This article is the first in a series by Paul Arnold on the relationship between Science and Christianity. Paul received his Masters of Science in Physiology before recently completing his Masters of Christian Studies at Regent College where he focused on Christianity & Culture. Paul’s final comprehensive paper was on modern science and divine providence, which forms the basis for this series. He is currently living with his wife, Krista, in rural Uganda where they are working with a community development organization. Paul also works as a writer and editor for Converge Magazine.
The difficulty with science—at least, the difficulty Christianity feels when it comes to science—is that it seemingly ignores the presence of the supernatural. The role of science, by definition, is to explain the world without appealing to God. A problem occurs, however, when science becomes the primary means by which we understand the world. Such a problem results because adopting a scientific or naturalistic interpretive framework quickly leads to it becoming one’s overriding interpretive framework. The consequence of this decision—adopting a naturalistic framework to view the world—is that God is, at best, forced into the gaps still remaining in human knowledge or, at worst, pushed out of creation altogether. This explains why Christian theology has for so long had such a difficult time taking science or the natural world seriously.
Investigation of the world through science, however, is a worthy endeavor that has given the world many great gifts from medicine to technology. Thus, in order to properly appreciate and utilize science, we need to resolve this difficulty we as Christians have with science. Through this article and the articles to follow, it is my wish that we can reconcile the relationship between science and Christianity so that we may understand God’s rightful place in creation and appreciate science’s legitimate role as a means of acquiring knowledge and discovering truth.
The Influence of Greek Philosophy
The roots of this problem go almost to the start of the Christian faith in the heavy influence exerted by Greek philosophy on early Christian theology. Greek philosophy asserted that matter or the natural world is fundamentally irrational, and creation was seen merely as an imperfect embodiment or artifact of the eternal unchanging “forms.” As a result, Greek philosophers did not consider observation of creation to be a reliable way of discovering truth. Even Aristotle, who affirmed the role of the senses in gaining knowledge, remained ensnared by Plato’s hierarchical structure of reality where the heavens—the celestial sphere of the stars and planets—were given a superior status over an inferior material world. As Colin Gunton notes, “Aristotle took from Plato a belief in the perfection of circular motion and was in general responsible for handing on a doctrine of divinity of the heavenly bodies.”
This “divinity of the heavenly bodies” to which Gunton refers is part of the problem of divine action in the world: how can an immutable and impassable God descend to and act in an inferior material world? Gunton takes issue with the idea that heaven and earth are estranged from each other because such a separation effectively eliminates God’s ability to act in the world. Essentially, any separation between heaven and earth will replace the active role of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the world with an impersonal, immaterial, and ultimately non-biblical reality. This is why Gunton describes early Christian theology as being under “Babylonian captivity” when it was too heavily influenced by Greek philosophical categories.
Restoring the Material World
Instead of a Greek philosophical separation between heaven and earth, Gunton argues that there should be no superiority of the heavenly bodies or denigration of the material world. According to Gunton, a Trinitarian understanding of creation levels the playing field, so to speak, so that there is no longer a hierarchical structure of different realities in the world. The material world was created good and should not be considered inferior to the immaterial heavens. The implication of this is that divine action cannot be excluded from the material world if such exclusion is based on the impassability of God in an imperfect material world. One needs to look no further than the incarnation of Jesus Christ to affirm this point.
If it is true that God has the ability to act in the material world, it should seemingly follow that God’s actions in the world would be empirically or scientifically observable. This is an unmistakably modern concept in that it represents the shift from the ancient and medieval problem of ontology—the nature of being—to the modern problem of epistemology, the method of knowing. The problem of ontology did not disappear in the modern period; instead, the problem of epistemology was simply given priority. The reason for this is, in part, because many of the central questions of epistemology are the same central questions of science, because while ontology is concerned with the nature of the world, epistemology is concerned with how we come to know this nature. As Alvin Plantinga points out, “science is at bottom an attempt to learn important truths about ourselves and our world.”
The assumption that creation is of one nature allows us to confidently assert that any observation or empirical investigation of the material world reflects something that is just as true for humans as it is for God. Therefore, if this is indeed the case, an empirical method (i.e. a scientific method) can tell us something true about the reality of the world.
It is also argued that our ability to know certain truths about creation was set forth when God first made humans in his image. Plantinga notes that the central idea of imago dei—being created in God’s image—is that “we resemble God not just in being persons, beings who can think and feel, who have aims and intentions, who form beliefs and act on those beliefs, and the like; we resemble God more particularly in being able to know and understand something of ourselves, our world, and God himself.”
Being created in the image of God does not mean, however, that science or our ability to use science is without error. We must remain critical of our perceptions of the material world because, as Gunton points out, “despite the universality of evidence, there is in practice a corresponding universality of failure to read it correctly, deriving from the human heart’s universal tendency to fabricate idols.” While we must affirm that we can know and understand something true about ourselves, our world, and God, there is at the same time an element of distortion from human sinfulness and an element of limitedness from human embodiment, of which we must always be critical. However, problems or contingencies in creation are not to be avoided. For one, we cannot know them in full. But they are also imperfect artifacts of a perfect form. Lesslie Newbigin draws on the work of Michael Polanyi to point out that “recognition of a problem is an awareness, an intuition, that there is something—a pattern or a harmony waiting to be found—hidden in the apparent haphazardness of empirical reality.”
