Friday, August 7, 2020

Christians Should Not Be Afraid of Science: The Historical Use of Science to Inform Us About Scripture

 I recently gave a talk at a local youth group on how current science supports the Genesis creation account and how science provides evidence not only that God exists but can tell us something about God and the truth of the Bible.  When I was finished, a parent spoke up and basically said that I shouldn’t be using science to help inform us about God.  The Bible actually teaches the opposite. Scripture is constantly telling us that the study of nature will point us to God.  Since studying nature is doing science, the Bible teaches that we should do science to learn about God!  

We see several examples in scripture showing us that it is important to God for us to know about the universe. The Old Testament teaches that Solomon was wiser than all other men; 1st Kings lists some of the topics about which Solomon was wise.  


He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.[1]


King Solomon was a naturalist! God chose to give biological knowledge to Solomon, which he then shared with “people of all nations.” Information about the natural world - also called science - must be important to God. Solomon understood this when he said, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.”[2]


Psalm 8 compares the universe to God. 


When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him.[3]


We obviously have to know about nature in order for this comparison to work; we must have already done some science in order to see how great God is.  When we see the incredible immenseness of the universe, we realize how much God must care to pay attention to such a small speck. The more we learn about how fine-tuned the moon and stars have to be for life to exist on earth, the more we see the love that God has for us. Psalm 19 directly tells us that the universe will teach us about God, so we need to do some cosmology, astronomy and geology to see that the heavens actually do “declare the glory of God”. 


The heavens declare the glory of God,

   and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours out speech,

   and night to night reveals knowledge.[4]


Paul begins with science when speaking to the Gentiles! In chapter 14 of Acts, Paul is speaking to the people in Lystra who had tried to make him and Barnabas into the gods Hermes and Zeus. Paul, of course, tells them that he and Barnabas are just men, but then he adds, “…you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”  Paul then goes on to say that nature can testify to this God. 


Here in Acts 14, however, we find the first recorded evangelistic message to an audience with no background in Judaism at all. So, it’s no surprise that Paul doesn’t start to talk about the way Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (unlike Acts 10:43)! Paul tells them that the natural world is God’s testimony of his goodness and his interest in them.  That is, he appeals to natural revelation, not to special revelation.[5]


The greatest evangelist in history actually begins with science when telling non-Christians (who have no background in the church) about Jesus.  Science can be a perfect starting point for evangelism today as well. Many people have at least a cursory knowledge of science, while the number of people that have no knowledge of the Bible or Christianity is increasing.  Our society also tends to take “scientific” knowledge as truth while it tends to be skeptical of “spiritual” knowledge. 


When Paul is in Athens, as recorded in chapter 17 of Acts, early in his speech at the Areopagus Paul talks about, “The God who made the world and everything in it...”[6]  Paul’s beginning point here is again with nature; pointing to the created world to show that the Christian God, while having created everything, is actually too great to be worshiped as part of the created world. When we do science, we are looking at the creation, which then can point us to the creator. Paul explains in Romans 1 why he chooses to begin with science when talking to those with no background in Judaism or Christianity.


For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.[7]


Looking at nature is enough to know that God exists and pointing to nature can be a beginning point to showing people that there is a God. Science is our current way of studying nature, so beginning your evangelism with science is a great way – and a Biblical way - to be able to tell people about Jesus!


Historically, Christianity has been a religion in which science was encouraged and even used to help interpret scripture. In the Middle Ages, as most people believe, some of the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, & Galen (the “Classical tradition”) caused suspicion, hostility, and condemnation from the church.  But more often, critical reflection about the nature of the world was tolerated and even encouraged by medieval religious leaders. Many of the church fathers had been educated in the classical tradition before converting to Christianity and had acquired habits of rational inquiry. They used these tools to help develop Christian doctrine and to help defend the faith against detractors.[8] For example, Aristotle’s philosophy could be used to rationally argue the existence of God.


