A Pastor’s Approach to Science
Note: At the "Theology of Celebration" workshop that took place in March 2012, Joel Hunter gave an engaging talk to a small group of pastors and scholars. In today's post, we are pleased to share his message.
In the United States the central task of most evangelical pastors is to exegete Scripture in ways that it continues God’s story (as fulfilled in His Son) in our present and personal lives. Such a task demands a comprehensive approach. We are not mere intellectual depositories, or we would be Gnostics. We are not summaries of moral right and wrong actions, or behavior modification would be all we need. We are not only spirit, or meditation/worship would be our exclusive activity. We have bodies and we reside in a physical world that is not only our environment, but a part of God’s ongoing revelation of Himself (Romans 1:20).
Is it possible to fully understand and practice Scripture without connecting with science? If science reveals God’s attributes, how can we fully relate to Him without some ongoing reference to the information revealed in scientific inquiry? Even more specifically, as preaching pastors, how many are we excluding if we ignore important facets of our congregations’ worldviews?
Now in a collaborative environment like this, it is easy to stay on an intellectual level. But we are pastors who are practitioners, so let me speak personally to get the discussion into the realm of the church world and what may or may not work for you. Some 27 years ago, while exploring whether or not to go to pastor Northland Church, I sensed I’d found kindred spirits when reading in its philosophy of ministry:
People are not just to be understood as sinners but as beings greatly affected by the bodies and physical world they inhabit.
How then would I best address that physical world in the context of understanding its value to our spiritual formation?
Different Approaches to Scripture and Science
Since the sermon is the main component used to build the congregation’s collective approach to understanding how the church relates to the world, I want to take a few moments to lay out what has worked in my preaching and what has not when it comes to science and more specifically the subject of evolution:
1. I decided on a hermeneutical approach. How would God’s patterns in creation published in scientific findings inform my understanding of Scripture?
- I would not use the “Science and Faith are in conflict” (J.W. Draper/A.D. White1) approach, since I am neither a fundamentalist nor someone whom would wish to violate the spirit of those who penned Scripture who understood God to be over all the world, both hill and Temple (Psalm 24:1-10).
- I would not use S.J. Gould’s2 “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” approach, which “ghettoizes” both science and faith. To say one only answers “how” and the other only answers “why” is to miss the richness of both.
- I would not use Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s3 or Ian Barbour’s3 “Integration / Unity” approach, since such an approach requires extensive knowledge of both science and theology and almost inevitably leads to process theology.
- I would use the “Dialogue” (W.G. Pollard5) approach, since it emphasizes insight and investigation rather than answers, thereby leading to a sense of wonder and worship. Such an approach minimizes the hubris of knowledge (that will almost certainly pass away) and the hostility toward different perspectives.
2. I decided on a related-referential model rather than an issue-oriented one.
- Any model chosen must fit the personal style of the preacher or it will become uncomfortable and soon unused. I am more the Columbo/sloppy trench coat, “Oh that reminds me…one more thing…” investigator rather than a “light bulb hanging over the head breaking down your resistance” kind of confronter. So I use science as “now what do you make of that?” kind of illustration rather than an argument for my perspective.
- The model must also fit the personality of the church. In our church issue-oriented subjects must be taught in classes or small groups where people have the chance to question/comment in ways not usually done in response to sermons.
3. Our church has decided that being a witness of the incarnate Christ means engaging, and learning from, the world as it is presently.
- Following God’s example in Christ is entering into the world and serving in all its realms: spiritual, emotional, physical, and social.
- Christ used the common knowledge people already had (much of it from nature) to reveal God.
Recognizing Cultural Perspectives
Having laid out what seems like a tidy approach, I will now recognize the difficulties I have experienced, as a pastor, pertaining to evolution, for understandable but remediable reasons. The church has a particular culture that prevents fully engaging science.
- Most in a congregation do not decouple or differentiate the belief in a philosophy of random and purposeless evolution from the instances of incremental improvements that may point ultimately to an Organizing Principal.
- Most have not been taught the literary genre distinctions between the writings of Genesis 1 and a science textbook.
