In his landmark book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994), evangelical historian Mark Noll encouraged Christians to pursue Christian scholarship on the basis of their theological convictions, particularly the biblical affirmation of the goodness of creation. If God created the world, and declared it “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and if God has given us the task of ruling that creation as his image-bearers, then it is our gift and responsibility to explore and understand creation in order to realize its potential under God. Such scholarship and exploration would include the good work of scientific research and technological innovation. Thus Noll motivated and grounded a call for Christian pursuit of science (and Christian scholarship more broadly) in a theology of creation.
In reply, some critics noted that appeals to a theology of creation often seem to be unhooked from Christ and the cross. In other words, a theological affirmation of science rooted in creation is not robustly “Christian,” but merely “theistic,” and too easily slides towards a functional deism.
In the course of that argument, Noll does two very important things. First, he provides a nuanced historical account of how we got to where we are by concisely pointing out that the terms of contemporary debates—between Christians and New Atheists, or between young earth creationists and evolutionary creationists—are the products of shifts in western thinking that radically changed how Christians talked about “nature” and God’s relationship to creation (what philosophers call “metaphysics”).
This leads to Noll’s second and most important point: historic Christian faith and the “thick” treasures of orthodox Christian theology offer us powerful resources for reimagining just how to work through difficult questions at the intersection of Christian faith and science. Indeed, Noll suggests that the ancient theological resources of the Council of Chalcedon have something to offer to our postmodern grappling with scientific challenges. So rather than seeing “the tradition” as a liability that needs to be “updated,” Noll celebrates Christological orthodoxy and historic Christian reflection as a gift to be celebrated and mined in our contemporary context. The way forward is to remember what’s been handed down to us.
“Come and See” by Mark A. Noll
We believe in one God the Father all-powerful, Maker of heaven and of earth, and of all things both seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . , through whom all things came to be . . .
[W]e all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the Virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ . . .
Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451
The bearing of Christology on science involves historical as well as theological awareness. Historical awareness is required because the relationship between God’s “two books,” Scripture and nature, has changed significantly over the course of centuries between biblical times and the present. So long as Christian communities thought it was a straightforward task to harmonize what Scripture seemed to communicate about the natural world and what observing nature or reflecting on nature seemed to communicate, the discussion was contained.
This situation, with some exceptions, largely prevailed until the sixteenth century and the beginnings of the modern scientific era. Yet even in the centuries when challenges to a “literal” reading of Scripture were fewer than later, perceptive believers knew that considerable sophistication was necessary to bring together biblical interpretation and interpretations of nature. Thus, early in the fifth century, Saint Augustine noted that perceptive non-Christians really did know a great deal about “the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth.” Given the fact of such able observers, he held it was “a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics.” When this kind of nonsense proliferated, the great danger was that those outside the faith would believe that the Scriptures themselves (“our sacred writers”) taught the nonsense and so would be put off from the life-giving message of the Bible. As Augustine expressed this danger, “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?”
That situation changed when the results of modern science called into question a growing array of straightforward or “literal” interpretations of the Bible. From the sixteenth century onward, the number of apparent problems accumulated. Hard-won conclusions in the natural sciences, which were gained through ever more intense and ever more sophisticated study of nature, seemed to contradict what the Scriptures taught. Thus, the earth was the center of neither the solar system nor the entire universe (as might be concluded from some biblical passages); the earth was billions of years old (not of recent vintage); the universe was unimaginably vast (not sized by human scale); animal “species” designated temporary way stations on continuously changing paths of evolutionary development (not permanently fixed entities); human beings were part of this evolutionary development (not a species distinct in every way from animals).
As these seeming contradictions became urgent in the development of modern science, believers wrestled long and hard to keep what was learned from nature and what was learned from Scripture in sync. While the difficulties for each particular question involving Scripture and nature were important, it is even more important to remember that they mattered only because of the larger framework spelled out by St. Augustine. Since Scripture described the new life offered in Christ, which was the most important thing for all humans in all of history, to cast substantial doubt on Scripture for secondary concerns was to shake confidence in what the Bible revealed concerning the most important matter. Yet once that relationship between Scripture on all things (including nature) and Scripture on the most important thing (reconciliation with God in Christ) is kept in view, progress may be possible on issues involving Scripture and science. The key is that if Christ is the central and unifying theme of Scripture, then Christ should be preeminent in understanding scriptural revelation about everything else, including nature.
In order to view scientific exploration as a Christological concern, it is helpful first to explore historical reasons for the difficulties besetting efforts at bringing scientific knowledge and biblical wisdom together.
