This student’s guide explores how the Christian faith impacts our understanding of science, arguing that the Christian worldview stands as the best foundation for scientific investigation. Part of the Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series.
About the Author
John A. Bloom (PhD, Cornell University; PhD, Annenberg Research Institute) is a professor of physics and chair of the chemistry, physics, and engineering department at Biola University. He is the founder and academic director of Biola’s master’s degree program in science and religion. He is the author of a number of published articles and the book The Natural Sciences: A Student's Guide.
David S. Dockery (PhD, University of Texas) is the chancellor of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, following five years as president. He is a much-sought-after speaker and lecturer, a consulting editor for Christianity Today, and the author or editor of more than thirty books. Dockery and his wife, Lanese, have three sons and seven grandchildren.
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WHAT IS THE CHRISTIAN INTELLECTUAL TRADITION IN THE SCIENCES?
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
The Apostle's Creed
The best place for us to start is by noting that there is a Christian intellectual tradition in the sciences. Popular myths about the relationship between science and religion would have you believe that Christianity and science always were, and still are, at war with each other — but historians tell us quite the opposite: Christianity furnished the fertile soil in which science developed and flourished. In fact, at one time the church was the major sponsor of scientific work. So how did Christianity nourish and support science? By providing the correct worldview.
LAYING THE RIGHT FOUNDATION: PERSPECTIVE
In order to study the world fruitfully, you have to look at it the right way. If you think the world is full of gods who are constantly squabbling with each other and need to be appeased or avoided, you have no expectation that the world will behave in a regular way. Such was the universal polytheistic/pantheistic view that we find throughout the ancient world. But the Judeo-Christian perspective changed that: if there is only one God, and he is sovereign over his creation, then the universe is not run by a fickle committee. Nor are the physical things of the world gods, or manifestations of the gods. Stuff is just stuff, and it need not be feared. Matter doesn't have a personality to be angry, sad, malicious, or cooperative depending on its mood. The Bible depersonalizes nature by describing the sun and moon as objects in Genesis 1, and it calms Israel's fears about possible gods in the sky:
Thus says the Lord:
"Learn not the way of the nations,
nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them,
for the customs of the peoples are vanity." (Jer. 10:2–3)
Moreover, God tells us in many passages that he set up the heavens and earth to work according to fixed patterns. Here are some examples:
While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease. (Gen. 8:22)
Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers. (Jer. 33:20–21)
Thus says the Lord: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them. (Jer. 33:25–26)
Thus the first pillar of the Christian intellectual tradition's foundation in science rests on God's creation being impersonal and following regular patterns. What a relief that there is only one Being whom we need to concern ourselves with (Deut. 6:13) — not a frenzied zoo of powers — and that he and his creation are not capricious!
As part of seeing the world the right way, one needs to have the correct idea about time. Ancient cultures commonly had static or cyclical notions of time: either everything stays the way it's always been or else things will eventually repeat themselves like the seasons do. But the Bible is rare, if not unique, in presenting a linear notion of time with a beginning, an unfolding story, and an end to that story. This proper sense of time instills the hope of progress and a value to learning, rather than a fatalistic resignation to whatever happens.
LAYING THE RIGHT FOUNDATION: MOTIVATION
In order to study the world, you need the motivation to do so. If you think that physical stuff is evil or illusionary, then you focus your life on the spiritual world and mystical experience, as the Christian heresy of gnosticism once did and as many other world religions do today. But the Bible teaches that the study of nature is a worthy pursuit to gain wisdom and glorify God. God's creation is certainly corrupted by sin, but we are encouraged to learn from it as noted in many passages:
Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise. (Prov. 6:6)
It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out. (Prov. 25:2)
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you;
or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? (Job 12:7–9)
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)
The founders of modern science saw themselves as glorifying God as they studied his handiwork. Galileo remarked in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, "The glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven." Thus a second pillar of the foundation rests on the value of studying nature: it is a good thing to do.
The Christian tradition brings an additional motivation to this foundational pillar beyond the abstract pursuit of wisdom: "The relief of man's estate." Francis Bacon was among the first to encourage scientific studies, not only to glorify God, but in order to overcome some of the effects of the fall through better technology and medicine. This promise of a better future continues as a strong drive in the sciences and in our culture today, even in its secular context, but the application of scientific knowledge for practical and beneficial ends has its roots in the Christian call to relieve suffering and to help others.
