Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 19 (September 1967): 97-102.

The purposes of this paper are to review briefly the stated purpose of the American Scientific Affiliation, to present some comments upon the identity of  current issues which are of significance in the area of  the relationships between science and Christianity, and to consider in some detail an issue which is probably 
the most basic one in this subject matter area.

Purpose of the American Scientific Affiliation

The official purpose of the American Scientific Affiliation, as stated in its Constitution, is two-fold: (1) to investigate the philosophy and findings of science as they are related to Christianity and the Holy Scriptures;
(2) to disseminate the results of such studies to both the Christian and secular worlds. Let us consider brief ly four aspects and implications of this statement of purpose.

"Robert B. Fischer is President of the American Scientific Af filiation and Dean of the School of Science and Mathematics, California State College, Dominguez Hills. This paper is an abbreviated version of the Keynote Address at the 1 967 Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation.

(a) The American Scientific Affiliation is a working organization. Included in its membership are persons who are actively engaged in investigations and in dis seminating the results. In the earliest years of the ex istence of the organization, the members were very few in number, and virtually all of them were actively en gaged in working together in specific projects which were undertaken by the organization. In more recent years, changes have occurred, both within the American Scientific Affiliation and in the "worlds" with which it communicates. The membership has increased many-fold and is, in some respects, quite diverse. Not all of the present members are actively engaged in any organized or intensive way in the specific projects which are undertaken by the organization. Nevertheless, the general purpose of the American Scientific Affiliation remains the same (even though the exact wording has been changed in the past and may change in the future), many members are very actively engaged in the work projects of the organization, many are actively engaged in similar projects not officially within the organizational structure, and all of the members presumably are deeply interested in its existence and accomplishments.

(b) The American Scientific Affiliation concerns itself with a certain, broad subject matter area, the relationships between science and Christianity. This has long been a very important subject matter area. Using somewhat different terminology, A. N. Whitehead wrote in 1926, "When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them" (A. N. Whitehead, "Science and the Modem World", Macmillan, 1926).

Now, about two generations later, it appears that developments and decisions made relating to scientific matters during recent years have tremendously influenced the course of history. It further appears that ethical and moral problems of unprecedented magnitude are now facing mankind. Intense alarm, uncertainty and pessimism are rampant among laymen, scientists and theologians alike. People everywhere are looking in all conceivable directions, including to science, to theology and to Christianity, for the answers to the intellectual and practical problems, immediate and long-range, which face mankind individually and collectively.

Changes of even greater significance in the course of history are already in sight in the near future. It appears that the ability to use molecular biology and applied genetics to modify the genetic structure and physiology of coming generations will be even more important and more disturbing than have other scientific and technological developments to date.

Inasmuch as the ongoing progress of science is so deeply involved in moral and ethical problems and decisions, and inasmuch as Christianity is surely deeply involved in morals and in ethics and in the nature and existence of man and of his total environment, the specific subject matter area to which the American Scientific Affiliation addresses itself is of tremendous importance.

(c) The American Scientific Affiliation approaches its work from the viewpoints of practicing scientists. This fact is implied in the statement of purpose and is further spelled out in the criteria for membership each member must be educated in science and must be currently engaged in some kind of scientific work. 

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the subject matter of the American Scientific Affiliation, the scientists who comprise its membership must be cognizant of the philosophy and findings of Biblical theologians, and they must contribute in two-way contributions and in joint investigations with theologians. 

Perhaps it may seem presumptuous for scientists to attempt to participate in theological and quasi-theological studies. However, every field of subject matter inquiry can bear the scrutiny of persons whose professional orientation is outside of that field; in fact, this type of scrutiny is absolutely essential to the meaningful development of any field of inquiry.

(d) The American Scientific Affiliation attempts to distribute widely the results of these studies, and this not merely to its own clientele or to persons with related professional interests, but to the Christian world and to the scientific world. This distribution serves a dual purpose: other persons can benefit from the results of the studies; the wide distribution leads, through various mechanisms of interaction, to refinements and to further studies of significance.

In order for this dissemination to be meaningful, or even for it to be received, it is essential that the American Scientific Affiliation be relevant to the needs, the problems and the trends within the Christian and non-Christian communities, within the contemporary scientific and lay communities. Thus, the American Scientific Affiliation must exhibit, on the one hand, a stability of content and consistency of purpose and, on the other hand, an up-to-date awareness and relevancy to the continually changing times in which it exists.

