Science and Theology: Mapping the Relationship

Historical Introduction

The purposes of this historical overview are two: one is to chip away at the widely held conception of science and Christianity as being regularly in conflict; the other is to explain why liberal and conservative Christians tend to hold such different attitudes toward science.

It is important to bear in mind that modern Western science originated within the matrix of a Christian worldview. The term “scientist” was not coined until the nineteenth century; earlier contributions were called natural philosophy. Natural philosophy and natural theology were so closely tied in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the works of Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), and others have been called “physico-theology.”

One early source of the perception of conflict between science and Christianity is early scientific theories that conflicted with the scholastic synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy with theology; therefore, the work appeared to some to threaten Catholic theology. Gradually, however, the new science presented itself as more compatible with Christianity than the “pagan” Aristotelianism that it displaced.1

The warfare thesis was advanced by historians Andrew Dixon White and John Draper, whose thesis—now called the warfare myth—has been thoroughly discredited by recent historians as one-sided and partly motivated by power struggles between the new scientific elite and administrators who controlled higher education (typically Christian clergymen).2

Genuine conflict between religion and science began in the United States in the early twentieth century with the developing fundamentalist movement. Shaken by the simultaneous arrival of higher criticism of the Scriptures and evolutionary theory in the United States, and by the development of a version of liberal theology called modernism, fundamentalist Christians adopted a strategy for reading Scripture that took evolutionary biology to be in conflict with biblical views of the age of the Earth and human origins. This conflict continues today, even though many conservative theologians have made impressive moves to reconcile theology with scientific developments.3

Meanwhile, liberal theology had developed in large part as a strategy to immunize theology from science. Immanuel Kant’s (1724–1804) philosophical system was primarily a response to the threat that Newtonian determinism posed to human freedom and morality, and thus to religion. One aspect of his solution led to the birth of liberal theology. He made a sharp distinction between the spheres of knowledge (science and a limited form of metaphysics) and ethics. Religion belongs to the sphere of ethics, of things in themselves, so there is no valid way to argue from science (based on sensory perception) to theological conclusions.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), founder of the liberal theological tradition, located religion in a third, aesthetic sphere. The consequence was an understanding of theology that bore no intellectual relation whatsoever to science. For example, the doctrine of creation says nothing about the origin of the universe, but speaks of human religious awareness of its dependence on God. This development created a gulf between liberal theologians and theologians still holding to the traditional understanding of theology as knowledge, and it accounts for the fact that only conservative Christians have seen science as a threat. However, the indifference of liberal theologians to science began, a generation ago, to give way to a new round of engagement. Scholars with dual training in science and theology have contributed to a growing movement to relate theology to current developments in science.

Regardless of theologians’ attitudes toward science, however, there is scarcely a doctrine that has not been affected by science. I shall note three of these briefly, and then turn to contemporary points of dialogue. In all three cases, the direct implications for theology were not from science (as we now understand the word) but from allied philosophical changes.

Modern Worldview Changes

The development of modern science led to a shift in philosophical understandings of knowledge, which in turn had a significant impact on theological methods. Medieval theologians had two sets of epistemological categories, those relating to scientia (deductive systems such as geometry) and those relating to opinio (“probable” knowledge, in the sense of that approved by the authorities). The scientific revolution replaced medieval opinio with our contemporary sense of probable knowledge based on empirical evidence. The need to redefine theology in modern epistemological categories created a major crisis for Christian scholars. Much of the character of evangelical theology is a consequence of attempting to model theological reasoning on accounts of science from philosophers such as Francis Bacon (1561–1626), famous for proposing that science worked by gathering all relevant facts and drawing inductive conclusions. This has had the unfortunate consequence of leading some theologians to speak of the Bible as a collection of facts, merely needing to be combined into a coherent system. As already noted, liberal theology has been shaped methodologically by distinguishing itself from science.

