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Science in Theological Perspective Site Map

John Byl bio

 

Preliminary Considerations:
On Scientific and Theological Method

John Byl, Ph.D.

 

Can a Christian living in the space age still believe in heaven, angels, and life after death, or has modern scientific knowledge disproven such naive notions? Does the big bang theory provide evidence for a Creator, or does it cast doubt upon Genesis?

Christians are being increasingly confronted with such disturbing questions. The aim of this study is to examine some of the deeper issues lurking behind these problems. Our investigations will take us into the realms of cosmology and theology: cosmology is the science concerned with the study of the physical universe as a whole (we shall consider it to include cosmogony, the study of the origin of the universe); theology is the study of God and His revelation.

How do theology and cosmology affect each other? To what extent is cosmology influenced by theological biases? What, if any, theological consequences can be drawn from cosmology? Such questions will form the focus of this study. We shall limit ourselves primarily to Christian theology, taking the Bible as the prime source of divine revelation.

For Christians a major issue is that of what the Bible has to say regarding cosmology. The Bible certainly seems to address itself quite specifically to the origin and destiny of the universe, as well as to the existence of a spiritual world. In medieval times a detailed cosmology was constructed, based, it was thought, on such Biblical information.

In modern times the situation has changed. The old medieval picture of the universe has long since been discarded. It has been replaced by a new dominant cosmology: the big bang theory. This theory postulates that the physical universe, with all its contents, were caused by the initial explosion (the big bang), and subsequent development, of a highly compressed ball of energy-matter.

How is this modern cosmology to be reconciled with Christianity? Christians have reacted with a rather wide range of opinion. It is clear that big bang cosmology is at odds with the traditional interpretation of the Bible. The acceptance of big bang cosmology thus requires a new look at those biblical texts that appear to have cosmological implications.

One possible approach is that of concordism, which strives to reinterpret the Bible so as to bring it into harmony with modern cosmology. Indeed, some authors claim that the big bang actually confirms Genesis, if only we read it properly.

Others, convinced that such concordist interpretations are invalid, may adopt more drastic methods. Perhaps the Bible, written in a prescientific age, is in error when it addresses scientific matters. Perhaps the Bible is concerned only with theological matters. A view that has recently become quite popular is that of complementarianism, which sees cosmology and theology as totally independent, each dealing with different matters: the give complementary descriptions of the same reality. Theology deals with questions of Who and Why; science deals with matters of When and How.

In short, adapting the Bible to big bang cosmology seems to entail either stretching its interpretation or curtailing its authority.
The other alternative is to adapt cosmology to the Bible, or at least, to the traditional reading of the Bible as it has been accepted by the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages. As this implies the rejection of big bang cosmology, questions must now in turn be asked regarding the status and authority of cosmological theories: How well established is big bang cosmology? and is it possible to construct viable, Bible-based alternative cosmologies?

 

Evaluating Cosmological Models
Most astronomers - and also many theologians - are convinced that the big bang theory is essentially correct. In a subsequent chapter we shall examine in some detail the strengths and weaknesses of this dominant cosmological theory. At this point I wish to raise only a few preliminary concerns.

In constructing a cosmological theory, or "model" (i.e., a simplified mathematical representation) of the origin and structure of the entire universe it is clear that we have only limited observational data at our disposal. It is only in the last 70 years or so that we have observed very distant galaxies. And even what we can presently observe forms, apparently, only a small fraction of the whole universe.

To draw general conclusions regarding the whole universe from a limited set of data necessarily requires that we make some theoretical assumptions. For example, we can not directly observe the big bang, which supposedly occurred some 15 billion years ago; it can only be inferred on the basis of data, in the form of light rays, which we receive now.

