In Science and Scriptural Interpretation, Communities Matter

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How do we react when we read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ encounters with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11), or the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:21–28), or the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17–25)? An immigrant, for example, is likely to interpret the Canaanite woman incident in a very different way from a 4th generation citizen. And the impact of the conversation between Jesus and the rich young ruler depends critically on your wealth—and how much it means to you! Moreover, the history of civil disobedience shows that one’s interpretation of the biblical command to “submit yourselves to those in authority” (Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13) depends on your personal politics/values and the views of those who are in a position of power. All biblical texts, then, will evoke different responses depending on our gender, ethnicity, social and economic status, and religious tradition. What this means is that there will inevitably be more than one interpretation of Scripture.

This raises an interesting and important question: Is biblical exegesis without presuppositions possible?[1] The answer is: no! All scholars approach a text with presuppositions, or prior assumptions, about how that text should be read. No interpreter, however self-aware, can be completely objective and neutral. We all read Scripture through a “lens.” Those spectacles not only include our prior theological outlook, but also our culture, social standing, educational heritage, race, politics, etc. This means that we cannot approach the text without a bias. This is not a “bad” thing that we can overcome, just simply something of which we should be acutely self-aware. What is therefore necessary is that we raise our starting assumptions to conscious level and so allow them to be tested, so putting them at risk. Authentic engagement with the biblical text occurs when we allow the text to challenge and change our starting assumptions. This is one way through which the Spirit can work (John 16:13).

What this means is that there is always a subjective element to interpretation. Whatever a person knows about history, the Bible, indeed anything, depends on the perspective of the investigator and his/her acts of interpretation. Since every interpreter is located in a social and historical context, the interpretation will (and must) therefore be limited by the worldview of the interpreter.[2]

This conclusion may seem surprising, as many are inclined to assume there is only one and only one correct and objective interpretation of Scripture. While the Bible does still “speak” today, what we “hear” will be different depending on whether we live in, say, America or Syria, South Africa or Russia, Japan or Brazil. Since pure “objectivity” is inherently impossible, there is no point in trying to find a new technique of interpretation that strives to overcome our personal bias. Instead, we allow the biblical text to make us consciously aware of—and challenge—our own presuppositions and to effect change. Consequently, we read the text (and its context) and the text reads us (and our context); it is an open-ended “dialogue.” The degree to which we are self-aware and allow the text to “read” us, so causing us to be transformed in the process, demonstrates our authenticity in engaging with Scripture.

This clearly involves a personal commitment to the interpretation process. It takes courage to read the biblical text in such a way—because it might demand a change to what we dearly hold to be true. The interpretation process, then, requires a commitment—a step of faith. It is not unlike a relationship of love; meaningful commitment to that relationship is likely to bring about dramatic, even unpredictable, changes in us. That relationship is both personal and founded on trust.

If we step back for a moment and reflect on our experience of knowing, we can recognize this important—and often overlooked—principle: faith precedes knowledge. We need faith in our presuppositions, or our knowledge foundations, before (and after) we build upon them—whether this is in the context of biblical interpretation or, indeed, of science.[3] All scientists exhibit faith in, for example, the objective reality of the universe[4] and believe that it is genuinely intelligible to a particular carbon-based life-form on an obscure planet near the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy![5] The latter is, I think, surprisingly profound; Einstein commented: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” This need not, of necessity, be the case. This is reminiscent of St. Anselm’s famous dictum: “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.” Having faith requires a commitment prior to the outcome of the engagement with the biblical text—or the scientific experiment.


Professor Michael Polanyi, F.R.S. From the Michael Polanyi Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Box 45, folder 3. (Source)


In his seminal work, Personal Knowledge (1958), Hungarian-born philosopher and social scientist Michael Polanyi made an important contribution to the philosophy of science, one that has also made a significant impact on theologians— such as Lesslie Newbigin.[6] One can see why from Alister McGrath:

Polanyi’s fundamental assertion is that all knowledge—whether it relates to the natural sciences, religion or philosophy—is personal in nature. Polanyi’s post-critical approach to the nature of knowledge argues that knowledge must involve personal commitment. Although knowledge involves concepts or ideas, it also involves something more profound—a personal involvement with that which is known. . . . [7]

Rather than absolute, detached, objectivity (as is assumed in the traditional “scientific method”) there is instead personal involvement. This is something that rings true for me as a physicist and accurately describes the scientist’s passionate commitment in both “knowing” (the process of science) and the “known” (the object of science, nature). Polanyi argued that all knowledge relies on personal judgements, rather than it arising from a mechanistic formula—such as the scientific method.

