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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: February 2013

5 - The scientific ethic and the spirit of literalism


A good indicator that we live in a secular age is that merely to suggest a biblical basis to modern science is to make oneself appear antiscientific. Immediately one is reminded of the efforts of the Anglican Primate of Ireland, Archbishop James Ussher, who derived the exact date of creation – the night before 23 October, 4004 BCE – by calculations derived from a literal reading of biblical chronology, a practice still admired by Young Earth Creationists. However, in fairness to Ussher, his technique reflected a “modern” conception of fact and number that had come into vogue only in his seventeenth-century lifetime and shortly after Ussher's death would be actively promoted by the Royal Society of London as the appropriate way to approach texts by credible authors. Indeed, Ussher understood the Bible as we normally understand the statements of trusted scientific experts today. The problem is that over the past four centuries, the reliability of the Bible as the expression of the divine word has been called into question in many quarters, not least academic theology.

But truth be told, the reliability of the Bible has been always called into question in various respects and to varying degrees, spawning numerous versions, redactions and glosses, which have periodically resulted in heresies, schisms and still more drastic forms of dissent in the Christian ranks. Unlike Muslims, who have traditionally treated Muhammad as less the author than the medium through which Qur'an came to be written, Christians (and Jews) generally accept that human fallibility renders any account of the divine message potentially suspect.