In this post we will look at the Christian acceptance of evolution and the different approaches to science and theology.
The history of science and theology and their relationship with each other at times seems to place them at odds with each other. Science and theology are often posed as direct opposites where one has to choose either one or the other. In this post, that relationship will be examined.
Christian Acceptance of Evolution
Cardinal Newman, who was a contemporary of Darwin, had the following to say regarding Darwin’s theory: “First, is Darwin’s theory against the distinct teaching of the inspired text. For myself … I don’t see that it does contradict it. Second, is it against Theism. … I don’t see how it can be. … If second causes are conceivable at all, an Almighty Agent being supposed, I don’t see why the series should not last for millions of years as well as thousands.” The Anglican Reverend Charles Kingsley was one of those who accepted Darwin’s theory at its arrival. In the Church of England, Darwin’s theory was assimilated quite readily after the 1860’s. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many liberal Protestants accepted and preached evolution, but, as Jim Moore notes, they “were captivated by an evolutionary and biologistic vision of a progressive social order, a vision that owed more, directly or indirectly, to [Herbert] Spencer’s philosophy than to any other single source.”
It was not only after the publications of Darwin that theologians entertained the thought of a gradual development of the natural world. Augustine of Hippo had the idea that God allows nature to unfold or evolve according to certain rationes seminales, or causal principles, which were placed in creation and would bring forth the potential unfolding in the right time. One could also call them seedlike principles that would, in time, germinate and grow into their full potential. Gregory of Nissa echoed Augustine’s notion of primordial potential.
Different Approaches to Science and Theology
The idea of a conflict between science and religion, or faith and reason, only became an issue at the end of the 19th century. In 1874, at the British Association, the Irish physicist John Tyndall claimed that religion had subdued science and that in time, science will provide completely materialistic explanations for everything in the physical world. In 1875 and 1876 respectively, John William Draper (scientist, philosopher, physician, chemist, historian and photographer) and Andrew Dickson White (historian and educator) wrote books that painted Christian history as being opposed to science. In the time of Darwin, it was understandable to be sceptic of his theory, because genes had not been discovered yet, many fossils were still undiscovered, and the earth was thought to be younger than we now found it to be. Gregor Mendel published his work with pea plants in 1866 and it was rediscovered in 1900. By 1925 the Mendelian model of genetics was widely accepted. Conor Cunningham states that the so-called clash of science and religion was more a clash of legitimately different opinions and class. He also states that it is “wholly disingenuous to pretend, after the fact, that there was a genuine clash involving the opposition of religion to scientific discovery.”
New Testament scholar Nicholas Thomas Wright identifies four models regarding the relation between science and the Bible:
- Concordism, where the Bible has some information that can be harmonised with science.
- Substitutionism, where the Bible enjoys priority over science.
- Compartmentalism, where the Bible and science are kept apart as two distinct realms of knowledge.
- Complementarism, where the Bible and science are complementary.
In the same vein, Jonathan Clatworthy delineates four positions within the science-religion debate. These positions are:
- That the Bible is fact and science is mere human theory.
- That science is factual and the Bible is sheer belief.
- That science is factual about science and the Bible is factual about religion.
- That neither science nor religion are able to provide exhaustive facts.
The first three of Clatworthy’s positions have a shared view of positivism when it comes to facts. With positivism one encounters three more views regarding the physical world: materialism, reductionism, and determinism. Materialism states that everything is physical matter or is based upon physical matter. Eliminative materialism is the harsher option, stating that physical matter is all that exists and concepts like mind and spirit are mere illusions. Reductive materialism, which is a more widely held view, states that everything can be reduced to physical matter. Reductionism states that everything can be reduced to atoms and laws of nature. Determinism states that nothing is random or free, but that everything has physical causes.
Karl E. Peters follows the third approach to science and religion, namely, that science is factual about science and the Bible is factual about religion. According to him, science explains how things happen using nonpersonal models. Science seeks knowledge, disregarding the well-being of humans and knowledge is valued for its own sake. Religion, on the other hand, explains how things that really matter happened, focusing on values and ultimate importance. Nonpersonal models are also used, but the dominant model used is personal. Knowledge is sought for the sake of human well-being. Thus there is a difference in how these two disciplines go about explaining things that happen and also in their focus. Science cares only about knowledge. Religion cares about human well-being. Peters argues that the “Word of God represents the underlying laws that govern the evolution of the universe, and the Spirit represents random fluctuations or variations in existing states. When the Spirit ‘blows where it wills’ creating new variations, some new variations are selected to continue in accord with the ever-present Word.” In his view, the Spirit takes the role of random mutations and other changes, where the Word takes over the role of natural selection, favouring certain variations above others.
Probing further into the two realms of science and theology, Gloria Schaab mentions four distinctions or obstacles:
- Science is concerned with the observable reality and theology is concerned with the unfathomable reality.
- Science should focus on natural phenomena and theology should focus on supernatural phenomena.
- Science seeks prediction and control while theology seeks commitment and moral purpose.
- Each has its own language which makes communication between the two problematic.
Theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke brought to light things which science and theology have in common:
- Both use observation and experience for the claims they make.
- Both claim to concern reality.
- Both can refer to their realities, but neither can describe these realities literally and thus both employ imagery, models, metaphors, and analogies.
Theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne and systematic theologian Michael Welker state that another similarity between science and theology is that both speak of things unseen. One example of the unseen objects spoken of by science is the dark companion of Sirius, known only from its gravitational action on Sirius. Another example is from quantum physics, where particles such as quarks and gluons are inferred, but will never be seen. From the obstacles and similarities it is clear that the relationship between science and theology is one of both continuity and discontinuity. Both scientists and theologians seek a clearer understanding of the reality in question.
Peacocke sought to preserve the integrity of both science and theology and thus saw their relationship as a mutually illuminative one: “Science illuminates the mysteries of creation, thereby deepening and expanding what creation discloses about the Creator. Theology illuminates the mysteries of meaning and existence that lie beyond the scope of scientific exploration.” Theologian and botanist Bram van de Beek continues in the same vein when he says that science is a fruitful source for a richer and deeper understanding of faith. It is important for dialogue that, as Polkinghorne and Welker state, “both sides should demonstrate their advocacy of truth, showing that this is not a simple task, but one that must contend with many vague and simplistic answers offered from both sides.” As a concluding remark, the words of Wentzel van Huyssteen should be heeded: “We are obliged neither to commit to some form of universal rationality nor to plunge into a sea of relativism where many rationalities proliferate.”
Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.
Lacey, A.R. & Proudfoot, M. 2010. The Routledge Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
Mathews, K A. 1996. The new American commentary: Genesis 1-11:26. Volume 1A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.
Peters, K E. 2007. Toward an evolutionary Christian theology. Zygon, 42(1): 49-63.
Polkinghorne, J & Welker, M (eds). 2000. The end of the world and the ends of God: Science and theology on eschatology. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International.
Schaab, G L 2006. A procreative paradigm of the creative suffering of the Triune God: Implications of Arthur Peacocke’s evolutionary theology. Theological Studies 67: 542- 566.
______2008. Honoring Arthur Peacocke: 1924-2006. Evolutionary theory and theology: A mutually illuminative dialogue. Zygon 43(1): 9-18.
Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.
Van Huyssteen, J W. 2006. Alone in the world? Human uniqueness in science and theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.