CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: Science and the Bible

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NOTE: The article has the basics of what the Bible has to say on Science and Theology, but also within the article are other linked articles on Science and Theology subjects that go deeper on those areas. 

Science and Theology. The history of the interaction between science and theology is a complicated affair, and it is generally recognized today that a warfare metaphor—theology and science are constantly at war, with theology the regular loser—is a simplistic, false picture of the nature of this interaction. Moreover, the warfare model was a Whiggish reinterpretation of the history of science designed to discredit Christianity and promote scientific naturalism. It is true that there have been occasional skirmishes between science and theology. But theology has not always lost those encounters (e.g., theologians at the time of Darwin predicted that the fossil record would not teem with transition forms as Darwin claimed and the theologians were correct), and interaction between the two is too rich and multifaceted to be captured by a single model.

Scientism. For many today, the very idea of integrating science and theology sounds inappropriate because of the low cognitive status assigned to theology. This attitude is an expression of scientism, the view that science is the very paradigm of truth and rationality. There are two forms of scientism: strong scientism and weak scientism. Strong scientism is the view that some proposition or theory is true or rational to believe if and only if it is a scientific proposition or theory, that is, if and only if it is a well-established scientific proposition or theory which, in turn, depends upon its having been successfully formed, tested, and used according to appropriate scientific methodology. There are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason whatever to believe them.

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Advocates of weak scientism allow for the existence of truths apart from science and are even willing to grant that they can have some minimal, positive rationality status without the support of science. But advocates of weak scientism still hold that science is the most valuable, most serious, and most authoritative sector of human learning. Every other intellectual activity is inferior to science. Further, there are virtually no limits to science. There is no field into which scientific research cannot shed light. To the degree that some issue outside science can be given scientific support or can be reduced to science, to that degree the issue becomes rationally acceptable. Thus, we have an intellectual and, perhaps, even a moral obligation to try to use science to solve problems in other fields that up to now have been untouched by scientific methodology. For example, we should try to solve problems about the mind by the methods of neurophysiology and computer science.

If either strong or weak scientism is true, this would have drastic implications for the integration of science and theology. If strong scientism is true, then theology is not a cognitive enterprise at all and there is no such thing as theological knowledge. If weak scientism is true, then the conversation between theology and science will be a monologue with theology listening to science and waiting for science to give it support. For thinking Christians, neither of these alternatives is acceptable. What, then, should we say about scientism?

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

Note first that strong scientism is self-refuting. A proposition (or sentence) is self-refuting if it refers to and falsifies itself. For example, “There are no English sentences” and “There are no truths” are self-refuting. Strong scientism is not itself a proposition of science, but a second order proposition of philosophy about science to the effect that only scientific propositions are true and/or rational to believe. And strong scientism is itself offered as a true, rationally justified position to believe. Now, propositions that are self-refuting do not just happen to be false but could have been true. Self-refuting propositions are necessarily false, that is, it is not possible for them to be true. What this means is that, among other things, no amount of scientific progress in the future will have the slightest effect on making strong scientism more acceptable.

There are two more problems that count against strong and weak scientism. First, scientism (in both forms) does not adequately allow for the task of stating and defending the necessary presuppositions for science itself to be practiced. Thus, scientism shows itself to be a foe and not a friend of science. Science cannot be practiced in thin air. Science presupposes a number of substantive philosophical theses each of which has been challenged, and the task of stating and defending these assumptions is one of the tasks of philosophy. The conclusions of science cannot be more certain than the presuppositions it rests on and uses to reach those conclusions.

Strong scientism rules out these presuppositions altogether because neither the presuppositions themselves nor their defense are scientific matters. Weak scientism misconstrues their strength in its view that scientific propositions have greater cognitive authority than those of other fields like philosophy. This would mean that the conclusions of science are more certain than the philosophical presuppositions used to justify and reach those conclusions, and that is absurd.

Here is a list of some of the philosophical presuppositions of science: (1) the existence of an independent, external world; (2) the orderly nature of the external world; (3) the knowability of the external world; (4) the existence of truth; (5) the laws of logic; (6) the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment; (7) the adequacy of language to describe the world; (8) the existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”); (9) the uniformity of nature and induction; and (10) the existence of numbers.

