December 5, 2020

The Bible, through a Scientist’s Eyes

The Bible, through a Scientist’s Eyes, part one

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible
by John Polkinghorne

• • •

Today, we begin walking through a new book by John Polkinghorne on the Bible. I believe this will give us a unique vantage point from which to consider the Scriptures? Why? — because Polkinghorne has a unique combination of vocations and expertise, as both an Anglican priest and a world-class physicist. (You can read his full biography here.)

John Polkinghorne is a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), a Fellow (and former President) of Queens’ College, Cambridge. His distinguished career as a Physicist began at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his PhD in 1955. He stepped away from his scientific work and began studying for the Anglican priesthood in 1979, and eventually became President of Queen’s College. He retired from there in 1996. He was appointed KBE (Knight Commander of the order of the British Empire) in 1997. Since then, Polkinghorne has been writing on the relationship between faith and science, serving on various faith/science-related commissions in the Church of England. He was awarded the Templeton Prize for Science and Religion in 2002.

In the introduction to his new book, Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, he writes, “Scripture has been very important to me in my Christian life. For more than sixty years I have read the Bible every day and when in middle life I was ordained as an Anglican priest, I undertook the welcome duty of saying the Daily Office. Every year this takes me through the whole of the New Testament and a good deal of the Old Testament.”

So, this book is not only written by a really smart guy (!) but by a man who has soaked himself in Scripture daily as a Christian and in his vocation as a servant of Christ. How could we not listen to the perspective of a brother with this kind of knowledge and experience? That is exactly what I’d like to do in the days to come. We will have a series of posts on his new book, listening and responding to John Polkinghorne’s unique point of view.

Having said all that, you should know that Testing Scripture is not an academic work. As its author tells us,“Its principal purpose is simply to help the contemporary reader to engage in a serious and intellectually responsible encounter with the Bible.”

Chapter One: Scripture

“Ancient pictures of the four evangelists sometimes show them sitting at their desks while a small bird, representing the Holy Spirit, whispers in their ear to tell them what to write. Is that what the Bible is: a divinely dictated book, every word of which conveys absolute and unquestionable truth? I do not think so. For me it is something altogether more subtle. Just as God does not write universal messages in the sky but works more hiddenly, inspiring and guiding individuals and communities, so in a similar way Scripture is inspired by God but written by human beings, in order to be interpreted and understood by them in their succeeding generations.”

John Polkinghorne, a scientist, says the Bible is more like a laboratory notebook in which critical historical data have been recorded than a textbook that gives readers ready-made answers. This is helpful, but might be somewhat misleading. For the Scriptures do not record mere observations but interpreted history that advances particular theological perspectives. However, his main point stands: for the most part, the Bible does not transmit propositions as much as it gives a record of people and events through which God acted and made himself known.

Moreover, this revelation speaks to us of a personal God — “a God who does particular things with particular people in particular circumstances.” God’s “personal style” is reflected in the fact that he chose one nation through whom to reveal himself, interacting with individuals and families over the course of his dealings with Israel. Furthermore, this “scandal of particularity” becomes even more focused when we come to the New Testament and the spotlight falls on one man — Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus we come to understand that “the Word of God” is not a written text, but a Person to whom the text witnesses.

For the Christian, the unique significance of the Bible is that it gives us indispensable accounts of God’s acts in Israel and in Jesus Christ. Without that scriptural record we would know little about Israel and very little indeed about Jesus of Nazareth. These events happened in the course of history and the accounts that we have of them necessarily originated at specific times and in particular cultural contexts. Yet the revelatory character claimed for them implies that insights of enduring significance are embedded in the pages of Scripture. A central task for the Christian interpreter of Scripture is to discern what in the Bible has lasting truthful authority, rightly commanding the continuing respect of successive generations, and what is simply time-bound cultural expression, demanding no necessary continuing allegiance from us today. Absolutely no one is free from having to make judgements of this kind.

This interpretive task of “discriminating between the time-bound and the permanent” is one that Polkinghorne promises will be a matter of discussion throughout the entire book. As recent books by Scot McKnight (The Blue Parakeet) and Christian Smith (Bible Made Impossible) emphasize, this is a key discussion of the moment. Those who insist on more conservative definitions of inerrancy often underplay the role this kind of discrimination and interpretation plays in our view of Scripture. Also, as is true with all great literature (and we might expect even more so with divinely inspired literature!), there is a richness and depth to its stories, poems, prayers, prophecies, and other writings that resists simple literalism and single strands of meaning.

John Polkinghorne is not a literalist, nor an inerrantist. However, he does take the Bible very, very seriously. Frankly, I like what I read so far of his approach: “Scripture, together with the worshipping experience of the Church and its accumulated traditions of insight, as well as the exercise of our God-given powers of reason, together form the context for Christian thinking and living.”


