3 Principles For Those Times When Theologians and Scientists Disagree

every square inchOne of my favorite clips from pretty much any movie ever comes from the cinematic masterpiece Nacho Libre. When Nacho encourages his luchador partner Eskeleto to pray to the Lord for strength, much to everyone’s surprise, he says, “I don’t believe in God—I believe in science.” It’s hilariously simplistic, but it’s reflective of one of the silly dichotomies too many of our students in the church as well as the broader culture still buy into on a regular basis.

Many of us intuitively feel there’s something wrong with that. Still, when it comes to wrestling with the many apparent conflicts between what we were taught in Sunday School and what we learned in our freshman biology class, we’re often at a loss for how to think of these conflicts. Is it really a matter of science versus faith? Blind faith or intellectual honesty? Obviously I don’t think that’s the case, or I wouldn’t still be a Christian.

Over the years of study, I’ve read enough good apologetics and works of philosophy to feel satisfied knowing that whatever new challenges are proposed, there’s eventually going to be some answer forthcoming. Indeed, I believe we’ve got a number of reasons for thinking that the practice of science is best supported on something like a Christian worldview, with its belief in a regular, orderly universe, created by God to be intelligible to the human intellect. Indeed, ultimately there can be no conflict between the truths of theology and the truths of the hard sciences, as God is the author of their shared reality.

That said, it’s always good to have some basic principles in mind when thinking about those moments when it seems that our best scientist and our best theologians do conflict.

Bruce Riley Ashford provides us with a few such principles in his excellent little introduction to a Reformed theology of culture Every Square Inch. (Check out Trevin Wax’s interview with him here.) Towards the end of his chapter on the Christian motivation to engage the sciences (pp. 84-86), he reminds us of three pertinent facts to keep in mind.

  1. “Either group (theologians or scientists) can err; for that reason, either group should be open to correction.” Theologians and biblical commentators have been wrong in their interpretations before. Mistaking metaphorical language for literalistic descriptions of reality and vice versa, there have certainly been cases of over-interpretation of biblical texts, taking them to teach something far more specific than they were intended to. On the flipside, all you have to do is read a short history of science to see how many different scientific paradigms we’ve gone through to explain gravitational force, the orbit of the planets, and so forth to know that we’ve gotten things wrong before.
  1. “The Bible is not a science book.” I know this is rather obvious to many, but the Bible was not written as a biology text book. There are areas where it makes claims about the physical universe and so forth, but by and large, we’re missing the point if we’re reading it as a guide to physics, chemistry, and so forth. It’s God’s covenant document revealing his character, doings, aims, and intentions towards his people in Christ. This is why we need to be rather careful about over-determining our interpretation of the text in the direction of any particular scientific theory. That’s not what the book is for, so using it for that end leaves it liable to abuse and an unfortunate discreditation in the eyes of those who know the shape of the science it allegedly contradicts.
  1. “Science is constantly changing.” As we already said, scientists have changed their minds about all sorts of things. Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Planck, Einstein. Just run down the list of astronomers and early scientists who modified, tweaked, or overturned each other’s pictures of the universe and you see this to be true. Thomas Kuhn’s famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions probably overstates his thesis about the new worlds that scientists inhabit when they change their models of understanding the world, but it’s instructive on this point. Even the most secure science—models that are fairly unquestioned in their respective fields for decades—are susceptible to revision. For that reason, Christians need to make sure they’re not too hasty revising their interpretations of Scripture or fundamental doctrines to fit some study that emerged only in the last 5 years and could be overturned next Tuesday.

Obviously, these principles aren’t some easy formula that we plug every problem into and get a clean, easy answer. But we shouldn’t really expect that, should we? Theology and the sciences both deal with reality and reality isn’t clean and easy. That said, these are the sort of broad, wise principles that allow us to proceed in our analysis with care, wisdom, and fidelity to God’s Word and without ignoring what we find in our study of God’s good world.

