Scripture is not an encyclopedia of social science
Acton Institute Powerblog

Scripture is not an encyclopedia of social science

Note: This article is part of the ‘Principles Project,’ a list of principles, axioms, and beliefs that undergird a Christian view of economics, liberty, and virtue. Click here to read the introduction and other posts in this series.

The Principle: #2C — Scripture is not an encyclopedia of social science.

The Explanation: There’s an old preacher’s tale of a young man who turned to the Bible for guidance on making decisions. Using the text as a divining rod he would flick through Scripture and let his finger land on a verse, using the result as a divine insight into how he should decide. One day while wondering what to do with his life, he flipped his Bible open and pointed to Matthew 27:5. He read, “[Judas] went and hanged himself.” He decided to try again and on the second attempt landed on Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise.” He tried flipping one more time and arrived at John 13:27, “What you do, do quickly.”

Many Christians have succumbed to the “flip and point” method of guidance. As we mature in our faith, though, we tend to recognize that just because the Bible is the word of God does not make it a sanctified Ouija board that will answer whatever questions we might ask.

Unfortunately, we often discard such childish approaches only to replace them with more sophisticated, yet equally flawed, hermeneutical methods. Once such approach is what philosopher Roy Clouser calls the “encyclopedic assumption“:

[H]aving such an inspired record also carries with it a great temptation. The temptation goes like this: since God’s covenant is inspired and preserved by Him, why not use it as a short cut way of finding out other things we want to know? We have questions about prehistory, biology, geology, astronomy, economics, etc. And these questions are ones there is no way—or no easy way—for us to answer. But suppose there are statements or hints about these matters in Scripture. Wouldn’t these also have to be infallibly true? In fact, even if there are ways for us to investigate questions on nonreligious matters, shouldn’t a believer at least start by canvassing Scripture to see what it says on any given topic?

I call succumbing to this temptation the “encyclopedic assumption.” It results from regarding the Bible as an encyclopedia in which we may look for an answer to any sort of question we may have. The encyclopedic assumption may not go so far as to think that the answer to every question is in Scripture, but it does suppose Scripture to contain answers to all sorts of nonreligious questions. It ignores the Bible’s own central theme and purpose, and instead of trying to ascertain the literal meaning of the text (where “literal” means the intent of the author), it tries to force the text to yield truths about matters which never crossed the minds of its author(s). This temptation has not been resisted successfully in the whole history of biblical interpretation.

God’s Word is the foundation for all knowledge (see principle #2). But the Bible, as Clouser points out, was not written to be a textbook on the natural or social sciences—and should not be treated as one. We cannot, for example, take a verse like Acts 2:44 (“All the believers were together and had everything in common.”) and deduce that God has ordained socialism. Nor should we think the Israelite’s Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-55) requires the U.S. to forgive all Third World debts or that the statement “And the gold of that land is good” (Gen. 2:12a) implies we should have remained on the gold standard.

Still, since all truth is God’s truth both of God’s “texts”—Creation and the Bible—are ultimately compatible. Just as the study of nature (through such methods as the natural sciences) can aid us in interpreting special revelation (the Bible),  the Bible can often provide a framework for interpreting general revelation, including the social sciences. That often requires careful deduction of Biblical principles, though, rather than slapdash, simplistic exegesis.

In fulfilling God’s mandates, we should ardently search for the truth and hone our interpretations to make them conform to what God has revealed. But neither “text” (i.e., special or general revelation) should be treated like an encyclopedia. Some mysteries, whether about God or his creation, may never be truly known. We must accept with humility that just because we have a question about economics or politics or sociology does not mean that God has directly revealed the answer.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).