Science and Theology

Kenneth Cauthen

Copyright © by Kenneth Cauthen 2000. All rights reserved.
The relationship between science and theology has a long and complicated history that goes back four or five hundred years. This discussion blends into an even longer debate over the relationship between reason and revelation. In response to science theology has undergone a profound reformulation. The European Enlightenment and the rise of the historical-critical study of the Bible were also extremely important, but I will limit my attention to science. I am also focusing on the response of Protestant theology to science, since that is the area I know best.

I want to list four important challenges arising from science that called orthodox theology into question and brought about a major revision of Christian thought.

1. The first challenge was that the success of scientific method called into question truth claims based on supernatural revelation and tradition. Science has provided the modern world its most reliable standard of knowledge. Science is the dominant paradigm of truth about the world. At the extreme we get what can be called scientism: What cannot be known by science not only cannot be known but is not real. Along with this there was in many quarters a loss of confidence in speculative reason under the influence of philosophers like David Hume and Immanuel Kant.  In the minds of many they demolished the traditional arguments for the existence of God. This took place in the context of the Enlightenment, which urged people to think for themselves. It called into question all ancient traditions, superstitions, and any claims about reality that could not stand the test of enlightened reason. The great themes of the Enlightenment were reason, nature, and progress. If we will use our reason to understand nature and history, we can make material and moral progress as we move toward an ultimate perfection of life on earth. Among the resources of reason none was more important than science in providing the truth that would enlighten us and help us make life better. Science was based on evidence we could test. It solved one problem after another. It worked. It was creating a picture of the world and of human beings that was so convincing to so many that it gradually weakened other ways of knowing or pushed them aside. For Christians it raised a disturbing question: If the Bible could be wrong in matters of fact, could it also be wrong about matters of faith?

2.  The second challenge was that science undermined biblical cosmology. The Bible had provided Christian Europe its basic story of the origin of the cosmos and the structure of the natural world for 1500 hundred years. Between 1500-1900 of the Christian era, this understanding was demolished. The biblical picture was that of a three-story universe with the earth in the middle, heaven above, and hell below. This world came into being a few thousand years ago with all the species of plant and animal life reproducing after their kind. Adam and Eve were real people living in a garden that could roughly be located on a map. A series of discoveries from Copernicus to Darwin demonstrated that picture of the universe and of human origins to be in error. Copernicus showed that the earth was not in the center of the world. His suggestion that the sun was the center was also wrong, but that is another story. Next geology revealed the earth to be much older than the biblical chronology allowed. Then came Darwin with the big bombshell. In 1859 the world was shaken by the claim that present species of life have evolved over a long period of time by natural selection to produce the forms of life that now inhabit the earth. The most disturbing feature of this theory was that human beings did not descend from Adam and Eve a few thousand years ago but evolved from earlier species that could be traced back to the first beginnings of life on earth far in the distant past.

The Christian world was deeply disturbed. A few came pretty quickly to the conclusion that Darwin was right. They saw that there was no point in trying to resist. Others were upset and simply refused to believe it. They  insisted that the Bible not science gave us the true picture. In England Bishop Wilberforce reacted with sarcasm. He asked Julian Huxley, the great scientist, whether it was on his mother's side or his father's side that he was descended from apes. An upper class, aristocratic British lady upon hearing about Darwin's theory said, "Oh dear, that is so dreadful. Let us hope it is not true. But if it is, let us keep quiet about it." In America Charles Hodge, the eminent Presbyterian theologian at Princeton, said that Darwinism is atheism. This was all taking place from 1860-1900. I saw a book by a fundamentalist Christian written in this century who said that he had seen performers in the circus riding two horses at one time, one foot on one horse and the other foot on the other. However, he noted that he had never seen this done when the horses were going in opposite directions. In his mind the Bible and evolution were going in opposite directions.

This, then, is the second impact of science. It undermined the biblical picture of the physical and biological world. The controversy raised by Darwin goes on today. Liberal Christians accept evolution and revise their view of the Bible and of the world accordingly. Fundamentalists still insist that Darwin was wrong and the Bible is right. Some want creationism taught in the public schools along with evolution.

3. The third  challenge was the fact that the scientific picture of a law-abiding world called into question the reality of miracle and the supernatural. Science pictures nature as a dynamic, causal network, self-contained and self-explanatory. There is one order of activities in which all events occur in a law-abiding fashion. In this view miracles are suspect. The Bible is full of miracles from the Red Sea incident to the Virgin Birth of Jesus and his Resurrection from the dead, to mention only a few. John Calvin had used miracles and the fulfillment of prophesy as evidence of the truth of Scripture. Now it was miracles themselves that were in question. Could Christians live everyday in a world that abided by the laws of nature and then go to church on Sunday and believe in miracles that violated them?

