Science & Christian Faith in Western Europe:
 Personal View

J.W. Haas, Jr.
Gordon College
Wenham, Massachusetts 01984

From: PSCF 42 (March 1990): 39-44.


Various factors have limited American access to European discussion of science and Christian faith. These include the barriers of language and lack of access to non-English speaking communities. As a result, we may be unaware of a recent upsurge of interest in science-Christianity themes. A travel grant offered me the opportunity to spend portions of three summers in Western Europe talking to scientists, theologians, and others about science-theology topics.

Even though Europe and the British Isles are edging toward a common economic community in 1992, there are radically different perspectives among the various peoples which arise from enduring national, ethnic, and religious distinctives. This is reflected in the meanings that are placed on such words as evangelical, theology, religion, and science as well as in the ways that science and Christianity are viewed. For the sake of consistency, I have sought to use these terms in a context understood by a North American reader.

Broad Features

One encouraging note has been three recent landmark conferences which have drawn participants from many parts of Europe and America. The First European Conference on Science and Religion was held in March 1986 at the Evangelische Akademie at Loccum near Hannover in northern West Germany. A spectrum of European scientists, philosophers, and theologians and a few Americans dealt with the familar theme "The Argument about Evolution and Creation." A book, Creation and Evolution: A European Perspective, contains a selection of papers which represent the liberal theological views which predominated.1 The Second European Conference at Enschade, Netherlands (1988) on the theme "One World-Changing Perspectives on Reality" included a contribution by ASA member Hermann Haefner.

In September 1987, The Vatican Secretariat of State sponsored a research Study Week at the Vatican Observatory on the theme, "Our Knowledge of God and Nature: Physics, Philosophy and Theology." Pope John Paul II initiated the conference to stimulate "the dialogue between the culture of religious belief and the scientific culture." Sponsors in addition to the Holy See included the Pontifical Academy of Cracow, The Pontifical Academy of Science, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the Pontifical Council for Culture. An ecumenical group of 21 participants included Ian Barbour, Mary Hesse, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Frank Tipler, Eran McMullin, Robert Russell, and George Coyne, head of the Vatican Observatory. A full-orbed set of science-religion themes was considered in a free-wheeling fashion that suggested a lack of Papal constraint. Many of the papers stemming from the Study Week are included in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, published by Libereria Edutrice Vaticana and the University of Notre Dame Press.2

Carl Friedrick von Weisacker, theoretical physicist and philosopher, has had an enormous influence in promoting discussion of "peace and the environment" in European circles influenced by the World Council of Churches.  Co-winner of the 1989 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, he has singlehandly driven Europeans of various religious perspectives to serious discussion of these themes.

French and German discussion of the social significance of technology stretches back into the 19th century. Following World War II, the society of German engineers, the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI), organized a series of conferences on the philosophy of technology. In 1956, the VDI founded a special "Mensch und Technik" study group which was broken down into working committees on education, religion, language, sociology, and philosophy all in relation to technology. There are indications that this continuing German discussion will become broader as Europe becomes a unified economic community in 1992. French thought on the moral and theological aspects of technology has been strongly influenced by the writings of Henri Bergson in the early 1930s. Jacques Ellul has provided a strong critique of technology more familar to Americans. One significant feature of European reflection on technology is the inclusion of perspectives based on morality and theology which embody a depth and variety not found elsewhere.

Federal Republic of Germany

Until recently, German theology has been dominated by Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann, both of whom discouraged dialogue between theology and other disciplines. Karl Heim was a lone dissenting theological voice. His book, Christian Faith and Natural Science (1953), influenced an earlier generation of ASA members.3 On the other hand, German scientists have had a long tradition of interest in science and religion with Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, Gunther Howe, Max Planck, and Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker among the more prominent spokesmen.

Today, the German state-supported "united" Protestant church covers the spectrum of Reformed and Lutheran thought from the very liberal to the conservative pietists. Some conservative groups (often served by American missionaries) form independent congregations. Attendance on Sunday is minimal in the state church, yet there is a strong tradition for diaconal ministry both in Germany and beyond. Traditional pietist concerns for evangelism and a disciplined life, and a separationist mentality, have resulted in little involvement with broader cultural questions, although there are signs of change.

