Science in Christian Perspectiveasa1logo.jpg (5657 bytes)                                   

A Worldview Paper

Possible Influences of Biblical Beliefs
upon Physics

George L. Murphy

St. Mark Lutheran Church
P.O. Box 201
Tallmadge, Ohio 44278

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48:2 (June 1996):82‚7.

In this paper, we consider some ways in which religious beliefs might be understood to influence the science of physics and/or the interpretation of its results. Six possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive, are considered. We are especially concerned here with the religion of Christianity and its Bible and with the science of physics.

Our title limits us to a certain part of the science-religion interface. We focus on "biblical beliefs," those based upon the Hebrew (and Aramaic) and Greek Scriptures, not with religion in general, and with physics, not with science in general, although we will note the broader context at times. It is equally important to note that we concentrate on physics, and not primarily on the philosophy of physics, though that boundary is not always sharp and we will sometimes cross it. Furthermore, the statement of the topic is asymmetric: we are interested in the way in which biblical beliefs may influence or limit physics, and not the influence of physics on biblical interpretation. Thus, for example, a naturalism which insists that all biblical accounts must be brought into conformity with current scientific understanding is outside our realm of interest at present.

Given these limitations, there are several ways to categorize views of the relationship between biblical beliefs and physics. We may note, for comparison, Barbour's four "ways of relating science and religion" (conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration, each with subcategories), or the five types of views on the specific question of the relationship between Big Bang cosmology and the doctrine of creation which Drees sets out.1 Our survey of possible influences calls not for a comprehensive classification of ways in which two disciplines as a whole are related, but for a more informal listing of types of views for which people have argued.

Some have seen the Bible as providing insights for physics in various degrees. The spectrum of such beliefs includes the idea that physics must conform to a "biblical physics" as well as the milder idea that the Bible contains hidden scientific information which helps to validate its authority. A view more in the mainline of the current science-theology dialogue is that some fundamental biblical views about the world have, at least historically, been influential in the development of physics.

Others would argue for the independence of biblical beliefs and physics. Scripture and science may be understood simply to be talking about two disjoint aspects of reality. On the other hand, Scripture and science might have a significant overlap, but science could be given independence‹within its own realm of competence‹by theology.

Finally, one may see the importance of biblical beliefs to lie in the realms of philosophy and ethics. Thus, biblical beliefs would be important for the meaning and use of physics.

We have, then, the following possibilities:

1. Investigation of the world must conform to a "scriptural science."
2. Scripture contains hidden scientific information.
3. The religious contribution to the cultural atmosphere can help scientific development.
4. Religion and science are disjoint.
5. Religion affirms the independence of science.
6. Religion provides deeper significance and value to scientific results obtained without religion.

Because biblical beliefs could conceivably influence physics in several ways, we do not have to make one choice among those views. It is possible, for example, that the Bible contains references to modern scientific concepts and that biblical ideas are needed for ethically responsible decisions about the technological applications of physics.

It will become clear that my own sympathies lie most strongly with the fifth and sixth of these views. We will note, however, some things which can be said in support of each, and all of them have some inadequacies that we need to be aware of.

                                                                        Biblical Physics?

First, we consider the view that physics must conform to a supposed scriptural view of the physical world. This idea was widely held in the Middle Ages when the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system was thought to be the world view of the Bible. When the deficiencies of Aristotelian physics began to surface, this idea ran into serious problems.

The positive aspect of the "biblical physics" view is its attempt to maintain a high view of biblical authority. We will note in our discussion of historical influences that biblical belief in the goodness of creation does seem to have played a role in the development of physics. Problems arise, however, if one tries to argue that models of the world used by biblical writers to present their message are authoritative as models of the world for today's physics. An obvious example is the attempt to find physical "waters above the firmament" because such waters were part of a world model of the culture in which Genesis 1 was written.

