This article discusses the basis for science, Christian science, the relation of science and faith, and the place of rationality in science.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1983. 5 pages.

Christianity and Science

This is the third in a series on the general topic of Christianity and Culture. The first essay focussed on introducing some basic thoughts, and the second was on Christianity and Philosophy. We now look at the relation between Christianity and Science, a difficult topic, but one which is extremely important in our day. All Christian university students, and really all of us wherever we are, ought to know some basic facts about this area if we wish to live and study responsibly at the end of the twentieth century.

What is Science?🔗

This question occupies many philosophers of science in our day. Since the rise of modern science in the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, scholars have debated about the scientific process. And the debate does not restrict itself to discussions about practical scientific research. For our whole view of reality is involved when we talk about “nature,” “physical laws,” “models,” etc. Talking about science forces us to talk about the most basic questions of human existence. What kind of universe do we live in? Who is man? Who am I? Where is the universe going?

The matter is complicated by differing terminology. On the continent of Europe, the term “science” has a broader connotation than in England and America. For example, in Germany wissenschaft concerns all the disciplines of university study, including the study of literature and theology. At Harvard University, however, “science” refers primarily to the natural sciences such as biology and physics, while the study of literature and theology tends to be seen as “arts.” That is why the university curriculum is made up of “Arts and Sciences.”

It seems to me that the Anglo-Saxon use of the word “science” has biased the word too much in the direction of natural sciences and thereby avoided the deeper problems of the search for knowledge. This may be one reason why Anglo-Saxon technical philosophy of our day is generally uninterested in the great questions of morality, religion, and metaphysics.

One way to describe science would be to say that it is the quest for specific, detailed, systematic, correlated knowledge of the created world, ourselves, and God's revelation in the Bible. Non-Christians, of course, would deny that the Bible gives us true knowledge, but we as Christians must always hold that in fact it is the Bible alone which explains life in its totality and that it is the Bible alone which gives us a sufficient basis on which to carry on scientific research and thought.

By seeing science as a quest, we make room for the incomplete character of our knowledge, as well as for its many internal mysteries. Science is a human activity and remains such. Never will we be able to duplicate God's perfect knowledge of Himself and His world. Yet it is a valid, noble quest; and true knowledge, though limited and incomplete, is possible.

The Biblical Basis for Science🔗

Christianity grounds its quest for knowledge in the Bible. The world has its origin, not in the unplanned explosion of a primordial atom into an infinite emptiness of space (the Big Bang theory), but in the mind and creative activity of the Triune God. The fulness, meaning, and structure of the created order find their source in God Himself. Furthermore, God not only spoke to create the universe (Genesis 1), but He also spoke into His world to man, who was created in His image (Genesis 1:27, 28). In the world we discover intention, design, structure, as well as (now) God's curse, and dissolution (the result of God's curse!). This is so because God created a personal world, reflecting His personality, and because He continues to control and act into His creation. Language is naturally adapted to describe the world because God spoke originally to create, addressed (and addresses!) man in language, and because He created man in His own image, a speaking, communicating being. Language is thus a God-given medium for us to understand ourselves as well as our Lord Himself. God is by nature a speaking, listening Person, and He created us expressly as speaking, listening creatures.

Man was made in God's image, which, among other things, meant that man was to be God's visible representative on earth. Man was to rule over the earth and to fill it (Genesis 1:28), mirroring God's own sovereignty over the universe. This cultural mandate, in our age suffused with the Gospel, gives man now not only a general philosophical perspective, but the impetus for the kind of detailed, correlated knowledge which true science entails. We notice, as well, that knowledge was to serve the filling and controlling of the world; that is, that science was to serve human society and technology.

The Fall has destroyed man's relation of love to the Creator, and the world has consequently been cursed with death and decay, but this does not change the fact that the world is still God's created world or that we as God's redeemed creatures, believers in Christ, are still under obligation to “rule and fill” the world for God's sake. Our knowledge of the world now involves knowledge of the horrors of sin, disease, disasters, war, suffering, and anguish, and true science is not true to the facts without acknowledging and studying these terrible afflictions of the earth. But even these are the result of God's speaking (in judgment!), part of the meaning of His hatred for sin, and so also reveal God's personal purposes.

Christ's redemption means that we can know God again in love; know the world as it was originally created; know the world as it is now, under the curse; know ourselves; and know our calling in the world. The reality of our redemption also changes our goals. Our knowledge, our science, is not only tied to the original cultural mandate, but now must be anchored in the Gospel of Christ. Medical science seeks to discover methods of healing, but this healing must be part of an overall strategy of healing for the whole man. Christ is our Lord, and our science and technology must serve Him. Science ought never to be autonomous or an end in itself. Science is knowledge in the light of the Bible and of the creation, and it is to serve God and promote Christ's Kingdom.

