A theology for science

Diagram linking God's word to scientific research via the entities subject to it

"Science" means "knowledge" according to its Latin root, and that is what the pursuit of science is popularly supposed to deliver. But a little reflection shows that scientific knowledge is of a certain kind - powerful but with some peculiar limitations.  The diagram above attempts to illustrate from a Christian perspective what scientists are doing.  It could be the starting point for a Christian account of scientific work.  At Faith-in-Scholarship we want to supplant traditional questions about "science and faith", "science and religion" or "science and theology".  As Tom McLeish argues, the problem in this traditional framing is the "and" - because "science" has no direct comparability with faith, religion or theology.  To see why this is so, we need a theological definition.

Much has been written on "theology of science" and "scientific theology", but rarely do people recognise the simple yet profound connection between the word of God and laws of nature. As used in the Bible, "word of God" has three important senses. There is the word of God as Scripture itself, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, and the word of God that commands and upholds the created order. Bible - Jesus - Word of Power

That last sense is crucial, yet often overlooked*. From the first "Let there be light!" to the indication in Hebrews 1:3 that God "upholds all things by the word of His power," the Scriptures contain many references to God's word as agent of natural processes (e.g. Ps 147:15-20), and there are important analogies between God's word and God's law (e.g. Ps 19).

So I propose a simple working definition of scientific research as "the search for the refraction of God's word that structures the created order."  That is to say that scientific work aims at articulating structural universals in the cosmos that emanate from God's word of power.  The natural sciences focus on laws of nature, structures and functions, classifications and principles; if we look as far as the Germanic concept of Wissenschaften (scholarship), we can also point to the identities and theorems of mathematics in one direction, and to the typologies, theories and frameworks of the humanities (even theology) in the other. This range of analytical phenomena is represented by the bottom tier of the diagram, which shows how we create scholarly artefacts by reference to "data".  All this is part of the "fact-side" of the created order: the concrete entities, situations and phenomena that we can experience - all, like ourselves as human beings, subject to God's creative word.  That word has been likened** to a radio broadcast permeating the cosmos, to which every creature tunes in on some wavelength. The scientist attempts to describe the radio waves themselves.

These scholarly artefacts thus refer beyond the fact-side of reality to the law-side (top tier of the diagram). People don't have to accept God's revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ in order to probe the structure of creation, God's "general revelation". But we can see natural laws, types and norms as the refraction of God's word into the diverse coherence of the order of creation, structuring the created order.

This definition of the sciences has important implications for how we relate scientific ideas to our daily Christian living and thinking. For example:

  • Starting from Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can know God through His word in all its three senses, before engaging in any scholarship (even theology).
  • The Bible generally refers to facts: specific events,  relationships, and persons and their acts (including God's self-revelation). Some regularities are of course described, such as God's faithful covenantal behaviour towards creatures - but these are still facts, not scholarship. Arguably the Bible is no more a theological textbook than a scientific one.
  • Scientific work does not produce "facts" (these are its data) but "artefacts": e.g. hypotheses, laws and theories. Hypotheses may refer to particulars (like the date of Jericho's fall), but "facts" is better reserved for beliefs founded on people's direct experience of particulars (like that event as witnessed by Joshua).
  • There's no privileged access to the lawlike refraction of God's word of power, but scientific training, insofar as it conforms our minds to the structures of the created order, can help us perceive it - and increasingly as we submit to the diverse, meaningful interconnectedness of that order.
  • Scientific knowledge is thus a kind of beliefs about the law-structure of the cosmos that are always subject to revision, although they may be highly reliable and - for all we know - approximately correct.

There's lots more to explore here. In a future post I shall probe some implications of this view for philosophy of science more generally.

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*Probably the best introduction to this theme is Gordon Spykman's "Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics" (1992, Eerdmans)

** by Dr David Hanson, Faith-in-Scholarship advisor.

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