Skip to content

Theology and Science in the Postmodern World: The Love Affair of Evangelicalism and Modern Science

II. Outdoing the Scientists: The Love Affair of Evangelicalism and Modern Science

Theology and science in the modern world have not seemingly had a happy coexistence. Issues of ‘creation v. evolution’ have cast the relationship between evangelicalism and science into a light that seems clearly to be one of contention. Thus, it seems hardly appropriate to claim that the evangelical relationship with modern science has been a “love affair.”[1] Nevertheless, I contend that, despite the different conclusions regarding the origin of the universe, evangelical theology has enthusiastically adopted the same canons of scientific reasoning that their Darwinist opponents claim. To that end a brief overview and evaluation of some of the most nuanced theological approaches to relating theology and science is needed.

1. The (Evangelical) Modernist Critique of Darwinian Science

The fundamental response of Christian theology in its more conservative circles has been to show that modern science – particularly in its Darwinist expression – is not true science at all. Rather, scientific naturalism and evolutionary theory is simply unsound and illogical science and as such should be rejected simply on scientific grounds prior to even bringing theological or biblical issues into the debate. One of the foremost proponents of such a view is Phillip E. Johnson. Johnson’s works are many, but all feature the same themes.[2] Johnson argues consistently that Darwinism is simply unsound science. Johnson argues throughout that Darwinian theories are beset with logical fallacies, dogmatic biases, inconsistencies and a profound lack of empirical evidence.

Much of Johnson’s approach is appreciable. He viciously applies scientific and logical reasoning to Darwinian orthodoxy and shows many of the inconsistencies and difficulties with evolutionary theory. It is not my intention to berate or completely dismiss Johnson’s critique of Darwinism, however, there are certain pressing flaws in his argument that should be noted. The first is that he completely brackets out theological or biblical considerations. He seeks to “distinguish the evidence itself from any religious or philosophical bias that might distort our interpretation of that evidence.”[3] But in so doing, Johnson simply accepts the canons of the scientific tradition without question. We see here nothing more than a philosophic theistic account of modern science that holds unquestionably to the naïve realism that has characterized the scientific tradition since the Enlightenment. Johnson’s belief that he can rise above his “religious or philosophical bias” and objectively arbitrate between competing scientific claims is one that should certainly be viewed with skepticism by the responsible theologian. That a person can simply by an act of will transcend their theological and philosophical presuppositions is a claim that has been amply demolished by the postmodern critique (and in truth, it was demolished long before that by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1). Such an assumption of a God’s eye perspective on reality is naïve and question-begging.[4]

Despite Johnson’s adept use of logic and the scientific tradition to question Darwinism, he does not offer a properly theological way forward. While Johnson does point out some of the problems with evolutionary theory, he by no means goes to the root of the problem, but is merely content to prune off the branches. (Of course there is the pressing question of whether Johnson’s critique can really hold water, which I leave aside in this treatment.) This problem is shared by the recent ‘intelligent design’ movement, which is in many ways Johnson’s project come of age. This movement likewise merits analysis.

2. ‘Intelligent Design’ and Bridge Building

Intelligent design (hereafter ID) is a movement that is somewhat in vogue in certain scientific and theological circles today. Mathematician and theologian, William Dembski has been central in promoting and popularizing this perspective in evangelical circles.[5] It shares with Johnson’s project the rejection of Darwinian evolutionary theory.[6] The key difference lies in its desire to ‘bridge the gap’ between theology and science through the use of the ‘design inference,’ namely that the inherent designed-ness of the world is “empirically detectable.”[7] ID posits itself as a “scientific research program that investigates the effects of intelligent causes.”[8] Through scientific observation of the world (the effect), proponents claim that they can logically infer the existence of God (the cause). As such ID posits itself as “the bridge between science and theology.”[9]

It is this bridge-building metaphor to which I would like to call attention. In Dembski’s view science and theology operate as “two different windows on reality.”
[10] Thus, theology and science offer mutual support for one another if they are done properly. Theology’s claims will not contradict science and science’s claims will not contradict theology. They form complementary perspectives that mutually enforce and illumine one another. To the extent that science is truly done in a proper scientific manner, science and theology will be “bridged” and there is the potential of convergence and illuminating dialogue between the two disciplines.

