Science in Christian Perspective



Notes on "Science and the Whole Person" -

Part 3
A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives

The Philosophy and Practice of Science
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 28 (September 1976): 127-132.

Without a doubt, the scientific worldview is, in the minds of many people, the principal competitor with a Christian worldview. Because of this, many Christians are suspicious of any results of science, and on the other side many non-Christians are convinced that Christian faith is untenable. In this installment I attempt to summarize some of the foundations of science that show the close correlation possible between a scientific and a Christian worldview. A scientific description and a Christian description are not mutually exclusive alternates, but necessary descriptions to be held and considered at the same time. It is convenient to organize this topic into five categories dealing with the purpose, the possibility, the presuppositions, the posture and the potential of science.


The primary purpose of science is to describe the world in which we live. This description is carried out in terms of models (approximations, pictures, projections) of the way the real world is, in a simpler kind of framework. Such models are successful when they describe to a sufficent accuracy what we observe in the natural world.

There are two fundamental reasons why scientific descriptions are sought. We describe in order that we may understand the world and so that we may control the world.

It is at this point that the first connection with the Christian worldview is apparent. Although many people assume that it is a good and worthwhile activity to understand and control, the Christian position provides a foundation which others must somehow assume or perhaps take for granted without probing into the reasons underlying it. That it is good to understand, to have a theoretical knowledge of the world, and to control, to have an applied technology which enables us to act intelligently in the world, must be based ultimately, if on anything at all, on the Biblical doctrines of Creation and Providence. According to the Biblical doctrine of Creation, the world is a good world according to the creative purpose of God, and the evil that is all too real is an aberration upon this good world. God sustains the world moment by moment by his continuing activity, and without this activity the world itself would cease to exist. As we learn to describe the world more and more accurately, to understand it more completely, and to carry out the mandate given in Genesis 1:28,1 we are carrying on a Christian activity, as well as a human, useful and pleasing one. A chapter I once wrote on physics for college students starts with the statement, "Physics is fun."2 The aspects of science involved in understanding and controlling are pleasing and satisfying to the human being. That they are also good and worthwhile things to do has its basis in the twin Biblical doctrines that God has made the world, that it is indeed intrinsically a good world, and that it is a worthwhile endeavor to pursue what he has given to us.

Scientific description does not consist of every possible kind of description, nor does it exclude all other kinds of description. A scientific description is one particular kind of description. It's a description in which we deliberately say, "We are going to approach the world around us in a specific way. We are going to make those observations and measurements in which we can use our senses, both our natural senses and our extended senses through equipment. When we have the results of these measurements, we will make an interpretation of them in accordance with the laws of logic and reasonable evidence. We will furthermore insist that the things we see and describe in science will always have some kind of natural causes, that there will be a chain of natural cause and effect, and that there

A serial presentation of notes based an Freshman Seminars at Stanford University in 1974 and 1975, and a course given at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1974 and at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. in 1976. Part 1, "Science Isn't Everything" appeared in March (1976), p. 33-37. Part 2, "Science Isn't Nothing" appeared in June (1976), p. 82-87.

will be natural categories that we will look for as we describe things scientifically."'

If one of my graduate students comes to me breathless from the laboratory crying, "Look, I have here a major contradiction of the fundamental laws of nature. It must be that God intervened and did something wonderful here," my first reaction as a scientist is to tell him, "Go back and try it again. See if perhaps a wire slipped loose, a battery burned out-or something else of equal significance-but nevertheless natural has occurred." This does not mean that I do not personally believe that God is totally free in the ways in which he may choose to act, but that in the normal course of events, which is the area to which science addresses itself, we are concerned with the description of events in terms of natural categories. Because we are limited by and concerned with natural categories, science itself never produces supernatural descriptions. No matter what I address myself to scientifically, it may be that I can describe it scientifically or that I cannot. But if I have a scientific description, it is going to be in natural categories. The fact that scientific descriptions do not contain supernatural elements is not somehow due to the perversiveness of scientists, but is due to the fact that scientists are attempting to be consistent within their own limiting methodology.