Francis Bacon, illustration by Denise KlitsieFRANCIS BACON (1561–1626) was an English philosopher, statesman, and scientist whose works were extremely influential during the scientific revolution. Known as the creator of empiricism, he popularized inductive methodologies for scientific inquiry.

A second change with drastic effects on theology was a new view of causation. The scientific revolution embodied a new form of explanation—fitting events into causal accounts, with causation understood in terms of laws of nature. While this change was motivated theologically—it was an answer to the question of how God governs the universe—the concept of nature as entirely determined by strict causal laws soon made God’s ongoing involvement seem problematic. How, then, to understand revelation, special providence, and continuing creation?

Here we see another split between liberal and conservative Protestants. Liberal theologians gave up on all notions of special divine action. Instead they emphasized God’s immanence in the world; God’s ongoing action is limited to upholding the whole natural order. Insofar as an event seems to be a special act of God, this is only because subjectively it reveals God’s purposes more than others.

Conservative theologians objected that this “immanentist” view of divine action, removing God from history, evacuates Christianity of its meaning. They maintain (with liberals) that God works constantly within the order of nature, but contend that God can and does intervene—occasionally violating laws of nature in order to bring about special events.4

A third aspect of the scientific worldview has affected Christian understandings of the church, salvation, and the kingdom of God. The atomism that worked so well in the new physics was soon extended metaphorically to all aspects of reality. Humans came to be understood as the atoms that constituted social groups, and two related attributes were carried along by the metaphor: human atoms are logically prior to social organizations, and they are not intrinsically affected by social relations. This modern form of individualism has made it difficult to maintain the biblical view of the church as the body of Christ, and has allowed concern for personal (individual) salvation to eclipse expectation for the social and political reign of God.

I turn now to topics of current interest in the science-theology dialogue, some of which I shall merely list here because they will be addressed in other articles in this publication, and others I will explain in what follows.

Quantum Physics and Divine Action

An issue of great interest among current scholars is whether it is possible to give an account of special divine action (continuing creation, special providence) without violation of the laws of nature. Liberal theologians tended to reject special divine action. First, it represented an unacceptable view of the nature of God. If God created the laws in the first place, then God’s violation of them is irrational; Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) argued that in such a case God would be involved in self-contradiction. Second, if action in the material world requires a force, then to conceive of God making things happen in the world is to conceive of God as a force among forces. This is problematic since it reduces God to the level of a Demiurge.

One current possibility for reconciling special divine action with what we know of the regularities of nature is to postulate that God works at the quantum level and thereby brings about macroscopic events. This approach emphasizes God’s immanence in all of nature; thus, necessarily God is immanent in the events and entities at the quantum level. Robert John Russell is the most prolific defender of quantum divine action. He argues that God acts directly at the quantum level to sustain the development of elementary processes and also to determine otherwise indeterminate quantum events. This latter sort of action is the means by which God brings about special, providential, and revelatory events at the macro level. God’s action is in cooperation with natural causes: it involves “a continuous creative (divine) presence within each (quantum) event, co-determining the outcome of these elementary physical processes.”5 So this is not a picture of God occasionally acting from outside the world, but rather a scientifically informed specification of the nature of immanent divine causation. Because of the (widely accepted) ontological indeterminacy of events at the quantum level there is no violation of natural laws.

This account has many critics. One criticism is that action only at the quantum level would have almost no possibility for noticeable events at the macroscopic level. However, quantum divine action does not postulate God acting in only one quantum event at a time. Hence, the charge that individual quantum events have limited effects because all are averaged out at the macro-level is beside the point. Second, there are in fact important points at which individual quantum events have significant effects, such as in causing some of the mutations that drive the evolutionary process.6 It is also likely that quantum events play a role in brain processes, thus potentially affecting human thoughts and emotions.

Note that divine action as here understood will always be invisible to science, since it will originate in events that can only appear to scientific investigation as chance occurrences.

