Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Notes on "Contending for the Truth" (Pt. 7)

[Series explanation and index here.]

A continuation (from here) of my notes on John MacArthur's talk: The Challenge of Science.

Does the Bible Contain Scientific Foreknowledge?

For the sake of argument, let's say there is no significant conflict between what the Bible claims and what we have discovered about the world through scientific inquiry. Many Christians seem content to nullify science as an encroachment on religion, but some — like MacArthur — believe scientific discovery is a positive ally to apologetics. They believe the Bible makes accurate claims about the world predating scientific discovery of these facts. This means the Bible could not have been written by mere human beings of the time.

Let's look at MacArthur's examples of what is commonly called “scientific foreknowledge”:

Creation Account Order

Without going into detail, MacArthur briefly mentions that the order of creation in Genesis “matches so wonderfully with the way things really are.” I can't let this slide. By the second verse of Genesis, the Earth already exists. It's not until the fourth day that God creates stars (so we can keep track of seasons). Here's something I didn't learn in private school: stars came first. The Earth was produced from the remnants of an earlier generation of stars.

Unless there is a major revolution in scientific cosmology which puts the Earth before the stars, this is not a chapter apologists should put forward as an example of scientific foreknowledge. Better to read this chapter in a non-literal way and look for facts of nature elsewhere.

Hydrological Cycle

Did you know that — until the seventeenth century — scientists were ignorant of the fact that rain falls, collects, evaporates, and falls again in a cycle which maintains the same overall amount of water? But the writers of Job and Psalms knew about this millennia earlier!

Oh wait, Aristotle did too:
"[W]e always plainly see the water that has been carried up coming down again. Even if the same amount does not come back in a year or in a given country, yet in a certain period all that has been carried up is returned. [...] all the moisture alike is dissolved and all of it condensed back into water."1
So did other ancients. By the way, I had no idea if I would be able to find pre-seventeenth century references to evaporation being the source of precipitation. It took me ten minutes to find several relevant textbook passages and confirm the Aristotle quote. MacArthur probably just repeated what he heard somewhere else without looking for contrary evidence.


According to MacArthur:
"[M]odern astronomy — the study of the solar system — didn't begin to replace the old idea of a disc shaped Earth; Sun, moon and stars being gods whose movements revealed their intentions for men. In the Ptolemaic view, the Greek philosophers' sky was a hollow globe surrounding the earth, having the stars set like jewels in its inner surface. The sky was supported by an axis thrust through the earth and on this axis the sky rotated around the earth. This view was popular until, well, around 1500 when Copernican theory came[....]"
Let's look at the verses which McArthur claims revealed astronomy facts many centuries early.

Psalm 103:11 "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him." 

McArthur says this refers to the "vastness of the universe" and that "it is not a small little bowl with stars stuck on the inside." But if the writer believed in a smaller world, it would make sense to write what he did to express greatness. If anything, there is evidence here from Hebrew parallelism that the writer did believe "the heavens" are (by our standards) close to the earth. The very next verse reads: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us."

Job 22:12 "Is not God in the height of heaven? Look also at the distant stars, how high they are!"

Again, simply stating that the stars are "high" does not differentiate between, say, the top of the atmosphere and distances many light-years away. Doesn't the story of the Tower of Babel imply the former? The context of this verse also implies a distance on the order of clouds. Verse 14 reads: "‘Clouds are a hiding place for Him, so that He cannot see; and He walks on the vault of heaven.’" The speaker here is supposed to be wrong about God's perception, but the setup goes unchallenged; it's actually playing off of the stars comment.

Jer 31:37 “'If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,' declares the LORD."

MacArthur just paraphrases this as saying "heaven cannot be measured." I think that's a justifiable assumption to draw from this verse, but what about the bit about the earth that he didn't read or paraphrase?

Jer 33:22 "As the host of heaven cannot be counted and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me.’"

Oh hey, this time the parallel actually works in MacArthur's favor. There may be room to interpret this as stars visible to the naked eye — which are more numerous than modern light pollution makes it seem — but I want to be fair and say this does sound like the modern view of far more stars.

1 Cor 15:21 "There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory."

Modern astronomers have discovered "different varieties of stars." But there's nothing in this verse which goes beyond ancient common knowledge. A reasonable interpretation might involve differing brightness as seen from Earth. A less likely but still plausible distinction is star color. They come in red, yellow, white, and blue varieties. This was and is noticeable without telescopes.

Jer 31:35-36 "Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, [...]: 'If this fixed order departs from before Me,' declares the LORD, “Then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.'"

MacArthur relates this verse to the way orbits are extremely predictable. But this was also common knowledge.

Ps 19:6 "Its rising is from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end of them; and there is nothing hidden from its heat."

Supposedly this has to do with the sun's orbit within our galaxy, not the really obvious interpretation of the sun moving across the sky each day. Does our sun heat the entire galaxy? Does our galaxy constitute the entire heavens?

Job 25:5-6 "If even the moon has no brightness and the stars are not pure in His sight, how much less man, that maggot, and the son of man, that worm!"

Scientists learned in the seventeenth century that the moon reflects the sun's light as opposed to generating its own; another fact revealed ahead of time by the Bible!

(Unless, of course, this passage is saying that compared to God, the moon has no brightness and the stars are impure...and that mankind is even worse off.)

At any rate, the idea that the moon is illuminated by the sun and that this is the cause of the moon's phases has been around since Anaxagoras, a pre-Socratic philosopher.

Of Discs and Spheres

By now, the general quality of scientific foreknowledge claims in this talk is apparent. Even Christians who do believe the Bible contains scientific foreknowledge should be pulling McArthur aside and telling him that he's doing more harm than good.

I just want to highlight one final example:

Is 40:22 "It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in."

This is supposed to show that the writer of Isaiah knew the earth is spherical rather than disc-shaped. I hope you can see that "the circle of the earth" is not a phrase which distinguishes between these two models. Plus, the picture of the heavens being stretched out like a tent is consistent with the idea of a nearby celestial dome. We can imagine God sitting on the dome and looking down at people who — from that height — look like insects.

I'm happy to let poetry be poetry. This isn't a verse I would point out as a reason to be skeptical of Christianity.

Oh, by the way, any miraculous foreknowledge claims about the Earth's shape are a sign that the apologist has never heard of Eratosthenes.

1. Aristotle (trans. Webster, E.W.). Meteorology, Book 2, Part 2.

1 comment:

  1. I guess I'll have to read about Eratosthenes tomorrow.