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Why biblical authority matters

A review of Why Science Matters  by John Norsworthy
ConsultEd Publishing, Tauranga, NZ, 2018.

why-science-matters

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Published: 29 November 2018 (GMT+10)

John Norsworthy has been a teacher in New Zealand for 45 years. He has written Why Science Matters to help the average NZ church-goer understand what the Bible says about science. It’s easy to follow, and much of what is said is helpful. He points out that science was the fruit of Christianity, giving some biographies of the founders of science. He correctly identifies many of the ideas that eroded that Christian foundation: deism, Darwinism, materialism, positivism.

But Norsworthy writes with a détente between young-age and old-age creationists in mind. He downplays any notion that the Bible gives us information about the history of nature. And from there, the book’s main problems arise.

Framework hypothesis?

Norsworthy agrees that Genesis at large is a historical narrative. But he thinks Genesis 1 “does not fit neatly into the genre of reported history. It is still totally reliable truth but not strictly ‘historical’ truth. It is ‘pre-historical’ truth” (p. 28). In line with this, he prefers the framework hypothesis, which views the six days of Genesis 1 as a logical sequence rather than a chronological sequence of historical events (pp. 29–30).

Of course, we disagree, and there are many reasons why. Genesis 1 is referred to in historical terms (Exodus 20:8–11); it behaves like similar texts numbering days (e.g. Numbers 7) that are historical (Genesis is history!); and, as Norsworthy recognizes, it fronts a historical narrative. And there is no degree of literary structure or artistry in the Bible that determines whether a passage depicts historical events (On literary theorists’ approach to Genesis 1: Part 1 and Part 2). A passage’s content, not its structure, determines whether it intends to refer to real events in the past. And given the historical impulse of the rest of Genesis, the start of the story clearly must have that same historical impulse (see Is Genesis poetry / figurative, a theological argument (polemic) and thus not history?, Genesis as ancient historical narrative, and Genesis: Myth or History?).

But this book contains a real oddity. None of the books Norsworthy recommends in his “Further reading” section (pp. 109–111) defend any sort of framework hypothesis/literary theory. If they defend any specific view of Genesis 1, it’s either the historical week interpretation (Henry Morris), the day-age view (Hugh Ross, see Refuting Compromise), or an intermittent day view (John Lennox, see Who is being divisive about creation?). He does warn: “Needless to say, I am not suggesting that I agree with everything these authors say” (p. 109). Still, on the interpretation of Genesis 1, he doesn’t agree with any of the authors he recommends!

Did God pander to human error to get His point across?

It gets worse. The biggest problem in the book is the first interpretive principle Norsworthy sets out for how to understand the Bible’s references to nature. He claims:

When the Bible was written two to four thousand years ago, people had a mix of ideas about the cosmos.

They were something like this: there was a flattish earth with limits to its size. These limits were the ends of the earth. Above the earth was a tent-like structure which held up the sky made of fluid water (waters) and the stars, sun and moon. These heavenly bodies moved about above the clouds in a set motion from east to west each day and night (pp. 23–24).

And he applies this to Genesis 1 in the same way theistic evolutionists typically do:

If God is going to reveal truth to these people about Himself in relation to the world, He is not going to confuse the message by arguing about their cosmology. That is why the text has ‘unscientific’ cosmology that sounds like their ideas about the shape of the cosmos. (pp. 27–28)

He says that the Bible assumes a “flat earth, earth-centric cosmology” (p. 24) to tell us that this doesn’t matter. God ‘accommodated’ His message to the Israelites using culturally conditioned (i.e. false) ideas that they would readily understand and resonate with. In other words, this ‘ancient cosmology’ is just ‘window dressing’ to the real point God is getting across. As such, we don’t need to worry that a false cosmology is asserted in the Bible. This view is often called ‘accommodationism’.

But does the Bible really assert a false cosmology? No. The cosmological language the Bible (including Genesis 1) doesn’t say enough to commit one to any cosmology (Is the raqîa‘ (‘firmament’) a solid dome? and Is the ’erets (earth) flat?). For Genesis 1 in particular, even if we accepted for argument’s sake that it did assert this false cosmology, Genesis 1 still emphasizes the world being made in six 24-hour days.1 Just because one ‘challenging’ part of Genesis 1 is ‘window dressing’ to the main point doesn’t mean another ‘challenging’ part of the passage can be written off so easily.

Conflicts with the ‘further reading’ list

But again, Norsworthy’s views don’t match any of the books he recommends. All the authors he recommends who comment on the matter reject accommodationism. Old-age creationist Hugh Ross says that it creates problems for biblical inerrancy and authority:

Lexicons list “expanse”, not “vault,” as the primary definition of the Hebrew word raqia.1 In Genesis 1:8 God calls the expanse “sky.” In Genesis 1:20, birds fly across the expanse. Job 36–38 and Isaiah 5:6 indicate that the ancient Hebrews knew rain came from clouds, not from holes in a brass dome. While it’s true that some ancient Mesopotamians believed a brass dome sat over a flat earth, I see no compelling evidence suggesting Bible writers shared or expressed such beliefs.2

Young-age creationist Henry Morris agrees:

“He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end” (Job 26:10).

This observation by Job contains a significant scientific insight, refuting the frequent charge by skeptics that the Bible says that the earth is flat, with four corners. …

The great circle through the earth’s center marks the boundary between day and night, where “day” and “night” each gives way to the other, again implying a spherical, rotating earth. All of this speaks eloquently of the creating and conserving power of our gracious God and Savior. It also gives witness of the innerancy [sic] and scientific integrity of the Holy Scriptures.3

Old-age creationist John Lennox rejects such an accommodationist view and opts to explain the cosmological statements in Scripture in terms of phenomenological language and metaphor.4

Even stranger: Norsworthy didn’t recommend a single book that promotes accommodationism. It’s not hard to find authors who do, e.g. John Walton and Denis Lamoureux. But most accommodationists are theistic evolutionists, which Norsworthy rejects. Still, if Norsworthy is “not suggesting that I agree with everything these authors say” (p. 109), why should that be a problem for him?

Assessment

Why Science Matters is aimed at the layman. The style of the book suits that purpose well. And there is some helpful information in the book. But there are also some glaring problems. It downplays the historical impulse of Genesis 1. It adopts a hermeneutical method that sets science above Scripture to such an extent that it declares Scripture to err.

But there’s a unique problem. To be a reliable or helpful guide for the layman, an author needs to be competent in the material he is covering. Norsworthy is not. His ‘further reading’ list is completely at odds with some of the most important positions he takes. He recommends nothing from those who opt for a framework view on Genesis 1, though preferring such a view himself. He promotes accommodationism, but only recommends books that reject that approach as undermining biblical authority. And his ‘further reading’ list is right: accommodationism does undermine biblical authority. It’s a denial of inerrancy, and allows science to dictate when Scripture can speak authoritatively.

This book is an unreliable guide for what the Bible says about science. It gets many basic things right, but when things get controversial or tricky, Norsworthy is completely at odds with both the Bible and even the books he recommends.

References and notes

  1. Doyle, S., Ancient cosmology and the timescale of Genesis 1, J. Creation 32(3):115–118, 2018. Return to text.
  2. Ross, H., Response from old earth (progressive) creationism; in: Stump, J.B. (Ed.), Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 162, 2017. Return to text.
  3. Morris, H.M., The Circle Of The Earth, icr.org/article/circle-earth, 12 October 2000. Return to text.
  4. Lennox, J., Seven Days That Divide the World, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, pp. 139–142, 144–148, 2011. Return to text.

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