Definitions (Descriptions) of Some Terms

Before proceeding to a consideration of the issues involved in the relationship of science and Christianity, let us briefly consider the meanings of a few terms which must be employed in this discussion. it is important to recognize that objects, concepts, ideas exist and that words must be used to identify and to refer to them, not vice versa. Thus, in using such common words as science, theology and Christianity, we are bound of necessity to specify and use them in their common meanings, or, if this is not feasible for any of several reasons, to specify clearly the meaning and context within which each term is used. To do less is to run the risk of failing to communicate with the " worlds" which are designated in the purpose of the American Scientific Affiliation.

A thorough discussion of the meanings of the three terms, science, theology and Christianity, could be very profitable, but it would be too time-consuming for present purposes. Therefore, working definitions or descriptions will be given here with very little elaboration.

Science is the body of knowledge obtained by methods based upon observation. Thus, science is both a body of knowledge and a method or, better, a variety of methods. Science includes experimental observation, both as a base for building knowledge and as an arena for checking during the process of building, but science also includes the interpretive and theoretical building upon that base. Human beings are necessarily involved, both in the observing and in the building of knowledge on the base of the observations. As Hooykas has stated, "In real life we never meet one (a scientist) in the chemically pure state" (R. Hooykas, "The Christian Approach in Teaching Science," Tyndale Press, London, 1960).

Theology is defined in Webster's dictionary as "the study of God and his relation to man and the world". Biblical theology is similarly defined in the dictionary as "the theology that seeks to derive its categories of thought and the norms for its interpretation from the study of the Bible as a whole". Biblical theology, like science, has a subject matter of knowledge-"categories of thought"-and an authoritative standard-"norms for its interpretation'~-so we will take as a working definition, Biblical theology is the body of knowledge obtained by methods based upon the Bible. Therefore, insofar as these working definitions are concerned, science and Biblical theology are (1) distinct one from the other in their ultimate authority, (2) may or may not overlap in the content of their bodies of knowledge, (3) may or may not overlap in the methods employed in gaining the knowledge.

Christianity is a complete world-view based upon the God of the Bible as its primary fact. Christianity must, as a complete world-view, encompass both science and theology, both as bodies of knowledge and as methods, insofar as science and theology are valid. By contrast, alternative world-views include the following, among others. (1) Scientism, which is defined in Webster's dictionary as "a thesis that methods of natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation. . . . a belief that only such methods can be used fruitfully in the pursuit of knowledge", indicates that scientific knowledge is valid while purely theological knowledge is not. (2) Biblicism, which is defined in Webster's dictionary as "narrow or exclusive use of the Bible", indicates that Biblical knowledge is valid while purely scientific knowledge is not. (3) Isolated dualism is the view in which science and Biblical theology are both considered acceptable, but with the stipulation that they deal with different subject matters with little or no connection to each other. (4) Other theistic world-views are based upon "gods" other than the God of the Bible.

Identifying the Issues

Many points of issue arise within science, within theology, and between science and theology. Some issues involve very specific points and are of rather narrow significance, even though they may be of considerable importance and interest within their realms of significance. Other issues are much more basic and fundamental to the very structure of science or of theology. Many issues, of course, lie somewhere between these extremes.

Much of the effort of practicing scientists is necessarily directed toward the identification and resolution of specific issues. Similarly much of the effort of teachers of science is directed toward the teaching of detailed, specific points, with relatively little attention to the more basic factors which underlie, and are derived from, the specific points of issue. However, there is much attention being given now by practicing scientists to very basic and fundamental issues, including among others the chemical and biological distinctives of living matter and the chemical bases of thought processes and psychological behavior.