LAYING THE RIGHT FOUNDATION: APPROACH
In order to study the world, you need to be patient. Most of nature's regularities are subtle and confounded by multiple effects that are all happening at the same time. For example, it is difficult to see the conservation of momentum using objects much bigger than individual atoms, because frictional forces obscure it. Years of work and study are necessary to develop the equipment and the mathematical tools that allow us to model what exactly is happening in the physical world. The Christian worldview teaches us, in an additional pillar of the foundation, that hard work is good and satisfying, that our senses are generally reliable, and that our efforts are worthwhile because there is truth to be found.
In order to study the world, you must expect the unexpected. Philosophers call this the contingency of nature: God could have created the world any way he wanted to, so we can't figure out how it works by sitting in an armchair and applying human logic alone. God does whatever he pleases "in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps" (Ps. 135:6, see also Ps. 115:3). Thus if we want to learn what God actually did and is doing, another pillar of the foundation is that we need to go out and look at it. Interestingly enough, many of the greatest discoveries in science were unexpected and came from doubting conventional wisdom. The physicist Richard Feynman once famously quipped, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
In order to study the world, you need to trust others. While sometimes one can make progress by doubting the experts, no one has the time to repeat centuries of experimental and theoretical work, thus we must stand cautiously on the shoulders of our teachers and other scientists. For science to flourish, a community of trusted individuals must work together to share their insights and results. This requires, as the last pillars to the Christian intellectual tradition in the sciences, both collegiality and high ethical standards. Unfortunately, fudging or "selecting" data in order to obtain grants or publish papers is reportedly becoming a serious ethical problem in the sciences today. For example, pharmaceutical companies have lost millions of dollars in attempting to develop promising new drugs that were initially reported to work, but the "successful" results could not be replicated later by others. As the ethical standards of scientists (like the rest of our culture) weaken, scientific progress becomes much harder, because it is difficult to trust anyone else's work.
In addition to these main pillars, there are subtle ones. Because the Christian intellectual tradition offers the most realistic picture of human nature, it provides the best cultural setting for science and technology to flourish for everyone's good. For example, as selfish as it sounds, the promise of personal gain motivates almost everyone to work harder. The ability for inventors to get rich is something that our society has learned to protect through patents and copyrights, because otherwise this powerful drive to improve and innovate is lost. While we normally think of selfishness as a bad thing, if it is properly harnessed and rewarded, it encourages people's creative drives in music, art, technology, and the sciences.CHAPTER 2
SEEING GOD IN THE DETAILS
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
GOD AS CREATOR
From its opening verse, the Bible defines God as the Creator of the universe. This answer to the "Who is God?" question is repeated frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. Sample passages include:
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
"I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself." (Isa. 44:24)
All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:3)
By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Heb. 11:3)
But note that these passages also allow us to infer something about our physical universe: it hasn't always been here. Early Jewish and Christian scholars argued repeatedly with pagan philosophers over this point. The common ancient view was that matter had always existed, but it developed into new forms as new generations of gods came into being. But since the Bible states that everything was created by God, theologians recognized early on that there could be nothing eternal besides God himself.
But we can make a stronger inference. By studying nature, we learn about the character of the artist behind it all:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Ps. 19:1–4a)
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. (Rom. 1:20a)
The apostle Paul argues here that everyone sees at least two attributes of God in his handiwork: (1) his power (given the size of the universe and the amount of energy it contains — this is awesome), and (2) his transcendence (God has to be bigger than the things he has made).
GOD'S IN CONTROL
But there is more. The Scriptures portray God as sovereign over his kingdom and as the designer, sustainer, and caregiver of his creation. Once again, some sample passages will give you the flavor:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap;
he puts the deeps in storehouses.
Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm. (Ps. 33:6–9)
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Ps. 135:6)
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the sea, great and wide,
which teems with creatures innumerable,
living things both small and great. (Ps. 104:24–25)
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens. (Prov. 3:19)
Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? (Job 39:26–27)
GOD'S A GENIUS
The biblical picture which emerges sees heaven and earth not merely as God's kingdom, but as God's works of art and genius, exhibiting awe-inspiring wisdom and craftsmanship. Animals, plants, and the agrarian environment are often the focus of the biblical writers, as this was the world they were most familiar with, but today with microscopes and telescopes, we can feel an even deeper awe than King David:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Ps. 8:3–4)
THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE TRADITION
Here is the heart and soul of the Christian intellectual tradition in the sciences: seeing the universe as the craftsmanship of God, the earth as his handiwork, living things as his special joys and marvels, and us as his stewards made "a little lower than the angels." With this perspective, the study of creation is the glorious pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that comes from thinking God's thoughts after him. We study the world around us as we might a great work of art like the Mona Lisa: looking for patterns, regularities, and style, to be sure, while also being sensitive to the artist's creativity, clever technique, and brilliant execution, which make the piece more than simply spatters on canvas or a chemical photograph. God's creation is both a jewel and a puzzle to explore, so like Nicolaus Copernicus we can seek "the mechanism of the universe, wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator."
And if this isn't enough, there is a practical benefit to gaining this wisdom: we can use much of it to relieve suffering, help others, and improve our quality of life. As Genesis 1:28 and many passages in Proverbs promise, the fruit of our culture's pursuit of scientific wisdom allows the average first-world person today to enjoy the blessing of living healthier and far more comfortably than even the richest kings could live in the past. The Christian intellectual tradition sees science and technology as one of God's blessings, tempered by the awareness that sinful motives may distort it — just as sin can ruin any of God's other good gifts.CHAPTER 3
THE HANDMAIDEN TO THEOLOGY
God is the beginning and the end of scientific research and striving.
Max Casper, summarizing Johannes Kepler's thinking
A TIME BEFORE SCIENCE
It may be hard to imagine, but there once was a time when science as we know it today did not exist. During the Roman empire, when Christianity itself was getting started, medicine was a simple and sometimes crude practice, mathematics was used chiefly for business and surveying, and astronomy was closely associated with astrology. Although the civil engineering of roads, buildings, and aqueducts had developed through trial-and-error experience, there were virtually no recognizable forms of modern chemistry, physics, or biology. The discussion of these topics, when it occurred at all, happened under the broad umbrella of philosophy and consisted mostly of simple observations and speculation about nature. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that people back then were stupid and ignorant: classical Greek and Roman scholars put their intellectual efforts into philosophy and ethics because the systematic study of nature was not seen as practical, useful, or valuable. In general, pagan philosophies saw the physical world as capricious and encouraged their followers to avoid it as much as possible.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Natural Sciences"
Copyright © 2015 John A. Bloom.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Series Preface 11
Author's Preface 15
1 What Is the Christian Intellectual Tradition in the Sciences? 23
2 Seeing God in the Details 29
3 Early Science: The Handmaiden to Theology 33
4 The Rift of the Enlightenment 41
5 The Wrong Road: Science as Methodological Naturalism 53
6 Barricades: The End of the Road for Reason and Experience 71
7 The Way Home: Thinking Outside the Box of Naturalism 87
Questions for Reflection 113
Resources for Further Study 119
General Index 121
Scripture Index 127
What People are Saying About This
“Bloom has written an excellent overview of the main philosophical issues facing Christians working in the natural sciences. He shows that not only is there no conflict between science and belief in God, but there are now many scientific discoveries that support such belief. A clear, concise, and highly readable treatment. I highly recommend it, especially for college students.”
Stephen C. Meyer, Director, Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute; New York Times best-selling author, Darwin’s Doubt
“With PhDs in ancient Near Eastern studies and physics, John Bloom is one of the top thinkers today on the relationship between science and Christianity. Written with a clarity of style and level of approach that a freshman in college would have no trouble reading, Bloom traces the relationship between Christianity and science through history up to the present. This enables him to put his finger on the erroneous tension points between the two, debunk these alleged tension points, and chart a way forward. Though a small book, it is packed with important ideas and information. It is must reading for any college course in science and Christianity.”
J. P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Biola University; author, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters
“With doctorates in physics and theology, John Bloom presents a biblically sound understanding of science as it relates to Christian faith, offering many intriguing historical insights along the way.”
William A. Dembski, Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute; author, Being as Communion