6 thoughts on “3 Principles For Those Times When Theologians and Scientists Disagree

  1. Derek, I greatly appreciate your writing and have prayed for you and your wife in this net stage of life. I look forward to continuing to read your thoughts and studies as you publish…Further, I minister to students at the University of Kansas and just had a student today ask my advice in a situation around his faith in Jesus, majoring in evolutionary bio, and parental frustrations. The simplicity of your post here I pray will be helpful to him moving forward. SDG

  2. “Over the years of study, I’ve read enough good apologetics and works of philosophy to feel satisfied knowing that whatever new challenges are proposed, there’s eventually going to be some answer forthcoming.”

    Atheists: Science will figure it out!

    Christians: Apologists will figure it out!

    I’m just funnin’, but I’ve seen Christians call atheists out on this type of statement so many times that I had to say something. :p

    • Yes, there is a definite parallel. The funny part is that the atheists are the ones who usually reject the idea that there is an faith in their structure of beliefs. I have no problem with it at all.

      • Well, ever since the ‘new atheist’ books came out and killed civil discourse, I’ve seen a lot of Christians accuse atheists of having faith like it’s cooties or something (looking at you, Geisler and Turek). I think a lot of atheists are simply being overly defensive when they claim there’s no element of faith to their beliefs.

        As for me, I’ll readily admit to having faith in all sorts of dumb things–just not the supernatural. And of course there’s some faith in my naturalism. I don’t want there to be a God who kills Egyptians for what their Pharaoh did, or predestines some people to hell, or whose grand sovereign plan includes a good friend drowning at the age of 25. I find the random senseless brutality of naturalism oddly comforting.

        Anyhoo, always enjoy your posts and I hope your studies are going well.

  3. “The Bible is not a science book.” True, but where the Bible touches on science, or makes scientific claims, it is reliable and true. The Bible is also neither an archaeology book nor a history book, but where it touches on those topics, God is worthy of our trust in His revelation. If we employ complicated exegetical gymnastics to get around the plain meaning of a text where it is embarrassing to modern scientific theory, can we be upset when opponents use similar tactics where the Scripture runs afoul of spirit of the age in terms of morality?

  4. Hello Mr. Rishmawy,
    I’m one of those hybrids as I am a follower of Y’shua, and a scientist.
    One of the critical things that all believers and followers of Y’shua need to keep in mind is that “Truth” means something completely different to a scientist than it does to a Christian.
    As I have seen, experienced, and often times just wag my head at Christians view Truth as a Citadel to defend at all costs, rightly or wrongly. On the other hand scientists view Truth as a nice spot to sit a bit, then move on to further explore. And any Scientist who does stop to defend their citadel…well, it tends to end badly for them because eventually, the citadel they were defending turns out to be ill-defined, or incorrectly or not completely understood. A shell of half-knowledge that requires more exploration and less defending.
    Which is why there is a certain amount of…um…”conflict” between Science and Biblicists. One deals in hard, observable, quantifiable facts before acceptance, the other deals in romantic poetry. One requires repeatable experimentation to determine validity, the other…just belief. However, science has its limits, unfortunately, so does the bible, but both serve as tools for us as people to explore our world and ourselves and are relationship to G-d. The problem for us as it turns out is not the tools that are problematic, but the fools who wield the tools that seem to be the source of contention.
    Any scientist who says, “there is no G-d” is not speaking from a scientific perspective because science has no way of proving or disproving a deity, and actually undermines his credibility to be a speaker for either subject as s/he has already proven that they have a verifiable and employed bias.
    And any Christian who denys what has been discovered by scientist marginalizes themselves, and like their counterpart, undermines their credibility to be a speaker for either subject because s/he too, has proven that they have a verifiable and employed bias.
    I think, perhaps, we should all temporarily lower the bar on our understanding of “truth” as it seems neither side fully comprehends what exactly we’re arguing over.

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