The Bible and Science: Two Complementary Ways of Knowing the World

This guest blog was written by Dr. Jean Bieri, our Global Scholar currently teaching theology at Laval University’s ETEQ. Dr. Bieri has a Ph.D. in condensed matter physics from the University of Paris-Sud, France, where he studied with Nobel Prize-winning professor A. Fert. He also has a PhD in Old Testament Studies from the University of Geneva, Switzerland. Having lectured in such places as India, Armenia, South Africa, and having done both theological and scientific research in California (Fuller and USC), Dr. Bieri is one for whom the title “global scholar” is quite apt. Here he invites the reader to a conversation between his two areas of expertise, showing their compatibility, and their relationship to chaos and order.

Since the Enlightenment, science has appeared to many as a denial of religion; it was, however, among other things, a response to religious leaders’ claims to want to regulate all cultural life while excusing themselves of all kinds of abuses. When the idea of God is not completely abandoned, it is reduced to the concept of a simple architect of the universe without moral obligations for humans.[1] Today, confidence in scientific thought is so elevated and comprehensive that it tends to be used to explain everything, even phenomena presented as miraculous in the Bible.

The attractiveness of science is partly explained by the fact that the human being becomes the primary designer and holds the controls, and science, by its objectivity and its empirical nature, facilitates a shared experience and thus a sense of solidarity. On the contrary, religion proceeds from the revelation of a transcendent divinity, with human intermediaries of sometimes dubious morality, and who often are inclined to claim the monopoly of authority, thus arousing skepticism and ultimately, rejection. So, it is no wonder that for a long time, the relationship between religion, or more specifically the Bible, and science, was marked by confrontation and confusion, each trying to assert its superiority over the other. However, there is another way of conceiving the relationship between the two areas.

I. Two distinct areas of knowledge

Biblical studies and scientific research are two distinct disciplines, that provide access to two different fields of knowledge, even if they sometimes speak about the same subjects. They use different methods, different languages ​​and have different purposes.

To illustrate this fact in a more concrete way, let us consider for example the ants and the way they are dealt with in the Bible and in science. Scientists have noticed that when scout ants come out of their nests to look for food, and they find the same source of food after following different paths, each of the explorers then returns to the nest to inform its peers, having previously taken care to mark the path covered by pheromones, in order to be able to find it again easily.

However, after a while, all the ants abandon the other paths to follow only the shortest path. Why is that? The shortest path allows for a greater number of back-and-forth movements since it can be covered in a shorter time, so that, after a certain time, this path is most marked by pheromones and therefore the most inviting for ants. Based on this collective intelligence of ants, mathematicians and computer scientists have developed optimization algorithms that are used, for example, in GPS.

For its part, the Bible invites us to observe and receive instruction from the ants: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer… How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep…” (Pr 6,6-11); “Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer…” (Pr 30,24-25). Instructions here fall within the realm of wisdom, of appropriate behaviours to make the most of human existence.

Thus, the Bible and science observe what ants do and learn different lessons from them. Both can celebrate the assertion of Ps 8: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”, even though science is not concerned with the existence of a creator. Both allow us to know ants, but from two different perspectives. Science analyzes their behaviours and draws from them tools that make human existence more comfortable. The Bible also analyzes their behaviours but draws from them what is appropriate to do on the moral level. And humans need both kinds of instruction.  

II. Two areas of knowledge in contact

If the Bible and science are two distinct fields, they do not operate in isolation from each other.[2] One is not restricted to “when and how” and the other to “who and why”. They overlap in several aspects, through similarities, parallelisms, complementarity and so on. Here are a few examples.

In the Bible, there is scientific data that reflect ancient practices. For example, let us consider the number Pi which is equal to the quotient of the circumference of a circle by its diameter. In 1 Kings 7:23, we read the following: “Then he made the Sea of molten metal; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference.” These measurements lead to a value of Pi of 30/10 = 3, which is close to the value of this number we know today. Let us recall here that the number Pi contains an infinity of decimals.

The Bible and science are both based on assumptions. The Bible relies on the fact that God exists and reveals Himself. Science presupposes that there are physical laws and that they are the same everywhere in the whole universe.

The Bible and science provide a methodical working approach. God’s creative action includes conceiving, realizing, separating, naming, and assessing. The scientific approach includes observing, formulating a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, making new observations, and so on.

The Bible and science do not always function according to immutable determinism. On the contrary, they use disorder as a stage or a path that leads to order, harmony, and better achievements. For example, the divine creation goes through a chaotic phase before generating an orderly and harmonious world. The situation of man all alone, even surrounded by all the other creatures, looks messy. With the creation of woman, the world becomes perfect.

