Science in Christian Perspective




The Functional Dependence of Reason on Faith in Theology and Science.- An Epistemological Symmetry


Physics Department

New Jersey Institute of Technology
 Newark, NJ 07102

From: PSCF 41 (March 1989):30-31

Judeo-Christian theology and science ask very different questions and use different procedures, while the uniqueness of each enterprise arises as a direct consequence of the different natures of the principal object of investigation in each field. Science concerns itself with understanding the intelligibility revealed in the structures of the physical universe, while theology attempts to understand how the transcendent Creator of this universe has revealed himself to human observers in the space-time structures in which both theologian and scientist live. Nevertheless, at the epistemological level, a symmetry exists between theology and science as both are grounded in "faith seeking understanding."1 This epistemological symmetry between the two disciplines is clearly seen in the functional dependence of reason on faith.

SCIENTIST: Faith in the order, unity, and intelligibility revealed in nature mobilizes reason to seek comprehensive understanding of physical reality by observing, experimenting, hypothesizing, and revising (explication of revealed, contingent intelligibility). As reason is mobilized, all four of its processes are grounded in and sustained by regulative commitments arising from whole-person experience of physical reality's subtle intelligibility.

THEOLOGIAN: Faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ faithfully, uniquely, and authoritatively witnessed to in H Scripture mobilizes reason to seek comprehensive under standing of such revelation by exegeting Holy Scripture (whose words are indwelt by the Word), living a life of grateful service to God, prayerfully formulating doctrinal statements, and revising all such doctrine (explication of revealed, transcendent intelligibility). As in science, all four reasoning processes are grounded in and sustained by regulative commitments now arising from whole-person experience of the presence of the living Lord as promised by Holy Scripture. "God is love" calls forth appropriate responses of creaturely love by humankind toward God and one's neighbors. Note that such love of God and neighbor involves the stewardship of God-created physical resources, animate and inanimate.

The following comments are intended to clarify the nature of the four processes of theology's scientific method.

1. Exegeting Exegesis is a critical interpretation of a portion of Holy Scripture in order to best understand what the text meant in the context of its own time, and how that meaning applies to our time. From such exegesis Holy Scripture becomes a faithful witness to God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ for every age. Exegesis becomes possible when the exegete is open to the possibility that the words of the text bear witness to historical events and teachings that point beyond themselves to the activity of God, whose loving faithfulness grounds such events and teachings in a transcendent purposefulness. The exegete acquires such an attitude of openness through participation in a worshipping community whose attitude toward Holy Scripture, explicit and tacit, is one of reverence, respect, and belief that God will speak to us through its words.

Although the parallel between exegesis and observation in natural science is not exact, observation is also a critical interpretative process in which, as the human observer encounters a complex image of sensory experience, details are selected out that hint at possible patterns suggestive of a hidden unity. Observation in science is meaningful when the observer is open to the possibility that features of physical reality, perhaps not before considered significant, point beyond themselves to hidden patterns which are the manifestation of a unitary structure grounded in contingent intelligibility. Such observational openness is always conditioned by theory, in that the selectivity to recognize significant sensory experience is grounded in the observer's commitment to prior theoretical understandings and criteria of scientific rationality upon which to question such understandings. This conditioned openness toward sensory experience of physical reality is best learned by serving an apprenticeship in a research community where guiding convictions and observational skills are tacitly absorbed through ongoing participation in scientific research with creative scientists.

2. Living Living is a form of testing, of "experimenting with" the variety of relational patterns toward people and things established in Jesus Christ's unique servant lifestyle as witnessed by Holy Scripture. The resulting experience of God's sustaining presence and gentle power motivates the theologian to seek explanatory concepts and principles that lead to a greater understanding of God's activity and appropriate human responses. From such activity, integrated with biblical exegesis, doctrine develops.

