Science in Christian Perspective



Scientific Facts and Theology
President of Shelton College

From: JASA 7 (September 1955): 32-37.

I have rejoiced at the prospect of this meeting and have been very happy at the thought that we might get together, but now that the occasion has arrived and the meeting is under way, I am profoundly awed by the gathering of intelligence which is here. Being a jack of all trades and a master of none, I have serious question as to whether I shall make a very great contribution. My words will be few, relatively speaking! I follow Dr. McRae in this, that I felt it totally impossible to prepare a paper which would be at all sure to fit into the program at this juncture. I have not come without preparation, but I am speaking without a manuscript.

Here we are as theologians receiving the impact of the study of science. I believe that is the point of view from which I am intended to speak. In the course of the past years and generations, science has come to certain conclusions. These conclusions in many points impinge upon theology. What effect does this have upon theology, and particularly upon our understanding of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture? "The Bible is the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice." "The Holy Spirit did so move, guide and inspire the writers of sacred Scripture as to keep them from error."

First of all, I should like to begin with Dr. Mickelsen's word emphasized this morning, the word, "interdependence". As a person who spends most of his time on the theological side rather than on the strictly scientific side, I am very conscious that the barriers on the borderline ought to be broken down, ought to be levelled. There ought to be a constant give and take over the border. In our day of specialization, as we seek honestly, as scholars, to go deeper into our fields, there is a psychological defense mechanism which grows up round about us, which elbows off those people who do not understand our particular vocabulary. Perhaps, the theologian has more of a consciousness of an interdependency than the scientific specialist. There is need of a strong emphasis on correlation and integration of different specialties. We are very likely to lose patience with one another. I develop my particular lingo, my particular jargon. I can usually understand what Professor Paul is talking about, but when he gets 10 miles ahead of me, I go look up the words in a dictionary, and I can follow along. But then someone comes up with a formula that has brackets and radical signs that irritate me. Why not talk English? I have to discipline myself to go back and look up the meaning of those signs, if they impinge upon my field. I need to be patient and try to understand. That man has his meaning in his technical vocabulary. I must understand him, I cannot expect him to come over into my field and learn my vocabulary. I have to learn his language, if there is to be any mutual support one of another in our common task.

On different occasions, in different group where some of you have been present, I have urged a greater patience, a greater tolerance with standings which are likely to arise. emphasis should be coupled with much that has be said in the field Of semantics. I like the good old word lexicography. That suits me better than semantic Lexicography includes both sematics and phonemics according to my old fashioned way of speaking, whatever we call it we have to understand the vocabulary of one another and we have to be patient in developing this understanding of the vocabulary.

In the home of a physical scientist years ago he w showing me some of his microscopic work on polarizing light. That is far from my field of understanding, b he caused me to look through a microscope. He tol me that as the polarized light is seen through a certain piece of rock, the form of the cross appears.

So I looked into the microscope and I saw of a cross. I said, "Oh, yes, the cross is in the light, no in the rock." He said, "No, no, no, it's not in the light it's in the shadow." "Well," I said, "that is exactly what I meant." When I said "light", I meant the light-shade pattern. He thought I meant the light part of the pattern.

So we were able to get together. I accepted his vocabulary, the cross was not in the light, but in the shadow. I try to be nimble with my tongue in that way, and I think we all ought to. If we find ourselves contradicting one another I think we ought to adopt the other man's vocabulary if we can, if we can find it work able.

The relationship between volition and cognition ha been much discussed. I do not know that anyone in our generation will arise to a satisfactory defense of the propriety of admitting volition into cognition, feel very sure that there is a relationship, and a mate relationship. We are in an intellectual world of relative darkness and confusion. We have found ourselves in a deeply entangled jungle. By strenuous and patient effort to understand one another, we who have so much in common, may find a clear pathway, may find a way to a greater life, a greater liberty, a broader horizon and a deeper understanding. I feel that it is our duty to try to understand.