  1. Jack Heron says

    Right, I’ll have to add that to my reading list. Your last paragraph reminds me strongly of what I once heard a priest say in a debate on the use of the Bible – “Scripture is far too important to be taken literally. God is far too important not to be subject to questioning.”

  2. When one brings up the subject that the Word of God is not just the Bible and a literal, inerrant text, it scares the bejabbers out of many.

    So many have a Southern Baptist take on the Word of God. This ‘requirement’ (an inerrant text) IS an add on to Christ and actually makes God into a smaller god who is incapable of accomplishing His will but for some ink blots on a page.

    The Bible is the Word of God. But it is an aspect of it, and not even the most important aspect of it. Christ Himself is the Word. In preaching and teaching. In the Sacraments. And in the words of the Bible.

    The finite (the book) does contain the infinte (the Word).

    As do the poor words of the preacher…the bread, the wine, and the water of the Sacraments…the words in the Bible.

    Look at Jesus. Fully man…and fully God.

    You speak like this and you will soon find out the Christians that are free…and those that aren’t quite there yet.


    Polkinghorne’s book sounds like an interesting read. I’ll give him a pass on the Anglican’s belief in the Historic Episcopate…another ‘add-on’ to the Word alone. But that’s another topic.

    • True….the crowd that thinks Satan invented fossils as a test is going to have some terrible issues with this.

      I can’t wait to read what this gentleman has to say, personally. Although NOT a scientist of this caliber, I have had enough chemistry, physics, math, and biology and my way to being a nurse to consider myself to have the basics taken care of..

      AND everything that I know and experience as a nurse and see about others sciences only shows me the magnifcent way the universe works, down to the molecular level and up to astrophysics and astronomy. I am not fit to confine the workings and abilities of Almighty God in ANY way. Scripture is our history of how He revealed Himself to us, and changes the way the writings of person change from grade 4 to grad school as they understand more and build on knowledge.

  3. flatrocker says

    “A central task for the Christian interpreter of Scripture is to discern what in the Bible has lasting truthful authority”

    So with enough discerning, we’ll be able to know what in scripture is a “fading falsehood”?

    Can’t wait to see that list.

    • flatrocker, wrong contrast. “truthful authority” is properly contrasted with “time-bound cultural expression.” As an example, he says, “Even the most conservative biblical interpreters are not so single-mindedly fundamentalist as to feel that they must refrain from planting two kinds of seed in the same field or wearing clothes made of two sorts of material (Lev. 19.19, Deut 22.9-11).”

      • Mathew 10:34-35

        Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

        Tell that to Focus on the Family.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        Or, for a more currently controversial aspect, there is a Biblical verse which seems to clearly prohibit women in church leadership roles. There are other verses which praise women in church leadership roles. Something clearly has to give.

        One common approach is to try to thread the needle, claiming that there is a consistent scheme of organization in the early church, that this scheme can be replicated today (and indeed, mirabile dictu!, invariably turns out to be found in the church of whoever is performing this exercise), and that those women who were praised were doing other stuff than whatever it is that this person doesn’t want women doing in his church. This is a defensible approach in principle, but in this particular instance it requires smoke and mirrors about the Greek vocabulary (rather like the claim that the Bible uses the same word for wine as for grape juice, and you tell the difference based on modern ideology).

        I more fruitful approach, in my opinion, is to understand that the Bible often addresses specific circumstances. That is, everything in the Bible is true, but not every truth is universal. (If I shush my daughter in church during the sermon, lovingly exercising my paternal authority, we should not conclude that I am ordering her never to speak in church: merely that the sermon isn’t the time for it.) Furthermore, we don’t always know what these specific circumstances are. So what are we to do? Is the injunction for women to be silent in church the general case or the specific? Conversely, are those praiseworthy women in positions of leadership the general case or the specific?

        “Truthful authority” vs. “time-bound cultural expression” isn’t the language I would choose. Both the specific and the general cases are truthful authority, but what we make of them today differs.

        As a side note, this approach will undoubtedly seem to some to be a fuzzy-minded liberal attempt to work around Scripture’s plain meaning. But Dispensationalism does the same thing. Whenever some bit of Scripture of assigned to a different dispensation than ours today, this is the assertion that that bit doesn’t apply to us today. The difference between Dispensationalism and what is described in this post is the methodologies and their underlying assumptions.

        • Not just the liberals and dispy’s — we ALL do this to some degree. Choices of interpretation of this kind are inevitable for any and every reader of an ancient text.

        • Everyone tut-tuts about the Judaizers in Acts, but this debate shows their position. The Bereans are praised for examining the Scriptures to see if the message Paul preached them agreed with it, but what Scriptures had they? The Old Testament.