Exploring the Intersections of Science and Christian Faith: Moving Beyond Conflict

Tommy L. Faris

University Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio, has a long history of service in the community of the Ohio State University. The congregation was founded in 1890 as a Baptist mission to the young university (the Ohio State University was founded in 1870). From the founding to the present, University Baptist Church has sought connection with the university, its students, faculty, and staff. The members of University Baptist Church value their connection to the university, and many are graduates.

Quite frankly, University Baptist Church has never understood science and faith to be in conflict with one another. There is a widely held belief here that, to borrow the words of Albert Einstein, “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Additionally, we hold that there is neither need nor necessity to prove the existence of God. We believe and teach that God exists and that God is a good and loving creator, but belief is not proof in an empirical or scientific sense. On the reverse of that coin, there is no empirical or scientific proof that God does not exist. As believers in Christ and children of God, we hold the existence of God as a matter of faith that need not fear the knowledge and data that science contributes to our world.    Read more »

Evolution and Divine Action

Current science-theology dialogue contributes to the ongoing reconciliation of theology with evolutionary biology in regard to divine action. The most common understanding of evolution across the theological spectrum, called “theistic evolutionism,” is that God created all present life forms through the process of evolution. However, this thesis is ambiguous. Does it mean that God willed the evolutionary process to occur, and that the process alone has produced all of the results? Or does it mean that God worked subtly within the process to produce these results? If the former, then theistic evolutionism is open to the same sorts of objections as other “immanentist” accounts of divine action—it is difficult to claim that the evolution of Homo sapiens is more an act of God than the evolution of, say, cockroaches. If theistic evolution is taken in the latter sense, then must it not be merely a subtler form of interventionism? Here we see the relevance of theories of noninterventionist special divine action. For example, Russell argues that divine action at the quantum level could account for certain sorts of mutations, and thus, indirectly, for some aspects of the direction of the evolutionary process. The purpose of such theories is to enable the theologian to claim that God has been involved in shaping the outcome of natural processes without making God merely one cause among other (natural) causes.7

Cosmology and Creation

In the Middle Ages there was a consensus among theologians that the doctrine of creation was relevant to a number of cosmological issues, such as the nature of time and the question of whether the universe had a beginning. However, due to a variety of factors in the modern period, many theologians concluded that theology in general and the doctrine of creation in particular are irrelevant to the big cosmological questions. For them, theology is basically about humankind’s relation to God. The ironic development in our own day is that science is now putting all of those big cosmological questions back on the table.

Robert John Russell, illustration by Denise KlitsieROBERT JOHN RUSSELL is director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in Residence at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He has published widely on the interaction between theology, physics, and biology.

Fine-Tuning, Design, and Natural Evil

The problem of evil can be expressed simply: if God is all good and all powerful, one would expect God to eliminate evil from the world, yet clearly God has not done so. It has become common to distinguish among three kinds of evil, designated as moral, natural, and metaphysical evil. The theological task has been to reconcile these with the assumption of the ultimate goodness of the created order. Moral evil—human sin—has always been the easiest to account for. I focus here on natural evil—that is, the (apparent) disorder in nature and the suffering it causes for humans and animals—and on the closely related topic of limitation, often called metaphysical evil.

Augustine produced an elaborate set of answers to these three interrelated problems. Unfortunately, his answer to the problem of natural evil was also dependent on an account of the human Fall as a historical event and especially on the notion of the fall of the angels; both premises are highly questionable on biblical grounds as well as scientifically.

A first step in providing a credible treatment of natural evil is to recognize that all purely natural evil is a simple consequence of the regular working of the laws of nature. Children fall and injure themselves because of the law of gravity; mountain climbers freeze and people starve because of the laws of thermodynamics; deadly bacteria evolve by means of the same biological laws that have produced humans.

The modern philosopher G. W. F. Leibniz (1646–1716) argued that this must be “the best of all possible worlds.” He pointed out that the more we understand the interconnectedness among things and events the less we can imagine a world that preserves all the goods of this one and eliminates all of the evils. This observation can be all the better supported in light of current science, especially by noting the connections that can be drawn among the laws of the various sciences, from physics to sociology. One important contributor to the goodness of a world, in Leibniz’s view, is the feature whereby the most results are produced in the simplest ways.

