Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 17 (December 1965): 100-103, 112.

Three contemporary issues are raised and the Christian's responsibility concerning these issues is discussed. The issues are (1) the Christian's responsibility in political and economic affairs, (2) the Christian's attitude toward the inspiration of scripture, and (3) the Christian's commitment to his secular vocation. It is suggested that some prevalent Christian attitudes concerning these matters should be changed.

As a scientist goes about the business of living a Christian life, he is continually faced with practical problems which call for Christian decisions. During the last few years I have found that three particular questions have arisen again and again which, to my scientific mind at least, we, as evangelical Christians, may not be answering in a Christian manner. Since my audience is composed of Christian scientists like myself, I would like to put my thoughts on these, perhaps controversial, questions to the test here.


Let me introduce my first question with a true story Last winter a respected leader of the evangelical community visited Texas for several days. He made headlines twice. The first time was when he said that Richard Nixon was the American Winston Churchill; the second time was when he said that the Commun ists were going to "take over" the world in 1972. Now, one cannot help but be strongly impressed by such statements, because they represent opinions that are so different than those of the vast majority of Americans. Bypassing the controversial Mr. Nixon, one could say concerning the communist take-over that almost all of the information that one can obtain indicates that the communist world is growing weaker and the free world stronger. Russia and China have become enemies, Western Europe has become a strong third power, American economic health is at an alltime high, and the American communist party is weaker certainly than it was 20 years ago. What is the basis for the statement about the communist takeover? I must confess that I haven't the slightest idea. And, in particular, it seems to be impossible to link the novel views of society of this Christian leader with any Christian principles or practices.

This sense of puzzlement and unreality connected with these strange remarks by the evangelical leader is not limited to this, particular event. Rather, the evangelical community as a whole seems to have lost touch with the rest of America on social issues. There would be nothing wrong, of course, with evangelical Christians standing alone for Christian principles if one could understand what particular Christian principles are being defended. However, so far as I can see, Christian principles, seem seldom to be at issue when evangelical Christians differ from other Americans.

The Christian principles that would seem to apply to our social life are illustrated, for example, by the parable of the good Samaritan. Here we are shown, that those in need are to be helped whether they be close friends or the outcasts of the community. Then, we have the Old Testament prophets emphasizing the importance of justice being applied equally to the rich

*Dr. John A. McIntyre is in the Department of Physics, Texas A. & M. College Station, Texas. Paper presented at 19th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, August 1964, at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Ark.

and to the poor. And, the New Testament tells us of the responsibility of the community to care for the helpless old people through remarks about the Christian responsibility for widows.

Yet, how are these principles applied by evangelical Christians? When the Marshall Plan for aid to Europe was proposed, the eastern states with their strong Jewish, Catholic, and liberal Christian communities supported the plan. The so-called Bible Belt in the midwest opposed the plan. Yet here was an opportunity to offer a drink of water to the thirsty, to offer a cloak for the naked. On what principles then did the Bible Belt oppose the Marshall Plan?

On medical care for the elderly, which admittedly is inadequate, have evangelical Christians led in a search for solutions to the problem? Do evangelicals not tend to oppose, rather, all solutions suggested for solving the medical care problem? On aid to Appalachia, or to the slums of our great cities in the form of job training, health care, and education, have the representatives of the Bible Belt supported such legislation? Or, in supporting the negro in his right to vote or for giving him opportunity in employment, what has been the position of evangelials? And what part have rural evangelical Christians played in the illegal retaining of legislative seats from their city brethren so that, in desperation, the Supreme Court finally was forced to transfer the seats? And finally, on the race question, has not the evangelical community been a dead last in breaking down the barriers that the New Testament says so clearly are un-Christian? Not only in our schools but even in our own churches where Paul says that there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, we oppose scriptural teaching by separating black from white.

What are the reasons given by evangelicals for the positions that they take on social matters? They do not seem to be specifically Christian reasons. They have to do with states' rights, opposition to communism, and free enterprise. These reasons are all valid reasons in their proper place, but are they reasons which we dare to use in opposition to the Christian imperatives of justice for both rich and poor, compassion for the weak, and assistance for the needy?