Hermann Haefner (Marburg) has been closely associated with the German Student Mission (SMD). He coordinates various SMD conferences and publications which discuss the relation of Christian faith and social issues including those associated with science. Haefner is also involved with the work of the Karl Heim Society (founded in 1974), an organization which seeks to extend the biblical vision of Karl Heim. A core group of 200 active members develops seminars, lectures, an annual meeting, and publishes the journal Evangelium und Wissenschaft which reaches an audience of 800. Hans Schwartz of the theological faculty at the University of Regensberg has provided strategic support for the work of this group.

Not unexpectedly, a group of more conservative members left the Karl Heim Society in 1981 to develop a program of conferences, courses, and the journal Wort und Wission with an anti-evolutionary emphasis. The group, led by theologian-scientist Horst W. Beck, continues to keep lines of communication open to their more liberal brothers and sisters; a phenomenon less common in America.

There are many German theologians who are willing to join in dialogue with scientists; a happy contrast to the American state of affairs. One factor may be the pressures which have arisen in the intensive reindustrialization after World War II. Theologians are expected to take leadership in discussions about the environment, technology, and energy and join in the policy-making process. (The nation is serious about the environment and displays a cleanliness most welcome to a traveler by rail.) Some current contributors to the dialogue have degrees in both science and theology, others come to science out of concern for the issues. Some current theologians with strong interests in science include Jurgen Moltmann (ecology), Gunther Altner (nuclear energy, biotechnology) and Jurgen Habner (evolution, biotechnology).

One leading German think-tank, the Protestant Institute for Interdisciplinary Research (FEST) located high on the hill above the ancient part of the University of Heidelberg, focuses on science-theology issues and other interdisciplinary topics. Jurgen Habner is senior research fellow of the institute and professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg. Hbbner and his associates have recently produced a massive annotated bibliography of important German, French, Dutch, and English works on various aspects of the science-faith issues: Der Dialog zwischen Theologie und Naturwissenschaft: Ein bibliographischer Bereicht.4 FEST arose at the end of WWII out of conversations between atomic physicists and theologians concerned with the use of atomic weapons. As issues broadened and changed, new working groups emerged under the FEST umbrella. Recent themes under discussion include the theology of ecology and biotechnology, and the philosophy of nature.

The Institute for Education and Science at Paderborn (Hugo Staudinger) funded by the Roman Catholic Church has recently published three weighty volumes on science and faith. Both Protestant and Catholic university faculty contributed. 

The broadest discussion of science and culture including theology is found in the sixteen German academies. These analogues to Plato's Academy were established after WWII in an attempt to provide a new start for a nation whose cultural base had been seriously eroded by National Socialism. It was felt that cultural renewal had its best chance under the wing of the church, with the result that the academies are funded by the state through the various state churches. Each academy has resident fellows who specialize in broad areas such as sociology, ethics, theology, literature, architecture, lingusitics, science, etc. While visiting the Academy at Loccum, I spent some time with a group of about 75 professionals animatedly discussing psychiatry and the church. This academy had sponsored recent discussions on such science-related topics as AIDS, ethics, genetics, nuclear energy, and the use of animals in research (a German "hot topic"). The academies feel that serious issues are best approached by providing a setting where the concerned parties may meet together in a non-confrontational manner which allows the participants to do their work out of the public eye. The role of the theologian is less that of offering answers than that of raising moral and ethical questions. One recent conference discussed guidelines for genetic research.

I left West Germany impressed with the breadth and depth of interest in science-theology issues and the strong involvement of theologians. Evolutionary topics do not dominate. Philosophical questions related to modern physics receive close attention, and there is strong emphasis on environmental issues and biotechnology. Unfortunately, few participants in science-theology questions are aware of the English language literature. This need is being partly addressed by Habner's book. Ecumenical discussion is common as Catholics, Protestants, and "Creationists" are more inclined to talk to one another than are their American counterparts.


