A Conceptual Model Relating Theology and Science:

The Creation/Evolution Controversy as an Example of How They Should Not Interact


Department of Biology
Campbell University
Buies Creek, NC 27506

From: PSCF 45 (December 1993): 222-228.

A foundational premise of modern science is that its descriptions can only consist of natural causes: that is, God cannot be a part of scientific descriptions. In this paper I describe a conceptual model relating theological and scientific descriptions that takes a complementarian viewpoint compatible with this foundational premise of modern science. The model presents theology and science (using biological evolutionary theory as an example) in a side-by-side fashion, stating that inquiries in each discipline should influence the other. However, this model's major contribution is its prohibition of direct comparisons between theological and scientific descriptions which present us with mutually exclusive alternatives. This prohibition is designed to eliminate the potential for theological descriptions to become a part of science, and to prevent attempts at the misguided use of scientific descriptions as "evidence" against the existence of God.

Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertainedónamely, that each species has been independently createdóis erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification. (Darwin, 1859.)

And so, Charles Darwin concluded the introduction section to his first edition of On the Origin of Species. In the several hundred pages that followed, Darwin argued his case for evolution,1 and against the immutability of species, as well as against views other than his own of what causes evolutionary changes. In the passage quoted above, Darwin indicated that in his day the most widely held alternative position to biological evolution was the "immutability of species," or "stasis," which means that species only change in relatively minor ways over time.2 The theological counterpart of this view was known as "independent" or "special" creation. Nearly all scientists were theistic at that time, and a fairly literal interpretation of the first two chapters of Genesis had provided for some much of the theoretical basis for biology. Hence, Darwin used both "immutability" and "independent creation" interchangeably. In so doing, he mixed theological and scientific descriptions (at least by today's standards), implying to some that evolution and God's creative activity were mutually exclusive alternatives.

Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton freed the physical sciences (especially astronomy and physics) from some of the constraints put upon them by previous philosophies, including religion (Hummel, 1986; Lindberg and Numbers, 1987). Darwin's theory was in essence an attempt to accomplish the same thing for biology;2 and it has, of course, largely been successful. But this does not mean that Darwin's theoryónor the theories of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newtonówere attempts to do away with religion, to make God irrelevant to humanity. This was, however, the conclusion drawn by some with respect to the new theories of astronomy during and after the middle ages, and it also has been the conclusion drawn by many with respect to Darwin's theory.

Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have argued that science in no way eliminates religion, or does away with humanity's need for God (see review by Ratzsch, 1986). Indeed, there is much ongoing philosophical research in this area by those who hold the view that both science and theology should be interacting disciplines (see Russell, 1990). Nonetheless, the mistaken notion that religion has been replaced in some way by science (especially evolutionary theory), or at least is in danger of having this happen, seems widespread today. Such a view is held by many agnostic or atheistic scientists (e.g., Wilson, 1980; Provine, 1988) and "recent" or "young-earth" creationists,3 though they arrive at their similar conclusions from two very different starting points. Atheistic scientists typically argue a "God of the gaps" view of science and religion, whereby God has really only been needed to fill in the gaps of knowledge in scientific descriptions.4 Recent creationists argue that a reasonable and fairly literal interpretation of Scripture precludes the magnitude of evolutionary changes described in biological evolutionary theory.5 Hence, evolutionary theory and theology become alternative, mutually exclusive descriptions of the world.

In no way do I aim to summarily dismiss either of these viewpoints by implying that the above brief appraisal does full justice to the complex nature of these positions.6 I do, however, wish to sharply disagree with both. I think the evidence for the evolution of species and the antiquity of the earth is overwhelming, yet I fully submit to the authority of Scripture. Therefore, I seek a middle ground where my views are influenced by both science and theology.

The purpose of this paper is to present a conceptual model that formalizes my view of how scientific and theological descriptions are potentially related. The major contribution of the model is that no direct comparisons of a mutually exclusive nature should be allowed between theological and scientific descriptions. This means, in the case of biological evolutionary theory, that only fully naturalistic descriptions can be posed as alternatives for direct comparison. Terms such as "stasis," or perhaps "spontaneous generation," should be substituted for "creation" as proper, directly comparable, scientific alternatives to biological evolution.7 In other words, it should be "evolution vs. stasis," not "evolution vs. creation." In essence, then, what I am proposing is one way in which theology and science should not usually interact. I will expand upon this restriction and briefly discuss some of the implications of the model.

