In the collection of essays on which I based my discussions of Bultmann, you will find, as the last essay, a summary of the original eight essays by Austin Farrer, entitled An English Appreciation. In the course of it, he offers this:
The established, or virtually established, positions of science and history give rise to necessary refusals, as when we refuse to believe that the world was created eight thousand years ago or that the sun stood physically still for Joshua… About necessary refusals nothing can be done or ought to be done. They must be accepted.
While I have some sympathy with him, and I understand why he says this, I don’t agree with him. As he himself seems to be saying, there are two categories of knowledge involved here. The first, that the world was not created eight thousand years ago, is the knowledge of the history of the earth, derived mainly from the study of the geology of the earth itself, and the study of the formation of the solar system. The second, that the sun did not physically stand still for Joshua, whilst it is an historical assertion, is based upon the immediate evidence of the behaviour of the solar system, and the theories of planetary motion that have been derived, and may be constantly re-affirmed, from that always available evidence.
Common to both of these statements (and to any useful statements we make) is a cluster of assumptions. We rely on our ability to draw true and useful conclusions about the world because we first rely on the world to be consistent in its structure, and to behave consistently. This is a confidence we learn from experience: the objects out in the environment are such as to allow us to learn about them without constantly having to re-evaluate that learning.
With the rise of scientific methodology, we have stepped far beyond the realms of direct experience. Take, for instance, our view of the solar system. Our knowledge—that the earth and all the planets orbit the sun—flies in the face of the evidence of our senses—that it is the sun, the planets and the stars that move, whilst the earth remains in place. Our confidence in this knowledge, and all such counter-experiential or non-experiential knowledge, is based on our confidence in the structures our society has erected for the testing, extension, elaboration and explanation of scientific knowledge. In short, we rely, for almost everything we know, on the testimony of witnesses whom we trust.
This confidence has become so great in light of the staggering technological advances in our societies, that the methodological processes that underlie it have quite rapidly become a religion in their own right.
What is it about our scientific knowledge that rules out believing that the sun stood physically still for Joshua? It is not our knowledge of the day-to-day mechanics of the solar system, or our knowledge of the tremendous scale of the force of gravity (itself an utterly mysterious force acting at a distance, until replaced by the new mysteries of general relativity) that rules out the Book of Joshua. It is, instead, the unshakable belief that the universe created itself; that there is no Creator. That absence of a Creator means that only physical processes deduced to be the operating principles of the universe can possible act on a planetary scale. I think it is safe to claim that this is an a priori position. It is not a conclusion which has been drawn on the basis of evidence uninformed by pre-suppositions. It is the fundamental working hypothesis of all materialists. To put it another way, it is the primary article of the creed of materialism. It is a statement of faith.
That is not the view of Christians. Christians know their Creator. It is He who is the maker of all things, visible and invisible. What is more important: He is an active God, participating to the point of revealing His name to the Hebrews, and coming in person to the Jews, and remaining in person to all who believe in Christ. This activist God has always accompanied His message of revelation with signs and wonders, for we are a sceptical people.
If this is true, and I believe there are compelling reasons for believing this, then no action that God has taken in history in support of His revelation is “impossible.” This, in itself, is not a statement of faith, but a logical consequence of the faith-supported belief in the Christian God. It is no more a statement of faith than the contention that the laws of physics preclude the standing still of the sun: itself a logical consequence of the belief that the universe is self-created; or at least that the agent of its creation, like Aristotle’s First Mover, is more remote than the ends of the expanding universe from its creation.
Such is the science of Resurrection. Science itself can tell us nothing about the Resurrection, but the Resurrection can tell us a great deal about science. We believe the fact of the Resurrection because we believe the witnesses; the chief of which is the Church itself. Having accepted this evidence, we draw our conclusions from it, as did the early Church. Among these are that we cannot understand ourselves as material beings. Not only can we not gain an understanding of our minds on this basis, but we cannot even appreciate the nature of our physical bodies on the basis of materialism. This event-based science subsumes and limits materialist science. It must inform all of our scientific thinking.
The other “necessary refusal” is of a young earth. This is a somewhat different case. The Tradition in which I have found myself—Catholicism and Anglo-Catholicism—is not sola scriptura. For Catholicism, Scripture, although inerrant, is not necessarily literally so. Scripture itself, in the Catholic view, was accredited by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: and it remains to the teaching authority of the Church to interpret Scripture, and to delineate the literally inerrant from the allegorically, and the like. I will assume that, for example, the conclusions of geology about the formation of the earth’s crust and topography meet the criteria of relatively uncontroversial and accepted science. This study concluded long ago that there had been massive changes in the earth’s surface over what can only have been very long time frames.
To address the young earth issue, we return to the assumption about the consistency of nature, but with a different emphasis. Whereas the reported Joshua event would involve a massive interruption to the normal process of nature, that interruption was of less that a day, at a remote point in history. No direct physical evidence of this event, which is not reported to have caused any other changes, can possibly be adduced either in support of, or against, its occurring.
In this case of the young earth, however, we have before us the same Book of Nature which the geologists have studied intensively over the past two centuries or so. From my Catholic perspective, I have no problem with this: the problem is displaced to other sites of contention. From the perspective of, let us say, an evangelical who believes in a young earth, at least two kinds of response are possible.
One is to challenge the interpretation of the evidence. This approach is fraught with difficulties. It accepts that nature speaks to us consistently and accurately, and so it involves endlessly contesting the accepted scientific interpretation, and every new piece of evidence that is presented.
Another is to embrace the primacy of faith and the literal interpretation of the Bible, while accepting that nature is telling a different story. I believe that a lot of scientists and technologists have adopted this position. For them, nature sets a complex and ever-fascinating series of puzzles whose solution generates worldly benefits for human beings; in mineralogy, for instance. They accept the terms that these challenges present, and set about trying to solve them. While nature is true and consistent in terms of the puzzles it presents, it is not the real story. That story is told in the Bible. Fallen Man can only appreciate the surfaces of nature; redeemed Man understands the Truth that God created all of this in six days. I have never had this discussion with such a person, so I am speculating from shreds of evidence, but this position offers a surer footing for literalism, even at the price of Fideism.
Catholics and Anglo-Catholics avoid these dilemmas by regarding the Genesis account of the age of the earth as an allegorical description of an underlying reality; the Creation ex nihio as a deliberate intention of God. For them, however, the challenges of scientific materialism have been displaced. The attacks on the Faith have been directed for some time now to the credibility of the witness. When the primary texts in which the testimony occurs are acknowledged to require interpretation, an open but unavoidable invitation to their undermining has been issued.
Though not germane to this particular discussion, I will quote in passing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, lest the extent of Catholic accommodation to modern viewpoints be misunderstood.
How to read the account of the fall
390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.