Moreover, as we shall see, the data are explicable in a number of different ways. Can we be certain, for example, that the physical laws applicable here and now are valid universally? Perhaps the constant of gravity or the speed of light varies in space and time. A number of such proposals can be found in professional astronomical journals. Or, perhaps, the entire universe was created instantaneously, in the not-too-distant past. While such a possibility may strike us as unlikely, it is notoriously difficult to disprove. In short, there exist a host of possible theoretical extensions and explanations of the astronomical observations.

Given such a large choice of theories, how can we hope to stumble upon the correct theory? Indeed, even if we were to chance upon the best theory, how could we recognize it as such? Or, for that matter, how can we even choose the better of only two competing theories?

Within the last half century it has come to be quite generally accepted that scientific theories can't be simply deduced from observations. On the contrary, the origin of scientific theories is now considered to be largely subjective. The noted philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper asserts that "we must regard all laws or theories as hypothetical or conjectural; that is, as guesses";[1] he sees theories as "the free creations of our minds."[2] Or, as Carl Hempel puts it:

The transition from data to theory requires creative imagination. Scientific hypotheses and theories are not derived from observed facts, but are invented in order to account for them.[3]

It seems that theories are not so much given to us by nature as imposed by us on nature; they are not so much the result of rational thought as the creations of our irrational intuition.

While one might think that further research may falsify the majority of such theories, this is in practise not easily done. A favoured theory, such as big bang cosmology, can always be saved from observational disproof by making suitable modifications to it. A theory that must be supported by artificial, "ad hoc" (i.e., designed specifically to overcome a particular shortcoming) devices is generally not highly ranked in terms of plausibility. Nevertheless, however difficult it may be to demonstrate a particular ad hoc theory to be true, it is even harder to conclusively disprove it. According to Imre Lakatos: "Scientific theories are not only equally unprovable, and equally improbable, but they are also equally undisprovable."[4]

While recognizing that there was no logic to the discovery of theories, Popper hoped to construct a rational process for the objective selection of theories. He proposed that genuine scientific theories should be "falsifiable" (i.e., they should make definite testable predictions). However, if we were to apply this criterion to cosmology we would have little theory left over: currently virtually all cosmological models are falsified by observations. Nor does Popper offer any justification as to why easily falsifiable theories are more likely to be true than others.

It is, of course, possible to play the game of cosmology under different rules. Various criteria for assessing theories have been suggested. For example, Howard van Till lists those of cognitive relevance, predictive accuracy, coherence, explanatory scope, unifying power, and fertility.[5] Yet, while such criteria may seem reasonable enough, it is generally granted that they are by no means rigorous. They merely reflect values used in practice. Indeed, the creation of selection criteria is no less subjective than the creation of scientific theories. As Lakatos notes:

These scientific games are without genuine epistemological (i.e., having to do with knowledge, JB) content unless we superimpose on them some sort of metaphysical principle which will say that the game, as specified by the methodology, gives us the best chance of approaching the truth.[6]

In short, science in general - and cosmology in particular - is plagued by the lack of definite, objective criteria that might allow us to easily separate true theories from false ones. It is at this crucial point that we must often guided by extrascientific factors.

 

Religious Commitments
This brings us to the question as to what role religious commitments should play in cosmological theorizing. How should religious beliefs influence cosmology?

It is clear that in practise, at least, religious beliefs can play a decisive role in the creation, assessment, and selection of cosmological theories. For example, the choice for or against the big bang is sometimes made on the basis of religious grounds. Thus Fred Hoyle[7] rejects big bang cosmology at least in part because the sudden appearance of the universe at a finite time in the past seems to him to imply a supernatural cause, while, on the same grounds, Christians such as Norman Geisler[8] and Hugh Ross[9] are favourably inclined towards the big bang.

Or consider the rejection by creationists of an long evolutionary history of the universe. This is based primarily on their religious commitment to the Bible. On the other hand, the National Academy of Science in the U.S.A. has objected to creationism primarily on that grounds that creationism "subordinates evidence to statements made on authority and revelation" and that "it accounts for the origin of life by supernatural means".[10] This prompt rejection of revelation and the supernatural is likewise a religious choice. In this regard it is notable that modern cosmology is marked by a pervasive naturalism that leaves little room for any religion in the traditional sense.

