Hermeneutics,  Science

“It’s All Interpretation” Works Both Ways

“Science merely reports the facts and innocently develops theories to explain phenomena. Theology, on the other hand, is only a matter of interpretation. You can read the Bible how you want and interpret it according to your presuppositions. Science can get to the “facts” but theology only gets to someone’s opinion.”

A stereotypical statement perhaps, and not one many actual scientists make, but a common enough accusation made in conversations about theology’s relationship with the natural sciences.

Let me first admit that human beings are interpreters, they seek to find the meaning of what they observe. Furthermore, they should seek a meaning that is the correct meaning. Some have given this up and think that there is no Meaning, only meaning for me. However, leaving this aside and assuming that there is a meaning to be had, there is no doubt that observation requires interpretation. And theologians, no less than scientists, recognize that human beings interpret evidence and not merely report it. Even to report a simple fact assumes a whole plethora of things related to language, methodology, knowledge, existence of other minds etc. To report is to interpret. But that’s okay. And it’s okay to recognize the imperfection of human reporting and interpretation. Exegetical method of both nature and the scripture does not guarantee perfect results.

For the theologian the act of gathering evidence and making conclusions is a science (but not only a science). The theologian asks himself scientific questions: does the text support my conclusion? Have I read too much into the text? Warrant is supplied according to how one’s conclusions are supported by the evidence of the text using a good hermeneutic (let’s just assume there is such a thing as a good hermeneutic for the sake of brevity. I’ll also assume there is such a thing as a good scientific method).

By using a good hermeneutic scripture supports the conclusion that human beings are finite, prone to sin, constantly twisting truth and distorting reality. This means that scripture recognizes and accounts for the the fragility of human interpretive efforts, that we will get it wrong, say it wrong, mess up. Sometimes. Not all the time.

That human beings are prone to twist the truth is not to say we cannot get to the truth; it just means we check the evidence. Scientists do well when someone asks for evidence. And so does theology. A good example of such a practice is found in Acts when the Bereans checked what the preacher was saying against scripture (Acts 17).

What occasionally causes confusion is when a scientific conclusion is tested against scripture. Surely, the thinking goes, you should be restricted to evidence found within the discipline of natural science in order to test conclusions made by the findings of science. But if one accepts the presuppositions of the theologian–that scripture is divinely authored and infallible in all it teaches in every sphere it speaks about–then one can see that checking conclusions against scripture is not irrational nor is it merely a human interpretative lens (scripture is, in principle, a divine, and therefore always correct, interpretive lens. It is all a matter of opinion – divine opinion!). And this is why theologians are not obliged to check scripture against other non-Biblical evidence. Much of the debate lands here and is down to a matter of authority.

Scripture assumes that it is sufficiently clear for human beings to come to warranted beliefs grounded on their interpretation of scripture. In other words, just because human views are tainted by sin it does not follow that they cannot gain true beliefs warranted by what scripture says:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)

Consequently, theologians can come to true beliefs about the world. The warrant for belief grounded in scripture is maximal, for human beings in their present condition, since scripture is divinely authored. Since it is God’s infallible word it cannot lie or deceive. While it is possible for theologians to misinterpret (and we’ve all seen this done), it is nonetheless possible to ground belief about the world in scripture given a good hermeneutic and an acknowledgement of one’s own presuppositions.

This is also something that improves with practice. Scripture, as it is studied, and one’s study is aided by the Holy Spirit, begins to transform our presuppositions so that we read the scripture rightly. Allowing God to work on our presuppositions also reorients us to read nature right as well. We begin to see everything as a created thing, every event as a governed event. We begin to “think Biblically.”

If the theologian is right about God then natural science is the study of God’s work of creation. Consequently, natural science should be an act of worship, done self-consciously in submission to the one who made all things. To do science like that is to be fully committed to the truth of God’s word and to do science with that commitment as a prior commitment. It is to be as interpretive as possible!

What the theologian can also contend is that the truth of scripture is what science needs in order to work. The scientist does not have to acknowledge this, but this is good theology nonetheless (and it is not bad science). Scientific method, in order for it to be justified, needs the truth of Scripture. Scientific method relies on a certain form of justification for beliefs, a kind of logic. Yet, as David Hume showed us, it remains an assumption that cannot be justified if one rules out any kind of religious underpinning.  James Anderson summarizes the problem and shows how no religion free solution succeeds.

…there presently exists no satisfactory solution to the problem of induction from a secular perspective… It seems clear that any successful solution must depend, at some point, on universal a priori knowledge of the very constitution of the universe. Yet (to borrow from the Psalmist) we cannot help but despair that “such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain”. 

Of course, a Person for whom universal a priori knowledge of the very constitution of the universe is attainable (and perhaps even essential) would be an invaluable ally in such an epistemological predicament — especially so if that Person were inclined toward revelation of Himself and His universe. But how high a price are philosophers prepared to pay in order to banish the epistemological terrorism of inductive skepticism?

And therein lurks the interpretive prejudice on the part of our interlocutor. The truth is that we all–believer and non-believer–rely on God, his will, his comprehensive knowledge and his sustaining of the world. To continue to deny him and deny his revelation of himself in nature is decidedly interpretive.

A good example of this is found in certain scientific communities. Scientism, the belief that the scientific method is universally applicable and capable of producing the most authoritative worldview possible, also contains a self-conscious passion or prejudice. “Method” is king and is loved in the same way theologians believe human beings should love God. And this, I think, is sometimes where sparks fly.  In  her argument with one committed to scientism, the Christian is confronted with one who worships a false god. But neither are neutral with respect to divinity. And, I should say, not all scientists are scientistic.

All observations, whether of the text of scripture or nature, are made by people with presuppositions. Observations, therefore, are interpretive observations. This does not mean that truth cannot be arrived at since a) even bad presuppositions such as “there is no god” do not prevent someone from being able to make true statements about the world and b) all human beings are created by God and live in a world made by God and are designed with the ability to come to true beliefs about the world.

The point of all this is to say that the argument that theology is all about interpretation, but that science is not so guilty, is not a good one. We all–theologians and scientists–interpret data, natural and Biblical–according to a prior conviction (in fact both disciplines must interpret data with some presuppositions such as there being order in nature or there being truth value to propositions). Yet just because we interpret does not mean that there is no truth to be had, only opinion. Scientists know this and so do theologians.

The “great debate” between science and faith is not between one form of knowledge and another, but between belief and unbelief. Both believer and unbeliever can come to true beliefs about the world. They can do this because they are living in God’s world and have been created by God with the ability to come to true beliefs about the world. The believer, when observing the natural world, should do this in self conscious submission to God and his word, he seeks to know the world according to how God knows the world. The unbeliever, though he might know things about the world, is constantly suppressing the truth of God’s revelation of himself in nature (Rom 1). Instead he makes created things his god.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.