July 7-24, 2014 - 2014 Oxford Study Program
July 7-24, 2014 - 2014 Oxford Study Program
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A Few Thoughts about Theology & the Sciences
Dr. Bruce Riley Ashford
Dean of the College
Associate Professor of Theology & Culture
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
In any public discussion of theology and culture, there is no bigger “elephant in the room” than theology’s relationship to the sciences. And let’s be honest about it: theologians have often wrongly construed the relationship. There are some theologians who ought not to speak so authoritatively about scientific matters because they pontificate without understanding. And there are some scientists who traverse the continents mocking the theologians, but they do not understand even the basics of Christian theology. (In both cases, it reminds one of a dog walking on its hind legs; it is not done very well, and only for the sake of making a spectacle.) In light of this unfortunate reality, what can be said about the relationship between the two disciplines, and about resolving conflict between practitioners of each discipline?
Historically, theology’s relation to science has often proven to be divisive, as can be seen from Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the Pope, or certain contemporary theologians’ dismissal at the hands of the scientific establishment. In response to historical conflicts between theologians and scientists, various views have developed about the relation of theology and science. One view holds that theology and science are overlapping research programs which conflict with one another. Under this view, the two disciplines are inherently opposed to one another and, in most cases, one discipline is believed to be inherently superior to the other. Another view holds that theology and science are non-overlapping research programs which do not conflict. A third view holds that theology and science are overlapping research programs which should remain in conversation and partnership with one another, and which are not inherently conflictive or competitive. In my opinion, the third view is the appropriate view in light of biblical teaching. The Bible, as God’s word written, is the foundation of our knowledge. From the biblical narrative arises a Christian worldview, which consists of basic beliefs embedded in that narrative. From the Bible and Christian worldview arise two disciplines, systematic theology and Christian philosophy, which give rise to other disciplines such as the natural and social sciences. In other words, the various disciplines are interconnected because truth is a seamless whole.
This understanding gives rise to the view that theologians and scientists should dialogue with one another and partner together in seeking to understand reality. “Reality is complex,” David Clark writes, “and human knowers access different dimensions of reality using different methods. This is precisely why dialogue among disciplines is important. Dialogue permits us to adopt multiple frames of reference on reality. Still, if truth is unified as we hold, we must seek connections between, and integration, of these multiple frames of reference.” As Clark goes on to note, theology speaks to science and science speaks to theology. Theology speaks to the sciences by (1) explaining the origin and destiny of the universe, (2) explaining why it is orderly and can be interpreted, (3) explaining why the sciences matter, (4) helping to guide future scientific research, and (5) helping provide warrant for one scientific theory over another. Moreover, science speaks to theology by (1) offering conceptual frameworks and analogies helpful for elucidating theological concepts, (2) helping provide warrant for one theological interpretation over another, and (3) illustrating and providing further explanation of biblical teaching on aspects of created reality.
But if theologians and scientists enter into a mutually beneficial dialogue and partnership, how do we adjudicate in the case of conflict? Under the model proposed in this chapter, theology and science are overlapping areas of study which are not inherently conflictive. A proper interpretation of the Scriptures will not be found in conflict with a proper interpretation of the created order. In light of this truth, we offer three principles for reconciliation in the occasion of disagreement between theologians and scientists. First, either group (theologians or scientists) is subject to error and therefore either group is subject to correction. Both theologians and scientists are finite and fallible human knowers and both are subject to making interpretive mistakes. For example, the Catholic and Protestant church leaders were wrong to condemn Galileo based upon their misinterpretation of Bible passages. Likewise, scientists have been wrong to criticize theologians for their refusal to believe that the earth is not eternal and that it evidences design. Second, science is in a constant state of flux. Scientific hypotheses and conclusions are always changing. For this reason, theologians should be very careful not to hastily revise their interpretation of Scripture based upon a purportedly “proven” scientific fact. Third, Scripture is not intended to be a science textbook. Scripture does not err in what it asserts scientifically, but Scripture does not usually communicate with scientific precision. Based upon these three principles, both scientists and theologians are well-served to hold their exegetical conclusions with appropriate humility.
 The three views presented here are best viewed on a continuum. Often, the three views we have presented are divided further, until there are four or more models of the relation between theology and science. See, for example, Richard F. Carlson, ed. Science and Christianity: Four Views (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000).
 Clark, To Know and Love God, 284.
 This list is a slight modification of Clark’s five points. Clark, To Know and Love God, 287-294.
 These three principles are adapted from Norman Geisler’s treatment in Norman L. Geisler, “Science and the Bible,” in Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 691-692.
 An article by theoretical particle physicist Stephen Barr (University of Delaware) provides five examples where scientists have wrongly criticized theologians. Stephen Barr, “Retelling the Story of Science,” in First Things 131 (March 2003), 16-25.
 Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996), has made clear that science does not always progress rationally, and that it indeed often reverses tracks or finds itself in the midst of irrational and radical paradigm shifts.