Science in Christian Perspective




Reflections on the Practice of Outworn Creeds

Department of Chemistry
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2G2

From: JASA 33 (March 1981): 3-11
This is the first of three keynote addresses presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation on August 8-11, 1980 at Taylor University, Upland IN

Science is Concerned with Truth

I want to thank the ASA executive committee, and all of you as ASA members, for this opportunity to speak to you on a subject which is of very great concern and interest to me. Although I have never been an active member of the ASA-largely due to my enormous capacity for neglect and procrastination-I have been very much aware of the ASA's creative influence in bringing together a community of scientists who are also Christians. Over the years, what has seemed especially valuable about the ASA is the evident commitment of the association, and its leadership, to the principle that the scientific enterprise, and the knowledge of reality which it is able to discover, can have an authenticity and inner integrity which commands our respect, even when we are most aware of our fallibility as creatures, and in spite of the fact that we do not know in advance what the scope or implications of such knowledge might be. Such respect, and such a commitment, have kept the ASA from various sterile fixations inspired by dogmatic preconceptions; and they have enabled it to keep a vital and relevant grasp of the issues, the problems-and, may I say, the joys-which arise for people who not only believe that we can see a divine handiwork around us, but also believe that it has great worth as an object of true knowledge in itself.

Perhaps paradoxically, I am convinced that this attitude of openness, which so often seems to ask questions rather  than provide answers-this willingness to face up to truth wherever we may encounter it-springs ultimately from faith in the greatness of the mm and living God, and not from unbelief at all. It is faith of the sort that inspired our father Abraham to move into pioneering adventures be yond the limits of his theological understanding-and led him eventually to a clearer theological understanding. Such a faith formed the underlying dynamic for many of the ear ly scientists. When we hear Johannes Kepler exclaim with delight that he is convinced he has seen the divine pattern in truth at all the orbits of the planets, surely the creative response from us is not to remark how sadly misled he was, or to point out how technically incomplete or imprecise his "truth" was. since then, I have never had the slightest reason to doubt Surely rather we thrill to that same excitement, precisely because we know so well now how much more staggering were the insights and discoveries which were yet to come after Kepler, drawing on his work. We can recognize in such men as Kepler the dynamic of the same hope and faith in a divinely given order which inspires and fascinates all of us who really study science today; and I believe that hope and that faith are ultimately from God, and are finally sus tained by the conviction of His reality as well.

A Personal Background

For me this belief is not in the first instance academic but intensely personal. I can remember when, in my second
year of undergraduate study, there suddenly came to me the recognition that, firstly, I took the enterprise of science
seriously and believed passionately that in it I was dealing with knowledge of a real truth, even though it might be of
limited scope. I think one of the great things about Caltech in those days was the naive and almost evangelical fervour with which some of the great scientists who taught us communicated the sincerity of their own passion for science. I do not mean that they postured arrogantly as some philosophers of science do, with all sorts of outlandish formal and logical arguments and claims. What they did was to share their enthusiasm and admiration for what could be seen and done. It was contagious, and I received it in an equal naivety and sincerity. Secondly, I realized also that this sort of truth might possibly force me to re-examine my theological beliefs-and I found that very disturbing. At the time, I was not looking for reasons to be skeptical, or doubting my Christian beliefs at all. Somehow, though, I was able to see that the answer to my sense of disturbance could not be a purely intellectual one. I reached the simple conclusion that I ought to have nothing to fear from learning the truth, since God is who He is, in Himself, and not what I think Him to be: therefore, by a continued openness I had nothing to lose-and perhaps a great deal to gain. For me this was fundamentally a declaration of faith and a personal trust, not merely an intellectual posture. I think it is important that in making it, and in the commitment so declared, I made no attempt to circumscribe, even in principle, the possible implications of scientific knowledge. That the truth of science has some limits of scope, I now see very clearly; but arguments to that effect were then quite beside the point. God, if He exists, is the source of all Truth; therefore, insofar as science could acquire a knowledge of truth at all....

In the years of adventure both intellectual and spiritual since then, I have never had the slightest reason to doubt the soundness of that commitment.

People do not understand what is being said, but they think they do; as a result they discount much of what is being said, in much the same way that we react to a television commercial.

However, I can hardly appeal to you all to share my out look and philosophical convictions about science and the problem of knowledge on the basis of such a very personal experience. Doubtless many of you have had equally powerful and formative experiences involving faith and commitment, but with different intellectual issues as the focal point. In relating this personal background, therefore, I am trying only to make it intelligible to you that I should think as I do, so that you will understand my passion for the view-which I share with Kepler, too!-that science is concerned with truth, after all. When Michael Polanyi was asked why he chose to abandon a creative career in physical chemistry to pursue economics, sociology, philosophy, and so on, he said his real reason was that it was a return to normal; he said "We all started with being interested in the whole world; it's the only genuine interest we can have."'1 He saw science, not as irrelevant to a whole universe, but as incomplete without that whole. Somewhat similarly, if I by my early life and upbringing had come into contact with reality and a knowledge-relation to reality in the two very different dimensions of scientific inquiry and the Christian religion, it was inevitable that I should look for a common ground, in which those realities are brought together as a "whole world." Incidentally this may also explain why I feel a fundamental affinity with much of Michael Polanyi's thought.