France offers many contrasts with Germany, including a much more "live and let live" attitude toward the environment. Evangelicals are a miniscule minority in a land where the Christian faith has no relevance. Only 4% of France's Catholics are found to attend church regularly. The second largest religion is that of the Muslim immigrants, who make up 4% of the population. Protestants of all stripes have never numbered more than 1.5% since the 16th century, but their influence in many areas has been greater than the percentage would suggest.  While evangelicals have grown in number and influence in recent years, a desire for denominational distinctives keeps the small communities of Baptists, Reformed, Free Church, Mennonites, Methodists, etc. from joining in common enterprises.

Protestant theological education takes place in five small seminaries and a scattering of Bible Institutes. Henri Blocher, dean at Facult∑«∑ Libre de Theologie Evang∑«∑lique, a seminary located just outside of Paris, has written a well-received work, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis.5 The Faculta Libre and the Faculta Libre de Theologie Raform∑«∑e in southern France seek to stimulate scholarly intereaction. Fac-Reflexion is a new journal which seeks to examine theological and cultural issues. The April 1988 issue offers an article, "La Madecine Est En Marche: Avec Ou Sans Nous?" by Robert Somerville, professor of ethics, lecturer, and member of the Ethics Commission of the Protestant Federation of France; and an article, "En Perspective: L'Analogie de la Creation," by Henri Blocher. The November 1988 issue of La Revue Raformae offered various responses to Carl F. von Weizsacker's call for discussion of peace and the preservation of creation.

There are evangelicals with scientific interests in various universities, and a theologian at Strasbourg interested in ecological issues. I found a desire among faculty to broaden the discussion on science-faith issues in spite of the pressures on faculty time in struggling seminaries. Many in the church have a new awareness of responsibilities in the world, but the community has few resources to meet the challenge. Evolution/creation topics are prominent in part due to a small but active creationist  movement.

The Netherlands

The peoples who live behind the dikes have produced more than their share of scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians. Long cherishing freedom of thought, the Dutch have often embraced those whose ideas have not been welcomed in their own homeland. The ASA and CSCA have many members who find their roots in this small nation whose population density is twelve times that of the USA. 

Although secularism and confessional liberalism have distorted the Calvinistic outlook that we ®associate with Dutch society, the traditions embodied in Abraham Kuyper, founding father of the Free University, continue in modern dress. Prominent recent exponents of Calvinistic theology and world view thinking include Herman Dooyeweerd and Dirk H. Th. Vollenhoven. The Association for Calvinist Theology (1935) was a scholarly outcome of these men and their students. The Association numbers about 450 members today with about 100 residing outside of the Netherlands. It sponsors conferences, seminars, the bimonthly Beweging, and Philosophia Reformata, an international scholarly quarterly. Spin-offs from this group support chairs in "Calvinistic Philosophy" at Dutch universities. The Centre for Reformational Philosophy led by Frank Dykstra at Utrecht administers the work of the Association and organizes lectures and conferences. The Centre is more philosophical, specifically Calvinistic, and has less active involvement in day-to-day issues. In 1986, they sponsored an international conference on anthropology and Christianity (in English) at Zeist.

The Institute for Christian Studies is a broader group (about 17 denominations involved) of several hundred members, which has emerged in recent years out of a desire to serve a broader evangelical and Catholic constituency seeking to work out the implication of faith for their professions. Most of the science-related discussion takes place in specialized study groups sponsored by the Institute. Recent concerns have included environmental questions, artificial intelligence, and evolution. The idea of the working group is to attack a particular issue over a period of time with a view to publishing the results, in contrast with the more common "lone-ranger" approach. Some Christian faculty have had influence on governmental commissions related to genetic research and environmental questions. One physicist-philosopher-historian of science in the Dooyeweerd mold, M.D. Stafleu, has written a valuable study of the Copernican period, Theories at Work: On the Structure and Functioning of Theories in Science.6

A new institution, Evangel College, seeking to become an international Christian university, holds a creationist position. Evangel is struggling to survive in an environment which expects the state to pay for higher education. Evangel offers an option for Christian students to gain a Christian foundation before entering the state universities.

There is a tension among exponents of the Dooyeweerdian tradition who feel that too much current Christian thinking in ethics and other issues is superficial and amateur, yet participants of the Institute for Christian Studies feel that they cannot wait for the results of the ponderous and complex discussions of the Association. The compromise has been to do a little of both.