4. The fourth challenge was that the picture of nature as a self-contained causal system called into question the need for a supernatural creator or for any reference to divine purpose.  From the 17th century beginnings until the 20th century revolutions in physical science,  the natural order had been described by science in mechanistic, deterministic, materialist terms. Nature consists of bits of material stuff - matter - organized into a machine that operates in accordance with inexorable laws. The natural order is at best a neutral and at worst a meaningless process. There are causes but no reasons or purposes in nature. In nature there is no freedom, no meaning, or value.   This is the most powerful and daunting challenge of all. Science seemed to imply a universe that needed no God to create it. It was a machine that required no explanation beyond itself. This machine did just what it did do, not knowing or caring what it did or having any purpose in doing it . In 1903 Bertrand Russell offered the most extreme summary of this outlook by saying that the world science presents for our belief is meaningless and void of purpose, an accidental collocation of atoms. #[1]  A lot of people, including myself, do not think that present-day science requires this world-view, but it prevailed for 300 years. #[2]Moreover, many scientists today still hold that nature is full of causes but exemplifies no purpose. #[3]

We could go on with this at great length. I have by no means given the complete picture, but let me turn now to the response of theology to these challenges. Let me speak briefly of two main types of response. I will then divide the second type into two sub-groups. This will leave out a lot that needs to be said to get the complete picture, but it will at least give some hint as to how Christian theology has met the challenge of modern science. I will call the two basic responses by the short-hand terms of fundamentalism and liberalism, recognizing that each of these schools of thought comes in many varieties. Moreover, some views would fall in between. To get the main point before us at once, let me say that fundamentalism says the Bible is right about everything, and that if science says something different, it must be rejected. Liberals say that science and the Bible are both right within their own legitimate spheres, but they deal with different aspects of reality. Therefore, there need not be any conflict between science and theology.

Fundamentalism: Fundamentalists hold the view that the Bible is inerrant, without error. It tells the truth about everything it mentions. It is right about nature, the universe, the origin of human beings, the reproduction of species, and so on. All of its historical claims are true. The miracle stories happened just the way the Bible says. There is to be no compromise of biblical truth. The Bible is the Word of God in a full, complete, total manner and in all respects. Hence, if the Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were literal people living a garden somewhere on earth that we could locate on earth, then that story is just true. If evolution teaches something contrary to what the right interpretation of Scripture requires, then it is wrong. True science is in harmony with the Bible. Whatever contradicts the Bible is bad science. Some conservatives have made a variety of accommodations to science with respect to biblical cosmology, the age of the earth, and even evolution.  Some even venture to distinguish between matters of science not essential to religious truth and matters of faith in which the Bible is without any error at all. As the recognition of the authority of science grows with respect to its own legitimate field of inquiry, the closer it comes to blending in with a moderate liberal approach. At some point the boundaries between science and theology and between fundamentalism and liberalism may become fuzzy.

Liberalism: What all forms of liberalism agree on is that science is not to be contested on its own terms. If the scientific evidence shows conclusively that evolution occurred in the way that present-day science says it did, then it must be accepted. We simply have to come to terms with it. The basic way of doing that is to distinguish  between the realms that science and religion deal with. Here let me distinguish very broadly between two sub-types of liberal thinking that make the distinction between science and theology in somewhat different ways. They agree with the basic liberal premise is that we must distinguish between two spheres of knowledge about reality.

1. The first approach is deeply influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant distinguished between the realm of fact that science deals with and the realm of value that morality and religion deal with. It is true that science presents us with a world of fact that is law-abiding and void of freedom and value. However, we have another faculty of understanding as moral persons who are free, who can live in accordance with duty, and make value judgments. Theology interprets the moral and religious realms. Science and religion cannot contradict each other since they deal with different spheres of human activity and deal with the world in different ways. Many theologians in the 19th and 20th centuries have taken their clues from Kant. Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and H. Richard Niebuhr fall into this camp. Existential theology under the joint influence of Kant and Kierkegaard takes this approach. The world, then, is one order of activities that human beings deal with in two different ways. On the one hand, we have the realm of fact, law, cause, and determinism. On the other hand, we have the realm of value, meaning, purpose, and freedom. Morality and religion are in this second sphere, and theology is the interpreter of the moral and religious experience of human beings in relation to God. Science neither contradicts or supports religion. It has its own methods and its own subject matter. The same is true of theology. It cannot call into question the findings of science, but it can accept them whatever they are and then go on to make its own claims based on Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. However, it does mean that much of the Bible cannot be taken literally. The Bible is not a book of science. The creation stories Genesis have to be seen as myths that contain moral and religious truth for our lives today in a world that was produced by a long evolutionary process. Many liberals rejected the virgin birth and the literal resurrection of Jesus and many other miracle stories because these miracles are contrary to what science knows about physical and biological laws. Science tells us about facts. Religion tells us about values - to oversimplify the matter.

