White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“Science and the Doctrine of Creation” Edited by Geoffrey H. Fulkerson and Joel Thomas Chopp

Published Wednesday, May 12, 2021 By Paul Nedelisky

In his Afterword to Science and the Doctrine of Creation, theologian Alister McGrath claims that the conflict model of the relation between science and religion “was a self-serving myth that was invented by Enlightenment rationalists in the 1700s, propagated by Victorian free-thinkers in the late 1800s” and now “is an outdated social construction” (241-242). However, a very different story emerges in the preceding essays in this volume. Here editors Fulkerson and Chopp have invited essays from ten active theologians to present the perspectives of ten prominent modern theologians on the doctrine of creation. The modern theologians showcased are:

William Burt Pope (1822-1903) by Fred Sanders

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1921) by Craig Bartholomew

B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) by Bradley J. Grundlach

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) by Joshua W. Jipp

Karl Barth (1886-1968) by Katherine Sonderegger

T. F. Torrance (1913-2007) by Keven J. Vanhoozer

Jurgen Moltmann (1926-) by Stephen N. Williams

Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014) by Christopher Schwobel

Robert Jenson (1930-2017) by Stephen John Wright

Colin Gunton (1941-2003) by Murray A. Rae

Without exception, the essays depict these theologians throughout their scholarly careers facing significant cultural and theoretical tensions between the apparent deliverances of science and the orthodox Christian doctrine of creation (among others). Why this is so isn’t difficult to figure out. A growing secularism is one of the hallmarks of modernity, and one of the chief pillars of secularism is a disenchanted, demythologized, closed, and mechanical understanding of the universe—one that has been routinely presented as the verdict of science since Bacon and Galileo. Obviously, this picture sits uneasily with a religion that traditionally claims that the universe was supernaturally created by a divine being who regularly and freely interacts with his creation. At a theoretical level, there is then undeniable conflict between science and religion. These theologians’ doctrines of creation are shaped by how they responded to this tension. They all felt it; they didn’t all respond in the same way.

Three key questions provide a sort of map on which to plot these responses. First, there is the question whether scripture or science has fundamental epistemic authority. Second, the question of how much knowledge of science is required for a theologian to provide a good theological response. Third, the question of what we might call the ‘cultural function’ of science.

By the 19th century, the scientific image of the world was largely disenchanted, meaning that all the operations of nature were understood to proceed in ways that could be explained by empirical science. Whereas scripture said that God created the world, there was no empirical evidence of this fact; whereas scripture said God created the first humans de novo, natural history and the theory of Darwinian evolution presented evidence that humans had gradually evolved from apes; whereas scripture said God throughout history down to the present interacted with creation, physics presented a closed universe of iron-clad laws of nature.

Which source is correct? Most of the theologians here held that there couldn’t be total capitulation to the scientific image. Bultmann alone of this number completely reinterpreted scripture and orthodox Christianity to avoid any conflict with science. He claimed that the traditional Christian narrative is a myth that we cannot accept as true without sacrificing our intellect (88). Christianity becomes an inward, quasi-existentialist form of therapy. At the other end of the spectrum, the Wesleyan William Pope refused to yield ground to naturalistic science, saying “It is impossible to state the theory of evolution as to preserve the integrity of the higher element in man’s nature…The Scriptural account is plain and express: man was created in the image of God…modern science will never find rest until it is acknowledged” (26).[1] But most of the theologians occupied a middle position, holding firm to supernatural creation, but making concessions to Darwinian evolution on the development of human beings.

The primary site of resistance to the scientific picture is on the issue of divine interaction with creation. Here are a variety of approaches: Barth ignores science insisting on the primacy of the story of reality as a dynamic relationship between God and man (114-119); Moltmann attempts a harebrained explanation of how God “makes room” for creation by conceptualizing God as a spatial being who “withdraws” to create a space for creation (160); Pannenberg finds sources of contingency in an otherwise law-governed creation to rationalize divine interaction while thinking of the Holy Spirit as a kind of “force field” (174-183).

How knowledgeable were the various theologians of the actual scientific accounts and evidence to which they were reacting? As Fulkerson and Chopp state in their introduction, “potential concord or potential conflict between science and religion must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, based on the material claims themselves” (11). But here Warfield alone seems to merit praise, engaging in depth with then-current theories of the origin of man, organizing conferences on the subject, attempting to understand what the empirical case for human evolution really was (67-68). Torrance seems to have read fairly widely in physics, with a penchant for finding vague and general analogues for theological concepts within the science (130-135). However, his understanding of Einstein’s work on relativity appears badly mistaken; Torrance takes him for a realist exemplar when in fact Einstein’s interpretation was fundamentally verificationist, following the methodology of one of the forerunners of logical positivism, Ernst Mach.[2]

But at least Torrance tried; most of the others seemed to have made little effort to engage deeply with science. Barth attempted to rule out on principle the possibility of scientific contribution or critique to the task of theology, and consequently gave it no attention (104). Jenson appears to have read just enough Hawking and Dawkins to repurpose temporal and evolutionary (‘adaptation’) categories for his own theological ends (201-205). I’ve mentioned already Moltmann’s attempt to conceptualize God in basic physical terms—a move that is perhaps even less convincing to a physicist than it is to a theologian!

