Science in Christian Perspective



A Sound Protestant Hermeneutic Faces
The Facts Of Science

Assistant Professor of Bible and Theology
Wheaton College

From: JASA 7 (September 1955): 20-24.

One of the most interesting facts of the mid-twentieth century, theologically speaking, is the interest in Hermeneutics or interpretation. This interest is not confined to one group or kind of theological outlook. All groups profess in theory a real interest in the principles of how to interpret the Bible. In most groups the interest is more than theoretical. Theory has been implemented by action.

Interpretation has been basic in neo-orthodox thinking. Take for example the ecumenical study conferences held by the World Council of Churches when it was in the process of formation back in 1946-47. These conferences were held when a bombed, ruined, devastated Europe was just crawling out of the ashes of world war II..

A conference was held in London August 10-12th, 1946. The mimeographed report1 of this conference lists 24 delegates by name. They came from the continent, Great Britain and America (only five were from the United States). The agenda for the conferences consisted in papers which were read and then discussions over the crucial topics. These discussions centered around such topics as: "The Authority of the Bible," "The Interpretation of the Bible ... .. Old and New Testament; Law and Gospel", and "The Bible and Political Questions."

About six months later another conference was held in Bossey, a Swiss town near Geneva, from Janu ary 5-10, 1947. The mimeographed report of this conference lists 28 delegates by name (only one from the United States). Papers were read by such men as Karl Barth (Basel, Evangelical Reform Church), A. Nygren (Lund, Swedish Luther Church), L. Aalen (Aker near Oslo, Norwegi Lutheran Church), N. H. Se (Gentofte, Copenhage of the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church), C. va Niftrik (Zeist, Netherland Reformed Church), Nagy (Sarospatak, Reformed Church in Hungary) W. Eichrodt (Basel, Evangelical Reformed Church) and H. Van Oyen (Groningen, Netherland Reformed Church). Following the papers there were discussion on the crucial issues. The report of the conference said that it "reviewed the London problems an pushed on to discover if possible some definite herme neutical principles by which to pass from the Bible's message to the social, political questions of today."2

Interpretation is basic in orthodox thinking.  Both in theory and in practice as orthodox people, we pro fess allegiance to sound principles of interpretation. But it is our practice that testifies to the true quality Of our profession.

Only by an interaction of minds with a dependence on the Holy Spirit for wisdom can we arrive at a sound interpretation of any particular passage. This very conference here at Winona Lake is a most helpful sign. Here we are testifying to the world that orthodox people believe in weighing and evaluating issues. Let the world see us as we are-not is we are imagined to be by our critics. We want to examine the evidence.

Only by a mutual trust in the integrity of each other can we make progress in interpretation. To impugn the motives of another or to hurl epithets is the surest way to breed distrust and chaos. To bind our hearts together in Christian love coupled with good sound thinking will produce confidence and greater clarity.

The application of a sound protestant Hermeneutical system to the Bible is indispensable for an adequate treatment of Science by informed Christians.

Hermeneutics Must Be Regarded as a Rigorous Discipline

If one is following a valid system and procedure of interpretation, he will not find that the system will accommodate itself to his emotional prejudices or predilections. Rather an honest interpreter must admit that his hermeneutical system is better than he is. In practice he does not measure up to its demands.

Definition of the Term 

The Greek word hermeneito means "to interpret, explain, expound."3 A compound of this word is found in Luke 24:27. Bauer gives to it the meanings auslegen (to explain, expound), and erklaren1to explain, to interpret/4 The English word "hermeneutics" designates the methodology and procedure for interpreting the Bible. Hence the current meaning of the word "hermeneutics" is true to its etymological meaning.

The oft-quoted comparison is still helpful to make clear just what Hermeneutics is all about. Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation just as homiletics is the science of preaching. In Homiletics one finds out the rules and procedures for preaching; in Hermeneutics one finds out the rules and procedures for interpreting. Hence preaching is the practical use of Homiletics and exegesis is the practical use of Hermeneutics.

Often the student of Hermeneutics asks about the source of the rules. Does everyone make his own rules so that his own particular theological likes and dislikes will be shown to be correct and incorrect? The answer is emphatically, no.