A scientific description is also only one possible kind of description. There are many kinds of description of the same event, process or being, some of which cannot be tested by the scientific method because they are not susceptible to analysis by sense contacts in the way that scientific descriptions must be. It is a false and foolish claim, as we discussed in Part 1, to say that a scientific description is the only kind of description that can lead us to a knowledge of the truth, the only one by which we can advance our knowledge of the world and of the things in it. To say that something is not scientific does not imply in any way that it is either false or unimportant. There are many aspects of life, in fact some of the most important aspects of life, which cannot be exhaustively described scientifically. The relationship between my wife and me could ~e partially described in terms of our bodies' physics and chemistry. But if it were supposed that this was an exhaustive description of our relationship, that there is nothing more to say about this personal interaction than what is contained in this kind of scientific description, the main point would be missed as to what I mean when I say that I love my wife and my wife loves me.

There are at least two ways in which every event that happens must be considered. One way is to say, "What is the description of this event in terms of natural cause and effect categories; what is the scientific description?" But we must also ask, "What is the meaning of this event? What is the purpose of this event? How does this event relate to God, to his purposes, to the flow of history, to ultimate reality?" Every event must in an ultimate sense be provided with both a natural and what might be called a supernatural description. What is a cow? Is it sufficient to reply only in terms of bovine biology? If such a description of a cow is ultimately adequate, then it is assumed that the possibility that the cow is a creature made by God is unimportant. But if indeed God has made the cow, this knowledge is not unimportant. To know that a cow is a creature made by God for specific purposes, that it deserves at least the respect appropriate for a creature made by God, is something worthwhile knowing that cannot be derived from the scientific description alone. Man's attitude toward the earth is quite different if he believes that the earth is there only for his own benefit, or if he believes that he is entrusted with responsibility for care of the earth by God Himself.

It is essential to realize the possibility of-indeed the necessity of-parallel descriptions, different kinds of descriptions that are not mutually exclusive, but which reinforce each other although they are derived from asking different kinds of questions. If this were done consistently, we would be able to overcome many of the conflicts of our own and of the history of Christianity and science by leaving open the possibility that we need to look at things in more than one way in order to see them in their totality. Such problems as the brain vs the mind, the body vs the soul, determinism vs free will, Calvinism vs Arminianism, the non-living vs the living, evolution vs creation-all of these historic, profound and life-upsetting supposed conflicts ought not to be thought to involve contradictory and exclusive descriptions so that either one or the other must be chosen. Rather it is that in many cases they represent situations in which one must ultimately choose both options as one attempts to answer different kinds of questions.

A diagrammatic representation of the parallel descriptions given by science and by theology is shown in Figure 1. Unless the types of description and concept p ion from both approaches are integrated, violence is done to the one reality with which both have to deal.


It may seem strange to suggest a discussion of the possibility of science. After all, science is obviously possible, and we do it all the time. But reflect: how do we know that science is possible? Why should science be possible? Why should it be possi le for s to approach the world scientifically and obtain at least partially true, reliable and useful descriptions? Why does the world not contantly change before us? Why are our minds adequate to the task? Why are our finite imaginations sufficient to do as much as they have?

The question, "Is science possible?" is a fundamental question that must be asked in science and cannot be simply glossed over. Those who take a non-Christian position do not hesitate to ask Christians or theists "Does God exist?" Then this question is followed with the inevitable, "Prove it." There is a ready response; it is to ask, "Is science possible?" They would reply, "Oh yes, of course." Then must follow our request, "Prove it." Of course it can't be proved except by the doing. It's the doing that gives evidence for its possibility, and the situation with respect to God's existence is quite similar. The evidence that God exists can be known only through relationship with him. It is not possible to know that God exists outside that relationship by which God becomes real to you. (Not that God requires the relationship, but that you require it.) just as one cannot possibly do science while believing it impossible, one cannot possibly come to know whether or not God exists when believing that he does not. Both science and

The primary purpose of science is to describe the world in which we live.