My talk today is called "Reflections on the Practice of Outworn Creeds." The plural creeds to which I refer are Christianity and the scientific tradition, and for most of us here that double commitment is characteristic and important. I also especially have this audience in mind in referring to the practice of such creeds, because for many of us this involvement is not merely an idealized abstraction, but a living reality, however badly we may feel we are managing in our tasks. The ASA exists because you are aware, not only of particular issues and problems which arise in the context of this dual involvement, but also of valuable insights and experience which can be drawn out of it. I believe that from such insights and experience there are especially important contributions which this community is uniquely fitted to make to certain crucial questions facing the church and indeed our whole culture at this time. In these talks I hope to indicate what these contributions might be, and to encourage some among you to take up the challenge of making these contributions.

"Outworn" Creeds

In speaking of these creeds as outworn, I am not being entirely facetious or satirical. Very specific difficulties face people who believe in something real, when they live in a culture which thinks it understands what that something is all about, that it has "outgrown" such belief, and that the reality in question does not exist. These difficulties are different from those which arise for an enterprise at its historical beginning.

For some time now Christians have known what it is like to live in a creed regarded by society as "outworn." Our modern world assumes that the foundational doctrines of Christianity have no objective reality to which they refer. While to some (increasingly limited) extent the culture grants acceptance of Christian moral values, it refuses to accept that these values are necessarily linked to the foundation truths; the consequence in culture is that the moral authority of Christianity is rejected whenever it is really challenged because it is assumed that the doctrines of Christianity regarding reality have been disproved or invalidated.

In such a "post-Christian" situation, the problem of communication, for example, is in some ways worse than it is when a message is historically new. People do not understand what is being said, but they think they do; as a result they discount much of what is being said, in much the same way that we react to a television commercial. Because terminology has been emptied of its specific content by erosion, criticism, and caricature, it becomes extremely difficult to use it at all; yet without specific content in words we cannot communicate. To illustrate, I might ask you whether you feel comfortable in using the terms saved or salvation except within a predefined context?

In addition to the problems of communication between a believing and practicing community and the society which considers its creed outworn, there are internal problems and stresses within the community. Any community and its enterprise are carried on by transmission of beliefs and practice to new members; in a non-receptive culture, selfdoubt becomes the frequent accompaniment to any efforts at individual growth. The possibility of a transition from beginner to maturity has less credibility as a personal option. After all, if "nobody is doing it any more," there is great pressure to conclude it must have been discredited.


Evangelicalism is a vital reaction to the situation in which Christianity is seen by the culture as an outworn creed. Its main characteristics are, a highly specific (orthodox) theological content, an emphasis on the authority of Scripture, and lastly the conviction that Christianity must be tried out at a personal and practicing level if it is to be known as a reality. The issue of the authority of Scripture as the vehicle of divine revelation, "the word of God," is peculiarly central to evangelicalism and indeed to Christianity as a whole, and, as you know, discussion about the nature and function of this authority has become very marked at the present time. I do not want to comment on that issue here; what I want to point out is that it cannot be divorced, as an abstract issue, from its evangelical contextual partners, i.e., a specific theological content and a primary emphasis on personal commitment and practice.

Evangelicalism insists that the truth of Christianity cannot be assessed through an abstract inspection of doctrines, and that the power of that truth cannot be known in the absence of an actual commitment. In fact, such insistence is the essential background to the proclamation of any message with specific content, and this is why evangelicalism is able to sustain its theological content: only a vague liberal theology can afford the luxury of being purely theoretical.

Content and Commitment

Anyone who has been trained into the discipline and practice of scientific study and research will appreciate this intimate connection between specific logical content and practicing commitment: for example, we all know that students do not truly understand specific scientific concepts until they can repeatedly apply them in the open context of problem solving; and, at the research level, many of us know first-hand that the power of a new idea to evoke creative vision of further implications and applications is experienced only within the framework of commitment, when, as Michael Polanyi has put it, we "indwell" the idea in order to see the world from its perspective. These are only two of many aspects of the interplay between specific theoretical content and practice-in-commitment. Probably no one in this audience will dispute this general principle. However, I am stating the obvious because I do not want you to overlook it, and I want you to appreciate that it is a general epistemological principle, that is, it has importance for our understanding of the problem of knowledge. I introduced this principle when I stated that evangelicalism's insistence upon a practicing commitment is one of its primary and vital characteristics, precisely because such practicing commitment is essential to the real acquisition and retention of specific theological content.