Reality and Empiricism🔗

Empiricism might be described as the idea that true science only can happen when there is direct investigation, controlled experimentation, and rigorous verification. Think, for example, about the medical researcher in the laboratory, searching with test tubes, chemicals, and computers, for a cure for cancer. As such, this is really too narrow a description and picture of science, since it excludes mathematics, geology, astronomy, history, and theology. For these sciences are all only indirectly empirical. We cannot “observe” numbers, we cannot experiment on stars, and we cannot strictly verify the parting of the Red Sea at the time of Moses. Nevertheless, within its limits, empiricism has been a healthy development in Western science since the sixteenth century.

In many ways, the Reformation of the sixteenth century was a stimulus to a sound empirical method. Up till that time, various old Greek and Roman authorities on philosophy (which meant also physics, astronomy, and biology) were held to, without question. Ptolemy was the authority for astronomy, Galen for medicine, and Aristotle for animal life. As well, due to the influence of mystical theories of “nature,” it was considered improper to do experimentation in a rigorous way. With the coming of the Reformation, the old authorities lost some of their unquestioned power, and, as well, nature was no longer looked upon as a semi-divine organism, but rather as a structured, created order.

The stage was thus set for a genuine investigation of the created world, unprejudiced by old, semi-religious biases. For example, by use of the telescope it became evident that the moon was not smooth, as the old books claimed, but rather rough and pitted with craters. By investigating the human body, it was discovered by William Harvey that the blood actually circulates through the body by means of the pumping action of the heart. The old books knew of no such thing.

This new attention to the actual contours of the world, including the human body, was stimulated, in part, by the new attention to God's Word, the Bible. Truth was seen as returning to its true sources in the Word and in the world, instead of accepting the established authorities in Church and “philosophy,” i.e. science.

The New Science went hand in hand with the New Religion (Protestantism) in many cases. Isaac Newton (1642-1717) was probably the most brilliant of the New Scientists. Although at points far from orthodox, he lived within the Protestant movement in England (most of the Royal Society were clandestine Puritans) as a promoter of the new empiricism in natural science as well as of fresh exegesis of the text of Scripture. Newton's striving to make sense of natural phenomena in terms of laws (for example, in optics and gravitation), laws which were describable by mathematical formulas, was part of regarding the world as created by an intelligent Designer.

Unfortunately, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this new empiricism became aligned with anti-Christian philosophies. On the basis of only slight data, great atheistic theories were devised to explain life and man. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) expanded current naturalistic theories of evolution by means of his theory of natural selection, replacing God with time and chance. What had once been a handmaiden of biblical theology became the Bible's enemy. Empiricism came to mean that there were only “natural causes” for all things and events in the universe, and that there was no need for the “God hypothesis.”

Though claiming to be open to the reality of all phenomena, such a naturalistic empiricism in fact closes itself to God, to revelation, and to the fulness of life itself. Love, morality, loyalty, compassion – all disappear into the clockwork of a purely materialistic, mechanistic universe. Because such an “empiricism” hides from the fulness of reality, it is in fact no longer true empiricism at all.

Meaning and Rationality🔗

If the Reformation stimulated new attention for the created world, new attention to detail, new attempts to systematize the available data, and correlate the empirical facts, it also stimulated scholarship to investigate more intensely both man and his history. If “nature” (the created world outside man) could be investigated anew, so could man himself. Luther, though a fierce opponent of pagan philosophical “reason,” nevertheless stimulated Christian scholarship to read the Scripture afresh and to look at church history with new eyes.

In the Reformation, the spoken and written word was elevated. The sermon became the vehicle of God's Word to reach His people with His grace. The new discovery of printing (Gutenberg, in the fifteenth century), just prior to the Reformation, became the means of disseminating thousands of tracts and treatises, as well as God's Word itself, the Bible. No longer bound by the unintelligible Latin of the church elite, the common people read the Scriptures for themselves. Confessions, commentaries, popular meditations – all these were printed and read by thousands. It could be said that the Reformation rode on the waves of the printing revolution. Words had power, and that power transformed nations.

In scholarship, the Reformation initially fed on the new Renaissance of humanistic learning within the Catholic Church in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Erasmus (c. 1466-1536), the great Renaissance scholar, provided the Reformation with its first Greek text of the New Testament, since for many hundreds of years the church had relied on an old Latin translation, the Vulgate. This alliance between Renaissance and Reformation was short-lived, however, since the Renaissance remained, as the old Roman classical spirit, within the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, the Reformation took up its own quest for exegetical science and historical investigation, by establishing Reformed universities and centers of learning.

Paralleling the developments within the natural sciences, theological and historical scholarship broke with the reigning ecclesiastical positions in respect to doctrine and history. The quest was now to understand the meaning of Scripture and the meaning of history, and man's redeemed reason was set the task of listening to the actual shape of the biblical text and the actual shape of history in the past.