The Bible and Science Historically Considered
Of the many books that have treated the record of religious-science engagement since the sixteenth century, the best have demonstrated that there has never been a simple conflict between biblical theology and natural science.3 Rather, that history has been marked by a sustained series of negotiations, breakthroughs, well-publicized flashpoints, much conceptual rethinking, lots of ignorant grandstanding, some intellectual over-reaching by starry-eyed avatars of a supremely all-competent “Science,” some intellectual over-reaching by determined “defenders” of Scripture, much non-controversial science carried out by Christians, a huge quantity of scientific advance accepted routinely by believers, and much more. The tumults that have arisen, however, are not random or uncaused. Many, in fact, have been propelled by habits of mind established in Western thinking well before the age of scientific revolution or that came to prominence during the era of the Enlightenment. In other words, thinking about science and religion has always been strongly influenced, sometimes absolutely determined, by important assumptions about how that thinking should take place.4
Because some of these assumptions arose in the middle ages, the recondite debates of thirteenth-century Catholic philosophers actually go far in explaining difficulties that continue to this day.5 One particular dispute that has exerted a great influence on later western history concerned the relationship of God’s being to all other beings. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican Friar who lived from 1225 to 1274, argued that this relationship was analogical, that is, while humans and the created world were certainly like God in many ways, the essence of God remained ultimately a mystery known only to himself. Aquinas may well have been thinking of the passage in Isaiah 55:9 where the Lord tells the prophet, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
The fact that God created the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) was a crucial part of Aquinas’s argument, because it meant that, while human minds could understand communication from God (i.e., revelation in nature, in Scripture, in Jesus Christ), yet human minds in principle could never grasp the essence of God. An interesting by-product of this position, which has taken on surprising relevance in contemporary debates, was Aquinas’s understanding of randomness or contingency. Everything in the world, he insisted, happened because of God’s direction. But some things happen contingently, or with the appearance of randomness. The logic of their contingency was perfectly clear to God, but because God in his essence is hidden to humans, humans may not be able to grasp how what they perceive as random could be part of God’s direction of the universe.
The opposing view was maintained by the Franciscan priest and philosopher, Duns Scotus, who was a younger contemporary of Thomas Aquinas living from 1266 to 1308. His position argued for the univocity of being. The only way to know the essence of anything is through its existence. Although God is much greater and much wiser than humans, his being and the being of all other things share a common essence. God is the creator and redeemer of humans, but his actions toward humans can (at least potentially) be understood reasonably well because the same laws of being apply to God as to everything else; the same way that we explain causation in every other sphere explains how God causes things to act and to be.
Scotus’s approach to metaphysics (= the science of being) became, with a few exceptions, the dominant view in later Western history. It was particularly significant when joined to one more principle, this one from the English Franciscan, William of Ockham (1288-1348). Ockham’s famous “razor” held that the simplest explanation was always the best explanation (“do not multiply entities unnecessarily”). Applied to science, this principle came to mean that if a natural event is explained adequately by a natural cause, there is no need to think about supernatural causes or even about the transcendent being of God. The combination of these philosophical positions is responsible for an assumption that prevails widely to this day: once something is explained clearly and completely as a natural occurrence, there is no other realm of being that can allow it to be described in any other way.
For a very long time, this assumption was not regarded as anti-Christian, since God was considered the creator of nature and the laws of nature as well as the active providential force that kept nature running as he had created it to run. During the Reformation era, Protestants maintained that conviction, but also began to place a new stress on the importance of Scripture for understanding God, themselves, the church, and everything else.6 That emphasis was one of the important factors accelerating the rise of modern science. In particular, as Protestants set aside symbolic interpretations of Scripture, which had been prominent in the Middle Ages, they stressed straightforward examination of texts in what was often called a literal approach. This approach, in turn, stimulated a similar effort at examining the natural world in such a way that the medieval idea of God communicating to humans through “two books” (nature and Scripture) took on greater force. The assumption that became very important in this process was that those who believed God created the physical world and revealed himself verbally in Scripture should harmonize in one complete picture what they learned about nature from studying nature and what they learned about nature from studying Scripture. In both cases, literal knowledge was crucial, along with a belief that sources of literal knowledge could be fitted together harmoniously.
By the late seventeenth century, when science in its early modern form began to expand rapidly, yet a third conviction became important, which was worked out especially in the many efforts that went into constructing natural theology.7 Natural theology was the project of explaining, often in considerable detail, what God’s purposes were in creating the various parts of nature. The tradition of natural theology received its most famous exposition in a book by William Paley, an Anglican archdeacon, published in 1802. Its title explained what it was about: Natural Theology: or, Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature. The very important assumption behind the natural theology promoted by William Paley was that not only did God create and providentially order the natural world, but humans could figure out exactly how and why God ordered creation as he did.
