R.C. Sproul on Science, Scripture, and the Age of the Universe | The BioLogos Forum

Note: I recently found this amazing video excerpt from the 2012 conference of Ligonier Ministries. In this clip, theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor R.C. Sproul argues that the authority of the Scriptures is not diminished by the fallibility of human interpreters, and Christians should be open to having their interpretations corrected by scientific evidence—even if the scientists themselves are not Christians. While Sproul is definitely not an evolutionary creationist, Christians on all sides of the origins debate could benefit from his wise words. -BK

Science, Scripture, and the Age of the Universe from Ligonier Ministries on Vimeo.


Chris Larson—Looking at the age of the universe, the question comes up as far as young earth versus old earth, so one question is: Is that a first-order issue, is that an intramural discussion? Let’s just go down the panel and each briefly state how you approach that question, as far as age of the universe. R.C., is it an intramural discussion?

R.C. Sproul—Not for some people. For some people it’s an all or nothing issue. When people ask me how old the earth is, I tell them “I don’t know” because I don’t. I’ll tell you why I don’t. In the first place, the Bible doesn’t give us a date of creation. Now, it gives us hints and inclinations that would indicate in many cases a young earth, and at the same time, we have all of this expanding universe and astronomical dating and triangulation and all of that stuff coming from outside the church that makes me wonder.

And I’ll tell you why. I believe firmly that all of truth is God’s truth. And I believe that God has not only given revelation in sacred Scripture, but also that the sacred Scripture itself tells us that God reveals himself in nature, which we call natural revelation. I once asked a seminary class of mine that was a conservative group, I asked, “How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” They all raised their hand. I then asked, “How many people think God’s revelation in nature is infallible?” And nobody raised their hand. It’s the same God who’s giving the revelation, but what they were saying was that not every scientific theory is compatible with the word of God, and that’s true.

But historically, the church’s understanding of special revelation has been that the Bible has been corrected by students of natural revelation—with the Copernican revolution. Both Calvin and Luther rejected Copernicus as a heretic in the 16th century. I don’t know anybody in orthodox Christianity today who is pleading for geocentricity. Do you? In that case, the church has said, “Look, we misinterpreted the teaching of the Bible with respect to the solar system, and thank you, scientists for correcting our misunderstanding.” I think we can learn from non-believing scientists who are studying natural revelation. They may get a better sense of the truth from their study of natural revelation than I get from ignoring natural revelation.

So what I’m saying is that I have a high view of natural revelation. However, if something can be shown to be definitively taught in the Bible without question, and somebody gives me a theory that they think is based on natural revelation that contradicts the word of God, I’m going to stand with the word of God a hundred times out of a hundred. But, again, I have to repeat, I could have been a mistaken interpreter of the word of God, but again, I don’t have to face that problem because I believe both spheres are God’s spheres of revelation and that truth has to be compatible. If a theory of natural science is in conflict with a theological theory and contradicts it, here’s what I know for sure: Somebody is wrong. And I don’t leap to the conclusion that it has to be the scientist; it may be theologian. But nor do I leap to the conclusion that it must be the theologian; it can well be the scientist. That is because we have fallible human beings interpreting infallible natural revelation, and we have fallible human beings interpreting infallible special revelation. Now all of that is a long way of saying, “I don’t know how old the earth is.”

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/r.c.-sproul-on-science-scripture-and-the-age-of-the-universe

The most interesting part of this video, for me, was his story of the seminary class where every single student thought the Bible was infallible, but nobody thought natural revelation was infallible. Do you think natural revelation is “infallible”, as Sproul suggests? Why do you think the students responded as they did?

Possibly two reasons, Brad, why all the students thought nature was fallible, and not scripture. We know that people have different interpretations of scripture, and so we say people, not scripture is fallible.

We also know that people have different interpretations of nature… again, people are fallible. But nature is also fallible. Nature hides evidence for us; it doesn’t tell us whether a particular ravine or gully took 100 years to erode or 50 years. We can only guess, unless we have eyewitnesses. In both cases, the erosion could have stopped 50 years ago, but it is not certain when it began. We see a mirage that looks like water, when it is not water. We cannot prove that processes were uniform in the past, and in some cases we know that processes were not uniform in the past. A particular body of water looks safe, but hides rocks, alligators, and sharks beneath the surface. The sun looks like it is rising, when actually the earth is rotating. We have isotopes derived from nitrogen, that act like carbon. We discover some of these “deceptions”, and once we know they are there, we adjust and compensate. But we are never quite sure that everything is as it appears to be.

