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The interaction between science and faith

Pastor Tom Chapman joins the debate on creation and evolution and offers a simple model of how science and faith interact and relate.

 


 

Tom ChapmanAccording to recent reports, the search for the “God Particle” is nearing its end. Some scientists are predicting that the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland will, within a year, establish the existence of the Higgs Boson - the particle thought to account for mass and gravity. If it is found, it will confirm the validity of the “Standard Model” of quantum physics; if not found, then particle physics is back to the drawing board!
 
No doubt some ideologically driven atheists will argue that this is another nail in God's coffin. But in fact, the Christian faith has nothing to fear from either the existence nor the non-existence of this particle; if it exists it is simply another facet of the fascinating universe God has given us the minds to explore, and if not, it goes to show his creation is even more complex than we realised.
 
But we must think through how science and faith interact and relate. In our culture they are often present in opposition. And in certain respects – such as the origin and creation/evolution of life – there are of course conflicts of views. But in general there is no historical, theological or scientific reason why they should they should be seen as enemies at all, and in this article I want to give a simple model for seeing how they fit together.
 
science debate diag1The late Stephen Jay Gould proposed that we see science and faith as two non-overlapping  “magisteria” (spheres of knowledge and enquiry) dealing with distinct questions and using different methodologies. Science is interested in the “How”; faith deals with the “Why.” Science considers physical evidence using experiment and observation; faith addresses matters of ultimate meaning, spirituality and ethics, on the basis (for Christians) of revelation, history, tradition, philosophy and so on. In most cases, there is no conflict between the two because they are not relevant to each other. And some are content to leave it that way. This would include many atheists such as Gould; but it would also include many Christian scientists too who in practice make little connection between their work and their faith.
 
However, I am not sure this approach is entirely satisfactory from a Christian point of view, since our faith is deeply rooted in events that occur in the material world. For example, Biblical events such as the flood; miracles such as the resurrection and theological ideas such as the soul impinge on the material world which interests the scientist. It makes little difference to perhaps the majority of scientific disciplines – but if we are studying, say, astrophysics, geology or anthropology then faith and science do interact.
 
 
science debate diag2How do we resolve this? For the “Scientific Materialist” it is clear: scientific knowledge eclipses religion. Only science delivers truth; faith is in fact just a branch of psychology, and as science inevitably advances so faith will wane and die – there is no place for God. They cite the undoubted progress made in understanding the physical world in their favour and addressing practical problems as evidence, and gleefully point out the failings of “organised religion.” But of course, by its a priori assumptions, this view deliberately blinds itself to any other forms of evidence – most critically, from history. It has little to offer in realms such as morality, aesthetics or relationships as truths such goodness, beauty and love are reduced to mere evolutionary functions. It cannot account for its own origin or rationality and ignores its own historical record. “Science” is in effect a religion for many today, with its doctrines, scriptures, relics, saints, and priests to direct the zeal of the faithful.
 
 
science debate diag3“Religious Fundamentalism” makes the opposite mistake; religious dogma eclipses the evidence. A good example of this would be Galileo's inquisitors refusing to look down his telescope and see the moons of Jupiter that would dispel their false notion of the universe. As James Knight has noted in his articles, this is still very evident today. However, we must be careful how we define “fundamentalism” as it is an easily abused boo-word. In my book a fundamentalist (in the pejorative sense) is not someone who has strong, clear beliefs in what is true, even if they fly in the face of received opinion. A fundamentalist is someone who refuses to consider or take into account any evidence that might contradict his interpretation of what is true. In my experience, under this definition, while some creationists are fundamentalists, others are not; they just read the biblical and scientific evidence differently. To brand them all as fundamentalist bigots is as unfair as it is to brand all who are not as liberal heretics.
 
science debate diag4The model that works is that one of complementary, partly-overlapping magisteria. While faith and science do indeed deal with broadly distinct issues, there is a definite area of interaction between them. In this area, one may well inform or critique the other. A Christian view of the universe was the basis for the development of the whole scientific enterprise; fathers of science such as Newton, Faraday and Maxwell were inspired to understand the world around them by the doctrine of creation and God who order the universe. Likewise, a scientific view of the universe may well prompt us to at least reflect on aspects of our beliefs. As a Biblical conservative, I don’t feel free to pick and choose which passages of the Bible I will believe or ignore to suit the prevailing culture. But my interpretation of it is certainly not infallible, and science – and other intellectual disciplines such as history or linguistics – may well send me back to my Bible in a new light.
 
