2. Using Information from Nature and Scripture

    Is there "conflict" between science and religion? 
    Is comparing the Bible with science impossible? 
    (How can we wisely use the two books of God?) 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

A condensed version of this page is in my Overview-FAQ.
I recommend reading it first because it's shorter so you can get quick overview of the ideas, and because after initially writing both pages I've been more diligent in revising/supplementing the Overview-FAQ (especially in Sections 3-7) so it currently includes some ideas that are not in this page, but some other ideas are only in this page.



2A. Is there "conflict" between science and religion?

      A Brief History of Warfare-History
      What is the relationship between science and Christian religion?  One dramatic answer — inherent antagonism and aggressive warfare! — was proposed in the late 1800s by John Draper and Andrew White.  Their books painted a picture of history as a conflict between the rationality of science (earnestly searching for truth) opposed by the ignorance of religion (stubbornly trying to block scientific progress) with science fighting valiantly and continually emerging victorious.
      Their colorful story, with heroes and villains clearly defined, is entertaining and dramatic, is useful for anti-Christian rhetoric, and has exerted a powerful influence on popular views about interactions between science and religion.  But their oversimplistic history is inaccurate, and is rejected by modern historians.  For example, David Lindberg & Ron Numbers, editors of God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, see "a complex and diverse interaction that defies reduction to simple 'conflict' or 'harmony'... and varied with time, place, and person." 
      If the relationship isn't conflict, what is it?  Ian Barbour describes four ways to view interactions between science and religion — conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration — while Richard Bube writes about Seven Patterns for Relating Science and the Christian Faith and thinks the relationship is complementary.

      Flat Earth and Galileo — examples of conflict?
      Draper and White used two key historical examples, a flat earth and Galileo.  But one of these is false, and the other is oversimplified:
      In the time of Columbus, did educated Christians believe the earth was flat?  The correct answer is NO, but most modern people will say YES.  Why?  This wrong idea is due to a fascinating abuse of history that began around 1830 when two writers (a sloppy novelist and an atheist scholar) invented a false story about "belief in a flat earth" that, in the 1870s, was popularized by Draper.
      Was Galileo a victim of war?  David Lindberg says, "The Galileo affair is consistently and simplistically portrayed as a battle between science and Christianity — an episode in the long warfare of science and theology."  But in encounters between Galileo and the church "personal interest and political ambition were as important as ideological stance... [and] conflict was located as much within the church (between opposing theologies of biblical interpretation) and within science (between alternative cosmologies) as between science and the church." (from When Science and Christianity Meet)   /   And instead of defining this conflict as religion versus science, Stillman Drake thinks it's more accurate to view it as the inherent mutual hostility between authority and independent thought:  "It was an accident of Galileo's time that authority happened to be vested in a particular religious institution and that his field of independent thought happened to be the creation of modern science." (from foreword to Galileo, Science and the Church)
      You can learn more about Galileo from Lindberg & Drake and about both Galileo & The Myth of Flat-Earth Beliefs.

