What is the Relationship Between Science and Christian Theology?

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In light of the many historical and present debates and discussions between Christian theology and the ever-expanding sciences, many have wondered and theorized concerning the relationship between them.

Both theology and science purport to provide knowledge about the world and the reality human beings live in and experience. It then follows that science and theology are in some type of relation to one another. The nature of this relation is a discussion that has interested many and has given rise to two broad theories on how Christian theology and science relate: [1] the double truth theory and [2] complementarianism.

Before looking at these two theories, it is important to acknowledge that there exist religious believers who avoid this question altogether. Admittedly, this is a tempting alternative because it is easier to avoid the questions and challenges science can pose to theology than to have to deal with them. But many Christian theologians and philosophers find this is an unattractive position given that science and theology both make claims to knowledge that open themselves to being assessed. Those who take both domains as important will typically hold to either the double truth theory or complementarianism. Both of these theories agree that there is no conflict between theology and science, although some views do see a conflict here as we will also shortly acknowledge.

On the double-truth theory, one holds that something could be scientifically false but theologically true. A proponent might agree that there is no way to reconcile a biblical theological text, statement, or belief with scientific, material fact when they are clearly at odds with one another. However, the proponent does not believe that this conflict undermines the theological claim or belief. A good example is evolutionary theory and the ancient creation account of Genesis. A number of Christians view the Genesis creation narratives, at least where they comment on the origin of humanity, as myth because it conflicts with material science. Science convincingly demonstrates that human beings did not descend from a single pair of humans (as envisioned in the Genesis account in Adam and Eve) but from a very ancient common ancestor living millions of years ago. Christians holding this view, see this perspective as acceptable because when God inspired the biblical writers to compose revealed theological truths it was not God’s intent to impart modern scientific facts to them. To reveal evolutionary theory would likely have been incomprehensible to ancient thinkers and would not serve God’s redemptive purposes. Instead, God descends to the ancient context and employs ancient categories, including the mythical, to communicate his theological truths. On this view, material science and Christian theology are not seen to defeat each other, despite there being inconsistencies between them.

The challenge some critics will present to advocates of the double truth theory is that it seems to undermine biblical scripture and inspiration. Typically, it is argued that to concede a mistake in the Bible, whether historical, ethical, or scientific, is to impugn the character of God, undermine the authority of the Bible, and therefore undercut the Christian religion itself. This debate remains a lively area of discussion within contemporary Christian scholarship.

Complementarianism, moreover, says that science and theology are two non-overlapping domains, which might remind some readers of Stephen Gould who claimed religion and science to be “Non-overlapping magisteria” and therefore two distinct areas of knowledge. This position holds that science provides us facts and theology gives us value and meaning. But an obvious challenge to this is that most people believed there is an objective world and reality that we discover. But if so, then this means that religious statements can be contrasted or compared with reality in a way that can either prove or disprove the statements. If, for example, scientific truth shows strongly that the universe is finite and had a beginning, then it would be problematic for theology to suggest that it is infinite or eternal. Given that religion and science can both make statements about reality, they are often not merely non-overlapping magisteria, simply because statements can clash with or corroborate each other.

Although we used evolution or the beginning to the universe as examples to show this, the same can be said of the historical sciences because Christian theology makes historical assertions that are either true or false: either Christ was crucified or he was not, either Christ healed people supernaturally from illnesses or he did not, either Christ was raised from the dead by God or he was not, and so on. As becomes very evident, one cannot avoid the possibility of conflicting truth claims between science and Christian theology.

Importantly, double-truth theory and complementarianism are not the only perspectives within Christian circles. Modernist theology is another perspective that is far more controversial from an orthodox position because it elevates science over biblical truth so that the former becomes the measuring stick for the latter. In other words, if a biblical claim is inconsistent with the accepted scientific fact it is then rejected as myth or legend. There is no view that a scientifically mistaken biblical statement can still be inspired or revealed by God. It is therefore not uncommon for a modernist theologian to reject the supernatural and miraculous entirely while still maintaining to be a Christian. This can strike many as odd because the modernist theologian still claims to believe in Christ’s resurrection, but will not view it as actually having happened. The resurrection will have some other purpose, such as galvanizing early Christianity and keeping the memory of Christ alive so Christians do good deeds in the world. The same is believed about the other miracles recorded in the Bible, which the modernist believes are evidence of an ancient superstitious consciousness that cannot be credibly believed in a modern, scientifically advanced age.

A clear criticism of this view is that the modernist theologian ought not claim to be a Christian simply because he does not accept as true a foundational premise to the religion, which is a belief in a literal, historical, bodily resurrection. Similarly, one ought not claim to be a Muslim and believe Muhammad was just an ordinary human being. Surely that would put one outside the fold of what would be a Muslim. Usually, Christian modernist theologians will have some other reason for wishing to still identify with the Christian religion. This can be, for instance, having been brought up reading the Bible and praying. It can be a matter of culture that one does not wish to give up. The church could feel like one’s home, and so on.

4 comments

  1. A third possibility is that scripture is always right and “science” is wrong when it conflicts with scripture. There is nothing in scripture that conflicts with observational science, only with historical science, all of which depends on assumptions. Whenever those assumptions conflict with scripture, the resulting “science” will naturally conflict with scripture also, but that proves nothing since the assumptions cannot be proven.

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