Science in Christian Perspective
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CHRISTIAN TRUTH AND THE NATURAL SCIENCES
Richard H. Bube, Editor
From: JASA 31 (June 1979): 65-68.
What Is Truth?
Jesus said, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."
Pilate said, "What is truth?"
Misunderstandings of what is meant by "truth" underly apparent conflicts between Christian thought and the natural sciences, which have far-reaching consequences into other areas as well.
It is sometimes thought that truth is simple, easily understood, something to be known with the mind, capable of being grasped totally or not at all. I offer a simple definition of truth: that which conforms with reality. This definition assumes the biblical picture of Cod as Creator and Sustainer of a reality that exists independently of us, although we certainly play a significant role in it. It is a definition that upholds the validity of the concept of objective truth as opposed to relative subjective "truths"; it is a seeking for truth in what really is, rather than a manufacture of "truth" out of our own wills.
Truth is not necesarily simple. The profundities of the paradox of the sovereignty of Cod and the responsibility of man, and the challenges of the quantum theory or relativity push the human mind to its limits.
Truth is not necessarily easily understood. Some truths are beyond our human abilities to comprehend simply because we are finite and temporal creatures.
Truth is not necessarily an intellectual proposition to be grasped and remembered. Rather it is a principle to be embodied in living practice. Jesus also said, "I am the Truth," implying that truth has a profoundly personal content.
Total truth is something that we seldom-that we really never have in our possession. What is commonly our lot is partial truth. We understand something of the nature of truth, but never the complete picture. There is no apology necessary for this limitation to partial truth; it is the nature of our existence. The one who claims that if we can know only partial truth, we can never lay claim to knowing truth at all (a common approach of both orthodox and liberal theologians), is mistaken.
Science, for example, is a kind of partial partial truth- (partial)2 truth, if you like. It provides us with partial truth about part of the world. It is partial truth, because we can never know everything, and even what we know is only in terms of comparisons. It is partial truth about part of the world, because the scientific method itself insists that our scientific truth be limited to descriptions involving natural categories only.
Whenever we move from what is known to what is unknown, we proceed by describing the unknown in terms of the known. Since this description can never be complete, our expression of truth can never be complete.
Another way of saying this is to state that in both science and Christian theology we are involved with the expression of metaphors. In science we have the models of our theories; these are metaphors pure and simple, attempting to describe the complexities of the real world in a framework of our mentally conceivable models of experience. Models of matter, for example, extend from a continuum view, to atomic views in which atoms are viewed progressively as small balls, miniature planetary systems, and charge distributions in space. We strive year by year to move closer to more and more accurate descriptions of reality, believing as an act of scientific faith that the more accurate the description, the more closely does the model correspond to the physical details of reality. We believe that the process of oxidation is more realistically described by chemical combination with oxygen than in terms of the phlogiston theory, that heat flow is more realistically described in terms of the kinetic theory of gases than in terms of a caloric fluid, and that an Einsteinian view of the universe is more faithful to the actual character of the universe than is a Newtonian view.
Scientific truth, however, is defined for today. It is what corresponds to today's understanding of how to describe reality. Tomorrow scientific truth may change. There is no apology needed; this is the essence of the scientific process, the ladder of scientific advance. Each transient model embodies some aspects of the total truth, of the nature of the actual reality; each is partially true, but none represents the true picture of the universe.
Also in theology we have models, metaphors if you will, to reveal to us the nature of God and His relationship to the world. These are divinely inspired pictures attempting to convey partial truth to us about that which transcends human apprehension by using terms and concepts familiar to us. Metaphors for God include: Father, King, Husband, Bridegroom, Hen. God is truly like a father but not wholly like a father; God is truly like a father, indeed, only if a father is truly like God. This metaphor loses some of its usefulness if offered to a child who has been the victim of abuse at the hands of his parents. Metaphors for salvation include: healing, wholeness, redemption, reconciliation, payment of legal debt, sacrifice, and victory over Satan. Because these biblical metaphors are divinely inspired, we are assured of their authority and their reliability; still our understanding remains partial and we do not understand the totality of divine reality. Effective metaphors also may change with time, and every Bible teacher is familiar with the problem of making Biblical metaphors (shepherds, vineyard keeper, slaves) convey to modem hearers what they were intended to do in the biblical revelation.