The other reason natural revelation might be considered fallible, is because it is human beings who reveal nature, and human beings have been proven to have made mistakes in evaluating, measuring, describing, and interpreting nature. This might be a wrong way of considering nature to be fallible, but it is sometimes difficult to separate nature from the scientific description of it.

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Sproul is right to distinguish the primary sources of divine knowledge (Scripture, nature) from the interpretations (theology, science). It’s a pretty basic and uncontroversial position, though on both the theological and the scientific side it’s actually quite uncommon to find people accepting that they’re disagreeing about human interpretations. Easier to say, “The Bible says…” or “the science is settled…”

The deepest problems come, though, from doubting the primary sources: on the side of nature, there have been a few who say that God has made nature deceptive to test us, but rather more who have said that because he wouldn’t do that, current science must be correct… quietly slipping human judgement into the “infallibility” area.

On the side of Scripture is the whole current dilution of Scriptural authority through the belief in human authorial error, which is quite different from asserting that no doctrine is infallible. It is true that all theology comes aboaut as a matter of human interpretation. But the claim of Scripture is that

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about bt the prophet’s own interpretation… but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

So to be a philosophical realist with regard to nature but a non-realist with regard to Scripture, or vice versa, is an assymetrical approach to truth.


@johnZ Do you realize that by your own standard, Scripture is also fallible? Just replace “natural revelation” with “special revelation” in the quote above and “nature” with “Scripture”.

I’m not sure I understand you here. How does the human element of error in science make “nature” fallible? I mean, we can argue about how much data nature can give us through the practice of science, but how does that make nature itself fallible? The only way I can think of is if nature, by God’s design, intentionally gives us wrong or misleading results, even when studied properly. A good bit of young-earth creationism has affirmed some version of this (such as “God put the dinosaurs there to mislead us”), although current YEC organizations do not use the argument as often.

Is Scripture meant to be studied to find revelation of God? Certainly. Is nature meant to be studied for the same purpose? I also think so. I think that’s what Sproul is getting at here, and I heartily agree with him.

Wow—what a perceptive comment, @Jon_Garvey. Sincerely.

Are you arguing for this “assymetrical realism”? If we are indeed to have “faith seeking understanding”, as many through history have suggested, then we certainly must view Scripture in a different light than science, even if we affirm the truth-giving quality of both. That’s a potential weakness of Sproul’s presentation—just because something is “infallible” tells us very little (by itself) about how to approach it, and what sort of merit it has for enriching us. For example, “1+1=2” is infallible, but so what?

Hi Brad

Basically I’m arguing for “symmetry”, if we accept Scripture and nature as “God’s two books”. It’s illogical to see them as such and regard one as “true” and the other as “fallible”.

But as your reply shows, there are clearly differences in those two sources, both in kind and in purpose, which require an “assymetry” of approach in a different sense.

For a start, there is nothing in nature in the way of a promise of full understanding - we just find empirically that much of it lends itself to comprehension. If we believe in God as Creator, that only leads us to the conclusion that we may understand enough to survive and prosper in it. Further argument is needed to conclude that we have capacity to understand it as it is in itself, or that God intends us to. Even more thought is required to conclude that we can understand nature in any sense fully, or that we can learn about God himself through it.

Scripture, being verbal, gives verbal indications of its scope and purpose. It even gives us verbal guidance into the scope of nature as revelation (and limits it quite significantly, eg Romans 1.20). Part of that verbal message is about the role of the Holy Spirit both as originator and interpreter of Scripture (eg the passage I quoted). Nature may reveal - Scripture claims to be intended to reveal God to us.

Much more could be said - nature itself shows us that our perceptions are interpretations of a possibly inconceivable quantum/relative reality: faith in God’s goodness indicates that those sensory interpretations are not fortuitous but reflect a reality God gives us us as our Maker.

As for Scripture we have a similar assurance in verbal form, the endorsement of the Lord Jesus himself, and the underlying fact that Scripture is, at root, intended to bring us to salvation and knowledge of God. So its truth is, in the nature of things, a practical truth and not just a mathematical brute fact.