Consequently, many of the church fathers expressed at least limited approval of the classical tradition.  For example, the second and third century writers Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen all found Greek philosophy a useful tool in the defense of Christianity.  Athenagoras marshaled the authority of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics in favor of monotheism.  Clement attacked the earliest Greek philosophers for their atheism. But he [Clement] also acknowledged that certain philosophers and poets bore testimony to the truth, and that within the philosophical tradition there is a “slender spark, capable of being fanned into flame, a trace of wisdom and an impulse from God.” Tertullian himself viewed Christian religion as the fulfillment of Greek rationality, and he both advocated and engaged in philosophical activity.[9]


Medieval Scholastics deeply valued Aristotle and his writings and believed that his teachings on reason could be incorporated into church theology.  Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine), one of the most important Christian church fathers during the 4th and 5th century, wrote at length about the connection between the Genesis account in the Bible and the natural sciences contained in the classical tradition. Augustine had no problem using natural science to help interpret scripture.  Roger Bacon agreed with Augustine.  


His goal was to demonstrate that the pagan learning of the classical tradition was a vital resource, capable of offering essential services to theology and the church; and moreover that it posed no insuperable religious threat, that suitably disciplined and purged of error, it would serve as a faithful handmaiden of religion and the church.[10]


Thomas Aquinas’ writings in the 13th century were the culmination of this thought; combining the theological principles of faith with Aristotle’s philosophical principles of reason. 


Thomas Aquinas as biblical exegete, metaphysician, and philosopher of nature offers us a rich array of insights for contemporary discourse on the relationship among sacred texts, the natural sciences, and philosophy. He can help us to avoid the whirlpool of a reductionist materialism as well as the stumbling block of biblical literalism. His principles continue to serve as an anchor of intelligibility in a sea of confusing claims.[11]


Augustine also wanted Christians to be knowledgeable about the natural world and use it as a handmaiden of theology and religion. He worried about Christians talking nonsense about science and how that would hurt the religion.


Augustine made it clear that although scriptural knowledge is vastly superior to knowledge gained through the senses, the latter is inestimably superior to ignorance. Moreover, he worried that Christians, naively interpreting scripture, might express absurd opinions on cosmological issues, this provoking ridicule among better informed pagans and bringing the Christian faith into disrepute.[12]


Taking a quick, but relevant digression, Augustine’s warning to Christians is still relevant today.  Bernard Ramm in the 1950’s observed this exact thing and gave a similar warning.


It is impossible to settle the complex problems of Bible-and-science, theological and empirical fact without a well-developed Christian theism and philosophy of science. For example, the idea of creation is rather complex. Evangelicals were not always aware of the great deal of thought put into this matter by Augustine and Aquinas. As a result, evangelicals posed the problems of modern science as resolving down to : (i) fiat, instantaneous creationism; or (ii) atheistic developmentalism. This is certainly a gross over-simplification, not a genuine probing, of the entire concept of creation.[13]


This way of thinking has resulted in science being taught with absolute disregard of biblical statements and Christian perspectives. Science mostly is done with no interest as to what the Bible says on the subject and is now developed and controlled by people who do not believe in the scientific credibility of the Bible. Both science and theology are hurt when we operate as if the divide between them exists. 


Back to the Middle Ages, Augustine wanted the interpretation of scripture to stay consistent with the cosmology and physics of the classical tradition and used the natural sciences in his role as a theologian and bible interpreter. Christians should think of Scripture and Creation as two “books” that should be read together for understanding of the fullness of God’s self-revelation; science is a God-given tool for discerning the handiwork of God in Creation and is fully compatible with God’s Word revealed in Scripture. 


Article 2 of the Belgic Confession of 1561 states: We know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict humansand to leave them without excuse. Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.