For its part, science calls upon the randomness of mutations and the process of evolution to explain the existence of creatures better adapted to their environments. Disordered clouds of dust and gas give birth to stars and solar systems, which gather in galaxies. The heat induces a molecular agitation synonymous with disorder, but necessary to carry out chemical reactions that produce new compounds. Pure iron, with its perfect crystalline lattice, does not have the right strength; but by introducing some heterogeneity through the addition of carbon, it becomes steel, a material with better properties. Mathematical simulations and optimization algorithms go through several possibilities before generating the right solutions.

Thus, in science as in the Bible, what seems disordered, random, chaotic, even risky, appears to be at the root of what is orderly, complex, and accomplished. In other words, disorder is not necessarily synonymous with “bad”; it can make it possible to create better things, to access a better state. The concept of “intelligent design”[3] according to which, “if things go so well, it is because there was an intelligence behind these things from the start”, seems to proscribe the notion of chaos in favor of determinism. However, there may be a different way of looking at things: God using darkness, chaos, disorder, randomness, to accomplish his work (Gen 1:2-3), because what is hostile, out of control, ungraspable to us, is not hostile to him (Ps 139:12)[4]. In short, God would play dice.[5]

Since the Bible and science are in contact, they can enter into constructive dialogue that respects the peculiarities of each one, and thus learn from each other. This dialogue will be all the more respectful as each will retain its specificity and both will be aware of their differences. Contact points can allow for various types of exchanges such as fusion, similarity, complementarity, integration, or even independence when each one speaks about subjects specific to its field of investigation[6].  For example, the Bible deals with the intangible dimension which is ignored by science since it is beyond its scope. Each one can also seek to see how its results combine with what the other says. As an illustration, it has been suggested that the process of evolution can be related to the fact that God is love since, through this process, he allows “creatures truly to be themselves and to make themselves,” instead of being puppets. This may explain why God allows things that are not in accordance with his perfect will.[7]

[1] For example, deism believes in the existence of God without reference to a religion. Voltaire (1694-1778), one of the most famous deists, affirmed that “The universe embarrasses me, and I cannot imagine that this clock exists and does not have a clockmaker” (Les Cabales, œuvre pacifique, 1772).

[2] Several paradigms have been developed to describe the relationship between science and the Bible. John Haught for example, suggests that the dialogue between science and the Bible can be a conflict, a contrast, a contact, or a confirmation. Ian Barbour’s model includes conflict, independence, dialogue or integration. Denis Alexander (The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion) suggests models including conflict, independence, fusion or complementarity. In fact, what happens is that, a certain way of reading the Bible can include all these types of interaction at once. For example, a literal reading of the Bible is not in constant conflict with science on all the biblical texts. It can even be in fusion or confirmation with science, when scientific discoveries agree with its assertions.

[3] William Dembski, Intelligent Design; Taner Edis, Chance and Necessity – and Intelligent Design? in Why Intelligent design failed, 139-152.

[4] In the book of Jonah, the sailors draw lots to know who is causing their misfortune, and the lot falls on the guilty, Jonah (Jon 1:7). In general, from the human point of view, divine action may seem characterized by indeterminism, since God alone knows the infinity of parameters that characterize a situation, whereas humans see only a tiny part of it and do not know very well how God acts. It is only when God himself reveals to humans what he is doing and why he is doing it, that divine action takes on a deterministic aspect. In nature too, everything does not seem to be well-ordered. For example, the axis of the earth is slightly tilted instead of being perpendicular to the ecliptic plane. But this slight tilt is what produces the seasons.

[5] During a debate on the randomness of events in quantum mechanics, Albert Einstein, proponent of the principle of causality, said to Niels Bohr: “God does not play dice”; to which Niels Bohr answered saying: “Who are you, Albert Einstein, to tell God what he should do?”

[6] Jean B. Bieri, Les origines selon la Bible et la science, yet to be published. The dialogue between the Bible and science has often been confined to “concordism,” that is, an effort to bring Biblical content into line with scientific findings, sometimes even at the expense of the biblical message derived from exegesis. Another less widespread way of conceiving the dialogue between the Bible and science has been to highlight the convergences and the divergences between science and a literal reading of the Bible, also know as “creationism.” In this case, science is considered false when it does not support a literal reading of the Bible.

[7] John Polkinghorne, The Science and Religion Debate – Faraday Papers 1; 3.

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