Flexibility in Interpretation

Denis Burkitt

Hartwell Cottage
Bisley, Glos. GL6 7AG

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 41 (December 1989): 233-235.

Discovery of almost any kind involves collecting substantiated information or data, and then attempting to interpret it. The information may be indisputable, but interpretations often have to be repeatedly modified in the light of new evidence. The same can be true of our interpretation of scripture as it is in the realm of science.

Modifying Interpretation of Scientific Observations

Over a quarter of a century ago I was collecting data on the clinical and radiological features, the geographical and socio-economic distribution, and other aspects of the epidemiology of the tumour that was to becomeClick To Preview known as Burkitt's Lymphoma. The data was firm and indisputable, but the hypotheses postulated to explain it had to be revised again and again in the light of new evidence. When a hypothesis is found to be inconsistent with the facts, one must be willing to modify or abandon it. Only so is progress made and truth eventually established.

Over a decade later I became involved in studying the aetiology of other diseases, including appendicitis and cancer of the large bowel. I wrote numerous papers and chapters in medical textbooks arguing that appendicitis was almost exclusively caused by a deficiency of dietary fibre in the food eaten. The disease, rare even in Western countries until the early twentieth century, became the commonest abdominal emergency operation, but it is still rare in the Third World. The evidence from many directions seemed overwhelming. Then a paper appeared, backed by massive data, that the disease was related to sanitary improvements in homes. The situation appeared to parallel that of poliomyelitis. When sanitation is bad almost all children are infected with the polio virus in infancy, at which age paralysis is rare. When sanitation improves, infection is delayed until an age when, in the absence of vaccination, paralysis is more common. A similar situation may prevail in relation to appendicitis. This was a new interpretation of the data that had been collected. There was no criticism of the collected data, but the interpretation was revised to include another aspect which was complimentary to, rather than denying, the first. I wrote immediately to the author of this new hypothesis and congratulated him and admitted my error.

My interest in the causation of bowel cancer, the second commonest cancer death after lung cancer in many Western countries, coincided with my study of appendicitis. Once again I had argued in books and journals that adequate fibre in the diet probably played a protective role, and postulated mechanisms which could explain this. At a recent international meeting on dietary fibre, much time was devoted to the relationship between fibre intake and large-bowel cancer. The hypothesis that fibre appeared to play a protective role was not disputed, but some of the mechanisms, which I had postulated whereby fibre might influence bowel cancer, had been discarded or altered by experimental studies. The basic epidemiological evidence was accepted, but the interpretation had to be modified.

Differences of Opinion in Interpretation of Scripture

Surely the same principle can apply in our interpretation of scripture. As a young Christian I believed that true respect for the divine inspiration of the Bible demanded literal interpretations of nearly all that was written. As I found it increasingly difficult to tally an entirely literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis with established scientific fact, particularly with regard to the age of the earth, I was challenged by a very senior physician who was a humble and godly student of scripture. "Denis," he said "are we Evangelical Christians not inconsistent when we affirm that in the last book of the Bible the Holy Spirit, trying to explain future events outside the comprehension of the human mind, relied repeatedly on imagery. Yet we express horror at the suggestion that the same Holy Spirit, in the first book of the Bible, might have used similar figurative means to explain events of the past equally beyond human comprehension?" I took his point.

C.S. Lewis went further and emphasized that all portrayal of spiritual truth, by the very nature of things, had to be in the form of imagery or parable, because we are limited to words and images of a time-space existence to try and portray truths in a spiritual realm. So often the profound truths pictorially portrayed in scripture can remain concealed because of insistence on purely literal interpretation of the vehicle used to convey the truth.

The flood that covered the world meant the part of the world known to the people in that place at that time, and there is plenty of archaeological evidence confirming the presence of a flood in the Middle East. The profound truths portrayed in the story of Noah can be entirely missed if one concentrates attention on wondering how a pair of all the literally millions of known species of birds, animals, and insects alive today could be collected, let alone fitted into the Ark.

I have given a great deal of thought to the oft-expressed concept that all biological disease and death are Click To Preview directly attributable to man's sin. I have discussed it with many Christian friends whose opinions I can trust, and studied the problem throughout the Bible. I can find no scriptural warrant for this theological assertion. Wherever death and sin are causally related in the Bible, it seems to me to refer always to spiritual rather than biological death. The Genesis description of the creation of life required every creature to procreate, and procreation without death over unlimited time is quite inconceivable. In fact, life without death at a cellular level is beyond our imagination. What would be the outcome if all the myriads of eggs spawned by a single fish survived and procreated? Moreover, the causes of death in the animal kingdom are essentially the same as the causes of death in humans: e.g., radiation, deficiencies of vitamins and trace elements, or genetic defects, none of which could conceivably be attributed to sin.

This type of theology has led to the distorted and cruel conclusions that the progress of a chronic disease can be blamed on unconfessed sin. Our Lord seemed to go out of his way to refute any causal relationship between sin and disease in general, though it cannot be denied that certain sinful practices may give rise to disease as the inevitable consequence of certain actions.

The miracles of Jesus were, though certainly literally true, predominantly visual portrayals of far more eternal and fundamental truths than the merely physical events observed. Let us remember that it was the same Lord who made the world and all of nature who also reveals himself in his written word. Consequently, if discrepancies are apparent between our understanding of nature and of scripture, the fault must lie in our interpretation of one or the other. Unless we can totally integrate our scientific and Christian thinking, we are in danger of becoming spiritual schizophrenics, and this can do nothing to enhance our Christian witness.