The recent radical political changes in Spain have provided unprecedented religious freedom. Churches may now own property, but prejudice and fear continue to hamper the work of Protestants. The number of evangelicals is estimated at 70,000-a minor fraction in relation to a total population of 38 million.  A decline in the significance of the Catholic church in public life has opened a new window for evangelism which is tempered by a growing secularism and an indifference among the younger community to their personal and collective futures.

Valencia University mathematician Enrique Vidal and Barcelona University biochemist David Andreu spearhead the work of a few scattered evangelicals who are seeking to publish Spanish language works in theology and the relation of Christianity to various areas of life. They have begun a quarterly popular magazine and wish to publish a work dealing with science-faith issues from a Spanish perspective. The limited market for such publications is a large barrier.

Coordinadora Creacionista is a small group of evangelical Christians in different specialities including teachers, biologists, physicists, chemists, and a few medical doctors. They present lectures and seminars and are planning the Third Barcelona Creationist Seminar for October 1989.


Italy has few Protestants and far fewer evangelicals. Evangelism faces resistance from traditional Catholics and from Communists, as well as an indifference on the part of the general public to any and all religions. Analytical chemist Roberto Frache, of the University of Genoa, works with a handful of Christian students who come to the university from Protestant churches. He is concerned that primary materials on science-Christianity questions come from translated Creation Research Society publications. Recently, Henri Blocher's In the Beginning has appeared in Italian. There is a need for materials written from an Italian perspective.

Catholic scholars have long included nature in the development of their theology, but this has not been without conflict. The Paris condemnations of "errors" in theology and natural philosophy in 1277, and that of Gallileo (1633), had a profound influence on the course of science in lands dominated by Catholic thought. Official Catholicism after Galileo withdrew from any direct connection with the world of science by stating their positions on creation and natural theology from tradition rather than the contemporary scientific world view. In the 19th century, Catholics were on the defensive in many lands and sought to stay out of the public debates that Protestants enjoyed. Catholics kept their argument in the family. At most, evolution was tolerated in principle as having no bearing on Catholic faith as long as the origin of man was not raised. One Catholic, biologist George Mivart, crossed ecclesiastical lines only to have his articles placed on the Index of the Holy Office. As late as the 1950s, evolution was still considered a "hypothesis." 1955 was a watershed year, with the death of Teilhard de Chardin who during his lifetime had not been allowed to publish his works on theology and evolution. Succeeding years saw the gradual release of his work, and the flood of responses testifies to the profound influence that he had on Catholic and non-Catholic thought. The 1987 Study Week at the Papal Palace represents a monumental change in "official" attitudes, and a clear signal for Catholic thinkers to contribute to the dialogue.


There are an estimated 7-10,000 evangelicals in this nation of 10 million. 97 percent of the people belong to the state Greek Orthodox Church. One challenging work is led by an American-educated Greek who has founded a "good news" movement, reaching 500 members of the Orthodox Church. The American-run Greek Bible Institute seeks to educate lay leaders and pastors. There is an interest in science-faith issues, but nothing in the Greek language to address the subject and little incentive to produce materials for such a limited market.

The United Kingdom

The study of the role of Christianity in the development of English science and technology has produced voluminous and occasionally controversial literature. Evangelical chemist-historian of science Colin Russell's Cross-Currents: Interactions Between Science and Faith is a recent look at the British scene since Newton.7

English Christianity since the Reformation has been a complex and changing matrix of state-church Anglican orthodoxy and heterodoxy mixed with dissenting sects of bewildering variety. Today one finds differing perspectives and some resentment on crossing borders between England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. It may be surprising to note that this once "Protestant" nation now is over 50 percent Roman Catholic.

