For the most part, Evangelical Christians are not anti-science Luddites attacking science and technology at every opportunity. Like everyone else we enjoy the benefits of the rapid changes in technology driven by modern science. However, when scientific theories seem to clash with our theology, we seem suspicious at best, and hostile at worst. Caution is actually a healthy approach towards any nascent scientific claim, but hostility is rarely helpful, particularly when a theory, like biological evolution, has demonstrated that it is well supported by the evidence over a long period of time.
The Relationship between Christian Theology and Science
So how should we approach science when it appears to challenge our theology? How should we view the relationship between science and theology? We do have some well-promoted options. There is Ken Ham’s approach (theology dictates science), Stephen Jay Gould’s approach (science and theology should be divorced), the “science is most true” approach (theology capitulates to science), and Richard Dawkin's approach (eliminate theology). None of these are appropriate for Evangelicals however. Scientific truth (a true description of creation) and theological truth (a true description of the Creator and his relationship to creation) cannot be in conflict.
I don’t have a completely satisfactory answer for myself as of yet but I’ll make some brief points on my own view of the relationship between theology and science.
- The science/faith conflict is often a result of our own imperfect understanding. Creation truth and truth about the Creator are unified, but our distorted view of either or both leads to perceived conflicts. (See Loren Haarsma's presentation Christianity as a Foundation for Science, particularly the diagram in slide 12).
- Theology, even good theology, cannot remain stagnant. One of the most dangerous theological approaches from my point of view (heresy alert for those looking for one) is the drive to define and document a “complete systematic theology”. I do not believe that our finite understanding of the infinite can ever be complete. Our canon may be closed, but that does not prevent God from revealing additional truth through a changeless text. Scripture may be timely (speaking to its original hearers) but it is also living and timeless.
- Good science can work as a goad to good theology. (See the abstract for the essay Science as Goad and Guide for Theology by George Murphy in the theology journal Dialog). In other words, scientific discoveries can sometimes, depending on the circumstances, be used as an opportunity to expand on our existing theology, or even rectify poor theology.
- Good theology can provide a context for doing good science. It can work as a motivation for doing science in the first place (discovering more about God’s creation) and it can shed light on the limits of science (eg. science should not and can not answer ethical questions).
- Many scientists, however, seem completely oblivious to the limits of science, or how their own presuppositions can blind them. Thus “scientific” conclusions are often stated as fact even when the scientific data does not necessarily support the conclusion.
Scientific Challenges to Theological Assumptions: Expected but not to be Feared
We should not be surprised when science challenges some of our theological assumptions. In fact, maybe we should expect it. As we discover more about God’s creation, and particularly the part of creation that is created in God’s image, our understanding of how God relates to that creation will undoubtedly change as well. But we should never fear these challenges. There is no guarantee that we will be able to reconcile all these challenges (at least in this life), “for we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. But one day we “will see God face to face” at which time all our current theological wrestling and confusion will seem not only trivial, but irrelevant. This promised resolution can give us confidence to deal with our current challenges. And one of the biggest challenges of course, is reconciling biological evolution with our theology.
The theological implications of an Evolving Creation
In a series of several short posts I would like to discuss some of the theological implications of an evolving creation. The title of this series is taken from Keith Miller’s essay of the same name that can be found here on the ASA website. Miller states that:
In the debate over the proper understanding of the Genesis account, most attention has seemed to focus on the scientific merits of various creation scenarios. What has largely been lacking in these debates is a consideration of the theological implications of these various interpretations for our understanding of the character of God, the relationship of God to His creation, and the relationship of us to the rest of creation. After all, it is to these basic issues that the Genesis account is primarily, if not exclusively, addressed.
I like Miller’s approach for two reasons. First, the emphasis is on creation, a creation that is evolving. The science of evolution can certainly be studied on its own without reference to God or his creation, but to really understand it, to understand the entire truth, we must put it in the context of the theology of creation. A discussion on an evolving creation does just that. Second, Miller views the implications of an evolving creation as opportunities, opportunities to better appreciate who God is and how he acts, how God relates to us his children, how God relates to the rest of creation, and how God wants us to act given that we are his image bearers in creation. This, I believe, is a healthy approach and one I’d like to emulate in future posts.
Surveying the Difficult Challenges First
That being said, I do realize that for many Evangelicals the implications of an evolving creation are disconcerting. I myself find some of the implications troublesome. So rather than jump right into the theological opportunities, my next post on this topic will be a brief survey of the implications Evangelicals find most troublesome.
Maybe what I should do first is solicit feedback on what others believe are the most troublesome implications. So I invite you to leave a comment or send an email stating the top-3 implications of biological evolution that you find most difficult to reconcile with Christian theology. Actually, the invitation is open to non-Evangelicals and non-Christians as well since I realize that, for many of you, the perceived difficulties between evolution and Christian theology are actually barriers to to taking the Christian faith seriously.