Our duty is to seek to use language so not merely say, "Oh, but this word in usage has such and such a meaning, so therefore your statement must be ruled out." Since vocabulary must be understood in its universe of reference, let us all try to understand one another's vocabulary in a common universe of reference in so far as we can possibly do so.

There is sometimes a tendency to make a smart answer and to throw the talk into confusion by equivocation of terms. I do not mean equivocation in the sense of falsehood, but I mean taking tern-is in usages not intended by the speaker. You have all heard the reason why fire engines are red: because newspapers are read too, and two times two is four, and three times four is twelve and twelve inches makes a ruler. Now Queen Elizabeth is a ruler. Queen Elizabeth is also a ship. A ship sails on the ocean. The ocean is full of fish and the fish have fins. The Finns fought the Russians, the Russians are Red and fire engines are always Rushin' around. Therefore fire engines are Red too.

Words have their peripheral meanings. A Biblical exegete is an ex-prize fighter because an exegete is an expounder and an ex-pounder is an ex-pugilist, and an ex-pugilist is an ex-prize fighter.

By taking peripheral meanings of the words we can throw almost any argument into confusion. But if we seek to understand and try to develop mutual interdependence, realizing that we do have different languages, I believe that we have a great area in which we can be mutually helpful one to another.

Let me remark upon a certain verbal usage of Professor VanTil's. I do not believe that there is any basic disagreement in my mind with his magnificent paper which I so much enjoyed this morning. In his illustrations and definitions he seemed to be quite in harmony with the values which I believe should be emphasized in his field. There is, however, a group of theologians who would define Biblical hermeneutics as not in the genus hermeneutics. Thomas Aquinas, you know, said "God is not in any genus".

When we say God is "good", says Thomas, we do not mean anything like what we mean when we say "good" in any other context. Well, my reaction is then that we might just as well keep still. If we do not know what we are talking about we might as well cease to "darken counsel by words without wisdom." I refuse to use a word which I cannot define. I admit that there are some words with the definition of which I might have some difficulty, but if I cannot tell you what I mean by a word, I won't use it. I shall wait until I can look it up to see what the proper usage is.

Tf God is not a being, if God is not a substantive entity, if God is not a hypostasis with attributes, and if there are not other beings, then we do not have any God, we do not have any creation.

I feel we ought to take the position that Biblical hermeneutics is a branch of hermeneutics. I feel that every particular branch has its own specialty, but I feel that in the Bible we must recognize the laws of hermeneutics, general laws of hermeneutics, as Prof. VanTil emphasized magnificently this morning.

I feel that it is a special case that the Bible is the Word of God. That God is the ultimate source of the Bible does not change the fact that Biblical exegesis is a special branch of hermeneutics.

A color-blind man could not be competent in the exegesis of books on painting or books involving the discussion of color or the printing or sampling of color. A color-blind man may have cognition of color. He may figure out how to read the traffic lights by watching the rest of the traffic; he may know red, and green, etc., but he cannot have the experience of it. Therefore, though he may have cognition he cannot give competent pronouncements. I think that is a fair illustration of the fact that spiritual things are spiritually judged. The born-again man is the only one who can know, experientially, the meaning of the Twenty-Third Psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd ... He restoreth my soul." No one who is not regenerated can know what these words mean. The unregenerate man can know the definitions of the words. He may even be able to define the denotations of the statements, but he is bound to assimilate the meaning to some merely humanistic category.

The same thing is true of other specialties. There must be a particular experience in order to the understanding of many different specialized kinds of literature. I feel that the common ground that we have between science and theology should cause us to avoid the thought that Biblical hermeneutics is not in the genus, hermeneutics. My quarrel on the subject is really a quarrel of words, as far as the paper of this morning is concerned.