      Five Reasons to see Conflict
      Why do some people still think science and Christianity are inherently in conflict, even though this view is an oversimplified distortion?
      • Maybe it's due to an assumption that "natural" means "it happened without God."  When science explains how something happens by natural process, does this make God unnecessary?  No, because a Christian should view science as a way to better understand the natural process created and controlled by God, as explained in FAQ-5.
      • The Bible claims that God does miracles.  Does scientific logic indicate that rational people should reject Biblical reports of miracles?  No.  Why?   First, science does not claim that miracles are impossible.  Although some scientists boldly declare the impossibility of miracles, they are merely stating their own opinions, not the conclusions of science.   Second, miracles are compatible with the logical methods of science.  To do science effectively we need a world that is usually natural, but it doesn't have to be always natural.  If the universe usually operates according to normal natural patterns, despite occasional miracles, science will be possible and useful.  We can believe that science is a reliable source of knowledge about nature, and that miracles did occur in the Bible, do occur now, and might have occurred in the formative history of nature.  {questions about "miracles & science" and Methodological Naturalism are explored in FAQ-7}
      • Confusion can occur when we don't distinguish between science (our investigations of nature using observations, imagination, and logic) and scientism, which is "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science... to provide a comprehensive unified picture of the meaning of the cosmos. (Webster's Dictionary)"  Science has earned our trust because it has been useful for understanding many aspects of physical reality and for developing technology.  But we can trust science for some things and not others.  When our trust in science is extended into areas where it is not justified — as in claiming "miracles are scientifically impossible" — it has become scientism that can lead us to wrong conclusions.  These errors are caused by scientism, not science.  When a Christian rejects scientism, but embraces science, the result can be stronger faith.  When science is used wisely, to help us answer only appropriate questions, we learn more about God's creation, and this gives us more reasons to glorify God.   { There is more about scientism in the next section. }
      • Some non-Christians want to believe in "conflict between rational science and irrational Christianity" because this belief supports their decision to reject God's gracious offer of salvation through Jesus Christ.  If non-believers can persuade themselves to believe that faith in Christ is unscientific and irrational, they can feel more comfortable with their decision against Christian faith.
      • For some Christians, a reason to distrust science is a perception of conflict between conclusions in science and statements in the Bible.  And when their anti-science beliefs are publicized, this can influence non-Christians to continue their rejection of faith, since it reinforces their belief that faith is not compatible with science.  How can we reconcile science and scripture?  We can't.  It's impossible to "reconcile" them because they cannot even be compared, as explained in the next section.


2B. Can we compare the Bible with science?

      Realities and Interpretations
      There is no actual conflict between the realities of scripture and nature, but sometimes there is a perceived conflict when we compare our interpretations of scripture and nature.  The important distinction between reality and interpretation is illustrated in a three-level diagram:

      On the top level is God, the ultimate source of everything.
      On the middle level are God-produced realities:  the scripture God inspired, and the nature God created.   On the lower level are human-produced theories:  our theology (based mainly on interpretations of scripture) and our science (based mainly on interpretations of nature). *
      The two levels illustrate an important principle:  We cannot compare scripture with science, because they are on different levels, but we can compare theology (a fallible human interpretation) with science (another fallible human interpretation) while trying to search for truth.  Instead of asking "Bible or science?", we should think "theology and science" and have confidence in both of God's revelations, in scripture and nature.

      * theology and science are "based mainly [but not totally]" on interpretations of scripture and nature, respectively.  Two horizontal arrows on the lower level symbolize the interactions between theology and science.  In theology, the main goal is to understand spiritual reality.  In science, the main goal is to understand physical reality.  But the main goals aren't the only goals, and our theories about spiritual and physical realities are mutually interactive;  theology affects science and our views of physical reality, while science affects theology and our views of spiritual reality.   {the 3-level diagram is adapted from Deborah Haarsma}

      What does theology say about physical reality?
      First, Christians should see natural process — which is the focus of study in science — as being designed and created by God, and sometimes (or always?) guided by God.  We believe that God responds to prayer, and He can change our situations and our thoughts and actions, usually in ways that appear normal and natural.
      Second, the Bible teaches that although God's activities in physical reality usually appear natural, occasionally His actions appear miraculous, so we should consider this possibility when we're studying the history of nature.

      What does science say about spiritual reality?
      In principle, science can reach no scientific conclusions about the ultimate source of natural process.  And scientists should be humble about their naturalistic theories (by claiming that "IF it occurred naturally, then...") so they remain open to the possibility of miracles, even if they choose to construct their scientific theories without including this possibility.