Scientists not only use their senses and judgement but also use tools that are purpose-built for the study at hand. This is analogous to the way that surgeons use their instruments, or a carpenter uses a hammer, or a person who is blind uses a white stick. They are not focusing their attention on the tool but on the object that the tool is manipulating or sensing. If you focus on holding the hammer you are likely to miss the nail that you are trying to hit! Those tools, therefore, become an extension of our bodies such that we indwell the instrument. For scientists, that indwelling involves implicit trust in our instruments and our perceptions in the study of nature. While we use our instruments, we do so a-critically; we cannot at the same time rely on them and doubt them.[8] There is, therefore, an existential—or experiential—element to knowing. It is not just our minds that are involved; our senses, augmented by the instruments we indwell, are also intimately and actively a part of knowing.

Furthermore, we know more than we can prove or articulate; I can intuitively recognize my wife in a crowd of faces, but I can’t articulate to another how that intuition comes about. Knowledge, then, is both personal and tacit. Instead of the traditional confidence in the absolute objectivity of the observer and the power of reason, the scientist is seen to exhibit faith. Science not only contains logical deductions, but interpretation, inspiration, intuition, and skill—all human qualities—all easily appreciated in an artistic endeavor.

Polanyi’s ideas also resonate strongly with our experience of biblical interpretation. That is why science and Christianity are much closer than people sometimes think. Both involve acts of interpretation, in both cases knowledge is personal and requires a prior commitment to the means of knowing and the known.

Nevertheless, science functions within a community and that tradition authorizes science itself. For example, the practice of science involves sponsorship and publication of results, both of which require the approval of one’s peers. Consider the process of publishing a scientific paper: the personal knowledge of the scientist now becomes shared public knowledge, a process not without risk since papers can be rejected. The scientist’s personal judgment is being scrutinized by others with appropriate training and experience. Without the discoverer’s findings being authenticated by his or her peer community there is a sense that scientist’s findings remain “private truth,” to borrow Newbigin’s phrase. However, the scientist’s personal knowledge is not merely subjective, but has universal intent. The scientific community’s endorsement is the means by which private truth becomes “public truth.” This peer-review process does not guarantee the veracity of the public truth; there is always a sense in which knowledge is tentative and open to future revision. We have all heard in the news of scientific stories of dramatic discoveries which were later retracted because no one else could repeat the observations. In addition, the private truths of Copernicus and Galileo were actually correct, even if the tradition of their day refused to accept their findings as public truth. Even so, it was the community that, in time, provided the self-correction.

The parallels for the Christian—of both being a part of a larger community (and its important role in stabilizing interpretation) and of passionate personal knowledge and commitment—is evident. It is because of these similarities in the nature of biblical interpretation and the nature of science that the two can genuinely dialogue with each other.

Notes

[1] For further discussion see Silva, “Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation,” 109–11 and McLean, Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics, 143–56.[2] This does not mean that “anything goes” in our interpretation. Recognizing the necessary existence of multiple possible interpretations can empower views that others would rather not sanction. This has occurred in the past, whereby Scripture has been used to justify racism and slavery, for example. There is, therefore, an ethical dimension to the use and abuse of Scripture of which we must be acutely aware. A rigorous, responsible, exegetical study of the text, one that strives to understand the author’s intent and its context—as best as we can— at least acts as a kind of guardrail to contemporary interpretations.[3] Newbigin writes: “Both faith and doubt have their proper roles in the whole enterprise of knowing, but faith is primary and doubt is secondary because rational doubt depends upon beliefs that sustain our doubt.” Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 105.

[4] We will resist entering the world of The Matrix, or the dream worlds of Inception. Rather, I assert that the universe really exists for all of us and is not a product of our brain’s imagination. We cannot strictly prove this, of course, although we all generally live our lives on the basis that it is true!

[5] In short, science requires faith in human reason.

[6] Hungarian-born Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was first a professor of physical chemistry and later became a professor of social science, both at the University of Manchester, U.K.

[7] McGrath, Science and Religion, 84–85.

[8] Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 34. This does not mean that scientists use their instruments naively. Intense scrutiny over the inexactness that the instrument itself introduces into the scientific observation, along with a thorough understanding of all the auxiliary assumptions and principles of the instrument and its use, is undertaken by every skillful experimentalist. Even with this rigor, honest mistakes can still occur and that in itself is a learning process that progresses scientific knowledge.

Bibliography

Chalmers, Alan F. What is This Thing Called Science? 3rd ed. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999.

McGrath, Alister E. Science and Religion: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

McLean, B. H. Biblical Interpretation and Philosophical Hermeneutics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

———. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Reddish, Tim. Science and Christianity: Foundations and Frameworks for Moving Forward in Faith. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Scott, Drucilla. Everyman Revisited: The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Silva, Moisés. “Contemporary Theories of Biblical Interpretation.” In vol. I of New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, edited by Leander E. Keck, 107–24. Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.

Westphal, Merold. Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

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