It is important to recognize that this view holds that it does not matter to faith what science says about the nature of the world. In the 19th century and on into the early 20th the prevailing scientific cosmology was materialistic, mechanistic, and materialistic. Nature is a realm without freedom, meaning, and value. If 20th century science after relativity, quantum mechanics, indeterminacy, and the like no longer implies this particular world-view, then it does not matter much. Faith does not look to science for its foundations, and it is not threatened by anything that science could possibly say. Hence, theology can be basically indifferent to any and all cosmologies that  implied by the scientific account of nature and the world of observable objects. Faith has to do with the decisions and commitments of selves in quest of meaning and purpose as moral personalities. The two realms may converse with each other, but neither can undermine or support the other. #[4]

2. The second type of liberal approach is very much like the first in many ways. It differs primarily in that it does not make a sharp division between science and theology or between facts and values. Instead of a dualism between the world as known by disinterested observers, on the one hand, and committed moral selves, on the other hand, this approach speaks of different dimensions of the same events or things as objective entities. Science gives us a partial picture of the whole. It gives us one perspective on the world. The full and complete reality has many dimensions, some of which are not discerned by scientific methods. The part it deals with by its particular approach is completely true within those limits. Science abstracts from the whole and investigates nature in so far as it can be observed by the senses or measured and quantified with the aid of technology. Philosophy is needed to ask about the nature and meaning of the totality, about reality in its fulness and wholeness. Science gives us a perspective on the whole, but it does not tell us the whole truth about the whole of reality. Philosophy must do that, and theology does the same with the special task of interpreting the meaning of the Christian tradition within this framework. Process theology under the influence of Alfred North Whitehead is the best example of this approach. It is much like the first liberal type but instead of a sharp dualism between science and theology or between facts and values, the second speaks of part and whole. Science deals with the dimension of reality that its methods allow it to examine. Philosophy deals with the whole from which science abstracts. Theology deals with the moral and religious dimensions of the whole of reality and focuses on the reality of God in relation to the world and human beings.

So each of these liberal types holds that science and theology deal with different subject matter or with the same subject matter in different ways.  Theology can be true in its sphere, and science can be true in its sphere, and neither interferes with or contradicts the work of the other.

It is a lot more complicated than this, but I will leave it at this for now. #[5]

I invite comments, evaluations, refutations, and other responses.
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This is one in a series of essays on theology and ethics. A complete list can be found at:
Theological Essays
Presently, the following essays are available:
About the Author
A List of my Books
What I Believe
Interpreting the Bible Today
The Authority of the Bible
Using the Bible with Integrity
Natural Law and Moral Relativism
What is Truth -- and Does it Matter?
A Doctrine of God
Hints Towrd a Doctrine of God
Trinity: God, Christ, Spirit
God as Masculine and Feminine
Theodicy: the Problem of Evil
Theodicy: A Heterodox Alternative
The Many Faces of Evil
Christ and Christians
A Critique of Niebuhr's Christ and Culture
The Incompatibility of Christianity and Civilization
Christian Ethics
Process Christian Ethics
The Ethics of Belief
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Capital Punishment
Physician Assisted Suicide
Bioethical Decision-Making
Drug Policy
Theology and Ecology
Religion and Politics
Science and Theology
Church and State
A Short Biographical Sketch

For fun I have rewritten some Mother Goose Rhymes for an electronic age.

Mother Goose Goes Electronic
Having a web site is becoming a family enterprise. First to have a Page was my son.
Paul Cauthen
The latest entry is that of my son-in-law and daughter.
Ric Brown and Nancy Cauthen
These sites are very different, but both are creative, imaginative productions. They would welcome a visit.
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1. Bertrand Russell,  A Free Man's Worship, 1903. This essay can be found in  Volume 12 of The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, entitled Contemplation and Action, 1902-14 (London: Routledge, 1985). The full relevant paragraph is as follows:Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built. 2. I learned this story best from Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1925). It has been told many other times by numerous authors. The literature on the subject is immense.

3. An example is found in Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why The Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986). In The First Three Minutes Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist,  wrote, "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

4. See Kenneth Cauthen, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1962). Check the index under "science" for the relevant pages.

5.I have written extensively on science and theology. In addition to ibid., see my Science, Secularization and God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969), Theological Biology (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), and  Toward a New Modernism (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997).

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Created: Tuesday, December 12, 2000, 10:10 AM. Last Updated: Tuesday, December 12, 2000, 10:10 AM