Science in Christian Perspective
Letter to the Editor
The Typical Modernistic View of Scripture
R. Laird Harris
Dean of Faculty
Covenant Theological Seminary
St. Louis, Missouri 63141
From: JASA 21 (September 1969): 92-93.
For some weeks I have intended to write you my reaction to the article, "The Three-Storied Universe," by Paul Fl. Seely (Journal ASA 21, 18 (1969)). I suppose this article does not speak for the Society, but it seems to be presented without any caveat. I am so sorry to see such an article presented this way in the magazine. I fear that it actually does express the leading view in the ASA at present.
This, of course, makes me very unhappy inasmuch as the original purpose of the ASA was to show the concord between science and Scripture, with Scripture recognized as infallible. As you know, the basis of the ASA has been changed a couple of times, but even so, it was my understanding that there was still a claim that science and Scripture agreed. This article makes a flat statement that "the Bible gives redemptive truth through the scientific thoughts of the times without ever intending that those scientific thoughts should he believed as inerrant."
There are several things wrong with the article. First, of course, I seriously object to Seely's interpretation of the Bible. The idea that the Bible teaches that there is a three-story universe is prominent in Bultmann's theology, and I have heard him present it myself with the claim that consequently the Bible must be demythologized. Alhright has strongly objected to Bultmann in that he does not adequately utilize our knowledge of the views and ideas of antiquity. It is interesting to have Seely argue that Matthew suggests that the world is flat when the circumference of the earth had been measured by Eratosthenes 250 years B.C. and the astronomer Ptolemy gives the standard argument for the sphericity of the earth about 150 A.D.
His whole argument on the three-story universe depends on exegesis with which many Bible scholars would not agree. To argue for such an idea from the "etymological meaning of the Hebrew word for firmament" is strange indeed in view of our modern ideas that etymology is quite deceptive in the interpretation of words. That the bottom story must be the subterranean realm of the dead has been much debated and he surely cannot prove his idea from Numbers 16:30-33. In Missouri in the great earthquake of the last century many objects were engulfed by the earthquake and lots of people were buried alive, just as Korah was.
However, it is not my purpose to answer his exegesis in detail. I would simply point out that his view is the typical modernistic view of Scripture that has been held for many years, usually with the additional point that the Bible is a hook of religion and not of history. The history is objected to by critics as much as the science.
I hardly feel that the inerrancy of Scripture is an a priori doctrine read into the teachings of the Bible. It is a doctrine that comes to us from an exegesis of the statements of Christ. The question is, was Christ correct when He spoke of heaven, of hell, of Adam and Eve, of Noah and the flood, of Jonah and the whale, or was He not? In those areas where the doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture is given up, the authority and truthfulness of Christ is soon given up as well, and this is quite logical for even the critics admit that Christ taught inerrancy. Theology then is faced with a Christ who was a child of His time, and these are the conclusions of Bultmann and other critics. Such a religion is extensive today, and many scholars defend it. It has not been the historical faith of the Christian church and is far from the original position of the ASA. It leaves us with a Christ who cannot be trusted. I think we should realize what Seely's position really is. For myself I must heartily protest against it.
(Editor's Comments: The implication in Dr. Harris' letter that the article, "The Three-Storied Universe," by Paul H. Seely, should never have appeared in the journal, i.e., that it should have been withheld by editorial censorship, or that at most it should have been published only with apology, is based upon a faulty conception of the function and publication policy of the journal. It is not the function of the journal to propagate a crusade for any particular interpretation of many questions in which science and Christian faith are mutually involved. Any article, judged to be consistent with the Constitutionally-stated purposes and doctrine of the ASA and to exhibit sound scholarship in respect to factual basis and exercise of interpretation, is acceptable for publication in the journal. If an author is guilty of gross scientific or exegetical error, we are confident that readers will quickly set the record straight, thereby increasing general understanding of the truth. Given Dr. Harris' strong convictions, exactly what is needed is an "answer" to Mr. Seely's "exegesis in detail.")