Science in Christian Perspective
Some Basic Points Suggested for a Christian Philosophy of Science*
R. LAIRD HARRIS
of Old Testament, Covenant College,
St. Louis, Missouri
A Christian philosophy of science will include rather obvious portions of Christian truth-theism, that there is a personal God; creation, that the material world is not independent of or explainable apart from God; a universe of law, that just anything cannot happen; and teleology, that God's purposes cannot be ruled out of His universe. These items and doubtless others could hardly be excluded from a Christian philosophy of science.
But a Christian philosophy of science will include much more. If it be truly Christian it will be a Biblical philosophy of science. Weaver in a fine article in the A.S.A. Journal, June, 1954, refers to Machen as saying that a religion not accepting the Bible has no right to be called Christian. By this -standard I fear much of Christianity today is miscalled. For there is an alarming willingness today to let go of the Bible in the interest of any new theory. But Machen is right. Christianity has been a book religion from the beginning. Indeed it accepted the O.T. book at the start. All branches of Christendom in their creeds, and leading theologians have believed in an entirely true Bible. A Christian philosophy of anything should include the Bible as absolutely and entirely true. We need not take time now more than to state this point. I have argued it elsewhere.
I fear many scientists, even of Christian persuasion, do not realize how great a stake Christian theologians have in the Bible. Suppose some new experiment might prove that Moses could not live to 120 years of age. What difference would it make? Both modernists and neo-orthodox would say, "No difference." But the truth of the O.T. would be impugned, the authority of Christ denied, and thus the basis of our faith undermined. It is not a light matter.
Therefore, let no scientist think that he has a private hunting ground in which he can be happy. Theologians may not know much science. But they know a little bit very well. They do not speak with dogmatism born of intuition or external authority. But they speak with an assurance born of confidence in the Bible based on other and highly rational grounds.
The case is similar with history. The Bible does not give us a complete book of ancient history. But it tells us that Pharaoh Necho's troops killed Josiah. That fact I believe, realizing that it is based on the
* Paper read at the Fourteenth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation at Chicago, Illinois, June, 1959.
Notice, I do not accept the Bible because its claims are subject to scientific examination. Most of them are not. What controlled experiment or repeated observation can prove the basic facts of the Gospel? Nevertheless, the Gospel is based on fact. It is the observed historic fact and testimony to Christ and His supernatural revelation. The basis for Christianity surely includes matters of inductive reasoning from known and observable facts. There are other reasons as well. The Holy Spirit, a Person just as we are persons, also testifies directly and personally to us concerning the central truths of Christ and our salvation through Him. Together these witnesses are entirely -adequate to establish truth, even though they cannot be checked by controlled repeatable experiment. The scientific method cannot verify a once-for-all event unless the scientist happens to have been there at the time. The event may nonetheless be in the realm of the physical world and taken as true with an equal confidence.
This formulation is not agreed to by all. Albright says that before the tomb of Jesus, history fails and faith begins. TWs is a form of the two-spheres-of-truth theory. Neo-orthodoxy says that no material, scientific, or historical truth can be a revelation of spiritual truth. It would deny that Christianity has any conflicts with science or history because, it says, Christianity does not and cannot base itself on science or history. Neo-orthodoxy,has departed from the Bible in this point as in others.
We should warn against -the opposite extreme that would overemphasize the con-tact of the Bible and science. The Bible has far less contact with science -than with history. This may be accidental and because of the recent date of scientific discovery, but at least it is obvious. There have been attempts to find scientific discoveries anticipated in the Bible, but the results have been unfortunate in most cases. For instance, "as birds flying" (Isaiah 31:5) will the Lord defend Jerusalem has been taken to refer to airplanes. In most such cases probably the fault is in rather elementary errors of interpretation.
Some famous examples do no more justice to scientists than to Bible expositors. For instance, was Jonah's whale a fish? This is a rather foolish question. The answer depends on your definition. If a fish is a creature of a certain Linnaean classification, then a whale is not a fish. But in that case you should not buy oysters at a fish counter. Obviously the Bible does not observe Linnaean classifications, but it is not thereby wrong.
Likewise Solomon's laver gives us a ratio of 3 for Pi. It was 30 cubits around and 10 cubits across. This, too, is no problem. It may not have been a perfect circle, or it may have had a flared rim, or the dimensions may be approximate. There is obviously a non-technical language and a popular approximation in the Bible quite consistent with the statement that the Bible is true when it speaks on scientific matters. The extent to which it speaks should be carefully observed.
The Bible, we find, speaks on scientific matters, and I am referring to the natural sciences. We are assured by Christ of its absolute truth. It does not cover all Of science; in fact it touches very little. But in those contacts are the possibilities of conflict. When unfortunate misinterpretations are eliminated and regrettable antagonistic bias of naturalist scientists is discounted, still there are possibilities of conflict in various areas of contact.