Observing God in the World
What then does this mean for our ability to observe God’s action in the natural world? Can our observations of the natural world prove that God does not act in it? Or contrarily, can our observations prove that God does indeed act in the world? I believe the answer to the latter two questions is no. Observations of the natural world, while potentially true in and of themselves, can neither prove nor disprove the actions of a supernatural God. As Brad Gregory notes, “It is self-evident that a God who by definition is radically distinct from the natural world could never be shown to be unreal via empirical inquiry that by definition can only investigate the natural world.” This does not mean that humans are destined to accept agnostic beliefs about all things supernatural, but it does mean that humans must rely on more than observation for knowledge of a supernatural God.
The need to rely on knowledge beyond observation in order to affirm a supernatural God is, I think, obvious to most in the modern world. But what is not obvious is that humans must also rely on more than observation to exclude a supernatural God from the natural world. The reason for this lies in the nature of scientific demonstration. The scientific method depends on one’s ability to demonstrate from empirical observation that one reality is the case rather than another. This means that any question studied with the scientific method must be a question that could conceivably turn out to be either true or false. In other words, all scientific questions must be falsifiable. If a question is not falsifiable under the terms of the scientific method, then it is not a question that can be appropriately studied by science. Thus, science necessarily excludes the notion of the supernatural prior to any empirical observation, meaning that any assertion or conclusion that excludes God from the natural world does so a priori and thus on metaphysical grounds. Consequently, God cannot be excluded from creation on the basis of lack of observation or lack of demonstration.
The Science of Chance and Design
A good example of the limits of scientific demonstration is seen in the debate over chance and design in evolution. In the context of evolution, which can be understood simply as the theory that the universe and life arose through natural processes, chance and design are often taken to be mutually exclusive ideas. As John Hedley Brooke observes, “the assertion of incompatibility between a Christian and a Darwinian world-view often hinged on the antithesis between chance and design.” In other words, something cannot be the result of chance and at the same time be the result of design. As a result, many groups are eager to demonstrate that evolution is the product of either chance or design in order to disprove the other view.
For example, in support of a design argument, the Intelligent Design group led by Michael Behe argues that examples of “irreducible complexity” found in nature give direct evidence of design and point to the need for input from a designer. Similarly, other groups use observations like the “anthropic principle” to argue that the universe could not be as finely-tuned as it is without the input of a designer. On the other side of the debate, many groups argue that any sort of appearance of design in the world is simply the result of chance eventually hitting the proverbial “jackpot.” As the famous paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said, “There is no progress in nature, but there is direction towards forms like humans because, eventually, ever-searching life will hit the jackpot.”
Here it is easy to see that while theistic interpretations can affirm the presence of design in creation, naturalistic interpretations of creation can also deny the presence of design in creation. What needs to be noted for our purposes is that any such argument is made on metaphysical, not observational grounds. Just as Alister McGrath argues that “design is something inferred, not something observed,” chance also is inferred, not observed. Inferences are, as John Polkinghorne describes, “a kind of teleological insight into general physical process” because they assert a truth about the world that we cannot have without an inferred teleological perspective—regardless of whether that perspective points to or away from God. This is also why Plantinga can argue that “the scientific theory of evolution as such is not incompatible with Christian belief; what is incompatible with it is the idea that evolution, natural selection, is unguided. But that idea isn’t part of evolutionary theory as such; it’s instead a metaphysical or theological addition.”
Science within a Theological Framework
An inability to demonstrate design in nature, therefore, does not mean that a belief in design cannot or should not be held. It simply means that we must strive for an appropriate theological framework that can account for what is observed in the natural world without denying the reality of things unseen given divine action cannot be excluded from the material world based on the observations within science alone.
An appropriate theological framework, therefore, must account for: the creation of the world ex nihilo (out of nothing); the contingencies of creation; the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; the Spirit’s movement in time and space; the traditions of communities of people; the eschatological nature of redemption in creation; and the changing scientific explanations of our world. Even if our understanding of physical reality was to change in the future (as it most certainly will in many respects, especially in regards to our understanding of the human mind) we do not have to sacrifice our theological convictions on the altar of scientific inquiry. We must not forget that, as Newbigin points out, “the theological level of inquiry, while not invading or calling into question the other levels on which explanation is to be sought, must be recognized as the ultimate one.” However, as with science, even though it is of primary importance that we continue to take theological inquiry seriously, we must not do so to the exclusion of scientific inquiry.
Continue exploring in Part 2 of this series.
- Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 31.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 71-73.
- “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” (Genesis 1:31-2:1).
- Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011)267. (Emphasis added)
- Ibid. 4.
- Gunton, 7.
- Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 41.
- Brad Gregory, "Excluding God," in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012), 32.
- John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 304.
- Stephen Jay Gould as quoted in Michael Ruse, "Chance and Evolution," in Creation: Law and Probability, ed. Fraser Watts (Aldershot, UK: First Fortress Press, 2008), 119.
- Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 197.
- John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989), 40.
- Plantinga, 63.
- Newbigin, 63.
- Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991
- Gregory, Brad. "Excluding God." In The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012
- Gunton, Colin E. The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998
- McGrath, Alister E. Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
- Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995
- Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011
- Polkinghorne, John. Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989
- Ruse, Michael. "Chance and Evolution." In Creation: Law and Probability, ed. Fraser Watts. Aldershot, UK: First Fortress Press, 2008
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