This post is drawn from Mark Noll's book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. In this excerpt, Noll reveals some of the implications that follow a Christ-centered view of science. If one accepts that nature is created and sustained by Jesus Christ, the author explains, then one must conclude that looking at nature is, in fact, the best way to learn about nature. Since Christ is revealed both in science and in Scripture, these things must complement each other rather than contradict.
A Christology for Science
The theologian Robert Barron has nicely clarified much of what lies behind recent conflicts over human origins that feature supposedly biblical truths contending against supposedly scientific conclusions.
In his words, “recent debates concerning evolutionist and ‘creationist’ accounts of the origins of nature are marked through and through by modern assumptions about a distant, competitive, and occasionally intervening God, whether the existence of such a God is affirmed or denied.”1 Barron’s response to these modern debates is a sophisticated exposition of classical Christology aimed at his theological peers. My effort is much simpler and is aimed at academics in general, but it comes from the same christological perspective.
Christ as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer
Classical Christian orthodoxy as expressed in the creeds that summarize the Scriptures begins at the beginning: nature owes its existence to and is sustained by Jesus Christ. From this starting point several important ramifications follow naturally.
One is the implication that the best way of finding out about nature is to look at nature. This implication comes directly from the christological principle of contingency. As described in the Gospels, individuals who wanted to learn the truth about Jesus had to “come and see.” Likewise, to find out what might be true in nature, it is necessary to “come and see.”
The process of “coming and seeing” does not lead to infallible truth about the physical world since there is no special inspiration from the Holy Spirit for the Book of Nature as there is for the Book of Scripture. But “coming and seeing” is still the method that belief in Christ as Savior privileges for learning about all other objects, including nature. This privileging means that scientific results coming from thoughtful, organized, and carefully checked investigations of natural phenomena must, for Christ-centered reasons, be taken seriously.
From this perspective, the successes of modern science in recent centuries testify implicitly to the existence of a creating and redeeming God. To once again quote Robert Barron, scientific activity by its very nature “implies . . . an unavoidable correspondence between the activity of the mind and the structure of being: intelligence will find its fulfillment in this universal and inescapable intelligibility.” But how can this implication be justified? According to Barron,
The universality of objective intelligibility (assumed by any honest scientist) can be explained only through recourse to a transcendent subjective intelligence that has thought the world into being, so that every act of knowing a worldly object or event is, literally, a recognition, a thinking again of what has already been thought by a primordial divine knower.2
In lay language, the “transcendent subjective intelligence” and the “primordial divine knower” guarantee the possibility that a researcher’s mind can grasp something real about the world beyond the mind. The Scriptures—in John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1 — provide a name for that “intelligence” and that “knower.” In these terms, the existence of nature and the possibility of understanding nature presuppose Jesus Christ.
A second implication arising from the centrality of Christ in creation concerns the interpretation of Scripture. Classic biblical texts about the purpose of the Bible reinforce the foundational principle that the believers’ confidence in Scripture rests on its message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus, in John 20, the Gospel story has been written down so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). In 2 Timothy 3, the inspired or God-breathed “holy scriptures” have as their main purpose instruction “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:15). And in 2 Peter 1, “the word of the prophets made more certain” as these prophets were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1:19, 21) deals preeminently with “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:16).
As these passages suggest, salvation in Christ anchors the believer’s confidence that all of Scripture is trustworthy.3 But because of that supreme fact, the effort to understand how Scripture is trustworthy for questions like the ordering of nature should never stray far from consideration of Christ and his work. Yet as we have seen, “Christ and his work” includes, as an object, the material world of creation, and as a method, “come and see.” In other words, following the Christ revealed in Scripture as Redeemer means following the Christ who made it possible for humans to understand the physical world and offered a means (“come and see”) for gaining that understanding.
Final and ultimate disharmony between what “come and see” demonstrates about Christ and what “come and see” reveals about the world of nature is impossible. This Christ is the same one through whom God has worked “to reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20) and in whom “all things were created” and in whom “all things hold together” (1:16-17).
Yet it is indisputable that on some science-theology questions, trust in Christ (and therefore trust in Scripture) has seemed to conflict with trusting in what Christ-authorized procedure (“come and see”) reveals about a Christ-created and Christ-sustained world. The parade of difficult questions arising from the effort to bring together standard interpretations of Scripture and standard interpretations of the natural world is a long one. Trying to answer these questions has been a consistent feature of the modern scientific age.
In the nineteenth century, many earnest believers were wondering, if “coming and seeing” in geology and astronomy led to the conclusion that material existence has a very long history, should the “days” of Genesis 1 be understood as long periods of time or should a new interpretation of Genesis 1:1 be adopted that posits a “gap” between “in the beginning” and “God created”?
More recent advances in both historical understanding (the ancient Near East) and empirical science (genetics, biology, astronomy) have prompted questions about the creation accounts of early Genesis. Well-trained scientists with strong Christian convictions have followed the Christ-rooted procedure of “coming and seeing” in their study of physical evidence for the origin of the universe and have concluded that much of standard evolutionary theory seems well grounded.4 Similarly, well-trained biblical scholars with strong Christian convictions have followed the Christ-rooted procedure of “coming and seeing” in their study of ancient Near Eastern cultures and have concluded that the early chapters of Genesis seem to be directly concerned about attacking idol-worship that substituted the sun or the moon for God.5 Given the combination of these two streams of testimony, should it be thought that early Genesis is not concerned with modern scientific questions but is very much concerned about encouraging worship of the one true God who is the originator and sustainer of all things?
Even more recently, the rough consensus on evolutionary change assembled from many scientific disciplines makes for even more complex questions: for example, if human evolution seems indicated by a wide range of responsible scientific procedures (“come and see”), how might responsible biblical interpretation understand the New Testament stress on Christ (very definitely in historical time and historical space) as overcoming the sinfulness inherited from Adam and Eve, whom Scripture, at least on a surface level, also represents as individuals in historical time and historical space?
All such questions caused understandable consternation when they were first raised, since they challenged specific interpretations of Scripture that had been tightly interwoven with basic interpretations of the entire Bible. Even after long and hard thought, such questions continue to pose definite challenges.
Answering such questions responsibly requires sophistication in scientific knowledge and sophistication in biblical interpretation — exercised humbly, teachably, and nondefensively. Unfortunately, these traits and capacities have not always predominated when such questions are addressed. But the difficult questions will almost certainly only continue to multiply because of two ongoing realities: the Holy Spirit continues to bestow new life in Christ through the message of the cross found in Scripture, and responsible investigations lead plausibly to further evolutionary conclusions from the relevant scientific disciplines.
This excerpt was drawn from chapter 3 of Mark Noll's book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. If you would like to read the whole chapter, click here. First posted August 30, 2011.
1. Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 221. For convenience, I return several times in the following paragraphs to this book by Robert Barron. But there are other parallel efforts, for example from the physicist and Anglican theologian John C. Polkinghorne, in books like Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), and Science and the Trinity; The Christian Encounter with Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
2. Barron, Priority of Christ, 154.
3. See above on providence.
4. Barron, Priority of Christ, 13.
5. A Summa of the Summa, ed. Peter Kreeft (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 174 (from Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 22, 4).