Conceptual Model of Scientific and Theological Descriptions

Figure 1 is a three-dimensional conceptual model showing a "side-by-side" relationship between scientific (with the emphasis on biology) and theological descriptions. The model is mainly based upon some of the views of Ramm (1954), Barbour (1966), Bube (1971), MacKay (1974, 1982), Polkinghorne (1983), Peacocke (1984; 1991), Van Till et al (1990), among others. It is "complementarian"8 and it includes "levels" of explanations. However, the levels that science and theology occupy are constructed as side-by-side "categories" in order to emphasize their partnership in describing the world.9 This is the only direct departure which I am aware of from the above authors, who generally view theology as the "highest" level of inquiry. I departed from their model of science and theology as I understand it because it can imply (though it does not necessarily) that lower-level descriptions should in some way be subordinated to theology, and I do not hold this viewpoint. Hierarchic levels based on complexity, however, are shown as imbedded within the science category; levels of theological descriptions are not shown. These levels within categories are not discussed further because they are not directly relevant to the present paper.

The side-by-side, partnership aspect of the model follows from my belief that all human knowledge is personal knowledge, held by fallible persons. In an essay on the insights of Michael Polanyi, Walter Thorson (1981, p. 132) nicely summarizes Polanyi's perspective (which I hold):

The important fact that a divine revelation is the real source of our knowledge does not eliminate the purely epistemological problems of communication, interpretation, and comprehension, nor does it impart a special status of rational certainty to our knowledge itself. We walk by faith; the truth is divine, but it is held by earthen vessels, human and fallible.

There will always be uncertainty in our pursuit of understanding, whether it be theological or scientific. The Holy Spirit may reveal the truths in Scripture to a Christian, but the person receiving that truth is still fallible. Thus, all theology is based upon an interpretation of Scripture, and it is tentative, as is our science. Furthermore, epistemologically both science and theology are similar in many respects (Wyatt and Neidhardt, 1991).

There will always be uncertainty in our pursuit of understanding, 
whether it be theological or scientific. The Holy Spirit may reveal the truths 
in Scripture to a Christian, but the person receiving that truth is still fallible. 
Thus, all theology is based upon an interpretation of Scripture, 
and it is tentative, as is our science.

This view leads me to the conclusion that some amount of interaction between theological and scientific input is the best way to arrive at tentative conclusions concerning topics that touch upon both categories. Obviously, then, the "categories" in the model are not to be viewed as "compartments" where there are no interactions between theology and science. Rather, I view the categories of theology and science as "complementary" with some amount of potential interaction.9 So, there is a sieve-like boundary between the theology and science categories in the model. The arrows crossing categories show that interactions between descriptions are possible and desirable. However, the sieve-like boundary also indicates that there should be no direct comparisons of theological and scientific descriptions in the sense of mutually exclusive alternatives.

Time is represented as an arrow providing the outside boundaries of the entire model. This is meant to indicate that both kinds of descriptions are imbedded in time. The dashed lines at the bottom of the model indicate the status of time prior to the origin of the universe, which is, of course, unknown. Also, there is no intention to imply anything about space-time-matter relationships as addressed in the theories of physics.

Major events in time are shown along the left side of the model. The dashed line above the "Origin of life" event indicates that biological evolutionary theory is primarily only directly concerned with events occurring after the origin(s) of living things. The actual origin(s) of life is in the realm of "chemical evolution," which is a field of inquiry that has largely developed in the last thirty or so years.10 Biological evolutionary theory is primarily concerned with the "origins" of species from pre-existing species and their subsequent modifications and adaptations.

Discussion of the Model

As indicated, the disallowance of direct, cross-category comparisons is the major contribution of the model. For example, no "creation" description can be directly compared with a scientific description. I am not aware of explicit statements by others that this should be the case.11 I arrived at this position mainly because of the pervasive and negative results of taking either a "theology-first" or "science-first" position and immediately crossing categories (with respect to the model), as I briefly discussed in the first paragraphs of this paper. I suspect that much of the confusion surrounding evolutionary theory is the result of this practice. Hence, my position is that direct comparisons of mutually exclusive, alternative descriptions should occur when possible within a single category, either science or theology. This can generally be accomplished by "converting" a theological description to a "scientific" form and then comparing it with the appropriate scientific description, and vice versa. Cross-category comparisons must be made at some point, but they will usually not be of a mutually exclusive nature. Rather they will be meant to potentially provide modifications of both descriptions. Some well-known examples of alternative descriptions within each of the two categories are shown in Figure 1. Stasis, or the immutability of species, is a mutually exclusive, alternative scientific theory to evolution, and it is very similar to the theological description "special creation," as mentioned above. However, it differs from special creation in one very important pointóit does not contain any reference to a supernatural cause.