Theology, like science, is a very active field of inquiry today, and this fact is widely recognized and acknowledged even outside of the field itself. For example, a prominent engineer and engineering educator, M. Williamson, wrote in the August 1967 issue of Research & Development . . . . .. There are more changes taking place in the field of theology these days than there are in the fields of science, and religion (i.e.. applied theology, plus) is likewise a more active area of change than engineering (i.e., applied science, plus)." Current theological issues include both specific points and basic ones. Both types demand and receive considerable attention, but again it seems that relatively more attention is being directed today toward very basic issues than has been the case for many years. Of particular concern to many persons, theological professionals and laymen alike, are such basic theological issues as the meaning and nature of authority and the nature and even the existence of God. The current stress upon very basic issues in theological circles is illustrated by the following quotation from an editorial in the August 2, 1967, issue of the Presbyterian Journal-"Sometimes it is argued that differences have always existed in the Church. True. But in the past these have been mainly over internal matters, over varieties of interpretation within the Gospel tradition, over disagreements between men who were Christian. The differences today are between fundamental Christianity and fundamental paganism".

In the inter-, as well as the intra-, science and theology realms, we again find many points of issue which are of considerable interest and importance today. Both specific and basic points of issue are in evidence, and again it seems that relatively much attention is focused now on the very basic issues, including for example the moral and ethical issues raised by developments in the broad field of biochemical genetics.

The one most basic issue in the subject matter area relating science to Biblical theology and to Christianity must surely be the one question-is science basically compatible with Christianity and the Scriptures? This issue, although stated here as a straight-forward yes-or no type of question, is really a very complex one. It is not at all unusual for persons who take opposite positions on this issue to give very quick "yes" or "no" answers to it, often to the detriment of meaningful and valid investigation of the real issue. A full consideration of this question, in all of its complexity, is beyond the scope of this paper and, in all likelihood, beyond the capabilities of any individual. Nevertheless, much of the resolution of this issue must be based upon the presuppositions of science and of theology, and upon the provisions which are built into science and theology to check themselves, even to check the presuppositions. This is an extremely important topic which has received much less attention than it merits. As stated by a physicist, J. K. Wood (in his book,. "The Nature of Conflicts Between Science and Religion," Utah State University, 1962), "The science-religion conflict comes down to a conflict over presuppositions and the related conflict over ways of knowing." Wood then proceeded to point out a tragic consequence of failing to recognize this situation, in driving persons to embrace scientism, Biblicism or isolated dualism rather than Christianity (all as defined earlier in this paper), when he stated, "Both the religious background and the science are often presented to the student without mentioning the nature of the presuppositions underlying these two areas. If the student can see the contradiction, then he is likely to choose one or the other or he may set up a barrier between the two."

Presuppositions in Science

A presupposition is a piece of information, or even an attitude, which a person accepts as valid and correct without personally deriving or proving it, as he draws conclusions and as he does further work. There are presuppositions in scientific work, and the literature on presuppositions in science is extensive, albeit not very well-known in either scientific or lay circles. For example, physicist H. K. Schilling (in his book, "Concerning the Nature of Science and Religion", State University of Iowa, 1958) stated, "Now if there is an issue here, it certainly cannot be whether there are presuppositions or not-since surely they are inevitable -but rather what they are, and whether they are legitimate, significant and fruitful". Then Schilling proceeded to tabulate and to classify many which had been discussed elsewhere in the literature. R. Oppenheimer expressed a similar thought in different terminology (in "Perspectives in Modern Physics", in a 1967 publication of Wiley) . . . . .. for every science sees its ideas and order with a sharpness and depth that comes from choice, from exclusion, from its special eyes".

Many of the practical day-by-day presuppositions of the practicing scientists involve such details as the labels on bottles of chemicals, the markings on indicating meters and the reference data which are tabulated in various handbooks. He is generally fully aware of these matters and, in fact, frequently does take steps to validate or to modify them by analysis, by calibration and by redetermination.

There are also, however, presuppositions which are much more basic and fundamental to the structure of science, three of which will now be listed and briefly discussed.

1. Nature (the physical realm) is real. This presupposition, although occasionally questioned by philosophers, is normally accepted by scientists as so obvious that it hardly merits a thought. Nevertheless, in the words of M. Polanyi ("The Creative Imagination", Chemical and Engineering News, April 25, 1966)

. . . scientific discoveries are made in the search of reality-of a reality that is there, whether we know it or not . . . For the scientists' quest presupposes the existence of an external reality."

There is variation of opinion as to what all is included or involved in that which is assumed to be real. As a minimum, it must include the fundamental particles and the natural laws, as stated by D. Wooldridge ("The Machinery of Life", McGraw-Hill, 1966), "The explanations of physical phenomena must always start with the fundamental particles and the natural laws . . . He (the scientist) accepts as 'given' the laws and particles of nature and spends little time worrying about the metaphysical problems associated with their origin."