There is a second problem that counts equally against strong and weak scientism: the existence of true and rationally justified beliefs outside of science. The simple fact is that true, rationally justified beliefs exist in a host of fields outside of science. Strong scientism does not allow for this fact and is therefore to be rejected as an adequate account of our intellectual enterprise.

Moreover, some propositions believed outside science (e.g., “red is a color,” “torturing babies for fun is wrong,” “I am now thinking about science”) are better justified than some believed within science (e.g., “evolution takes place through a series of very small steps”). It is not hard to believe that many of our currently held scientific beliefs will and should be revised or abandoned in one hundred years, but it would be hard to see how the same could be said of the extra-scientific propositions just cited. Weak scientism does not account for this fact. Furthermore, when advocates of weak scientism attempt to reduce all issues to scientific ones, this has a distorting effect on an intellectual issue. Arguably, this is the case in current attempts to make the existence and nature of mind a scientific problem. In sum, scientism in both forms is inadequate and it is important for Christians to integrate science and theology with genuine cognitive respect for both.

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

Models of Integration of Science and Theology. In addressing the issue of integration, one must keep in mind that the problem of how best to formulate the relationship between science and theology is not a scientific question but a question in theology, philosophy, and the history of science. As we look to these fields for insight, we discover several models of integration, each having something important to offer:

  1. The Two Realms View: Science and theology are concerned with two distinct realms of reality (the natural/the supernatural, the spatiotemporal/ the eternal) and/or science and theology are subservient to very different objects (e.g., the material universe and God) and can only be defined in relation to them. For example, debates about angels or the extent of the atonement have little to do with organic chemistry. Similarly, it is of little interest to theology whether a methane molecule has three or four hydrogen atoms in it.
  2. The Scientistic View: Science generates a metaphysic in terms of which theology is then formulated. For example, some process philosophers believe that the worldview of science depicts reality as a system in constant flux and change and, thus, any theology of God must operate within these constraints set down for theology by science. This model of integration is not acceptable for evangelicals except in the following limited way: With due caution, a scientific discovery (e.g., that the earth does not have four corners) can inform the way a biblical text should be interpreted as long as the hermeneutical option so proffered is at least plausible on purely exegetical grounds alone.
  3. The Complementarity View: Science and theology are non-interacting, complementary approaches to the same reality that adopt very different standpoints, ask and answer different kinds of questions, involve different levels of description, employ very different cognitive attitudes (e.g., objectivity and logical neutrality in science, personal involvement and commitment in theology), and/or are constituted by very different language games. These different, authentic perspectives are partial and incomplete and, therefore, must be integrated into a coherent whole. However, each level of description is complete at its own level without having gaps at that level for other perspectives to fill and without having the possibility of direct competition and conflict. Sociological aspects of church growth and certain psychological aspects of conversion may be sociological or psychological descriptions of certain phenomena that are complementary to a theological description of church growth or conversion.
  4. The Concordist View: Science and theology are interacting approaches to the same reality that can be in conflict in various ways (e.g., mutually exclusive or logically consistent but nevertheless, not mutually reinforcing) or can be in concord in various ways. For example, certain theological teachings about the existence of the soul raise rational problems for philosophical or scientific claims that deny the existence of the soul. The general theory of evolution raises various difficulties for certain ways of understanding the book of Genesis. Some have argued that the Big Bang theory tends to support the theological proposition that the universe had a beginning.
  5. The Presuppositional View: Theology provides a context wherein the presuppositions of science (understood in a realist way, i.e., where science is seen as a rational, progressive intellectual activity that secures truer and truer theories about the external, theory-independent world) are most easily justified. Some have argued that many of the presuppositions of science make sense and are easy to justify given Christian theism, but are odd and without ultimate justification in a naturalistic worldview.
  6. The Applicational View: Science can fill out details and help to apply theological principles and vice versa. For example, theology teaches that fathers should not provoke their children to anger and psychology can add important details about what this means by offering information about family systems, the nature and causes of anger, etc. Psychology can devise various tests for assessing whether one is or is not a mature person and theology can offer a normative definition to psychology as to what a mature person is.

