By the way… Does the Bible Teach Advanced Scientific Concepts? — A Bible Study Principle

In the latest post on 2 Thessalonians, I included a note on a Bible study principle that I think is very important. I wanted to share it here. It was written for a study on 2 Thessalonians, hence the references to that letter, but it applies to the study of any book or passage.

When we study a book or passage of Scripture, we must always strive to understand what the original author meant when he wrote the book or letter. In the case of 2 Thessalonians, what did Paul mean for the believers in Thessalonica to understand by what he wrote. If we interpret a passage in a way that could not possibly have been understood by the intended audience, our interpretation almost certainly cannot be the correct interpretation.

For example, we cannot interpret Ge 1:9 to be teaching the science of continental drift; the original audience—the nation of Israel coming out of Egypt—could not possibly have understood that.

  • Ge 1:9. God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.”

Also, the several references in the Bible to God stretching out the heavens cannot give us a scientific treatise on stars’ red shift or on how time works. It’s impossible that the original audiences of those writings could have understood advanced astronomy.

Paul was writing to the Thessalonian believers to make things clear to them; he was not writing something that would take centuries of scientific study to understand. We must seek to get into the minds of the believers in Thessalonica to whom Paul wrote and we must try to understand what Paul’s writings meant to them. That is the correct interpretation.

I have mentioned many times (and I’ll probably mention it many more times) the principle It can never mean what it never meant. Whatever Paul meant by the contents of this letter to the Thessalonians is what the letter meant then, and that’s what it means now.

There is no reason or benefit in trying to find messages in the Bible that make sense to a scientifically advanced society in the 21st century, but would make no sense to the people in Bible times.

So, to your list of questions you must ask a book or passage, add these:

  • What did the original audience understand about this book or passage?
  • Is my interpretation of this passage beyond the possible understanding of the original audience? If so, I must conclude that my interpretation is false.

Of course there are typological prophesies in the Bible. A typological prophesy is a prophesy that had a near future fulfillment (or partial fulfillment) as well as a more distant future fulfillment. (Here’s a good article on typological prophesy: http://www.equip.org/article/typological-fulfillment-key-messianic-prophecy/.)

In the cases of typological prophesies, the near fulfillment or reference is to be understood by the original audience while a more distant future fulfillment may not be immediately understood. The good news about those far future fulfillments (most of which pointed to Christ’s first coming) is that we don’t need to seek some answer for them. They are either answered for us in the New Testament or some other Scripture, or they will be evident when, and only when, they happen.

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4 thoughts on “By the way… Does the Bible Teach Advanced Scientific Concepts? — A Bible Study Principle

  1. Hmmm. This is interesting. I’m not sure I totally agree or not? Mostly I do. Just rambling here – thinking out loud. Of course, I agree that context is critical and knowing how the original audience would have understood it. I also agree that perceiving the opening chapters of Genesis as a science text book is problematic, as it was more making theological points about God being the Creator. But since God is creator, certainly underlying scientific truths could be hinted at, even though the original audience was not that advanced yet. Certain texts may not overtly teach a scientific principle, but allow for it. I don’t think it is wise to be looking for “hidden” meaning (or make dogmatic claims), as God was not out to hide things but reveal truths. But certainly God knew that future generations could note or understand things that the original audience did not due to advancements with humanity. With that I may be drifting a little into your typological prophecy point… Well, thanks for giving me something to think about today. : )

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the comment, Laura. I certainly agree that God could have included things in the Bible that the original audiences could not have fully grasped, but I think it’s good to remember that the books of the Bible were written by humans for a particular purpose. Obviously, with your education and life’s work, I know that you already know that.

      You also know that very little of the Bible was given by direct dictation from God. All of Scripture was inspired by God, of course, and the Holy Spirit carried the authors along as they wrote, but I’m not sure that’s enough for me to say that God had the author write something beyond what the author intended for his audience. God kept the writings error-free and ultimately what was written is what God wanted written, but I’m not willing to discount the original author’s intent. I’m not saying that you are discounting it; I’m just trying to help us all keep in mind that the human author had a purpose in writing and that purpose needs to be the primary or sole focus for us as we seek to understand Scripture.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece brother, I think this is the way we ground ourselves and avoid overreaching on the meaning of passages. For certain there is room for homiletics to relate what the original audience understood to what we might be able to understand today, but that still should never convey a meaning that would not have been understood to the original audience. I agree with Laura’s comments as it does appear that God has caused the “advanced scientific community” to pause at just the time they are ready to toss out the bible as a myth. This however should not be considered the purpose of scripture nor should we use this as an interpretive lens to view scripture.

    Liked by 1 person

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