Rosenhouse: is the Bible a science textbook?

It’s always a treat to read Jason Rosenhouse, especially when he’s reviewing books or writing about creationism.  His latest post on EvolutionBlog deals with the topic of a recent post:  Kenton Sparks’s contention, on BioLogos, that the Bible isn’t a science textbook but rather a compendium of metaphorical tales that were never intended by God (or whomever wrote the book) to be taken literally.

Rosenhouse notes that of course the Bible wasn’t written to serve as a science textbook, but that, nevertheless, its stories were meant not as metaphors, but as genuine accounts of the origin and structure of the world:

Let us get one thing out of the way right up front. Creationists do not believe the Bible is a science book. They believe, along with most Christians, that the purpose of the Bible is to instruct us about our need for, and the availability of, salvation. When the 66 books of the Bible are published in one volume, the result is a long, dense book almost none of which deals with anything relevant to science. The creationists are perfectly aware of these facts.

Nor do they believe that the early chapters of Genesis were intended primarily to teach us science. In their view the function of these chapters, as with the rest of the Bible, was to give us information relevant to understanding our predicament as sinful human beings.

However, they do believe the Bible is inerrant on any subject it addresses, and if that means accepting what it says during its very rare excursions into science then so be it. Thus, the point of Chapter One of Genesis is to establish that God produced a very good creation, one that was later sullied by human sin. It was also intended to rebut both polytheism and pantheism by establishing that one God was directly responsible for creating everything in nature. That creation took place in six days, followed by a day of rest, was meant to establish a pattern for us to emulate in keeping the Sabbath. Note that none of these purposes relate to science.

But in presenting these basic truths of the human condition, the Bible expresses itself in ways that have scientific consequences. We might even find it interesting and suggestive that the Bible, which mostly avoids scientific questions, begins with so much material relevant to science. Perhaps the conclusion is that God considered these particular scientific truths to be so important that they could not be omitted without compromising the story. At any rate, it makes little sense to say we will accept the spiritual truths of the Bible as a direct revelation from God, but will simply discard the parts that conflict with modern science.

And his zinger:

When you explain something to a small child you routinely simplify the situation. You omit details and context, and express yourself in language the child will understand. It is rare, and almost never appropriate, to lie outright to the child about what is going on. Surely God could have presented the essential spiritual truths without embedding them within a fictitious story. Accommodating His presentation to the level of His audience calls for simplification, not fabrication.

Jason’s peroration:

The simple fact is that the Creationists would have felt right at home in nearly every portion of the Christian world right up until the nineteenth century. That the Bible was as reliable on scientific questions as it is on everything else was Christian conventional wisdom until relatively recently. The Catholic Church that tormented Galileo certainly thought the Bible was reliable on those scientific questions it addressed, for example. The common view, certainly supported by Augustine and Calvin, was that science was the servant of religion, and needed to be kept in its place. I find it unlikely that they would have appreciated the complete role reversal typical of modernity.


  1. oldfuzz
    Posted February 19, 2010 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Not the Creationists I know. They believe the earth was created concurrent with the universe in seven twenty-four hour days about 10,000 years ago and that God created every species from scratch. There are old earth creationists, but they are tolerated for their misguided heresy by the young earthers, who need all the friends they can muster.

    It’s interesting how many Christians were involved in early scientific work to better understand God’s creation and look what they caused.

  2. Insightful Ape
    Posted February 19, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    No one relying on his own judgment and distorting the sacred scripture according to his own conception shall dare to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother church…has held-Council of Trent 1546
    Theologician Domingo Beñez 1584: “the holy spirit…dictared and suggested every word with which the scripture was written”.
    Robert Bellatmine, the chief inquisitor: “(the claim the Earth moves) would harm the holy faith by rendering the holy scripture false”.
    And the main point of objection against Galileo, of course, was its inconsistency with the biblical story of god stopping the sun from rotating around the Earth while Joshua taught Emorites a lesson in godly love.
    Amazingly all this literalism came from the catholic church. Even though it was the crux of the protestant reformation was that primacy rested with the scripture and not the pope.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted February 19, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Amazingly all this literalism came from the catholic church. Even though it was the crux of the protestant reformation was that primacy rested with the scripture and not the pope.