Using More than One Metaphor
Now it is traditionally a bad practice to mix one's metaphors. But using more than one metaphor is often essential if we are to convey as much of the partial truth as we have at our disposal.
We speak of electrons as particles and as waves. Yet we know that neither metaphor is able to handle the total observed activity of electrons. Choice of experiment decides which metaphor is more useful.
We speak of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, even though we are not able to see through to the end the simultaneous application of these two concepts. Choice of perspective decides which metaphor is more useful.
We speak of the human being as a pile of inorganic and organic chemicals and as a creature made in the image of God, even though we are hard put to understand how our physiology and our spirituality fit together. Choice of category of description decides which metaphor is more useful.
Using more than one metaphor may he an attempt to cover up our ignorance. A number of blind men trying to describe an elephant might be heard saying that an elephant was like a rope (its tail), or like a leaf (its ear), or like a column (its leg), but their confusion could he cleared up by recognizing the whole elephant as a large mammal. Bu sometimes using more than one metaphor is the consequence of our inherent limitations in trying to describe the indescribable in terms of the concepts we are used to thinking about. And sometimes more than one metaphor is demanded simply because we choose different kinds of catgories for our various descriptions:
A painting is a collection of brush strokes and the Mona Lisa. Any attempt to view the painting in terms of the details of the brush strokes (as with a magnifying glass) will make it imposible to view the entire picture as a portrait.
A symphony is an assortment of musical notes and the rousing impact of Beethoven's Ninth. Love is a physiological phenomenon involving two persons and a profound interpersonal commitment.
These sets of descriptions are each a complementary pair; they cannot be simultaneously applied. Any effort to move into the frame of reference of one type of description automatically precludes seeing the phenomenon in the frame of reference of the other type of description. Yet both types of description convey significant partial truth about the matter being discussed.
We begin to see, therefore, how scientific descriptions and theological descriptions can he used together-in fact insist be used together to bring out the richness of created reality on all of its possible category levels. If we have only the scientific description, our understanding is the poorer.
For simple aspects of reality such as atoms and electrons, our scientific description is broad and significant. Our theological description rests on the basis of Creation and Providence.
For complex aspects of created reality like human love, our scientific description in terms of physics, chemistry and physiology does not come anywhere near to showing the full significance of a relationship that must be seen in the full context of God as our Redeemer and loving Lord.
For spiritual aspects of reality such as regeneration, we still have a set of scientific descriptions, for it is corporeal human beings who are involved in regeneration, but now the theological description assumes major importance with its description in terms of forgiveness, eternal life and fellowship with God.
For all aspects of created reality, whether simple or complex, there are possible scientific descriptions and possible theological descriptions; the one in no way rules out the other.
The Basis for a New Freedom
What a sense of freedom flows from this simple realization! What an end to false dichotomies! What an opening up of vistas for scientific and theological integrity and authenticity!
No more the terrible pitting of the natural against the supernatural, of the world without God against the world with Cod, but instead the recognition of God's activity in all things. Seeing God's free activity in the blooming of a flower as well in resurrection from the dead, the former being an instance of God's normal and regular pattern of activity and the latter an instance of God's special revelatory activity.
No more the conflict between natural process and God's action, but seeing natural process as God's action. Recognizing that the discovery of a scientific description for a phenomenon does not exclude a theological description in terms of the activity of God.
No more the strangeness of God's intervention into His orderly universe to effect miracles (for what orderly universe is there except that state of matter maintained moment-by-moment by the free activity of God?), but instead the consistent working of God according to his intrinsic freedom both in the natural course of events and in the special course of events we recognize as miracles. No more the picture of God using natural law-for what natural law is there except our description of God's regular and normal pattern of activity?
