Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Theology and Science

'...nam error circa creaturas redundat in falsam de Deo sententiam'
(...wrong thinking about creation will lead to wrong thinking about God)
Thomas Aquinas

'As the science of divine and eternal things, theology must be patient until the science that contradicts it has made a deeper and broader study of its field and, as happens in most cases, corrects itself. In that matter theology upholds its dignity and honour more effectively than by constantly yielding and adapting itself to the opinions of the day.'
So wrote the erudite late 19th century Dutch theologian Hermann Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2 'God and Creation' (p. 507). Bavinck was prescient (yes Virginia, even the Reformed get some things right); over a hundred years after he made that statement, developments in science have only served to confirm its truth. In a post-Einstein, post-Popper, post-Polanyi, post-Kuhn world, it really is untenable to hold to a naive late 19th C/early 20th C positivism when it comes to the claims of science (and it is somewhat ironic that evangelical Christians are among those who do).

In a dialogue on the biblical account of creation with a colleague pastor recently, I ventured to suggest that since Holy Scripture claims to be true in what it says about events transpiring in space and time, we should accord it 'epistemological primacy' over other purported authorities (i.e. human authorities) when these events are in view. In simple terms, that means that when these events are in view we should assess the claims of science from a Biblical standpoint rather than assessing the claims of the Bible from a scientific standpoint. But isn't this 'Biblicism' or, even worse, 'Fundamentalism'? Well, I may come back to that in the near future; all I'll say in response for the present is that name calling is a poor substitute for a reasoned argument.

Now, on to my main point: I don't think that theologians who accord science epistemological primacy in matters of creation, to the extent that in order to accomodate the claims of science they reduce the creation narrative to a poem (this is a very weak argument since the Genesis one narrative bears neither of the two characteristic marks of Hebrew poetry i.e. syllabic rhythm and paralellism), a saga (a highly stylized piece of literature with perhaps some historical kernel of truth that is in any case no longer accessible to us, but which yet communicates theological truth) or a polemical myth (in the sense of a completely fictional story that yet confesses the truth that Yahweh is creator in the face of the errors of the Babylonian cosmology), actually realize how much of the Christian revelation they open up to question once science is admitted to be an arbiter of the truth (i.e. the 'factual-historical' nature) of what the Bible unequivocally presents as happening in space and time. The fact that otherwise competent theologians and Old Testament scholars have advanced theories such as those bracketed above concerning the origins and purpose of Genesis 1 is testimony to both the parlous state of theology in modern times and the awe in which science is held by quite sophisticated people who really ought to know better.

Once the historicity (factual-historical nature) of the first chapter of Genesis is questioned on the assumption that science has disproved it, inevitably it seems that the process continues into the second and third chapters, and the historicity of the figure of Adam is brought into question, since 'the scientific consensus' presently holds that there was no such single progenitor of the human race. With that, the whole redemptive tapestry of the Biblical narrative, and indeed the Christian revelation, begins to unravel into innumerable disconnected threads. I'm yet to see a church body which goes down this path in its official theology manage to weave the tapestry together again. More often, they seem to go about weaving a different sort of religious tapestry all together (c.f J. Gresham Machen's seminal study, Christianity and Liberalism).

If you're interested in questions of science and theology, the blog of Dr John Byl (, a Canadian professor emeritus of mathematics (PhD in Astronomy) is worth a look. I don't vouch for Dr Byl's Reformed theology, but his reflections on the intersection of theology and science are quite stimulating. He is also the author of two books on the subject which are available from the usual outlets.

Just on a personal note, my own journey as been from atheistic evolution in my teens to theistic evolution to old earth/specially created Adam to a probably young earth/recently created Adam position. Which is to say I seem to be on an opposite trajectory to most of my colleagues and contemporaries - not that I'm a contrarian just for the sake of it, mind you...I simply like to think I'm a more consistent thinker than they ;0)


The Rev. Donald V. Engebretson said...