This points to the crux of why I argue against direct, cross-category comparisons of mutually exclusive descriptions. As discussed above, the modern view of science is that its descriptions must be restricted to natural causes.12 This is a fundamental, but apparently often overlooked aspect of modern science. I emphasize this because I think the implications of this restriction have not been fully appreciated, especially by Christians. A major implication of this fact with respect to the evolution issue, is that no matter what may become of biological evolutionary theory, no scientific replacement for it could include God or any other "creator." All concepts of creation obviously include a creator (e.g. the God of Christianity), so all concepts of creation are a priori outside the realm of science. A direct comparison of evolution with creation is, in other words, a direct comparison of a scientific description that is restricted by definition to natural causes, with a description that contains a supernatural cause. If the comparison resulted in rejection of evolutionary theory, then a supernatural cause would, at least by implication, be transported into the realm of science, and this is not acceptable by modern standards. Such a result might not be required logically, but such a possibility is really what is being contested by all "either/or" groups involved in the evolution controversy. In essence, direct, cross-category comparisons also have allowed atheistic scientists (e.g., Provine, 1988) to indirectly answer the "unanswerable" and "unscientific" question "Does God exist?"óand their answer has been a resounding "NO!" This model is aimed at preventing this kind of reasoning.

Implications of the Model and Conclusions

Gould (1987) has argued that biological evolutionary theory is really "fact," and the "theory" is to be found in the mechanism of natural selection. Most biologists do not seem to agree fully with his position, because the word "theory" is still usually attached to the word "evolution." Nonetheless, Gould makes some interesting and useful points, and he argues forcefully that there can be little doubt among reasonable individuals who have surveyed the available information that biological evolution has occurred and is occurring. I feel that Gould has been too free with his use of the word "fact," but I am inclined to agree with his conclusionóthat a reasonable evaluation of available information leads to an acceptance of biological evolution. In particular, if no theistic alternatives (i.e. all descriptions involving a creator) to biological evolution are allowed (as I have argued herein), then acceptance of biological evolution seems inescapable.

I believe God was ultimately responsible for every new species 
that has arisen, and God is ultimately responsible for the 
continuous "maintenance" of every organism on earth. 
But God cannot be a part of my scientific descriptions. 
If evolution is not valid, then what other scientific alternative do we currently have?

I arrive at this conclusion based on a consideration of only one important area of factual informationóthe fossil record. The fossil record indicates that only a small percentage of the plant and animal species that have existed on earth are now alive. The vast majority of plant and animal taxa have gone extinct. If the only alternative scientific descriptions now available are stasis and evolution, then how could stasis be valid? Is there no organic connection between extinct and extant taxa? The concept of stasis can persist in light of the fossil record, if the fossil record is only a record of God's many independent creative actions. In other words, if stasis is correct, then we have arrived at the boundary of science every time a new taxon (species or genus or family or whatever level it is assumed represents the limits of biological change) appears in the fossil record. We have arrived at such a boundary because the only description left includes God. I believe God was ultimately responsible for every new species that has arisen, and God is ultimately responsible for the continuous "maintenance" of every organism on earth. But God cannot be a part of my scientific descriptions. If evolution is not valid, then what other scientific alternative do we currently have?

The opening to this paper was a quote from Charles Darwin, followed by my criticism of him for mixing theological and scientific terms. I would like to end this essay with another quote from Darwin, one with which I have no quarrel because Darwin clearly separates his theology and science. In fact, it's one of the best examples of science and theology in partnership of which I am aware.

 There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin, 1860).



This essay is a direct result of interactions with college students in an evolution course I recently taught. I thank them for making me seriously examine the perceptions of those who have not had the opportunity or need to extensively examine the controversy surrounding evolutionary theory. Dan Ensley drew Figure 1 and provided valuable advice on modifications to it. I am also grateful for the thoughtful reviews of an early draft of the manuscript provided by Richard Bube, Wilbur Bullock, Jim Neidhardt, Del Ratzsch, Charles Hummel and David Wilcox. Their comments and those of two anonymous reviewers provided me with a wealth of information to ponder. The manuscript in its present form differs from some of their suggestions and I, of course, am fully responsible for its contents.


1 I define biological "evolution" as the theory stating that the organisms alive on earth today are descended from organisms previously living on earth, most of which have gone extinct. This is my understanding of what is generally meant by the word evolution to most biologists today, and I think it is the essence of Darwin's understanding of the word. I am aware of a variety of other ways in which the word has been used, but in all cases herein, I use "evolution" in the sense stated above.