Methodological Naturalism vs. Theistic Science. The most reasonable view is to take an eclectic position and employ a different model of science/theology interaction when relevant. However, currently the main debate about science/theology integration has on one side those Christians like Howard J. Van Till and Richard Bube who espouse the complementarity view along with a commitment to methodological naturalism and a rejection of theistic science and the concordist position. According to methodological naturalism, the goal of natural science is to offer explanations that refer only to natural objects and events and not to the personal choices and actions of human or divine agents. Within natural science, answers are sought to questions within nature, within the non-personal and contingent created order. Some version of theistic evolution would be embraced by advocates of this position. Thus, they hold that the concordist view represents a mistaken understanding of integration.

On the other side are those like Alvin Plantinga and Phillip Johnson who accept some version of theistic science. In its broadest sense, theistic science is rooted in the idea that Christians ought to consult all they know or have reason to believe in forming and testing hypotheses, in explaining things in science, and in evaluating the plausibility of various scientific hypotheses, and among the things they should consult are propositions of theology. So understood, theistic science expresses a commitment to the idea that (1) God, conceived of as a personal agent of great power and intelligence, has through direct, primary agent causation and through indirect, secondary causation created and designed the world for a purpose and has directly intervened in the course of its development at various times (including prehistory, i.e., history prior to the arrival of human beings) and (2) the commitment expressed in proposition one can appropriately enter into the very fabric of the practice of science and the utilization of scientific methodology. Most advocates of theistic science embrace young earth or progressive creationism.

What Does the Bible Really Teach About the Earth Being Flat?

If the complementary view is not combined with methodological naturalism, it is acceptable as part of an eclectic position because it accurately captures part of the way science and theology relate. It is especially helpful when God acts via secondary causes. For example, chemical descriptions of the synthesis of water from hydrogen and oxygen are complementary to a theological description of God’s providential governance of the chemicals during the reaction. But when advocates of the complementary view press their position too far by leaving no room for theistic science and the concordist position, their position is hard to justify. This overuse of the complementary model is rooted in an inadequate view of integration and an improper understanding of the history and philosophy of science.

THEISM: The Cosmological Argument—Where Did the Universe Come From?

According to the concordist position, science and theology can be directly interacting approaches to the same phenomenon and, thus, can be in conflict or concord in various ways. Sometimes a scientific belief will be logically contradictory to a theological belief. For example, some versions of the oscillating universe model imply a beginningless universe—and this contradicts biblical teaching that there was a beginning. Sometimes science and theology make statements that are not logically contradictory—they could both be true—but are, nevertheless, hard to square with, and tend to count against, each other. For example, most evolutionists have argued that evolutionary theory counts strongly against views of living organisms (including humans) that treat them as having natures or as having substantial souls. According to naturalistic evolution, living organisms are wholly the result of material processes operating on strictly physical objects (e.g., the “prebiotic soup”). There is no contradiction in holding to naturalistic evolutionary theory and still viewing organisms as creatures with souls and natures, as Christian theology would seem to imply. But the reality of the soul and the existence of natures is hard to square with naturalistic evolutionary theory.

The Bible and Science

It is also possible for scientific and theological beliefs to be mutually reinforcing. For example, some have argued that the Big Bang has given support to the theological belief that the universe had a beginning. The same thing has been claimed for the second law of thermodynamics when applied to the universe as a whole. Other examples of scientific findings giving support to theological propositions include the delicate balance of various constants of nature (e.g., gravity) needed for any life to appear in the universe, systematic gaps in the fossil record, the information content in DNA, and the nature of human language. In each case, the theological beliefs were already reasonable without science, but scientific discoveries have given further support to them.

Is the Genesis Creation of the World a Myth and Legend?

The important thing about the concordist model is that it allows for theological beliefs to enter into the very practice of science. Indeed, one cannot read the history of science without seeing that theology has regularly entered into scientific practice, sometimes inappropriately but other times quite appropriately. Any view of science that rules out this fourth model is a revisionist account of science’s history.