Much has been said about scientific method and the fact that no two people define it alike. I spent a considerable amount of time studying John Dewey's "five steps" and proved to my own satisfaction that he never intended those steps to be counted as five steps because when he describes what he thinks the scientific method is, he never describes it twice alike. Sometimes he has six steps, sometimes four, and sometimes seven. He simply had the idea that in scientific procedure, we meet a problem, we need to find the problem, we need to work out the hypothesis, we experiment around, we verify our hypothesis, and then we apply it to the situation. Sometimes it adds up to five steps and sometimes not. The very prevalent idea that John Dewey taught a five-step philosophy of science, I think, comes from the fact that so many high-school teachers studied Education and Democracy and in that particular one of his many books, the scientific method happens to add up to five steps. The scientific method is something very wonderful, but something upon which it is difficult to agree.

In the Mein Kampf of naturalism, Naturalism and the Human Spirit, Costello sums up the matter by saying that there are two things in which naturalists agree: One is that there is no God, and the other is that they are in favor of the scientific method; but none of them know what it is. That was Costello's summary. Randall in his summary agrees as far as the scientific method is concerned. The naturalists are all in favor of the scientific method, but there are no two of them who would define it in the same way.

So I rush in where angels fear to tread, to define scientific method. The investigation of the world of nature has given us two great principles, first, recognition of the law of contradictories, and the second, recognition of the principle of causality. I do believe that consciously or unconsciously every person who is worthy of being called a scientist believes in the law of contradictories; that is, two contradictory propositions cannot both be true. I believe that that principle is very important for theology. And I feel that coming into contact with people who emphasize the consistency of truth, the integration of truth, as they make progress in their fields, has cured many theologies of an irrational mysticism, and has brought us out into the open sunlight of the truth of God. If I am right in saying that the progress of science has meant directly or indirectly a recognition of the law of contradictories, I feel that this has been very helpful to Biblical hermeneutics.

Paul says in his second epistle to Timothy, God cannot deny Himself." It is impossible for Him to deny Himself. In his epistle to Titus he says, "God who cannot lie." The author of the epistle of Hebrews (Heb. 6:18) says "It is impossible for God to lie." There have been theologians who represented God as contradicting Himself and then somehow decreeing that the contradiction should not be false. Having met scientific men who are seeking to be consistent, and not contradict themselves, I, personally, have rejoiced in the fact that the Bible teaches that God does not contradict Himself, He cannot deny Himself. The truth is the truth.

This does not mean that the truth is superior to God. God's own character is truth. I feel a responsibility as a theologian, to adhere to the truthfulness of truth. There are paradoxes in the sense of apparent contradictions, but I find myself unable to live with paradoxes. If you find a contradiction in the principles in which you are devising a certain machine or certain scientific process you cannot rest there, you sit up nights, you work, you study, you investigate and you find your error.

One time, twenty-two years after I had my university degree, I found that my mathematics was very weak. I took the University of Chicago refresher course in mathematical analysis, and then I went on and took more. In the process of my studies I found a triangle, a plane triangle, the three angles of which were greater than two right angles. It was quite late at night and my eyes were blurred with scholarship. What did I do, go out and write a book and revolutionize the world? No, I just took a couple of hours longer, until I found my mistake! We as theologians, cannot just close our eyes and sing "Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love". I believe in holding hands and singing that song, but I do not believe that that is the cure of paradoxes. I feel that we are responsible before the world's intellectual conscience to present the truth of God consistently. Not that we claim that eve seems perfectly to harmonize. Of course there problems; but we present an integrated system d doctrine of which no one needs to be intellectually ashamed. The scientific world has stimulated me to the integration of truth, and I feel it has stimulated many other teachers of theology in the same way. 

The law of causality: Immediately we fall into arguments of terminology. I have a feeling that Hume denying the law of causality in the physical world, j gave another name to causality. It's notorious t Hume frequently asked the question, What is the cause of this absurd notion of causality? He told what thought the cause was, falling back on causality, intellectually, to get rid of causality in the physical world. Whether they call it causality or not, or whether th merely call it uniformity of nature, I believe that scientific world has made a great contribution in emphasizing that this is a world of causal relationships.

I can not say this without getting into metaphysics. I believe that the world is really there, and that t North American continent existed before the Nor men discovered it. Before it was in any human record it bad a Dasein and a Sosein. There it was and so was, and then later on it was discovered. I believe that the facts of geology were there before there were any human beings. They were there to be discovered.