We are left then with the question of why the evangelical Christian community has consistently taken positions in social matters that seem to oppose Christian principles. I believe that the social scientists of the ASA have a great responsibility as well as a wonderful professional opportunity to use the knowledge and techniques of their specialty to determine the answer to this question. What are the causes and also the cures for this schizophrenia that has taken hold of evangelical Christians? Why are we relatively successful in applying our faith in Christ to personal relationships but seemingly so unsuccessful in using Christian principles in social matters? These are puzzling questions that cry for a Christian answer.

I understand that some of our members already have been active in looking into these matters. Our organization, as well as the Christian colleges, should give these men every encouragement in the pursuit of their investigations.


My second topic is one which has always been of great concern to the American Scientific Affiliation, namely, "How are we to reconcile the facts of science with the record of history that we find in the Bible?" I am thinking in this connection, for example, about the problems that come up in the early chapters of Genesis where we read about the creation of the world in six days, the creation of Eve from Adam's rib, the destruction of the race by the flood, and similar questions. These problems: have led to: all kinds of wild and fanciful interpretations of both scientific findings and scriptural passages. I would like to try here to, apply to these questions some of the insights into the pursuit of truth that we have gained through our profession of being scientists. In particular, I would like to make use of the close relationship between the study of God's creation, the natural world, and the study of God's revelation, the scriptures.

Both Christians and non-Christians alike agree that God's creation, the natural world, is a real and valid fact. Except for some of our philosopher friends, we believe that we can profitably study nature, that it is not capricious, and that it is internally consistent. Now, do we, who believe in the inspiration of scripture, claim any more for scripture, or rather, does scripture claim any more for itself? We read, for example, from Paul: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Also, Peter writes: "First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." And Jesus used the following expression concerning inspiration: "The scripture cannot be broken." Thus scripture declares itself to be valid, dependable, profitable for study, and to be given by God. Cannot precisely the same things be said about the natural world? My thesis is then, that just as we have learned to study and comprehend the natural world, we could profitably use the same methods to study and comprehend scripture.

We can now use this similarity between the natural world and scripture to distinguish between the inspiration of scripture and the interpretation of scripture. Our commitment as members of the ASA to the inspiration of scripture is nothing more than the scientists' commitment to the validity of the natural world. On the other hand, our interpretations of scripture correspond to the scientists' theories about the natural world. Among Christians there is ordinarily no disagreement about the inspiration of scripture any more than there is disagreement among scientists about the validity of nature. All of our disagreements lie in the area of interpretation. That is why it is not only unkind but also illogical in an argument about the interpretation of, say, the account of the flood, to accuse our opponents of not believing in the inspiration of scripture.

Turning then to the problem of the interpretation of scripture, what insight can our knowledge about scientific theories give to us concerning the validity and limitations of scriptural interpretations. There are several things about scientific theories that would also apply to scriptural interpretations. First, both scientific theories and scriptural interpretations are manmade and hence are limited in scope and subject to future correction. A good example of such a scriptural interpretation is the Ussher date of 4004 B.C. for the creation of the world. Later, scientific evidence has caused this date to be changed. This example also shows the equivalence of scientific theories and scriptural interpretations. A change in a scientific theory can also produce a change in a scriptural interpretation. We can then conclude that since scientific theories are continually changing that scriptural interpretations will also be continually changing. This close connection between scriptural interpretation and scientific theory emphasizes the importance of the joint meetings of our organization and the Evangelical Theological Society.

Another feature about scientific theories that should be considered in connection with scriptural interpretation is the meaning of their content. This feature brings us into the realm of the philosophy of science, and I hope that at our meeting next year we will all be further educated about these matters. As an example of what I have in mind here, I will use the theory of wave mechanics which is basic to all of physics. In this theory, the quantity which appears in the fundamental (Schroedinger) equation is denoted by the Greek letter psi. This quantity, however, cannot be measured in any way; yet there are rules which tell us how to find measurable quantities from a knowledge of psi. Since, however, psi itself can never be measured, the question arises as to just what psi is, or "What does psi mean?" Here the philosopher of science must enter into the picture to evaluate the meaning and content of the psi symbol which the physicist finds so necessary for his work.