Are such religious commitments legitimate? Howard Van Till contends that extrascientific dogma should not influence our assessments and selection of theories:


Religious commitments, whether theistic or nontheistic, should not be permitted to interfere with the normal functioning of the epistemic value system developed and employed within the scientific community. Great mischief is done when extrascientific dogma is allowed to take precedence over epistemic values such as cognitive relevance, predictive accuracy...Science held hostage to any belief system, whether naturalistic or theistic, can no longer function effectively to gain knowledge of the physical universe...Science held hostage by extrascientific dogma is science made barren."[11]

 

Van Till's exclusion of religious commitments from the selection of scientific theories follows from his presupposition that science and religion complement each other, each being sovereign in its own domain. But even this consideration, like all standards for theory selection, is itself based on extrascientific considerations.

At heart we cannot avoid being guided by religious and philosophical factors in our assessment and selection of theories. However much one might wish to eliminate the supernatural from science, it is quite another matter to prove that it actually is absent from reality. The universe beyond our observations may be quite different from our preferred cosmological model.
It is undeniable that religious and philosophical prejudices have at times blinded their adherents to blatant deficiencies in favoured theories and to obvious advantages in rival models. It is thus important that such presuppositions be made very explicit. To minimize undue distortion and bias, our premises and criteria should at least be stated openly.

Special and General Revelation
Given the importance of presuppositions, the most basic question is that of our epistemology (i.e., our theory of knowledge): how should we rate the various sources of knowledge? More specifically, how should we rate divine revelation as a source of cosmological knowledge?

One could, for example, adopt the orthodox position that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that the traditional interpretation is the intended one. Granted the premise of an omniscient God who has revealed truth to us, it follows that divine revelation should speak authoritatively on all it addresses. Such a divine source of knowledge would carry more epistemological weight than mere speculative theorizing, with its subjective criteria and assessments.

A consequence of such an epistemology is that cosmological theories should be selected so as to be consistent with Scripture.
One objection that has been voiced against the orthodox position is its limited view of divine revelation. Christians have long distinguished between God's special revelation (i.e., the Bible) and His general revelation (i.e., history and nature). God, it was said, reveals Himself through both His Word and His works.

In the traditional view general revelation consists only of God's self-revelation. Through His works of creation and providence the invisible character of God is made known (e.g., Rom.1:20). After the fall, man's knowledge of God through general revelation has been darkened by sin, so that Scripture and the grace of the Holy Spirit are now needed for man to understand properly the message of general revelation.[12]

Those who reject this view often justify this by appealing to a more expanded assessment of general revelation. Recently David Diehl has urged that general revelation should include not only knowledge of God, but also that of His works in nature. He has in mind both observations of nature as well as scientific theorizing that goes beyond the observations. According to Diehl, some scientific views that have been unpopular with theologians are so well-established that it would be truly unscientific and unfair to general revelation to reject them.[13] Special and general revelation should, asserts Diehl, have equal authority, each having final authority within its own territory.

What are we to make of this? To be sure, few would deny the importance of our observations of nature. Nor would many object to the principle that our reading of Scripture should be consistent with our experiences of nature. In this sense "general revelation" (I would prefer the term "nature" here) is surely authoritative: we must appeal to it, or at least our experiences of it, as a check on all our scientific theorizing.

Further, to make sense or our reading of Scripture we must rely on the rules of logic. God has made the universe in such a way that these rules apply, and God has endowed man, created in His image, with the analytical abilities to apply these laws. Observations and logic both come directly from God.

However, our reasoning powers are not confined to the mere application of logic but include also the ability for imaginative, theoretical thought. Unfortunately, particularly after the Fall, our reasoning is a tool that is controlled by our inner desires. As such it can easily be misguided: "for out of the heart come evil thought" (Matt.15:19). Clearly, man is responsible for his thoughts and hence also for their products: scientific theories. After all, as we have seen, scientific theories are but the speculative inventions of man's creative imagination.