I am not so sure that other sectors of the evangelical community would so readily accept such an epistemological outlook. At least some of the formulations of a Christian philosophy and theology with which I am acquainted appear to me to be extremely uncomfortable with this emphasis on a practicing commitment as the context for knowledge, v6isbing to downplay it, at any rate; and still others seem to me to reject the principle entirely, in favor of what I would regard as purel) rationalist theories of Christian truth and our knowledge of it. Those of us evangelicals who are also practicing scientists should realize that an operating principle that we take for granted either is not so evident to, or is even rejected by, some evangelical thinkers. Here then is a first example of distinctive insight and experience arising out of our dual involvement in Christianity and the scientific traditon: if we recognize the vital importance of practice in commitment in maintaining and fostering scientific knowledge, should we not also try to contribute toward the formulation of an evangelical theology with a similar emphasis? I was attracted to Michael Polanyi's approach to the problem of knowledge because it comes to grips with the central role of commitment in relation to scientific knowledge, and I realized that only such an approach could make sense of its even more vital role in Christian knowledge. I see development of an evangelical theology sensitive to these questions as one of the most important tasks to which concerned people from this community could devote themselves; theology is too important to be left to the theologians. But, again, I am getting ahead of my subject as a whole, although I hope to return to this particular topic in some depth in the later talks.

The End of the Present Age of Science

Earlier I have implied that the scientific tradition has also become an "outworn creed" in relation to the present culture (and to its future development). No doubt some of you have been wondering what I mean by that, and what relevance it may have to our major concern as Christians.

Most of us recognize that we are entering a period of crisis in Western culture. As Christians we recognize that this crisis may be the coming of the apocalypse, though we cannot be certain; but in any case the present age is coming to an end. The last period of revolutionary cultural change in the West occurred in the century or so around 1500 A.D. when the structures of the Medieval period broke up under the impact of the Reformation, the humanist Renaissance, and the scientific revolution. Each of these movements left its mark on the present age, but it is especially the consequences of the scientific revolution which have shaped its outward form. Thus in a very special sense the age now coming to its end is the age of science. During this period science and the idea of scientific knowledge not only formed

Walter R. Thorson is Professor of Theoretical Chemistry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. His professional interests are in quantum mechanics, especially its application to problems in the theory of atomic collisions and molecular dynamics. He is a member of the American Physical Society, Canadian Association of Physicists, and the American Scientific Affiliation, and has published about 50 professional papers. He is actively interested as a layman in theology and Christian apologetics, especially in topics bearing on the epistemology of science and its relation to religious knowledge. He is a frequent lecturer at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C., where he is Adjunct Professor of the Philosophy of Science. Dr. and Mrs. Thorson and their family reside in Edmonton.

 the main focus for creative intellectual activity, but they also became religious idols to which the culture looked for final deliverance. This idolatry has made a proper appreciation of science very difficult for the church, since her first obligation is to the one true God.

Now, however, along with the many other changes involved in our present crisis, has come the smashing of these idols and the development of a different sort of religious consciousness, which is alien to both Christianity and the scientific tradition. In my essay, "The Spiritual Dimension of Science" (published in the book Horizons of Science edited by Carl Henry2), I have described some of the ways in which present cultural changes undermine the scientific enterprise and may cause science (as distinct from technology) to die out in our culture. In a future age (if there is one), science and the scientific enterprise may appear much as the medieval university or the monastic tradition seem to us: i.e., they will appear as institutions and traditions whose very reasons for being are irrelevant, unnecessary, and based on mistaken goals. To the extent that we here today would disagree with that opinion of pure science, we shall be-indeed, we have already become-believers in an outworn creed.

I should make it clear that I distinguish sharply between science and technology in terms of the dynamic motivations for those activities. I do not intend any particular evaluation of technology, either good or bad, and I do not forget that many of us are able to participate in the scientific tradition only because of possible applications to technology. But the motivation for technology is instrumentalist and utilitarian; it springs from the desire to achieve previously defined ends, using a pre-existing conception of reality; operation, not explanation, is its goal. As a result it does not normally lead to a new understanding of the world. I have no immediate anxieties about the survival of technology, though I fear the consequences of its direct coupling with the political and economic will to power. By contrast I would describe the motivation for science as philosophical and inquisitive, i.e., it springs from the desire "to see things as they really are'~-in the hope of arriving at new visions and understanding, at present either inconceivable or only dimly perceived. The belief that "truth" in at least some sense is the goal of this activity is essential to maintaining it.

I have the impression that many evangelical thinkers would react to the death of the scientific tradition by throwing a party, and, had I time, I could give you examples illustrating that reaction from my own experience. I am not even sure that there is not some ambivalence among ourselves, who have an appreciation for science, as to whether we should be among the chief mourners or attend the party, too. It should be clear to you from the titles of my talks that I myself can find no reason for rejoicing in the death of science. An "outworn creed" it may be, but it is one to which I am wholeheartedly committed-essentially for theological reasons. In order to explain my reasons for concern about the "outworn creed" of science, and what I take to be the essence of that creed, I must first talk about the attitudes of evangelical thinkers to science.

