You are hereMusings on the Christian's Approach to Science

Musings on the Christian's Approach to Science

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By Ransom - Posted on 12 May 2006

by Stephen Douglas
Podcast Episode 19 was a delightful surprise for me. I put off listening to it for a while because on the surface it did not interest me. Besides, it's public radio! Public radio is the new Nazareth.Podcast Episode 19 was a delightful surprise for me. I put off listening to it for a while because on the surface it did not interest me. Besides, it's public radio! Public radio is the new Nazareth.I was delightfully surprised at John Polkinghorne's perspicacity on this issue. He is not one of those scientists you hear about every now and then who sees order in the universe and becomes a deist. Rather, he's a scientist who was in on the ground floor of chaos theory, and found that liberation from an understanding of the universe as unforgivably strict and ordered also liberated him to be a devout Christian! I appreciate how what he says dovetails very nicely with what a few of us have been saying about creation. I hadn't really gotten into my views on science in general, but Jared via Polkinghorne seems to have opened this up for discussion.

I would like to build off the conclusions that I argued for in my Bibliology and Hermeneutics columns. I contended that God did not purge the Scripture-writers of their inaccurate views on matters of history and science. If the Bible is not divinely endowed with scientific revelation, the question becomes, who do we ask when we want to know about science? My answer is, "The scientists, of course!" They are, after all, the ones spending their lives exploring God's creation, which, no less than the Bible, is God's testimony of Himself and His ways to mankind. Like the Bible, it requires interpretation of the observations, and scientists have a part to play in that. Some might counter, "But the Bible must be interpreted by Christians, because the things of the Spirit of God are spiritually discerned and foolishness to the world, so why should we trust anything unbelievers say about their interpretation of God's testimony in the physical universe? Even if they are trying to be accurate, they are not capable." The fallacy of this lies in the latent identification of the “spiritual things” with “the facts”. The facts in any given situation are available to all. It takes no theologian to discover that the Psalms are poetry. It is readily apprehensible by all that can read or hear that “whosoever believeth on him shall have everlasting life”. None of the facts are hidden from unbelievers: what’s hidden is the meaning behind the facts, the spiritual reality that these facts represent, the “so-what”, and hence the actual substance. The facts are always subservient to the truths to which they testify. The notion that unbelievers and believers alike should be able to discern things about God’s testimony to the way He ordained the physical world is also readily obvious from experience (who would deny that non-Christians have been responsible for hundreds and hundreds of medical advances).

Christians' tendency to discount what non-Christians say about science is based on their belief that unbelieving scientists are out to try to prove a universe without God, and hence skew their data and wrap their observations around an atheistic worldview. However, they much too readily disregard the incredibly large number of scientists who are devout Christians and who are still convinced that the scientific method is on the right track in areas such as the age of the universe, evolution, etc.

Note however, that science is an ever-evolving discipline, and what we believe about things today in no way means we are satisfied with those beliefs. That's why scientists go on, critiquing one another's theories, reworking them and discarding others (for instance, even the long-held "law of gravity" from Newtonian physics is seriously challenged nowadays). Christians shouldn't be content, as many are wont, to fold their arms and say, "Well, if science admits that its propositions are not absolute truth, then I expect in the end that the scientific evidence will prove the science in the Bible correct." This is decidedly wrongheaded: since the Bible was not scientifically reviewed by God before publication, what they are calling "science in the Bible" is an anachronistic ascription of our modern desire for and methods of discovering scientific facts upon ancient cultures in which they were absent. What is the sense in secretly longing for the pre-scientific views on cosmology of the Ancient Near Eastern peoples to be vindicated as science?

My fear is that too many Christians hold on to bad science, or insert their own needlessly a posteriori presumptions into science in order to give God some “edge”; it would be so much easier to validate God’s role as creator of the universe to an unbelieving world if we could “catch Him in the act”, pointing out things for which there were no other explanation. Easier, yes. But it would be easier still for God to have just left some sort of monogram or signed His name as Xavier Roberts did the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, so why didn’t He? Let’s not forget that God has His own ways of doing things. A necessary part of humanity's mandate to subdue the earth is the effort to understand: it is the scientist's privilege to seek out the facts, and the theologian's to uncloak their meaning.