Understanding the scientific evidence is, of course, crucial for understanding the nature and extent of its conflict with the doctrine of creation. But just as important is understanding the cultural function of science. This requires appreciating the “goods”—the purposes—which motivate the enterprise. Shouldn’t the good purpose of science just be to understand empirical reality insofar as its methods allow? Ideally, yes, and this is what McGrath and others seem to have in mind when they claim “no conflict” between science and Christianity. But there are two obstacles here. First, we cannot simply read empirical data off of nature; the data must be interpreted in light of a theory. The choice of theory shapes the evidence that emerges from empirical inquiry. If a theory provides crucial information that is not present in another, the resulting scientific pictures will be quite different. For this reason, Kuyper argues that only by pursuing science with the proper theological background can the ultimate principles be discovered (43-44). Relatedly, Jenson believes that “Christian engagement with the sciences must be alert to the ways in which root metaphysical presuppositions can undermine basic Christian claims” (198-199). Gunton, too, argues that creedal Christianity must provide the foundational categories for understanding reality, not Enlightenment science (216-231). For these reasons, conflict is possible and as a matter of fact actual.

Second, the cultural function of science isn’t always and only to discover the truth about the world. To better appreciate this, let’s go outside the text for a moment. In 1868, a 30-year-old Henry Adams found himself among the intelligentsia of London, which was then the economic and intellectual pinnacle of Victorian England and, therefore, of the world. What Adams says about himself and his milieux is revealing:

Fragmentary the British mind might be, but in those days it was doing a great deal of work in a very un-English way, building up so many and such vast theories on such narrow foundations as to shock the conservative, and delight the frivolous…[Adams] felt, like nine men in ten, an instinctive belief in Evolution…[and] he seized with greediness the new volume on the “Antiquity of Man” which Sir Charles Lyell published in 1863 in order to support Darwin by wrecking the Garden of Eden.[3]

Adams was commissioned to work with Lyell—a close friend of Charles Darwin’s—to produce a more readable account of Lyell’s foundational book Principles of Geology, which had established the scientific basis for a non-supernatural account of geological development.[4] But as Adams read Lyell’s tome, he wondered at the impressionistic connections between the data and the overarching theory they were meant to support:

Ponder over it as he might, Adams could see nothing in the theory of Sir Charles but pure inference…He could detect no more evolution in life since the Pteraspis [an extinct fish known from fossils] than he could detect it in architecture since the Abbey. All he could prove was change…[T]o Sir Charles it was mere defect in the geological record. Sir Charles labored only to heap up the evidences of evolution; to cumulate them till the mass became irresistible…Adams gladly studied and tried to help Sir Charles, but…in geology as in theology, he could prove only Evolution that did not evolve; Uniformity that was not uniform; and Selection that did not select. To other Darwinians…Natural Selection seemed a dogma to be put in the place of the Athanasian Creed; it was a form of religious hope; a promise of ultimate perfection.

Education of Henry Adams , 254-255

This is not to say that Darwinian evolution wasn’t—or isn’t—well supported by the evidence. Rather, Adams’ observation is that it wasn’t the evidence that brought about the cultural acceptance of the theory. Darwin’s and Lyell’s work, coming as it did from the credible institution of science, served to legitimate a growing zeitgeist that already had its legs under it.

The point is that if you know an institution is influenced by ideological interests opposed to your own, then obviously you cannot woodenly accept its pronouncements that, if true, would undermine your position. This is just a sort of Augustinian common sense about human cultural activity. Instead, acceptance of evidence from this source will require deep, canny engagement with the production of the evidence. Unfortunately, as noted, this was not the common path of these modern theologians. Most either accepted the new science and sought to accommodate Christian doctrine to it, or attempted to redefine theology such that the science could not in principle threaten it. Though it is not clear from this volume how deeply Gunton pursued an understanding of the relevant science, he did possess the Augustinian common sense. For he grasped that the “modernist heresy” generates “a purely secular foundation for knowledge [that] amounted to a human attempt to displace God as the source of being, meaning and truth.”[5] Warfield too knew the score, and being especially noble of mind, sought to know the new science of man to its foundations. On the matter of how a theologian ought to respond to apparent conflict between science and Christianity, he seems to provide the most worthy example.

Dr. Paul Nedelisky is an Assistant Director and a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is a coauthor, with James Davison Hunter, of Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (2018).

[1] Pope’s quote comes from his A Compendium of Christian Theology, I:432. Here Fred Sanders, the author of the chapter on Pope, claims that Pope’s adherence to the claims of scripture is “nearly fideist” (30). This is a strange characterization, since surely the testimony of God is evidence at least as good as that of the testimony of natural historians.

[2] Adam Becker, What is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, pp. 25–30.

[3] The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography, Vol. I (Time Incorporated: New York, 1964), 247-249.

[4] This academic tome was originally published in three volumes between 1830 and 1833 and ran to over 1400 pages. The ninth edition, published in 1858,  may be found online here.

[5] 214, quoted from Gunton’s “Theology in Communion,” in Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, ed. Darren C. Marks, New York: Routledge, 2017, p. 33.

  • Paul Nedelisky

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