Does Science Trump Theology?

Um, surely you don’t expect a short answer from me?! Not when there is so much bad science to consider, and also—believe it or not—a lot of bad theology, as well!

Most scientists, certainly, and probably most theologians agree that “theology is about God”, and “science is about purely natural and self-sustaining processes.” As someone who has been passionately interested in both theology and science from an early age, my view is that there is an unavoidable overlap. Both disciplines, in a very real sense, share the same goal—uncovering truth about the universe around us—and both disciplines come from the same source—the God who created and maintains the universe.

you can’t fully understand the universe without understanding the Designer who built it and instituted the natural laws that govern its existence, and you can’t fully understand God without understanding the environment He created for His creatures.

I am contending here that science is worth listening to and not simply dismissing as an enemy of faith. Most of my readers are intelligent Christian Believers but are neither scientists nor theologians. To those, I pose the question:

Can we only believe what our eyes show us if it conforms to what we have been taught? Can we not even consider that there are “mysteries” (Paul’s term) that can only be understood with the passage of time? We even have a theological term for that: “progressive revelation.”

JWST images of two distant spiral galaxies, as they appeared an estimated 10.3 billion light years ago using scales based on current physics. © Provided by ABC NEWS

Rom 1:19-20
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them [the ungodly and unrighteous], because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. ESV

If God has revealed Himself in nature to the ungodly, then who are we as believers to say that there is no benefit to us in that same revelation? I live by the principle that God gave me “eyes to see and ears to hear”. If my senses seem to conflict with what I have been taught to believe, then I must question both my senses and my beliefs. That doesn’t happen often, because I’ve had pretty good teachers over the decades. But not everything in the Bible is crystal clear. Most trained pastors and theologians subscribe to a particular “hermeneutic“, or system of principles for exegesis, i.e., interpretation of Scripture. See, for example, the book, Basic Bible Interpretation, by Roy B. Zuck.

I am a Biblical “literalist”, but that doesn’t mean I take every last word as literal. Does anyone believe that Jesus’ parables were literally true stories? A parable, by definition, is a made-up story designed to teach a principle. Did Peter see a real sheet containing real animals? I don’t think so, it was a vision, not reality, and was meant to teach him a lesson about people, not food. Is “three days and three nights” exactly 72 hours? No, that’s a well-attested Hebrew figure of speech. As is the “evil” or “single” eye of Matthew 6:22, which is about stinginess. Did Jesus promise me a mansion in Heaven? No that’s both a translation issue (“mansion” vs. “dwelling place”) and a misapplication of Hebrew wedding imagery, which Jesus’ hearers would have immediately recognized as such and not understood as a real estate promise (see “Jesus and Hebrew Wedding Imagery“). Will the meek inherit the earth? No, that’s a quote of Psalm 37:11 where David was speaking poetically of the prophesied return of Israel (the meek) to the Promised Land. Are there helicopters in Revelation? Maybe so, maybe no, but everyone agrees the wording there is symbolic.

On the other hand, did Jesus convert water into wine, and did He resurrect from the dead? Emphatically, yes! Science can’t demonstrate the possibility of either, but neither can they be disproved, and the facts are fundamental to my belief system. The same with Adam and Eve, the Genesis Flood, the Sea of Suf (Red/Reed Sea) crossing, manna from heaven, and numerous other phenomena that some folks can’t believe.

On yet another hand, was the Ark a ship, as some would have you believe is unarguable fact? Not in my opinion (see “Ships, Boats, Floats and Arks“), but the story itself is true, nevertheless. Did the Genesis flood change the entire structure of the earth’s crust? Not in my opinion (see “Fountains of the Deep“). There is no scriptural support for this simplistic theory, and there are better explanations for the apparent age of the earth. I plan, in perhaps my next post, to list a number of geological features that, in my professional opinion, could not have been caused by either a local or a general, worldwide flood.

In my view nothing in the Bible is in any way flawed—ever—but the Bible is written to convey facts about God Himself, and about God’s Will as expressed through Theology.

Information the Bible offers about human or natural history, or about scientific principles, is only incidental to the goal of explaining and glorifying God and His Will, and in my opinion is not intended to be exhaustive or fully explained. Furthermore, the human instruments who penned scripture, and the ancient audience for which it was initially penned, were historically and scientifically naïve and would have no perspective from which to correctly receive sophisticated explanations about the universe around them.

Sometimes science presents us with observations that are very compelling but seemingly out of sync with our assumptions based on traditional interpretations of scripture. For example, the following KJV references are all from poetic scriptures praising God for His power and greatness and for the stability and security of the planet He created for us:

  • For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.
    —Psalm 33:9
  • the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.
    —Psalm 93:1c
  • the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved:
    —Psalm 96:10b
  • Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed [ESV: “moved”] for ever.
    —Psalm 104:5
  • the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.
    —1 Chronicles 16:30b
  • and, behold, all the earth sitteth still, and is at rest.
    —Zechariah 1:11

These verses “prove beyond any shadow of doubt” that the earth is totally immobile, and the center around which the universe rotates! But, thanks to progressive revelation, we now interpret those scriptures in ways that conform to observation. At some point in the course of using our God-given senses and intelligence, it may occasionally become necessary to thus reexamine certain scriptures to see if there is something that we may have missed, or a conclusion we reached in error because in the past “it seemed to make more sense” than any alternative view. Certainly, I’m not talking about giving up fundamental faith issues, but I am suggesting that we should be more astute about recognizing what is fundamental and what is merely tradition. To my thinking, scripture is clear that God is the Creator. That is a fundamental of my faith, but the brevity of the Genesis 1 account and its wording in the Hebrew makes me much less confident in the traditional interpretations.