Attempts at "biblical" biology or geology under such rubrics as "creation science" are well-known today. There are related attempts in physics, Barnes' Physics of the Future being an example.2 The Bible is not cited as an authority in this book, but it is significant that the book is published by the Institute for Creation Research. Its basic thesis is that the "physics of the future" is the physics of around 1890. Relativity and quantum theory, black holes, and the expansion of the universe are rejected in favor of the common-sense world and Baconian science which "creation scientists" think are required by the Bible.

It is not possible here to analyze Barnes' book in detail. Suffice it to say that he seems unaware of almost all developments in quantum theory or relativity since the 1920s, that he repeats statements with no proof, and that his model of the hydrogen atom‹which is to remedy defects in Bohr's theory (as if Schr–dinger never lived)‹does not give the Rydberg formula. "Refutations" of modern physics and "Back to Newton"3 appeals are not uncommon, and most physicists ignore or joke about them. The fact that this book is part of a modern religious program should give some pause to those involved in the science-theology dialogue.

Science Hidden in the Bible?

Another approach does not attempt to constrain science by biblical authority, but tries to find ideas of modern science in Scripture. The intent of such claims today seems to be more to show that the Bible is true and relevant because it contains scientific concepts than to exercise religious control over scientific work. Ramm devoted a chapter to criticism of the idea of "Anticipation of Science in Scripture," with reference especially to Rimmer and Sanden.4 This approach to science-religion questions is not restricted to Christians. As Wood points out, some Muslims have argued that the Qur'an "contains references which can only be fully understood by modern science."5

Since our concern here is with the influence of biblical beliefs on physics, we will simply note that the supposed references to atomic theory, electricity, airplanes, etc. in the Bible have all been ex post facto "discoveries." Once a scientific discovery or technological development has been made, it is relatively simple to find a verse of the Bible which can be given a figurative reference to it. It is not surprising that this procedure can also be practiced with the Qur'an. If the primary intention of texts is not given priority, one can read modern science into any ancient writing by interpreting its language as figuratively as necessary. It would be a different matter if one could find new aspects of physics in the Bible before scientists had discovered them, but that does not seem to happen. Thus, the supposed scientific references do not contribute anything to the development of physics.

This kind of eisegesis is not taken very seriously by most modern biblical scholars, for the most part rightly so. But the healthy intention behind the practice should not be ignored. Attempts to find hidden references to modern science in Scripture stem from belief that Scripture is not only authoritative but that it deals (at least in part) with the same world which is described by modern science.

The theologians of the early Church searched the Old Testament for hidden references to Christ, and often brought them forth by means of allegorical interpretation. Some of their results seem today no less artificial than attempts to find modern science in the Bible. There is a significant difference, however. The claim of the New Testament that "all the scriptures" bear witness to Christ (e.g., Lk. 24:25-27; 44-47) provides a basis for christological interpretation of the Old Testament, but the Bible does not give such a basis for a scientific interpretation.

Religion a Factor in Scientific Development?

It has been argued that the Judeo-Christian component of western culture was a major factor in the development of modern science.6 To the extent that this is true, biblical ideas played an important part in the birth of physics. However, their significance for physics at its present point of development still remains open for discussion.

Without entering into detailed discussion of historical questions,7 we can say that the following thesis seems plausible: the cultural atmosphere informed by the biblical tradition was important in the rise of modern science. There were promising beginnings in other cultures, but science never "took off" in them in the way it did in western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For example, the biblical teaching that God has created a world which is "good but not God" may have been a significant factor in the rise of modern science. The assertion of Genesis 1 that creation is good means, among other things, that the world is knowable and worth knowing. But the world is different from God (e.g., Rom. 1:25) and, therefore, it is not a sacrilege to analyze it to discover its workings. Greek emphasis on rationality influenced the ways in which the goodness of the world was understood, but that emphasis helped to fuel the scientific revolution only when it was set in the context of biblical thought about creation.

Beliefs that the world can be understood by observation and rational thought, and that the object of that study deserves such attention, continue to be important for science today. It could not endure long as a coherent enterprise without those beliefs.

We cannot conclude that science can be done only in a culture influenced by biblical faith. Scientific work was done before the scientific revolution and outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. We still teach Archimedes' Principle and make use of careful observations by ancient Chinese astronomers. There apparently were not the conditions needed for sustained scientific programs in other cultures, but scientific results were obtained by them.