Advocates of the concordist position have clarified at least three ways theological beliefs can enter into science. First, theological propositions can provide background beliefs used to evaluate a scientific hypothesis. The theological beliefs that the universe had a beginning and that adultery is sinful and immature can be used to evaluate hypotheses that claim the universe has an infinite past or adultery can be a sign of psychological maturity.

CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC EVANGELISM: What Will You Say to an Atheist?

Second, theological beliefs can guide research and yield predictions that can be tested. For example, theological assertions that the basic kinds of life were directly created, that humans arose in the Mideast, and that Noah’s flood had certain properties can yield testable predictions (e.g., gaps will exist in the fossil record; the earliest human remains will be found in the Mideast; and there will be limits to breeding).

Third, the idea of a direct, creative act of God can be used to explain things that are scientifically discoverable. Science can discover information in DNA, that the universe had a beginning, that human language is unique—and theology can provide explanations for these discoveries.

Among the criticisms of theistic science and the concordist model, two have been preeminent. First, it is argued that theistic science employs a “god-of-the-gaps” strategy in which God is believed to act only when there are gaps in nature. Appeal is made to God to cover human ignorance. However, the gaps in our knowledge are getting smaller, and so this is a poor strategy.

Advocates of the concordist position respond by pointing out that theistic science does not limit God’s activity to gaps. Nature is not autonomous. God is constantly active in sustaining and governing the universe. Nor does theistic science appeal to direct acts of God to cover scientific ignorance. Such appeals are made only when there are good theological or philosophical reasons to expect a discontinuity in nature.

Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and Theistic Evolution

Further, concordists cite a distinction between empirical and historical science in defense of theistic science. Empirical science is a nonhistorical approach to the world that focuses on repeatable, regularly recurring events or patterns in nature (e.g., chemical reactions). By contrast, historical science is historical in nature and focuses on past, nonrepeatable events (e.g., the death of dinosaurs). In the history of science, inappropriate appeals to God’s primary causal action to explain a phenomenon have occurred in empirical science. Such appeals were wrong because in these cases God acts through secondary and not primary causation. The proper conclusion from this is to limit appeals to God’s primary casual activity to historical science, not to eliminate such appeals from science altogether.

THEISM: What Is the Ontological Argument for God’s Existence?

Here is a second objection to theistic science: science explains things by using natural laws—an act of God is not a law of nature. Concordists point out that this objection is mistaken as well. We do explain things in empirical science by an appeal to natural law. The formation of water from hydrogen and oxygen, for example, is explained by the laws of chemistry. In historical science, however, we explain the existence of something by postulating a causal entity for it. Cosmologists explain some aspect of the universe not only by using natural laws of motion but also by citing the Big Bang as a single causal event. In archeology, psychology, and forensic science, appeals are made to acts or states of agents as causes for phenomena (e.g., a desire for love caused this obsessive behavior). This is not unscientific, and if Christians have reason to suspect that God directly created, say, human beings, then appealing to his actions fits a respectable pattern of scientific explanation.

In sum, there are several aspects to the integration of science and theology, and theistic science is a legitimate part of such integration. Theology doesn’t need science to be rational. There is nothing wrong in principle, however, with bringing one’s theology into the practice of science.

How Do We Know That the Miracles in the Bible Really Happened?

By J. P. Moreland

See also Evolution.

CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: Evolution or the Bible?

Bibliography. M. Bauman, ed., Man and Creation; R. H. Bube, Putting It All Together; D. C. Lindberg and R. L. Numbers, eds., God and Nature; J. P. Moreland, Christianity and the Nature of Science; Creation Hypothesis; J. P. Moreland and D. M. Ciocchi, eds., Christian Perspectives on Being Human; H. M. Morris, Biblical Basis for Modern Science; A. R. Peacocke, ed., Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century; N. R. Pearcey and C. B. Thaxton, Soul of Science; D. Ratzsch, Battle of Beginnings; H. J. Van Till, R. E. Snow, J. H. Stek, and D. A. Young, Portraits of Creation. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1071–1075.

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