Christianity start with faith. A man says, "I believe that science is possible; "I'll go out and test it." A man says, "I believe that God exists; I will relate myself to him, using if I must that well-known prayer, 'Oh God, I don't know if you are there or not, but if you're there, answer my prayer."' There is no other way that one can gain assurance in either area than through this kind of act of faith.

In fact, any act of significance starts with a faith commitment, because an act of faith is always required when we don't have complete knowledge. We never do have complete knowledge. All we have is sufficient evidence to justify our faith; that is all we really ask for in either science or the Christian position. As science becomes possible as its possibility is accepted on faith, so also the knowledge of God's existence becomes a reality as we accept it on faith and test it.

The possibility of science in the Christian perspective once again depends upon the Biblical doctrines of Creation and Providence. It is because God has made something that it is possible for us to investigate, and because God does sustain the world, that it is possible for us to carry on from day to day the pursuit of science. That there should be a structure to reality suitable for scientific investigation must be either a fantastic result of pure Chance, or it is based on the Christian position of Creation and Providence.


A Christian sees science as possible because it is a reasonable thing to step out in faith on the basis of the Biblical doctrines of Creation and Providence. What are some of the presuppositions of science that are needed in order to step out in faith?

It must be assumed that the world is understandable through rational processes of the human mind, that the human mind can conceive analogies and models which adequately describe the natural world. It must be assumed that natural phenomena are reproducible in some general and universal sense; if we fix a standard condition, it is possible to get the same results in the United States or the Soviet Union, under a Republican or a Soviet government, in South Africa by a black man under apartheid or at the South Pole by an eskimo. When one makes such assumptions and tests them, he finds in many cases that they are indeed justified and worthwhile. Nevertheless he had to assume them and act before be could know that they are reliable. He also has to assume that there are patterns of order that can be sought out and found. It is sometimes claimed that man forces his concept of order upon the universe; there may be examples of this, but I find it hard to see many examples where such a claim could possibly be maintained (e.g., could the Periodic Table of the Elements not be actually descriptive of atomic structure?).

Another striking experience is the way in which so often men's minds working in abstract mathematics have developed a system of principles, postulates theorems or the like, which then at some later time turns out quite independently to describe with remarkable accuracy the actual events taking place in the physical world. Whenever I discuss the solution of the Schrodinger equation for the energy levels of the hydrogen atom, I cannot help but remark on the wonder generated by the fact that a simple differential equation leads directly to the basic structure of the hydrogen atom on the condition only that its solutions not violate what is possible in the physical world.3

Why should these presuppositions be accepted? Why should we think that these presuppositions are valid and reasonable? The Christian answer is that they are reasonable because there is a given structure, there is an objective reality, there is subject matter for the pursuit of science. Furthermore we are made in the image of God and therefore have the possibility of understanding at least partially what this structure is like.

On the other hand, private presuppositions have no place in science. We cannot say, "I suppose that such and such must be found in a scientific investigation; therefore I will go out and prove it." As soon as that is said, as soon as we import some kind of philosophical or even religious presupposition and attempt to impose it upon science, then we may be doing something significant philosophically or religiously, but we have ceased to do science. To consider this aspect further, we need to consider the posture of science.


The posture of science derives from the fact that a structure of reality has been given to us, to which we must be open. In doing science, the universe is normative and not 1. 1 must subject myself to the world, not subject the world to me. There are problems with a position like this, for in doing science I do become involved in my scientific investigation, the more so as my science is more personally and less physically oriented. Nevertheless, an effective science is one that says simply that I will be open to what is. In my science I wish to find out not what should be, not what might be, nor what could be, but only what is, and I will do my best to find out what is from the world rather than trying to impose my ideas arbitrarily upon it.