      What does scientism say about spiritual reality?
      In practice, our views of spiritual reality can be influenced by our perceptions of science and by the personal views of scientists.  These personal views vary widely and usually remain private, but occasionally scientists make public statements about theology.  For example, Carl Sagan began Cosmos, his highly acclaimed film series and book, with a clear statement of atheism: "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."  And the National Association of Biology Teachers, from 1995 to 1997, claimed that "natural" means "without God" when they declared that natural evolution is an "unsupervised" process.
      These bold theological declarations were made "in the name of science" by a scientist and by the leaders of a science education organization, but their claims were personal opinions, not scientific conclusions.  Unfortunately, however, such claims can exert an unhealthy spiritual influence on readers who respect science, and who — because they don't understand the difference between what science can and cannot logically conclude about theology — think the claims are scientific.

      What does natural theology say about spiritual reality?
      Our science can influence our theology, thus moving it in the direction of natural theology ("deriving its knowledge of God from the study of nature independent of special revelation," in Webster's Dictionary) when we ask theological questions — Does God exist?  What does God do?  What is God like? — and we use our understanding of nature to construct our understanding of God.  But it's important to ask "how should science influence theology?"
      In a paper about "Reading God's Two Books," George Murphy explains why it's better to use scriptural theology (based on the Bible) rather than natural theology (based on what we see in nature) as the foundation for building our understanding of God:  "We should begin with the knowledge of God revealed in the history of Israel which culminates in Christ.  Then we know that the creator, the author of the book of nature, is to be identified with the crucified and risen Christ, and we can read the book of God's works in that light. ...  natural theology must be a part of distinctively Christian theology. ...  We can learn about nature simply by reading the book of nature.  But that book will tell us something about its author only if we have first read the Bible and understood its witness to Jesus Christ." (from the journal of ASA, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 2006)

      What does theology teach us about nature-facts?
      Sometimes a Bible passage leads us to ask, "Does this passage teach us a specific fact about nature and its history?"  When we're thinking about this question, a useful principle is illustrated by changes in our theories about the planets, earth, and sun:
      In 1500, we had a system of nature-and-scripture interpretations that was internally consistent but wrong.  Everyone thought that planetary motions were earth-centered (they were wrong) and the Bible taught this (they were wrong).
      In 1620, some interpretations of nature were in conflict with some interpretations of scripture.  Some scientists thought the universe was earth-centered (wrong) but others disagreed.  Some theologians claimed the Bible taught an earth-centered universe with a mobile sun that "rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other... the sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises," and a stationary earth: "the world is firmly established; it cannot be moved." (Psalm 19:6, Ecclesiastes 1:5, Psalm 93:1)   Others agreed with Galileo, who was correct in saying "the intention of the Holy Spirit is to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
      In 1700, science and theology were again in harmony, but now these two human interpretations were true because they corresponded to the reality in nature and scripture.  This is the ideal situation.

      What was the change?  By 1700, our theological interpretation of some Bible passages had been influenced by our scientific interpretation of nature.  The influence was beneficial, since it helped us recognize that in these passages the Bible was not making a scientific statement to teach us "how the heavens go."  In this reinterpretation of scripture, we do not compare the Bible (which says the sun "rises") with science (which claims "the earth rotates") and decide which is more important, because the Bible and science cannot be compared.  Instead, we compare different interpretations (of the Bible, and of nature) and wisely use all available information in our search for truth.
      When we ask, "Is this passage intended to teach us specific facts about nature?", information from nature — gathered and evaluated using scientific methods — can be useful.  This principle of theological interpretation was recommended by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1982) when they affirmed that "in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations."

      Does this historical lesson have a modern application?
      Almost all Christians now agree with modern science when it says "the universe is not earth-centered," and we have concluded that the Bible does not teach incorrect earth-centered science.  But some Christians disagree with modern science when it says "the earth and universe are billions of years old."  In the 1600s, appeals to the Bible were used to support earth-centered science that was wrong.  Currently, are appeals to the Bible being used to support young-earth science that is wrong?  Does the Bible really teach a young earth and universe?
      The lesson from history is that we should "wisely use all available information in our search for truth."  Christians with a young-earth view say "our young-earth interpretation of Genesis is strong, and your old-earth science is weaker than you think."  Christians with an old-earth view say "our old-earth interpretation of nature is strong, and your young-earth theology is weaker than you think."  These two views differ on how to interpret nature and scripture, and also how to combine the interpretations.