Roman Catholics derive their rules and interpretation from authoritative witnesses or proclamations. Protestants on the other hand have always rejected the appeal to the official pronouncement oi Popes, of councils or the so-called unanimous decision of the fathers. Such standards have resulted in cisegesis (the reading of a meaning into a text) being accorded the status of legitimacy.

Protestants should derive their rules from the purpose of Hermeneutics itself. This purpose is to find out the meaning any statement5 in the Bible had for those who originally read or heard it and what meaning it has for subsequent readers. Hence the rules which best accomplish this purpose are the most valid. 

Essential Components of a Sound Protestant Hermeneutical System Should be Thoroughly Understood

Before one tackles the proposition as to how he thinks a sound protestant hermeneutical system should face the facts of science he should summarize the contents of Hermeneutics. These components that comprise the discipline can only be enumerated. Such an enumeration testifies to the fact that Hermeneutics demands the utmost of anyone's intellectual capacity and skill.

General Hermeneutics

This is the first of the two main divisions of Hermeneutics. General Hermeneutics consists of procedures and principles of biblical interpretation that apply to all of the various kinds of material in the Bible. No matter where one reads and seeks to unfold the meaning, these principles will be useful. However, some will be more important in one place than in another.

Content.-This is almost axiomatic. In order to be a good interpreter of the Bible one needs to know its entire content and message.

It is by reading the contents of the Bible that one comes to see the supernatural framework which is inherent therein. Many intelligent laymen who had never attended a college or university rejected liberalism. They sensed that in attitude liberalism was opposed to the biblical framework of thought. An unbiased reading of the text causes one to see the vertical-horizontal perspective that overshadows this or that detail, event, or statement.

It is by reading the contents of the Bible that one comes to know the particular emphases of the JudeoChristian faith: man's estrangement from God and the corrupting influence of sin; the manner and ground of man's approach to God must be determined by God not man; man's need of a mediator; and that salvation begins here and is completed in the presence of God.

Context.-This aspect of Hermeneutics is more particular than the first. It consists in looking at what is said before and after the verse or statement to be interpreted. Usually only the immediate context should be studied. However, sometimes the larger and more remote context must be considered.

Grammar of the biblical languages.-To have a sound protestant hermeneutical system one must make the original languages the foundation upon which all interpretation rests. These languages are three in number: (1) Hebrew, a Semitic language which is the original of most of the Old Testament; (2) Aramaic, a Semitic language in use before and after Hebrew, which is employed in the letters of Ezra and half of the book of Daniel (2:4b-7:28) ; (3) Greek, an IndoEuropean language which is the original of the New Testament and was the medium of communication of Hellenistic culture.

A mastery of lexicography and syntax is vital to good interpretation. Lexicography is concerned with the meaning of words. Hence the better the lexicon the better the interpreter will be. But this does not mean that lexicography is merely mechanical. It is far more than simply turning to an entry in a lexicon. The editor of the lexicon may list the passage in which the word is found under one meaning, but the context may incline you to favor one of the other meanings of the word. There is no such thing as push button lexicography! Incidentally, the habits of life and thought that belong to the Semitic mind make Hebrew and Aramaic ideal for word pictures. Syntax is concerned with the relationship between words, phrases, and clauses. There is far more syntax in Hebrew and Aramaic than the first year student imagines! Nevertheless, Greek of course is pregnant with possibilities syntactically and certainly ranks first when it comes to syntax.

History.-The historical background involves the national and individual surroundings of the people to whom God discloses himself. In the incarnation God's eternal son came unto his own people and they received him not. These divine self-disclosures were to the biblical writers historic experiences of paramount importance. Furthermore, the one who narrates these experiences writes in terms of his surroundings. The surroundings themselves enter into the disclosures. Archaeology and Anthropology are very helpful in making it possible to formulate a true and accurate picture of this cultural milieu.

This is the second of the two main divisions of Hermeneutics. Special Hermeneutics consists in the procedures and principles of biblical interpretation to be followed in order to secure a clear understanding of the specific kinds of material to be found in the Bible. These kinds of material are distinguished either by content or form, or both.

Figurative language.-This is one of the crucial areas of special Hermeneutics. A number of treatises could be devoted to this theme by orthodox scholars. Just to give a list of the number of figures shows the complexity of the subject. If you were reading a passage of Scripture, could you identify: metonymy, synecdoche, personification, apostropbe, hyperbole, irony, fable, riddle, simile, metaphor, parable, allegory, typology, symbols and symbolic actions?

