An Evangelical View of Science
At the recent American Academy of Religion meeting, I was asked to present a scholarly overview of Evangelical theology and science. I assumed the task would be easy. I was wrong.
I have participated actively in the science and religion dialogue for years. I have been an Evangelical since my youth. Given my past, I assumed I could churn out a presentation in a few hours.
I scoured my library of science and theology books. I consulted sources on the Internet. In the process, I discovered that very little scholarship exists specifically on Evangelical theology and science.
My recent research and past experiences, however, point to obstacles that discourage scholars from identifying themselves as participants in an Evangelical theology and science dialogue.
First, many scholars admit they cannot easily define “Evangelical theology.” So much diversity exists. Opinions vary. In recent decades, in fact, those defining what counts as Evangelical theology typically identify the communities out of which theologians work rather than particular doctrinal statements thought to be distinctly Evangelical.
Second, the complex nature of the science and theology dialogue discourages scholars from narrowing the confines of either discipline. Scholars find it easier to talk about general theological doctrines than specific theological traditions.
Third, focusing upon the Bible as the Evangelical’s primary source for truth discourages some from taking science as a truth-seeking counterpart. In theory, Evangelical theologians embrace the truth of science. In practice, they rarely take science seriously in their constructive work.
Finally, my own conversations with Evangelical theologians suggest that many fear coming into conflict with the wider Evangelical populace. Theologians who take unpopular stances on evolution, stem-cell research, big bang theory, or nonhuman altruism are likely to suffer the wrath of an angry Evangelical mainstream. Many Evangelical theologians do not want that risk.
In the end, I decided the best way to fulfill my assignment was to be both descriptive and prescriptive. That is, I sought to describe what I found in my research and to recommend to Evangelicals what they might do as they engage science.
The list below identifies ten areas of debate or concern for Evangelicals, which are coupled with recommendations for how to approach these issues.
believe that what they observe provides generally accurate information about the way things are. Evangelical theologians are, to use a label scholars like John Polkinghorne endorse, “critical realists.”
believe that an underlying harmony exists between science and theology. “All truth is God’s truth,” is a typical Evangelical phrase. When Evangelicals encounter disharmony, they are more likely to rethink or reject science than theology.
strive to be faithful to the Bible, especially the biblical view that God is Creator. This endeavor prompts Evangelicals to return often to questions of how literally they should interpret particular segments of the Bible.
strive to be faithful to what science tells us about God. Generally, this striving takes the form of confirming what Evangelicals already believe about God. But occasionally, Evangelical theologians consciously or unconsciously change their theological views because of science.
affirm that ultimate explanations must include a theological component. An ongoing question, however, is the extent to which Evangelical scientists should take theology into the lab or offer theological explanations to their scientific work.
seek a theological explanation of origins. The most popular labels for these theories of origins include “Creation Science,” “Progressive Creation,” and “Theistic Evolution.” Given recent trends, I predict Theistic Evolution will gain Evangelical supporters in the coming decades until it becomes the dominant Evangelical view.
affirm general and/or specific purpose in creation. When some scientists claim the world has no purpose, many Evangelicals find Intelligent Design theory an attractive alternative. But Intelligent Design theory seems to be losing ground in Evangelical circles. The vast majority of scientists do not accept it, and Evangelicals believe, as I noted earlier, that science and theology are ultimately in harmony.
affirm that God is presently active in creation. God’s activity may or may not involve intervention. Evangelicals who insist that God is omnipresent, in fact, think the language of “intervention” is unnecessary. But Evangelicals typically believe that miracles, which theologians define in various ways, occur because of God’s activity.
seek to affirm both the reality of sin/evil and the reality of love/altruism. Evangelicals have widely divergent views on original sin and the possibility of overcoming sin in this life. But they see in science evidence for many theological doctrines of human nature.
pursue truth with humility. Perhaps this last characteristic is more prescriptive than descriptive. I think Evangelicals – whom almost universally admit they cannot know all truth and their cognitive capacities can be impaired – ought to be the first to admit they do not have everything figured out.
I’m optimistic about the future of the Evangelical theology and science dialogue. But I’m not naïve to think that the dialogue will flow with ease into every Evangelical nook and cranny. Plenty of warfare has occurred and will occur.
Despite this warfare, I firmly believe progress in the Evangelical theology and science dialogue is possible. I intend to do my part in encouraging and shaping such progress.
Thomas Jay Oord, Ph.D. is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University. He is the author and/or editor of about a dozen books, including Creation Made Free, Divine Grace and Emerging Creation, and Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. He blogs frequently on issues of theology, science, and philosophy at http://thomasjayoord.com.