[Originally published as Two Books or One?]
This is a conversation that occurred between Emory and another Christian over Facebook, on a post arguing that natural law is equivalent to Scripture. It has not been edited or redacted in anyway, other than removing the interlocutor’s name. He will be replaced with his first initial: R.
IHI: What happens when there is a contradiction between the Word and the world?
R: who says that there is a contradiction? Who determines that a contradiction exists? Could it be the philosopher deciding that there is a contradiction who is incorrect?
IHI: Is the world fallen? Is God’s Word inerrant?
R: the fallen nature of the world and the inerrancy of God’s Word aren’t in question. That’s a non sequitur.
IHI: It sets up a point. If nature is fallen, it is no longer perfect. If nature is no longer perfect, then the message it gives is no longer without error. Therefore there will be some contradictions between Word and world.
R: I do not agree with that logical path. Errors due to the fallen nature of the world do not necessarily translate into falsehoods in our observations of natural law. That’s a language issue in that error has a broader meaning than what is meant in a fallen world.
IHI: If the fall did not introduce things outside of God’s created order….just what did it do? And, if things were introduced as part of the fall that are outside the created order, why should we then rely on nature as an equal authority to Scripture?
R: Imperfections in our universe due to the fall are not the same as imperfect communication of that universe through our senses. You’re essentially saying an inanimate object is lying to us because of the fall.
IHI: So you don’t think the fall caused any changes in God’s original created order? Because if it did, nature is no longer a reliable source of truth. And I would appreciate getting my previous questions answered as well.
R: inanimate objects don’t lie. I can feel that snow is cold. That’s not a lie. I can visually observe rot and decay. That’s not a lie, but it is in existence because odd the fall. The fall encompasses the flaw of human misunderstanding. When someone reads God’s Word and misunderstands, that’s not a reflection upon His Word. It’s a reflection of the man misunderstanding it. Likewise my understanding of His Word is not a reflection of the perfection of His Word but an approximation through my limited understanding. You can make similar arguments about the natural world. The issue here isn’t a contradiction between the natural world and His Word. The issue is our imperfect understanding of both!
R: I have answered. You misapply the word error. The world changed through the fall. That introduced “errors” into creation. This is not the same as errors in our senses and observations of the natural world. It’s two different errors. What we observe are those errors.
IHI: You seemed to have missed this comment then. “If the fall did not introduce things outside of God’s created order….just what did it do? And, if things were introduced as part of the fall that are outside the created order, why should we then rely on nature as an equal authority to Scripture?”
And note, I am not saying the world is lying to us. That’s highly anthropomorphic. I’m saying that it no longer reflects God’s created order and thus does not make a source of truth claims equal to God’s Word.
R: to be blunt that’s a misunderstanding. An error introduced in the system can be observed as an error. That’s not a false observation. We just don’t know what it was.
IHI: Your answer is unclear. Are you referencing my question, or my comment? And that statement you made is true….if we know what the system looked like in the first place. And we do not have full knowledge of what the pre-fall world looked like. Therefore we cannot determine if what we observe is corrupted or natural unless Scripture explicitly tells us the original state (ie in the case of death, carnivory, disease which were originally absent etc).
R: Perhaps an example would be useful. Here’s an example that’s admittedly silly. God made a universe with attributes A, B, C. After the fall, the attributes became A, D, C. We observe A, D, C. Those are still true attributes of our universe despite being adversely impacted by the fall.
IHI: Correct. But they do not reflect God’s originally created unfallen world, from which we would wish to derive natural law. And since we are blind to the original attributes of God’s world (unless Scripture has told us what they are), we have no way to know that God did not create the world with attributes A D C (unless, again, God explicitly reveals it to us in Scripture).
I’m not arguing we cannot make true observations about the existing world. We absolutely can. I am arguing that elevating the fallen world to the level of Scripture is problematic because some attributes of the world do not reflect God original intent.
R: but that does not invalidate what we observe. It just leaves us with questions. Scripture leaves me with a ton of questions, but that doesn’t invalidate Scripture. Likewise leaving observations of the natural world with questions does not invalidate those observations. Both just scream to the world at large that I’m not half as smart as I think I am!
IHI: I’m not arguing it invalidates our observations. I’m arguing that Scripture is the superior authority because it reflects exactly what God wanted us to know about Himself, and the world. Nature still reflects quite a bit about God but no longer does so as well as it did prior to the fall. I have no problem making an argument from natural law. Paul even does it at least once off the top of my head. My problem is when people try to argue that nature and Scripture are equivalent authorities. Nature is fallen, marred by sin. Scripture is not.
R: I should probably add that you’re really hinting at gaps. Both Scripture and the natural world leave us gaps in a complete description. I think that’s ok because I believe God gave us all we need to know Him. Those gaps don’t invalidate His existence, His love for us, or our need of Christ. I feel like I’m really preaching to the choir now.
R: trying to debate that which is the higher authority feels like an exercise in futility.I’m guessing that the real issue here effectively comes down to young vs old earth. Scripture trumps science so young earth triumphs. Both of those positions rely upon human understanding of both Scripture and natural laws. I’d pin the blame on “contradictions” on that human understanding every time.
R: Grab 5 different translations and 5 different people and you’ll get 5 different understandings of Scripture. Couple that with ego and arrogance and you’ll get 5 different “right” understandings of Scripture.
IHI: And perhaps that is part of the problem with the “two books” approach. People fail to separate observation from interpretation. Interpretation is often presented as observation, and, when you accept a “two books” approach, it creates conflict between the Bible and nature. That’s why, even though I’m sensitive to arguments from natural law in some sense, I can’t take a “two books” approach. Scripture must remain the ultimate authority over man’s interpretations, and I feel the “two books” approach elevates man’s interpretations dangerously close to Scripture.
R: I guess I’m striving towards the point that Scripture is from God, but what we read and understand is filtered by our own understanding. This is just as fallible as our interpretation of observations of natural law.
R: An old Earth could be correct but it bumps up against imperfect general understanding of perfect Scriptural Truth.
IHI: If all we had was nature to look at, I would not be able to argue against an old earth very strongly. But because we have divine revelation, we can do just that. We have to interpret how old the earth is based on our observations of nature. We do not have to do interpretation to know how God made the world. He used very plain language to tell us exactly what He did. And this is why I can’t go down a natural relevation pathway. In some places, the Bible is perfectly clear what it means, and nature may not be so clear.
IHI: I don’t think anyone would argue that, because animals steal from one another in nature, we have justification for theft. (terrible example, I know). In some places Scripture is unclear, or can be interpreted different ways by people trying to be faithful to the text. In such cases, natural law might be useful. But not when Scripture is clear.
R: My intent is not to argue old vs young. I’m only pointing out that this very plain language is still entirely framed at some level by your understanding. You have to call into question your understanding of Scripture to allow it to change your heart and mind. Otherwise you’re fitting Scripture into a box of your creation.
IHI: Right that’s off the point. I tried to illustrate what I was driving at with a different illustration that I think everyone would agree on, regardless of their view of the age of the earth.
And that’s where the conversation stopped. I think it was a fairly profitable conversation. Neither of us changed our minds, but we both were able to interact civilly and have an intelligent conversation. I think it is illustrative though that this gentleman wants to have any kind of authority outside of Scripture. He seems to have a very diminutive view of what the fall did as well. This is very unfortunate but quite typical among those who hold a “two book” approach to the world. There can be no higher or equivalent authority than the God breathed inerrant Scripture. Yet many Christians don’t seem to grasp that elevating nature to the level of Scripture devalues God’s Word and introduces potential for unnecessary contradiction.