There are several different ways that Christians perceive the relationship between science and religion. Science & Christianity: Four Views edited by Richard Carlson provides some insight into the major positions Christians hold regarding this relationship. Here, I will outline these major positions and then provide a few of my own thoughts on the relationship between science and Christianity.
The Bible is more Authoritative than Science
The book’s taxonomy files this under “creationism,” but I file it under Concordism because there are different views of how this interplay between science and the Bible play out on these perspectives. The first example is that often exhibited by creationists of both young- and old-earth perspectives. On this view, the Bible is the ultimate authority for all truth, including scientific truth. Thus, in any place where science is thought to conflict with what the Bible is purported to teach, so much the worse for science. Wayne Frair and Gary Patterson, arguing for this perspective, note that “Science is a human activity” and “Science is motivated by the full range of human emotions and ambitions, and the history of science is replete with examples of human greed…” (20-21, cited below).
Thus, on this perspective there is often an understood–whether inherent or spoken–distrust of the findings of scientists. Science is a human activity and so can be seen as full of errors and “replete” with examples of human motivation driving conclusions. On the other hand, the Bible is of divine origin, and so it may be trusted absolutely. Any conflict must be decided in favor of the Bible.
Creationists of all varieties might also hold to a kind of “qualified agreement” regarding science and Christianity. Those who affirm this position argue that science provides support for biblical Christianity. Stephen C. Meyer writes, in his essay, “when correctly interpreted, scientific evidence and biblical teaching can and do support each other” (130). This model holds that scientific theories do have wider metaphysical impact, but that this impact will be seen, ultimately, to support a biblical worldview.
Meyer doesn’t explicitly state this, but most forms of this model also hold that science and theology can mutually benefit from correctives to each other. Scientific discoveries might force us to rethink the extent of the Flood, for example, while a teaching of creation out of nothing in the Bible can serve as a corrective for metaphysical speculation alongside multiverse and other theories. Many different interpretations of this model are possible, and some would not allow for much mutual correcting.
The independence model ultimately views science and Christianity as operating in largely different spheres. Commonly known as non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA, for short), those who hold to this model argue that we must “not make blanket claims about the supposed religious implications of scientific theory” (83) and that models which see science and Christianity as trying to answer the same questions ultimately lead to conflict. Science and religion are viewed as “different models of knowing” which do not overlap, and so they offer little threat whatsoever to each other (71-72).
Thus, the Bible is seen as a book which teaches us theological truths, while science teaches us about the natural world. Jean Pond argues that we must live as non-bifurcated people. It is not that we live compartmentalized lives with science and Christianity in different compartments. Rather, it is just the acknowledgement that different methods govern different aspects of reality. She uses a metaphor of interlocking fingers—each finger is different and independent but locked together they are stronger (90-92).
Here I use the terminology found in the book once more, because I think it is a helpful way to envision this final model. The Partnership model envisions science and Christianity as working side by side and explaining the same sets of data. However, they explain them in different ways and are able to offer correctives to each other. Howard J. Van Till argues that this view allows for a view of creation that we can constantly learn more about and see as constantly changing.
However, where this model differs from concordism (the qualified agreement model) is those who hold it argue we should fully accept scientific consensus as telling us about the history of the natural world and that this consensus simply corrects theological views whenever there is conflict. Thus, in a way, this model gives priority to the findings of science over theological views about origins. However, Van Till argues that this is not a kind of science trumps religion model, but rather than we should view creation as “fully gifted” with a function economy that means God made creation itself self-sustaining.
Each position has its own set of difficulties, though I think some are more plausible than others.
Regarding concordism, one of the biggest issues can be found in the first position: that of the comparison between the human origin of science and divine origin of the Bible. While it is true that the Bible is divinely inspired, any reading of the Bible is a human act of interpretation. Thus, to claim that science has human motivations possibly leading it astray while ignoring that very same possibility in reading and interpreting the Bible is misguided. Often, those holding this position tend to reduce the Bible to their specific interpretation of the Bible, and then anything which conflicts with that is rejected. The title I gave to this view, “The Bible is more Authoritative than Science” reflects the truth: ultimately, the Bible has God’s authority. But as people use titles like this, we find that often the “Bible” means “my interpretation thereof.” I conclude that this position holds to a view of science and Christianity which is too naive to be affirmed consistently.
The Qualified Agreement model avoids this inconsistency, but it does so at the cost of being ambiguous at points. In what way, exactly, is there qualified agreement? How does theology inform science and vice-versa? Who ultimately decides if there does seem to be a simple contradiction between the two? These questions are left largely unresolved by this model. There is much that turns upon how we take the clause of Meyer’s that “when correctly interpreted” theology and science support each other.
The independence model provides the easiest solution to conflicts perceived between science and Christianity. It simply states that there can be no conflict because the two aren’t even discussing the same realms of truth. What it gains in simplicity, it loses in clarity, however. We are left wondering how we are to take it that matters of faith simply have nothing to say about, for example, the bare existence of the universe. If it is true that science and Christianity do not overlap and speak of entirely different realms of knowledge, what do we do with the Christian claim that the universe was created? Is it not actually about the material universe but rather some kind of spiritual truth that we don’t yet know? Moreover, the independence model seems to assume a view of the world in which there are two buckets: spiritual and material, and those buckets are entirely independent of each other. That is, if I am considering something, it is either spiritual or material, but it cannot be both. This seems to be an overly simplistic view of the universe and one which is difficult to square with the apparent unity between the spiritual and physical within much of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
The Partnership model is appealing in its language, but difficult to understand. It has most of the same problems as the “qualified agreement” model: how do we decide which one is correct when science and theology come into apparent conflict? Why does the partnership model give priority to science in most of these matters? What does it mean to claim that creation has functional economy, and how do we square that with miracles found in the Bible and the doctrine of creation?
Ultimately, I think we still have much work to do in finding an adequate model of science and Christianity. Each of the models surveyed here have aspects that are useful but they each have some difficulties to resolve. I recommend reading Science & Christianity: Four Views to provide a deeper look at these models if you are interested in the topic.
What options are there in the origins debate? – A Taxonomy of Christian Origins Positions– I clarify the breadth of options available for Christians who want to interact on various levels with models of origins. I think this post is extremely important because it gives readers a chance to see the various positions explained briefly.
Origins Debate– Here is a collection of many of my posts on Christianity and science.
Science and Christianity: Four Views edited by Richard F. Carlson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.