2. Nature is rational ' in the sense that nature is consistent and uniform in total cause-effect relationships. The now well-known booklet, "Education and the Spirit of Science," issued in 1966 by the Educational Policies Commission of the National Education Association listed seven "values" underlying science. One of these "values" is respect for logic, under which is the comment that, even though there are varied systems of logic, "all of them agree on the meaning of such basic concepts as consistency and contradiction". Without this firm belief in the rationality of nature, there could be no science as it exists today.

3. Nature is understandable, in part. This is a twofold presupposition, and both of its parts are tremendously important. Another one of the seven "values" underlying science, as listed in the above-mentioned publication, is the "longing to know and to understand" -"The spirit of science is, at bottom, a longing to understand". And yet this confidence in the understandability of nature is both tempered and also challenged onward by the recognition that, in science, " there is no perfect knowledge and no perfect knower".

Presuppositions in Theology

In theology, as in science, there are presuppositions. Again, there are many specific ones which are encountered in day-by-day work, and there are others which are so basic and fundamental that the very structure of theology would fall without them. We will concern ourselves here only with the most basic ones. We will list three stating them with particular reference to Biblical theology. However, if the phrase "of the Bible" were to be removed as a modifier of the name, God, in each statement, these three statements would still stand as the presuppositions of theology in general.

1. The God of the Bible is real. Even though many attempts have been made by men to prove the existence of God, the Bible itself assumes His existence and nowhere attempts to prove it. The first verse of the Bible states His existence. In his famous sermon on Mars Hill, the Apostle Paul declared God. Furthermore, the Bible makes it clear that this absence of any attempt to prove His existence is deliberate, not merely an oversight, as stated, for example, in the book of Hebrews, "He that cometh to God must believe that He it". The reality of God, in Biblical theology, is accepted by faith, if it is accepted at all. The one most basic presupposition of theology is that God is real. There is a variation of opinion as to what or who God is, particularly in contrasting Biblical theology with other systems of theology, but this fact does not negate the essentiality of the basic presupposition of the reality of God.

Over the years attempts have been made to prove philosophically the existence of God, by the familiar "teleological proof", "ontological proof", and so forth. This type of consideration does provide much supporting evidence for the individual who already believes. But these are not proofs, as is attested by the fact that many intelligent persons, thoroughly and honestly familiar with these philosophical "proofs", still do not accept the reality of God.

Similarly, attempts are made to prove the existence of God in nature. Again, this type of observation does provide much supporting evidence for one who accepts, as a presupposition, that God exists, but many intelligent, intellectually honest persons who are very familiar with the physical and biological realms do not accept the Biblical concept that God is real. It is interesting to note the Biblical terminology, "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork"-i.e., declare and sheweth, not prove.

2. The God of the Bible is rational, again in the sense that He is consistent and uniform in total causeeffect relationships. The Bible declares that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This statement, if it is to be accepted at all, must be accepted as a presupposition, as it is hardly conceivable that any human beings would have either the time or the ability to derive or to prove it. One of the maj . or reasons for the historical detail in the Old Testament, for example, is to provide information as to the existence and nature of God, and this information would be of no more than curiosity value to us if God were by nature inconsistent and self-contradictory.

It is important to note that circumstances and combinations of causes may differ from situation to situation and from time to time, but this does not alter the uniformity of the total cause-effect relationships.

3. The God of the Bible is understandable, in part. This is a two-fold presupposition, and both of its parts are essential. The Bible contains declarations of God, and much information concerning Him, in order "that we might know Him". Without the firm conviction that He is knowable, that He is understandable, there would be no Biblical theology. Again, however, this confidence is both tempered and challenged onward by the recognition that man, in this life at least, can understand God only in part. Even the most learned and profound of Biblical scholars have knowledge of God that is far less than perfect. The Bible itself clearly stresses this point. "We now see, as through a glass, darkly." His ways are beyond our ways. It is not for us to know, we are told, some things concerning God, His ways, and His plans.

