A Sneak Preview of Three Views on Christianity and Science

Bulletin editors Paul Copan and Chris Reese are happy to announce the upcoming release of their edited volume Three Views on Christianity Science. Like other volumes in this series, the format allows each contributor to write an initial essay explaining their position, followed by a response from the other two contributors, and concluding with a final response from the original author. It’s a great format, especially, for seeing how each author defends their views against objections.

The contributors to this volume are Alister McGrath, Michael Ruse, and Bruce Gordon. McGrath and Gordon are evangelicals, while Ruse describes himself as agnostic. The excerpt below is taken from Chris’s introduction and provides some general background to the discussion about Christianity and science.

Writing in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead warned, “When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends  upon . . . the relation between them.”[1]  Whitehead recognized that religion and science were two juggernauts of human experience whose warfare could threaten human harmony and flourishing.  Scripture is clear that God is the author of both creation (Gen. 1:1) and Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and that creation reveals God’s glory (Psalm 19:1-6).  Moreover, in Genesis 1, in the garden, God instructed Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (1:28).[2]  This “cultural mandate,” as it is sometimes called, would require human beings “to draw out, work with, and benefit from [creation’s] inherent potentialities as God’s representatives on earth.”[3]  To do this effectively requires carefully observing and studying creation, which is one of the chief aims of science.  Thus Christians, of all people, should be invested in the systematic study of the world as stewards of God’s creation who see his glory reflected in it.

On a very practical level, a lack of understanding of science can also harm our witness to the world.  Augustine recognized this even in the fifth century and lamented the possible outcome when Christians got basic facts about the natural world wrong.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such 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. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?[4]

Surveys show that there is a growing group of adults who no longer identify with a religious group—the so-called “nones”—and the vast majority of these were raised as a member of a particular religion, indicating that they walked away from the faith they grew up with.  A recent Pew Research survey found that about “half of current religious ‘nones’ who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention ‘science’ as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said ‘I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.’”[5]  If we hope to be credible witnesses for the gospel in our day, we need to ensure that we don’t make basic mistakes when it comes to science, and we need to think through how science relates to Scripture and core Christian beliefs.  We can help our children and young adults do the same so that they don’t run into unnecessary obstacles when attempting to reconcile their Christian beliefs with what they learn about science in school, the media, or online.  Of course, not everything labeled as “science” should be automatically accepted as authoritative, and there is always a considerable difference between empirical facts and how those facts should be interpreted.    

Along with facts about science, Christians also need to learn to engage in civil discussions on these topics with each other, and with non-believers.  Few topics can get heated more quickly than issues related to science and Christianity.  In an online Christian worldview forum that I founded several years ago, we found it necessary to ban discussions of several science-related topics because they almost always devolved into name-calling arguments.  On topics related to science, we should be guided by the maxim of seventeenth-century Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  Throughout church history, orthodox Christians have routinely disagreed on matters pertaining to science and Christianity, and the same is true today.  Even among evangelical scholars who share a high view of Scripture, disagreements are common.  Most science-and-Christianity questions are not matters of theological primacy (such as God’s trinitarian nature or Christ’s substitutionary atonement), but are third- or fourth-rank issues.[6]  Theologian and pastor Gavin Ortlund makes a wise observation concerning the interpretation of Genesis 1:

We can happily coexist within the church amid differences on this issue. Our unity in the gospel is not at stake. Instead, we should put more focus on the aspects of the doctrine of creation that Christians have classically emphasized and that are distinctive to a broadly Judeo-Christian worldview, such as creation ex nihilo, the historicity of the fall, and the fact that human beings are made in God’s image. These are better hills to die on.[7]


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge University Press, 1926), 224.

[2] In our view, Adam and Eve existed and the interactions between them and God described in Genesis are historical. For defenses, see John C. Collins, “A Historical Adam: Old-Earth Creation View,” in Four Views on the Historical Adam, ed. Matthew Barrett, Ardel B. Caneday, and Stanley N. Gundry, Zondervan Counterpoints Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013); Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves, eds., Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014).

[3] Naomi Noguchi Reese, “Cultural Mandate,” ed. Paul Copan et al., Dictionary of Christianity and Science: The Definitive Reference for the Intersection of Christian Faith and Contemporary Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 149.

[4] St. Augustine, St. Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ed. Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas Comerford Lawler, trans. John Hammond Taylor, 41st ed., vol. I, Ancient Christian Writers (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 42-43.

[5] Michael Lipka, “Why Some Americans Left Religion Behind,” Pew Research Center (blog), accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/.

[6] Gavin Ortlund suggests a four-part taxonomy for evaluating the relative importance of Christian doctrines.  He defines third- and fourth-rank issues as follows: “Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not enough to justify separation or division. Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.” Gavin Ortlund, Finding the Right Hills to Die on: The Case for Theological Triage (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 143.

[7] Ortlund, 143.

*Taken from Three Views on Christianity and Science, edited by Paul Copan and Christopher Reese. Copyright ©2021 by Paul Copan, Christopher Reese, Alister McGrath, Michael Ruse, and Bruce Gordon. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.

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