The First Conversation: Faith vs Science

“To be honest, I think that learning about science was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I knew from church that I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore”.⁠1

This is a quote from an interview done by David Kinnaman, an author who has done extensive research into the challenges facing young adults. No doubt many will view that statement as evidence of how dangerous science can be to the faithful, but that’s a simplistic reaction that overlooks the real issue, which is that this person was taught to believe this was the choice they had to make. Instead of reducing the discussion to a faith-OR-science dichotomy, we would have a far more meaningful outcome if we made the discussion about faith AND science.

Just as some may have a penchant for the arts such as music or painting, so others have a penchant for science. Those who reduce the faith and science discussion to an ‘either-or’ dichotomy are ignoring the positive aspects of exploring science as a meaningful avenue of worship.

Those who study art, are studying the works of the artist. Science is no different if we see ourselves as students studying the creation of the creator. As Ed Stetzer asks, “If Scripture says creation, and therefore the sciences that explore it point to God, why would we run away from that? We, above all others, should love, study, explore, examine and care for the creation that provides evidence of God and his character”.⁠2

Faith

In Biblical terms, faith is not easy to define succinctly. For example, Easton’s dictionary says, “Faith is the result of teaching (Romans 10:14–17). Knowledge is an essential element in all faith, and is sometimes spoken of as an equivalent to faith (John 10:38; 1 John 2:3)”.⁠3

This definition seems to be contradicted by the Lexham Glossary that says, “…belief and trust in God that is not founded on empirical proof but rather on acceptance of God’s trustworthiness to keep his promises (Hebrews 11:1)”.⁠4 

So, is faith the result of teaching and knowledge, or is it the result of simply accepting God’s trustworthiness? It is true that the term ‘The Faith’ is used as a general description of God’s revelation (e.g. 1 Timothy 4:1; 5:8; 2 Timothy 4:7; Jude 3), but faith itself is more than an institution of beliefs. The belief associated with faith implies trust because it is based on God’s interactions with humanity, his reliability, and our response of trust in him.⁠5

Thus, Biblical faith is a trust in or reliance on God who has proven himself to be trustworthy. The New Testament and the Septuagint express the understanding of faith with two terms (pistis, pisteuein), which are related to the Hebrew verb “to be true” or “to be trustworthy”.⁠6

One of the most important aspects of the Bible is how it records God’s relationship with the faithful over the years. The Bible is full of examples of those who trusted and believed. Hebrews 11 catalogues those whose faith was based on an unshakable belief that God will do everything he has promised to do even before there’s visible evidence to that effect. In short, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”.⁠7

So yes, in this sense faith is an acceptance of God’s trustworthiness. However, this is not to say that faith is based on a blind obedience that ignores evidence. The crucial characteristic of Biblical faith is the trust and assurance we have on the good authority and reliability of God, which comes from those who were witness to his mighty acts.⁠8 Thus, faith is an unshakeable trust and assurance in God, but it is nevertheless based on evidence and testimonies.

Faith needs to be a compass, something that guides us as we fearlessly explore beyond our boundaries. Faith should never become a filter that stops us investigating and learning. At its heart, science is all about learning through a systematic method of observing the natural world. Although science focuses exclusively on the physical world, this does not mean it tries to disprove the existence of God.

Kenneth Miller sums it up perfectly: “The categorical mistake of the atheist is to assume that God is natural, and therefore within the realm of science to investigate and test. By making God an ordinary part of the natural world, and failing to find Him there, they conclude that He does not exist. But God is not and cannot be part of nature. God is the reason for nature, the explanation of why things are. He is the answer to existence, not part of existence itself”. ⁠9

This is why we should not be afraid of science, and we shouldn’t allow the conversation about science to be dominated by those who are. Science is not an alternative to a spiritual faith, and pursuing a deeper understanding of the natural world simply means that saying “God did it” is not a suitable answer to explain why a particular phenomenon happens. Science involves following a systematic method of observation to gather evidence to understand HOW God did it.

Trusting the evidence

Consider the opening thoughts of Psalm 111: “I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them”.

This is how science can play a meaningful role in our worship. We read of a mere handful of God’s natural works in the scripture. If we are to truly study the handiwork of God, we need to look elsewhere because the scriptures were never written to be scientific texts.

Jonathan Burke summed it up eloquently when he wrote the following:

“…both Scripture and the natural creation reveal information about God, [and] both reveal information that the other does not reveal. Although the natural creation reveals something to us about the existence of God and His wisdom, power, and care, it does not reveal to us His gospel, His plan of salvation, nor His plan for the future of the creation itself. However, the natural creation does reveal to us a great deal of information about itself, how God created it, and its own history.

In contrast, Scripture reveals a great wealth of information about God, His plan, His purpose with us and the Earth, and the history of His interaction with the creation and with human beings. The revelation of Scripture on these matters is unique and without parallel; there is no other extant source of such knowledge currently available to us today. Yet Scripture reveals very little to us about the natural creation itself; it tells us nothing of the earth orbiting on its axis, about the moon orbiting the earth and the earth orbiting the sun, about the other planets in the solar system, about the galaxies, about the laws God has instituted to organise the universe (such as the laws of motion, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and gravity).

Scripture tells us nothing about plate tectonics, the earth’s magnetic field, how earthquakes and volcanoes come about, the composition of the atmosphere, the causes of weather patterns, the nature of thunder and lightning. It tells us nothing about the age of the earth, and does not even tell us that the earth is round (Isaiah 40:22 describes the earth as a “circle”, instead of using the Hebrew word for a ball, which would have been an accurate description).