Even more pertinent to Leibniz’s argument is the current discussion of fine-tuning and the anthropic principle. Scientists such as John Barrow and Frank Tipler have shown that the evolution of life in the universe is dependent on exquisitely fine balances among the forces and quantities of basic physics.8 Their calculations have led to reflections on the abstract possibility of a vast number of different sets of physical laws. These reflections, in turn, allow us to make better sense of Leibniz’s notion of God selecting the best of all possible worlds. Here God selects, from among a number of possible worlds, one of the incredibly small number in which the development of life would be possible.

“Metaphysical evil” refers to the basic facts of finitude and limitation. It has regularly been seen as an occasion for both natural and moral evil. Light can be shed on this ancient idea by focusing on one particular law of nature—the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy (disorder) in a closed system always increases. Russell argues that entropy is a prefiguring of evil on the physical level. Evil is likened to a disorder, a disfunction in an organism, or an imperfection in being. Entropy refers to such disorder, measuring the dissipation of a system, the fracturing of a whole. The pain and cost of natural disasters are all rooted in the press of entropy, the relentless disintegration of form, environment, and organism. Furthermore, the constant need to replenish the human body—the need for food and other forms of energy—is the cause of much moral evil. While we may dream of a world without this constant loss and degradation of energy, Russell argues that the second law of thermodynamics actually plays a necessary role in the development of higher forms of order, particularly in the development of life.9

These scientific considerations give theologians additional resources for dealing with evil: natural and metaphysical evil are both necessary but unwanted byproducts of conditions that were required to fulfill God’s purposes—including particularly the existence of beings who could freely return his love. One obvious condition for such beings is an orderly, law-like universe. We now see, in addition, that human life could only exist in a universe that operates according to laws practically indistinguishable from those we observe. If the existence of intelligent life is central to God’s purposes in creating a universe, then this universe is indeed one of the best of an uncountable number of possible worlds.10


This article has sought to achieve two goals: to explain the difference between evangelical and liberal approaches to science, and to describe important points of contact between current science and Christian theology. I have mentioned six major topics that are all connected. The fine tuning of the cosmological constants connects to the topics of big-bang cosmology and evolution, in that the values of the constants are shown to be necessary to allow the evolution of life in a universe beginning in a big bang. Fine tuning also relates to the end of the world, in that delicately balanced features such as the mass of the universe and the strength of gravity will determine the long-term fate of the cosmos. Reconciling evolutionary biology and Christian theology turns on the problem of divine action, which may be soluble with insights from quantum physics. A physicalist account of human nature is consistent with our evolutionary origins.

A consistent and coherent account of science and its relations to theology is important. Stephen Barr notes that, while Christian belief and science are not in conflict, there is a very important conflict between Christianity and a materialist tradition that has developed through the modern period. Contemporary atheists often claim that their worldview is based on science, and that religious belief is incompatible with science. Barr claims that while earlier science could be taken to support materialism, developments in the twentieth century such as big-bang cosmology, fine-tuning, and quantum physics provide added credibility to a theistic worldview.11 Thus, the task of incorporating science into our current theological worldview is highly important for apologetic reasons.

1. Peter Harrison, “Religion, the Royal Society, and the Rise of Science,” Theology and Science 6, no. 3 (2008): 255–71 (264).
2. See 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).
3. See David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
4. See Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisonburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996).
5. Robert John Russell, Cosmology from Alpha to Omega: The Creative Mutual Interaction of Theology and Science (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 156.
6. Russell, Cosmology, ch. 6.
7. Russell, Cosmology, ch. 6.
8. John Barrow and Frank J. Tippler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).
9. Russell, Cosmology, ch. 7.
10. Nancey Murphy et al., eds., Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, 2007).
11. Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2013, “Thinking Science and Christian Faith Together.”