It is obvious that prior to identification one must know all the technical forms that figurative language and behavior may assume. Then after identification one must go on to show its meaning and significance. Before a housewife prepares fish for the table she ascertains what kind of fish she is going to fry, bake, broil etc. If she were to go to the store and merely ask for some fish the clerk would reply: "What kind?"

Were she then to continue to say: "Give me so fish", the clerk would have good reason for regard her as a simpleton. Yet there are some who in biblical interpretation keep saying: "This is figurative language" without bothering in the least to show what category it belongs.

Figures of speech are not usually subtle. If the is no clear reason for the language to be figurative if there is no technical form to which the expression or section under consideration corresponds, one should regard it as literal. Hence one assumes a statement be literal unless he can make a rational case to show why it cannot be literal and why it should be f igurative.

Figures of speech are also one of the most effective ways of saying a thing forcefully. Hence in explain a figure one should show just how forceful the expres sion is and why it is employed. Figurative language a normal part of daily conversation. If I say: " is a queer bird," it is much more effective than to say "He has idiosyncrasies and peculiarities that rend him incapable of fraternization." The metaphor obviously much more effective than the abstrat language.

Prophecy.-Here is another crucial area of special Hermeneutics. Every student of prophecy should as himself as to what basis and upon what principles h goes about to interpret it He should not be content with the reply: "My principles are satisfactory." He should take heed that they are the best, lest in this area that captures the popular mind he leads many astray.

Doctrine.-Special Hermeneutics touches upon the principles and procedures for the interpretation of doctrinal materials. For example: how are proof texts for any particular doctrine to be handled? This is an important question. Adding a series of texts together in the wrong way is the f irst step to heresy.

Devotion and conduct.-The amount of material in the Bible devoted to the practical lives of those who believe in God is quite extensive. Christians are to scrutinize and control their emotions, affections, and habits of life. How important then it is for the interpreter to rightly construe these admonitions and instructions. This is just another of the categories under Special Hermeneutics.

Poetry.-The subject matter of poetry is quite varied. Poetry may be doctrinal, devotional, historical, or practical. But in each instance the question to be considered is: does the poetic format contribute in any way to the meaning? How should one treat this kind of creative thought? Special Hermeneutics can assist the interpreter when he finds himself confronted with thought expressed through the vehicle of poetry. 

Procedures of the Interpreter of Scripture in Putting the Facts and Explanations of Science to Use

Now that it is clear what is involved in a sound protestant hermeneutical system, it will be evident that the approach to science will only be an outgrowth of what one does in the other aspects of his Hermeneutics. Here are the procedures that this interpreter considers important.

Recognize the principle of interdependence to be a real necessity among biblical scholars and scientific investigators. There can only be interdependence if both men are working in an area where they can know something. Hence there is a basic assumption that man can have true and valid knowledge both in the area of nature and in the area of the being of God and His relationship to men. We have sure knowledge but not all or complete knowledge of God. We know only as much as He has disclosed. We have sure but not final knowledge of nature. We know only as much as man's present investigations have certified. ,

For interdependence to accomplish all that it should the Christian public at large should be made conscious of a working liaison between Christians who are biblical scholars and Christians who are scientific investigators. The biblical scholar is not acquainted with the data of atomic fission nor is the scientific investigator acquainted with the grammatical phenomena of the biblical languages. But the interchange of ideas between the atom scientist and the biblical linguist will establish the confidence of both in the activities of the other.

Recognize a supernatural framework for all the data of the Scriptures and of Science. As orthodox thinkers we distinguish ourselves from the neo-orthodox by insisting upon a consistent supernatural framework. We do not believe that anyone can have a 1, great theology" concurrent with the belief that Yahweh was a tribal god which Israel picked up in the wilderness when a few migrants struggled through the desert from Egypt to Palestine.

The same consistent supernaturalism should operate in science. If one believes that God creates progressively, he must stress that it is the God of the Scriptures who is doing this creating. Philosophers have a lot to say about God. But the basic question is still there: What God?