Just as one cannot possibly do science while believing it impossible, one cannot possibly come to know whether or not God exists when believing that He does not.

Is there anything basically Christian about this posture? Others who are not Christians may take a similar attitude. But it may be argued that if this posture is viable, the basis for it must once again be found in the Biblical doctrines of Creation and Providence. There is a created structure given to us; our pursuit of the knowledge of truth requires us, not to fabricate or invent a structure, but to determine what the given structure is. Even the theoretician, with his most beautiful theory, must ultimately say, "Now comes the crunch. Does my theory correspond to the way things are insofar as this can be tested by experiment?" The real structure must be contacted and tested in order to see whether any concept, any model of it is adequate to describe it.

The commitment of a Christian view of science is to explore and understand this given structure on its own terms. Although we could argue at great length (and truly) that no fact interprets itself, that every experiment is affected by the theoretical context in which it is planned, that every interpretation is guided by what we think it should be-nevertbeless, good science attempts to avoid this kind of problem as much as possible. Good science tries to survey the results of one's experiments with an open mind (within a creative flexible conceptual scheme) so that we may come as close as possible to "hearing" what the world has to say to us as we carry on our experiments. The posture of science is one in which the created universe is trusted to be a faithful witness to itself.4

One might raise the question, "Why are nonChristians so successful in science?" The non-Christian is successful in science when, and only when, he, without basic justification, adopts a Christian-like view of the world, even though he himself may not or will not admit it. The non-Christian is successful in science when he is open to the created order, when he adopts the methodology based on saying, "There is something given to me and I will be open to it." As soon as the non-Christian (or, of course, the Christian too) says, "Reality is subjective and susceptible to my opinion, so that I can enforce my political or religious ideas upon it," he ceases to be a good scientist immediately. It does not matter whether the motivation for this statement is ecclesiastical (as in some of the unfortunate interactions between the church and science) or political (as in the Lysenko case in the Soviet Union.) Science comes to a dead stop when someone says, "This is the way the world must be philosophically, and therefore you better find it that way scientifically." People may try very hard to do this, and even appear to be successful for a time, but ultimately the given structure of the world wins out and they fail. An Aristotelian view of the universe ultimately falls before the reality of the existing universe; the biological theory capable of producing more and better corn must be faithful to the real world, not only to Marxist dialectical materialism. For the Christian the world is given; for the non-Christian success in science demands that he act as though the world were given.

Once this posture of openness is adopted, we have freedom in our scientific activity, freedom from conflict between our preconceptions of what we must find in science and what we do find in science. If we attempt to force a scientific perspective upon our theology, we have bad theology; we attempt to force a theoloical or philosophical perspective upon our science, we have bad science. There is no need for either. Our scientific description cannot be expected to be identical to our theological description; if this were the case, we would not have the need for both. But we do need both kinds of description since they are complementary and not mutually exclusive.


What is the potential of science? The posture of science in which openness to the created structure is emphasized represents the passive aspects of science: here effort is made to allow the structure to impress itself upon us. The potential of science emphasizes the active aspects of science: here effort is made to apply the knowledge gained through scientific inquiry in responsible action.

First of all, science is a human endeavor. It is a process and a practice carried out by human beings. It therefore has no more intrinsic claim to universal helpfulness than any other human endeavor. Whether science or any other way of advancing knowledge produces a good or an evil result depends upon & way men use it. And the way in which men use it is not derivable from science itself, but must be decided on other grounds that transcend science alone. A scientific investigation does not prescribe its own application.

As soon as we import some kind of philosophical or even religious presupposition and attempt to impose it upon science, we have ceased to do science.

Science is not a competitor with Christian faith. It is rather a helpmate; it enables us to exercise our moral and ethical directives intelligently rather than foolishly. Science is one means by which Christians can seek to serve the world. Science is per se no more distinctive than education, or social service, or politics or other kinds of human endeavor by which we, as well as non-Christans, seek to serve in this world. It has its own unique powers, its own unique methods, its own unique possibilities.

