An Evangelical View of Science

December 31st, 2009 / 24 Comments

At the recent American Academy of Religion meeting, I was asked to present a scholarly overview of Evangelical theology and science. I assumed the task would be easy. I was wrong.

I have participated actively in the science and religion dialogue for years. I have been an Evangelical since my youth. Given my past, I assumed I could churn out a presentation in a few hours.

I scoured my library of science and theology books. I consulted sources on the internet. In the process, I discovered that very little scholarship exists specifically on Evangelical theology and science.

My recent research and past experiences, however, point to obstacles that discourage scholars from identifying themselves as participants in an Evangelical theology and science dialogue.

First, many scholars admit they cannot easily define “Evangelical theology.” So much diversity exists. Opinions vary. In recent decades, in fact, those defining what counts as Evangelical theology typically identify the communities out of which theologians work rather than particular doctrinal statements thought distinctly Evangelical.

Second, the complex nature of the science and theology dialogue discourages scholars from narrowing the confines of either discipline. Scholars find it easier to talk about general theological doctrines than specific theological traditions.

Third, focusing upon the Bible as the Evangelical’s primary source for truth discourages some from taking science as a truth-seeking counterpart. In theory, Evangelical theologians embrace the truth of science.  In practice, they rarely take science seriously in their constructive work.

Finally, my own conversations with Evangelical theologians suggest that many fear coming into conflict with the wider Evangelical populace. Theologians who take unpopular stances on evolution, stem-cell research, big bang theory, or nonhuman altruism are likely to suffer the wrath of an angry Evangelical mainstream. Many Evangelical theologians do not want that risk.

In the end, I decided the best way to fulfill my assignment was to be both descriptive and prescriptive.  That is, I sought to describe what I found in my research, and I sought to recommend to Evangelicals what they should do as they engage science.

Here are the ten statements I proposed. Evangelicals…

  1. 1. believe that what they observe provides generally accurate information about the way things are. Evangelical theologians generally are, to use a label scholars like John Polkinghorne endorse, “critical realists.”

  2. 2. believe that an underlying harmony exists between science and theology. “All truth is God’s truth,” is a typical Evangelical phrase. When Evangelicals encounter disharmony, however, they are more likely to rethink or reject science than theology.

  3. 3. strive to be faithful to the Bible, especially the biblical view that God is Creator. This endeavor prompts Evangelicals to return often to questions of how literally they should interpret particular segments of the Bible. Evangelical theologians do not always interpret the Bible literally.

  4. 4. strive to be faithful to what science tells us about God. Generally, this striving takes the form of confirming what Evangelicals already believe about God.  But occasionally, Evangelical theologians consciously or unconsciously change their theological views because of science.

  5. 5. affirm that ultimate explanations must include a theological component. An ongoing question, however, is the extent to which Evangelical scientists should take theology into the lab or offer theological explanations to their scientific work. In philosophical circles, this is the issue of methodological naturalism.

  6. 6. seek a theological explanation of origins. The most popular labels for these theories of origins include “Creation Science,” “Progressive Creation,” and “Theistic Evolution.” Given recent trends, I predict Theistic Evolution will gain Evangelical supporters in the coming decades until it becomes the dominant Evangelical view. And I don’t think this is just wishful thinking on my part!

  7. 7. affirm general and/or specific purpose in creation. When some scientists claim the world has no purpose, many Evangelicals find Intelligent Design theory an attractive alternative. But Intelligent Design theory seems to be losing ground in Evangelical circles. The vast majority of scientists do not accept it. Because Evangelicals believe, as I noted earlier, that science and theology are ultimately in harmony, ID is losing influence.

  8. 8. affirm that God is presently active in creation.  God’s activity may or may not involve intervention. Evangelicals who insist that God is omnipresent, in fact, think the language of “intervention” is unnecessary. But Evangelicals typically believe that miracles, which theologians define in various ways, occur because of God’s activity.

  9. 9. seek to affirm both the reality of sin/evil and the reality of love/altruism. Evangelicals have widely divergent views on original sin and the possibility of overcoming sin in this life.  But they see in science evidence for many theological doctrines of human nature.