Good post! I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Joel Heck (Concordia U - Austin) at a Higher Things conference a few weeks ago in Illinois and enjoyed both of his presentations immensely. At one of his sectionals I picked up his recent book (May 2011) that would be a great companion to your words here. It's entitled CREATION FROM GOD'S PERSPECTIVE - IN THE BEGINNING, GOD (Concordia Publishing House). In this booklet he unpacks the first chapter of Genesis verse-by-verse in the belief that interpretation of this chapter is absolutely critical to the debate. He writes that "So much of the creation/evolution debate takes place on scientific soil, almost as though the biblical record were irrelevant." Although a brief work (80 pages) it is well footnoted and referenced. As you noted in your post the text must be taken in the literary form most natural to it, and Dr. Heck demonstrates this well.

Terry Maher said...

Aquinas and Bavinck are not exactly on the same track. Aquinas does not assert the superiority of theology over science, but rather demonstrates there is no competition between them, because they deal with two different ways in which one Truth is made known. Some of divine truth admits of investigation by sentient beings and some does not; moreover, even some of that which is attainable by investigation is proposed to men for belief by revelation, since not everyone would have the capacity or the time to pursue it.

As a short example. it is possible to know with human reason that God exists but is not possible to know by human reason that God is triune.

I think the difficulty comes not at all from science having to catch up to theology, or theology having to accommodate itself to science, but from applying the criteria and methodology of either one to the other.

This is particularly a great danger in those areas of Truth which indeed can be investigated in either way, thinking either what is inaccessible to science will be, or what is inaccessible to theology will be, on top of the problem of trying to access one way Truth is known vie the other.

Thus does the bad theology of some scientists meet the bad science of some theologians. Thus does Genesis stand or fall, and with it the rest of Scripture, on whether it passes muster as a scientific treatise from God, or does a scientific treatise stand of fall on whether it passes muster as a theological treatise or Scripture.

Either one of these errors leads to wrong thinking about creation and about God.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Terry. I wasn't positing an identity between Aquinas and Bavinck's positions, just thought it was an apropos quote from Aquinas. Now, I always thought Aquinas was for theology as queen of the sciences and against the 'two books' theory of knowledge, anti-Averroes and all that. Or are you suggesting that he taught that within the one system of truth there was room for limited autonomy for science?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Donald.
The textual data of Gen 1 was indeed the most powerful factor for me; ironically it was the exegesis of two liberal scholars - Gerhard von Rad and Terence Fretheim - that finally convinced me that the author intended to teach creation in six normal days. Of course, neither of them actually believe it, but my conscience was bound by the Word.

The other powerful factor was a growing realization that science is a human construct where philosophical presuppositions and 'group think' are just as prevalent as in other areas of human life and thought. When science enters upon the field of metaphysics, it is at its most speculative and least veridical.

Terry Maher said...

It is an entirely appropriate quote from Aquinas! Theology as "Queen of the Sciences" is not specifically Aquinas but rather refers to its place in the curriculum of Mediaeval European universities where it stood as the ultimate point of study to which the Seven Liberal Arts (trivium and quadrivium) led. "Science" is literal, knowledge, and "theology" is the queen because it deals with the highest knowledge, that of God.

But it does not trump them. The Reformed (ie Bavinck) got it quite wrong, as the Reformed generally do. Nor is theologia a term consistent in its use: originally it was simply speech regarding the divine, what lay beyond physics, hence aka metaphysics; passing through the Stoics, Varro, Boethius (my man!), Augustine and other "Fathers", it arrives in the scholastic era as the systematic rational study of, not Scripture, but the doctrines of Christianity.

Aquinas quite opposed the idea that there were two truths or autonomous areas within one truth: rather, there is one truth with different aspects of it studied in different ways but all of them studying God and his creation, consequently, in the end there can be no opposition between them or autonomy among them.

