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.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (11): Some Thoughts on Theology, Philosophy, and Science

Many of the most formative moments of my life occurred during college (waaaayyy back in the mid 90s). I had just recently truly embraced Christ and had begun to realize the moralism and self-righteousness that had blurred my spiritual and theological vision. During those years, I began to realize that, if the gospel is true, then it is relevant to absolutely every realm of thought. More to the point, I began to realize that it is relevant to disciplines such as philosophy and science, which have often been held up as the rational ideals and cultural authorities for any civilized person. In the first centuries of the church’s existence, philosophy held the position of “cultural authority” (for many people), while in the past several centuries, science has held that position (for many people). In fact, when Christians do theology publicly, the elephant in the room usually is “the sciences.” Perhaps no subject has been so sharply divisive over the past centuries. One thinks of Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the Catholic and Protestant churches, of the divisive nature of the Scopes monkey trials, and of the acrimony that sometimes exists today between theologians and scientists.

In light of the robust presence of philosophy and science in our cultural spaces, and in light of the contributions that have been made by philosophers and scientists, this installment (together with the next two installments) argues that theologians benefit from dialogue with philosophers, scientists, and those who work in other fields of learning. In such encounters, how should theologians view the fruits of philosophy, science, or some other discipline, especially if the practitioners with whom they interact are not believers and do not take into account the teaching of Christian Scripture?

Levels of Reflection:

Before tackling the notions of philosophy and science separately (in the next two blog installments), first we must provide a conceptual map relating those disciplines to Scripture, biblical theology, worldview, and systematic theology. Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen provide such a map.[1] In their view, Scripture is the inspired Word of God. Biblical theology is the study of Scripture which conceives of and articulates Scripture as a unified and coherent narrative which is the true story of the whole world. Worldview consists of the basic beliefs drawn from the biblical narrative, in interaction with a particular culture’s basic beliefs.[2] Systematic theology and Christian philosophy both arise from Scripture, biblical theology, and worldview. They, like worldview, are abstractions from the biblical story. Other disciplines (e.g. the arts, the sciences, business, economics) arise from Christian philosophy and systematic theology, drawing upon them as they study the particulars of their own creational reality.

The larger model, therefore, has five tiers:

Scripture (God’s Word written)

Biblical Theology (the story of the Bible)

Christian Worldview

Christian Philosophy & Systematic Theology

Other Disciplines

They further explain this model by means of an analogy, comparing knowledge with a tree.[3] In this analogy, the roots of the tree are “faith,” or the direction of the heart. All humans practice faith, either in God or in idols. The base of the trunk is biblical theology, providing the foundation and trajectory for the growth of the tree. The main body of the trunk is a Christian worldview, which in turn has two main branches, namely, systematic theology and Christian philosophy. Growing from those two main branches are further branches, which represent the special sciences, the various disciplines which each have their own creational integrity. In this view of things, Christian theology and Christian philosophy stand side-by-side in the search for truth. Neither discipline seeks to build its knowledge independent of God’s revelation. Both disciplines arise from the biblical narrative and its attendant Christian worldview, and therefore find themselves in a healthy and fruitful dialogue and partnership with one another.

[1] Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An Invitation to Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 26-28.

[2] Goheen and Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads, 27.

[3] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming 2012), chs. 1-2.