Some people feared that the LHC would generate a black hole that would destroy the earth; this has not happened – so far, anyway! Nor will it find any subatomic particles that will do for God; there is no truth in this universe that we need to fear. High-energy clashes between Christian viewpoints are more likely to damage our cause in the long run. No need to shut the debate down; but let’s not overheat it! This causes unnecessary divisions between the confident and confusion among the vulnerable – and derision from the rest of the world. Some matters, such as the integrity of the Bible as God’s written world, are matters of first importance; but others, such as the interpretation of particular chapters of it, are not. A range of views are tenable for Christians in this matter; they cannot all be true, but they are not the touchstone of faith or integrity, and how we hold them says as much as what we hold to. All sincere Christians should surely realise that, however different our interpretation of “How” the universe came about, we are united in the “Why”; and that gives us far more in common with each other than we do with anyone else.
 
Tom Chapman, pictured above, is pastor of Surrey Chapel in Norwich
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tjnihon 08/06/2011 12:06
Pastor Tom,

Interesting article. I think I tend more towards the fundamental side of things in that I take the Bible as God's unchanging truth. ALthough it certainly is not a science textbook, God is God and where the Bible does touch on science, I believe that God knows more than modern day scientists. All the Christian scientists you mentioned in your article believed in the creation account of Genesis as did the vast vast majority of early church fathers.

I guess my question is this: YOu said: While faith and science do indeed deal with broadly distinct issues, there is a definite area of interaction between them. In this area, one may well inform or critique the other.

How do you know which area is which? When can the Bible inform science and when should we allow science to inform the Bible? What criteria do you have for making that decision?

For example, "science"tells us that humans came from descendants of apes, but God tells us that He directly created Adam in His image from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life. THen he created Eve from one of Adam's rib.

So is this an area that we must bow to science or is it an area that science must bow to God's truth? HOw do you know?

Again, Jesus believed that the Flood killed every person not on the Ark. What else could Christ mean when He likened the coming world judgment to the judgment of “all” men in the days of Noah (Matthew 24:37–39)? But modern sciend laughs at the idea of a worldwide flood. Which informs which here and how do you decide?

Just curious what your parameters or standards are for deciding when which informs the other. THanks.

tjnihon 08/06/2011 12:25
Sorry. One more point. I guess the other issue I have with viewing science and the Bible on even terms is that science, especially when we are dealing with the unobservable, unrepeatable past, entails much assumption and interpretation of the facts, while the Bible is clearly God's unchanging Word of truth.(Yes, it requires interpretation as well, but we have principles of hermeneutics to guide us in this. IF only we would stick to those principles when we read Genesis, the foundation of the Bible!) The Bible is trustworthy, but science is not on the level of the Bible. SOme have explained it like this. Operational science is the science that deals with repeatable and observable experiments and thus is very reliable, but when we are dealing with the past that cannot be observed or repeated, (historical science) we're on thin ground to view theories that come out of that area of science on the same level of reliability as the Bible. Anyway, that is my opinion. One example.

Take the flood for instance. Knowing that a global flood occurred would drastically alter how we would view the rock layers around the world and the fossil record as well. In this case, I believe the Bible needs to inform science because we have the reliable witness of God's Word in both the OT and the NT. But more and more believers are beginning to question the flood because they believe the earth is old. But, holding to both an old earth and a global flood is illogical and contradictory. So if we allow science to inform the Bible, then we have to do interpretative gymnastics to try and figure out some way to make the flood into some kind of local event in spite of the absurdities that creates. We also have to find a way to dismiss Jesus'ideas about the flood as well as Peter's in spite of the fact that we believe the NT is inspired.

So, no matter whichever magistrate we allow to inform the other, the ramifications are huge! Which do we choose and how do we decide?
Timothy Reeves 10/06/2011 20:25
I’m getting impatient with Tom not replying to TJNihon. I guess TJ came down Ken Ham’s NN&N link from AiG. So here are my responses to some of his points:

Tjnihon: *The Bible as God’s unchanging Truth*

My Comment: I don’t know how many times this has to be said before it sinks in: The Bible’s message only comes to life when it is interpreted by the receiver. Given that the weakest link in this process is the fallibility of recipient that recipient should never identify his interpretations with God’s Word.

Tjnihon:*How do you know which area is which?*

My Comment: Based on a false dichotomy. Bible interpretation is process that calls on a very wide context of created resources: from knowledge of human history, through the human language instinct and common sense, to human spirituality. Bible interpretation cannot be disengaged from the God created world. Together the Bible and the rest of world form one seamless body of revelation.

Tjnihon: *Bowing to Science or Bible*

My Comment: Another false dichotomy. When we find a contradictions we examine the weak link – namely fallible human interpretation whether of the Bible or the rest of the Created world.

Tjnihon: *Noah and Mat 24:37-39*

My Comment: We don’t have to be believers in local flood theory to notice that Jesus is using the Flood here as a metaphor about the judgment of decadence; it is ambiguous on the geographical universality of the flood.

Tjnihon: *God’s unchanging Word of Truth. We have principles of hermeneutics*

My comment: Hermeneutics are human theories about interpretations and as such have no absolute authority or infallibility; and exhaustive and systematic treatment of hermeneutics will not be found in the Bible. They are part of that weak link I referred to above and are not above critique.

