Can Science & Theology Work Together?

Sunburst_over_EarthIn a theological forum on Facebook, I recently saw these, and similar, questions posed:

“How do you personally believe science and theology can work together? In other words, what limitations do you place on science? Only to the point of contradiction…or do you adjust your hermeneutic? Secondly, how would you evangelize or disciple a biology student who believes he has to choose between science and Christianity?”

They are good questions, one’s that Christians have been engaging with for centuries (if not always). I offered some thoughts on the forum and, so, thought I would also post them here for any conversation.

What do you think?

Here are my thoughts below (side note: I used all caps for some words because Facebook doesn’t allow for bold or italics).

I believe they can and do work well together – that is proper theology and proper science work together well. I have no reason to believe they would contradict one another. As some might state it, the books of Scripture and Creation were both given by God to help us engage with understanding God.

However, by saying that, I think we need to answer the second question about limitations. Here is a major point: I think we need to recognize the limitations of both Scripture and science in some form and manner. For example, science is not given to speak to the PURPOSE of things. It cannot, it is not given for such. Or to say it another way, science can speak to the WHAT, but not the WHY. Science tells me about the formation of tears in my tear duct – but they do not speak to the PURPOSE or WHY of the emotions behind it (pain, joy, sadness, etc). It cannot, was not, given to do such. Theology & philosophy cover those arenas. They (theology & philosophy) are also both good sciences (and arts), but theology & philosophy speak to PURPOSE. They speak to the underlying aspects, the deeper questions, if you will – for biology or geology itself will bring up questions they cannot answer.

And I’d posit it’s theology & philosophy which must work in tandem with the information of the sciences. Theology & philosophy do not have to accept all, as science is not as empirical as some suggest. Still, though not empirical, science is reasonable – just as theology & philosophy are reasonable sciences. We believe science is reasonable in that, if we take a multi-vitamin, we do believe we will have a healthier life by a certain percentage (possibly minimal, possibly great). That’s science working very well – reasonably “proving” we shall have a healthier life. But that bit of information doesn’t speak to the depths of the WHY of life, or even WHY we want a healthier life (there are all sorts of reasons WHY).

Now, as to changing one’s hermeneutic in light of science – we as evangelicals are very untrusting of science to consider a positive response to such a question. Of course, on a daily basis (with multi-vitamins, doctor’s visits, etc) we are trusting of science in a general sense. But don’t let science touch our hermeneutics! And, please know that, while I engage with the sciences, I am by no means a drinker of the scientism kool-aid that says science is THE answer and can answer pretty much all things via the scientific method of observation. Still, I am happy to engage in good, proper science and allowing that to inform how I understand not so much Scripture, but Creation.

I might say that I have very little reason to believe that Scripture speaks to the WHAT/HOW of the creation. However, it speaks to that WHY, the PURPOSE. But not the WHAT or HOW details. In days past, I would have said that Scripture is given to tell us the WHAT details of things like the unfolding of creation (how many days, the exact order, no millions of years, there’s no way that what science calls evolution was part of the process, etc). However, in my engagement with the sciences, and some solid theologians, I had to lay down a hermeneutic that said Scripture was given to tell us the WHAT or HOW details about this. Rather, it became clearer that Scripture speaks to the WHY and science can helpfully speak to the WHAT or HOW.

This also happened when Copernicus & Galileo began to argue in the 16th century that the sun was at the center of our solar system, rather than the earth. The standard hermeneutic of the church of that day led them to initially brand these 2 guys as heretics. I know it sounds silly today, but it happened. Yet, finally, after level-headed engagement with the issues, the church was able to realize that we, in fact, do live in a solar system where the sun is central (as a side note: some might even argue the ancient writers of Scripture also held to the geocentric view, that the earth is at the center of our solar system – this might very well be, especially noting the way Gen 1 is written).

In the end, I would say that science can change one’s hermeneutics, if one believes Scripture is suppose to speak to the WHAT or HOW details of things like creation. There’s a lot that geology, biology, archaeology and the sort have to offer that challenges some of our perceptions of Scripture’s intent. But, once one realizes the intent of Scripture – to speak to the WHY & PURPOSE of creation, life, etc – then science doesn’t so much change our hermeneutics, but we rather start with Scripture and then utilize science to help us understand both the PURPOSE (Scripture) and DETAILED WORKINGS (science) of creation.

On the level of evangelizing a student that believes they must choose between science and Christianity (or maybe Scripture, rather than Christianity as a whole, because we’re really arguing about Scripture’s intent here), I’d encourage them it is a false dichotomy to believe you have to choose between one or the other, mainly because we have to go back to that intent of science & Scripture. What do they speak to? If we understand that, we won’t put pressure on science to answer the WHY or Scripture to answer the WHAT/HOW. And, as a matter of fact, I’d argue Christians should be the leading scientists – so hopefully this biology student will excel.

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6 thoughts on “Can Science & Theology Work Together?

  1. You make some great distinctions between “How and Why?” As for faith – Faith always has to be in the person and work of Christ. As Paul says, if the resurrection never happened, our faith is foolish and we are the greatest fools ever.

    • Yes, faith is centered ultimately in Jesus & that he rose from the dead, which even Jesus clarifies that Scripture is ultimately pointing to him (John 5:39).

  2. I recently heard a pastor say, “If Genesis wasn’t literal then there was no literal Jesus.” I’ve been considering a more progressive hermeneutic for a while now, but when he said that I was shaken a bit. How would you respond to him?

    • Grey –

      That’s a good question. And the reason pastors/theologians might argue such is that they ultimately want to guard the “Jesus factor”. Jesus is the centerpiece of our faith – his birth, life, death & resurrection. No Jesus, no Christianity, no anything.

      However, I think a statement like that is many times made more out of an over-protective fear. So what’s argued in the more detailed scheme is this: If Genesis isn’t literal, then Adam & Eve aren’t literal. If Adam & Eve aren’t literal, then there was not literal fall into sin (sin becomes irrelevant). If there is no sin, then there is no need for a Savior from sin. And if there’s no need for a Savior, then it can really be argued there’s no Jesus (but again, at least no NEED of Jesus).

      This is pretty much an argument of fallacy called the slippery slope. Meaning, if you believe A, then you will believe B (and so on). So if you believe A, then you’ll believe H, I and J. You’ll keep going down the slippery slope in a chain-effect manner. The problem is that the slippery slope is not provable outside of anecdotal (storied) accounts – i.e., look at person So & So whom this happened to. But that is no proof that all will jump off the cliff like lemmings, not to mention that there are plenty of solid pastors & theologians that have accepted a more non-literal version of Genesis whom also have not changed their beliefs around Jesus & his resurrection. I’d argue I’m one of those guys, but I’m not that known and some would discard me as non-solid. 🙂

      In the end, on the Genesis account, we have got to recognize it in it’s ancient setting. I’m even happy for it to have “multiple layers,” if you will – having both literal & non-literal aspects. But it has been helpful historical, archaeological & scientific studies that have led us to think (or re-think) that the account might not be literal, straightforward journalistic reporting. It’s not that we are putting these fields ABOVE God himself. Rather, I see it as utilizing these fields to help us in our knowledge & study of God. The goal is not to deconstruct Scripture (at least on my part & other’s). As John Wesley and his followers argued, there is a kind of “quadrilateral” that helps us know God – Scripture, tradition/history, reason & experience. These are all good gifts of God.

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