I think the question of whether there was a six 24-hour day creation of everything, with the consequence that if there wasn't the entire Christian faith eventually unravels, is absurd, based on a reactionary understanding of both theology and science, and puts us back with those who were convinced that since Genesis teaches a geocentric universe if it isn't geocentric the Faith unravels, or those who thought the first attempts at spaceflight would poke holes in the firmament and flood the earth with the waters above it clearly taught in the Bible.

None of us now finds it necessary to maintain the Sun revolves around the Earth to maintain the faith of the Creed, nor did I hear anyone preparing for a deluge when the Space Shuttle landed. Likewise, though one hopes it will not again take centuries, will current reactionary fears re creation and evolution recede into the history of conflicts of confusions.

E pur si muove.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I wish I could share your optimism, Terry. Meanwhile...

'To demonstrate that the appearances are saved by assuming the sun at the centre and the earth in the heavens is not the same as to demonstrate that in fact the sun is in the centre...I believe that the first demonstration may exist, but I have grave doubts about the second; and in case of doubt one may not abandon the Holy Scriptures as expounded by the holy Fathers' Cardinal Bellarmine to Galileo.

As a consultant to the Holy Office and a member of the tribunal which condemned Galileo, Bellarmine is cast as a villain in this drama by moderns. The irony is that the history of scientific advance subsequent to the trial has justified Bellarmine's caution and disproved Galileo's heliocentric universal cosmology. As for Copernicus's and Galileo's observations, post-Einstein and Hubble, one of the few 'known knowns' is that we can only observe relative motion, not absolute motion. 'E pur si muove!' - yes, but relative to what, exactly? That we cannot say with absolute certainty. What we can say is that it makes astronomy easier if we assume the earth orbits a motionless sun, while yet knowing that it is (probably) not motionless (cf. Bertrand Russell, 'The ABCs of Relativity'.) So, mutatis mutandis, Bellarmine's distinction between a useful working hypothesis which make sense of observed data and his reserve over Galileo's claims of absolute scientific truth contra scripture seems like a good place to stand vis a vis the creation-evolution issue, especially given the data in this area is even more subject to human subjectivity than interpreting the heavens (there are no mathematical equations to keep the paleontologists honest!).

Terry Maher said...

Bellarmino always makes me laugh -- that the Roman parish where I live named after one of the most reactionary embarrassments in the entire history of the Roman church is among the most liberal in town!

Perhaps we should consult Giordano Bruno, OP, re Bellarmino as a safe place to stand -- at whose trial he was a judge, concurring in death by fire as the penalty for heresy and handing him over to the state to carry it out, which I guess is one take on the Two Kingdoms.

The irony is, the universe is neither geocentric nor heliocentric. But that Galileo thought it was the latter but it isn't is hardly the point. The problem was not that he thought the sun did not move but that the earth did, whereas the Bible says the earth cannot be moved.

And if God reveals in the Bible that the earth does not move but it does move, then what else in the Bible might be wrong too, OMG, there goes the whole faith!

So Galileo makes the Index librorum prohibitorm! Then the ban on printing his works except the Dialogue was lifted in 1718, then an edited version of the Dialogue was allowed in 1741, then works advocating heliocentrism were dropped from it in 1758, then the Dialogue itself was dropped from it in 1835, then the Index dropped itself when it was abolished 14 June 1966.

What the hell, Luther made the list too. As did Chenu (another damn Dominican) who made the list in 1942 and 20 years later is a peritus (expert) at Vatican II whose influence is throughout its documents, particularly Gaudium et Spes. As did Maria Faustina of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, who after her works were, uh, re-translated by a guy named Karol Wojtyla who admired her, what the hell he becomes pope, she goes off the list, is proclaimed a saint, and Divine Mercy Sunday is now a part of the General Roman Calendar!

Point being, acclaim or disclaim by the Roman authorities are equally an uncertain business over time.

Since I am by now I expect (and hope) excommunicated latae sententiae, I don't worry about it much since there are no documents for that kind of boof.

