Interpreting Creation, Part 2: Science-Faith Models

Interpreting Creation, Part 2: Science-Faith Models

Creationists and evolutionists employ dozens of models for addressing science-faith issues and for developing interpretative tools within the framework of those models.

In part 1 of this four-part series on Reasons to Believe’s apologetics and hermeneutical methods I reviewed the different apologetics methods used by Christian leaders. I also explained why I believe all these methods should be used and fully integrated in our apologetics and evangelism. Here, in part 2, I will briefly describe four different classes of models in current use across the creation-evolution spectrum of beliefs for dealing with science-faith issues, which one we employ at Reasons To Believe, and why.

Creationists and evolutionists employ dozens of models for addressing science-faith issues and for developing interpretative tools within the framework of those models. But all these models fall into four general categories:

  1. science and faith are independent of one another,
  2. science and faith are in conflict with one another,
  3. science and faith complement one another, and
  4. science and faith can be constructively integrated.

Separate Magisteria Model

Late evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould eloquently expressed the first model category more than a decade ago in a now classic article entitled “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” The article was first published (1997) in Natural History1 and later (1999, 2002) in Gould’s book Rock of Ages.2 It proposes “a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to…the supposed conflict between science and religion.” The solution Gould avers is recognition that science and religion define two different and completely independent domains of teaching, questions, and research. Since, according to Gould, the two domains do not overlap one another, there is no need for any conflict between the two.

Gould avoids overlap by limiting the magisterium of science to the empirical realm, to the collection of facts about the universe through experiments and observations, and to the developing of theories that explain why the universe works in the way that it does. Meanwhile, he limits the magisterium of religion to addressing questions of ultimate meaning and morality. To put it another way, science would address the “what” and “how” of phenomena while religion would tackle the “why.”

Gould was quick to point out that his proposal is not original to him. The Roman Catholic Church, at least since Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, has adopted a similar position. Thirteen years before Gould’s writings, the National Academy of Sciences USA wrote in its official publication Science and Creationism, “Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstandings of both scientific theory and religious belief.”3 And since the publication of Gould’s writings, most scientists holding membership in the National Academy of Sciences USA and many within the American Institute of Biological Sciences have embraced his resolution to creation-evolution and science-religion conflict issues.

Conflict Model

However, the separate magisterial model has come under strong criticism from both Christian and atheistic scientists. Christians bristle at the assertion that only science deals with facts and truth. Atheist biologist Richard Dawkins, writing for Free Inquiry stated,

It is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.4

Dawkins, therefore, advocates a conflict model with regard to science-faith issues. Since, in his opinion, science and religion (especially Christianity) make contradictory claims about the state of the natural world, they cannot both be right. He says there is no basis for peace. They are inexorably locked in a war where the only possible outcome is for one to be completely vanquished and the other forever declared the reigning victor.

But long before Dawkins articulated this battle-to-the-finish model, young-earth creationists, most notably the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, trumpeted the clarion call to Christians to join them in a war over science-faith issues. The only real difference between The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and Answers in Genesis is which side they declare to be morally repugnant and in need of removal from the face the earth.

Complementary Model   

Prominent geneticist, director of the National Institute of Health, and founder of the BioLogos Foundation, Francis Collins also criticizes separate magisteria. While Collins agrees with Gould that spirituality and moral ethics cannot be determined by scientific investigation, he insists that science, religion, and other spheres do partially overlap. He avoids conflict, however, by keeping the overlap slight.

Collins notes, for example, that the Bible clearly and repeatedly claims that the universe has a beginning, that the beginning of the universe is the origin of matter, energy, space, and time, and that this cosmic beginning is brought about by a causal agent beyond space and time. Mainstream science, he points out, has established the same conclusions. Another example where mainstream science and the Bible agree completely is on the claim that simple, small-bodied life on Earth precedes complex, large-bodied life. 

The complementary model that Collins promotes accepts overlap of the domains of science and religion where, at least in the context of the Christian faith, both mainstream scientists and mainstream theologians agree. Thus, there is no realistic possibility that these magisteria will ever disagree in any significant manner in the future.

Complementarians must work hard to limit the encroachment of the two domains on one another’s turf. Collins and his BioLogos colleagues, as already noted, are adamant that science has nothing to say about spirituality and moral ethics. This stand means that they must discount certain conclusions currently being drawn by cognitive psychologists and social neuroscientists in their published research.

Likewise, complementarians work hard to restrict what the Bible says about natural history. They view biblical creation accounts and texts as either mere polemics against near- and middle-eastern creation myths or as intended to communicate to the original audience only. Theologian John Walton’s recent book, The Lost World of Genesis One, is a good example of this thinking.5 Other complementarians, like theologian Peter Enns, see no need to strive for harmony between mainstream science and what the Bible says about natural history. Enns believes that, in partnering with human authors to inspire the Bible, God’s Holy Spirit willingly tolerated the human authors’ scientific errors.6

The complementary model attracts large numbers of adherents. Virtually all theistic evolutionists, evolutionary creationists, and liberal Christian theologians fall into this camp. In addition to BioLogos, most of the membership of the American Scientific Affiliation would identify themselves as complementarians.

Constructive Integration Model   

Of the four science-faith models the constructive integration model is the least popular. A few months ago I listened to an hour-long lecture on these four classes of models by a well-known scientist and apologist. The speaker could name only one organization that still holds to the constructive integration model: Reasons to Believe.