  10. 10. pursue truth with humility.  Perhaps this last characteristic is more prescriptive than descriptive.  I think Evangelicals – whom almost universally admit they cannot know all truth and their cognitive capacities can be impaired – ought to be the first to admit they do not have everything figured out.

I’m optimistic about the future of the Evangelical theology and science dialogue. But I’m not naïve to think that the dialogue will flow with ease into every Evangelical nook and cranny. Plenty of warfare has occurred and will occur.

Despite this warfare, I firmly believe progress in the Evangelical theology and science dialogue is possible. I intend to do my part in encouraging and shaping such progress.

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Comments

Bev Finkbeiner Mayhew

glad to see an evangelical brave enough to enter the arena…just last week saw an article in WSJ about this topic and evangelicals were painted weak to non-existent


Thomas Jay Oord

Christopher Wiley responded with these thoughts….

“Nice post.  Here are some thoughts.  It seems to me that the influence is thought of as unidirectional—i.e. that evangelicals need to adapt, to accommodate developments in science.  This seems problematic at two levels.  First, scientific knowledge is in a sense provisional.  The Ptolemaic view of the cosmos was the scientific consensus when Galileo made his observations.  The scientific community adapted quickly and the church looked foolish for defending the old view. We need to be careful to not make a similar mistake.  Second, at a deeper level the worldview assumptions of Christianity make science possible.  Should a stronger case be made for the formative role of Christianity in the development of science?  If we made that case wouldn’t it help the relationship?  Can science thrive long term (not merely in a quest for technology—but as a quest of knowledge) without Christianity?  Are you familiar with the work of Stanley Jaki?  Finally, what would a Trinitarian and relational science look like – as opposed to a deistic version (which seems to be the unchristian default position for most Christians)?”

Christopher Wiley


Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks, Bev and Chris!

Bev – Is there some way I can get that article?  Is it online?

A few responses to Chris…

1. I agree that scientific knowledge is provisional.  But I think theological knowledges is also provisional. Changes occur in both science and theology.  I agree that we need to beware not to connect our theological doctrines too readily to scientific theories.  But I also think we must inevitably connect them if our theology is to make sense.

2. I agree that the worldview assumptions of Christianity provide fertile grounds for science.  But the same is true of Islam.  Several scholars have argued that contemporary science owes a greater debt to Christianity than any other religion. (I’m familiar with Jaki’s work. I met and talked with him about some science and theology issues about a decade ago.)

3. One of the best books exploring Trinitarian theology and science is Sam Powell’s book, Participating in God: Trinity and Creation (2003).  Know of it?

Thanks again!

Tom


Christopher Wiley

Tom,
Thanks of the follow up.  I think you’re right about the influence moving both ways.  I think our doctrine of creation especially is informed by the work of scientists.  I’m thinking of how it seems inevitible that the doctrine that death was introduced to all of creation—and not just to human beings by the Fall—will have to be revisited if we take evolution seriously.  (BTW—how did that become the default position of the Church?—The fact that the Tree of Life was in the garden implies they would need grace to sustain their lives apart from the effects of the Fall.)  No—I’m not familiar with the book you mentioned.  I’ll look it up.  It is the Trinitarian framework that would distinguish what we Christians can do in science from Muslims. (I’m thinking in the realms of meaning and trajectory of inquiry).


Tim Fink

Thank you for your thoughtful article. Do you have a paper that you presented to the AAR meeting? Or a podcast/recording?

My biggest request here would be that you would expand your statement on why and on what basis you think Evangelicals will move more to Theistic Evolution rather than some modified special creation.


Edwin

Christopher,

Regarding your question: the idea of death being introduced into all of creation through the Fall seems to have been the default one in the early Church, but there was an important difference from the later Western/Protestant view. Greek Fathers such as Athanasius believed that humans are “naturally corruptible,” in the sense that we are made from nothing and would return to nothing if left to ourselves. So as you point out, grace was needed from the beginning to maintain us in “incorruption” by uniting us to the Logos. Human sin broke that connection with the Logos, so that nature “took its course.”