Most of the previous discussion in this installment that attempted to integrate science and Christian faith emphasized the basic contribution of the Biblical doctrines of Creation and Providence. In discussing the potential of science in terms of service, we must see the emphasis provided to us by the Biblical doctrine of Redemption. Here is an opportunity for Christians who have been personally redeemed by Christ to serve him and their fellowmen in a particular mode of life, a particular approach to the needs, desires and necessities of living in this imperfect world. In some small and perhaps insignificant way the scientist as Christian has the possibility of showing in his own limited sphere the first fruits of the ultimate universal redemption. God has claimed all things for himself in Christ and will claim them ultimately in fact. Christians living today have the opportunity and the privilege to live as "minute men" of the complete redemption. This calls for service and for commitment.

We explore more fully in a later installment the tensions between present and future, between optimism and pessimism, that confront a person involved in a scientific career. For the moment it is sufficient to note that a Christian does science recognizing that it does have a potential but that its potential is limited. He looks to the future in order to do what needs to be done in his environment in the present. He looks to God in the face of what seems to be temporal pessimism so that the optimism generated from eternity may enable him to serve here and now in the way in which he is called.

A short story told by the physicist von Weizsdcker5 out of his personal experience may help to crystallize this perspective. von Weizsacker worked in nuclear physics in Germany during the second World War. He was increasingly troubled by the effects of nuclear science and the uses to which his own research might be put by power-hungry men like Hitler. He wondered after the war whether he should continue in nuclear science; although he saw great potentials for good in the advancement of knowledge and the development of energy sources, he also saw great potentials for evil. One weekend he was staying at the home of the German theologian Karl Barth. He discussed this question with him at some length and asked his opinion. "What shall I do?" Karl Barth answered him, "If you believe in the second coming of Christ, continue in your physics; if you don't, drop it." By this advice I think Barth meant to say that we can live and be productive in the present only as our own perspective of the future and the whole of reality is properly focused. It is only if we really believe that God is in charge that we dare to face the ambivalences of scientific success.


The philosophy and practice of science can be conveniently described under five headings: purpose, possibility, presuppositions, posture and potential. In each case it is possible to show how the foundation and interpretation of science and its practice can be directly related to the Christian faith.

The purpose of science is to describe the natural world so that understanding and control of it may be increased. A scientific description is not an exhaustive or exclusive description, but is rather one among several different types of description that are possible. All types of description are needed for completeness.

If we force a scientific perspective upon our theology, we have bad theology; if we force a theological perspective upon our science, we have bad science.
There is no need for either.

The possibility of science is not something susceptible to lo 'Call demonstration before the doing of science, buttust be accepted on faith in order to make the doing of science possible. Science is not, therefore, somehow different from all other human activities, but must also start with an act of faith and of personal commitment. A person who does not believe that science is possible can never do it.

The faith commitment referred to here involves the acceptance of a number of basic presuppositions about the natural world and our ability to describe it in a meaningful way But although science cannot proceed without the mal4ng of presuppositions, these must not prescribe the content and conclusion of science.

Any attempt to dictate the results of scientific inquiry from convictions derived from philosophy or religion is a violation of the posture of science, which must be one of openness before the given structure of reality. Success in science demands the same posture of openness of Christian and non-Christian alike. If it is argued that the Christian has a basis for this posture in the Biblical doctrine of Creation, it follows that the non-Christian is successful in science only when be adopts the same posture, only when he approaches the structure of physical reality as though it were given and not subject to his subjective control.

The potential of science is to be one means of service to the world. It is not the only means of service, but it can inform and guide many types of service. Science is not a competitor with Christian faith, but an ally and help. In like manner the realistic faith required to carry on science in spite of the ambivalence of its consequences requires trust in the ultimate control of God over all things.


