Many people grew up believing that science and theology are enemies and that the secular forces of science are lined up against the angels of light in a battle to the death. This warfare motif goes back to two influential books of the nineteenth century: John Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Both books claimed that science was winning the war and that defeat for religion was imminent.
Thomas Huxley, famously known as Darwin’s Bulldog, was another nineteenth-century figure who lived and breathed this warfare narrative. He wrote, “Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes beside that of Hercules; and history records that wherever science and orthodoxy have been fairly opposed, the latter has been forced to retire from the lists, bleeding and crushed if not annihilated; scotched if not slain.” We smile knowingly. The metaphor is ubiquitous, and it conditions us to think that science and faith are inevitably in tension.
Scholars dub this view the “conflict thesis.” Science and religion are always in conflict, like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. But all the clues suggest this picture is historically misleading. Most of the earliest medieval and modern scientists, for instance, were Christians. Some of them, certainly by today’s standards, were theologians in their own right. Pick any of them at random: Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), Blaise Pascal (1623–62), Robert Boyle (1627–99), Robert Hooke (1635–1703), or Isaac Newton (1643–1727). We could easily multiply the list. Each of these men was deeply interested in divine things.
Typical of many of these early scientists, Pascal was intensely pious in his faith. He was converted on the evening of November 23, 1654, through Jansenism, an Augustinian movement within the Roman Catholic Church that was later condemned as heretical by church authorities. When he died at age 39, they found a scrap of paper sewn to the inner lining of his coat—and there he wrote: “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, joy, certainty, emotion, sight, joy, God of Jesus Christ. . . . This is life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”1 To be sure, not all of these scientists were perfectly orthodox in their theology; for instance, Newton denied the Trinity. Nonetheless, collectively, they destroy our usual stereotypes about conflict between science and theology.
In fact, modern science was shaped by Christian theological assumptions, assumptions that were widespread in the Judeo-Christian world of Europe. God’s creation was taken to be real and distinct from Him, unlike in pantheism, which conflates God and nature. Creation was seen as intrinsically good; nature was not evil, as many Greek philosophies insisted. Nature itself was seen as intelligible, open to meaningful exploration precisely because the Creator is supremely wise and trustworthy. All of these attitudes paved the way for the scientific study of nature. Furthermore, Judaism and Christianity affirmed that humanity was made in God’s image. We are like God in having the ability to think and make connections between things. These human capacities are conducive to the business of science.
Doubtless it is true that Christian thought was not the only factor in the rise of modern science. Greek philosophy played a key role in that process (for example, Aristotle), and the same was true for Islamic thought from the seventh to the twelfth centuries.2 Nevertheless, the rich history involving science and faith suggests that complexity rather than conflict better describes their relationship. John Hedley Brooke gave the most compelling defense of this “complexity thesis.”3 Relations between science and Christianity have been very complex: diverse, subtle, surprising, tangled, and messy. Moderns should not impose their exaggerated depictions of science and theology at war; historians tell us instead to look at how actual scientists and actual theologians have thought about these matters. Many surprises await us.
All well and good. And yet there were times in history and there are times today when there is genuine conflict between theological truths and particular scientific theories. For most of church history, Christians confessed many beliefs as divinely revealed that have since been rejected by many modern scientists: that humans and animals were supernaturally created, that a historical Adam and Eve were progenitors of the human race, that Noah’s flood was global, that divine miracles contravene the natural order, that humans are (or have) souls, and much else besides. It may seem obvious that such beliefs conflict with many current scientific accounts, but the point is worth emphasizing because prominent thinkers often downplay this fact as a way to signal their rejection of the conflict thesis. Many believers want to commend religious faith to the scientific establishment, whereas many nonbelievers want to commend scientific faith to the religious establishment. Both groups insist that Christianity need not deny the assured results of mainstream science, much less require belief in crude, fundamentalist shibboleths.
I agree that Christians should never relish disagreeing with widely accepted scientific positions. Anti-scientific smugness is not praiseworthy. However, disagreement is unavoidable in instances when the Apostolic tradition cannot be reconciled with a current scientific theory. Sometimes Scripture leaves the believer no option given its message that brooks no rivals: “The grass withers, the flowers fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).4 And besides Holy Writ, other factors deserve mention when scientific claims undermine key doctrines.
First, mainstream science adopts methodological naturalism, the guiding principle that scientific investigation should never appeal to supernatural entities or divine revelation. In my judgment, there are limits to this approach to science. As Alvin Plantinga rightly says, Christians should pursue “science using all that we know: what we know about God as well as what we know about his creation, and what we know by faith as well as what we know in other ways.”5
Second, scientists are not infallible; their theories are regularly modified over time. We do well to consider questions of epistemology—our theory of knowledge—and the degree to which scientific investigation gets us closer to truth or not. Debates over “realism” vs. “anti-realism” in the philosophy of science have much to teach us. Far from endorsing a reckless anti-scientism, such observations remind us that scientific theories are sometimes ephemeral.
Third, it is not always easy to untangle the relationship between biblical authority and biblical interpretation (that is, hermeneutics). On the one hand, some conflicts between science and doctrine should be resolved by rereading the Bible. Earlier believers who justified geocentrism by appeal to Joshua 10:12–14, Psalm 93:1, and similar verses misinterpreted those passages. On the other hand, hermeneutical tweaking is not a panacea for all tensions between science and theology. It’s not as if we have carte blanche to abandon or revise a doctrine by reinterpreting relevant texts anytime a divinely revealed doctrine is challenged by a new scientific claim. That’s too easy—Abracadabra!—any doctrine can be subjected to such hermeneutical magic. Scripture becomes a lump of plasticine.
At the same time, we should continue encouraging people in our Reformed communities to pursue callings in the natural sciences. Some of our men and women should be working in the sciences at the highest levels, and some of our theologians and scientists should also be wrestling with the difficult interdisciplinary questions. For the good of the church and the world, the Reformed perspective needs a place at the table. While some scientific fields will be more challenging than others, all of them deserve the faithful presence of believers plying their trade, by the grace of God, with passion and wisdom.
Thankfully, most science is not doctrinally controversial. Even when it is, Christians should keep a sense of perspective. The notion of dogmatic rank can helpfully remind us that many of the divisive issues surrounding science and theology do not strike at the heart of the gospel—at least, not directly. Those points of debate are not likely to overturn central doctrines such as the Trinity, the resurrection of Christ, or justification by grace alone through faith alone. We should still, of course, care deeply about contentious issues in science and faith, but they must never skew the priorities of Scripture. They can only be one facet of the full scope of evangelical religion. For the sake of Christ, who is coming again soon, let us always keep the main things at the center.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on March 6, 2018.
- Nancy Frankenberry, The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 85. ↩︎
- For this and other correctives, see Ronald Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009). ↩︎
- John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991). ↩︎
- Of course, Scripture and tradition are not the same thing—but it doesn’t follow from a high view of Scripture that all theology is up for grabs. Care and wisdom is needed in these matters. ↩︎
- Alvin Plantinga, “Methodological Naturalism?” in Facets of Faith and Science: Historiography and Modes of Interaction, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer, vol.1 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996), 213–14. ↩︎