We should emphasize that there is not a general conflict of science and the Bible. Christianity does not object to the scientific method of hypothesis, experiment, and generalization. Neither does Christianity base itself on that method. It is only in details that there is conflict. It is a misconception to imply that because a theologian objects to evolution that -he therefore should not use telephones and refrigerators. It is a caricature to point to an alleged theologian who refused to look into a telescope for fear of what he would see! The repression of scientists by theologians has been occasional but not usual. The Roman Church of the Middle Ages did this some, but the Bible was not its guide. No Reformation creed seems at all disturbed about the discoveries of Galileo or Magellan. Cotton Mather opposed inoculation, but no church made anything of it. His great contemporary, Jonathan Edwards, accepted inoculation--and died as a consequence! May I warn against accepting at face value the evidence presented on these things by White in his "History of the Warfare of Science and Religion." A more biased book you could hardly find!
A Christian philosophy of science should accept the Bible to be true when fairly interpreted in all of its teaching. I should like to insist upon the primacy of the Bible even in those matters where conflict arises. Dr. Weaver in the above article. offers five views of such conflict:a. There are two spheres of truth. He rejects this.
Weaver accepts the last. It appears to me to be practically the same as the one before it. Both accept the primacy of Christianity-I should prefer to say, of the Bible. If a conflict exists, naturally the Scripture interpretation should be re-examined. But there are limits to this. Dr. Machen used to object to those who reinterpret the creed "that He rose again on the third day" so as to make it mean that "He did not rise again on the third day"! There are limits to interpretation. Noah's flood simply cannot be interpreted to be a local Euphrates freshet. The Virgin Birth cannot be interpreted away. You believe i-t or you don't! It is half of our job to find these essential points in Scripture interpretation. We believe that the Scriptures, fairly and critically interpreted in the light of all our knowledge, are true.
It follows that we do not believe in the primacy of science. A scientific theory may be good or had. Our theory of oxidation may be correct or the old phlogiston theory could be correct for all we know as theologians, Newtonian gravitation might be right or Einstein, as far as the Scriptures are concerned.
The Bible may speak and does speak on certain basic assumptions of science--causality, rationality, regularity of natural process, etc. But on most of the domain of science-no. Science then is free to discover all it can.
But as we have said, there are limits. 1 know that behavioristic psychology is wrong. I do not know much psychology. Others, who knew far more than I, were convinced it was right. But the Bible, being a revelation from the all-knowing God, offers a weight of evidence against behavorism that overbalances, not science, but certain scientists and their particular conclusions. For the Bible gives some information about what man is. He is a creature somewhat independent of cerebral and bodily processes. He outlasts the cerebrum and embodied life. He lives when his bio chemical functions are done.
Also the Bible speaks on the origin of man. Not only does it speak in general terms, but Christ himself specifically speaks of our first parents and their creation. I know, being informed by higher wisdom, that there was not a multiplicity -of early brute men slowly attaining moral consciousness. The Scriptures simply say that God formed man of the dust of the ground, breathed into him the breath of life, and he became alive. I argued this at our A.S.A. meeting in Gordon in 1957 and one of those present picked Delitzsch's commentary from the nearby shelves and quoted it against this view. But Delitzsch was misquoted and this view has sound exegetical foundation. I believe it will stand critical exegetical study. The last word has not yet been said by science on the origin of man. I am convinced that when it is said, it will be in accord with the plain teaching of Genesis. Until science comes to that view, I shall resist its conclusions in this area and encourage every investigation to bring out more of the relevant truth on the matter.
Other such points of contact are the age of man, the origin of species, the age of the earth, the origin of life, the universality of the flood, the relation of miracles and natural laws, and doubtless a few others.
It was planned that this paper and this whole meeting should not deal with these items, but rather with the philosophical approach to them. This is well, for each item is a study in itself. Yet I am not so sure that we need a specialized Christian philosophy of science as we need a continuing patient scientific study of -these items by men who hold doggedly to the primacy of the Scriptures. I for one am convinced that the usual evolutionary approach to these items is wrong. I believe scientists at last will see it. I believe many of them have such a bias against creationism that they have allowed a false theory to dominate their thinking. They are far from objective. I believe that as archaeology has demonstrated the falsity of the Wellhausen higher criticism, so science will show the falsity of evolution. But in the meantime much harm is done to the Christian faith by those not willing to accept the primacy of the Bible in such matters.
A Christian philosophy of science appreciates science. It gives non-Christian scientists, who also are, by common grace, men capable of observation and investigation, free rein for study. But scientists err. Sin is in the world with its disordering of nature and warping of our minds. Scientists, like the rest of us, are sometimes wrong. The high priests of science also need to offer first for their own sins!
One book, however, we can trust. Our investigation of nature may be largely right. It is on the other hand partly wrong. In just those parts where scientists deny the Book, they are wrong. Often their very errors are the results of prejudice. One does not wish to believe in miracles, or the fall of our first parents. But giving the Bible its place as a prime source of evidence, we shall patiently investigate all these problems until they also yield solution.
I do not believe in two spheres of truth without contact. I do not believe that there is a Christian science and a non-Christian science. I am not a disciple of Dooyeweerd on this point. I believe truth is one. The Bible is all true. But it is not all of truth. Scientists both Christian and non-Christian have an ability and a duty to investigate to the full the spatic-temporal world. But this, too, is not all of reality. Nor is truth discoverable by scientific method all the truth there is. And where the book of nature and of revelation conflict, I believe eventually we shall see a solution honoring to the Bible fairly and critically interpreted.