Also, science has continued even when many scientists are not believers in the biblical tradition. Marxism, Buddhism, or agnosticism are at least as likely as Christianity or Judaism to be the core beliefs of scientists today, without obvious detriment to the quality of science qua science.

This is not surprising. The early successes of science could be appealed to as proof that it can understand the world, and such success continues today. In addition, science-based technologies provide a reason for many people to pursue the scientific enterprise, apart from any theological arguments about the goodness of the world. These are merely pragmatic arguments for the validity and value of science and give the scientific enterprise no firm grounding. However, that does not invalidate the work which is done or show that science will eventually feel the lack of any basis in a theological doctrine of creation.

Religion and Science Disjoint?

The belief that science and religion really have nothing to do with one another is common. It is, of course, natural that scientists who have no interest in religion or a definite antipathy to it should wish to keep it from having any influence on science. Of more interest is the fact that some theologians have wanted to keep Christianity and science quite separate. That may stem simply from the belief that theologians and scientists should stick to their respective areas of competence, and that science can operate most honestly if questions of religious belief are not introduced into it. Theology came into some disrepute through its dealings with Galileo and Darwin, and it would be good to avoid such mistakes in the future. One way of doing that is to maintain that proper science and proper theology deal with completely different realms, that of observable facts and that of beliefs and values, and therefore cannot conflict. Barth's rejection of natural theology, and neo-orthodoxy in general, seem to support such a separation.

It is simply a fact that science today generally operates without any reference to God or God's interaction with the world. This is not by any means because all scientists are atheists. Many are Christians or believing members of other faiths. A person may feel called to be a physicist as his or her Christian vocation, yet that physicist will not appeal to divine activity as an explanation of something which has been observed in the laboratory. Physics qua physics is done‹to use the phrase popularized by Bonhoeffer‹etsi deus non daretur.8

But we cannot ignore the fact that the Bible does talk about the physical world, and not simply an inner realm of religious experience. To argue for a complete disjunction between biblical beliefs and physics has the practical consequence of making Christianity seem irrelevant because of its surrender of any claim to deal with what most people regard as "the real world." The theoretical foundations of this position are also weak. Torrance has pointed out that Barth's argument is actually directed against the idea of an independent natural theology which claims to discover truths about God and God's relationship with the world without God's own self-revelation.9 It is something quite different to use science to learn about God within the context of specifically Christian theology. In that case, our understanding is subject to God's self-revelation from the start, and a priori theological objections to interaction between science and theology should disappear.

                                                            Emancipation of Science by Religion?

We have seen difficulties with the view that biblical beliefs and physics are simply unrelated. A more nuanced approach argues that they are related, but that one implication of a biblically based theology is an appropriate independence of science. We have already noted Torrance's argument which points in this direction. It is also fitting here to note that Pascal distanced himself both from the idea that God's activity could easily be discerned in the world and from the idea that it could not be discerned at all.

What meets our eyes denotes neither a total absence nor a manifest presence of the divine, but the presence of a God who conceals Himself [cf. Isa. 45:15]. Everything bears this stamp.10

The idea that the world can be understood "though God were not given" is sometimes seen as an unpleasant fact forced upon Christian theology. It is certainly true that theology has often struggled against it, interposing various gods of the gaps. But there is a theological approach which seems to require the independence of science, the theology of the cross which stems from Luther.11I have argued for such a view of the relationship between theology and science.12 One of its implications is that theology, on its own grounds, recognizes that science can be done without any reference to God. There is interaction between theology and science, but of a type more subtle than the interactions pictured by naive natural theologies.

Theologia crucis insists that God is not first to be found by our observation of natural phenomena and our reason (Theologia gloriae) but through God's self-revelation in situations of suffering and loss, in the apparent absence of God. God is active in everything which happens in the world but, as Pascal suggested, God hides himself behind natural processes, using them simultaneously as his "masks" and as his instruments of ongoing creation.13

(Of course, I do not suggest that a modern view of the place of physics is to be found in Luther's writings. The point is that the theology of the cross provides a natural way, within the Christian context, to consider the possibility of a natural science which needs no explicit theological content.)