Perhaps not many today who are engaged with contemporary debates in science and religion pause to think about historical turning points deep in the past. But the assumptions of univocal metaphysics, harmonization, and natural theology created powerful channels in which much subsequent discussion has flowed. During recent decades, much of the conflict involving religion and science has resulted from polemicists on all sides carrying deeply entrenched convictions, attitudes, and assumptions into the present. Yet the terms of debate in modern polemical literature about science and religion depend almost entirely on assumptions about metaphysical univocity, harmonization, and natural theology. Critics of Creation Science and Intelligent Design, both believers and unbelievers, also often share some of these attitudes.
If what I have sketched here portrays the past with any accuracy, it should be clear that when conservative Bible-believers object to different aspects of modern science, they do so on the basis of assumptions as well as arguments. Often missing in those considerations, however, are direct appeals to the heart of the Christian faith as defined by the person and work of Christ. Coming back to that center offers a better way of discriminating more accurately between assumptions well grounded in solid theology and those that are not.
A Christology for Science
The theologian Robert Barron has nicely clarified much of what lies behind recent conflicts over human origins that feature supposedly biblical truths contending against supposedly scientific conclusions. In his words, “recent debates concerning evolutionist and ‘creationist’ accounts of the origins of nature are marked through and through by modern assumptions about a distant, competitive, and occasionally intervening God, whether the existence of such a God is affirmed or denied.”8 Barron’s response to these modern debates is a sophisticated exposition of classical Christology aimed at his theological peers. My effort is much simpler and is aimed at academics in general, but it comes from the same Christological perspective.
Christ as Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer
Classical Christian orthodoxy as expressed in the creeds that summarize the Scriptures begins at the beginning: nature owes its existence to and is sustained by Jesus Christ. From this starting point several important ramifications follow naturally.
One is the implication that the best way of finding out about nature is to look at nature. This implication comes directly from the Christological principle of contingency.9 As described in the gospels, individuals who wanted to learn the truth about Jesus had to “come and see.” Likewise, in order to find out what might be true in nature, it is necessary to “come and see.”
The process of “coming and seeing” does not lead to infallible truth about the physical world since there is no special inspiration from the Holy Spirit for the Book of Nature as there is for the Book of Scripture. But “coming and seeing” is still the method that belief in Christ as Savior privileges for learning about all other objects, including nature. This privileging means that scientific results coming from thoughtful, organized, and carefully checked investigations of natural phenomena must, for Christ-centered reasons, be taken seriously.
From this perspective, the successes of modern science in recent centuries testify implicitly to the existence of a creating and redeeming God. To once again quote Robert Barron, scientific activity by its very nature “implies . . . an unavoidable correspondence between the activity of the mind and the structure of being: intelligence will find its fulfillment in this universal and inescapable intelligibility.” But how can this implication be justified? According to Barron, “the universality of objective intelligibility (assumed by any honest scientist) can be explained only through recourse to a transcendent subjective intelligence that has thought the world into being, so that every act of knowing a word object or event is, literally, a re-cognition, a thinking again of what has already been thought by a primordial divine knower.”10 In lay language, the “transcendent subjective intelligence” and the “primordial divine knower” guarantee the possibility that a researcher’s mind can grasp something real about the world beyond the mind. The Scriptures—in John chapter 1, Colossians chapter 1, and Hebrews chapter 1—provide a name for that “intelligence” and that “knower.” In these terms, the existence of nature and the possibility of understanding nature presuppose Jesus Christ.
A second implication arising from the centrality of Christ in creation concerns the interpretation of Scripture. Classic biblical texts about the purpose of the Bible reinforce the foundational principle that the believers’ confidence in Scripture rests on its message of salvation in Jesus Christ. Thus, in John chapter 20, the gospel story has been written down so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). In 2 Timothy 3, the inspired or God-breathed “holy scriptures” have as their main purpose instruction “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:15). And in 2 Peter 1, “the word of the prophets made more certain” as these prophets were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1:19, 21) deals preeminently with “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:16).
Final and ultimate disharmony between what “come and see” demonstrates about Christ and what “come and see” reveals about the world of nature is impossible. The same Christ is the one through whom God has worked “to reconcile to himself all things . . . making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Col. 1:20) and in whom “all things were created” and in whom “all things hold together.” (Col. 1:16-17).
