Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (13): Further Thoughts on Theology & the Sciences

In any public discussion of Christian theology, could there be a bigger elephant in the room than its relationship to the sciences? And let’s be honest about it: theologians have often been at fault. There are some theologians who ought not to speak so authoritatively about scientific matters because their words make clear that they don’t understand what they are talking about. And there are some scientists who traverse the continents mocking the theologians, but their words make clear that they do not understand Christian theology. (In both cases, it reminds one of a dog walking on its hind legs; it is not done very well, and only for the sake of making a spectacle.) And, for full disclosure: I am not a scientist and therefore hope that I don’t overstep my bounds in this blog (I’d hate to be like a dog walking on its hind legs). However, this series is about theology and, as theologians, it is incumbent upon us to reflect about theological method in relation to the sciences.

As this series has already noted, the discussion about theology’s relation to science has often proven to be divisive, as was made clear when the scientist Galileo was persecuted at the hands of the Pope as well as many Catholic and Protestant theologians, or when Christian theologians today are ridiculed by the scientific establishment. In response to the conflict between theologians and scientists, various views have developed about the relation of theology and science.[1] One view holds that theology and science are overlapping research programs which conflict with one another. Under this view, the two disciplines are inherently opposed to one another and, in most cases, one discipline is believed to be inherently superior to the other. Another view holds that theology and science are non-overlapping research programs which do not conflict. A third view holds that theology and science are overlapping research programs which should remain in conversation and partnership with one another, and which are not inherently conflictive or competitive. The understanding of theology that we have proposed in this series leads us to hold the third view above. The Bible, as God’s word written, is the foundation of our knowledge. From the biblical narrative arises a Christian worldview, which consists of basic beliefs embedded in that narrative. From the Bible and Christian worldview arise two disciplines, systematic theology and Christian philosophy, which give rise to other disciplines such as the natural and social sciences.

This understanding gives rise to the view that theologians and scientists should dialogue with one another and partner together in seeking to understand reality. “Reality is complex,” David Clark writes, “and human knowers access different dimensions of reality using different methods. This is precisely why dialogue among disciplines is important. Dialogue permits us to adopt multiple frames of reference on reality. Still, if truth is unified as we hold, we must seek connections between and integration of these multiple frames of reference.”[2] As Clark goes on to note, theology speaks to science and science speaks to theology. Theology speaks to the sciences by (1) explaining the origin and destiny of the universe, (2) explaining why it is orderly and can be interpreted, (3) explaining why the sciences matter, (4) helping to guide future scientific research, and (5) helping provide warrant for one scientific theory over another.[3] Moreover, science speaks to theology by (1) offering conceptual frameworks and analogies helpful for elucidating theological concepts, (2) helping provide warrant for one theological interpretation over another, and (3) illustrating and providing further explanation of biblical teaching on aspects of created reality.

But if theologians and scientists enter into a mutually beneficial dialogue and partnership, how do we adjudicate in the case of conflict? Under the model proposed in this chapter, theology and science are overlapping areas of study which are not inherently conflictive. A proper interpretation of the Scriptures will not be found in conflict with a proper interpretation of the created order. In light of this truth, we offer three principles for reconciliation in the occasion of disagreement between theologians and scientists.[4] First, either group (theologians or scientists) is subject to error and therefore either group is subject to correction. Both theologians and scientists are finite and fallible human knowers and both are subject to making interpretive mistakes. For example, the Catholic and Protestant church leaders were wrong to condemn Galileo based upon their misinterpretation of Bible passages. Likewise, scientists have been wrong to criticize theologians for their refusal to believe that the earth is not eternal and that it evidences design.[5] Second, science is in a constant state of flux. Scientific hypotheses and conclusions are always changing. For this reason, theologians should be very careful not to hastily revise their interpretation of Scripture based upon a purportedly “proven” scientific fact.[6] Third, Scripture is not intended to be a science textbook. Scripture does not err in what it asserts scientifically, but Scripture does not usually communicate with scientific precision. Based upon these three principles, both scientists and theologians are well-served to hold their exegetical conclusions with appropriate humility.

[1] The three views presented here are best viewed on a continuum. Often, the three views we have presented are divided further, until there are four or more models of the relation between theology and science. See, for example, Richard F. Carlson, ed. Science and Christianity: Four Views (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000).

[2] Clark, To Know and Love God, 284.

[3] This list is a slight modification of Clark’s five points. Clark, To Know and Love God, 287-294.

[4] These three principles are adapted from Norman Geisler’s treatment in Norman L. Geisler, “Science and the Bible,” in Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 691-692.

[5] An article by theoretical particle physicist Stephen Barr (University of Delaware) provides five examples where scientists have wrongly criticized theologians. Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in First Things 131 (March 2003), 16-25.

[6] Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996), has made clear that science does not always progress rationally, and that it indeed often reverses tracks or finds itself in the midst of irrational and radical paradigm shifts.

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  1. Kevin Smith   •  

    Thank you for an erudite summary of a complex and tense relationship. This is an excellent synopsis, and one to which I wish to add my vote of approval and appreciation.

  2. Pingback: Science, Theology, and Humility « Gospel and Glory

  3. Jessica   •  

    Good stuff. Have you read James Nickel’s book? A historical review of philosophy/theology/mathematics – another framework for surveying the “theology” of science through the ages.

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jessica, thank you, but no I have not yet read Nickel’s book. Thank you for the heads up.

  5. Jay Bailey   •  

    Bruce, As a scientist I give you a hearty Amen to your take on how both sides should approach each disciplines. Also with dialogue and listening from a humble position we can learn so much from on another. We may not come to the same conclusions at the end of the day but we are called to be salt and light. I can tell you that as a believer I have never seen science as more than a complementary to what the scriptures have to say. In science we can not prove the origins of life as the current models are theories and while I believe evolution takes place within the species we have no evidence that it does from one species to the next. Many things we will not know until we see the Lord but we can still have constructive academic dialogue and be salt and light to those who have never considered their creator. I believe you have nailed it with your assessment.
    Jay Bailey
    BS zoology 1983 UNC
    BS physiological optics msu 1985
    Doctor of Optometry SCO 1987
    Doctor of Optometry SCO

  6. Lee Beck   •  

    Great post, Bruce. I’ve commented before that scientific principles and Christianity do not need to be mutually exclusive. I look to 2 Tim 3:16-17 for guidance here. Scripture is inspired by God and is meant to teach us how to relate to Him and our fellow man. There is nothing in those verses that implies that we are to use the Bible as a science book. Unfortunately some well-meaning Christians do evangelism a disservice by discounting the weight of scientific evidence (e.g., dinosaurs) and thereby lose credibility really important matters like the Gospel.

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jay, thank you for jumping in the conversation. We need to have these sorts of conversations between scientists (you) and theologians (me) in a manner that is public and constructive…

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