Evangelical Critiques of Science

Most discussions of the relation between science and Christianity-by Christians and non-Christians-have been based on the assumption of antithesis: science and its tradition have been seen as actual or potential opponents of Christian claims regarding an ultimate reality. This is understandable, since both Christianity and science make some claims regarding the material world, and some tensions between them are inevitable, at least in the short run. Sometimes scientific discoveries have forced Christians to recognize that traditional or literalist interpretations of some Christian doctrines are too naive. Sometimes the arrogant and extravagant claims of earlier scientific conceptions of the world have been abandoned as the deeper complexity of the creation became apparent.

Because of the idolatry of scientism so prevalent until very recently, antithetically motivated critiques of science were sometimes very necessary. Particularly serious and offensive were the extreme claims of positivist and logical positivist philosophies of science (perhaps epitomized best in the "logical atomism" of Bertrand Russell). These asserted (1) the uniqueness, permanence, and absolutism of scientific knowledge as an impersonal, objective knowledge; (2) the exclusive and distinct character of the scientific method as a means to obtaining such knowledge; and (3) the exclusive and pre-emptive character of materialist, causal explanations for phenomena (all other descriptions of events are "untrue" because they are "subjective").

If such claims could be substantiated, they would make Christianity an indefensible creed. It is absolutely essential that the claim of Christian theology to describe an objective reality be justifiable. Evangelicals may not take refuge from the force of positivist claims by adopting an existentialist theology; the creedal statements of Christianity point beyond themselves to a real reference point which is external to the subject affirming them, and are not merely describing symbolically the inner experience of that subject. I regard it as very important that our theological language maintain its clarity on this issue, and, as I will try to indicate, a right appraisal of the objective nature of scientific knowledge is an important element in helping us to do so. This is a second point at which our dual commitment to Christianity and the scientific enterprise may enable us to make distinctive contributions to current theological issues.

Critiques of science motivated by the assumption of antithesis may be broadly divided into three categories:

(a) Those which argue in various ways that the conclusions of science are not final or binding, and therefore may never be used in criticism of Christian beliefs;

(b) Those which emphasize that science and the scientific method have intrinsic limits, i.e., the scope of scientific meaning is neither exhaustive nor primary;

(c) Those which deny the claims of positivism that scientific knowledge has an exclusive, distinct character which sets it apart from all other kinds of knowledge-especially, the claim to objectivity via an impersonal procedure.

I leave aside critiques of accommodation, which try to make room for the truth-claims of Christianity and of science by employing dual or multi-level models of meaning - e.g., "science answers the 'how' but not the 'why' questions." These are extremely useful pictures, that can provide important insights about the meaning of such truth-claims. However, I find them ultimately unsatisfying because, taken by themselves, they provide no unifying concept to bring the "two worlds" together, and they do not give any account of coupling between the spiritual and physical realities, as we have to think about when, for example, we look at the problem of miracles. In addition, if such views are carried to extremes, they may lapse into a subjective existentialism on the theological side, which for me would amount to abandoning true Christianity.

A Sympathetic Critique of Science

I now come to the main issue in my talk today: Critiques of science should, in the end, be supportive, rather than destructive, of both of our "outworn creeds," even if their immediate motivation arose from antithesis. I think that in the long run any critique that is erosive and undermining to the creativity and vitality of the scientific tradition, will ultimately be erosive and undermining to the vitality of an evangelical Christianity. Antithesis alone is not an adequate standpoint for understanding the relation between Christianity and science; there is a more fundamental basis, which is also historically older, which recognizes that the scientific enterprise draws its fundamental inspiration and ideals from basic Christian beliefs, and is therefore a kind of spiritually rooted activity. If this is so, then we must assess the value of the various categories of critique listed earlier according to their essential harmony, or disharmony, with the underlying rootedness of science within a Christian understanding. My own views on the merits of these several categories are directly related to this criterion.

It is even more important for us to recover a fundamentally sympathetic critique of science, now that the culture is coming to regard its ideals as an -outworn creed."

An examination of the rise of modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries leads us to appreciate that there is a more fundamental standpoint for understanding science than the critique of antithesis. As a rule, it is a sound principle that the motivations and outlook which create a new enterprise provide the best clues to the true dynamic of the enterprise; indeed our concern as evangelicals for the recovery of a biblical understanding of Christianity is another application of the same principle.