But manifestly, a separation of light from dark that is peculiar to earth and does not happen outside of it does not characterise the entire universe; morning and evening are entirely earth centred, as is day or any units thereof; and time itself does not flow at the same rate universally but is related to the distribution of matter across energy.

Thus, the description of creation in Genesis is not a How I Did It by God -- not a presentation of creation as God did it or knows it, but as we could understand it in terms of our experience at the time it was given. It is not scientific, but phenomenological. And is stood on its head and against its purpose when the truth of creation as given to us in terms of our experience -- which also at the time had deified all that described as created -- is taken as a scientific statement of creation as he experienced creating.

God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, is not in the least assailed by human science, and those who so confess him should not be either.

Although he may be rather amused as those who so confess him on the one hand make of one of his books a better scientific treatise than science affords, yet on the other find no problem when someone is ill, instead of what another of his books says, call for the elders to anoint him for his recovery but rather the elders ask God to guide the scientifically trained skills of doctors and nurses. Cont'd

Terry Maher said...

So I say again, our fears about six-day creations and the like are groundless. Which is not optimism -- the great error of science, and pseudo sciences, particularly socialism and its related schools, is that creation and Man are random, or meaningless, or deterministic; that the story of creation and Man is a push by these forces, rather than a pull by a Person, the God who reveals himself into our experience, which cannot encompass him, in Genesis through the Apocalypse/Revelation, and incarnates himself into our experience as Jesus Christ.

If I be lifted up I will draw all men unto myself -- and so he does, but the danger is not in the recognition of the pull or abandoning the idea of a push or a fixed state, but as the pulled become conscious of the pull they also become capable of resisting it (aka Original Sin), do not fully grasp it and thus resist it in their actions even despite their best intentions (aka actual sin and the impossibility of self deliverance by works from it) and thus the Omega reveals himself as also the Alpha, and enters into our experience as a Point (aka Jesus) who alone through means drawn from his creation (Word and Sacrament) incorporates those conscious little points (aka us) as his creation draws to its Omega Point in Him (aka eternal salvation).

So fear not, it's all just as he said, from "In the beginning, God ..." to "The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen."

PS -- maybe one day Holy Communion will be presented as demonstrated by but not discoverable from Relativity, that since energy is related to matter across time, an extraordinary operation of matter, the Resurrection, will also be an extraordinary operation of time, the Real Presence.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Fascinating, Terry. I was going to say we may have to agree to disagree but I'm not sure we do disagree? I think you're being too harsh on Cardinal Bellarmine. His statement to Galileo has stood the test of time, whatever other sins he may have committed against truth and person.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the wisdom of the Angelic Doctor!

Thanks to all here for a most fascinating discussion. Affirms more than ever my faith in "God, the Maker of heaven and earth."


Lvka said...

A *very* special post just for you, Father! :-)

Terry Maher said...

We don't disagree; we have different demonstrations, but in favour of the same teaching.

Still can't give much to bleeding Bellarmino, though. As it turns out neither the sun nor the earth is the centre of the universe, so the whole controversy on either side has not stood the test of time.

Perhaps we can resume the discussion with the expansion of space, which though expanding, is not expanding into anything other than itself. While matter in the universe cannot travel faster than the speed of light, space itself is not bound by that, but, speed greater than the speed of light cannot be observed, so it may well be that the universe we observe will never be all of it.

But first, adjournment -- to look out at the starry sky, and know that one is not only looking out but also looking back, seeing light from events long ago but just reaching us.

God is even greater than we can conceive. I think Aquinas got that. Not so sure about either Galileo or Bellarmino.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

And didn't they get what they deserved for their sin?!
Keep them coming, Lucian (aka Lvka).
Are you perhaps a film critic when you're not commenting on blogs? :0)

Lvka said...

And didn't they get what they deserved for their sin?!

Well... the union of the three Romanian Principalities was short-lived, lasting only for less than a year... so everybody was sad, but then they received some words of comfort from a Lutheran pastor, and everything was OK again. :-)

Pr Mark Henderson said...