Augustine taught the same thing, although he did contribute to exalting our picture of Adam and Eve’s unfallen condition and providing a more “static” account of human perfection. Through the Middle Ages Western theologians taught that unfallen humans had needed a “donum superadditum”—an extra gift of grace above and beyond the “natural” goodness of their created natures—in order to have fellowship with God and eternal life. The Protestant Reformers rejected this idea (you can see this particularly clearly in Calvin), arguing that unfallen humans had everything they needed simply by virtue of their good created natures. Like so many of the Reformers’ arguments, this could claim to be following a trajectory started by Augustine but at the same time sharply contradicted what Augustine actually taught.

Sorry for the long lecture. This is a point of interest to me!

For the Eastern Orthodox view of this, John Meyendorff’s _Byzantine Theology_ (which I’ve just been reading) is very good.


Braeden Gray

I like how you mentioned the fact that not every evangelical or scientist for that matter is going to agree on every item on the list. We all come from different backgrounds and systems of belief. I believe that Theologians sometimes get too defensive of their own beliefs and hold them to be absolute truth. The same goes for the scientific community as well. I think as you in the aspect of science and theology making progress in the future. We just need to remember that no one is going to have all the answers and on that aspect we must all agree. My own belief is that science confirms and supports a divine creator, whether it be through theistic evolution or the belief that God is presently active- to me that is not a salvation issue or of anything importance that I myself wish to spend the time and energy arguing about.


Craig Wolfe

Humility is a tricky virtue. It seems that few can attain it, and even then, a sense of false humility may taint their character. Many arguments are spurred by bruised egos and false pretenses. If only true humility can be gained, then these arguments would likely take a more beneficial turn.


Dusty Zavala

Being a mother, my children come home telling me about some of the science they learn at school and it conflicts with what I try to teach my children about God. This is frustrating to me, but I know that it is difficult for the teachers as well. I know that some of their teachers are Christian, but they have to teach science from more of the evolutionary point of view. This is an ongoing problem for many to combine the theology and science.


Danny Davis

Living in South Africa brings me face to face with the idea of science and theology almost on a daily basis. I have, like many others, concluded the Bible is not a scientific textbook but does offer answers that bring people to a revelation of their significance in the plan of God. Nevertheless, the Bible not being a science book should not prevent evangelicals from looking to the Bible for direction in certain scientific matters.

The Scriptures do point us to being partners with God’s creation and allowing for ecological balance in agricultural techniques. Though the Scriptures may not provide a blueprint for atomic particles it does provide ways in which humanity can steward those things that contain them.


calvin fox

I like the tenth proposal about perusing truth with humility. Humility is a excellent way to go about learning and discussing topics like the other nine topics proposed. I will admit that I certainly do not know everything God or how the universe was made. I also do not expect to ever figure every thing out. I highly respect people who admit that they essentially know nothing.

Proposal two. “All truth is God’s truth.” I heard this statement in my cornerstone class and would like to talk about it in more. Truth is from God no matter where it comes from. If truth is found in a odd place or a nasty dirty place it is still from God.


Rhonda Manley

Much of the frustration that emerges with the fusion of these two topics occurs when long-held Christian beliefs are challenged by new scientific discoveries, which are particularly difficult to ignore.

My fear is that too much emphasis is being put on details and specifics in Biblical texts, instead of overarching themes.  After all, the heart of the Christian story has very little to do with seven-day creation.

In the attempt to reconcile theology and science, we would do well to remember that the two are not mutually exclusive.


Dioni Wheeler

To me it’s hard to compare these two subjects side by side. I was engaged to an atheist and he strongly believed in what science can prove. If he didn’t see proof with his eyes then he didn’t believe it exists. So his perception of God was that there isn’t one because He’s “not human” like you and me. He pulled me from my faith and what I truly believed in. Still figuring out what I ultimately believe in. These two subjects also come up when I’m thinking about how I want to raise my kids because I am Christian, my current boyfriend and potential husband is Christian, but there are so many people out there like my ex that don’t believe in what I do. How will I explain this to my future kids? I will learn one step at a time when that time comes.


Kara Schmitt

I was raised in a rather conservative family in a Southern Baptist Church where the main view of origin preached was that of a literal 6-day creation. The other theories discussed in this blog are somewhat unfamiliar to me. I do not know which one I believe to be true and have not researched them enough to make an educated decision. While I do think it is important to discuss these theories, I find it futile to adamantly argue one over the other since none of them can be proven 100% true.