In my second talk, I argue for a -view of science and its goals and meaning that I believe is compatible with the outlook of the pioneers of the scientific tradition, particularly their conscious roots in Christian beliefs about God, man, and the world as a created order. Here I would like to summarize certain elements in their outlook which, I think, support the claim that a sympathetic critique of science is more fundamental than one of antithesis. In this connection, may I call your attention to the extremely valuable study by R. Hooykaas entitled Religion and the Rise of Modern Science.3

I have the impression that many evangelical thinkers would react to the death of the scientific tradition by throwing a party.

Roots of Science in Christian Beliefs

To begin with, we all recognize that there are certain extremely important theological ideas in the Judaeo-Christian tradition which are vital to any conception of the scientific enterprise at all, and that these ideas are notably lacking in some other religious systems; in this sense it is no accident that science arose in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This has been pointed out by a number of writers, of whom A.N. Whitehead is perhaps best known. Belief in one God who is Creator of everything real, together with the repeated emphasis on the idea of His unchanging and faithful character, encourages belief in an ordered universe based on unchanging principles (think of Psalm 19 as the epitome of such a belief!). The doctrine of the transcendence of God and the recognition that He is distinct from His creation removes any sense of religious awe from the material world ("you shall not fear other gods or serve them") while the identity and role of man as made in God's image sets him free to explore the limits of his own creativity and agency as having a responsible dominion over earth. The biblical emphasis on the value and freedom and responsibility of the individual encourages an active rather than a passive or fatalistic attitude to events in the world. These are only the most basic elements providing a cultural soil for the germination of the scientific enterprise.

But more particularly, the individual pioneers of that enterprise were themselves deeply religious men, for the most part, who were quite consciously aware of a theological justification for what they were trying to do. Robert Boyle, third son of the Earl of Cork, is typical of many others less famous: when he was sent to Cambridge he promptly became a Puritan and also became interested in science. The two commitments went together, and there was no thought of antithesis. Kepler had no doubt that the pattern he and Tycho discerned in the planetary motions was a divinely created order; indeed the belief that such an order would be revealed to study inspired and sustained his work. Bacon spoke eloquently for the whole tradition when he drew the parallel between God's revelation in Scripture and another revelation in nature, stressing that we must read both books to see what they actually say, rather than carry on rationalistic arguments. The pioneers of science felt comfortable in their new enterprise because of their conscious Christian commitment-not in spite of it.

On the other hand, they did have a sense of antithesis with the medieval past, and with the Church where it represented that tradition. Bacon's impatience with scholastic rationalism and its preoccupation with logic-chopping is typical; something of the reasons for that impatience is exemplified in the story of the work on barometric pressure, culminating in the discoveries of Torricelli and Pascal, over against the sterile dictum "nature abhors a vacuum" and its vain defense by philosophers of the medieval tradition; or, the (partly legendary) story of Galileo and the Aristotelian axioms regarding falling bodies. In all these controversies there is the growing conviction that one may test the actual truth (or falsehood) of an idea about the real world by an appeal to experience, to phenomena. As the necessary obverse side of the same coin, there is also the conviction that rationally ordered conceptions of the world can have a power to comprehend it as it "really is." It is in this sense that the Copernican hypothesis was revolutionary; not because of its specific content (similar views were familiar from classical times), but because Copernicus claimed that his hypothesis-as over against the Ptolemaic model-was actually true. Copernicus' work was published posthumously and, ironically, an early edition contained an apologetic preface written by Osiander, a Lutheran theologian, in which Osiander advanced, completely contrary to Copernicus' intention, the old medieval doctrine of "saving the phenomena"-that is, the Copernican view should be acceptable as an alternative accounting for the same data as are explained by the Ptolemaic theory, but that neither should be considered as being "actually true." The astronomers rejected Osiander's opinion with utter contempt, but, as Michael Polanyi points out, for more than 150 years they had no convincing experimental data that could justify such a prejudice on the grounds of explained phenomena. This story shows that (1) they explicitly rejected the medieval doctrine of "saving the appearances," in favor of the view that a scientific theory may be considered as actually true (or false); and (2) their reasons for favoring one theory over another were not instrumental or utilitarian, but were based on their inarticulate sense or expectation, evoked by the Copernican hypothesis (but not by the other), of a larger whole, containing as yet unspecified further consequences. The best name for this attitude is faith.

Four hundred years and a great deal of philosophy later, we may, if we choose, find this sort of belief about the objectivity of scientific activity to be touchingly naive. However we should realize that the stakes involved in abandoning such a belief are very high indeed, for to do so strikes not merely at the possible validity of scientific conclusions, but more basically at the dynamic motivation for the scientific enterprise itself. This may not matter to you, if you conceive of the relation between science and Christian faith in terms of antithesis alone; but if you conceive of the scientific enterprise as stemming from, and motivated by, the essentially Christian concept of creation as a book to be interpreted by man, then a loss of such belief essentially weakens our other and far more important commitment to Christianity.