God has put us in this universe and made us curious because what we learn about nature teaches us about Him.  Biochemistry is showing us that only an incredible mind could be responsible for the information and intricate systems we are finding. Cosmology is teaching us the grandeur and vastness of the universe; which had to be created by something even more grand.  Geology and biology are showing us the incredible fine-tuning needed for life to exist on earth and the care that had to be taken by the creator to make a home for us.  The very small and the very large both point us to God and show us His characteristics and His greatness. The Bible tells us to do science for this very reason. Christians throughout history have followed this instruction; it has been to the detriment of Christianity when we don’t.


[1] 1 Kings 4:33 ESV

[2] Proverbs 6:6 ESV

[3] Psalm 8:3 ESV

[4] Psalm 19: 1-2 ESV

[5] C. John Collins, Science & Faith, Friends or Foes?, Crossway Books, 2003, page 190

[6] Acts 17:24

[7] Romans 1:20

[8] David C. Linderg, When Science and Christianity Meet, University of Chicago Press, 2003

[9] David C. Linderg, When Science and Christianity Meet, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 12

[10] ibid, page 24


[12] ibid, page 14

[13] Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1954, page 19

Monday, August 3, 2020

Christianity Advanced Science & Was Necessary For Modern Science To Even Begin!

Modern science arose in Western Europe because of Christianity. The Judeo-Christian world view teaches that creation can and should be studied and can be figured out. Our universe was created by a rational God with regular rules and patterns and because we are also created by God, with the mind of God, we are able, at least in part, to think God’s thoughts after Him and decipher these laws. The natural laws are God’s laws – not eternal self-sufficient principles, as Aristotle thought. This makes physical laws contingent; God could have created the universe with different physical laws than what we are observing. Christianity, not Greek thought, provided the backdrop to allow us to consider multiple possibilities and then test those possibilities to see which one is correct! 

Science continued to advance after Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo because of Christianity, not in spite of it. Because they thought it could be done, the vast majority of initial thinkers in science were Christians who did their investigations because of the Christian ideas they had about the universe. Copernicus was a church deacon who did astronomy in his spare time. Robert Boyle, father of modern chemistry, set up Christian apologetics lectures. Isaac Newton, discoverer of the universal laws of gravitation, included these statements in his Principia:

This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being...This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God.[1]

Johannes Kepler, discoverer of the laws of planetary motion, wrote:

The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.[2]

Here is a partial list of seminal thinkers in the sciences who were also Christians: 
Roger Bacon, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, Nicholas of Cusa, Nicolaus Copernicus, Michael Servetus, Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Blaise Pascal, Isaac Barrow, Robert Boyle, Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton, Thomas Bayes, Carolus Linnaeus, Leonhard Euler, Joseph Priestley, Isaac Milner, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Lord Kelvin, John Ambrose Fleming, Max Planck, Robert Millikan, Arthur Compton, Georges Lemaître, Freeman Dyson, Allan Sandage, John Polkinghorn, Henry F. Schaefer III, Kenneth R. Miller, Francis Collins, Simon C. Morris, John D. Barrow, John Lennox

Newton, Boyle, Descartes, and Gassendi all subscribed to some version of the mechanical philosophy. They also believed in an all-wise, all-powerful God who had once created and still preserved this universe of matter in motion. None of these natural philosophers saw any conflict between the two beliefs; in fact, one might go so far as to say that they found these two creeds, Christianity and the mechanical philosophy, inseparable and equally necessary.[3]

The acceptance of the mechanical philosophy played a major role in the events that we collectively call “the Scientific Revolution” … the proponents of a mechanical universe were driven by religious concerns, the debate between different forms of the mechanical philosophy was waged on religious grounds, and the success of the mechanical philosophy was hailed as a Christian triumph.[4]

Arno Penzias, Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of the cosmic background radiation, says of Kepler’s philosophy: 

