Scientific Foreknowledge (?)

Phil Roberts


FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS I have had a special interest in the subject of evidence for the Christian faith and the inspiration of the Bible. But in my study of the subject, I have become increasingly frustrated by one particular line of reasoning. I am speaking of the matter of "scientific foreknowledge."

According to this approach one argues that the Bible contains numerous examples of scientific truths which were unknown at the time the Bible was written, and must therefore be evidence of its divine origin. This is a very popular line of argumentation, and has gained even greater popularity through a series of "art-work" presentations that have circulated in a number of bulletins.

But the more I have examined the alleged examples of scientific foreknowledge, the more I am persuaded that this is a totally worthless approach. It is not worthless because God could not have done such a thing. He certainly could have. It is worthless simply because none of the alleged examples pan out.

I will not be able to cover all the cases of supposed scientific foreknowledge, but I want to give a few of the better known examples to show what I mean.

CIRCLE OF THE EARTH

First, in Isa. 40:22 we read that God "sitteth upon the circle of the earth." this is alleged to be proof that Isaiah knew by inspiration of the rotundity of the earth long before it was discovered as a scientific fact.

But Isaiah was not talking about the roundness of the earth here at all. Rather, the Hebrew phrase used here (and also in Job 22:14 and Proverbs 8:27) signifies the circular, dome-shaped appearance of the sky over the earth. This can be checked out in any good commentary or Hebrew dictionary. Thus the New American Standard Version translates, "It is He who sits above the vault of the earth." In other words, the passage has nothing at all to do with any scientific foreknowledge. It is simply a figurative and poetic description of God seated in heaven. A careful study of the text would save a lot of useless arguments in most of these cases.

(Incidently, even if Isaiah had been saying that the earth was shaped like a circle, that is still a far cry from saying that it is round. A circle and a sphere are not the same thing.)

Moreover, it is most instructive to note that these alleged cases of scientific foreknowledge come, almost without exception, from the sections of the Bible that are written in poetry (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and the Prophets) and are thus filled with poetic imagery. The great majority of them are simple poetic figures of speech that have been mistaken for a revelation of scientific fact.

SINGING STARS

Another such case can be found in Job 38:7 where we are told that "the morning stars sang together." this is often alleged to be scientific foreknowledge of the fact that light is emitted in waves which have tonal quality even though they cannot be heard by human ears. How ridiculous !! This is again nothing in the world but a poetic way of ascribing praise to God. And the reference to singing stars is no more intended to convey literal scientific fact than the references to singing waters, dragons, fire, hail, snow, vapor, mountains, hills, and cedar trees in Psalm 148:4-9. No doubt God was aware of the physical properties of light. but that is not what he was revealing here. In the very same chapter we are told of the doors of the sea and the bottles of heaven. Are we to find hidden scientific foreknowledge in these? Of course not. They too are just figures of speech.

PATHS OF THE SEA

Another favorite comes from Psalm 8:8 where David speaks of the paths of the sea. This is alleged to be scientific foreknowledge of the gulf-streams in the ocean. But there is no reason at all to believe that is what David had in mind. In the figurative language of poetry, there can be a path in just about anything. We often speak of airplanes plying the paths of the sky -- and we aren't necessarily talking about the jet streams either.

EARTH HUNG ON NOTHING

Probably the strongest case for scientific foreknowledge can be found in Job 26:7 where we read that God "stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing." This is alleged to be foreknowledge of a great empty section in outer space over the north pole, and foreknowledge of the suspension of the earth in space.

But this case too is beset with numerous complications. First of all it is poetry and we should not press too much out of any of the figures of speech. Second, it is unclear whether the term "north" refers to the northern sky, the country to the north of Palestine, or the mountain of the north" in northern Syria. Third, if the reference is to the northern sky, the empty space referred to is probably that between the heavens and the earth, instead of beyond in outer space.

As far as "hanging the earth on nothing" is concerned, most of the people who surrounded the Israelites also thought of the earth as suspended on nothing. They generally thought of it as suspended in a sort of cosmic ocean instead of empty space, and they might even have it setting on top of a giant turtle or elephant. But they too had asked the question, "What does the elephant stand on?" So while Job's statement here is certainly in accord with the facts, it is not at all clear that the rotundity and free suspension of the earth was a revolutionary new thought. In fact we know that Pythagoras had formally argued both the rotundity and free suspension of the earth around 500 B.C. And it cannot be proven that the book of Job was written before then, though I personally think that it was.

Moreover, in this same book of Job we are told that the earth rests on foundations having a cornerstone (26:11 and 38:6). Of course we dismiss these as being mere figures of speech. But that's just the problem. When we find a figure of speech that somehow seems to express current scientific thinking we proclaim that we have found scientific foreknowledge. But if it is contradictory to scientific thinking we declare that it is after all only a figure of speech. But we can't have it both ways. If we insist on the singing stars being a statement of scientific fact, then we are going to have to live with references to the pillars of heaven, the four corners of the earth, the bottles of heaven, and the setting of the sun as statements of scientific fact too!

In conclusion I must say that I have not found a single case of alleged scientific foreknowledge which would withstand a rigorous testing. (I am excepting of course the account of creation, which really belongs in a different category from these cases.) I am afraid that in our zeal to defend the word of God we have actually perverted it and tried to make it say things it was never intended to say. God does not need us to try to force something extra out of his word to make it defensible. It will stand up quite well simply on the basis of what God intended to say.


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