The law of causality as carefully stated by Christian scientific men never rules out miracles. You know the experiment we all had in beginning chemistry, when we got hydrogen from zinc and sulphuric acid. I once said to a student, "Suppose that you fix up your apparatus and then you are otherwise occupied for a little time When you come back to your apparatus there's hydrogen in the bell jar. What would you say?"

"That is impossible," he said. "The law of the uniformity of nature requires that there shall be hydroger there." The question was very stupid, but I said, "Sup pose it wasn't there." "It's got to be there," said he "The stars in their courses would not go round if the hydrogen isn't there." Once more I said "But if it isn't there, what would you think?" Very indignantly he said, "Then somebody interfered with the experiment." That is exactly what I meant. Somebody did something.

In the best regulated laboratory in the world somebody can do something. And that is all we mean when we believe in a miracle. We do not tradition in the laws of logic but Almighty God is a person, that He can do something, and He can operate upon nature if He chooses to do so. If the dead uniformly remain dead, and throughout all the course of human history dead it does not follow that God dead. If the wages of sin is death, and this is a part of the historical uniformity of nature, it does not follow that God cannot give the gift of life. The gift of God is eternal life through Christ. The laws of causality give me, as a theologian, the very basis for discriminating the acts of God. If I could not believe that, other things being equal, the laws of causality do not change, I should have no way of recognizing a miracle. A miracle is a personal act; John's word is a "sign". A miracle is a sign of a Cause of the unusual event; a sign of a direct action of God. We can recognize a miracle only if we know something of the relative uniformity of the natural process.

I.- me just say a word in defense of my good old friend, Adam Smith. I have taught economics and I love the subject. Examine the books on economics, and I think without exception in every book that has any scholarly recognition, from Adam Smith on down you will find the phrase ceteris paribus, other things being equal. All they claim when they talk about economic laws is that other things being equal, such and such processes will occur. Economic laws are quite regularly stated thus by the economists. So it is in the statement of other laws of nature.

Let me mention certain individual matters that have to do with science; science discovered that the world is round. Some people thought that theology was upset. We now have no problem at all. We look into the Bible in vain for any declarative teaching which indicates that the world is not round.

Science discovered that the earth is not the center of the material universe. Right up to the current date you find atheistic philosophers, and people in other fields, saying that since the Copernican revolution, theology is relegated to mythology. I do not find any disturbance in my theology in the least, since we know that the practical way of viewing astronomy does not take the earth as the center of the universe.

Consider the vastness of the material universe. I am quite intrigued by it. I have heard reputable scholars in other fields say, Now, since the great 200 inch telescope reveals the vastness of the universe, where is your Bible? David the shepherd, in the plains of Palestine, keeping his sheep, knew nothing says. of these things. The answer had been given long before the 200 inch telescope. The vastness of the universe has been emphasized in the past generation. I remember Dr. Dow, a very learned woman. Some of you sat in her classes, and heard her say. "In the Eighth Psalm I find all that is relevant as to the vast ness of the universe, and now that mathematically I know that it is far far greater, so far as distances are concerned, than David probably thought it to be, still I cannot find anything relevant to rny theology. David knew that this was a mighty big universe. Far too big for our emotional comprehension." The new discovery of the vastness of the universe has actually not been the God of the Bible.