Constructive integration was not always so unpopular. During the Protestant Reformation nearly all Protestants and most Roman Catholics held this view. In fact, it is articulated in the Belgic Confession. Article 2 states that both the Bible and the record of nature are completely trustworthy and reliable and that nature and all of its creatures testify of God’s personal attributes and handiwork.

Constructive integrationists see not just a little overlap between science and Christian theology, but a great deal. That the scientific method and the scientific revolution had its origins in the Protestant Reformation, and in Reformation theology in particular,7 says a lot about the Bible’s wealth of scientific content. Constructive integrationists refer to over 1,500 Bible verses that specifically describe the natural realm and natural history. They also note that science has made huge strides in exploring what was once the private preserve of theologians. In his book, Creation of the Universe, atheist physicist Fang Li Zhi and his physicist wife, Li Shu Xian, write, “A question that has always been considered a topic of metaphysics or theology—the creation of the universe—has now become an area of active research in physics.”8

Today, cosmology is not the only place where science has penetrated theology’s domain. Advances in paleontology, archeology, geology, genetics, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, zoology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, physics, biochemistry, and such interdisciplinary studies as astrobiology and origin-of-life research are forcing scientists to consider the theological implications of their research.

Constructive integrationists take strong views of both science and Scripture. That is, they see both domains as content rich and wide in the scope of subjects and issues they address. Their belief in biblical inspiration implies that each book of the Bible is written to serve multiple purposes and to communicate relevant messages to all generations of humanity, not just to its original audience. Constructive integrationists cite Peter’s comment in his first letter, “It was revealed to them [the prophets] that they were not serving themselves but you.”9 Peter explains that the Old Testament prophets and even angels longed to understand what the Holy Spirit was inspiring the prophets to record.10 The prophets and angels had to be content that full understanding of the inspired words was for future generations.

However, constructive integration does not imply that conflicts between science and theology will never arise. Indeed, it anticipates that apparent contradictions between the two will always exist.

Science is not the same thing as the record of nature. It is humanity’s attempt to interpret nature’s record. God rendered nature as a perfectly reliable and trustworthy revelation, but humanity’s incomplete knowledge and philosophical biases provide every opportunity for the human investigator to draw an incorrect conclusion about nature’s record. The same goes for theology. It is not the same thing as the words of the Bible; it’s the human effort to interpret the Bible’s words. Again, owing to incomplete knowledge and philosophical biases, there are opportunities galore to draw the wrong conclusions about the Bible’s message. The words of the Bible and the factors of nature may be perfectly true. That does not mean our interpretations of them are correct.

Consequently, constructive integrationists see it as part of their tasks to ferret out the faulty human interpretations. Thus, they welcome apparent contradictions between biblical theology and science as opportunities to build a more detailed, comprehensive, and consistent creation model. They see in the apparent contradictions the capacity to put to the test competing creation/evolution models. If, for a particular model, the severity and extent of the apparent contradictions shrinks as scientific and theological research marches forward, that diminishment ranks as positive, confirming evidence for that model. If, on the other hand, the severity and extent increases, it provides a strong indication that the model either needs to be discarded or radically altered.

Constructive integrationists’ mission is to demonstrate, as comprehensively as possible, that the more we learn about the Bible and the record of nature the more reasons we gain for concluding that both sources faithfully testify, without error or contradiction, God’s attributes, the details of His creation handiwork, His care for His creation and creatures, and His plan of salvation He offers to every human being. In fulfilling their mission, constructive integrationists are committed to integrating all sixty-six books of the Bible and all disciplines and sub-disciplines of science and, in turn, integrating the full revelation of nature with the full revelation of the Bible, without limiting the scope of revelation from either.  

The history of the scientific enterprise testifies that the right answer is the answer consistent with all the data. Likewise, the right answer in theology is the answer consistent with all the biblical data. Both of these conclusions are based on the presumption—verified by observation—that we live in a world free of contradictions. Consequently, “The heart cannot rejoice in what the mind rejects,” as Galileo wrote. Building a robust biblical creation model true to Scripture and nature’s record is not an easy task. But it is a task that constructive integrations insist cannot be ignored if the Great Commission11 is ever to be fulfilled at the highest levels of learning and research. 

In part 3 of this series I will describe the biblical testing method (a.k.a. the scientific method) and how our scholar team at Reasons to Believe uses, and will continue to use, that method to build, improve, and extend our testable biblical creation model.

  1. Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 108 (March 1997): 16–22.
  2. Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002).
  3. Committee on Science and Creationism, James D. Ebert (chairman), Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1984): 6.
  4. Richard Dawkins, “When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf,” Free Inquiry 18, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 19.
  5. John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2009).
  6. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
  7. Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965); Torrance, Reality and Scientific Theology (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985); Torrance, “Ultimate and Penultimate Beliefs in Science,” in Facets of Faith & Science, Volume I: Historiography and Modes of Interaction, ed. Jitse M. van der Meer (New York: University Press of America, 1996), 151–76.
  8. Fang Li Zhi and Li Shu Xian, Creation of the Universe (Singapore: World Scientific, 1989), 173.
  9. 1 Peter 1:12a (NIV).
  10. 1 Peter 1:10–12 (NIV).
  11. Matthew 28:18–20 (NIV).