The Bible doesn’t make the same promises about any role for Scripture in teaching us science - but I don’t think that was ever in Sproul’s mind, and was certainly not in mine.

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Jon and I have discussed these things quite a bit on his blog, but for the no doubt bigger audience here, I’ll say that the historical Christian view was that Scripture was not just perfect as a revelation of God’s story with Israel and the Incarnation, but that it is perfect in every respect, scientifically and historically as well. If you understand the immense change of thought that Judaism and Christianity brought to the classical world and what many experienced personally, it’s easy to see why people came to that conclusion about Scripture.

That historical position drove the conflicts around Galileo, the 18th century to the present disputes about critical Biblical studies, the 19th century disputes about geology, the flood, etc. and the 20th century war against an old earth and evolution in America that still goes on today. Personally, I think we passed the point where it was really possible to maintain those latter types of perfection of Scripture quite a while back - quite a while before I was willing to acknowledge it myself. I think Jon and I differ on terminology, but not on substance. He wants to hang onto “inerrancy” in some modified sense - I think it strains a non-Biblical word beyond the breaking point. I’d stick with the Biblical notion of “inspired by the Spirit of God” to lead people to know Him. I’m pretty sure we agree about that.

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Brad, when I described why the students did what they did, that did not necessarily represent my own standard or position. But I understand their position. I agree with what Jon Garvey said in his more nuanced approach. Scripture is intended to be understood, and is intended directly to reveal God, and also helps us to understand nature.

Nature by itself tells us things that are not true, for example. It tells us that miracles do not happen. But maybe that is just our interpretation? Just as when we attribute miracle to an event that can be explained naturalistically. But nature itself just is. It is created by God for us to live in and discover; in the sense that God does not deceive, then nature also does not deceive. Yet nature is fallible in the sense that it gives conflicting results in general principles such as telling us whether death is good or is bad. From a moral perspective, nature is fallible. It is also fallible in the sense that it does not make knowledge clear regardless of the technology or time we live in. For that reason, some scientists at one time thought everything revolved around the earth. For that reason, some scientists thought that the cell was a very simple basic organism. We can argue that nature is not at fault for this, but rather that limited human understanding and ability is to blame. But the reality is that relative to our understanding, and relative to why we would even consider asking the question about nature’s fallibility, we can know that nature is not clear to us. We know this no matter how much knowledge we aquire, that it is highly likely that we are entirely wrong about some of our scientific ideas about nature. That indicates a fallibility about nature in its ability to tell us the truth even when we trust it.

So are you saying that we are much more likely to be wrong in our interpretation of nature than our interpretation of Scripture?

Our errors about nature derive from the inability of nature to get past our natural limitations.

Our errors about scripture derive from our willfullness in wanting to posit our ideas as superior to scripture.

So if we just put aside our willfulness, then there will no longer be any errors in interpreting Scripture?

Good question. Do you think it is possible to put aside our willfullness?

Well, let me put it this way (to use the example from Sproul): Did Luther and Calvin misinterpret the Scriptures related to geocentricity because they were willful?

Probably not. They misinterpreted scriptures in that context because they were deceived by nature.

In addition to being deceived by nature, which was probably the most dominant subconscious factor, Calvin was also imposing his idea of man’s importance into his interpretation of what scripture had to say about the centrality of the globe in the universe. So there is an element of willfulness in that as well. Contrary to Calvin, it would seem reasonable that a solar system would demonstrate our great dependance on something other than ourselves or our immediate planet, such as our dependance on the sun. Just as in a similar way we are dependant on God, outside of ourselves, for our existence and purpose. And in a similar fashion, the wonder of our relationship to God is magnified when we realize how insignificant we are in the universe in material terms. This also demonstrates how much greater God is than us! And yet he made us and loves us still!

I believe firmly that all of truth is God’s truth. And I believe that God has not only given revelation in sacred Scripture, but also that the sacred Scripture itself tells us that God reveals himself in nature, which we call natural revelation.”

While I would agree in a very general sense with statements such as this, I would like to comment on one or two things. Yes, God is truth, and yet all men have sinned and have come short of the glory of God. Thus even Scriptural understanding is by the Grace of God.