Now, I wonder if there might not be similar problems in the interpretation of scripture. May there not be symbols in the Bible which should not be interpreted in a literal way? This question can properly be answered only by the philosopher and the theologian, and I will leave it here. However, the scientist can rightfully be skeptical, I believe, of a theology which is more literal in interpreting the things of the spirit than is a mathematical science in describing such a concrete entity as the physical world.

These comments bring me to my final point. Cannot the scientist recommend to the theologian the use of some of the techniques and attitudes that have proved so fruitful in the study of the natural world? When the scientist investigates nature, no holds are barred. Nature is stretched, pulled, and twisted, in every conceivable manner. New, tentative, theories are proposed and put to the experimental test. An atmosphere of experimentation and excitement prevails. Nevertheless, there is, at the same time, a profound respect for the traditional, fundamental, time-tested parts of the science, an example being in physics the law of the conservation of energy. Why cannot the enterprise of interpreting the scripture be carried out in the same manner? Of course, we must not overemphasize the experimental and skeptical features of science at the expense of the respectful attitude toward the sound edifice that has already been constructed. At this last point, incidentally, I believe the liberal theologians have erred. But, while our conservative theologians have opposed this fundamental error, for which we may be forever grateful, there has been a, perhaps natural, tendency to oppose also the inventive, skeptical aspects of liberalism, and of science, as well. Such opposition to experimentation in interpretation is a dangerous thing for, if our interpretations of scripture are to develop in a healthy way as new scientific evidence accumulates, we must capture theologically the free-thinking as well as the conservative features of a scientific enterprise. Then, our conservative theology will once again take her place as the "Queen of the Sciences."


I would now like to turn to the third question of this talk. This question lies particularly near to my heart, because it is a question that must be faced everyday: "In what light should one consider his daily work?"

Let me begin with an account of an exchange of views that took place in our adult Sunday School class a year ago. One member of the class, studying Chinese in preparation for the mission field in Formosa, made the remark that the most important thing for a Christian to do was to win souls for Christ. Everyone nodded his head in abject agreement, and I found that I could sit still no longer. For if all of those carpenters, car salesmen, teachers, and policemen in that class really believed such a statement, then they were all hypocrites. It would be very difficult for them to show that they were devoting their lives mainly to winning souls for Christ. 1, therefore, challenged the statement, and needless to say, we had a most interesting discussion--one which lasted several weeks. In our discussions, a number of fundamental points came to our attention. We found, for example, that evangelical Christians have separated themselves into a clergy and laity in a manner very similar to that of the Catholic church. We call our clergy, "those in full time Christian service." And, incidentally, we expect that those in this class will take the vow of poverty. We also feel that those in this group are more devoted to Christ-for example, they can win more souls for Christ. Our young people are exhorted to enter "full time Christian service" often with the implication that this is the most Christian thing to do. We seem to have rejected the Protestant emphasis on the dignity of labor; Luther's shoemaker who glorified God in his making of good shoes has been largely forgotten. We have also turned our back on the Old Testament concept of God's people where the Levite who tended to God's temple was not considered to be in any way more religious than the farmer or the administrator.

In adjusting his thinking to this heretical viewpoint, the average Christian not in "full time Christian service" has subconsciously developed a defense for himself by deciding that he really has chosen his job because somehow, through his work, he can "reach people for Christ." Thus, the teacher feels that he can use his professional position to influence his students, the nurse to counsel her patients, while the automobile salesman perhaps just gives up attempting to salve his conscience in this manner. To me, this attitude of the Christian in secular life is even more frightening than the hypocritical one of believing that "full time Christian service" is the best place for a Christian. Here, the Christian is prostituting his profession; he is pretending to be a teacher while really he is an evangelist.

