Science and the Bible: Five Attitudes & Approaches

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Science and the Bible: Five Attitudes & Approaches

If you’re reading this, then you already have an interest in how science relates to the Bible. Judging from the very large number of books, magazine articles, blog entries, and sermons devoted to that topic in any given year, you aren’t alone. Despite all that’s been said—much of it repetitious or even vacuous—we keep coming back to the same issues; somehow this conversation never seems to end.

I take that as a hallmark of its significance—for many Christians today, science is seen as a threatening force, potentially even fatal to Christian faith: if we can’t believe that God created the Sun and Moon on the fourth day, then how can we believe that the Incarnate God suffered unto death for our sake? Others prefer to bracket the questions that science poses to Christianity, putting them off for some other time, a time that may never actually come. Although the sciences pose many different kinds of questions for people of faith, I’ll pass over most of them for the time being, in order to concentrate on issues related to origins, since for so many Christians the questions really start with Genesis. I’ll also ignore the big questions that faith poses to science—there are some of those, and they are also very important, but they would take us in different directions, so let’s put those, too, on the back burner for now.

So, let’s talk about origins, then, which is what most people implicitly mean when they talk about “science and the Bible.” I’ve been teaching adults and teenagers about this topic for thirty-five years, and have published work that addresses both the historical and contemporary aspects of the ongoing debate. All of that activity generates a lot of feedback—what works, what doesn’t; what’s helpful, what’s not; which issues to present, which ones to leave out. In the next few months, I’ll be offering an online version of lectures and readings that work, at least as far as I can tell from what students, faculty colleagues (several have sat in on my course), pastors, and members of local churches say about them. If you don’t find this course helpful, please tell me—in that way, you might at least be helpful to me, even if I haven’t helped you. However, if you do find it helpful, please tell others—and invite them to join in the conversation here at BioLogos.

What sort of conversation will this be? To a significant degree, it will be what you make it. I probably won’t be able to respond to each comment or question. My day job and other responsibilities will necessarily limit the time I can devote to this, as much as I might wish it were not so. Please don’t think I’m ignoring the author of a contribution, simply because I don’t respond to it. Actually, having too many comments for me to handle would be a great problem to have! Nevertheless, I’ll try to respond to as many separate issues (not necessarily separate comments) as I can. Quite often, I’ll point readers to places where they can learn more; IMO, the best learning experiences involve motivated minds pursuing the truth with diligence, sometimes with clear guidance from a teacher (a role I will try to fill as far as possible) and sometimes on their own.

An important caveat: print still matters, especially for this topic

One very important caveat: print books are not obsolete—at least not yet, and probably not for a long time to come. Keepers of the cloud would like you to believe that print has gone the way of the LP record, but the fact is that a lot of the best literature about Christianity and science is still available only in books, and a lot of those books are still available only in print. Or, perhaps the electronic version of the book is just not available for free from any source, whereas the print version can be borrowed from the library down the street—either from their own stacks or via “inter-library loan,” something else invented a long time ago that isn’t obsolete just yet.

The internet is wonderful in many ways, but the democratization of access to knowledge is not an unambiguously good thing. It’s not good when so many people seem to believe that everything they need to know about something can be found in three paragraphs that are no more than three clicks away. It’s not good when school children don’t use any print sources in their history projects (this is starting to happen). And it’s even worse when their school libraries have gotten rid of the very sources that might have been the best ones for them to use. I may sometimes recommend something that will be available to you only in a borrowed print book. You might have to wait a week or two to follow up with comments, but so what? To some younger folks that might sound like a life sentence, but if you limit yourself to what you can read in ten minutes on an iPad you might be missing something important that you really didn’t want to miss. So, if you have the patience to read something really good the old fashioned way, don’t hesitate to tell us about it, even if the current topic is something different. (Blogs aren’t usually seen this way, but as you’ve probably figured out I’m not your typical blogger.) Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your worldview is a lot more important than the Pantheon. Make the investment.

(Unfortunately, some of the best material is also found only in academic journals that can be accessed for free only at a few carefully selected academic libraries—even though almost all journals are now primarily in electronic form. I won’t hesitate to mention sources like these either. Articles can still be sent to public libraries by inter-library loan, and it’s not hard to do—someone at your local library can help you with it, if you want to follow up on a recommendation.)