Skylar Hanna

I think the most important point made it this post is that Evangelicals must affirm that God is presently active in creation. Without this critical point it would become easy to view God as being removed and distant, for God to seem apathetic about what is happening to his creation. This point also seems to be a way for Evangelicals to approach science.


David Silva

The disjoint between science and theology seems to only concern one topic, that of origins. Evangelicals seem to be accepting of the benefits of all kinds of science. Evangelicals use technology and have integrated technological changes into worship formats and as ways to disperses messages. They also accept the advances of medical science into their everyday lives. The scientific process is surely not the main concern for modern Evangelicals. In my experience, the only part of science that Evangelicals are reluctant to accept is concerning origins. I think the reason for this is that some part of the process of the science of origins must seem significantly different to Evangelicals.


Jared Morgan

I agree with Calvin that humility is incredibly important in this particular discussion.  The idea that we are just little flickerings of life compared to the astronomical happenings of the rest of the universe and creation is a fundamental perspective in the convergence of theology and science.

When merging Theology with science a question I often ask is, “how does this particular scientific theory compare to the nature of God and spirituality?”  I recently watched a move that compared quantom to spirituality.  They claimed that if science and spirituality are to merge theories it would best fit in a quantom model dealing with entanglement, superposition, and other elements.  However wild this idea may seem, it does bring compelling arguments to the table about the similarities about the nature of God, and the theories of science.


Olivia Brus

The first sentence of statement 2 sums up my view on the general science v. religion debate. Personally I have never had a conflict between my faith and the “truths” of science. Science is a support to my faith and I think that to a Christian, that is all it should be.  In biology, I saw God revealed in ways a Theology class could never do- this is not trying to say anything about theology; this is just how God spoke to me personally. It is one of the main reasons I chose to be a biology major. God’s fingerprints are all over his creation and I don’t think there needs to be a separation between the two.


Miles Wilson

To a certain degree I believe that science and theology go hand in hand.  It’s as if science is made whole with theological explanation, additionally religion is complemented by science.  However, the miracles that occur constantly throughout the Bible that essentially form the basis of Christianity or any religion cannot always be explained by science, that is simply because they are miracles, or rather, acts of God.  That is where faith steps in; therefore making the relationship between theology and science complete.


Jane Brodin

I agree , i do not feel personally that we can say an evangelical view of science is one view over the other. Because their are many Christians and those who call themselves such which may have had an entirely different up bringing and view of Theology. Even the idea of how science and Theology can and do work together, even how they support some of each others ideas. Of course there are many idea or theories which can not be supportedbythe other, but such is where our faith must come in to play. As Christians we must ask ourselves what we belief when it comes to science. Follow our heart, and pray about it being careful not to bend to the pressure of the common belief about something not just in science, but in all areas of our lives as well.


Joseph Norris

When it comes to discussing Theology and science, I believe it is important to, as Dr. Oord mentions, believe that “All truth is Gods truth” and to remain optimistic about certain subjects or theories in science. When an evangelical hears about the latest theories in quantum physics such as, quantum entanglement, anti-matter, and string theory, I think it should be looked upon as the beautiful work of God.

I believe God is perfectly logical and these theories may reveal that to us. To think that God has created this entire universe is an amazing notion. As scientists plunge deeply into the physical world, it seems that some evangelicals believe there will be nothing left for God. Those who thinks this ought to remember that we as human beings strive to learn all we can and we tend to be overflown with curiosity, a gift that which was given to us by our Creator.


Anna Gapsch

I agree that science and theology are in, or should be in harmony. When they seem to be in conflict I think that either the scientific theory still has flaws, or the interpretation of the theologians is flawed. It is hard for anyone to accept that what they have believed or always been taught has been wrong, evangelical and atheist alike. When you consider that if theologians are wrong, and the scientific theory is more or less the truth, people have to not only deal with being wrong personally, they will also question everything else they believe. Confronting scientific discoveries and theories can bring about a crisis of faith if one is not mature enough in that faith to challenge certain beliefs.


Joy W.

The scientific view Evangelicals have I think is skewed. Although I do not necessary agree with all of the scientific theories that ar presented,I Believe that many Evangelicals aren’t aware or dont become educated of the scientific relm because of tradition and other beliefs Evangelicals hold dearly.


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