Whither Warfield?

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While perusing the internet recently, I happened across a discussion among some Reformed Christians about the concept of geocentrism — the belief that the earth is stationary and at the center of the universe. Some of the participants in the discussion were arguing that the Bible teaches geocentrism. Others were arguing that science has definitively proven that the earth circles the sun, therefore the Bible must not be teaching geocentrism. As I read through the discussion, it became clear that several participants saw the entire debate as a conflict between Scripture and science. As they saw it, those who reject geocentrism are rejecting the Bible. In another similar online discussion, a Reformed participant confessed that if he were ever convinced that the universe was billions of years old, he would renounce Christianity because such a discovery would mean the Bible is untrue.

Although there are those who will find the debate over geocentrism or the age of the earth interesting, this is not the main point. The deeper issue involves the way we as Reformed Christians think about and approach questions involving the relationship between Scripture and science. Must the questions be framed in the way these forum participants have framed them? Must we assume that if some scientific idea is proven true, we have no choice but to reject our faith? Or is there a better way?

I believe the nineteenth and early twentieth-century theologians at Princeton provide some helpful guidance in approaching the subject. If we look at the work of Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield, we notice several striking things about the way they dealt with the issue. These men were in agreement on several fundamental principles. To begin with, they were all conservative, confessional Reformed theologians who were staunch defenders of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.

They were also in general agreement on questions involving the relation of science and Scripture. They believed that truth, whether taught in Scripture or found in nature, is not ultimately contradictory. They agreed that when science and Scripture appear to contradict each other, either the scientific interpretation of God’s creation is in error or the Christian interpretation of Scripture is in error, or both are in error. They agreed that science had helped Christians correct wrong interpretations of Scripture in the past and could conceivably do so again in the future. All of this meant that when looking at any proposed scientific idea or theory, they had one basic question: “Is it true or not?” They answered this question by examining the evidence for and against the theory.

The key point here is that the Princetonians were able to understand the conceptual difference between God’s Word and their interpretation of that Word. They understood that Scripture was infallible and inerrant but that their interpretation of it was not. Their interpretation of Scripture could be mistaken. It was this basic understanding that allowed them to deal with the scientific questions of their day in a way that we today seem to have forgotten. Today, when there is an apparent contradiction between science and Scripture, we assume that the contradiction must be real, and we assume that it is due to the mistaken interpretation of nature. This is one possibility, but it never seems to occur to us, as it did to the Princetonians, that the apparent contradiction may also be due to a mistaken interpretation of Scripture — or a mistaken interpretation of both.

We need to be very clear on one point. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy denies “that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood” (Art. XII). However, as R.C. Sproul explains in his commentary on the Statement, this simply means that the actual teachings of Scripture cannot be overturned by external sources (Scripture Alone, p. 152). Using the medieval debate over geocentrism as an illustration, he explains that science can sometimes “correct false inferences drawn from Scripture” or even “actual misinterpretations of the Scripture” (ibid., 153). Here Dr. Sproul is simply echoing the nuanced approach of the Princetonians by distinguishing between God’s infallible Word and our fallible interpretations of that Word and of His world.

The Reformed approach of the Princetonians is necessary to regain because it allows us to evaluate any scientific proposal or theory without fear because we know that the truth God has revealed in His Word and the truth about His created universe cannot ultimately contradict each other. When we understand that any apparent contradiction between the two is the result of an incorrect interpretation of either Scripture or nature, then we are able to look at any scientific proposal (that is, interpretation) and ask the same question the Princetonians asked, and the only one that really matters, namely: Is it true or not? We may at times be required to humbly admit error in our interpretation of Scripture. The scientist may at times be required to humbly admit error in his interpretation of God’s creation, but when all is said and done, we can rest assured knowing that God is true.

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