Ultimately, that’s what this course will come down to: everyone has limited time, and everyone makes his or her own decisions about how deeply to explore the material I will present. Sometimes I’ll write a “lecture” that can be read in a few minutes, and that will be as far as you will want to go. Sometimes I’ll assign “homework” that may take a few hours, and perhaps you will find it time well spent. In short, you’ll have the opportunity to take an online course of the best kind—no grade to worry about, no tuition to pay, and no one making you do anything you don’t want to do. How’s that for a deal?!

Our goals for the course

Here’s what I hope to accomplish:

  • To help people understand the range of opinion about science & the Bible among Christians
  • To introduce people to the kinds of questions that come up, when origins is the topic
  • To present biblical, philosophical, theological, historical, and cultural aspects of the origins controversy—and to do this accurately & fairly, without distortion or rancor
  • To help people think more clearly for themselves about this topic

At the same time, I am NOT trying to do any of the following things:

  • To persuade anyone that any particular view of origins is the “correct” view
  • To persuade anyone that any particular view is NOT the “correct” view
  • To confuse anyone about any aspect of the origins debate (if and when this happens, please tell me what is confusing and I’ll try to be clearer)

None of this means that I have no opinions myself, or that I won’t offer them from time to time, especially when responding to your comments. However, my overall goal is to educate, not to indoctrinate. As I tell my students: I’m not interested in cloning my opinions; I’m not interested in telling anyone what to think. However, I do want people to adopt a similar attitude: I want people to think for themselves, to be fair to the viewpoints of others (this doesn’t mean that you must agree with someone’s view, but it means that you must not deliberately misrepresent it), and to acknowledge the shortcomings of your own position(s). Hold me to the same standards: none of us has a monopoly on truth. Imagine (as the Beatles might have said) all the people doing this in political discourse—wouldn’t we all be so much better off?

Five basic attitudes & approaches to origins

We will discuss five overall views about origins in coming weeks, in this order:

  • “Scientific Creationism,” or “young-earth” creationism. A common acronym for this view is YEC. When people use the word “creationism” without a preceding adjective, they usually mean this type of creationism.
  • “Concordism,” or “progressive creationism,” or “old-earth creationism” (OEC). Although some prominent YEC people are fond of saying this is really a type of “theistic evolution,” that is neither accurate nor helpful. This is a type of creationism, in which the special creation of humans (and usually the evolution of many other organisms) is clearly held.
  • The “Framework” view (I have not seen a common acronym). This view stands out because it’s not really about science at all, simply about the Bible; however, it is relevant to conversations about origins, as we shall see.
  • “Theistic evolution” (TE), which the folks here at BioLogos like to call “evolutionary creation” (EC), because the noun should be more important than the adjective. I will use the older term (TE), partly because I’m an historian and partly because it’s more widely recognized.
  • “Intelligent Design.” Nearly everyone calls this just ID, and so will I. Theoretically, ID is not supposed to be about the Bible at all (as I will explain when we get there), so it’s inclusion in this general topic could fairly be questioned. Indeed, I only started including ID in my lectures a few years ago, partly for that reason. I believe it belongs here, however, because many people sense (probably for good reasons) that ID can’t easily be separated from the larger conversation about God, origins, and the Bible—especially at the level of “culture wars,” where it seems to come up all the time.

One point about the “terms” of debate: many people who engage in on-line discussion of these topics take apparent glee in twisting these acronyms into dismissive alternatives, especially when they believe those who disagree with them aren’t just wrong, but stupid. Turning “ID-ists” into “IDiots” is one common example of what’s obviously just nasty name calling, and I won’t tolerate it. If you use any such terms, except to call attention to their pejorative usage, your post will disappear and you might not be back. You can find other ways to express strong disagreement with the positions of others without being childish.

I’ll present each of these positions in a separate column, or perhaps two columns if necessary. I’ll state the basic assumptions (for example, each view will include a proposition about the Bible), making every effort to do this in a manner that reflects what an adherent of that view would actually say. Then, I’ll draw some analytical conclusions about the view—again, trying to be fair to the position itself, even if I might be a bit critical of it. Finally, I’ll make some historical comments. This isn’t the place to write full histories of each view, and of course I will have to be very selective. I’ll let you in on a trade secret: every historian has to be selective, regardless of the topic and the word limit. The key is to do that without distorting the topic too badly. If you think I’m doing that, call me on it—but don’t be surprised if I answer simply by referring you to a book.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be back with one more introductory column before we start getting into the topic. I’ll introduce you to a few books where you can read broadly and fairly deeply about science and the Bible, and let you have a peek at the most important book that has ever been written about science and the Bible. That one is available on the internet, so we can all read it together. Can you guess what book it is? Hint: the author is no longer living. Not by a long shot.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.