Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 16 (March 1964): 4-7.

Three types of issues critical to the Christian Church are problems that disturb or divide it, ideas that influence it, and conflicts between it and the non-Christian community. Today these include questions about the method of science, the purpose of scientific pursuits, the supernatural character of historic Christianity, the interpretation of the Bible at points where it seems to conflict with science, and the communication of Christian truth.


Before beginning to list or categorize the issues that seem to me to be important, let us examine what makes an issue critical to the Church. There are at least three bases that might make a topic critical or worthy of the attention of such a group as the American Scientific Affiliation. All of these affect the life and work of the Church. That is, from the Christian perspective critical issues are not limited to fundamental philosophical assumptions; they include trivial matters that might affect the work of the Body of Christ. Three types of issues are these:

1) Problems or issues that disturb or divide members of the church are critical. This is true regardless of how small the issue itself is. It is not trivial to bring dissension into the Church; any issue that does this is worthy of some concern. For example, there are American churches of Germanic origin that have a major problem over the question of whether or not the German language should be used. From most perspectives this appears to be a trite matter, but for the group facing the issue it is important. Not only is the subject matter itself important, but the attitudes of people toward each other, regardless of what subject is immediately involved, are of fundamental importance in any Christian Brotherhood. An issue is important not only because of its effect on interpersonal relationships, but also because of its effect on the life and thinking of an individual. Regardless of how insignificant the rest of a community may judge an issue to be, if it constitutes a genuine problem to a given individual, it is critical to him. This is not to imply, however, that the rest of a community should spend a lot of time discussing the issue; it does mean they should take it seriously.

2) An idea or position may be critical if it has consequences that are likely to affect the Church. The slow erosion of a basic pillar of truth or the subtle change of assumptions may have logical consequences that are bound to be reaped at a later time. For example, Dr. Moberg has pointed out that the concept of "Social Determinism" has serious implications for the doctrine of "free will." (See his paper in this issue of the Journal.)

* Slightly revised version of an address presented at the 18th annual convention of the ASA held at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif., Aug. 19-23, 1963.
** Dr. Weaver is Professor of Chemistry, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, and a past president of the ASA.

In a similar manner some issues will affect the Church, but are unnoticed by most or all who are in the Church. What I mean to suggest here is that we need to have humility about our ability to decide what is critical or relevant. In the light of history one can look back and decide that certain beliefs or actions had unfortunate consequences for the Church or some other group, but these may have gone unnoticed by those contemporary to the problem. For example, if the fall of Rome was really caused by internal moral decay, as some historians suggest, the moral decay was apparently unnoticed or at least not considered important by many involved in the decay. As a practical matter, therefore, we need to be open to the voice of the prophet who helps us see the importance of issues we face.

3) An issue is certainly important when it involves a conflict with the non-Christian community. This is obvious. In spite of the confusion on the attitude of the Church toward astronomical views in the day of Copernicus, it was a critical issue even though the problem was not primarily a difference between the viewpoints of the Church and Science.

To summarize, it seems to me that any issue that a given group of believers find themselves concerned about is in a sense "critical" and worthy of some discussion by that group, but it is also possible that there are equally vital issues which they do not recognize.


It would be presumptuous for any person to suggest that he knows all the critical issues of a group, so I shall present a composite of the thinking of a number of people. As was reported in the April 12, 1962, issue of the ASA News Letter, I wrote to a number of Christian leaders and asked them, "What is the most critical issue that modern science poses to the Christian Church today?" Drawing primarily from these responses, I suggest that five major areas of concern need further consideration. There undoubtedly are many more, but these rank high in my estimation.

1) 1 believe that the most important issue we face today has to do with the method of science. Much of this subject might be placed under the title of "scientism." Logical Positivists at least in some instances state explicitly that the only reality is empirically determined reality. The average working scientist is not as aware of his assumptions, but normally he relies on the same basic assumption. Here are the words of several respondents to my query:

Carl F. H. Henry, Editor of Christianity Today: "The most critical issue, as I see it, is this: Does the limited methodology on which modern science insists exclude knowledge of the ultimate real?"