Here then is what I mean by the "outworn creed" of the scientific enterprise: the belief that by honest inquiry we can formulate ideas about the creation around us that not only account for the observable phenomena, but, by their power to evoke within us an awareness of vision of yet a greater whole, of which they form but a part, can command our respect and responsible commitment as being actually faithful to the objective reality they attempt to describe. To explain this statement in depth would take a long time, but, in spite of the difficulties, I think those of you who are practicing scientists can understand its basic meaning. Thomas Torrance has put it very well from the standpoint of theology: "Nature itself is dumb, but it is man's part to bring it to be word, to be its mouth through which the whole universe gives voice to the glory and majesty of the living God."4 Both Torrance and I have certain definite biblical paradigms in mind here as descriptions of science; and I hope to return to the topic in some depth in my second address.

I have said that philosophical views which attack the validity of our "outworn creed" of science are also, in the long run, erosive of Christian belief, and I should like to develop that subject a bit further, in the remainder of my talk today. I would also like, in the process, to examine the three types of "antithetical critique" I mentioned earlier, in relation to this question.

In the long run any critique that is erosive and undermining to the creativity and vitality of the scientific tradition will ultimately be erosive and undermining to the vitality of an evangelical Christianity.

Comparison with Positivism

If you would compare what I have tried to describe as the "outworn creed" of science, with the extreme position I outlined earlier as characteristic of positivism, you will find that in some respects they are completely different, but that in other respects they have a great deal in common. Some of the important differences are,

(1) We do not conceive of science as an autonomous activity, but one carried on in a particular context, the context of man as a creature, made in the image of God, looking at what God has made. The fundamental expectations of science concerning order and rationality in the perceived universe are ultimately an expectation concerning the divine character; as such they do not need to be derived or proved as if they sprang from man himself alone. In other words, we forsake the Cartesian scheme of building up reality on our own, and consciously return to the recognition that our activity is carried on in the larger context of our Christian presuppositions about ourselves and the world, where, in fact, the enterprise itself was originally conceived.

(2) It follows that we recognize Emits to the scope of science and do not see it as all-comprehensive knowledge; and,

(3) It also follows that we cannot conceive of scientific, material explanations as exclusive and pre-emptive descriptions of reality.

(4) We reject the concept of knowledge as impersonal,


and the concept of objectivity as being grounded in an impersonal procedure; this in turn implies that scientific knowledge is not a distinctly different kind of knowledge from other kinds of knowledge, as far as methodology, objectivity, or even subject matter are concerned, but at some level forms a continuum with all that of which we are, or may become, aware.

But the things we have in common are also important:

(1) We affirm the existence of a consistent, external objective reality, to which the statements of science have reference, and we are prepared to argue grounds for belief in "objectivity."

(2) We believe that scientific concepts and conclusions are capable of truthfully describing some aspects of reality and therefore that we are subject to the potential authority of that truth to alter and enrich our understanding of the world and ourselves as creatures in it.

(3) Although we recognize that revolutions of horizon and perspective occur in the development of science, we fundamentally agree with the positivist belief that, on the whole, the knowledge achieved through the scientific enterprise is cumulative and ultimately aims at a consistent, unified account of the objective realities with which it is concerned; in particular, we do not pretend that no real progress toward such a goal has been made, nor can we entertain multiple incompatible and inconsistent conceptions of the world as being finally satisfying to us, even if they do meet instrumentalist or utilitarian criteria. The recent interest in the problem of the interpretation of the quantum mechanics exemplifies this point; Einstein was only the first of many physicists who have a vague sense of dissatisfaction because the quantum mechanics (as we currently understand it) might contain inherent dualisms associated with its probabilistic nature. We shall always endeavour to look behind dualisms to an underlying unity; no man can serve two masters.

Because of these claims, I think some people would describe such a view of science as "positive." I will accept this name, properly understood, but I don't like it any more than you like being called a "fundamentalist" -there is a problem of guilt by association. In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi described his epistemological ideas as "an attempt to demythologize positivism," that is, he considered that there are within positivism certain beliefs essential to the character of science but that these had been buried in the form of beliefs and statements of a mythical, i.e., literally false, nature. The implicit reference to a Bultmannian view of Christian theology is unfortunate, because I do not think Polanyi was really interested in an existentialist interpretation of theology. It was Polanyi's purpose, as it is mine, to defend and establish the concept of an objective reality, to which our valid knowledge may be understood to refer, by a careful examination of the grounds for believing that we actually have such knowledge. He recognized that for Western thought since 1600 the problem of scientific knowledge and its proper justification presented the proper focal point at which such a study could begin; that by seeing scientific knowledge, not as antithetical to all other kinds of knowledge, but as fundamentally of the same type, one could recover a basis for understanding what it is to know any external objective reality, and thus also recover a proper appreciation of Christian beliefs and calling for modern man. This. task, like science itself, he recognized to be far beyond the achievement of any one thinker, but he realized his responsibility to begin it.