No more the struggle between man as garbage, as machine, as animal, or as creature made in the image of God, but man, made a little lower than the angels: garbage, yes! machine, yes! animal, yes!-hut . . . destined for fellowship with God, yes!
No more the inevitable strife between creation and evolution, as though one must of necessity choose between the two, but rather complete commitment to God the Creator regardless of the activity He engaged in to create. Making clear the distinction between worldviews of biblical Creation vs atheistic Evolutionism, and the possible scientific mechanisms such as instantaneous creation or continuous process, which are our descriptions of God's activity.
No more the searching for evidence of God in the nooks and crannies of human ignorance and failure, but the welcoming of the Lord at the very center of life, ruling our knowledge and our ignorance, our strength and our weakness. Recognizing that the God-of-the-gaps, the God who depends for evidence of his existence on the
gaps in human knowledge and understanding, is only a poor caricature of the God of the Bible, the Lord of Reality.
No more the dichotomy between body and soul or spirit, as though I had a body, a soul, and a spirit, the body being somehow natural, the soul betwixt and between, and the spirit being supernatural; but one whole person created by God who calls me into life and spiritual fellowship with Himself out of the very stuff of the earth.
No more an endless groping for fine distinctions, between choices that must be made either/or, of faithfulness to scientific investigation vs faithfulness to the Word of God; but instead a wholehearted embracing of both/and to the glory of God.
Understanding the Bible
Finally we are freed from that view of the Bible that would force it into a mold of our own conception-that it was not written to fit! The phrase "biblical inerrancy" has come to mean for many an absolutely truthful book, a book that tells the absolute truth in every conceivable category regardless of whether the authors of that book under divine inspiration were using that category or not. This is a view that develops from a faulty apprehension of truth; it does not recognize what we have fried to say about partial truth, but insists instead that partial truth is unworthy of God. Surely He must me able to convey the absolute truth to us, for is He not God? But even God cannot-and indeed will not attempt to-convey His revelation to us except in those forms with which we can relate; the unknowns must be described in terms of the known, even in a Divine Metaphor.
The indiscriminate claim than an inerrant Bible must be scientifically accurate is a claim that contains its own contradiction, for scientific truth is a transient and changing thing. A revelation given in the terms of one view of science during one period (then the scientific truth) must in all likelihood become scientific non-truth a few years later. To argue otherwise is to suppose that the scientific truth can he known and stated once and for all.
What we see instead is the revelation of God coming to man largely in terms of historical events witnessed by the authors and authenticated by their readers and hearers, interpreted by divine guidance and inspiration. In those special areas of revelation outside any human experience-the origin of all things and the final consummation of all things-revelation brings the authoritative and reliable Word of God to men through forms and concepts meaningful to those for whom they were written. As the book of Revelation can be considered a prophecy of the future, so the account of origins in Genesis can be considered as a prophecy of the past.
Surely the truth (authoritative, reliable, partial truth) of the Creation can be completely seen whether revealed through the form of a three-story universe, a Ptolemaic universe with the earth at the center, a Copernican universe with the sun at the center, a Newtonian universe governed by gravity, or an Einsteinian universe with matter related to the structure of space-time.
To argue that an inerrant Bible must provide this revelation in terms of the true theory of the universe is to misunderstand the nature of scientific truth and scientific descriptions completely. It is, in fact, to give to scientific truth far more permanence and ultimacy than it possesses.
The partial truths of science do bring freedom: freedom from ignorance, superstition, powerlessness, and bondage to the natural forces of the world.
The divinely inspired truths of the biblical record do bring freedom: freedom to live in an imperfect and often apparently meaningless world, secure in God's forgiveness and love.
Relationship with Christ, the Truth, brings ultimate freedom: freedom from the desires of our own self-centered hearts, and freedom to live a life of meaningful service to God.
This is the text of a Pew Lecture given at Grove City College, Grace City, Pennsylvania, on Match 6, 1978.