For such information, we turn to the natural creation itself, and the history of science is the history of a lengthy and highly successful reading of this information, found in the book of the natural creation.⁠10

Increasing knowledge

Daniel and his peers are exemplars of those who were given access to advanced learning and knowledge, and yet were able to remain grounded through their faith and trust in God. They were taught the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1:4), and God gave them an unusual aptitude for understanding these skills and subjects (Daniel 1:17). This was important to Nebuchadnezzar who viewed intelligence and scholarship to be of utmost importance, and this learning was to prepare them to be his wise counsellors.

Some scholars note that the intellectual qualifications in this passage refer to an objective wisdom contained in books, which is therefore ‘scientific’ as distinguished from the purely practical wisdom referred to elsewhere.⁠11 Others note that the subject matter would have included subjects like language, astronomy, mathematics, natural history, law, agriculture, etc.⁠12

Through scientific endeavours over the ages, we now have access to more knowledge content than any other generation in human history. How should we respond to such a wealth of knowledge?  Why not humbly, and with thanksgiving and praise, because this knowledge of God’s natural world can only serve to enrich our understanding of God’s creation and his creative methods. As Darrel Falk noted, “God is the greatest scientist. Surely he is not threatened by our efforts to understand the natural world. Surely he does not expect us to disbelieve the facts that science is gathering about the wonderful beauty and order around us”.⁠13 

A great example of this comes from reading about some of the immense challenges faced by those who were trying to determine how to map and sequence the genome.⁠14  In his book Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project, Victor McElheny describes some of these challenges, which are perhaps out of scope for the context of this discussion, but it’s notable how scientists such as Franscisco Ayala and Francis Collins became inspirational figures to many for the way in which they revealed the deepest workings of God’s creation whilst remaining steadfastly firm in their faith. They played significant roles in the Human Genome project (Collins led the work), and although the focus of the work was scientific, their faith gave them the strength and courage to follow the evidence wherever it led them. They have since shown how this understanding can complement rather than threaten the foundations of religious belief, and we are richer for it.

A gentle whisper

Consider what happened to Elijah: “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper…” (1 Kings 19:11-12 ESV).

Too often, God is expected to work in big, thunderous, dramatic ways, as though anything less would somehow infer weakness and a lack of the thundering awesomeness one associates with the work of a deity. Not everything God does has to be an act of shock-and-awe. Christ proved this when confronted with his temptations. Throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple would have been a dramatic shock-and-awe event, but that was not the way his Father’s plan was to be fulfilled. We need to be careful not to become so busy looking for God in dramatic signs and wonders that we don’t hear his voice in the gentle whispers around us.

What if what science explores is the gentle whisper of God? It requires the faithful to be quiet and listen. Every discovery shows a deeper aspect of God’s character. In Romans, Paul wrote that God’s invisible attributes such as his external power and divine nature had been clearly seen so that man was without excuse. In this modern age, the faithful are incredibly fortunate to have been given this deeper insight into God’s character though the study of his creation.

The irony of the faith vs. science debate is that the Christian worldview played a significant role in nurturing the development of modern science. The early pioneers of science (as we know it today) were all devoutly faithful people, confident that the world was orderly and lawful; the product of a single rational mind. John Hedley Brooke described how “their belief in God gave them confidence that the physical world, in all its complexity and vast extent, could be understood …. As a matter of historical fact, modern science has developed from an understanding of the world as God’s ordered Creation, with its own inherent rationality”.⁠15

No-one is suggesting we should blindly accept scientific consensus, and no scientific consensus can change the redemptive work and grace of Jesus. But we must be mindful not to denigrate God’s written word by insisting on interpretations that are indefensible in the light of his natural works, and we should never be afraid to challenge the status quo, especially when new insights emerge.

Several hundred years ago, renewed access to the original languages had significant impact on biblical interpretation. In recent decades, the availability of documents from the ancient world has provided a remarkable resource for our reading of the biblical text. We dare not neglect these tools when they can contribute so significantly to our interpretation. On the science side of the equation, the last 150 years have likewise been revolutionary.

By limiting our learning of God to only his written word, we are ignoring much of his revelation to us. There’s no reason why the study of God’s creation shouldn’t be embraced as earnestly as the study of God’s word.

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1 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me (Baker Books, 2011).

2 Ed Stetzer, 3 Reasons for Christians to Engage in Science, (Christianity Today Blog, May 2015, http://goo.gl/UQlSU2)

3 M. G. Easton, Easton’s Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893).

4 Douglas Mangum, The Lexham Glossary of Theology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

5 R. T. France, “Faith,” ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 223.

6 Karl Paul Donfried and Mark Allan Powell, “Faith,” ed. Mark Allan Powell, The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 280.

7 Leland Ryken et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 262.

8 J. H. Ellens and H. N. Malony, “Faith,” ed. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill, Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling (Baker reference library; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 427.

9 Kenneth Miller, Does science make belief in God obsolete?, (https://www.templeton.org/belief/essays/miller.pdf)

10 Jonathan Burke, Two Books: A Reply (Part 3) (Science & Scripture Facebook Page, 2016), http://bit.ly/2c0WbKl

11 Lange et al, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Daniel (Faithlife, 2008)

12 James Smith, Old Testament Survey Series: The Major Prophets (1992)

13 Darrel Falk, Coming to Peace with Science (IVP Academic, 2009)

14 Victor McElheny, Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (Basic Books, 2012)

15 John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).