I think the phrases such as “natural revelation”, and “the book of nature” are, in the final analysis, erroneous if taken at face value. By this, I mean that any knowledge of nature is the result of effort by many scientists, in various disciplines, which are so specialised that it is often difficult for them to communicate between themselves any of their observations of nature. This knowledge must be sifted, and often rendered so general that often most of what we may regard as verifiable may be obscured, as it becomes suitable for public discussion. I think this is obvious – so it is unlikely that such information would merit phrases that seem to equate it with revelation of God. A previous discussion pointed out the arguments from fine tuning, and this is based on the hardest and most distilled aspects of the physical sciences, and even then, we agree that it is an indication of a Creator, or the Universe points to its Creator. We cannot go beyond that, and say who and what such a Creator is – we must turn to faith as taught in Scripture for such truth.

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GJDS - well said. The struggle between general revelation and special revelation, whenever there is a struggle, highlights the priorities one must use in deciding which takes pre-eminence as a starting point. In the book “Refuting Compromise”, by Jonathan Sarfati, (PhD in Physical Chemistry), he is basically refuting Hugh Ross’s beliefs and statements about the interplay between science and scripture. Sarfati says that Hugh Ross has the wrong idea about general revelation. That when scripture refers to nature informing us about God, it does so in the sense that everyone can see this,(or at least everyone is without excuse) not just the well-educated scientists; that’s what makes the revelation general, and that is what scripture means by general revelation in nature. He spends about four pages discussing this point alone in his 391 page book. Although most of this book deals with science aspects, it also has a few chapters on theology (scriptural interpretation) and philosophy (world views).

@BradKramer, JohnZ, Jon Garvey,

Calvin was mentioned in these interesting exchanges, particularly with regard to his outlook on nature. It is instructive to read what Calvin thought on knowledge; this quote from his writings is a good indicator, “On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” Calvin has preceded people such as Polanyi, who insist that knowledge of God inevitably leads to/requires, knowledge of self (humanity), and from there we may consider how it is that we human beings are privileged to know God’s creation.

Calvin also acknowledges that knowledge that we as human beings may attain, may be classified as two categories, “…in the knowledge of God …, he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe,…”

I think we are missing the point, if we forget the conditions and context that Calvin has discussed at great length regarding knowledge, and from there revelation; if instead we focus on specific aspects of astronomy (and other areas) that were discussed in Calvin’s time, which nowadays we understand may have been erroneous, we overlook the very meaning of Calvin’s writings. Calvin makes this insightful comment, “…both the heavens and the earth present us with innumerable proofs not only those more recondite proofs which astronomy, medicine, and all the natural sciences, are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the notice of the most illiterate peasant,…” Clearly we would argue against the way Calvin uses the term “proofs”, as postulated by science, nowadays we would use words such as observations, supported by scientific insights, and so on.

The basic truth we must keep in mind is that Scripture and all that flows from that, is based on Apostolic authority. No other knowledge can make such a claim, or should be seen by any Christian in this manner.

Whatever the God-given source of knowledge, we’re prone to overestimate the extent of our understanding. In the discussion about “understanding nature”, what we really mean is that we can abstract some useful principles - but those give us little guidance as to why this tree falls on a particular car, or that particular wild animal comes to our yard and befriends us - which are unique details of the real creation that teach us, probably, as much or more about God’s ways than gravitational theory.

Scripture, too, is not exhausted by gleaning general theological principles from it. As the man said, “The Lord hath yet more light and truth to bring forth from his word”, which any decent preacher will affirm. And without buying into ideas like sticking a pin in Scripture to find God’s guidance, it is as much the personal joining of the Spirit’s inspirational and interpretive work that teaches us about God: when I suddenly see that “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” is about me.

So that’s another parallel in the operation of nature and Scripture - in science-faith matters it’s too easy to forget that neither nature nor Scripture were created around abstract principles, but about individual events that are ultimately personal in Christ, the Author of both.

In one sense that gives them both (Scripture and nature) a degree of opacity: even the verbal and revelatory nature of Scripture does not guarantee understanding (2 Pet 3.16; 1 Cor 13.12). But I would not say that either “deceives” us, unless Jesus “deceived” his disciples by speaking (deliberately) in ways that his disciples misconstrued because their faith was not mature.