          And the same applied for the Jewish party, who rebuked Peter for eating with Gentiles and demanded that converts be circumcised. They were going by the Law and the Torah, then along comes Paul and says this is not necessary. Where is that in the Bible (so to speak)? Is he saying that he knows better than Moses? Who is he to make a distinction between “truthful authority” and “time-bound cultural expression”?

          I’m not saying the Reverend Polkinghorne is the equivalent of St. Paul, but he does have a point that we all of us – whether we’re more liberal or more literalist in our views – have to examine those views and see how we got there. And more importantly, are we making a shibboleth of any one part or text without justification for the same?

    • flatrocker, what about those churches or preachers who have no difficulty in dismissing chunks of the Gospel or the Epistles (and Paul didn’t write all of them, Peter and James get a look in too!) as being ‘preaching under the Law and not binding on us who are under Grace’ or ‘that was for the Jews, we are the engrafted Gentiles’, yet see no contradiction in, for instance, mandating tithing as literally ten per cent of one’s income (and arm-twisting to donate an even greater percentage) and back it up with copious quotes from the Old Testament that God has commanded this and it is binding on Christians today?

      I have no patience with the ‘shellfish argument’ (the one that’s trotted out to dismiss the verses in Leviticus about sexual behaviour that says ‘it also forbids shellfish and mixed fibres, but you eat shrimp and wear poly-cotton blends, don’t you?’) but it has this one shred of relevance, in that we have abandoned, changed or left behind elements of the Law.

      And not just the Law – what about women covering their heads in church? St. Paul mandates this in his Epistle. Up until the early 70s, my church went along with this. Then it was re-considered as being voluntary, not mandatory, and my mother gleefully threw out her three church hats and never wore one again. Isn’t that discerning what has lasting truthful authority and what is time-bound cultural expression? Or do you consider that a woman who is bare-headed in church is bound by the word of Scriptures to cover her head?

      • Richard Hershberger says

        “I have no patience with the ‘shellfish argument’ (the one that’s trotted out to dismiss the verses in Leviticus about sexual behaviour that says ‘it also forbids shellfish and mixed fibres, but you eat shrimp and wear poly-cotton blends, don’t you?’) but it has this one shred of relevance, in that we have abandoned, changed or left behind elements of the Law.”

        The shellfish argument is perfectly sound if the entire substance of the argument being made is to quote Leviticus. You must also justify why whatever rule you are arguing for is a general rule, and not specific to some particular situation as was the prohibition on shellfish.

        • Indeed, even if you decide that sex is somehow more important, then you need to consider Leviticus 20:18 which forbids sex during menstruation:

          If any man lie with a woman in her flowers, and uncover her nakedness, and she open the fountain of her blood, both shall be destroyed out of the midst of their people.

          Also Lev. 18:19 mentions the same things. And Lev 15 19:30 really goes on about it.

          the “in her flowers” is the Douay’s rather euphemistic way of referring to menstruation.

          I attended a Diocesan training session for NFP once that really harped on the joys of sex during this time of flowers, as the chances of pregnancy are quite low.

        • Since I’ve started this hare running, I’ll keep on its track.

          The reason the shellfish argument annoys me is that’s it is glib. It’s a great one-liner, it makes for jokes, and it totally misses the point by a country mile.

          (1) It’s llike saying about any code of laws or compilation of same “Hey, they include both littering and murder in the one set of rules! So obviously murder is to be treated on the same level as littering – or maybe they’re going to bring in the death penalty if you drop a sweet wrapper in the street!” Leviticus is a collection of all kinds of laws, customs and traditions: from kashrut to purity laws to how to offer sacrifices and the qualifications for ministry to the great festivals of the year to money and property and slaves and sickness. It covers the small things and the large.

          (2) It makes it sound as if “Don’t eat shrimp, don’t wear linen mingled with wool, and don’t sleep with another guy” are all in the one paragraph. However, if you look up the way the book is laid out, the sexual prohibitions are all found together (as you would expect) and you could say it’s even harder on heterosexual misconduct; there are fourteen “don’t sleep with this woman” rules and one about not sacrificing your children to Molech, one on bestiality, and one on sodomy. The later instructions about penalties for adultery, etc. also are mostly about heterosexual misconduct; again, just one punishment for bestiality and one for homosexual misconduct.

          (3) What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. You can’t mock inconvenient or uncomfortable verses by belittling them, then turn around and quote the exact same book as it suits your purposes (and this holds true whether you’re liberal or conservative). Those who are all for equality and justice and the new prophetic thing the Spirit is doing would, I have no doubt, when speaking of how we should deal with the poor or migrants or the question of approportioning wealth in society quote approvingly from Leviticus 19 such verses as “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

          13 Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.

          Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.