A proper epistemology will thus give high weight to Scripture, observations, and logic. These are all God-given and will thus be in harmony; they form the touchstone of our knowledge. On the other hand, human theorizing, in all its forms, is in a much lower category of knowledge. If it fails the test of logic, observation, and Scripture then we can reject it as certainly false. Even if it passes this test we must be cautious: any claims that goes beyond observation and Scripture is still likely to be false.

The difficulty with Diehl's position arises when he extends the contents of "general revelation" beyond observational data and logic to include also scientific theories. If, as Diehl believes, general revelation is infallible, then such infallibility must also be granted to certain theories. But which ones? The history of science is filled with many examples of scientific theories, now discarded, that were once held as undoubted truths. The most famous such case is that of Newtonian mechanics, which was for centuries considered as absolutely true but which has now been dethroned by Einstein's theory of relativity. Unfortunately, Diehl offers no criteria by which we can separate correct theories from false ones.

The notion that God has revealed truth in two books, Scripture and nature, has been used as a means of reconciling science and Scripture already from the beginning of the scientific revolution. Historically, however, the doctrine of the two books has led to a decline in biblical authority. Once we allow the premise that some scientific theories can be taken as divine truth then we are in essence permitting the "book of science" to modify Scripture. In the absence of valid criteria by which we can devise and detect correct theories, our reading of the Bible will be forever subjected to the latest favoured scientific theory.

In short, a major problem in reconciling science and Scripture is what we can refer to as "the problem of scientific knowledge": we have no justifiably valid criteria for finding correct theories. The only place where it is relatively[14] easy to draw a line is between observations and theories that are devised to explain or extend the observations. We can accept as scientific facts only the actual observed data. Once we step beyond the observations we are set adrift in a sea of subjective speculation.

 

Hermeneutics
Thus far I have defended the notions that religious commitments may influence cosmological theorizing and that relevant divine revelation should be limited to special revelation. But what does the Bible have to say on cosmological matters? How are we to interpret those passages that seem to deal with this issue? What hermeneutical principles should be employed?

The question of the proper interpretation of Scripture has been disputed already from the early days of Christianity. Augustine, and later Aquinas, argued that we should take the Bible in its literal sense, unless internal Scriptural evidence shows conclusively that a non-literal interpretation is required. As to the claims of natural knowledge, these were to be over-ridden by Scripture unless they could be proven to be true. The lightest word of God was to have precedence over the heaviest word of man unless the latter could be conclusively demonstrated. In that case, since God's word can not conflict with the truth, it is evident that another interpretation is required.

But what would constitute a valid proof of the correctness of any item of extra-biblical knowledge? Since the 16th century, with the advancement of scientific investigation, various aspects of the traditional interpretation of Scripture have been challenged: for example, its apparent geocentricity, the account of Noah's Flood, Biblical chronology, and the story of Adam and Eve. Some Christians have nevertheless held on to the literal reading of Scripture, denying that the new scientific ideas had been adequately demonstrated. Most, however, felt the need to modify their reading of Scripture at least to some degree.

At first the troublesome portions of Scripture were merely reinterpreted so as to be reconciled with modern learning. Elastic methods of interpretation were advocated. To take just one typical example of this concordist school, consider Davis Young, a Christian geologist, writing in 1982:

We need not twist or misinterpret the facts in order to get agreement between the Bible and science. Christians must realize that the Scriptures do not require us to believe in six twenty-four-hour days of creation. There is legitimate internal biblical evidence to indicate that the days of creation may have been indefinite periods of time. Moreover, the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 need not be taken in a rigidly literal fashion...It is not entirely clear that the Bible is talking about a geographically universal flood...There is considerable room for legitimate variation of interpretation of the creation and the flood.[15]

The obvious difficulty with such a flexible approach to Scripture is the danger of merely reading out of it what we put in. Scripture is reduced to a mirror of human thoughts rather than a source of divine light.

