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Essays on Science & Christianity

Biblical Exegesis and Science...

John Suppe1

The web of issues surrounding science and Christianity is complex and not easily disentangled. In this issue I would like to take the modest step of beginning to follow the thread of Biblical exegesis. This is a key thread because much of the conflict between science and Christianity -- especially the conflict surrounding Creation -- hinges on Biblical exegesis. Basically, how do we properly arrive at correct Biblical interpretation?

Interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis has been a central battleground of science and Christianity; but, as I read the conflict, Genesis, the Flood, and Creation vs. Evolution are merely diversions. The fundamental issue is do you take the Bible seriously as God's Word written? My experience has been that it is -- by reading it I was brought to salvation 12 years ago and by continuing to take it seriously it has wrought great change in my life. Because of this personal experience with the Bible I have had great sympathy for conservative Christians -- including Fundamentalist Creationists -- because they take the Bible seriously. I have felt that they are much closer to the truth than others who either ignore the Bible or who are quick to explain it away as an entirely human document. In the same breath I am quick to say that taking the Bible seriously as God's Word written does not mean your interpretations or those generally accepted are inerrant. Correct Biblical interpretation commonly requires rigorous scholarly research in addition to devotional zeal.2

How then do we arrive at correct Biblical interpretation? At the practical level of Christian discipleship the most useful attitude is one of humble obedience to God's will ("Lord show me as I read what you want me to know and do") -- you don't need to be a scholar who knows what exegesis means to read the Bible and walk humbly with your God. Nevertheless Biblical scholarship -- properly done -- is of immense value. This is where exegesis comes in.

Exegesis -- literally "to draw out" -- is the scholarly procedure of determining the meaning of texts, particularly ancient texts that were written in historical and cultural contexts substantially different from our own. Just because we can read the Bible or Homer or Lao Tze in modern English translations doesn't mean we know what it all means, even though there is some general commonality to the human condition. This fact that all is not transparent becomes very clear once you become involved in significant cross-cultural communication.

For example Don Richardson was living in a village of the cannibal Sawi in Irian Jaya working on a Bible translation with the help of tribesmen who were teaching him their language. Once Don had translated the Crucifixion story he told it to them. They loved the story! The only problem was that Judas was the hero for them -- that was the clear, obvious, transparent interpretation for them. Treachery was highly valued among the Sawi. The words were correctly translated but the meaning had not been communicated. It was sometime later that Don finally discovered the cultural key to truly communicate the meaning of the Crucifixion to the Sawi, with the exciting result that many came to faith in Jesus Christ.3

We may be as far removed culturally and historically from some parts of the Bible as were the Sawi. For example Lloyd Kwast, an anthropologist, asked a group of Christian leaders in Cameroon what part of the Bible spoke most profoundly to their culture. They looked at each other and quickly all agreed that it was the genealogies -- something that normally says as little to our world view as a telephone book. For us in western intellectual culture to understand the message of the genealogies we have to do a proper job of exegesis.

This naturally leads us into full-scale scholarly research, which is to be expected. If we bring the high-level results of geological and astrophysical research to bear on questions of origins and Christianity -- as we should -- then we stand convicted as negligent if we do not bring the very best in Biblical exegesis to bear as well. It is embarrassing how little rigorous Biblical exegesis is brought to bear on questions of creation and the Bible -- even in most of the more scholarly discussions, to say nothing of the more popular discussions, around university campuses.

Even an abbreviated list of the steps in proper exegesis makes for dull reading: comparing versions of the text; reconstructing and annotating the text; present poetry in versified form; preparing a translation; researching the historical background, social setting, historical foreground, geographic setting, and date of the passage; examine the literary function, genre, form, and life setting; analyze logical and grammatical structure of passage; analyze orthography and morphology for date; lexical analysis; and Biblical and theological context.4 All these hard steps lead to the interpretation of "What did the passage mean to those to whom it was originally written?" Only then can we begin to translate this meaning -- as opposed to the words -- into a form that is understandable to our western intellectual culture. Anything less than this is not doing our homework.

1 Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton NJ 08544

2 I've just claimed, in effect, that the proof for us that the Bible is God's Word written is experience -- personal experience and the self-checking experience of an interacting group. This type of proof has much in common with scientific proof in that you act upon a hypothesis in the appropriate way and you see if the expected results appear. Furthermore there is the continual history of self-checking group experience, which is a key aspect of both science and the church.

3 Don Richardson 1974, Peace Child: Regal Books, Ventura CA, 288 pp.

4 For example, Douglas Stuart, 1984, Old Testament Exegesis, 2nd Ed.: Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 142pp.

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