2 Neal Gillespie (1979) reviewed the prevailing scientific views during Darwin's time, noting that most naturalists had all but abandoned the notion that God had independently created each species. So, Darwin's assessment of the opposition would seem to be a bit exaggerated. However, Gillespie pointed out that the concept of special creation still lingered in subtle but important ways among those who doubted it. He argued that Darwin's aim was to put biology on the same naturalistic (positivistic) basis as the rest of the sciences. In other words, Darwin needed to soundly remove God from scientific descriptions. On the Origin of Species was instrumental in doing this. And today, all of science, by convention and definition, excludes God from its descriptions (Ratzsch, 1986; also see note 12 below). This is a critical component of my argument hereinóGod cannot be a part of today's scientific descriptions. This essay is essentially a consideration and extension of this crucial point (see Grizzle, 1992 for further comments on this foundational premise of modern science).

3 The major points of "recent creationism" for the present essay include the belief that the entire biosphere was created less than about 10,000 years ago, and only minor changes have occurred in species over time. The concept of "progressive creation" (Pun, 1982) is not dealt with herein. I appreciate the usefulness, and in many senses what I believe to be the validity, of this concept. However, because it includes a creator, I feel that most scientists would consider the concept non-scientific. See Wilcox (1986) for a review of creation concepts.

4 This is essentially the same view that many held during the Middle Ages, and it accounts for the strong reactions by some Christians to the new discoveries in astronomy at that time (Barbour, 1966). It is also an extreme of the "science-first" position described by Bube (1986).

5 Young-earth creationists represent an extreme of the "theology-first" position described by Bube (1986).

6 See discussions of variations in principles of biblical interpretation employed by young-earth creationists, the role of values in decision making, etc. in Ratzsch (1986) and Nelson (1986).

7 I recognize that my choice of the word "stasis" is problematic. David Wilcox (personal communication, 1992) pointed out that "stasis" might be viewed as being in some sense similar to the concept of punctuated equilibrium (Eldredge and Gould, 1972), an alternative to Darwin's "gradualism" (see Avers, 1989 for brief review). He also noted that unlike the term "creation," the term "stasis" does not explain the origins of species. So, the scientific utility of "stasis" is questionable. First, there is no intention to equate stasis with punctuated equilibrium. I use stasis to simply mean that species do notchange over time, whereas punctuated equilibrium addresses rates of change over time, obviously assuming that species do change over time. The second objection to the use of stasis points to an interesting implication of the model, and I discuss this more fully in the section entitled "Implications of the Model."

8 The concept of "complementarity" is indeed complex. Ratzsch (1986) provides a brief overview, noting major positions. Haas (1983a, b) and Sharpe (1991) provide critical reviews of some aspects of complementarity. I do not want to push this term too heavily here because the concept carries a lot of "negative baggage" for some. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that many aspects of complementarity are useful and valid, providing helpful insights into how scientific and theological descriptions are potentially related (Grizzle, 1992). As Richard Bube stated:

 We may indeed debate whether one should say that science and theology are complementary, but it does not appear that there is any debate that scientific descriptions are often complementary to theological descriptions of the same events. If this were not the case, what other options do we have? (1983, p. 241-242.)

9 The explicit "side-by-side" relationship of science and theology was suggested by Evans (1991). However, many have argued this view or something similar. For example, Torrance (1982; especially see the figure on p. 95 in Neidhardt's (1989) review of some of Torrance's views) and Whitehouse (1981) seem to present a non-hierarchical, partnership-like relationship between theology and science. Figure 12 in Hummel (1986) implies a partnership relationship of some kind. Polkinghorne (1991) outlines some guidelines for interactions between science and theology. See Russell (1990) for an interesting review from the perspective of a personal odyssey of some of those currently working on science/theology relations.

10 Standard evolution texts (e.g., Futuyma, 1986; Avers, 1989) give only brief treatments of the origin of life. See Thaxton et al. (1984) for a critical assessment of current thinking on the topic.

11 Richard Bube has indicated (personal communication, 1992) that this is essentially his position.

12 Ratzsch (1986) provides a good overview of the philosophy of science from a Christian perspective, and notes the restriction of scientific descriptions to natural causes as a fundamental characteristic of science as generally practiced today. Gilkey (1986) emphasizes this characteristic of science in his essay on creationism and science. However, there is not unanimous agreement that this should necessarily be a restriction put upon science. For example, Geisler (1984) explicitly argues against this restriction. The recent suggestion that "intelligent causes" should be allowed in science is also relevant to this restriction, at least by implication (see Thaxton, 1990). Nonetheless, it is true that science today can only include natural causes in its theories. Hence, I think it is fundamentally important that so long as this be the case, those involved in science/theology dialogue explicitly recognize the restriction and consider its implications. See also comments on note 2.



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