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Scripture and Science In Conflict by Prof. Philip Stott — Introduction

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Hermeneutics, Science and Scripture:
A Brief Introduction

by Philip Stott 

A hermeneutic is the reference frame by which one makes sense of written or spoken communication. God is the author of communication, as of everything else. God gave a language, fully formed, to Adam. He gave many others at the confusion of tongues of Babel. He gave a hermeneutic at the same time - without doing so his gift of language would have been worthless, since unintelligible.

Mankind in his pride and arrogance tries to give the impression that man himself is responsible for language (which evolved from grunts, squeaks and howls). He is also in command of his own hermeneutic - after all, he had to establish for himself the meaning of those evolving grunts, squeaks and howls. Yet the person who attempts to put forward a hermeneutic of his own expects to be understood in a very particular way - a way that his own hermeneutic probably denies.

As an example, a post-modernist proclaims: “words have no fixed significance, and an author or reader can make whatever meaning he will of a statement”. However, in saying this he expects that his readers will pay him the courtesy of interpreting this statement to mean what he says and not, for example:- “poetry may use words in a non-literal way”, or “literature is an art form which may use analogy or allegory” or “words mean exactly what the dictionary defines them to mean”.- all of which would be perfectly logical consequences of his proclaimed hermeneutic. The truth is he relies on the fact that there is an existing hermeneutic. The hermeneutic which enables people to understand each other. The God-given hermeneutic which is essential for the very existence of a language as a means of communication. The post modernist expects his own preposterous statements to be understood that way.

This God-given hermeneutic enables one to distinguish prose from poetry, allegory from history etc. simply by the use of the language with which the hermeneutic is inextricably bound. It has been called the “historical grammatical hermeneutic”, though a more forceful, clear and, I would maintain, accurate description is Douglas Wilson’s “inescapable” hermeneutic.

As Wilson pointed out at the 1995 Van Till Centennial Apologetics Conference, one has to use this fundamental, inescapable hermeneutic at some point, and one shows one’s true colours by the choice of where one applies it.

Consider a Roman Catholic faced with the claim that the authority of the Church of Rome and that of Scripture are both binding. The Roman Catholic Church accepts a papal declaration that Mary, the mother of Jesus remained a virgin throughout her life. Now if the Catholic reads the Scriptures he will find in the gospel of Matthew chapter 1:24-25:

Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:  And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

The inescapable hermeneutic tells us that after Mary had borne her child, Joseph did then know her in a normal husband/wife relationship.

And the couple were blessed with the normal consequence since we see in Chapter 13:54-56:

they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works?  Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?  And his sisters, are they not all with us?

So we see that Joseph and Mary had four sons and at least three daughters after Jesus was born.

To arrive at the interpretation that Mary remained a virgin requires a hermeneutic other than the normal one associated with the standard use of language. Such a novel hermeneutic is implied by the papal declaration. We can then judge where the real allegiance of the Roman Catholic lies - with the Scripture (in which case he applies the inescapable hermeneutic to what the Bible says), or the Church of Rome (in which case he applies it to the papal decree).

Now the Catholic could well respond “How can I tell what the scriptures really mean without the guidance of the priests? I can’t understand the original languages. I don’t know Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic.”

But then, Roman Catholics are familiar with pope John Paul's disapproval of contraception. But how do I know that when the pope said contraception is taboo he didn’t actually mean the Brazilians would win the soccer world cup?. After all, I don’t understand Italian. I don’t understand Polish.

The Roman Catholic accepts what the pope says simply by paying him the courtesy of applying the fundamental, God-given hermeneutic to what he says. Translators convey the pope’s meaning into whatever language in the same way - interpreting the word of the pope in the light of the inescapable hermeneutic. We could perhaps wish that modern translators of the Scriptures showed similar courtesy to the Word of God

When considering the relation of science to the Scriptures one is immediately confronted by a problem. Using the normal, fundamental hermeneutic leads to conflict with some aspects of current orthodoxy. For example the origin of man. The Scriptures tell us in Genesis 2:7 “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”. Current scientific orthodoxy has man evolving over many millions of years from inert chemicals via protozoa, fish, amphibians and ape-like creatures.

There are two obvious solutions. We could conclude that the established orthodoxy must be mistaken in this case - man did not evolve in this way. Alternatively we could conclude that the evolutionist is correct so the scriptures must be abandoned or interpreted using a different hermeneutic.

We see this second alternative in Darwin's Vision and Christian Perspectives. (Macmillan 1960) where Robert Gleason writes, "While all theologians agree that history is expressed in the assertions of Genesis, nevertheless today they admit that it is a peculiar type of history whose rules are still partly unknown to us." The "dust" from which Adam was made may refer "to organic matter oriented by God through a long process."

Gleason’s “peculiar type of history” requires a peculiar type of hermeneutic, one significantly different to that which comes as standard with language. Such peculiar types of hermeneutic have proliferated since theologians became convinced that science has discovered refutations to clear assertions and implications of Scripture.

Any such hermeneutic is hostage to current scientific thought, not to the scriptures themselves.

But if one is convinced that current scientific orthodoxy knows the truth, then why should one turn to the Scriptures at all?

If, on the other hand, one is convinced that the Scriptures are the all-knowing God of truth’s communication to his beloved creatures, why should one assume that any other hermeneutic than that given with His gift of language would be needed to understand it?

It is the hermeneutic used by Jesus and the Apostles in their interpretation of Scripture.

 
 
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