The inadequacies of concordism have been stressed by none other than Young himself in a more recent work, where he repudiates his earlier concordism:

...all the variations of the concordist theme give us a Bible that is constantly held hostage to the latest scientific theorizing. Texts are twisted, pulled, poked, stretched, and prodded to "agree" with scientific conclusions, so that concordism today undermines honest, Christian exegesis.[16]

Concordism is inconsistent with an epistemology that stresses the supremacy of God's word. It is crucial that we adopt a hermeneutic that is not unduly influenced by human theorizing. If we are to listen to God's word with an open ear then we must strive to interpret the text objectively, applying sound hermeneutical principles. The most direct, natural interpretation is thus generally to be preferred, unless internal Scriptural evidence indicates otherwise.

 

Limited Biblical Authority
It is noteworthy that Young comes to the conclusion that, leaving aside extra-biblical considerations, the literal interpretation of Genesis is, after all, exegetically preferred.

Nevertheless, Young believes that the weight of scientific evidence is such that the literal reading can't be true. Having rejected concordism, Young opts for what amounts to a limitation of biblical authority. He advocates that we treat Genesis 1 not as a scientific or historical report, but as a piece of ancient literature with well-defined thought patterns, structures, symbols and images, intended to convey theological truths.[17]

In recent years the nature and extent of Biblical authority has been much discussed also in evangelical circles. One increasingly popular position is that science and Scripture do not contradict each other, but complement each other. Howard van Till, a Christian astronomer and a colleague of Young, has vigorously supported this point of view. As we have already noted, van Till believes that science should be religiously neutral. According to van Till, the evolutionary and biblical views of the cosmos are complementary descriptions that answer different types of questions. Science reveals information about the physical structure and past history of the universe; the Bible tells us about its relation to God. Science answers question of "how" and "when"; the Bible answers questions about "who" and "why".[18]

The difficulty with this solution is that the Bible itself doesn't suggest that its authority is limited to theological questions of "who" or "why". On the contrary, it seems at times to speak rather specifically on such matters, also regarding the origin of the physical universe. On what grounds, then, can we set a boundary to its authority?

Van Till tries to draw a line by distinguishing between the divine contents of a biblical story and the human packaging in which it comes. The theological thrust of a Biblical passage can be taken as trustworthy, but not the specific physical details that form the "packaging":

so we as readers of Scripture must be studiously and prayerfully wise in separating the contents (the trustworthy teachings of God) from the vehicle and packaging. Neglecting that separation would be as foolish as attempting to eat a granola bar without first removing it from its wrapper...[19]

Yet one may well ask how van Till can be so certain that the "packaging" is not divinely inspired as well. How, in the absence of clear, divinely ratified criteria can we ever hope to disentangle the divine message from the allegedly human wrappings? Ultimately the discernment of the divine teachings contained in Scripture is left to the subjective whims of the individual reader.

Of course, there are other options beyond the above categories of concordism and complementarianism. One could consider Scripture and science to be either more or less interdependent. However, to the extent that these involve a reduction in Biblical authority, the same considerations apply.

We conclude that whereas concordism unduly distorted the Biblical message by its elastic hermeneutics, complementarianism distorts it by imposing unwarranted limits on Biblical authority. Those who wish to modify the traditional reading of Scripture are plagued with the lack of clear, valid criteria for separating the wheat from the alleged chaff. If we cannot accept all of Scripture as authoritative, how can be sure any of it is?