It is because these created instruments of creation work so well and (on the physical level) completely, because their operation displays the goodness of God's creative work, that God does not need to intervene directly in the world (though perhaps an exceptional set of miraculous events of measure zero needs to be allowed for). From the theological standpoint, this is why the universe can be understood etsi deus non daretur. In this view, natural science, and physics in particular, is granted its independence because of the goodness of God's creation. Indeed, science is forced to be independent. Even if it wanted special information from Scripture about the laws of physics, it would not get it.

In this view, the relationships between physics and biblical faith will be seen differently by the Christian and the unbeliever, and both of them, as long as they do not overstate their case, will be correct. (Maybe the principal weakness of this whole approach lies in the temptation to exaggerate.) A physicist who is an atheist may say that no belief in God is needed for his or her work of understanding the processes which take place in the physical world. The physicist qua physicist need never refer to any explicit religious belief. This case is overstated, however, if the atheist asserts that science has shown that there simply is no reality behind or beyond what natural science deals with.

The Christian, however, believes that the existence of the world and the fact that it can be understood by scientific means are expressions of divine grace. God's activity takes place through secondary causes so suited to their task that phenomena can be explained in terms of them. While the world remains God's creation, dependent upon God, it has been given its own integrity. The doctrine of the contingent rationality of the universe which Torrance14 has emphasized means that God has freely created a rational world, so that human observation and thought can grasp its character "from within."

Both the existence of the universe and the possibility of scientific understanding are seen by the believer to be based in the gracious activity of the God to whom the Bible bears witness. In this sense, physics has a religious underpinning. But the Christian should not overstate the case by arguing that a person must acknowledge, or even be aware of, this religious underpinning in order to be a competent physicist.

It has, of course, been argued that the order which science discerns in the world provides evidence for God. Many scientists, however, for one reason or another, are not convinced by such arguments. The point here is that they do not have to be convinced in order to do good science.

Meaning and Value from Religion?

Whatever theological attitude one may take to the matter, it does seem clear that modern physics has achieved a considerable depth of understanding of the world without having to make any explicit appeal to ideas of divine action. Wider and wider ranges of phenomena are being correlated, more and more control of the energies of nature is gained, and there seems to be no need to say anything about God in all of this. But what if the physicist steps outside the bounds of pure physics and asks about the meaning or purpose of all the marvelous order which science has disclosed? What if the engineer begins to ask about the ethical use of his or her technologies? Can we find any satisfactory answers to these questions if we continue to think and act as if God were not given?

A straightforward answer to the question of meaning has been given by Weinberg. After describing how scientific cosmology can tell us about the first minutes of the universe and connect them with phenomena today, he asks what this all means. From a purely scientific standpoint, he must honestly reply that it has no ultimate meaning. "The more the universe seems comprehensible," he says, "the more it also seems pointless."15

What of ethics? Oppenheimer could say of the military use of nuclear fission:

In some crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.16

But he did not get the category "sin" from physics.

Christian theology does not try to tell physicists how to do physics‹other than that it should be done honestly. However, it does place all natural science in the context of meaning and value set forth in Scripture, the revelation in the history of Israel which culminates in the crucified and risen Christ. This is the other side of the theology of the cross. God who is active but hidden in the wonders of nature is revealed in the hiddenness of the cross. And because he is risen and "ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things" (Eph. 4:10), the crucified is seen by faith to be the creator, the guide for all right action, and the goal of the universe. He is the one through whom and for whom all things were made (Col. 1:16), and to the pattern of whose kenosis we are to be conformed (Phil. 2:3‚11). The purpose of the universe can be spoken of not only in terms of putative scientific "anthropic principles," but in terms of the Incarnation as a "theanthropic principle," and the theology of the cross is to provide the context for our decisions about ethical uses of technology.17