There are many shortcomings of such an approach of “bridge-building” as Dembski tries to establish it. As with Johnson’s “scientific” critique of Darwinism, ID does not step back to question the very presuppositions that undergird the modern understanding of science in the first place. Dembski’s characterization of theology and science as “two different windows on reality” does not seriously reckon with the questions of epistemology that are quite pressing in light of the postmodern critique. Dembski, like Johnson continues to assume the ability of science to give direct insight into the nature of reality through empirical observation. However, this presupposition is never examined or de
fended.[11] It seems hard to see how this perspective can sustain itself epistemologically unless one holds to a naïve realism in which the content of reality is immediately accessible to the human mind. This position is incredibly problematic in light of the postmodern recognition of the situatedness and intersubjectivity of all knowledge,[12] and the theological recognition of the noetic effects of sin on human cognitive functioning.[13]

Moreover, the entire intelligent design project is based on investigating “the effects of intelligent causes.” However, this is very problematic epistemologically. Cause and effect cannot be empirically proven, it can be inferred, but only on the basis of a fiduciary committment. Moreover, such an understanding of the world solely based on a concept of causality is more Aristotelian and Newtonian than Einstienian, though that avenue of critique cannot be persued here. Dembski’s argument for ID as a bridge falters on numerous points, but most centrally because of its theological bankruptcy. It seems hard to believe, then that ID can do the work that its proponents want it to do. Even if proponents of ID are able to convincingly infer the existence of an intelligent designer from an empirical investigation of the world, there is no reason to assume that theology and science have been effectively bridged, let alone Christianity and science. Or most importantly,that the indelligent designer will have any connection to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

ID, then seems deficient in its epistemological and scientific underpinnings as a means of relating theology and science. Its failure to reckon with the postmodern critique of objectivity, the noetic effects of sin and its uncritical adoption of modern understandings of science put it in a distinctly poor position to serve as a means of bringing theology and science into dialogue. However, perhaps the most glaring weakness of both Johnson’s proposal and the more sophisticated forms of intelligent design lies in their failure to question, or even chasten the viability of science as a reliable source of knowledge. All such approaches simply assume the autonomy of science as a viable, objective and rational way of gaining accurate knowledge about reality.

Perhaps even more problematic is the theological bankruptcy of such approaches. Even if they are able to dismantle Darwinian evolutionary theory and establish beyond any reasonable doubt the existence of an intelligent designer, none of these approaches can establish that this creator is the Triune God of the Bible. They start where modernism starts, with the autonomous individual, and they end where modernism ends, in a shallow and ultimately presumptuous and overconfident view of humanity’s ability to know and master nature.[14]

Considerations such as these show forth the importance of finding another paradigm for relating theology and science. Rather than the standard approaches that simply seek to prune off aspects of modern science – normally its conclusions rather than its methodology – a theological approach that seeks to go to the root of the problem of modern science is needed. Rather than simply granting the scientific tradition autonomy and writing it a blank check on what can be considered epistemologically viable, instead theology must engage more foundational questions abut the nature of science and scientific reasoning and engage in proper theological evaluations of the presuppositions of modernist conceptions of science. To that task, I turn now. Such an undertaking will require the construction of a new paradigm for understanding science and theology and the nature of their relationship. In light of the preceding criticisms of other approaches, the one articulated here will attempt to be distinctly theological and wary of the common tendency of evangelicalism to simply seek to accommodate the scientific tradition on its own terms.

—————————————-
[1] On this point see George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 122-152.

[2] For his paradigmatic treatment of this issue, see Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

[3] Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 14.

[4] On this point see Phillip D. Kenneson, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing Too,” in Phillips and Okholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, 156-170.

[5] See for example, William Dembski and James Kushiner, eds., Signs of Intelligence: Understanding Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001).

[6] In fact, Johnson has jumped fully onto the ID bandwagon. See

[7] Dembski, Intelligent Design, 105-109.

[8] Dembski, Intelligent Design, 13.

[9] The subtitle of Dembski’s book.

