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Where science and faith meet

December 2017 | by David Tyler

For many generations, we have been bombarded with the idea that science and the Bible are at war. Yet in 1865, over 150 years ago, Christians who were scientists proposed an approach based on harmony, not contradiction.

Describing themselves as ‘students of the natural and physical sciences’, the 717 scholars represented senior academics, professional scientists and engineers, physicians and surgeons, ministers and missionaries.

Royal Society

Most of the signatories were fellows of professional organisations and 86 were members of the Royal Society. Their Declaration of 1865 appears to have been triggered by the reception given to Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species. As their declaration is short, it is reproduced in full here:

‘We, the undersigned students of the Natural Sciences, desire to express our sincere regret, that researches into scientific truth are perverted by some in our own times into occasion for casting doubt upon the truth and authenticity of the Holy Scriptures.

‘We conceive that it is impossible for the Word of God as written in the book of nature, and God’s Word written in Holy Scripture, to contradict one another, however much they may appear to differ. We are not forgetful that physical science is not complete, but is only in a condition of progress, and that at present our finite reason enables us only to see as through a glass darkly; and we confidently believe that a time will come when the two records will be seen to agree in every particular.

‘We cannot but deplore that Natural Science should be looked upon with suspicion by many who do not make a study of it, merely on account of the unadvised manner in which some are placing it in opposition to Holy Writ.

‘We believe that it is the duty of every scientific student to investigate nature, simply for the purpose of elucidating truth, and that if he finds that some of his results appear to be in contradiction to the written Word [of God], or rather to his own interpretations of it, which may be erroneous, he should not presumptuously affirm that his own conclusions must be right and the statements of Scripture wrong.

‘Rather, leave the two side by side, till it shall please God to allow us to see the manner in which they may be reconciled; and, instead of insisting upon the seeming differences between science and the Scriptures, it would be as well to rest in faith upon the points in which they agree’.

What stands out here is the clarity of the message that all truth is God’s truth. There is acceptance that we are responsible for reading the ‘book’ of nature and the book of special revelation (the Bible), and to recognise there are areas of overlap, particularly in matters of history.

The problems arise from limited data and the necessity of making interpretations of that data. If there are apparent conflicts when reading the two ‘books’, it is wise not to jump to conclusions, but to wait for further light that will allow us to reconcile the differences.

Eminent signatories

Some of the names of the signatories are worth highlighting. Professor Adam Sedgwick was one of Britain’s leading geologists and president of the Geological Society, only a few years before he introduced the young Charles Darwin to the geology of North Wales, before he embarked on his Beagle voyage.

Many years later, when Darwin sent him a gift of the first edition of On the Origin of Species, he wrote to his former student: ‘I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly, parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow, because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. . .

‘Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved, why then express them in the language and arrangement of philosophical induction?’

James P. Joule’s sacrificial research led to the discovery of the Joule-Thomson effect and has left refrigeration as an abiding legacy to humanity. He wrote: ‘After the knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of God, [man’s] next aim must be to know something of His attributes of wisdom, power and goodness as evidenced by His handiwork’.

Sir David Brewster was principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, and one of the founders of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His willingness to participate in the Declaration underscores the importance of conducting science/faith issues with gravitas and humility.

(Rev.) J. Hudson Taylor is identified as a missionary to China. His name, along with other missionaries and ministers, is a reminder that this issue has implications for apologetics and the proclamation of the gospel. Hudson Taylor was troubled by both the German Higher Criticism movement and by the impact Darwin’s theory was having: both undermining the trustworthiness of the Bible.

Warfare thesis

The ‘warfare thesis’ about the relationship of science to Christianity soon became the dominant metaphor. This situation has continued down to the present. Its advocates consider that Christianity has resisted scientific enquiry, with favourite cases being the treatment of Copernicus and Galileo, the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and the contrast between ‘science as rational and evidence-based’ and the ‘blind faith’ of Christian believers.

But there is a growing community of historians who challenge these straw-men arguments. These scholars say that it is no accident that science developed in a culture that was deeply influenced by Christian theology.

Most of the pioneers of science were professing Christians. Most were willing to affirm the relevance of faith to their scientific enquiries. The study of theology has promoted rational thought. A belief in morality and God’s providence has promoted the concept of created order and natural law.

Awareness of our sinful nature promoted empirical work to test and refine our theoretical ideas. And the purpose of science was related to honouring God’s handiwork in creation and obeying his command to subdue the Earth.

These contrasting approaches result in radical divergences of opinion about historical facts. For example, Galileo’s struggles are widely portrayed as a conflict between the truth-seeking scientist and the obscurantist Catholic Church. The reality is that Galileo’s main tussles were with the scientists of his day, who were deeply affected by Aristotelianism. Furthermore, Galileo’s portrayal of the pope as a simpleton did not win him many allies.

Different approach

The situation today is one where Christians are on the defensive and media messages are dominated by advocates of the conflict metaphor. The reason for reminding ourselves of this 1865 Declaration is that Christians do not need to proclaim that they have all the answers to the ‘Science vs. Scripture’ problems thrown at them.

Rather, they have a methodology for handling the issues. We are not anti-science and we are not obscurantists. We are open to truth, because we recognise that all truth is God’s truth.

We are alert to the way unbelievers have developed their science, so as to rule out all references to God’s handiwork and exclude any role for God in the history of our planet. We also know a harmony between Scripture and science will emerge, and that patient seeking after truth will lead to the reconciliation of apparent conflicts.

David J. Tyler is a Trustee of the Biblical Creation Trust