2C. How can we wisely use information from nature and scripture?
      God has graciously provided us with two sources of information, in nature and in the Bible.  How can we more effectively combine, with harmony, what we learn from both of God's revelations?
      Of course, for the most important things in life — for learning about God and how He wants us to live and love — the Bible is more important.  But for other questions we don't have to make an either-or choice, and by using both sources of information our understanding of total reality (physical plus spiritual) can be more complete and accurate.
      A good way to think is illustrated in Psalm 19, where an appreciation of God's dual revelations in nature ("the heavens declare the glory of God") and scripture ("the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul,... giving joy to the heart") inspires a personal dedication: "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer."

      Here are useful principles for learning from nature and scripture, and combining what we learn from each:

      Science (mainly from interpreting nature)
      Based on observations of nature, logically evaluated, most scientists have concluded that the universe and earth are billions of years old.  But some scientists think these conclusions are wrong by a factor of a million, and the universe is only thousands of years old.  How can you decide which interpretation of nature, old universe or young universe, is more plausible?
      In this case, two commonly used criteria — credentials and character — don't help us distinguish between the views, because proponents of both views include intelligent scholars with scientific expertise who are devout Christians with high moral character, who sincerely want to find the truth.
      What about consensus?  In dozens of independent areas, almost all scientists have reached old-universe conclusions.  Is this an impressive argument in favor of their views?  Yes.  Is it conclusive?  Probably.  In the past, occasionally scientists have been correct when they challenged a majority consensus, but this is rare.  Even if an established theory eventually is rejected, usually it has survived many unsuccessful challenges before its rejection.  And in this case, dozens of major well-established theories, spanning a wide spectrum of science, would have to be wrong.  A young-universe science requires rejecting much of modern science.
      But you shouldn't just accept the "authority" claimed by proponents of either view.  Instead, you can gather evidence and think carefully, using logical "reality checks" that are the foundation of science, and are also used in everyday life.  When you compare the claims made by proponents of each view, in each area of science, in what ways do they agree and disagree?  Do they disagree about the observations or the logic?  In each area, which view is more plausible when you logically evaluate the differing interpretations of evidence from nature?

      Theology (mainly from interpreting the Bible)
For differing interpretations of scripture, similar questions arise.  How can you evaluate different views about the intended meaning of a Bible passage?
      First, carefully study the text.  In this linguistic study you can use what scholars have learned about word meanings and sentence structures in the original language, and how these are affected when the text is translated into English.
      Second, consider the context (cultural, spiritual, and situational) in which the passage was written.  In this contextual study, ask "Who was the author writing for, what was the intended purpose, and in what ways did the context affect how the passage was written?"
      Third, in a comparative study you compare the essential theology of each interpretation with essential theology from other parts of the Bible, to check for consistency.
      Fourth, sometimes information from nature, logically interpreted, can help you choose between different Biblical interpretations that seem satisfactory based on other criteria, because "in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches."
      As in science, however, credentials and character usually don't help us distinguish between differing views that are held by intelligent truth-seeking scholars with theological expertise, devout Christian beliefs, and high moral character.

      When all things are considered — when you carefully and prayerfully evaluate all information provided by God in both of His revelations — what can you conclude about plausibility?  Which set of internally consistent interpretations (young universe for scripture and nature, or old universe for scripture and nature) do you think is most likely to be true, to correctly describe reality?  And what level of confidence, or humility, is justified?

The next two FAQs look at theology (What does Bible-information say about age?) and science (What does nature-information say about age?).

note:  Sections 2B & 2C are a revised-and-condensed version of The Two Books of God and are condensed even more in my Overview-FAQ.


This page is one part of
responses to Frequently
Asked Questions about
Creation, Evolution, 
and Intelligent Design,

written by Craig Rusbult,
with an ASA-disclaimer.
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