George K. Schweitzer, Associate Professor of Chemis. try, University of Tennessee: "The most critical issue that modern knowledge has posed to the Christian Faith is that of the validation of religious assertions. (The age-old question: How do you know?)"

Ian G. Barbour, Associate Professor of Religion and Physics, Carleton College; author of Christianity and the Scientist: "I think that among students and the more 'intellectual' portion of the country, the biggest challenge to religion today comes not from any questions of the content of either science or religion, but rather from questions about their methods-in particular, the assumption that the methods of science are the only road to knowledge."

William G. Pollard, Executive Director, Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies; author of Chance and Providence and Physicist and Christian: "I feel that the most critical issue posed by modern science for the Christian Church today is the strong bias against the apprehension of any transcendent or supernatural reality beyond the limits of space, time, and matter, which the study and pursuit of science engenders."

Bernard Ramm, Professor of Religion, Baylor University (now California Baptist Theological Seminary); author of The Christian View of Science and Scriptures, and other books: "If science shows us how sentences assert and how they are verified or falsified, how is it that theological sentences assert and how are they verified?"

Robert M. Page, Director of Research, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory: "I would say that the most critical issue posed by modern science is the denial of the supernatural, placing upon the Christian Church the burden of proof."

One might also include in the area of concern about methodology the problem or perhaps opportunity that is inherent in the rather recent wave of awareness in the writings of physical, biological and social scientists of a significant change in what they think they are doing. The concept of the "model" which is true if it is useful, and useful if it can predict, is certainly gaining prominence over the older concept of "finding reality." This change in mood completely removes some problems of the past, but it also bears discussion by concerned Christians.

2) A second area that urgently needs attention by Christians in science is the question of purpose in scientific pursuits. There is the obvious problem of the extent to which the scientist accepts moral responsibility for his work or the results of his work. This is a most acute problem to the man of pure research who frequently has not even an inkling of whether the fruits of his labor will more likely be used for the betterment or to the detriment of mankind, to use but one criterion. To those of us with utilitarian-oriented backgrounds there is always the question of the value of doing something for which we do not see usable results. To what extent is scientific endeavor a valid occupation for the Christian in a world with an abundance of scientists and a scarcity of Christian workers? In short, the scientist cannot escape the basic question faced by every Christian of the meaning and purpose of his vocation. Here are the comments of several others:

J. Lawrence Burkholder, Associate Prof. of Pastoral Theology, Harvard Divinity School: "It seems to me,
that the main problem has to do with the ultimate end or purpose of science. What are scientists doing?
We are living, as you know, in a scientific world, that is, the world which is dominated in almost all areas
by scientific achievement. The question is really a religious question insofar as it raises the question of
final purpose."

William Hordern, Prof. of Systematic Theology, Gar rett Biblical Institute; author of A Layman's Guide to
Protestant Theology:
"Modern science, having put into the hands of man unprecedented power for good or
evil, while it is itself incapable of providing ethical direction or spiritual power for the use of its discoveries, has placed a new challenge to Christian ethics and Christian living."

C. A. Coulson, Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, Oxford University, author of Science, Technology and
the Christian,
and other publications: "The most im portant issue which science poses to the Christian
Church today is an understanding of the purpose for which human beings exist, without which they can
not possibly make use of the new power which science provides."

3) A third area that could profitably receive the at tention of scientists who are also Christians is the
supernatural character of the historic Christian faith. In a sense, there is nothing new about the problems
raised by the miracles or non-repetitive acts of God, but the very existence of such a term as "demythologize" indicates a pertinent problem for those concerned with the use of the Scriptures. Pollard in Chance and
spends considerable effort in discussing this topic. It is worthy of attention.