One biblical theme which is very helpful for dealing with such matters is wisdom. The biblical writers were not concerned to teach "natural science" in the modern sense, but the wisdom tradition of Israel is the closest thing in Scripture to a scientific approach to the world. It calls for a disciplined and realistic approach to nature as well as to social and personal relationships, and insists that genuine wisdom begins with "the fear of the LORD" (Pr. 9:10 and Ps. 111:10‹cf. also Pr. 1:7, 15:33 and Job 28:28). This tradition is given christological significance in the New Testament (e.g., I Cor. 1:18‚31). Unlike much of Western thought since the Enlightenment, it makes no sharp separation between facts and values: the wise person not only knows things but behaves in ethical ways. From the standpoint of biblical faith, this tradition seems to be a natural context for science.18 Without telling physicists the details of how the physical world and its subsystems work, it speaks to them of deeper meanings behind those workings, and provides ethical guidance for the use (and non-use) of science-based technologies.

The wisdom tradition would not deny that a person can do competent work in physics without faith in God, anymore than it would deny the possibility of good cooking or carpentry by unbelievers. But such a physicist would not deserve the title "wise" in the deepest biblical sense. Sirach 38:14‚39:11 is of interest in this connection.

Physics itself cannot generate an ethic for the use of physics-based technology, but we cannot move immediately from that difficulty to a need for an ethic based upon the Bible. Scripture gives "You shall not kill" as a guideline for the use of nuclear energy, but so do many other religious and philosophical traditions. The second table of the law is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition. One may, of course, question the depth of understanding of such laws in other traditions, but that is another matter. Christianity shares with many other belief systems some general ideas about what is needed for the good ordering of society. Thus, it would be an overstatement to say that science needs a uniquely biblical ethic.



1I. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1990), 3‚30. Drees, W. B. Beyond the Big Bang (Open Court, La Salle IL, 1990), 18‚29.
2T. G. Barnes, Physics of the Future (Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon CA, 1983).
3Note, e.g., the book with this title by G. de Bothezat, Back to Newton (G. E. Stechert, New York, 1936).
4B. Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1954), chapter IV. H. Rimmer, The Harmony of Science and Scripture, 3rd ed. (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1936). O. E. Sanden, Does Science Support Scripture? (Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 1951).
5K.A. Wood, "The Scientific Exegesis of the Qu'ran: A Case Study in Relating Science and Scripture," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45 (1993): 93‚4.
6See, e.g., J. L. Heilbron, Elements of Early Modern Physics (University of California, Berkeley CA, 1982), R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Scottish Academic, Edinburgh, 1973), and S. L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (University of Chicago, Chicago, 1978). C. Kaiser, Creation and the History of Science (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1991), provides a good overall look at the interactions between the Christian understanding of creation and the development of science.
7For a modern discussion see, e.g., J. H. Brooke, Science and Religion (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991).
8D. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fontana, London, 1959), 120‚1.
9T. F. Torrance, Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids MI, 1984), 263‚83, and Reality and Scientific Theology (Scottish Academic, Edinburgh, 1985).
10B. Pascal, The Pensees (Penguin, Baltimore, 1961), 222.
11See, e.g., W. von Loewenich, Luther's Theology of the Cross (Augsburg, Minneapolis, 1976).
12E.g., G. L. Murphy, "'Chiasmic Cosmology' and 'The Same Old Story': Two Lutheran Approaches to Natural Theology." Presented at the Pascal Centre International Conference on Science and Belief, Ancaster, Ontario, 1992.
13M. Luther, Luther's Works, vol. 14, (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1957), 114.
14T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford, New York, 1981), especially chapter 2.
15S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (Bantam, New York, 1979), 144.
16C. A. Coulson, Science, Technology and the Christian (Epworth, London, 1960), 107.
17G. L. Murphy, "The Incarnation as a Theanthropic Principle," Word & World XIII, (1993): 256 and "Chiasmic Cosmology as the Context for Bioethics," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 42 (1990): 94.
18For further discussion see G. L. Murphy, "Science as Wisdom," Currents in Theology and Mission 18 (1991): 198 and T. F. Torrance, The Transcendental Role of Wisdom in Science (Šditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, Fribourg, 1991).