Tjnihon: *Science not on the level of the Bible*

My Comment: Not comparing like with like. Scientific theories are a human act of interpretation of data. The Bible is a book of data that needs human interpretation before it can be understood. Hence the above statement by Tjnihon is a category violation that incoherently compares theory with data.

Tjnihon: *The Bible is trustworthy*

My Comment: …but human interpretations aren’t.

Tjnihon: *Science deals with repeatability*

My Comment: Ill informed philosophy leading to a false dichotomy of history vs. operational science. Even with simple material objects like say metals we never can reproduce conditions exactly. All scientific tests are plagued by particularity and unrepeatability. History and particularity is inextricably bound up even with the physical sciences. Remedy: Go and read a philosophy text.

Tjnihon: *The reliable witness of God’s unchanging word*

My Comment: But, for the umpteenth time, human interpretations are not reliable and unchanging.

Tjnihon: “God is a reliable witness*

My Comment: Yes, but we still have to make an (unreliable) attempt to understand His witness (this is getting very repetitive)

Tjnihon: *How we view rock layers and fossil record*.

My comment: Same facts different interpretations? No and thrice no! David Icke, mega conspiracy theorist sees that same facts we all do but offers his own bizaare interpretations. Some interpretations are better than others and data doesn’t withstand infinite flexibility of interpretation. The Truth is Out There.

Tjnihon: *Jesus ideas about the flood:*

My Comment: God’s Truth is out there, but our models, perspectives and approximations of it are very much “in here” and these don’t succumb to a simple excluded middle “true or false” categorization. Without going into just how Christ’s humanity implied a (self imposed) perspective, let us note that even flat Earth theory and geocentricity work within certain limits. However, for a fundamentalist who has allowed his thoroughgoing geocentric interpretation of Bible to inform his science see here: http://www.geocentricity.com/ba1/fresp/index.html.

Tjnihon: *Which do we choose and how do we decide?*

My comment: Whether we are YECs and Older Earthers, we start by getting our basic thinking framework correct and then perhaps we won’t be taken in by false dichotomies, invalid categorizations and type violations.

BTW Tom: Good article; I largely concur.

Timothy V Reeves http://quantumnonlinearity.blogspot.com/

tjnihon 15/06/2011 07:33
First of all, Tim, let’s drop the labels meant to degrade because they are not helpful. Labels only serve as a way to create an impression about someone that may or may not be true.

Tjnihon: *The Bible as God’s unchanging Truth*

Tim’s Comment: I don’t know how many times this has to be said before it sinks in: The Bible’s message only comes to life when it is interpreted by the receiver. Given that the weakest link in this process is the fallibility of recipient that recipient should never identify his interpretations with God’s Word.

My reply: Basically Tim, you are saying then that we can never know what is truth and what is not truth. We should just remain open to anything because everything involves interpretation so we just have to be open to any and everything – oh, that is unless it contradicts evolutionary science and the assumptions used to create the theory. I have a different idea. Jesus said “Thy word is truth.” So when the Bible speaks of a global flood, I think that would mean that an actual global flood occurred. If it didn’t, if God meant something else when He wrote that, then I submit the Bible is meaningless and can be twisted to mean anything you want it to. You are making things more difficult than you need to here.


Tjnihon:*How do you know which area is which?* (Which is true history and which needs to be interpreted to find the underlying spiritual meaning)

Tim’s Comment: Based on a false dichoTimy. Bible interpretation is process that calls on a very wide context of created resources: from knowledge of human history, through the human language instinct and common sense, to human spirituality. Bible interpretation cannot be disengaged from the God created world. Together the Bible and the rest of world form one seamless body of revelation.

MY REPLY: Tim, you seem to forget that science, and especially evolutionary science, involves a lot of assumptions and interpretations as well. So how do we know when to trust the unverifiable conclusions of evolutionary science to the extent that we allow it to trump the clear meaning of God’s Word? Again, let’s stick with the global flood thing, because Jesus recognized it. Peter wrote about it in his inspired writings, and of course, Moses wrote about it using the records passed on to him from the patriarchs. I guess this comes down to how we determine what is true knowledge and what is not. Biblical interpretation relies on knowledge from human history? Knowledge of human history can help give us a better understanding of the Biblical record, but it does not trump it. There are many examples in archaeology of experts criticizing the Biblical record as inaccurate and then years later having to admit the Bible was right when further information/discoveries came to light. So, if you would have succumbed to the “experts”, you would have had egg on your face. Better to trust God’s Word as opposed to the ever-changing ideas of fallible humans. The existence of the tribe called the Hittites is a good example of this. OH, and by the way NO INTERPRETATION is necessary here. It is clear that the Bible claims that there was a group of people called the Hittites.

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