MODERN SCIENCE AND CHRISTIAN FAITH
A Video Series by Senior Pastor David Clotfelter
Many Christians struggle with the relationship between modern science and the Christian faith. Are they hopelessly at odds with one another?
I do not believe so. The God who gave us the Bible also gave us the world. He made us in his image and called us to join him in bringing order and beauty to the world. Although we are fallen, we should expect that the study of nature and the study of Scripture will both point us to the Creator.
Problems do arise, however, because both our science (our interpretation of nature) and our theology (our interpretation of the Bible) are fallible. When conflicts appear, our strategy must be to study both science and theology, trusting that as we do so we will make progress in understanding.
In this series I am interested primarily in teaching an approach to apparent conflicts. To illustrate the approach, I use the debate over the age of the earth as a test case.
The videos can be accessed on YouTube.
Many people believe that we must choose between science and faith. We can believe in modern science, in which case we will reject the teaching of the Bible; or we can believe the Bible, in which case we must close our ears and minds to science. Is this true? I believe not. We must talk about this issue in order to overcome this misunderstanding.
We live in a glorious world, a world of stars, mountains, trees, birds, and human beings. There is no end to the things we may investigate using scientific methods. But is it legitimate for Christians to enjoy science? Yes! The Bible tells us that human beings have a mandate to govern the world, and this requires us to study and understand it. We also find that modern science grew out of several key biblical Christian concepts. It is very legitimate for Christians to love science.
How should we approach apparent conflicts between modern science and the Bible? We should recognize that because both the Bible and the world are from God, they cannot contradict one another. But because our understanding of nature (science) and our understanding of the Bible (theology) are limited, they may well come into conflict. Our science could be wrong, our theology could be wrong, or both. The only way forward is to study both.
Does the earth move around the sun, or vice versa? We all know the answer to that question, but perhaps you didn’t know that for many centuries Christian theologians believed that the Bible teaches that the earth is immovable. How did we overcome that mistake? Not through deeper investigation of the Bible, but through the development of planetary astronomy. This story serves as a warning that we must be very slow to reject modern scientific ideas on the basis of our biblical interpretation. The scientists could be wrong—but so could the theologians.
Theology benefits from challenges from science. But it is also true that science benefits from theology. A defective worldview will have a negative impact on one’s efforts to understand the world. A biblical worldview will strengthen science and protect scientists from conclusions that are ethically questionable or philosophically untenable.
Having established a foundation (science is legitimate, the world and the Bible are not in conflict, science and theology can complement one another), I want to look at a test case. Some Christians say that Genesis 1 requires us to believe that the universe is no more than about 10,000 years old. Virtually all scientists think the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and the earth 4.56 billion years old. How can we resolve this conflict? We must study both the Bible and the scientific evidence.
In this video I use a recently published book to present the case for a young earth and universe. The authors argue 1) that Genesis 1 is historical narrative and must be read literally, 2) the Bible teaches that animals did not die until after Adam’s fall, and 3) the church throughout the ages has always believed that the Bible teaches a recent creation of the earth.
Here I look at the first of the biblical arguments described in the last video. I suggest that it is an oversimplification to suggest that Genesis 1 is simple historical narrative. It is sui generis, a genre unto itself, which means that we must interpret it very carefully and in light of evidence from other literary productions of the Ancient Near East.
In this video I question whether the Bible really teaches us that animals did not die prior to the fall of Adam and Eve. I argue that although it is possible to infer this doctrine from the Bible’s teaching, it is not necessary to do so.
The third major argument of the book we are looking at is that the church has always believed the earth is young. The ancient church Fathers, the Reformers, and many even in the modern era have believed that the Bible teaches this. This is quite true. However, it is impossible for us to know how theologians of the past would have resolved the issue if they had been privy to the scientific evidence we now possess. We cannot take their answers as final.
In this video, which I made with a heavy heart, I take issue with two assertions by Pastor John MacArthur. The first is that geologists and astronomers have invented the ancient eras of the earth’s past out of whole cloth, simply to buttress the doctrine of biological evolution. The second is that the only sciences that need be taken seriously are those that make progress solely through the experimental method. I show that Dr. MacArthur is wrong on both of these points, and that his arguments encourage prejudice, not insight.
Richard Mayhew suggests that scientific conclusions are inherently more tentative than theological ones, because only in the Bible do we have God’s Word. I point out that there seems to be a bit of confusion in Dr. Mayhew’s presentation. The Bible is vastly clearer than nature in what it teaches of God. But the Bible is not clearer in what it teaches of nature. In the end, we cannot resolve the issue of the age of the earth without looking closely at the scientific evidence.
Protestant Christians believe that Scripture alone (as opposed to church tradition) is our sole source for true knowledge of God. Does that mean that science cannot give us true knowledge of nature? No. God intends us to learn about the world by studying it.
It is time now to look at the scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth and universe. I begin with geology. In particular, I talk about what geologists have learned about the area known as the Colorado Plateau, where it seems plain that the processes that have formed the Plateau have required great amounts of time. My focus is on sedimentary rocks.
This video continues to look at geological evidence, especially that from igneous and metamorphic rock. Geologists find no rational explanation for the formation of these rocks that does not involve very long periods of time. In addition, I discuss radiometric dating, ice cores, lake sediments, and corals. Mainstream scientists are convinced that the evidence is incontrovertible that the earth is old.
In this video I talk about evidence from physics and astronomy. When we look at stars, we see light that appears to have traveled for millions or billions of years. In addition, physics and astronomy give us several mutually independent means of estimating the age of our earth (about 4.5 billion years), galaxy (13.2 billion years), and universe (13.8 billion years). These means of estimating ages jibe with one another, with findings from basic physics, and with information found on earth.
The evidence for the age of the universe is persuasive to all but a tiny minority of scientists, those who are convinced that the Bible requires them to refute that evidence. How do they respond to it? The first response is young-earth science, which seeks to propose alternative explanations for the various evidences for the great age of the universe. Unfortunately, these explanations seem to be persuasive only to those who have already decided on theological that the earth cannot be old. They do not persuade other scientists with knowledge of the relevant fields.
Another way of getting around the scientific evidence for the age of the earth and universe is to say that God could have created the universe to appear younger than it really is. I argue that this creates intolerable theological tensions.
We have looked at the biblical argument for a young earth. We have looked at the scientific evidence for an ancient earth and universe. We have looked at the young-earth efforts to explain the scientific evidence away. Now we must draw conclusions. I propose three possible responses to the question, “How old is the earth?”
This final video summarizes the basic argument of the series, and then presents some of the key insights of John Walton’s book, “The Lost World of Genesis 1: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.” Walton argues that Genesis 1 is not speaking of the creation of the physical universe; instead, it speaks of God’s functional creation of the cosmos. Just as the creation of a company does not involve the creation of the physical materials used in the company, but rather the establishment of the financial and procedural functions that allow the company to operate, so also Genesis 1, like other ancient documents of a similar nature, is concerned to tell us not how God made nature but how he prepared it for human habitation. In this reading, Genesis 1 does not actually give us any information at all about the age of the earth. I do not suggest that Walton’s is the last word on Genesis 1, but I believe he is on the right track. Our difficulties in interpreting Genesis result from our cultural distance from the people to whom it was originally written. The way forward in this particular controversy is not to attack the massive findings of modern science, but to go back to Genesis and try to read it as its first readers did.