[10] Dembski, Intelligent Design, 187.

[11] Indeed, Dembski never engages postmodern criticisms in any significant way throughout his book. His mentions of postmodernism typically consist of mere assertions that postmo
dernity has not really had any major impact. He touts ID as being “premodern” (Intelligent Design, 44-48), but that way of putting the matter is anachronistic and overlooks the radical dependence of the ID project on forms of scientific reasoning that are distinctly modernistic. Despite such claims, there seems to be no way for Dembski to persuasively deny that his use of mathematics and information theory is dependent on Enlightenment forms of scientific reasoning and epistemology.

[12] On the issue of the “interpretedness” of all forms of human activity and knowing, see James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations of a Creational Hermeneutic (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[13] On the issue of the noetic effects of sin, see Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 199-240.

[14] See Middleton and. Walsh, Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be, 20-27.

5 Comments

  1. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    So, as you are seeking to pose a theological paradigm for the relationship between theology and science, it seems to follow that you are saying that theology is superior to science. Can you go forward without proving this, or will it be proved?

    Not saying that I don’t like the idea, I’m just curious as to how you’re going to sustain it.

    Monday, December 4, 2006 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    Forgive me if I’m jumping ahead of your argument. I realize that you’ve said a coming post will address this more directly, but what you’ve posted so far has raised some questions for me.

    A lot of this has to do with what we think science and theology are all about. Science, it should be observed, has a dual nature. When you speak of “forms of scientific inquiry that seek to comprehend the origin and nature of the universe and bring it under the control of humanity,” I think you are merging two goals that ought to be recognized as distinct. On the one hand, science is an attempt to understand the nature of the world in which we live. On the other hand, science is an attempt to tell us how things work — mostly so we can make them work to our advantage, or at least not screw them up too badly. On this second ground, science has been wildly successful and the claims of the unassailability of science seem to be based on this success, without taking note of the fact that this success is largely unrelated to success or failure on the first count, that of understanding the nature of the world.

    As I read your post, I found myself wondering what possible ground you could have for questioning the validity of science as a means of gaining knowledge. Afterall, science has demonstrably given us much knowledge. But upon reflection, I see that all of the evidence I would have lined up would have been under the “how things work” heading, with precious little to say on “the nature of things.” So, by way of preview, is this where you’re going with questioning whether science is “epistemologically viable”?

    Monday, December 4, 2006 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Matt,

    My point is not that theology is superior to science (though I think it is infinitely more interesting!). Rather my point is that theology should not be forced to justify itself on the basis of scientific reasoning. There is a role for science in human knowledge of the world, but it does not “police” theology or its claims.

    How I get there will be really filled out in future posts, so stay tuned.

    Andy,

    Thanks for your comments. As to whether origin and nature should be distinct, I think you’re right that they should be distinguished, but they cannot be seperated, hence I include them together. Origin in some significan way determines the nature of something. That is why the question of creation and ethics has so often gone together, however wrongly things have been construed in such discussions.

    Now, your more central question seems to be ‘Doesn’t the success of science – cheifly in technology – prove that it is an accurate source of knowledge?’ That is certainly a valid question (after all we are discussing this on a blog!). My point is not that science can tell us nothing about the world, only that 1) it is not autonomously rational, enjoying a position of objectivity and impartialitiy and 2) that it has no inherent right to police, legitimate or delegitimate theology’s claims. Generally theology has assumed that it has to justify its claims on the basis of modern scientific reasoning. It is that presuppositon that I wish to question.

    And as I said to Matt, I think the next couple of posts should address these questions more.

    Tuesday, December 5, 2006 at 12:35 am | Permalink
  4. Matt wrote:

    Infinitely more interesting indeed! Well, we’ll see where this goes…

    Tuesday, December 5, 2006 at 3:06 am | Permalink
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    Yes, yes, “origin and nature” go together, but they are distinct from “control”. That’s what I was trying to say. These two branches relate much as theoretical science and engineering relate. Science’s big wins tend to be in technology, from which it seems to borrow credibility in speaking of the nature of things.

    In any event, I look forward to seeing where you take this.

    Tuesday, December 5, 2006 at 6:45 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site