Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Can the Church Answer Questions About Science?

Yesterday I posted a piece from Dallas Willard's book Knowing Christ Today in which he condemns the audacious claims made by hardline naturalists. In short, Willard contends that the hard sciences are unable to provide certain conclusions to matters outside their realm of study. While I agree with Willard and welcome the warranted critique of the sacred cow of epistemology (science), I think that it is of the utmost importance that we condemn the church for doing the exact same thing. In other words, we must reflect upon where the church and/or Christian institutions draw conclusions to matters that are outside of their own domain.*

This is a point that Willard seems to neglect. He writes, "The discrediting of the church as a moral teacher and guide was accentuated by the advances of knowledge that came with the development of science and with the increased knowledge of the past and of other parts of the earth. These advances threatened the authority of the church at a more fundamental level. As widely interpreted, they called into question the basic documents - especially the Bible - and the founding events and personalities of Christian traditions and institutions. The initial result of all this was, as we have noted, the rejection of Jesus Christ and of his core ethical teachings." (Willard, 74-75)

How is it that "advances of knowledge" and "development of science" became a threat to the Christian tradition?  Is it not because Christian institutions themselves had overstepped the "province of their responsibilities" (Willard's term) when it came to certain matters, for example, the sciences? The only reason that the Copernican Revolution "threatened the authority of the church" is because the church had arrogantly drawn conclusions from an ancient text that is not the least bit concerned with what qualifies as modern science. Hence, it was not merely Enlightenment advances but also the church's epistemic overreaching (and stubbornness) that contributed to its decline.

Can the church answer questions about science? Absolutely. But not without participating in the domain of modern science with other scientists. When Christians draw conclusions about science solely from Scripture they are overreaching the domain of Scripture's own responsibilities. To paraphrase Willard, Scripture as Scripture is not even about such issues. 

So rather than only calling out hardline naturalists for their overzealous conclusions about God or ultimate purpose, let us also call out Christians for their overzealous conclusions about the hard sciences.

*Ultimately, nothing is outside the domain of the church in theory. The church is concerned with the whole of life and reality to the extent that we might possibly come to know it. This clearly includes the hard sciences and all other fields of possible study. However, this endeavor requires the utmost caution and responsibility to pursue knowledge unceasingly. It cannot be done lazily and without study; for this leads to the overreaching of our domain.


  1. The one thing about Christians and science I can't stand is how Christians have constantly said throughout history "Well what about blah blah blah! You can't explain that at all! It's proves there's a God!"

    Then, given enough time, science finds an explanation and Christians have their tail between their legs. We always seem to put the ball in science's court to prove our point, and frankly, given enough time, science will likely advance enough to explain most anything. It's a foolish strategy we've been doing for centuries, when instead I think we should be applauding new discoveries and working with science to help us understand our current world and how we can help aid those in it.

    Plus, like verses in the Bible we want to follow, we seem to pick and choose what science is good. "Hey thanks for that medicine but that evolution crap is terrible!" (vastly different fields of study, I know, but you get my point)

  2. Yes, exactly Eric. Thanks for your comment. You point out the futility of the "God of the gaps" argument (i.e. Christians use God to fill in the "gaps" that science can' explain). Only problem is that science, as you say, continues to discover new phenomenon.

    I agree that theists should embrace science and see how it is that scientific explanations supplement faith in their God and explore how it is that God may be involved in this world and its process of discovery.

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  4. I remember reading a book by Lesslie Newbigin entitled, Foolishness to the Greeks. He points out that science cannot, by its methods, examine issues of teleology (purpose), and that lack is the churches' opportunity. The Bible and religion in general are about meaning making in this life and world that scientists so carefully examine for us. Granted, the basis of their ethics is a growing edge, but the methods and applications of science, and I would add modern historical methods too, clearly were not in the scope of the authors and editors of the Bible. Of course, I have just revealed assumptions about the Bible and its origins that many Christians would challenge. Alas! Their challenges, as you say, Josh, are at best, "epistemological overreaching", (I like that language) which is damagingly naive. All this to say Amen! To your post... (I've got to work on the verbosity with the pen that I suffer from :) Thanks, for so insightfully balancing Willard's criticism! A question: how can we theologians contribute to science's ethics conversations if we do not take science itself seriously?