I similarly question whether Genesis 2 is a recapitulation of Day 6 in Genesis 1, or a separate creation event. What is fundamental to me is that Adam and Eve were real people, created directly by God, and placed into a real paradise where they really sinned. Noah, too, was a real person and all subsequent humans are descended from him. Without these fundamentals, my whole concept of soteriology is flawed, and my faith is in vain.

The dual advents of Jesus were a mystery to all Believers until Jesus died, and His followers had to reexamine ancient scriptures and develop new interpretations of passages that were not as clear and final as had been thought previously.

I do not believe in biological evolution, for reasons that I may go into in a future post.

At the same time, I reject “Young Earth” hypotheses about the way God created the non-organic universe. I believe that Earth is some 4.5 billion years old, and the universe nearly 14 billion. I’ll leave it to a future post to explain how I reconcile this with the “Genesis account”, which I refuse to explain away as mere symbolism. To reiterate, I believe in a literal, worldwide Genesis Flood, but I reject the theory that it accounts for the present geology of the earth.

Please dismiss the idea that “the theory of evolution” has anything to do with the development of the universe. “Evolution”, as I use the term, is about biological processes and “natural selection”, neither of which have anything whatsoever to do with star formation or the origin of the Solar system. If the formation of a star from interstellar gas and dust is “evolution”, then I guess the formation of a sinkhole after a water main break must also be called evolution.

To close out this post, I want to mention several similarities between Science and Theology:

Both disciplines deal in theory. Christians are fond of saying that, “Evolution is just a theory, not an established fact.” Not a “Law.” When I was a kid, the “Scientific Method” recognized three discrete levels of understanding: hypothesis, theory, and law. Many people brought up in that era see the word “theory” and assume that this is something unproven and tentative. That is no longer the case, linguistically. Reality has blurred the boundaries between theory and law. Many things that were once considered “law” are now recognized to have conditions, or limits. “Newton’s Laws”, for example, are now accepted as useful approximations under certain conditions, but under others, they have to be replaced by Relativistic principles, and even Relativity now sometimes must give way to Quantum Mechanics. So, even though biological evolution is still called a “theory”, most biologists are totally convinced of its truth, or at least that it is a valid working principle. Insisting that it is “theory” and not “fact” is, in this era, an empty argument. In the same way, theological principles must be considered theoretical up to a point, because we aren’t God! We simply cannot have a perfect understanding of scripture.

Both disciplines have an infallible basis. What?! Theology is at heart based on the Bible, which we believe to be inerrant and infallible. That is axiomatic to our beliefs. Most sciences, too—not so much biology, but certainly cosmology (the study of how the universe developed from the time of the “Big Bang”)—have a mathematical foundation, and math is an “exact science.” Math is the inerrant “scripture” of science, and it, too, was authored by God. It originated with God, it is absolute, and much of it is very well understood by human mathematicians.

Both disciplines have elements that are subject to interpretation. Some branches of math, like Probability and Statistics, can be erroneously interpreted and wrong conclusions drawn; and proven valid equations can sometimes be applied incorrectly to observation. But the same can be said about scripture. Sometimes scripture can be misinterpreted or misapplied. Again, we are not God!

Author: Ron Thompson

Retired President of R. L Thompson Engineering, Inc.

6 thoughts on “Does Science Trump Theology?”

  1. Very well written piece, Ron. I do take exception to one detail you mentioned, though – “In my view nothing in the Bible is in any way flawed—ever!” I agree with that 100% referring to the original manuscript – which may be what you’re implying. However, with the plethora of myriad translations over the centuries there are some proven flaws, That being said, God has had His hand on His Word to preserve the Truth of what He declares in spite of the flaws created via human bias.

    Overall we can trust what the Bible says as Truth and apply it to our lives.

  2. Absolutely right, Carroll. My original draft had, “nothing in the Bible, in its original autographs, is in any way flawed…” That’s one of several clauses that got edited out for brevity. My own assessment is: (a) scribal errors, very few and all superficial; (b) passage insertions/deletions, more troublesome but well documented; and (c) translational issues, numerous and troubling, which is why we must often depend on a trusted commentary by someone who is strong on linguistics when we deal with difficult passages. There is an additional factor which is generally overlooked. I believe that the synoptic gospels and parts of Acts were originally written in Hebrew, so our English versions are in those cases a translation of a translation. Even if I’m wrong about that, the human authors were all Jewish, i.e., Hebrew thinkers, and the Greek must be used carefully so as not to obscure that fact.

  3. This is very interesting. I can’t wait to see future explanations and won’t draw any conclusions until then.

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