Modern Attack on Objective Reality

Now, we must realize that it is just this concept of an objective reality that is coming under attack and denial in the great changes now taking place in the religious and cultural consciousness of the West, and that this is happening not only at a philosophical and intellectual level but at the level of everyday expression and action. This entails not only the death of science but also the final erosion of all concepts of an objective authority to which meaningful commitments could, even in principle, be made, i.e. Christianity would become, even more than at present, incredible. The emergence of all kinds of superstition, belief in occult power, and a deliberate will to evil becomes possible. Emphasis on "cool," non-verbal forms of communication, which can totally distort factual truth in favor of subjective impressions, can make it almost impossible to present the word of God. Forms of religious thought, derived from existentialism and oriental mysticism, which deny the reality of the external world and turn the mind inward, can make people passive, fatalistic, ultimately unconcerned with the world outside them. Technological manipulation of human beings to achieve arbitrarily defined ends could be perceived as "beyond good and evil." For many people today it is not belief in the Christian religion, but belief in the picture of an objective, external universe operating according to scientific laws, which is the last bulwark to such an alternative cultural age; the scientific world-view is the last trace for them of the Judaeo-Christian past, and it is under attack.

In The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer5 outlined growing apostasy in Western culture in terms of a progressive denial of objective reality or value, firstly in respect to God and His word, then in man's own existence; he described how this has led to man's loss of personal identity, to meaninglessness and despair, manifesting itself in every aspect of society and artistic culture. I do not think Schaeffer entertained the idea that the process might also lead to a denial of the concept of a consistent, objective, real world behaving according to laws of nature, yet logically this is the next stage, and I believe it is now in prospect, in the "age of Aquarius."

In view of what I have just been saying, I think you can see that those critiques of science, motivated entirely by antithesis, which argue that the conclusions of science can never be considered to have any authority, or that science can never know actual truth, are really not helping Christianity but hindering it, in the long run. They are incompatible with the dynamic motivation behind scientific endeavor, and they ignore the spiritual roots of that endeavor in Christian belief. Yet it is just these critiques and arguments which are most prevalent in evangelicalism

It is just this concept of an objective reality that is coming under attack and denial in the great changes now taking place in the religious and cultural consciousness of the West.

today, and, regrettably, they are heard more frequently now than a few years ago. I am sick and tired of hearing preachers, who know nothing about physics or its development, confidently proclaiming that the opinions of physics change completely every fifty years, or similar stuff; this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth-not to mention the fact that it presumes some rather odd ideas about the way in which human beings can expect to learn anything. For the same reasons, I have no sympathy at all with views such as Henry M. Morris and his colleagues have consistently advanced: attacking the idea of consistent, invariant laws of nature, which can at least be closely approximated by inference from observed phenomena, not only undermines the very heart of scientific endeavor and makes it pointless, but, in view of the roots of the idea in the biblical conception of a faithful Creator, appears to me almost blasphemous in its implications. Such views can be traced back to the medieval doctrine of "saving the phenomena," and the presuppositions behind its use are also entirely medieval. I believe it is high time the Church recognized that the medieval view of God, man, and the world was abandoned, because it is really an inadequate one, not simply because of apostasy.

There is a more sophisticated class of arguments in this category which appeal to relatively modern philosophical views of science-the instrumentalism or operationalism of thinkers like Mach or Percy Bridgman-to argue that science can never-even in principle-know "truth." Professor Gordon Clark has written a number of books and articles presenting this view.6' In my next two talks, I make clearer why I cannot agree with it: part of the problem concerns the semantic reservation implied by this view for the concept of truth (versus what I would describe as a "functional ontology" of truth), and part of it concerns the fundamental question of how human beings learn and know anything.

Emphasis on the Limitations of Science

The second category of critiques of science, those which emphasize the limitations to its scope and meaning, are more nearly neutral or even sympathetic to it as an enterprise, but I do not think they enable us to come to grips with the crucial questions about knowledge which concern us in relation to'both science and Christianity. In teaching lectures on the relation between science and Christian faith, I have often found it useful to give a brief survey of the limitations of science, by way of introducing the setting for issues and problems; but I do not think such an approach is broad enough to be supportive and unifying in respect to our "outworn creeds." A general discussion of these types of critique is outside my purposes in these talks. A good example, perhaps the best exposition, of such a critique is given by MacMurray, who grounds it in the concept of persons as agents, rather than as abstract knowers.7 Once this fundamental point of departure is established, then science as an activity can be seen to have limits of scope and meaning arising from the specific methodologies and intentions of the agents involved in such activity.