Presuppositions in Christianity

Christianity is a complete world-view and must, as already discussed, incorporate both science and Biblical theology insofar as both are valid. There is ample evidence, which will not be discussed in this paper, for claiming that both must indeed be valid because to deny the validity of science in any basic way would be to deny the listed basic presuppositions of Biblical theology. Therefore, the basic presuppositions of Christianity are the basic presuppositions of science, plus those of Biblical theology, plus the further integrating factor that it is the same God who underlies, permeates and overlies all of science and all of Biblical theology, in fact, all of life and all of reality.

Provision for Checking in Science (and in Theology)

It is not possible to eliminate, in toto, all presuppositions either in science or in theology. Nevertheless, provision is included in science, and presumably in theology as well, for the checking of all information which comprises the "body of knowledge", and this provision for checking extends to the presuppositions themselves. The basic presuppositions of science are subject to essentially the same form of checking as are the everyday working details in any laboratory investigation, and the criteria for checking are inherent within the basic presuppositions themselves.

A study of the historical development of scientific knowledge as well as of the basic presuppositions, leads to the conclusion that, in science, consideration is given to dropping a presupposition whenever (1) it is not useful and meaningful, that is, if it is not subject to test and thus relevant to something other than itself, and/or (2) it leads to unreasonable difficulties, especially if some proposed. alternative leads to less difficulty or even to different difficulty. Let us now attempt to make evaluation of the basic presuppositions of theology against these criteria.

With respect to the first criterion, we note opposing positions and conclusions. Many persons in the past have found the basic presuppositions of theology (not necessarily of Biblical theology) to be useful to fill gaps in scientific knowledge, but consider that this is no longer necessary. Another quotation from D. Wooldridge, in the reference already cited, serves as a clear statement of this position-"A paradoxical consequence of man's predilection for logical thought was his invention of the important concept of the super-natural . . . to provide an 'explanation' for matters he despaired of understanding. The development of science can be described as the process of transferring one after another aspect of human experience from the supernatural category into the realm of natural law . . . It is good that our ancestors invented the concept of the supernatural ... The physical scientist has at least managed to consign it to a comer of his mind where it does not greatly interfere with his day-to-day activities." If the role or concept of God be solely or primarily to fill the gaps in scientific knowledge of nature, this is a reasonable position.

Some persons, who recognize that the theological concepts of God are not intended merely for filling gaps in scientific knowledge of nature, consider the basic presuppositions of theology to be useless in a somewhat different sense-because they do not consider them to be subjectable to test. The presuppositions of Biblical theology are indeed out-of-reach, not only to any person who rules out all knowledge other than that which is strictly scientific, a la scientism, but also to the agnostic person who says, "I don't know", to all that is not purely scientific knowledge.

Many persons find the presuppositions of Biblical theology to be very useful and meaningful, not so much as concepts to fill the gaps in scientific knowledge of nature and not so much as concepts which are entirely outside of nature, but rather as concepts of a God who underlies and permeates all of nature and all of reality and who enters into personal relationship with all who believe. We mentioned earlier the philosophical "proofs" for the existence of God and the evidences of God in nature. Even though these are not really proofs of Him they are strong supporting evidence of His existence to those persons who accept as presupposition the fact of His existence. This is, in part, the usefulness and relevancy of the presuppositions of Biblical theology, to persons who do accept them. Another very important point in the usefulness and relevancy to all of life of the reality of the God of the Bible to persons who believe is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, a topic which is not discussed further in this paper.

With respect to the second criterion, we again note opposing conclusions and positions. On the one hand, many persons reject the basic theological presuppositions because of difficulties, whether alleged or real, which are encountered. For example, alleged contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, whether real or not, make it difficult or impossible for some to hold the listed theological presuppositions. The suffering which occurs in the world causes some to discard, or not to accept in the first place, the presupposition that there is a God. The observable hypocrisy of persons who profess to accept the Biblical positions causes other persons to reject as meaningless and useless these same positions. On the other hand, many persons find that the Biblical theological position and the Christian worldview lead not to unreasonable difficulty but rather to far greater rationality and meaning than any other.

In summary, it may be stated that there necessarily are basic presuppositions both in science and in theology, that no complete world-view can be established entirely on the basis of rational proof without presuppositions, that Christianity as a complete world-view encompasses both science and Biblical theology with the further integrating factor that the same Cod underlies and permeates all of reality, and that Christianity is fully as tenable rationally as is any other alternative. It is concluded, therefore, that science and Christianity are basically mutually compatible.