There has been a steady evangelical growth in the Anglican church since WWII, measured both in numbers and scholarship. There are six evangelical theological institutions associated with various English universities and counterparts in Scotland and Wales. At the same time, there has been an increasing drive for evangelicals to address concerns beyond evangelism and missionary work. Oliver Barclay's Whatever Happened to the Jesus Lane Lot recounts the struggles of student Christian groups at the universities over the last century.8

There are winds of change in the organizational structures of two venerable English evangelical organizations. The Victoria Institute was founded in 1865 to combat "scientific coteries" and "defend the great truths of scripture." The organization was mostly made up of people in the professions and business, sprinkled with politicians and a few scientists of dubious reputation. Though anti-evolution at first, the organization had joined the theistic evolution camp by the 1920s. Because its library and study center were destroyed by bombs in WWII, the institute has had little recent influence on the British scene other than through its journal Faith and Thought, which published the 114th (and last) volume in 1988. Much more intense discussion of science/Christianity topics has taken place in recent years in the Research Scientists Christian Fellowship (RSCF), the organization which cosponsored with ASA/CSCA the Annual Meeting at St. Catherine's College, Oxford in 1985. RSCF has never had a formal journal and recently has joined with the Victoria Institute to cosponsor a new journal, Science and Christian Belief, which began publication in 1989 with Oliver Barclay and A. Brian Robins as coeditors. RSCF has made it a clean sweep by a name change to Christians in Science.

Recent writers on science and Christian faith include Thomas Torrance, John Polkinghorne, David Livingston, Douglas Spanner, R.J. and Caroline Berry, Arthur Peacocke, and Iain Paul. Medical ethics is a topic of intense discussion. Oxford is the home for the Ian Ramsey Centre, which sponsors seminars, lectures, and working groups dealing with ethical issues related to medicine and environmental concerns. Another recent event is the establishment of the Whitefield Institute under the direction of David Cook, a fellow in medical ethics at Green College, Oxford. The Institute seeks to develop the next generation of English evangelical scholars and leaders in the areas of theology, philosophy, ethics, and education by funding graduate work in these areas which often touch on science issues.

The Science and Religion Forum is a loosely bound group of about 150 theologians, pastors, and scientists who meet annually to discuss various themes. A less traditional Oxford organization is the Alister Hardy Research Centre which supports research on "religious or transcendent experiences" in Christian and non-Christian contexts. These "scientific" psychological/sociological studies seek to identify various dimensions of "transcendent experiences" with a view to countering what is seen as the world view of the European Enlightenment which tended to dismiss non-material reality.


This necessarily selective survey suggests that there is a wide and diverse interest in science-Christianity themes in both the English and non-English speaking nations of Europe. The discussion embraces topics similar to those in North America, but with a flavor which reflects local concerns. In a few instances the voice of the Church and individual Christians is heard at national levels of decision making. Evangelicals play a part in these discussions, and continue to develop ways to educate their constituency and develop an apologetic to reach the unchurched. The ASA should seek to develop stronger links with our European counterparts. This may include one-to-one contact on visits to Europe, participation in meetings, exchange of literature and reports of meetings, and paper summaries in Perspectives and the ASA Newsletter. There may be opportunities for short-term teaching (with a translator) and to help in writing projects. We, in turn, can benefit from these associations which offer new perspectives as we seek to hone our understanding of ourselves and nature in the light of Christian faith.



I want to thank the many people who were willing to offer hospitality and discuss hard questions with a wandering American carrying a tape recorder. I wish also to thank the Pew Foundation for a travel grant which made this project possible.


1Svend Anderson and Arthur Peacocke (eds.), Creation and Evolution: A European Perspective (Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1987).
2Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, and George V. Coyne (eds.), Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).
3Karl Heim, Christian Faith and Modern Science: The Creative Encounter Between 20th Century Physics and Christian Existentialism, translated by N. Horton Smith (New York: Harper and Row, 1953).
4Jurgen Habner, Der Dialog Zwischen Theolgie and Naturwissenschauft: Ein bibliofraphischer Bericht (Munchen: Christian Kaiser, 1987).
5Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis, translated by David G. Pearson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984). French edition reviewed in the ASA Journal March 1985, pp. 59-60; English edition, December 1985, pp. 239-40.
6Marinus Dirk Stafleu, Theories at Work: On the Structure and Functioning of Theories in Science in Particular During the Copernican Revolution (Lanham MD: University Press of America, 1987).
7Colin A. Russell, Cross-Currents: Interactions Between Science & Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).
8Oliver Barclay, Whatever Happened to the Jesus Lane Lot (Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press, 1977).