10:902, 11:73, 15:26, 15:28, 15:33, 16:66, 17:88, 21:30, 22:61, 25:59, 36:36, 39:6, 41:53, 42:47, 43:12, 50:38, 51:47, 54:49, 55:33, 57:6, 71:14, 76:1, 79:30, 91:7, 96:2.
These texts are referenced with great frequency in scriptural commentaries of the Abrahamic religions. They are characterized by their description of a single deity, who creates and maintains the universe and guides human beings in their relations with this deity and their world.
In many respects, the first-century Jewish theologian Philo was the first to draw a connection between the natural philosophy of the ancient world and scripture. In his On the Creation, Philo reflects upon God as creator of the universe, draws comparisons with Greek philosophy, and offers correctives based upon scripture. The great early Christian scriptural scholar and theologian Origen (18251) builds on Philo in his commentary on Genesis and the first of his Christian theologies, On First Principles. In these works, Origen establishes the basic tendency of Christian theology to appropriate natural philosophy while following scripture. Early in the history of Christian theology, scripture is not regarded as in conflict with scientific knowledge of the world, although some early interpreters of scripture sought to correct ancient science by rejecting the notion of the eternity of the universe.
The millennium that spanned the fourth to the fourteenth centuries brought forth an abundance of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim reflection on scripture and science. Jewish scriptural interpretation during the early part of this period was largely devoted to the refinement of its religious traditions in an effort to sustain Jewish diaspora communities. Scientific reflection was not entirely absent in Jewish theology of the period, but it does not become extensive until the appearance of Maimonides (1135204). In Maimonides's writings, scripture is regarded as not at odds with knowledge of the natural world, although Maimonides did believe that scripture could provide a corrective to that knowledge at crucial points. He asserts that the universe was created ex nihilo (from nothing); that is, the story of God's creation excludes the possibility that the universe was made of eternal or pre-existing matter. Indeed, divine action includes a relation to every individual entity rather than either detachment or panentheism. Maimonides is also remarkable for his early rejection of astrology in favor of an "astronomical" approach to the study of the universe.
The Christian theologians Athanasius (c. 29073) in the East and Augustine (35430) in the West offered arguments from scripture that God was the creator of all things and that therefore the universe could not be identified with God because it had a beginning. Maximus Confessor (58062) further asserted that scripture teaches the freedom of God in creation, a view that countered the ancient metaphysical notion of the inferiority of physical matter. Instead, the dictum that God created everything by free initiative and with good intentions suggested a moral harmony between matter and spirit. The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (1225/26274) represents the pinnacle of medieval Christian reflection on the relation between scripture and science. Aquinas's major contribution to the discussion was his argument for the design of the universe. Indeed, it is his reading of God as the designer of all things, as opposed to the classical universe of eternal forms and temporal objects, that formed the basis of Aquinas's five "proofs" for God's existence.
Islam reached the height of its scientific attainments during the medieval period when enormous resources were brought to bear in support of Islamic science. During this time, the scripture was not considered incompatible with knowledge of nature, and astronomical science was considered necessary because every Muslim throughout the world was required by the Qur'han to turn toward Mecca to pray. The early development of astronomical science was necessary in order to plot a point on any horizon toward which the devoted would bow. As a result, Arabic mathematics and astronomy flourished with the likes of Abu Isa al-Mahani (c. 86074/84); Hamid ibn Ali, the inventor of the astrolabe; and Jabir ibn Sinan al-Battani (c. 85829). These men, probably the greatest of the Muslim astronomers, developed numerous standard astronomical formulas.
Islamic science is characterized by close attention to the Qur'han and its stress upon the correspondence between the one deity, Allah, and the uniform lawfulness of the universe. The Muslim anatomist and philosopher Averroës (also known as Ibn Rushd, 1126198) expressed a typical opinion when he said that the study of the natural world strengthened belief in the Qur'han. Averroës's rejection of absolute determinism and absolute free will is largely the result of his avoidance of any particular philosophical conclusion and his reliance on the religious narratives of the Qur'han. Western scholars depended on Arabic copies of ancient texts, and Averroës's commentaries on Aristotle, which interpret Aristotle according to a monotheistic scripture, greatly influenced Thomas Aquinas. Muslim science continued to advance until the fourteenth century, after which it suffered setbacks that persist into the twenty-first century. Many interpreters of culture regard this reality as rooted in the struggle of religion to come to grips with the successes of modern science.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam experienced different fates from the sixteenth to the final decades of the twentieth century. As the natural sciences began to receive widespread patronage from the noble and mercantile classes in the West, religious and political realities prohibited Jewish and Muslim involvement.