The antiquity of the universe has been a problem to some theologians, those who regard Ussher's dates printed in the King James Version of the Bible as a part of the Bible, and who read 4004 B.C. at the top of the first page. There are still some Christian people who have those views, but I think most educated Christian people know that the Bible does not give you the date of creation. Simply, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Now, by a convergence of evidence, the physicists of astronomy have come to some figures, the physical universe is four or five billion years old. That is all very interesting but I would say that it simply drives me deeper into the Scriptures and it makes the l9th Psalm and the 8th Psalm and certain astronomical references in Amos and in Isaiah far more wonderful. The vastness of it all!
 Physical Changes In Universe
Another item of development in modern science which impinges upon theology, is the notion of nature of the physical earth. This earth as a physical body is going through certain stages. In all probability it will, one of these days, burn up. It is not made as a settled permanent dwelling for the human race. Now it is a training camp for us. It had a previous history, and it is going on into an uninhabitable stage. Those who have taken the verses referring to the "everlasting hills" as teaching that the hills are mathematically everlasting, that there never will be any change in the shapes of the mountain ranges or anything of that kind, have misunderstood the Scripture. "The everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow." (Habakkuk 3:6) The Bible really tells us that "the things that are seen are proskairos, the things that are seen are temporary." Peter tells us that this sidereal universe is headed for a cataclysm and that God is going to make a new heaven a new earth. Whether He will use the same atoms or not does not concern me. The temporal qualities of the physical earth, the past history and the future probable development are not in any sense contrary to what the Bible says.

The Expanding Universe

Emotionally, I have been disturbed more by the  theory of the expanding universe. I cannot find a sentence in the Bible that contradicts it, but it bothers  me. Why should God have done it that way? I thought that He just put together a nice little piece of mud, and fixed up this earth, and spun it around, f ixed the sun and the stars up there to give light, and then worked out His plan for men on the earth. Well, now that is my childish picture. The Bible does not tell me that. The expanding universe, think of it! All these bodies receding from some primitive explosion which set  them off. It is disturbing, but theologically I cannot  find any difficulty. Personally, I have come through the emotional negative reaction and I have looked up to heaven an said, "Lord, I accept the universe," whether it is expanding or not.

I have read of an alternative possibility. There may be a fatigue factor in light as it travels through vast astronomical distances, and possibly this accounts for the skewing of the spectrum, rather than the expansion of the universe. I still, in my old age, hope that the universe will slow down in its rapid expansion, but I can settle that wish as a purely emotional childish reaction. It does not affect my theology, it does not affect any verse in the Scripture. If God chose to do it that way, then that is the way He chose to do it. Let us go on and study and see what happens.

In my own experience one of the most troublesome problems right now, a question among our friends, is the problem of the antiquity of man. I have spoken on this before so I shall not repeat myself. If you will compare the genealogy in Matthew, chapter 1 ; with the genealogies in the Old Testament, you will be driven to the conclusion that what the Hebrews meant when they gave geneologies was not continuous history, but highpoints. Matthew was not a simpleton. I discovered a year or so ago that Nagel and Cohen in their "Logic" cite Matthew's geneology as an illustration of the fact that any false witness ought to be thrown out of court. Matthew gives you 3x14 equals 40, they say. Obviously, 3x14 does not equal 40. Therefore, everything that Matthew has to say should be thrown out.

Matthew was not talking about figures to add up. He gives you 14 names, then the last name in this column is the first one in the next. The fourteens are for mnemonic purposes, to help you remember. The last name in this 14 is the first one in the next, so children can memorize the list most easily. Matthew knew what three times 14 would equal mathematically The Gospel of Matthew has been one of the most influential pieces of literature in all human culture, and it was not written by a nitwit. He just did not intend his figures to add up. He did not mean 3x14 in a mathematical equation, but three sets of 14 names with the overlapping of one name in each particular set. That is what he meant by what he said.

It is also very clear, that when Matthew said so and so begat so and so, he did not mean, that so and so was the immediate pro-genitor in the line of physiological heredity. ."Begat" in Matthew's vocabulary very clearly means "was the predecessor of". So and so could have been the great great grandson, or an adopted son, or nephew. What he meant was to give three sets of fourteen outstanding names. He wrote for people who knew the Old Testament. He wrote for people who were greatly interested in their own geneologies, people who would immediately recognize that he had left out many names. He never intended his list to be added up.

There are other illustrations that would be interesting for some of the Old Testament scholars to work out, illustrations of the principle as it occurs in other Old Testament geneologies. The fact is that when the Hebrews gave their geneologies, they did not pretend that the lists could be added up. They in ended to give summaries only, with indefinite gaps understood.