It should be noted that the proclamation of the epistemological supremacy of Scripture implies its inerrancy. If we accept Scripture as the highest standard then there is no means to test its accuracy; inerrancy must be assumed from the start. If we follow the principle that Scripture must interpret Scripture, then our interpretation of Scripture should be internally consistent: there should be no internal errors. Of course, since the Bible does make specific predictions regarding the future, Biblical claims are ultimately testable. Meanwhile, however, we must resist the temptation to "prove" inerrancy by appealing to scientific evidence, for that in effect makes the scientist, fallible man that he is, the judge of Scripture. Hence inerrancy must be our starting point, not our conclusion.

Is the traditional interpretation of an all-authoritative Scripture tenable in our scientific age? That is the prime question to be addressed in the chapters ahead. It is noteworthy that, if scientific "facts" are to be limited to direct observations, there will be little actual conflict between the Bible and scientific knowledge. After all, the Bible is concerned with events in the distant past, in the (as yet unobserved) future, and in the (unseen) spiritual realm; scientific observations concern only the present and the very recent past. The main conflicts that can arise will be between the Bible and scientific theorizing. The fundamental question that must be posed is, therefore, whether the scientific theories of modern cosmology, uncertain as they may be, are nevertheless sufficiently established to warrant their elevation above Scripture.

 

Preview
Having dealt with preliminary considerations regarding science and Scripture, let me briefly sketch out our course for the remainder of this book. Our study will focus on two basic questions:

1. How have theological and philosophical considerations influenced the construction, assessment, and selection of cosmological theories?

2. How have recent cosmological models influenced modern theology?

We shall begin, in the next chapter, with a brief examination of medieval cosmology, its theological connections, and the factors that led from it to modern cosmology. In the following chapter big bang cosmology will be analyzed. Its strengths, weaknesses, and underlying assumptions will be discussed. Various alternative cosmological interpretations of the observational evidence will be presented.

The next chapters examine various theological implications that have been drawn from big bang cosmology. Cosmological evidence has been used in a number of proofs for the existence of God. The validity of such proofs is the topic of one chapter. Another chapter deals with the future of the universe, particularly with regards to life. The possibility of extra-terrestrial life is also examined. Supporters of modern cosmology have proposed a variety of gods allegedly more feasible in the modern world than the Christian God. These strange gods, and the hope the might present for a life hereafter, will be discussed in a further chapter.

Next we examine what the Bible has to say regarding cosmological matters. This is followed by a chapter examining a variety of cosmological models that are built upon Biblical givens. The validity and function of such models are discussed, particularly with an eye on their usefulness as an apologetic tool. A final chapter summarizes the conclusions reached.

John Byl is an author and scientist. This chapter, used with permission, is part of a larger forthcoming work.

 

Notes

[1]  Karl R. Popper, Objective Knowledge (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p.9.
[2]  Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge, 1963), p.192.
[3]  Carl G. Hempel, Philosophy of Natural Science (Engelwood Cliff: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p.15.
[4]  Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Research Programmes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980 edition), p.19.
[5]  Howard van Till, Portraits of Creation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), pp.141-146.
[6] Lakatos, op.cit., p.122.
[7] Fred Hoyle, Astronomy and Cosmology (San Francisco: Freeman, 1975), pp.684-685.
[8] Norman L. Geisler, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22(1979):282.
[9]  Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God (Orange: Promise Pub. Co., 2nd edition, 1991).
[10]  Scientific Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Science (Washington: National Academy Press, 1984).
[11]  H. van Till, op.cit., pp.149-150.
[12]  see, for example, Bruce A. Demerest, General Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).
[13]  David W.Diehl, "Evangelicalism and General Revelation: An Unfinished Agenda", The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30(1987):441.
[14]  I say here "relatively" since even our observations are theory-laden. Yet I would argue that these observations are still much more secure than their theoretical extrapolations.
[15] Davis Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p.152.
[16]  Davis Young, "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists", Westminster Theological Journal 49(1987):6.
[17]  Davis Young, "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists", pp.303-304.
[18]  Howard J. Van Till, The Fourth Day (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), pp.193-215.
[19]  H. Van Till, The Fourth Day, pp.15-16.

 
 
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