One of the events that marks the beginning of the modern period in science is the astronomical labors of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473543). His great work, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published shortly before his death, established the heliocentric model of the solar system. This system was defended by Johannes Kepler (1571630) and Galileo Galilei (1564642), but was condemned by the Vatican. Galileo's motto concerning scripture has become something of a byword for how persons of faith reconcile their study of the natural world with their readings of scripture: "The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes." In attempting to substantiate the Copernican rejection of an Earth at rest in its celestial position, Galileo cited Proverbs 8:26, which speaks of the "hinges" of the Earth, and therefore its motion. Kepler's view regarding scripture was different and represented an early strategy of coping with the moments in interpretation when science and scripture appear to be at odds. This strategy was to define scripture as governing religious experience and moral development; as such, it was proposed that religion should simply rule its own domain and avoid the domain of science.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century, spawned by the religious writings of Martin Luther (1483546), Huldreich Zwingli (1484531), John Calvin (1509564), and others, established an important epistemological principle that aided the advancement of scientific method, namely the investigation of sources over against traditional authorities and practices. To the extent that scripture was regarded as the source of true religion, the Reformation encouraged a kind of experimental attitude in which it was assumed that traditions and schools of interpretation could be subjected to critical methods in the interest of advancing truth. Experimental science, which had to contend with traditional assumptions about the world within the wider culture, won a measure of courage from the developments within religion itself. Protestantism tended to be much more open to scientific advancement; in many ways it adapted to what it regarded as the necessary implications of such advancement. Examples of this would include the compatibility of the scriptural notions of creation, prophecy, miracles, and religious experience with various scientific understandings of the universe and of human nature.
In many respects, the role of scripture as primarily the source of religious experience and moral formation emerges as an ongoing resource for science, since scientists themselves are cultural beings. Indeed, this view was one of the characteristics of the transition to postmodernism in science and religion. The English philosopher of science Francis Bacon (1561626) in his great work Novum Organum: Indications Respecting the Interpretation of Nature (1620) was enamored with an analogy of two sources or "books" of human knowledge: scripture and nature. Both, according to Bacon, came from God, but they had separate, albeit related, functions in human life. Bacon believed that it was necessary for a scientist to follow Jesus' teaching to "become like a little child" before the natural world in order to be freed from the arrogant prejudices that blocked experimental thinking. A kind of humility, a first admission of ignorance, was required before observation and the recording of empirical data could serve as an authority for scientific inquiry. For Bacon, even earlier successes in science must not hold captive any future practice of science. Much of what allowed this development was the Protestant capacity for self-critique and an allowance for the separation of the domain of science from that of religion and scripture.
But these early modern attempts at reconciling science and scriptural interpretation did not produce all of the cultural changes needed for the advancement of science. Extreme skepticism was engendered by a penchant on the side of religion for "scientific proofs" for divine existence and presence in the world. From Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646716) to William Paley (1743805), numerous arguments to "prove" the existence of God were advanced on commonly accepted philosophical grounds. Unfortunately, these arguments are fraught with problems because scriptural traditions do not claim that the natural knowledge of God's existence can be cognitively derived from such "proofs." The upshot was a bifurcation of faith and science, with the latter assuming a kind of ideological status sometimes called scientism. Scientism during the nineteenth century tended to be positivistic and to rule out the possibility of sensible claims for the knowledge of God and, therefore, any truthfulness to religious scriptures. Fortunately, during this century, restrictions in the West toward the presence of Jews in the universities began to disappear and Jewish science achieved a great revival. Islamic scientists also made their way into major research centers during the latter part of the century.
Late modern era
The modern distancing between religion and science has meant for some a kind of fundamentalist abandonment of science for a supposedly scripture-based view of the world. So-called creationists claim that certain literal interpretations of scripture are the only permissible ones. For others, however, the preferred approach is the recognition of the respective domains of religion's interpretation of scripture and science's interpretation of nature. Since the time of Charles Darwin (1809882), natural science has been understood by many interpreters as compatible with the narratives of their religion's scriptures. Such approaches transcend the politically charged labels of "liberal" and "conservative" and more often reflect the kind of cultural space where scriptural interpretation is accomplished. Science does not require scripture, let alone metaphysics, to perform its work, but its work is often performed by persons religiously committed to classic religious texts and metaphysical systems. Throughout the twentieth century, proponents of scientism have had to acknowledge the limits of science and, with this acknowledgement, the persistence of religious interpretation of scripture as a guide to the lives of many scientists and a scientifically shaped world.
In many respects, the transition from modern to late modern is marked by the use of criticism as an intellectual enterprise. The modern tendency of maintaining a "critical distance" between science and religion (and its scriptures) is paralleled by the late modern tendency to maintain a "critical distance" between culture and science, whereby science is not considered to be the sole source of knowledge of the world. Although this situation could be regarded as a fragmenting of culture, it also represents attempts to resolve what the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724804) called "the conflict of the faculties." The many disciplines of human inquiry possess a mutual compatibility because they are all part of the cultural project of understanding the world. Each make their own contribution and, not surprisingly, scriptural interpretation as a religious practice continues to contribute to that project.
See also AUGUSTINE; AVERRO; CHRISTIANITY; CREATIONISM; DARWIN, CHARLES; FUNDAMENTALISM; ISLAM; JUDAISM; SCIENTISM; THOMAS AQUINAS
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KURT ANDERS RICHARDSON