Recognize that the Scriptures employ the language of men to tell us about the activity and nature of God. Of course it is clear that Science belongs in the realm of the activity of God. This phrase "the language of men" should be clarified briefly.

It is the language of appearance in dealing wit nature. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught that God causes his sun to rise upon evil people and good people (Mt. 5:45). It is self evident that this is what appears to happen.

It is the language of ultimate not intermediate cause in dealing with nature. In the very same verse cited above (Mt. 5:45) Jesus says that God causes it to rain upon just ones and unjust ones. He didn't say that God sends a low pressure area with the barometer standing at a certain level, the wind velocity out of the northwest, and an increasing humidity to the point of saturation. God did this but Jesus doesn't mention it.

It is a language which discloses the culture of the people who spoke it. Ramm rightly contends that the vocabulary for time, the psychological terms, the medical language, the mathematics and measuring systems, and the geographical terms are taken right out of the sitz im leben.6 The fact that these terms come f rom a bygone epoch does not keep us f rom un'derstanding the meaning if we convert them into our modern equivalents. For example Luke tells us that two followers of Jesus were traveling to Emmaus. He locates the town as 60 stadia from Jerusalenn." That means nothing to the reader. The rendering 60 furlongs in King James and A.S.V. is just as meaningless. But if one knows that a stadion equals 606 and Y4th feet, he can figure out that this distance is almost 7 miles. For a German it would be 192 meters.

                                         Consideration of all Relevant Biblical Factors

Determine all of the biblical elements or factors which have real bearing upon any fact or explanation of science. General Hermeneutics (Content, context, grammar, and history) and Special Hermeneutics in some cases will set up specific limitations for scientific hypotheses. These limitations will not be seen by just a few people but they will be evident to the majority of the scholars who examine the evidence. Often, however, the only limitation is that of a supernatural framework for the scientific theory. The difference between a real limitation and an imagined one has been unfortunately the source of conflict throughout the centuries. Scholars should exert great care to avoid this pitfall. On this score the popular saying is so applicable: "It's easier said than done!"

Impact of Science on Christian Concept of God

Emphasize- how scientific discoveries reveal the greatness of the God of the Bible who has disclosed Himself as a unique being in the Scriptures. The man who accepts. chance as the cause of all the complex order of nature is loyal to an irrationalism that satisfies no one. After looking at the greatness of the universe as modern astronomy and physics have staggered our imagination, the Christian should stop to worship and he should sing the doxology more fervently.

                                     Impact of Redemption on the World of Nature

Emphasize how the biblical concept of the redemptive acts of God provides the only satisfactory answer to the the question: how is it that one finds both intricate design and perplexing derangement in the- world in which he lives. In Paul's great classic on this subject in Romans 8:19-22 he pictures nature as subjected to vanity by God himself. In its present state nature is spoken of as groaning and travailing. Paul even goes so far as to characterize the state of nature as "the bondage of corruption" (Romans 8:21). Yet there is a sequel. There is an outcome. Nature too will be set f ree when God's sons are revealed in all their glory. The Christian philosophy of history envisions harmony on every level: between God and man, between God and nature, and between man and nature. A sound protestant hermeneutical system faces the facts of science by analyzing both the facts and the biblical statements. From this analysis it pro vides the materials for both the biblical scholar the scientific investigator to see more clearly the t dimension of God's action both in redemption nature. The picture thus derived is an awe inspiring one indeed.
How fitting to exclaim: "0 the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how searchable are his judgments, and his ways past trac ing out! . . . For of him, and through him, and unto him are all things. To Him be the glory forever Amen."


1. From the Bible to the Modern World, Report of two Ecumenical Study Conferences on the "Biblical Authority for the Church's Social and Political Message Today," The Study Department of the World Council of Churches, (Geneva, Switzerland, 1947).
2. Ibid., p. 3.
3. Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Henry S. Jones and Roderick McKenzie (9th edition; Oxford: At the Cladon Press, 1925-40), 1, 690.
4. D. Walter Bauer, Griechisch-Deutsches Worterbuch den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der ubrigen urch lichen Literatur (Dritte auflage; Berlin; Verlag Alfred Tmann, 1937), p. 322.
5. Under "statement" is included exclamation, exhortation

6. Bernard Ramm, The Chrishan. View of Science and Scripturc (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 70-76.