The natural result of these, perhaps subconscious, guilt feelings of Christians in secular life is that Christians are inhibited in pursuing their professions. And the further result of these inhibitions is that there are few, if any, great creative Christians in the arts or in the sciences today. This situation is, of course, quite different from previous times when many devout Christians were found among the leaders of the scientific and artistic communities. As an example of how Christians are led away from scientific careers today, I know from personal experience of a rather large number of promising young Christian scientists who have given up scientific careers to teach in Christian colleges. In fact, I would almost say that most of the Christian scientists that I have known have chosen teaching careers in Christian colleges in preference to research careers. Now, clearly, there is a very great need for good science teachers in our Christian colleges. And, I know that many of the men in the ASA have been called to do this important work. And, there is no doubt that those who choose to teach in Christian colleges usually do so at a considerable financial sacrifice. Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that we subconsciously have been taught to believe that somehow by associating ourselves with a Christian institution we are being better Christians.

Another example of how our false conception of our professions inhibits our work has to do with the use of our time. There are so many demands from Christian and other sources for our time that we are in a constant state of perplexity about how we should use it. In making the decisions about our time, are we willing to say that our professions must come first? In fact, if these professions are our true calling are we not obligated to put them first? How can a person be creative, be he scientist or artist, unless he immerses himself in his work, unless he goes to bed thinking about it and awakes with it again on his mind? Did not Beethoven agonize day and night in writing his symphonies? Do we not marvel at the devotion of Michelangelo in painting the Sistine Chapel? And, don't we remember that Newton many times calculated through the night with hardly a pause for food? Do we, as Christians, wish to, say that such devotion to the highest achievements of the human spirit is not appropriate for the Christians? Perhaps we should, say so. Perhaps such devotion inevitably leads away from God to the idolatry of the art or science being pursued. Being a scientist myself, I know the terrible temptation to permit my work to come between me and God. Nevertheless, just because a course of action is spiritually dangerous, are we to forsake it? Would that not be making the cowardly error of withdrawing from the world to the monastery? The Christian has been told to live in the midst of the world, among the wolves of the world and has been promised preservation.

I believe that there is another reason why we can with good conscience devote ourselves wholeheartedly to our professions. The Westminster Confession puts it this way: "The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." But, how should man glorify God? I believe that the answer is given in Jesus' parable of the three men with the talents, where he shows the responsibility that we have as Christians to use the gifts given to us. What better way is there to glorify God than to use to the full the abilities that we have been given? Of his own gift of preaching the gospel, Paul exclaimed: "For if I preach the Gospel, that gives me no grounds for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" Does this not express clearly the attitude that each Christian should take toward his own calling? The musician sings because he has to sing, not so that he can help the choir; the novelist writes because he must describe human lives; the scientist works in his laboratory because he is never so happy as when he is probing the secrets of nature. Oh, how we have lost the joy of work, because we feel that somehow, the work itself, is not devoted to Christ and that we must atone for the hours in the laboratory by teaching a Sunday School class!

I believe that as Christian men of science we should think through carefully this question of the calling of a Christian. If we do not feel that a scientific career merits the full devotion of a Christian, we should say so clearly, and a large number in our organization should change their professions. Also, we should be prepared to abandon all pretense of being informed in a basic way about scientific subjects. In fact, don't we find even now at our ASA meetings that our members are forced over and over again to quote other authorities? Why do we not have the leaders of the scientific community in our organization? Is it not because we have considered that the devotion required to produce such leadership is not in keeping with our Christian witness? If, on the other hand, a scientific career can be considered worthy of being a Christian calling, then a large number of our members should be devoted scientists, in the sense that they creatively, and out of the strenuous efforts of their productive years, contribute to the scientific edifice being constructed by mankind.

As I said at the beginning of my talk, I have chosen three, perhaps controversial, questions for discussion. For, in contemplation during the past years as a scientist and also a Christian, I have become convinced that evangelical Christians must learn to apply their Christian faith to the political and economic society around them, that they should be more creative in their interpretation of scripture, and that they should re-examine the meaning of a Christian calling. I believe that the professional training of the members of the ASA prepares them in a peculiar way to search for the resolution of these problems.