This is a somewhat delayed response to / analysis of the discussion going on between Peter and Alex regarding biblical truth and its relation to scientific certainty. There appears to be a disconnect, presumably because the two have differing opinions on truth. I will try to bridge the gap with my own take on the subject.
First, Peter seems to be claiming that the concept of “truth” necessarily includes a certain lack of definition, a departure from the belief in certainty which Peter asserts is a product of the Enlightenment. Biblical literalism falls into the trap of playing by skepticism’s game, so to speak, and trying to stuff the truth of scripture into the mold of empiricism. This contradicts the idea that God has chosen to reveal himself through Jesus Christ to a few people; the method of revelation is not empirical, but personal.
I have to agree with Peter that Biblical literalism in general attempts to fit the Bible into a smaller domain than it is designed for. Obviously if we hold that the events in, say, Genesis, are a blow-by-blow, narrative account of creation, we must necessarily do much explaining as to why the vast majority of scientific evidence appears to support an alternate claim. Peter brings up the instance of the parables of Jesus. These stories illustrate the truth of God but ought not to be interpreted as actual happenings. The Psalms are rife with illustrative language – does anyone think the psalmist was being constantly physically shaded by a pair of godly wings, or that he actually observed God physically touching mountains to make them smoke? Yet nobody would argue that the psalmist’s descriptions of God are not true. There are more types of truth those denoted by scientific certainty.
Yet we must of course be careful not to reduce the Bible to an extended allegory interspersed by prose. Even granting that some of the Bible is not meant to be taken literally, we must grant that an equal or greater part of it is intended to be absolutely certain. Most notably, Luke’s gospel is written “so that you [Theophilus] may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4, NIV). I think this is the crux of Alex’s argument: we cannot claim uncertainty for much of the Bible – for example the gospels – because much of its message is apparently intended to be taken literally. I understand the concern that scriptural “relativism” might set us on a slippery slope of sorts leading to a compromised view of the Bible’s veracity. I have to disagree with Peter when he says that somebody somehow proving that Jesus did not walk on water / enter Jerusalem / etc. does not in any way jeopardize the truth claims of the gospels, because it puts into question the intentions or competence of their writers, who intended by their writings to communicate a certain truth. We must not say that the Bible is not completely true.
The trick as I see it is separating the notion of truth from the notion of certainty, which I think Peter was attempting to do. While, for example, it might not be scientifically or even historically true that God created the entirety of the cosmos in 168 hours, or that he physically pokes volancoes into eruption, the truth that he is supremely responsible for our world and all of its goings-on comes in loud and clear in both these accounts. This is a conclusion that no amount of observation can ever come to, no matter how we might interpret the data. By the same token, God’s revelation through scripture fills this gap in our understanding but relinquishes claims to decimals and percentages of confidence. No amount of human understanding will ever fully grasp the entirety of God’s character. There is absolute truth to be had, but because we can only observe the physical realm, we cannot know it with the certainty that accompanies our observations of that realm. Biblical literalism seems to me to try to “force” God into the aforementioned mold of empricism.
To quote Galileo (some might say a suspect teacher in the area of religion), “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go.” I might add that the goal and aim of scientific empiricism is exactly the converse: to increase our understanding of the workings of the natural world, not to prove or disprove the truth of scripture. Studying the Bible can give us an idea of truth, and science helps to increase the fullness of that truth – in no way does one supplant the other.