Ransom's picture

*ahem * Of course everyone's noticed that I put "a posteriori" when I meant "a priori". I hope you got the gist of my statement anyway - "creation scientists" and their ilk allow too many assumptions to influence their reasoning, rather than letting the facts uncovered by normal scientific methods guide the result of their inquiry. In other words, they know the answer before they ask the question: the purpose of their pursuit is to look for facts to back up what they already believe, rather than determining what scientific facts they believe by all evidence duly integrated.

MiddleKnowledge's picture

Thanks Stephen,

I am in essential agreement with your thoughts. I tend to come at the issue from more of a presuppositional approach rather than an evidentiary approach, but the evidence is important to deal with and understand. All truth is God's truth.

Also, I'm not sure if I'm ready to claim the Scriptures are automatically errant in regard to the descriptions of the physical universe (what we call science). How could the biblical writers err when our understanding of science and the cosmos is based on such radically different questions and assumptions as their own original context? It seems to me to err means to make a mistake by definition. In that sense, isn't the biblical data errant only when judged anachronistically by our standards?

I suppose this may be more of a semantic issue. I am in general agreement with your thoughts here, though I think the biblical material is quite reliable when judged on its own terms. You'll see what I mean in an upcoming article in the BEYOND CREATION SCIENCE series.

Some of your ideas parallel Bernard Ramm's classic book, THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SCIENCE AND SCRIPTURE. Anyone who would like to investigate these issues further should check that one out.

Blessings,

Tim Martin

paul's picture

Excellent insights and I so enjoy your articles, too. I've forwarded some to my oldest son, whose detachment from the Christian Faith has been partly about (humanly) the manner of Christians making the Bible and science into enemies. He dropped out of his profession before ever giving preterism a chance. But, he does read articles from this website, from time to time.
God bless,

Paul Richard Strange, Sr. dadprs@hotmail.com

Ransom's picture

Tim: "Also, I'm not sure if I'm ready to claim the Scriptures are automatically errant in regard to the descriptions of the physical universe (what we call science). How could the biblical writers err when our understanding of science and the cosmos is based on such radically different questions and assumptions as their own original context? It seems to me to err means to make a mistake by definition. In that sense, isn't the biblical data errant only when judged anachronistically by our standards?"

That is true to some extent, Tim. The text must always be approached on its own terms, and we must be sure we are not expecting the text to answer our questions within our cultural frame of reference. In fact, in one of my recent columns I was pointing out how some of their questions are in a sense more adequate than some of ours. At the same time, there were obvious points of mistakes and misconceptions (but notice I never used the loaded term "error"): they, insofar as they thought about matter in structural terms, would have believed the sky to be a metal dome-shaped vault (Hebrew raqiya). The fact that they had no reason or desire to question this tradition makes their misconception less grave as a scientific error, but no less incorrect in structural terms.

Did you read the second part of my Bibliology and Hermeneutics series? I address the errancy issue, as well as the fact that I believe the Bible to be trustworthy when taken on its own terms.

These small disagreements aside, I'm glad you're with me on most of this. Thanks for your comment!

JL's picture

Stephen,

To your eye-brain system, the night sky is "a metal dome-shaped vault."

Go out tonight and watch the moon rise. It looks big on the horizon. Hold each finger to it at arms length and find one that matches.

Look again after midnight. It looks smaller. Hold your finger up to it again. The moon is the same size.

Your brain accomodates by placing the moon against the inside of spherical shell. Ptolomy measured this sphere and placed it 1800 miles above our heads.

The vault is as real as the sunrise and sunset.

Thanks for the interesting article.

JL

PS. It's wrong to say that scientists are now questioning Newton's law of gravity. It was questioned 100 years ago because of problems with Mercury's orbit. Today, it is universally accepted as applying within certain limits.

Blessings,

JL Vaughn
Beyond Creation Science

Ransom's picture

Thanks for the info, JL. Of course I defer to someone more knowledgeable in this area. Very interesting!

Virgil's picture

This is decidedly wrongheaded: since the Bible was not scientifically reviewed by God before publication

Right on Stephen! I especially liked Polkinghorne's description of chopping reality into bits and pieces in order to make it fit into our own box - that never works.

Also his example of "If you ask a wave-like question of light, you will get a wave-like answer. If you ask a particle-like question, you will get a particle-like answer." Talk about a total contradiction that is actually a "valid contradiction" if ever was such a thing.

Thanks for sharing your excellent thoughts...and those who have not yet heard it, listen here to Podcast Episode 19

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