Yet it is indisputable that on some science-theology questions, trust in Christ (and therefore trust in Scripture) has seemed to conflict with trusting in what Christ-authorized procedure (“come and see”) reveals about a Christ-created and Christ-sustained world. The parade of difficult questions arising from the effort to bring together standard interpretations of Scripture and standard interpretations of the natural world is a long one. Trying to answer these questions has been a consistent feature of the modern scientific age. All such questions have caused understandable consternation when they were first raised, since they challenged specific interpretations of Scripture that had been tightly interwoven with basic interpretations of the entire Bible. Even after long and hard thought, such questions continue to pose definite challenges.
Answering such questions responsibly requires sophistication in scientific knowledge and sophistication in biblical interpretation—exercised humbly, teachably, and nondefensively. Unfortunately, these traits and capacities have not always predominated when such questions are addressed. But the difficult questions will almost certainly only continue to multiply because of two ongoing realities: the Holy Spirit continues to bestow new life in Christ through the message of the cross found in Scripture, and responsible investigations lead plausibly to further evolutionary conclusions from the relevant scientific disciplines.
A Chalcedonian Perspective
The multiplication and intensification of such questions are, however, no cause for despair. For those with Christ these questions present instead a golden opportunity for returning to first principles. Almost the very first of those first principles is the Chalcedonian definition of Christ as fully divine and fully human in one integrated person.
If the mystery of divinity and humanity fully inhabiting a single being is at the heart of Christian faith, and if this faith offers Christ as the definite answer to the deepest mysteries of existence itself, then there is a way forward. It is not a way forward along the path of late-medieval univocity when it was assumed that a natural explanation for any phenomenon was a fully sufficient explanation. It is not a way forward along the path of William Paley’s natural theology where it is assumed that humans may have God-like knowledge about the final purpose of physical phenomena. And it is not a way forward that either trivializes the Scriptures or distrusts modern science as a fundamentally ideological enterprise. It is instead a way forward that tries to give both the study of nature its proper due as made possible because of Christ’s creating work and the interpretation of Scripture its proper due as revealing the mercy of redemption in Christ.
On specific questions concerning evolution, promising recent suggestions resting on classical Christology have come from Catholic scientists and theologians who draw on the insights of Thomas Aquinas. In particular, Thomas resisted the push toward univocity as he defended the complexity of the divine-human mystery at the heart of the universe. In his own day, as we have seen, Duns Scotus treated God and humanity as existing on a common metaphysical plane; God was infinitely greater than humans, but in quantity, not quality. No, said Thomas Aquinas, since humans are creatures and the triune God was the creator, humanity and deity do not share the same metaphysical plane. Hence, there must always be separation between human knowledge about existence and divine knowledge. Robert Barron states Thomas’s position carefully: “Aquinas maintained consistently throughout his career that God is inescapably mysterious to the human intellect, since our frame of reference remains the creaturely mode of existence, which bears only an analogical resemblance to the divine mode of being. . . . The ‘cash value’ of the claim that God exists is that there is a finally mysterious source of the to-be of finite things.”11
Satisfactory resolution of problems stemming from responsible biblical interpretation brought together with responsible interpretations of nature will not come easily. Such resolution requires more sophistication in scientific knowledge, more sophistication in biblical hermeneutics, and more humility of spirit than most of us possess. But it is not wishful thinking to believe that such resolution is possible. It is rather an expectant hope that grows directly from confidence in what has been revealed in Jesus Christ.
1 Abridged from Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 99-124 (chapter 6) by Mark A. Noll, Francis McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame. It is reprinted with permission.
2 (page 5) St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2 vols., transl. and annotated John Hammond Taylor, S.J. (New York: Newman, 1982), 1:42-43.
3 (page 6) See especially John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); and David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, eds., When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). An excellent reference work is Gary B. Ferngren, ed., The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 2000).
4 (page 7) The following paragraphs are taken, with revisions, from Mark A. Noll, “Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview,” BioLogos Forum (Nov. 2009), available from biologos.org/uploads/projects/Noll_scholarly_essay.pdf (May 17, 2010).
5 (page 7) This section relies on Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), esp. 25-31.
6 (page 9) See in particular Peter Harrison, The Bible , Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
7 (page 10) For particularly astute treatment, see Brooke, Science and Religion, 192-225.
8 (page 12) Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 221. For convenience, I return several times in the following paragraphs to this book by Robert Barron. But there are other parallel efforts, for example from the physicist and Anglican theologian John C. Polkinghorne, in books like Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), and Science and the Trinity; The Christian Encounter with Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
9 (page 12) See Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, 49-55.
10 (page 14) Barron, Priority of Christ, 154.
11 (page 18) Barron, Priority of Christ, 13.