That really goes back to the triumph, not of Copernicus, but really the triumph of Kepler. That's because, after all, the notion of epicycles and so forth goes back to days when scientists were swapping opinions. All this went along until we had a true believer and this was Kepler. Kepler, after all, was the Old Testament Christian. Right? He really believed in God the Lawgiver. And so he demanded that the same God who spoke in single words and created the universe is not going to have a universe with 35 epicycles in it. And he said there's got to be something simpler and more powerful. Now he was lucky or maybe there was something deeper, but Kepler's faith was rewarded with his laws of nature. And so from that day on, it's been an awful struggle, but over long centuries, we find that very simple laws of nature actually do apply. And so that expectation is still with scientists. And it comes essentially from Kepler, and Kepler got it out of his belief in the Bible, as far as I can tell. This passionate belief turned out to be right. And he gave us his laws of motion, the first real laws of nature we ever had. And so nature turned out to redeem the expectations he had based on his faith. And scientists have adopted Kepler's faith, without the cause.[5]

Non-Christian views of the world were stifling to science. The view that the universe is mysterious, unpredictable, ideal, or arbitrary would keep you from trying to decipher how nature worked. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe had been created in accordance to ideals, like perfect shapes. This idealism is an impediment to discovery.  For example, adherence to Aristotle kept astronomers from even considering that planets might not be orbiting in any manner except in a perfect circle. If you have no concept of a creation or a Creator there is no reason to think that a limited human mind could grasp and control the laws of nature, as nature itself was not subject to a mind. If the path to wisdom is believed to be through meditation and mystical insights and the intellectuals in your society pursue enlightenment, then reason is not something you would use to investigate nature and science as we know it now is not something that culture would do.

Many societies believed that the universe simply had always been and that there was no reason to suppose that it functioned according to laws we could decipher and comprehend on a physical level; thinking it better understood in mystical terms. Images of impersonal or irrational gods do not provide a reason to believe that nature is then rational and orderly. If your view is that the universe is locked into an endless cycle of progress and decay, there is no concept of advancement; the natural world is just something that exists, not something to study.  If your religion makes inanimate objects into living creatures, then a search for physical theories is impossible. Some religions also taught that it was blasphemy to formulate natural laws; they believed that God could do whatever he pleased, even if his actions were variable and arbitrary.  This belief would then then make the universe variable and arbitrary, so searching for consistent physical laws would be a waste of time.

Even though science was stifled in every other society and by every other religion, it is still common to accuse Christianity of hindering scientific progress. Any commonly accepted idea could hinder science—not just ones that Christians hold. The best example was the dogmatic adherence to Aristotle that hindered scientific progress for over 2000 years. The first people to openly disagree with Aristotle were either Christians or professors in church sponsored universities; these ideas lead eventually to the revolutionary idea of Nicolaus Copernicus.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, a new philosophy of nature came into prominence. Although it was presented in many forms by the likes of Rene Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, and Robert Boyle, in all forms it treated matter as lifeless and inert, without any properties of its own. It also suggested that all natural phenomena could be explained by the mechanical interactions of matter in motion. This "mechanical philosophy" as it came to be called, was in strong contrast to the picture presented by the traditional philosophies, such as Aristotlelianism.[6]

It was another Christian, Galileo, who challenged the prevailing scientific view of the universe in the name of science. Most people at the time held the Aristotelian idea that the earth was at the center of the solar system and heavenly bodies moved in perfect circles. Astronomers in Galileo’s day overwhelmingly thought the data favored Tycho Brahe’s hybrid geocentric model. It was Kepler who showed planetary orbits to be ellipses. Christians were the ones actually pushing science forward in an age of scientific stagnation.

The main lesson to be drawn is that it was Galileo, a believer in the biblical worldview, who was advancing a better scientific understanding of the universe, not only, as we have seen, in opposition to some churchmen but against the resistance and the obscurantism of the secular philosophers of his time who, like the churchmen, were also convinced disciples of Aristotle.[7]

Another example of this was Louis Pasteur, a devout Christian credited with the discovery of germ theory. The prevailing view in Pasteur’s time was that microbes could spontaneously appear from chemicals and this was the cause of illness. Spontaneous generation disagrees with the Christian Doctrine of Creation, so Pasteur set out, with obvious success, to show that life appearing from non-life could not be correct. Based on his Christian beliefs, Pasteur was motivated to test a prevailing scientific theory to the benefit of mankind.