- Most have not considered the possibility that Adam and Eve may not have been uniquely and separately physically created for their sole role in the beginning of human kind. They need alternatives involving figures that do not contradict the point of the narrative.
- Most have not considered the complementary nature of the Biblical narrative of redemption out of death and the evolutionary one.
To be sure, when a pastor addresses the alternatives, or even makes an explanatory reference using evolution, that pastor can expect a variation of this conversation I had with a parishioner (who walked out during a sermon) a little over a year ago:
____________, I know I upset you with the reference I made to evolution. You have been listening to my teaching for many years. I hope you know by now how the high view of Scripture as the final source of truth and authority I hold and this church holds. 'Well, I thought I did but now I am not so sure,' answered this lady who has been trying to get Ken Hamm to our church for some years. You know I would never do anything to lessen the importance of Scripture. 'Pastor, when you confess evolution, you not only make a liar out of Scripture, you become the reason young people are not following God and are living lives without regard to the Bible, and are in some cases committing suicide.'
This woman is not an unintelligent person. She is a professional nurse and is leading in a mission organization. She was just scared. Happily, she is still in the church and has decided after some more reflection that maybe I do not want to lead young people into orgies and death after all.
In 1632 Galileo warned his fellow believers of a trap they were walking into by resisting the conclusions of a scientific investigation:
Take note, theologians, that in your desire to make matters of faith out of propositions relating to the fixity of sun and earth you run the risk of eventually having to condemn as heretics those who would declare the earth to stand still and the sun to change position--eventually, I say, at such a time as it might be physically or logically proved that the earth moves and the sun stands still.6
We would do well to be the church learning God’s truth as discovered by scientists, not resisting its discomfort or its perceived threat to our traditional interpretations of Scripture.
We worship a God of history, and references to our physical world fit well, given some time, into our metaphysical journey. One only has to look at the Old and New Testaments to see how central the elements of creation are to understanding the activity, and thus the “nature” of God. The references are not simply meant to be objective facts; they are to open the door to vistas beyond. If postmodernism has made us aware of the illusion of pure objectivity, then it has also taught us something of the value of pre-modernism, where the lines between the physical and spiritual are connecting points.
Of course nature is not prescriptive, nor does it present comprehensive pictures of God’s personality. One of the most intellectually capable scientists I know does not believe in God because of his observations of ants organizing slave colonies. It offends his sense of egalitarianism. Talk about making a mountain out of an anthill! Theologizing from particular scientific observations is hyper-interpretive.
Yet, as all creation was made by and for Him (Colossians 1:16-17), when it comes to the insights that may be offered by scientific information (especially evolution) it is difficult for those who have been given a modicum of faith not to see the possibility of:
- An Organizing Principle
- An Orchestrated Similarity among the physical, personal, social, and spiritual realms
- An increased ability and likelihood to respond to the outside world in ways that benefit all
- Redeeming relationships involving sacrifice, not all of which are initially positive or intentional (Romans 8:28)
- Problematic instances that would seem to negate the idea of a loving kind Creator may be a part of a more positive trend.
- Greater confidence, as a result of faith, in uncontrollable circumstances being used for good eventually
My goal as a pastor is to equip the saints in my sphere of influence to see Christ and to worship Him. If those in my influence only can see God in Scripture, then they are half blind. But if we together can help each other see the unfolding redemptive purposes of every realm - of scientific inquiry, of business practice, of artistic expression, of church/family support for every individual in every field of endeavor – then we will be not only 20-20 but 3-D in every direction!
Of course, such a result will require a more comprehensive approach in preaching. And such comprehension will require a continuing dialogue with those who can help us see the truth from different perspectives.
1. John William Draper, A History of Conflict Between Religion and Science, 1874; Andrew Dickson White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1894.
2. Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages, 1999.
3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 1959.
4. Ian Barbour, Religion and Science, 1997.
5. William G. Pollard, Physicist and Christian: a dialogue between the communities, 1961.
6. Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632.
Joel Hunter is senior pastor at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla. Hunter is also a board member of the World Evangelical Alliance and author of the book A New Kind of Conservative.