Worldview: What is the relationship between Christianity and Science?

Worldview: What is the relationship between Christianity and Science?

Tragically, there has been much misreporting about the historical relationship between Christianity and science. Thus, it is necessary to refute some powerful yet untrue myths that have caused some to wrongly see Christianity as suppressing the truth while science pursues it.1

The first myth is that, prior to Christopher Columbus’s first voyage, people thought the world was flat. The truth is that, more than eight hundred years before Columbus’s voyage, Bede the church historian taught that the earth was round, as did Thomas Aquinas. Furthermore, Sacrobosco’s book De Sphaera, written around 1231, was the standard manual for elementary astronomy until the Renaissance. That work described a spherical earth some two centuries before Columbus.

The second myth is that when Copernicus wrote that the earth revolved around the sun, his conclusions were a revolutionary, and previously untaught, concept. The truth is that Copernicus was taught the essential fundamentals leading to his model by his Scholastic professors, that is, Christian scholars who developed the model gradually over the previous two centuries.

The third myth is that the “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century invented science as we know it because Christianity had lost the power to prevent it. The truth is that three hundred years before Newton, a Scholastic cleric named Jean Buridan anticipated Newton’s first law of motion, that a body in motion will stay in motion unless otherwise impeded. It was Buridan, not an Enlightenment luminary, who first proposed that the earth turns on its axis. Furthermore, science flourished only in Europe, where the worldview was shaped by Christianity. Many civilizations had alchemy, yet only Christian-influenced Europe developed chemistry. Likewise, astrology was practiced everywhere, but only in Europe did it become astronomy.

Christians should not, however, in any way abandon the sciences; instead, they should pursue them with great vigor and faith to learn more about God through what he has made as an act of worship to him.2 It is commendable for those whom God has gifted to love God with all their mind and to do so in the sciences to God’s glory and their joy, as has always been the case with God’s people as we will explore in the next three truths.

First, there is no conflict between Christianity and experimental science. This is because the Christian worldview, which believes that God created the world with natural “laws” and orderliness, is what undergirds the entire scientific enterprise. For example, inductive reasoning and the scientific method are based on the assumption of the regularity of the laws of nature. This means that scientists assume that water will boil tomorrow under the identical conditions that it does today. Without this kind of regularity, we could not learn from experience, including the experiences of scientific testing. This also helps to explain why in cultures where creation is said to be an illusion or disorderly chaos because it was not created by an orderly God, the sciences have not historically flourished; indeed, the scientific method depends upon the kind of underlying worldview that a creating and providentially ruling God of the Bible provides.

Second, there is total conflict between Christianity and scientific naturalism. Naturalism is the belief that all phenomena can be explained in terms of presently operating natural causes and laws. The only true knowledge is that which comes through observable experiments. When natural science is the arbiter of all truth claims, religion becomes superstition and God, spirit, choice are omitted from discussion.3

Third, the Bible in general, and the books like Genesis in particular, was not written with the intention of being a scientific textbook. Rather, it is a theological narrative written to reveal the God of creation, which means its emphasis is on God and his relationship with humanity and not on creation. Genesis is far more concerned with the questions of who made creation and why he made creation than exactly when he did. Therefore, as Galileo said, “The Holy Ghost intended to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” This explains why the lengthiest treatise of creation in all of Scripture, Genesis 1 and 2, is only a few pages of our Bible. It is as if the story of Scripture opens with the panoramic view of creation, and then the camera quickly focuses in on the creation of our first parents and the history that ensues.

Who do you know that loves God and also works in the sciences (e.g. medicine, engineering, chemistry)? How could you encourage them today?

1See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Philip Sampson, Six Modern Myths about Christianity and Western Civilization (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001); and Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).
2Francis Collins is an example of a Christian doing just that. In the same year that atheist Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), Collins published The Language of God. Collins is an eminent research scientist and head of the Human Genome Project. In his book he speaks about how his study of creation led him down a path following the truth until it led him to his Creator and he converted from atheism to Christianity.
3Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and NaturalismOxford University Press, 2011. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford University Press, 2012. Nagel is an atheist who realizes the limitations of naturalism.