      You certainly can not expect consistency and common sense from any religion. Their purpose is to control and deceive.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted February 19, 2010 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        Excepting those that don’t.

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted February 19, 2010 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Mind naming any fuzz?

      • oldfuzz
        Posted February 20, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Society of Friends, Unitarian Universalism, most non with Methodism in my personal religious experience. Granted there are those religious leaders whose “purpose is to control” but the religion is not the leaders. A cursory review of Roman Catholic history verifies this.

        Humanism, which some humanists call a religion, is not intent on control and deception.

        To name a few. To identify all would mean attending every religious community on the planet and identify those which are exceptions to your claim.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted February 20, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        Sure, a few now are not controlling. I look at the history of RCC and see major control. That is why they kept services in Latin, so the priests could control everything.

      • oldfuzz
        Posted February 20, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink


        Precisely, but the history of Christianity shows it beginning without control, then taking control by the state before the Pope.

        Control of people by the church is overstated mainly because it’s atrocities that get the press.

        As a non-theist religious practitioner I know no one in my community that tries to control others. We welcome all, no matter their religious grounding (meaning system) theist, atheist or other.

        But you are on target with your observation that many try to control their members. Of course, those who allows themselves to be controlled may deserve it, unless they are enslaved.

  3. Posted February 19, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    We all know that the Bible makes a good owner’s manual for a ’70 AMC Gremlin.

    • Occam
      Posted February 19, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Thou shalt slash the butt off thine AMC Hornet, for it is an unclean thing. Thou shalt name it Gremlin. Thou shalt have less trunk space than a VW Beetle, for so the Almighty hath decreed in His infinite wisdom, through His prophet Richard A. Teague (mercy be upon his soul). Thou shalt leave thy kith and kin behind thee, for thou shalt fold the rear seats.
      Thou shalt disburse many a shekel on the Gremlin in 1975, the night before the release of the AMC Pacer.
      Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s Pacer.

      • Posted February 19, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

        As they say on Facebook, I like this (insert thumbs up icon).

      • Hempenstein
        Posted February 19, 2010 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

        Verily the same Dick Teague who also designed those “cathedral” taillights for the ’55/6 Packards over an Easter weekend, according to legend anyway. Time well spent!

  4. KP
    Posted February 19, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Good timing. There is a “flea” who stalks around on the local newspaper’s comment threads and inserts is anti-evolution/YEC/bible literalism every chance he gets. We just started in on the Bible as a science book. He reads his arguments verbatim from the Universal Creationist Handbook. Just in the past week I’ve heard the “mutations cause no new information” and giraffe neck/circulatory system arguments.

    • Occam
      Posted February 19, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      Tell the “flea” to look up the giraffe in Knut Schmidt-Nielsen’s “Animal physiology: adaptation and environment” (p. 109 in my 1997 edition).
      I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Schmidt-Nielsen on the giraffe’s circulatory system, thirty years ago. Presiding the proceedings was an impossibly overbearing creationist professor of Anatomy (then a rarity among profs at my university). How the eye “couldn’t have evolved”, and all that rubbish, from high above.
      Just this once, after Schmidt-Nielsen’s lecture, the blockhead was left speechless. Not a single valid counterargument.

  5. MadScientist
    Posted February 20, 2010 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Apparently the jesus cultists couldn’t even get their days of the week right. The Jews and mohammedans celebrate the shabat at the right times and days. It would appear that historically god started his days around noon – just as in the proleptic Julian calendar. The Sunday thing is a jesus cult tradition.

    • oldfuzz
      Posted February 20, 2010 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      Actually it was Constantine that moved the Christian Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday to appease pagan–Sun god–resistance to Christianity becoming a state religion.

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