When break comes, I usually try to tone down the reading, but to keep in the rhythm, I’ll usually have a small stack of books with me. Most of these are ones that are unrelated to anything else I’m studying, so it’s kind of like a break (but not entirely). This winter break, one of those books is Vern Poythress’ Redeeming Science: A God- Centered Approach. From what I’ve read so far I would highly recommend it for any Christian readers who are trying to wade through the issues related to science and the Bible.
Poythress is a great communicator and very highly educated (he has Ph.D’s in Mathematics and New Testament Interpretation) as well as being widely published (in scientific journals and theological journals). In short, he brings a lot of wisdom and clarity of thought to a subject that is generally not marked by either in some of the discussions I’ve seen.
I realize by labeling his approach “God-centered” he may sound a bit pretentious, but don’t let the subtitle get in the way of giving the book an honest reading. His emphasis is in how he starts his approach rather than a way of saying that everyone else is somehow less than God focused in their method. In approaching the issue of integrating science and Christianity, Poythress takes a different tack than just jumping right to Genesis 1-2 (although he does spend 6 chapters there). Instead, he starts by clarifying the foundations of scientific law and offers a provocatively titled first chapter, “Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law.” The argument he presents is not that scientist must convert to Christianity, but rather, their entire enterprise rests on the assumption of God’s existence, whether or not they explicitly agree with that claim.
As you can tell from the subtitle of that chapter, when examined closely, scientific or natural laws, upon which all science depend for their ability to gather data, formulate hypothesis, and offer theories, actually share many of the same attributes as God does. They are omnipresent, transcendent yet immanent, omnipotent and universal, immaterial and invisible, immutable, beautiful, good, and simple. In short, he argues that natural laws are simply God’s ways of working in the world and manifest his character and attributes. So when scientists presuppose natural law in their work, they are really presupposing God, whether they are aware of this fact or not.
Certainly many scientists would disagree with this claim, but from a Christian point of view, it is what Scripture teaches, and Poythress does a great job of demonstrating it. From there he makes an interesting analogy in the next chapter, which covers the role of the Bible. To me, this is where his argument transcends some of the squabbles you see between people like the folks at Biologos and men like Al Mohler.
Usually, any talk of integrating the findings of science and the teaching of the Bible starts with some kind of declaration of “all truth is God’s truth.” This much is true; no arguments here. However, something more needs to be said. Unfortunately, many people who utter this claim, whether in regards to integrating psychology and theology, or evolution and the Christian faith, or again just the general findings of science and the teaching of the Bible, do not really understand how science works or what it yields.
Consider this quote, not from Christian authors, but from well educated professionals:
A general realization that science does not yield absolute truth would no doubt change the power and prestige of the scientific community as well as the funding practices of the federal government. The result would be a more reasonable assessment of what scientific knowledge is and what its limitations are. (Johnson & Lakoff, Metahpors We Live By, 227)
Now, there’s a lot leading up to this quotation, and it comes at the end of the book, but it is in harmony with what I have said elsewhere, as well as what many philosophers of science have pointed out. Basically, the point is that the findings of science are not hard absolute truths like most people assume that they are. The method of reasoning used to arrive at scientific conclusions can’t land there. At best, every scientific theory (or truth) is only probable. It may be highly probable, and seemingly unreasonable to doubt, but science doesn’t dispense absolute truth like everyone pretends that it does. And this is not the Christian perspective on science, this is the educated perspective on science.
In light of all of this, the wrong conclusion would be that scientific findings are generally wrong (since they are not absolutely true) or in some way inferior to other forms of knowledge (built on deductive arguments for instance). Scientific findings are still of great value, they are just not incorrigible. To help see a better way to relating the findings of science and the truth of Scripture, Poythress employs a helpful analogy.
Like all analogies, it will break down if you push it too far, but it helps set off the difference between science and the Bible. As I pointed out in another post, for the scientist using methodological naturalism, nature is basically his bible (in what follows, lower case “bible” = nature). I called it the atheist’s bible, but it could just as easily be called the scientist’s bible. It is the text that he is seeking to interpret. As such, his findings, theories, hypotheses, and the like are his commentary on his bible. To see it analogically, the relationship would be like this:
Scientific findings : Nature :: Commentaries : The Bible
The findings of science then are certainly valuable and can contain much truth, but they are on par with a commentary on the Bible, not the Bible itself, the way most people tend to treat them. Biblical commentaries are valuable and help you understand the Bible better, but they are not without error and not without need of updating and correction as scholarship advances. Many people tend to bypass the subjectivity of interpretation in both understanding the Bible and nature (one is not objective while the other isn’t, either way you slice it) and assume the descent from the mountain of science (or biblical scholarship) yields stone tablets that are written by the very finger of god (the interpreter himself). But that is clearly not the case if you’ve kept up with postmodern philosophy of science and methods in interpretation and hermeneutics.
The failure that most people make before getting into how to integrate science with the Bible is to assume that science has some kind of more certain footing in getting at the truth, when in reality its commentary on the text of nature is just that: a commentary on a text, not to be placed on par with the text itself. The other side of this double edged sword is that when I try to explain what a passage of Scripture means, I am offering commentary on a text that is still open to revision and not absolutely true (my commentary that is, not the text itself). My words about Scripture are not on par with Scripture itself.
Recognizing all of this should lead to humility on both sides of the table, and the realization that both scientific findings are only interpretations of nature, and open to revision, and that Biblical studies are interpretations of Scripture and also open to revision. The failure would be to treat either one as absolutely true and demand that the other side get in line. But more often than not, this is what we see. If you’d like to chart a slightly different course, I’d recommend Poythress’ work.