I never knew Lutherans played such a part in Romanian history, Lucian. Fascinating.

(But, oh, how that Bergman film is a dreary affair! Btw, it shows Swedish Lutheranism in decline, not at its zenith. Mind you the church is always beset by difficulties. For another look at Swedish Lutheranism try 'The Hammer of God'.)

Lvka said...

Well.. there were three officially-recognized nations in Transylvania and four officially-recognized religious faiths: German Lutherans were among them. Romanian Orthodox however, were NOT, although they were the largest ethno-religious group in the country.

it shows Swedish Lutheranism in decline, not at its zenith

...but aren't, for Christians, the two the same? Doesn't Christ call His Crucifixion "glorification"? (John 12:23; 13:31; 17:1). Doesn't Saint Paul write that the Cross of Christ is an object or symbol of glory? (Galatians 6:14). Isn't God's strength only shown in our weakness? (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Pr Mark Henderson said...

'...but aren't, for Christians, the two the same? Doesn't Christ call His Crucifixion "glorification"? (John 12:23; 13:31; 17:1). Doesn't Saint Paul write that the Cross of Christ is an object or symbol of glory? (Galatians 6:14). Isn't God's strength only shown in our weakness? (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).'

Quite so, Lucian; but I don't think the 'theology of the cross' extends to exalting doubt over faith. That's the point of 'Winter Light', is it not, that God is silent, which must lead to religious doubt? It's the film through which Bergman came to acknowledge his loss of faith.

Lvka said...


But the movie isn't as black and white as it might appear (no pun intended). :-)

The key lies in the last 10 or 15 minutes, at the end, the Pastor's dialogue with the man who came to ask him a question.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Actually, the film isn't all that bad. I saw it many years ago on TV late one night. However, the slide into agnosticism/atheism that it depicts has 'snowballed' in Sweden since it was made. Interestingly, Sweden conistently rates in the top 10 of the Legatum Prosperity Index, which attempts to measure nations' overall sense of well-being. Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is that the more prosperous and happy a nation is, the less its people will feel the need for religion?

Lvka said...

Yes. Wealth AND *Security*.

Hardly a surprising 'discovery', since we know that most people only go to God when they have something to ask Him for. :-) When they have no problems, they're indifferent to the subject.

Schütz said...

I'm just butting in here for a moment, Pastor Mark, to say that I am really a bit shocked at your final paragraph in this post. I see earlier in your post that you believe (as many creationists do) that if there wasn't actually a six-24/hour-day creation in the relatively recent past (eg. the last 10,000 years or so) then the whole Gospel falls on its head because you have "disproved the bible".

In the matter of the historicity of our faith, it isn't the Scriptural creation narratives which are critical, but the historicity of the apostolic claim that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. This, not Genesis 1 or the scientific/historical accuracy of any part of Scripture, is the real issue. If this is true, the rest of it is true. If it isn't then none of it is.

All that said, I think it disappointing also that your reject the valuable insights of scholars like von Rad and Fretheim - although for my money I prefer Westerman's work. His little book "Creation", if you can still get it, is a great read. Also, Ratzinger wrote a similar sized little book ("On Creation" I think) which is also a good read. The truth of Genesis 1-3 doesn't depend on the science of Genesis 1-3.

As Terry said above, theology may be the queen of science, but it doesn't mean that theology trumps science.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

You seem to have completely misread my post.

cosmicspirituality said...

It is extremely difficult to see how the authors of Genesis intended to present historical data on Creation. The Genesis stories do not conflict with evolutuion

Pr Mark Henderson said...


I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has actually read the Bible on its own terms would conclude that its authors did not think creation was a 'historical' event, i.e. an event in space and time, or if one takes Augustine's view, the primary event of space and time. It is impossible to fit the billions of years required by theories of evolution into the Biblical narrative without doing violence, to a greater or lesser degree, to the historical nature of the latter, usually beginning with the historical existence of the first humans according to the Bible, Adam and Eve.