An Evangelical View of Science

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December 31, 2009 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Thomas Jay Oord. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

Evangelicals…

  1. 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.”

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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steve martin - #1487

December 31st 2009

Thomas: I like what you’ve summarized here.  Is this presentation going to be made publicly available?  I’m sure many of us would be very interested in seeing this. 

One question (suggestion?): The doctrine of creation, from my understanding, includes past, present, and future.  Many evangelicals seem to make the mistake of only focusing on the past; your list (#8) directly addresses the present.  That’s good.  But shouldn’t we also have something about the future here?  The fulfillment of creation is the New Creation (which also has a past, present, and future component).  Polkinghorne’s “ The God of Hope and the End of the World” is one example that talks about this.


Thomas Jay Oord - #1502

December 31st 2009

Thanks, Steve.  I gave this as a talk in November.  I’m still trying to decide how best to develop and use it.

I agree with you that we need to think of God as past, present, and future Creator.  But I should also say that I’m not sympathetic to the Pannenbergian-idea that God has already created the future and comes to us out that future.  I think this implies retro-causation, which I deny.  But I do agree that God is always “one step ahead of us” as the author and Creator of all things.  In my tradition, we call this general idea “prevenient grace.”  God comes before us as the Lover of us all.

Thanks again…

Tom


Dana - #1589

January 2nd 2010

Hi Steve:  Please take this as constructive criticism, when you label groups of beliefs it is in some sense creating the very dichotomy you seek to engage/dissipate.  My hope is that you will rethink this engagement, realize that anybody who cannot see the self evidence of evolution is sadly lacking observational/measurement skills, not to mention, they have missed the reality of God whom apparently, they believe, incapable of doing such?  This war has been fought, this ground has been taken, why are we still “compassing” ‘bout this mountain my friend?  Why not lay this to rest at the feet of those who are wiser than we and get on with preventing death due to neglect, while we can?  Appreciate your efforts, and in no means, and bye no means is this in any way to diminish your immense capacity to enlighten, nor, would I hope it limit dialogue toward such an end.


Gregory Arago - #1655

January 4th 2010

Hi Dr. Thomas Jay Oord,

It may be just that I’m not familiar with the local/national context and what you were asked to contribute for this piece, but I wonder why the identifier ‘Christian’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the text? Are you not refering to ‘evangelical Christians’ in contrast with say ‘other’ Christians’ or with say ‘evangelical Muslims’? The AAR is not exclusively Christian or ‘evangelical,’ after all.

I would be curious to read also how your List of 10 would differ or remain the same if it started with identifying ‘Christians…’ rather than ‘Evangelicals…’. Some of the points seemingly wouldn’t need changing in the slightest. In so far as ‘science, philosophy and religion’ dialogue seeks common ground, perhaps it makes sense for ‘evangelicals’ to seek likewise common ground with fellow Christians who hold various views of creation, evolution, ID, processes, origins, science, theology, etc. similar to their own.

Thanks,
Gregory

p.s. for example, Rev. John Polkinghorne is not an American ‘evangelical,’ yet he is cited as a source in the piece


Thomas Jay Oord - #1952

January 7th 2010

Great questions and comments, Gregory.  Thanks for posting them!

Unfortunately, answering your post would required several essays.  So I’ll keep this brief.

1. I meant to refer to Evangelical Christians.  I’m not aware that Muslims or any other religion includes a significant subgroup that identify as Evangelical.

2. My list isn’t meant to identify ten items that apply to Evangelicals exclusively.  In fact, I think one strength of the list is that several items might be affirmed by other groups.  And I like the idea that Evangelicals could seek common ground with other Christians on the kinds of topics you cite. 

But I do think a person identifying herself as a “liberal Christian” or a person identifying himself as a “fundamentalist Christian” would not list the exact ten items I have listed.  So there is something unique about the whole set, despite some individual items being affirmed by those who wouldn’t embrace the label, Evangelical.

Thanks again for your comments!

Tom


Gregory Arago - #2993

January 19th 2010

Thanks for your responses, Dr. Oord!


Camille Schumacher - #67066

January 13th 2012

I feel like there will always be major dissentions between Evangelism and the Scientific world. However, I cannot necessarily see world unifying unless major compromises are achieved. Many arguments between church and science are ones that have been blown out of proportion, and neither side will set aside their years of pride.

Though total acceptance and compromise may not be plausible in this generation, I do believe that, for now, singular acceptance can be achieved. I myself being a Christian and, eventually, al scientist, do believe in ideas in both sides, and I know there are many other like me, and, maybe one day we our malleability an open minds have the ability to change common conceptions. 


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