          15 Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”

          Well, guess what? Those verses are actually in the same block as “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material”! Whew, glad that I now don’t have to follow the personally inconvenient principles of charity and justice; after all, we wear poly-cotton blends and eat shrimp, so those verses don’t apply any more!

          I can see arguing about “We don’t exile, stone or burn people for adultery anymore” but I am neither convinced nor impressed by the shallow wit of the shellfish argument. Bravo, the line about “do not lie with another man as with a woman” has been shown to be dispensed with since we do not keep the Law in its fullness. Now tell me why I am bound to abide by the same Law when it comes to treating my workers fairly.

          • But the treatment of workers could be derived from the Gospels. Whereas the Gospels are stubbornly silent on the matter of gay sex unless you want to go back to Jesus saying fulfill every jot and title of the Law at which rate, back to the shellfish and sex during menses issues.

            Truly, the Christians would have been better off removing the OT entirely and just going with their own Scriptures (well once they were codified). They don’t obey the Law anyway, it would immediately remove all the silliness over YEC, theistic evolution… And if they were going to keep it, maybe they could have kept the Rabbinic commentary which mainly explains things in far better way than I have ever heard Christians do so.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            You are essentially arguing that there are criteria by which we can judge our obligation to follow individual dictates from Leviticus. I am fine with that in principle. In practice the criteria boil down to which dictates the person making the judgment likes or dislikes, but this does not preclude the existence of more principled criteria. It certainly meets the standard I expressed in my previous post that the entire argument cannot simply be a bare proof text.

            As for “You can’t mock inconvenient or uncomfortable verses by belittling them, then turn around and quote the exact same book as it suits your purposes”, this is true enough. What I think you might be missing is the target of the mockery. The target is the frivolous practice of using proof texts, and the method is by demonstrating that the practice produces results the listener would not like. If an argument for social justice were indeed make solely by quoting Leviticus this would indeed be unserious, but in an era when self-identified Christians claim with a straight face that the Bible has little to say on the subject of social justice, the point of quoting Leviticus is to demonstrate that even by the unserious standards of argument so widely accepted today, social justice is a common concern in the Bible. For a more adult examination of the subject, and how to discern the applicability of these particular bits of Leviticus, we can (as cermak points out) turn to the Gospels (or, letting my Lutheran background show, to Gospel).

          • i have read somewhere a simple perspective from a Rabbi that said there were higher ‘moral’ laws dealing with the treatment/interaction with other people, vs. prohibitions that were from God to His chosen people to set them apart from those around them…

            they may not have any physical or healthful meanings behind them other than, “just don’t do it!” no moral issue involved at all. nothing addressing human interaction with your neighbor…

            Jesus in the gospels does highlight the moral principles in the Law & even goes further on how they are to be lived out in the kingdom. He makes it clear that our relationship with God & our fellow man the most important laws that are universally binding on both Gentile & Jew alike…

            and it seems in the account with the woman caught in adultery, all the commandments to stone certain law breakers was fulfilled in finding the only One without sin that could rightly cast the first one.

            but it seems that all laws setting the Children of Israel apart from their gentile neighbors were never intended for New Testament believers, but all moral, human interaction laws addressed by Jesus intended to be the continuing standard. and i do believe Jesus even made further distinctions between moral laws & those delineating clean vs. unclean directives. i don’t think any account in the gospels can be pointed out as making a more confusing point about moral laws. and it seems the dietary laws & that of circumcision addressed later in the epistles.

            it seems too that the sexual issues addressed in the Law still generating controversy when it suits those either stressing prohibitions or looking for greater freedom. not sure this will be resolved anytime soon though…

          • Cermak, I think the Gospel’s clear message about divorce and only wife are pretty clear in showing the standard of sexual expression only withing a permanent marriage between a man and a woman.

            Christ would have no more reason to condemn sex between two members of the same gender as He would sex with animals or a Caligula style orgy. All were equally foreign and unthinkable to any semi-devout Jew of the time.

            The apostles could not have envsisioned a world where instead of correcting and loving sinners, sin was held as an ideal, or at least a very valid options amongst dozens.

    • Kenny Johnson says

      Which parts are on your list? Women having to wear head coverings? Women being silent in church? Eating shellfish?

      • flatrocker says

        The point is we all have a list. The discernment challenge resides in identifying the items and understanding why they made the cut. And let’s not forget a dash of humility to boot – lest we boldly file for the patent rights of our own theology.

        As for me, I’m off to enjoy a nice clam chowder dinner with my wife. (shhhh…I also bought her a nice hat for the occasion).

  4. Matt Purdum says

    The errancy/inerrancy debate really is moot once we realize there’s no such thing as an inerrant READER.

  5. This really smart guy seems to manage to miss the point about inspiration as his employment of a blatant straw man (“dictation”) demonstrates. The ranks of people ready, willing, and able to scratch the ol’ ears does not seem to be lacking.