1. In "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis" in Science 155, 1203 (1967), Lynn White argues that by exalting man at the expense of nature (according to the Genesis accounts) Christianity has separated man from nature, argued against the unity between man and nature, and has given divine sanction to unlimited exploitation and environmental abuse. Is this an accurate diagnosis? Where did White get this idea?

2. Some day a fairly complete description of "love" may be given in terms of a series of biochemical reactions and brain patterns which are observed to represent the state of the body when the person is engaged in "loving." Will this mean that the real nature of "love" will finally have been found out? After that will we stop using the word "love," since now our ignorance about it will have been removed?

3. A crucial point in my own life was when I decided which graduate school to attend. From that decision has followed my marriage and the whole shape of the rest of my life. Yet that was a purely "chance" decision: i.e., I chose that school (out of several) which would offer me financial aid. I had no control over this offer and no way to predict whether or not it would be coming. Am I mistaken or only sentimental to view this same occurrence as an activity of God's providence?

4. Can there be anything sacred in our experience which does not involve the secular? Can there be anything secular which is not, at least to the Christian, also sacred? Correlate your answers to these questions with the historical fact that it has been the Christian position that has desacrahzed nature, i.e., has done away with animism and spiritism in inanimate objects.

5. Can you think of any act of significance that you might do, which does not start and depend critically upon a faith commitment of some sort? Does this have any correlation that we are persons and not simply objects?

6. Members of the Creation Research Society "are committed to full belief in the Biblical record of creation and early history, and thus to a concept of dynamic special creation (as opposed to evolution), both of the universe and the earth with its complexity of living forms. We propose to reevaluate science from this viewpoint. . . ." Are the members of the CRS engaged in scientific work according to this statement?

Why are the findings of genuine science more long lasting and "powerful" than opinions and ideas generated from philosophical, political or religious presuppositions?

8. If it is not possible to do science with the assurance that good will certainly come out of it, does this mean that the scientist need not discriminate at all with respect to the kind of research problems he undertakes? Are there problems for which it is virtually certain that a greater degree of evil will result than good?

1"And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.' " (RSV)

2R.H. Bube, "Physics" in Christ and the Modern Mind, R.W. Smith, Ed., Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1972), pp. 295-303.

3The solutions must be mathematically well-behaved. See, for example, R.H. Bube, Electronic Properties of Crystalline Solids, Academic Press (1974) p. 70.

41n case this seems to be a trivial assertion, consider that it is not held by everyone discussing issues in science and religion today. Those who argue, for example, that the earth is only some 10,000 years old even though scientifically it appears to be several billion years old because it came into being with the appearance (but not the reality) of great age, directly contradict this posture.

5J.A. McIntyre and R.H. Bube, "The Relevarce of Science to Practical Theology: a Conference Report," journal ASA 24, 27 (1972).

R.H. Bube, "A Christian View of Science," The Reformed journal 23, No. 6, 12 (1973)

_______"A Christian Philosophy of Science," Inaugural Year Addresses, Hope College, Holland, Michigan (1973)

The Human Quest: A New Look at Science and Christian Faith, Word, Texas (1971)

J.T.Davies, The Scientific Approach, Academic Press, N.Y. 2nd Ed. (1973)

D.L. Dye, Faith and the Physical World, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. (1966)

G.Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein, Harvard, Ma. (1973)

M.A. Jeeves, The Scientific Enterprise and Christian Faith, Tyndale (London) (1969)

W.G. Pollard, Chance and Providence, Scribners, N.Y. (1958). Physicist and Christian, Seabury, Greenwich, Conn. (1961)

J.R.Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, Oxford, N.Y. (1971)

H.K.Schilling, Science and Religion, Scribners, N.Y. (1962)

R. Schlegel, Inquiry Into Science, Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y. (1972)

A. van der Ziel, The Natural Sciences and the Christian Message, Denison, Minneapolis, Minnesota (1960)