During the past 40 years this question has permeated Western thinking. It is persistently raised by thoughtful unbelievers – most recently by the broadcaster John Humphrys. Conversely, Bill Bryson researching his popular-science book A short history of nearly everything, found that science and belief in God are inherently harmonious.
There is just as much confusion about God and science among Christians as among people generally. Thankfully, the salvation of the Lord’s people does not depend on the soundness of our apologetics. But to advance the kingdom it is better to be on the right track.
Protestants are often too cavalier about history and the mainstream Christian tradition that has shaped our Western culture. We cannot proclaim the Bible’s message as if 2000 years of history had evaporated and we were still living in the first century.
Rather, if we would be teachers and heralds, we must engage with the history of ideas that has shaped the meaning of words such as creation, design and science – key words in the debate both today and down the centuries.
Take the word ‘creation’. This does not have a single uniform meaning in either the Bible or in historical and systematic theology. Yet we often engage in simplistic discussions as if it did.
We must distinguish between two main meanings of ‘creation’ in Scripture (see Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology I, pp.556ff). These are respectively ‘absolute (or primary) creation’ and ‘mediate (or secondary) creation’.
Absolute creation is creation ex nihilo – out of nothing (Genesis 1:1; Hebrews 11:3). Mediate creation denotes God’s transformation of pre-existing matter and energy. Thus the Lord created Adam ‘from the dust of the ground’ (Genesis 2:7). This pre-existing matter is, of course, only available as a consequence of ex nihilo or absolute creation.
All that exists (including space and time) does so because of the will of God and the agency of Jesus Christ, the divine Logos – ‘Without him was not anything made that was made’ (John 1; Revelation 4). God cannot therefore be eliminated, whether by science or anything else, because he is the chief fact in all reality – ‘Look unto me all the ends of the earth, for I am God and there is none else’.
A transcendent God
The theologians who have articulated orthodox Trinitarian theism have generally taught that God transcends the world of space and time and is thereby able also to be fully immanent (pervasive) within it. Augustine of Hippo maintains this view in his treatise On the literal meaning of Genesis – as does Paul Helm in his 1988 book Eternal God.
Since absolute creation involved bringing the universe into being from a standpoint wholly outside of it, it is a metaphysical reality, not a ‘scientific’ or ‘historical’ event.
The Triune God created the universe to fulfil his own good pleasure. Expressing the same reality from another angle, we can say that it was created out of the overflowing divine love – such is the import of 1 John 1:1-4.
Scripture often uses the language of ‘creation’ to describe recurring phenomena – ranging from hailstorms to the birth of animals (e.g. Psalm 148:5; 104:30). Similar language occurs in Job 38-42, in Isaiah 40ff and in the New Testament. These references clearly refer to mediate creation, but with the ever-present knowledge that absolute creation underpins all existence.
Thus Scripture routinely uses the word ‘create’ (bara in Hebrew) to include things traditionally labelled ‘providence’. Hence the attempt by some historic confessions of faith and by ‘creationists’ to distinguish the terminologies of ‘creation’ and ‘providence’ and apply them directly to a distinction between these two concepts is confusing and unhelpful.
All instances of ‘mediate creation’ (excepting certain miracles such as the resurrection) are susceptible to scientific analysis because they involve a network of causal agencies. For example, as regards the origin of species, both theistic evolution and special creation are consistent with a firm belief in absolute creation by God (though people may reject one or other of these options on other grounds).
Next we must ask what is ‘science’? It is the activity of scientists and the product thereof. And who are scientists? Well, like all of us they are frail and sinful human beings. But positively, being created in the image of the ‘intelligent designer’ man has the ability to formulate mathematical and law-based insights into the world about us.
The community of scientists explores and elucidates the patterns of cause and effect in the natural world, thus relating otherwise puzzling phenomena. When scientific endeavour is motivated by theistic belief, as is quite often the case, its aim is to ‘think God’s thoughts after him’, to quote the astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).
But surrounding this central ‘pure’ picture of science, there is a murky periphery of hangers-on, vested interests and anti-religious agitation. This is the face of ‘science’ that many laypeople see and dislike. Being motivated by atheistic philosophy, these hangers-on do very often ‘get rid of God’ – at least to their own satisfaction! But ultimately such activists are parasitic upon both true science and Christian theism.
The history of science
The history of modern science shows the massive influence of Christians upon the structure of scientific understanding – ranging from Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and Kelvin to Charles Townes, Francis Collins and many other modern scientists.
Rightly understood, Christian faith and science are friends and partners. An accessible introduction to this is Kirsten Birkett’s book Unnatural enemies. The unwavering belief that the universe is upheld by a beneficent and faithful God has given many scientists the strength to persevere with their theories and experiments.
Moreover, the interaction between theory and experiment that constitutes science is itself a product of pervasive Christian culture in Western Europe during past centuries. Hence the discoveries of authentic science should not be ignored by the Christian church.
Augustine wrote, ‘Usually, even a non‑Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world … Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, [supposedly] giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics:
‘The shame is … that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such [false] opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men’.
Finally, we may address the word ‘design’. An absolute creation necessarily implies that the universe exists for a purpose – supremely, the manifestation of the divine glory (John 17:4; 1 Corinthians 15:28). In that sense, the universe is clearly intelligently designed.
Moreover, we could explore the remarkable ways in which the physical laws of the universe are ‘fine-tuned’ to allow the existence of a habitable planet like earth. So in this context also ‘intelligent design’ (ID) is an appropriate concept.
However, a warning must be sounded about indiscriminate appeals to ID in the realm of biology. Our bête noir Richard Dawkins makes some valid points about a simple appeal to Paley’s watchmaker argument. In promoting ID we must be careful not to invoke a ‘God-of-the-gaps’.
Especially in the complex field of biology or life-sciences there are many puzzling and unexplained phenomena.
They may seem as overpoweringly mysterious as computers and mobile phones would appear to a stone-age tribe. But it is incautious to tell our young people that science will never explain these things because such explanations are intrinsically impossible.
The ground of faith
Of course, there are things that science, by definition, will never explain – such as the origin of natural laws and spiritual realities that lie beyond the natural world. In other matters, however, careful ID proponents are wary of dogmatism and are content to arrive at an ‘inference of design’ – a conclusion that is altogether more plausible than evolutionary ‘explanations’ based on random processes.
But ultimately a firm Christian faith can never be founded upon real or imagined gaps in scientific understanding. It must arise from God’s revelation of himself in the Scriptures and supremely through faith in the Christ of whom they testify.
The author is Professor of Biomaterials Science at the University of Manchester where he researches at the interface of physics and biology. He has served as a preaching Elder for more than 25 years and lectures part-time on Christianity and science at the Manchester Bible School.