I feel therefore, that the question of the antiquity of man is no problem for theology. Personally, I am convinced that there are human remains far older than 4004, B.C. You find definitely human remains in layers of limestone indicating great antiquity. The was a "Java man". When did he live? I do not know but I am sure he lived somewhere in the 5th chapter of Genesis ' maybe in a gap, or maybe he was one those named. The 5th chapter of Genesis is not intended to give figures that can be added up. Perhaps the names are dynasties in many instances. At a rate there is no intention to indicate that there we no gaps and gaps there surely were.

Now I did not invent this interpretation for myself to protect myself against scientific facts. I read the same explanation in substance in Davids' Bible Diction ary long before I ever saw convincing evidence of the great antiquity of man. John P. Davis of the old Princeton, that great scholar, discussed the geneology of Genesis and showed that we do not have any data in the Bible as to the antiquity of man. If the Bible does not give you any data as to the antiquity of man we do not need to create a battle, where no battle exists.


I would say one final word with reference to the "Probability" question. I am greatly intrigued by what has been said here. Charles Saunders Pierce, the great logician, wrote a magnificent article on "Proba bility" in Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy. He give the essential principles of what has been said here to day though he does not go into the intricacies. There have been many very significant developments in recent years in probability theories, but I think Pierce has the logic of probabilities quite well worked out in the article.

The logic of probability in science does impinge upon theology. Suppose we say that all scientific argu ment is probability argument. Many scientists would say that. There have been silly scientists, or may great scientists who had a silly streak, who have said "Science gives you absolute truth." It does not, an generally speaking, it does not claim to. We have been told today, very effectively that as economics says ceteris paribus, so scientific statements say Within certain limits of error the probabilities are such and such. The problem is, if scientific statements a probability statements, what kind of a statement can you get in human language that does not in some way contain this element of probability? You have, the old theistic arguments, your inductive arguments for the, existence of God, & arguments stated in the first chapter of Romans and other portions of the Scriptures. The invisible attributes of God, His eternal power and divine character, are known, since the creation of the world, by the things that are made, so that men are without excuse. This is the cosmological argument. But if that turns out to be a probability" argument, are these men without excuse? Paul says they are. If there is a strong probability that this building is going to collapse over our heads, we have a moral responsibility to do something about it. The Bible teaches that men are morally responsible for their rejection of the Gospel. They are without excuse. The evidence is so overwhelming.

I believe in tomorrow morning's sunrise. I am orienting my life toward it. I expect to set my alarm clock, if I need to, with reference to it. I never saw tomorrow rnorning's sunrise. I think it is going to come. Probably it will. Everything is for it, nothing is against it. Yet I am more sure of the Gospel than I am of tomorrow's sunrise.

As a theologian, I would say, a probable argument is something quite different from a probable truth. A probable argument that you are going to fall down on the ice and bump your head does not mean just a probable bump when the bump comes. A probable argument for a sunrise does not mean that the sunrise is only probable. Probability relates to proposition, or statements, or arguments, or relates to expressions of opinion. The facts of the ontological universe are there. Or they are going to be there when the time comes, so that the emphasis on the part of modern science upon the nature of reasoning, the probability of reasoning, to me is not disturbing. When I preach a sermon I might make an error in something which I might say, but that does not mean that the Gospel I preach is only probable. The Gospel is revealed from heaven. God came down, lived upon this earth, and after His resurrection. He showed Himself to His disciples by many infallible proofs. He did not say, You must receive me mystically, by some nth dimension, and adhere to faith in me contrary to the evidence. He said "Handle me and see." One of the most beautiful expressions bearing upon the correlation of science and theology is in those words of Christ, "Handle and see." The resurrection of Jesus Christ was in tangible form. His body was supernatural but it was tangible. He presented Himself to His disciples by many infallible proofs, by the space of 40 days. "Handle me and see." So the Lord has given us good evidence and the scientist increases our appreciation of it.