However, such a critique ultimately emphasizes the division of subject matter, methodology, and language appropriate to science, art, religion, etc., and does not lead us to understand the common and unifying thread involved in these activities; for that reason I have found it unsatisfactory as a fundamental analysis. While such a critique may appeal to us because it leaves room for an orthodox Christian faith, like the critiques of accommodation it could equally well be used to justify an existentialist interpretation of theological language, and a much more liberal or ,'mythological" view of Scripture and its inspiration and function than I think right. As I will try to show later in these talks, the biblical focus on the concept of word of God as the medium of revelation implies certain fundamental parallels in relation to the role of concept and rational, logical structure, between science and Christian faith. Christian religion is not simply a wordless communication of persons-in-relation, nor are words in personal communication mere symbols emptied of specific referential and conceptual meaning and structure. It is therefore necessary for us as evangelicals to go further toward understanding science as conceptual, rational, and objective, if we believe (as I do) that the Christian religion requires us to present and express it in conceptual, rational terms referring clearly to an objective reality; the parallelism between Christian knowing and scientific knowing needs to be developed as more fundamental in some ways than the distinctions. It was to the epistemological aspects of this fundamental similarity that Bacon and the early pioneers of the scientific enterprise pointed when they spoke of the books of nature and of Scripture as requiring our careful reading.

I may anticipate a question in some of your minds by remarking that on the other hand I do not conceive of the similarities between the problems of scientific knowledge and those of Christian knowledge and Christian theology as extending to a complete congruence. Torrance has already anticipated the main point of difference, in the remark I quoted earlier: "Nature is dumb, but it is man's part to bring it to be word..." and he of course is using the expression of Scripture itself in Psalm 19:3: "there is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard:..." But this is obviously not an appropriate description of Scripture, for there we have God (not man) speaking to us in words, even though the words and voices are human; and it is in this peculiar and unique role of God's revelation in the word of God that an ultimate distinction between science and theology as activities will be significant. I do not attempt here to explore this distinction or to formulate what I would regard as an adequate view of scriptural inspiration, although it is a problem in which I am deeply interested. In this sense, the emphasis placed in my talks here, on a fundamental continuity and unity in relation to knowing in science and in Christian faith, I take to be a necessary prolegomena or foundation to an equally necessary further distinction in respect to the nature of the revelations given in creation and in Scripture. I would hope this would reassure some of you who may otherwise feel that I have not recognized the importance of a unique and objective revelation of God as the source of Christian beliefs.

As the other side of the same coin, however, I would equally strongly insist that we cannot interpret and frame our doctrines of revelation and of Scripture in a manner which is purely medieval and rationalistic, because such an approach does not do justice to the way in which truth functions as authority in the lives and thought of human beings; nor does it recognize that this functional authority is mediated in the context of an imperfect knowledge; nor does it give any account of the essential role of commitment and practice as the means by which truth may be held. Yet it seems to me that, in the main, evangelicalism still works within a medieval rationalism as the epistemological framework for its doctrinal beliefs. The astonishing success of the scientific enterprise in demonstrating the functional authority of the truth of science showed clearly that important elements are lacking in the medieval view of the relation between truth and knowledge, and from the beginning what it has really called for is a deeper appreciation of how it is we actually relate to truth through our understanding and faith. As the age of science draws to a close, I see this as a task both possible and, indeed, imperative. To continue to found our conceptions of Christian knowledge, versus all other knowledge, in a basic epistemological dualism, is to continue to encourage the idea of antithesis between faith and knowledge, to the eventual erosion of both of our precious creeds. Only by showing that the true nature of an objective knowledge is grounded in persons in fundamentally the same way, whether the content of that knowledge is theological or scientific, can we hope to mutually support both our faiths and offer a sound refutation of the growing heresy of existentialist subjectivism-the denial that Jesus Christ comes in the flesh.


1Michael Polanyi, quoted in R. Gelwick, The Way of Discovery, p. 29. Paperback edition, Oxford University Press, New York (1977).

2W.R. Thorson, "The Spiritual Dimensions of Science," an essay in Horizons of Science.- Christian Scholars Speak Out, C.F.H. Henry, Ed. Paperback edition, Harper and Row, New York (1978).

3R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Paperback edition, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh/London (1973).

4Thomas F. Torrance, Newton, Einstein and Sclentific Theology, the Eighth Annual Keese Lecture, University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, Tennessee (1971).

5Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There. Paperback edition, Inter-varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1969).

6Gordon H. Clark, "The Limits and Uses of Science," an essay in Horizons of Science: Christian Scholars Speak Out. C.F.H. Henry, Ed. Paperback edition, Harper and Row, New York (1978). See also The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God. Craig Press, Nutley, N. J. (1964).

7a. J. MacMurray, Religion, Art, and Science: A Study of the Reflective Activities in Man. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, U.K. (1961) (out of print).
b. J. MacMurray, The Self as Agent. (1953 Gifford Lectures) Faber and Faber, Ltd., London (1957).
c. J. MacMurray, Persons in Relation. (1954 Gifford Lectures) Faber and Faber, Ltd., London (1961).