Webster’s definition of Science is as follows:
1. The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena
2. Knowledge, especially that gained through experience.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed what I perceive (by observation) to be an increasing enmity between the modern evangelical protestant church and the self-named and ominous “scientific community.” A 2008 film by Ben Stein highlights some of the more blatant clashes between titans of respected religious, philosophical and scientific trains of thought. What grabbed my attention in reading David Mathis’ recent post on the Desiring God Blog and caused me no little annoyance was the presumptive lack of flexibility in the analysis of the “star” Matthew 2:9 coupled with some extensive literary license taken with the origins of the Magi.
He rightly recognizes the fact that the term “magi” is a derivative of the modern English “magician” (who could miss that?). But he goes on to attribute paganism, star worship, “dark arts”, and other assumptions to their activities which we are given no historical or biblical reason to believe. All we’re told is that they are “wise” and “from the east.” We have no insight into their ethnicity, race, religious views or beliefs, not even a hint as to their homeland except that it is east of Bethlehem. By their own accounts we learn that they are students of the stars, but beyond that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about other things in which they may or may not have been involved. There are historical descriptions of wise, star studying groups from this time period anywhere from Persia (modern Iran) to China, so we can really have no particular knowledge into the theology of the traveling astronomers that visited Christ. What we do know is that they responded in some form of faith to the observation of an astrological phenomena and were even guided by visions from God later in the Nativity story.
The star itself is a much bigger building block for the biblical account of the nativity than, I think, Mathis gives credit. He brushes off a 400 year old mathematical proof of the confluence of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn on or about March of 4 b.c. with an extreme literal view of Matthew’s statement, “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” (Matt 2:9)
What we know from scripture about the star we glean from Matthew. The gospel writer did not witness the star any more than he witnessed the birth of Jesus. His account is at best second hand. This doesn’t discredit the account, but it gives credence to the language used to describe the natural phenomena unfolding in the sky. To the naked eye it looked like a star, but unlike a star it moved and came to rest over Bethlehem. In 1604 Johannes Kepler observed the confluence of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars in the constellation of Pisces under the direct light of the sun. The three planets coming together in this way created a southward shifting luminous mass that, according to Kepler, appeared “like the most beautiful and glorious torch ever seen when driven [southward] by a strong wind.” Matthew says it was a star because for all his intents and purposes it looked like a star. Not because it met modern science’s definition of a star. To a reader of Matthew’s gospel around 70 a.d. there would have been numerous coinciding accounts of some kind of strange light happening over Bethlehem that the reader could verify with surviving first hand observers for him/her -self. Matthew’s intention was to tell the story as it had happened in a way that would irrefutably prove the Gospel of Christ’s coming to be true. Be it a supernaturally placed mobile ball of light, or a multi-planetary alignment illuminated by the sun, to the wise men from the east it appeared to be a star and they followed in faith to Bethlehem.
What concerns me most here is the assumption that somehow natural laws or “science” and God’s super natural activities are irreconcilable or that we have to choose between being a faithful teacher of scripture and using reason and logic to interpret our observations. We name laws of physics, mathematics, etc. usually based on the man or woman who “discovered” them. Hence we have Newton’s laws, Ohm’s Law, Coulomb’s Law. But we need to remember as believers in a God who created all things that these men only dis-covered these laws. They uncovered, or revealed what God had hidden everyone before them. The laws science don’t change as science advances, our perceptions of them change as we discover more of God’s creation. Gravity existed before we proved it. A^2 + B^2 was equal to C^2 before Pythagoras realized it. God knows how to move within his creation and He planned all these events before the beginning of time. Consider the possibility that God, as he wound up the universe and before He let it start spinning, calculated the exact moment when He would need to align three planets with a constellation in order for them to outshine all the other stars and move southward from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. God could certainly accomplish that. What need is there for a non-science employing method of explanation for a moving star when we have a perfectly good one?
Our Heavenly Father is the author of scripture and science, and in Him there is no inconsistency.