3. Prayerfully2 Formulating

Formulations of doctrinal statements arise from the interaction and mutually reciprocal critique of the leading insights of contemporary culture and past-to-present theological reflection upon God's creative, reconciling, and redemptive activity manifest in the unity of Jesus Christ's acts and words. A proper theology results from the theologian's responsive living under God's Word as witnessed to primarily in Holy Scripture and secondarily through tradition, personal experience (corporate and individual), and reasoned reflection. All such witnesses are manifestations of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the theologian's life.

4. Revising

Revisions of all doctrinal statements by the standard of Christ's life, word, and deed, as witnessed to in Scripture, are made in order that such doctrine may shed light on current problems in ways faithful to the Word in the biblical words.

It is important to recognize that while faith is essential to both science and religion, religious, specifically Christian, faith is epistemologically of much deeper dimensionality than faith as manifest in science. Christian faith in its fullest sense is a totalistic life-transforming and life-directing commitment to Jesus Christ; such total commitment has a depth that is not usually paralleled by a similar commitment on the part of the scientist. It is possible that good scientists can recognize the faith-character of the postulates required in their scientific work. Such scientists can even affirm the necessity of making these assumptions. In short, they can share fully the faith of the scientific community and yet, outside the laboratory, they can be hedonistic nihilists, supporters of reactionary causes (right or left wing), apathetic "silent majority" types, etc. Such a person's faith as a scientist lacks the totalistic life-transforming and directing quality of faith in its deepest religious, specifically Christian, dimension. Faith in any scientific discipline is governed by the object of that discipline. Theology's Object-Subject, the Living God (Yahweh: I am who is always near), motivates us toward a uniquely personal commitment to him, other persons, and the rest of Creation. Such a commitment structure is far richer than the commitment imposed upon us by the objects of natural science in themselves.

Documentation is substantial with respect to the thesis that theology and natural science are both forms of "faith seeking understanding."1 This note suggests that one striking representation of this consequence is the structural symmetry existing between faith-motivated and grounded human reasoning processes by which theologians and scientists alike conduct their exploratory activities. As one example of this congruence between reasoning processes in both fields, the comment on exegesis and observation has indicated possible parallelisms for both processes. Although the parallels are not exact due to the distinctiveness of each discipline's object (i.e., physical reality and the living, Creator God), they nevertheless exist. It has been pointed out that theologians and natural scientists do their research in very different settings.3 Scientific work takes place most often in a laboratory whereas theological research seems confined to library and study. Closer inspection, however, reveals that theological work also has a laboratory component, its "laboratory" being the life of worship of a church community engaged in being a servant-witness to the world outside it. The personal interactions between fellow believers and their non-believing friends constitute the "experimental" component of theological science. It is hoped that a greater recognition by scientists and theologians alike that their respective methodologies are symmetrically mobilized by and grounded in regulative convictions (arising from and molded by each discipline's distinctive object, or Object-Subject) will encourage a greater dialogue between the two communities. Such dialogue could begin by examining the premise that each discipline's regulative beliefs are related to the others in specific ways with a better understanding of these relations reinforcing and modifying the insights gained by both disciplines.


1. The following materials provide detailed documentation for the thesis that natural science and theology may be looked upon as disciplines rooted in " faith seeking understanding."

(a) Polanyi, Michael. Science, Faith and Society (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1946).

(b) Torrance, Thomas F. "Ultimate Beliefs and the Scientific Revolution," in Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), pp. 191-214.

(e) jaki, Stanley, L. "The Role of Faith in Physics," in Chance or Reality and Other Essays (Lanthan, MD: University Press of America, 1986), pp. 144-160.

(d) Neidhardt, W. Jim. "Faith and Human Understanding," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 21(1969):9-15.

2. Karl Barth has forcefully pointed out that a Christian theologian's productivity is embedded in a life where prayer and study form an integrated whole. Barth, Karl. Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdrnans, 1963), pp.159-170.

3. Louth, Andrew. Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).