Galileo and the Two Books: The Bible and Scientific Knowledge

July 19, 2016

The Bible has a lot to say about the natural world, but what does it say? I’m not asking, “Which words does it use and which sentences does it contain?” but instead “When the Bible talks about the natural world, what is the nature of its discourse?”

As I discussed in a previous journal entry, the Bible talks about the natural world in its relation to human beings.  I offered the example of Proverbs 30:24-28, where moral lessons are drawn from animal behavior.  In contrast to scientific knowledge, in which things are studied in ways that abstract from the human experience of them, in the Bible things are often presented according to the ways in which we experience them.  Scientifically, it would be absurd to claim that ants are wise (as Proverbs 30 does); but it is also true that we (or at least ancient people did) experience them as wise.

Consider Genesis 1:24-25, where God creates land animals.  They are organized into three groups: cattle, wild animals, and creeping things.  This is hardly a scientific taxonomy.  Instead, it divides animals into groups according to their relationships to human beings: animals suitable for eating and sacrificing, dangerous animals, and miscellaneous other animals that are neither edible nor dangerous.  It’s obvious that human concerns–Which animals are for eating? Which animals may eat us?–have driven this description.  It’s senseless to try to read a scientific motivation into it.

The Bible thus sometimes describes natural things from the perspective of the way in which we experience them..  Scientific knowledge, on the contrary, results from trying to minimize, or even eliminate, human subjectivity from knowledge.

So, I now want to look at a couple of other passages:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting (Psalm 104:19, NRSV)

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years (Genesis 1:14, NRSV)


In these passages, sun, moon, and stars are described, once again, according to their importance for human beings.  They exist to determine the calendar.  Absent is any scientific interest in what they are made of or why or how they move.  The celestial bodies are important because they serve a purpose that is vital to human beings.

To conclude: I started this series with a discussion of Galileo’s view that science and the Bible cannot conflict because they are about different things: science is about things in nature, the Bible describes the way of salvation.  This view is, I think, wrong.

It’s not that the Bible is not interested in the natural world, but instead that the Bible talks about the world from a certain perspective.  That perspective is human interest.  The Bible portrays the natural world in so far as it bears on matters of human concern or provides an illustration of something that humans are interested in.

There are several lessons to draw from these observations:

  • First, contrary to the view of Fundamentalists, the Bible does not provide us with scientific knowledge.  Attempts to extract information that can inform scientific views is fruitless.  Fundamentalists’ fantasies about using Genesis to construct an alternative science is hopelessly misguided.
  • Second, Galileo’s view that the Bible is about salvation is overly narrow.  The Bible is too big to be contained by any single category.
  • Third, the Bible can perform a useful service for us by reminding us that there is more than one way to know something.  In our culture, it is not uncommon to hear representatives of the scientific community claiming, expressly or implicitly, that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of knowledge, and perhaps the only sort of knowledge that deserves the name.  The Bible’s attitude toward nature reminds us that there are varieties of knowledge, differing ways in which we may relate to things in the world.  The scientific project provides us with one way, but it is preposterous to imagine that it is the only or the best sort of knowledge.

This is where (some) scientists and Fundamentalists both go wrong–assuming that there is one sort of knowledge.  Some scientists, armed with this belief, criticize and reject the Bible for failing to exhibit this knowledge.  Fundamentalists, with the same belief, try heroically but futilely to squeeze the Bible into a scientific mold.

In our current cultural situation, in which rationality is increasingly channeled into one course–science–it is good to be reminded that we relate to worldly objects in many ways.  Scientific knowledge is only one of those ways.

3 thoughts on “Galileo and the Two Books: The Bible and Scientific Knowledge

  1. Sam, I think your last little paragraph is about perfect. I do think that I would say much of what you are saying here just a little differently. I don’t think the accounts in the bible of the world (in which humans live) are more concerned with the way we interact with it. The scientific approach certainly aims for “objectivity,” but that objectivity is very much about the usefulness of the world, i.e., science (as it has operated since the Renaissance) is inextricable from technology. That’s why American Pragmatism has its roots so deeply in science and the scientific method. But this scientific approach is certainly differently concerned with us than biblical material is. Biblical material seems to me to be related not just to the way humans interact with the world, but the way humans interact with the world in relation to God. And so, Genesis 1 is doxological discourse, to be understood in the context of the way Israel is to interact with all the world in its pilgrimage to God’s call.


  2. Hi Sam, thanks for this post. It does get to the point of much of what people are debating on science and theology. Are you arguing for “non-overlapping magisteria” here? The new categories suggested here, that which deals with nature and that which deals with salvation, are widely used by many trying to find some comfortable way of parsing out knowledge without so much conflict. However, when looked at deeply these categories don’t work much better then those used by “fundamentalism.” The idea that properly categorizing knowledge can smooth over the difficulties of integration is simply presumed here. I don’t think the proper categorization project works very well.

    Why can’t we just look at the bible as historical and cultural literature with a somewhat antiquated perspective on the universe? In other words, redefine what we mean by the inerrant word of God. Give up the proposition that God can inspire our ancestors far beyond their limited world views. (I’m not giving up inspiration completely here but accept its limits.) We can still believe there is wisdom and truth in this literature while accepting its limited view. The fact that ancients were writing from a more limited view than ours is hardly a surprising discovery. The scriptures still convey what our ancients thought about God and how they related to God. We don’t have to try and define categories which I think are just serving to push science out of our understanding of scripture.

    Let me try to be clear with an example: People sometimes like to categorize Love into a group of phenomena that evades scientific study. To be more precise, I have a deep visceral emotional Love for my wife, my kids, and my wife’s kids. People want to believe something about the source of this experience and it’s been long presumed that science can’t say much about it. This was once an easy categorization away from science. (Other similar categories include the experience of personal conversion, deep prayer, especially moving services, Christian music.) But, science has discovered a lot about these phenomena recently and they have a lot to do with neurological chemistry, neural transmitters, hormones, etc. This scientific knowledge has become very precise. The theory of evolution suggests that these chemical systems have functioned to motivate behavior in us favoring those that contribute to survival. I think the Christian project has used the same phenomena to motivate behavior as well, and for very similar reasons. So, how do I categorize this phenomena now? Do I try to parse up love into finer categories that I can divide up and then wait to see what science does next? Or, do I accept that the categories don’t really work and start the hard project of integrating scientific knowledge into faith, as scary as that prospect may be?


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