This ideal of human reason and scholarship, illuminated by God's Word, in the quest for knowledge of God and man, was at the heart of the Reformation impulse. However, again paralleling developments in the natural sciences, in the eighteenth century reason became more and more detached from the gospel. Slowly, in the great centers of learning in Europe, reason was withdrawn from the light of God's revelation. Rationality was considered to be autonomous, a law to itself, and history was no longer approached in a Christian way. Even the Bible became an object of non-Christian, “rational” investigation, as miracles were first “explained” by “natural causes” and finally totally debunked as myths.

In the most literal sense, the “Enlightenment” was in fact a time of gathering darkness, as formerly-Christian universities and seminaries one after another proclaimed themselves free of the need for Christ's redemption or the Bible's revelation. Proclaiming itself to be free, autonomous rationalism became bound to various idols and immanentistic ideologies, such as Marxism, in the course of the nineteenth century. And in the twentieth century, as a kind of final irony, reason itself was subject to debunking. Words no longer could correlate with the absurdity of existence, in existentialism. And, in historicism, all of human culture was relativized and trivialized. Thus “reason,” cut loose from God, became apt to self-destruct, calling itself in question, and so becoming just one more form of human irrationality.

Faith and Purpose🔗

What we have seen, then, in both empiricism and rationalism, is an initially good, biblical impulse become redirected in an anti-Christian direction. Science has become, to a great extent, an ambivalent concept. The quest for knowledge has been sabotaged by the sinful mind of man, and in many cases “science” as conceived by its non-Christian propagators is closed, self-destructive, and even Satanic.

Science has not only become ambivalent and self-destructive, for God in His providence prevents man from becoming non-man, and He continues to shower gifts of knowledge upon the world. But it is clear that as Christians we must fight for a true, biblical concept of science, a science which is open to God's revelation and which submits to His authority. It is clear that we must carry on our scientific activity in faith, knowing that only when we do so do we honor our Creator and Redeemer in the proper way.

In the twentieth century particularly, Christian students and scholars must often work antithetically before they can work positively. That means that we must often reject false theories, ideas, and methods of approach (bad questions like, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”) before we can go on to build up sound theories, ideas, and methodologies. Following in the footsteps of Abraham Kuyper, the founder of the Free University of Amsterdam, we must hold to the principle of two fundamentally opposed kinds of science, one based on revelation and carried on in faith, the other based on an unstable combination of empiricism and rationalism and carried on in unbelief. While we as Christians may without question learn much from non-Christian science, for we are all in God's one created world, still we must always be conscious of the deep chasm separating faith from unbelief, obedience from disobedience, truth from lies (lies always being a mixture of true and false, a twisting of the truth).

For every fact and event in God's universe is so only as a fact and event in God's universe. Every “physical law” (whether in Newtonian or quantum-mechanical terms) is God's “physical law.” All of history is God's history. There is no way we can escape from this world, charged with God's presence, judgment, and redemption. Nor, of course, do we desire to! For it is only when we open all our senses, our minds and hearts, to the God of grace revealed in Jesus Christ, that the whole endeavor of science has lasting purpose.

Science in Service of Penetration and Transformation🔗

Our discussion of the contents of science has necessarily been brief. There are really a thousand aspects of this subject which ought to be explored in greater depth. I hope at least that I have been able to stimulate thinking and helped our readers to have a better perspective on this vital matter.

Before closing, however, it is also important that we not only gain a perspective on science itself, but also on the results and uses of science. For, while knowledge is invaluable (indeed knowing God's Word, the world, and ourselves specifically, in detail, systematically, and in correlation, is a blessed activity!), still this knowledge seeks practical outworking in our life together.

Knowledge-in-application, or technology in the broadest sense, is still part of our calling in fulfilling the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28. Further, redeemed and transformed by the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we desire to live lives of thankful obedience in love to God and neighbor (Ephesians 5:2). Applying the products of technology is part of our daily devotion to the Lord. New Bible study materials (the fruit of hours of research!), books on family life, marital counseling – these, too, would constitute “technology” in the sense I have described. Where the scientist and scholar are busy preparing to bring their discoveries or research to bear on the life of everyday people, that is where cultural change may occur. And that is also, then, where we as Christians must be active. For our life is not primarily to be one of study and contemplation, but of study and contemplation for the sake of Christ's Kingdom. Remember the relation between Gutenberg's printing press and the Reformation! In many cases, non-Christians will offer us the technological tools for our Kingdom work, but it is up to us, under the blessing of the Holy Spirit, to make good use of these tools, seeking to penetrate and transform our respective cultures for Christ's sake. Any science whose aim is anything less than that is ultimately not knowledge, but the profoundest ignorance.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.