It is a common accusation that belief in Biblical miracles will stifle and hold back scientific advancement.  This has historically not been the case; even belief in the Biblical Flood & Noah’s Ark stimulated and advanced science!

Yet it is commonplace to read of a clash between belief in the Bible and the facts revealed by the developing world of science; it is often said that belief in the real former existence of the Ark is “unscientific” and has been exploded by a properly “scientific” investigation of the evidence…. such a view is oversimplified.[8]

From about 1500 to 1800 the idea of an Ark, and Noah’s story itself, played key roles both in European religious doctrine and in the emerging body of thought that came to be known as science.[9]

However, it is important to note that religion was here providing Hooke and others with a significant explanation for the phenomena that appeared in the natural world around them. Religion provided the framework within which to fit phenomena or objects that we would now consider part of science-fossils, earthquakes, sedimentary deposits. The story of the Flood supplied meaningful explanations for things that were otherwise difficult to understand. Putting it another way, belief in the Bible as a historical record at this point encouraged the development of interpretive categories and investigative techniques that proved constructive in the long-term development of natural history. These categories included the idea of a flood, the collection of fossils, classification of animals and plants, and the calculation of human population statistics.[10]

On these grounds, the popular view that religious orthodoxy stifled early geological and natural historical research cannot be sustained. On the contrary, efforts to combine the Genesis story with what was known about the natural world opened up important new perspectives in the world of learning.[11]

The controversies arising from speculations about the meaning of fossils and the geographic extent of the Flood brought new ideas about the age of the earth and the prehistory of mankind into the open. These were set within a devout religious context but were flexible in their interpretation of ancient writings and chronologies.  The attempt to explain how animals arrived in the New World and how Noah’s children repopulated the earth stimulated the study of indigenous societies and early human migrations. The search for appropriate sources of water led to distinctive observations about comets, earthquakes, rainfall, and sedimentary strata.[12]

An actual, current example of a theory holding back science is the belief that our DNA contains a vast amount of “junk” that has no function. Scientists have clung to this belief because it is one of the key pieces of evidence for evolutionary theory; this has “held back” science for 30 years. We are now discovering all kinds of function in the so called “junk DNA” that we never bothered to look for earlier because of a dogmatic adherence to evolutionary theory. For example, these previously thought “non-coding” regions are showing a possible ability to “turn off” cancer cells; some promise for a possible cancer cure that was ignored because of the scientific dogma of junk DNA. There are scientists who are refusing to accept the data coming in from the ENCODE project because it doesn’t fit with their current evolutionary model. Science is held back when a theory drives the data instead of data driving the theory. Christianity is no more guilty of “holding back science” than any other commonly held idea that society sees as correct.

Christianity and science are not at odds, nor should they be at war. As it did with the early scientists, Christianity can provide inspiration and provide a reason and a rationale for why we should investigate nature. Christians thought it was their duty to investigate nature in order to discover God’s thinking. 
Christianity depicted God as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.[13]

[1] Isaac Newton, Principia, 1687
[2] Johannes Kepler, Astronomia nova, 1609
[3] William B. Ashworth Jr., When Science & Christianity Meet, Lindberg & Numbers, editors, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 84
[4] ibid, page 61
[5] Michael Bumbulis, Christianity and the Birth of Science
[6] William B. Ashworth Jr., When Science & Christianity Meet, Lindberg & Numbers, editors, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 61
[7] John Lennox, in Just Thinking, RZIM, Volume 27.1, page 17
[8] Janet Browne, When Science & Christianity Meet, Lindberg & Numbers, editors, University of Chicago Press, 2003, page 112
[9] ibid, page 113
[10] ibid, page 128
[11] ibid, page 132
[12] ibid, page 138
[13] Rodney Stark, For The Glory of God, Princeton University Press, 2003, page 147