G. D. Yarnold, Warden, St. Deiniol's Library, Haward en, author of The Spiritual Crisis of the Scientific Age, replied: "While the discoveries of the natural sciences, by widening the horizons of the human mind, must be
reckoned among the blessings of Almighty God, it seems to me that the most critical issue, which the
Church has to face, is that of taking the new knowl edge into its own thinking in such a manner as to do
full justice to the Supernatural Character of its his toric faith."

Emile Cailliet, Prof. of Philosophy (retired), Prince ton Theological Seminary, author of The Recovery of
and other works: "While scientists solely ruled by their intellect submit to the factualness of events which seem to defy common sense, theologians too readily reduce the factualness of New Testament
Christianity to the mythical-ultimately because their apprehensions of God's mysteries do not square with
the anthropomorphic ways of imagination."

4) Perhaps not fundamentally different from the above concern is a fourth kind of issue, the problem of under standing the Word of God at those points where it appears to be in conflict with current scientifically oriented thought. Even though some of the specific issues involved may seem to have been overworked in the past, and undoubtedly some of them have been the focus of attention until no further attention seems relevant, areas of concern here will continue to reappear with each new scholar on the scene. When any of us has received peace of mind with respect to specific problems in this area after deep spiritual and mental anguish, we are inclined to consider the issue to be no longer relevant or critical. We must not forget that each new scholar must face each issue in person. Here are some specific replies that were in this general area:

Gordon H. Clark, Professor of Philosophy, Butler University: "I might say that the one overwhelming issue is the truth of the Bible. However, I might give a more technical reply by quoting a bit of Ernest Nagel's presidential address to the American Philosophical Association:

"The occurrence of events, qualities, and processes, and the characteristic behaviors of various individuals, are contingent on the organization of spatio-temporally located bodies, whose internal structures and external relations determine and limit the appearance and disappearance of everything that happens . . . There Is no place for the operation of disembodied forces, no place for an immaterial spirit directing the course of events, no place for the survival of personality after the corruption of the body which exhibits it."

J. Oliver Buswell, Jr., Dean of Graduate Study, Covenant College and Theological Seminary: "Inasmuch as Christianity is centered in the atonement of Christ, 'The most critical issue that modern science poses to the Christian Church today' is the relation of the sin of Adam to the atonement of Christ, as set forth in Romans 5:12-21, as this relationship may be affirmed, doubted, or denied by the theories of the origin of the human race."

H. J. Eckelmann, Research Associate, Cornell University, has more recently written Dr. Elving Anderson, "Answering your invitation to submit what we feel to be the most important question in the area of science and Christian faith I offer two. 1) What at the present are the best known evidences for the existence of God?, 2) What at the present are the best known evidences for the inspiration of the scriptures . . . ?"

Morrill C. Tenney, Dean of the Graduate School, Wheaton College: "I would say that perhaps the most critical question is the age of man and its relationship to the Biblical doctrine of creation."

David W. Kerr, Acting Dean, Gordon Divinity School: "In one sentence, I would say that to my mind the most critical issue that modern science poses to the Christian Church today is whether a belief in Divine creation can be reconciled to the idea of the origin of life from amino acids or other primitive protein substances."

5) Finally I would like to suggest that we should be concerned with the problem of communicating Chris tian truth in a world dominated by scientific vocabulary. The concern here is both for the problem of presenting the Gospel to the twentieth century man of science and the problem of sharing with others in the Christian community the insights and concerns we have mentioned in the first four areas, as well as other important findings and interpretations.

Peter W. Stoner, Prof. Emeritus of Physical Sciences, Westmont College, recently wrote: "After more than 50 years of dealing with the relation of science to the scriptures, I am convinced that the greatest need is with the high school and college students . . . .

Inasmuch as the above concerns come from a variety of persons within the Christian Church, I submit that they are worthy of our careful consideration.