Christian Faith and Learning Integration: a biologist’s perspective.
Jeffrey M. Duerr, M.S., Ph.D.
“All Scripture is God-breathed…” – II Timothy
All Creation is God breathed - Genesis
It is an unfortunate reality that in modern Western societies, science and faith are seen as mutually exclusive worldviews. This is an ironic circumstance given that the birth of science was a fundamentally Christian endeavor, one that supported Christian theology by providing observation of design and order that suggested a purposeful and intelligent creator. Indeed, it was in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas established a system of natural theology, a paradigm professing that a knowledge of God can and should be acquired from careful study of nature, or creation.
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power, and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20)*
Historically, science in Western societies was born out of and nurtured by the Christian philosophy of creation. Modern science was pioneered and developed by a mostly Christian academy who held a fundamental belief that the universe was created by a rational God and could therefore be understood through reason. As Christians, we are informed by the Bible that God is indeed the sole Creator of both the heavens and the earth. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” (John 1:3) Furthermore, we know that God sustains His creation “all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together" (Col 1:16-17). The laws of science could describe the decisions and actions of God as He is the “glue” that holds it all together (5). Francis Bacon recognized that Biblical texts address purposeful and spiritual aspects of the human condition and served a source of revelation regarding our fallen state and potential reconciliation with God, whereas science serves to restore mankind’s dominion over the Earth. Bacon further stated that there was no separation between what the Bible teaches and science: “To conclude, therefore, let no man out of weak conceit of sobriety, or in ill applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works.” (4). Early scientists were supported by the notion that there was objective truth which was discoverable and comprehensible. God had created a universe that could and should be understood.
But a shift in the philosophic base of scientists to naturalism during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries pushed God aside (4). By the mid-nineteenth century, a growing chasm between science and Christian theology presented itself. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the view of intelligent design was challenged with the notion of a universe with fixed, predictable laws and God’s creative hand replaced with the natural selection of an autonomous nature. A universe with knowable laws produced variability and design, nature was governed by physical laws and had no more direction than the direction of wind (1). The theory of natural selection required a vast time scale for the appearance and diversification (speciation) of life on Earth that was consistent with fossil and geological data. For those who continued to closely associate empirical data with theological (Biblical) texts, an apparent non-congruency appeared between theology and science, which ultimately led to some challenging the idea of a creator-God (2). The need for a designer had been obviated. Nature had become a substitute for divine action. It was Huxley who proposed that science could take the place of revelation as the source of truth and the foundation of society’s future. This naturalist view holds that naturalistic explanations provide all we need and indeed all we are able to know (3). Naturalism was lifted to a worldview that competes to this day with Christianity. Therefore it is naturalism, not science, which is inconsistent with Christian theology.
The legacy of this nineteenth century revolution is a large population of 21st century evangelicals that are truly confused by two epistemologies that appear to compete with each other: science and theology. The apparent dichotomy between the Church and science (and especially with certain doctrines of biology) is often widened by a plethora of popular texts that attack the core of astronomy, physics, geology and biology. As a result, many evangelical churches are isolating themselves as “anti-science” islands and present a poor witness to the remainder of society (3); a society containing individuals who are in desperate need of Jesus. It is my firm opinion that Christian theology and science are not the least bit incompatible, but instead are complementary views of the world. I feel called to reconstruct bridges between the worlds of faith and science, and in particular, biology.
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) The author goes on to say that “by faith we understand that worlds were prepared by the word of God” indicating that by faith we know that our world and indeed the entire universe is the creation of God. It is by faith and an understanding of the written word of God, which is available to us in the Bible, that we are led to a more complete knowledge of God. Science is a way of knowing about those parts of God’s creation which we can directly observe using one or more of our five senses. Science looks for patterns and consistency in the physical world. Science attempts to analyze how the physical universe functions and allows us to predict the behavior of physical systems. The purpose of the Biblical writers was not to teach their audience geology, chemistry, or biology, but instead were concerned with the question of why we are here. Faith and science are two valid ways of learning truth about God’s creation, and though their methodology differs, they ultimately should not present conflicting views of reality. Guthrie (6) suggests comparing these two views is like comparing apples and oranges:
The Christian doctrine of creation and the scientific description of the world answer different kinds of questions. They are not alternative truths, but different kinds of truth. Rather than being enemies, science has helped (sometimes forced) Christians to discover the real meaning of the biblical doctrine of creation; on the other hand, Christian emphasis on the world as God’s good creation has made possible and encouraged the development of science’s investigations of it.
The Bible is not a science text, but a source of the unique truths of Christian doctrine: namely that God is the ultimate source and ruler of creation, that creation is good, and we need fear nothing in this world. Perhaps John Calvin summarized best when he stated that “the whole point of scripture is to bring us to a knowledge of Jesus Christ…and not to provide us with an infallible repository of astronomical and medical information.”
Naturalistic views are not the only force propagating the common misconception that science and faith are mutually exclusive. Well-meaning Christians are also to blame. Many in the church continually use gaps, or incompleteness, in scientific knowledge as a basis for discrediting science. This is a well-intended strategy to combat naturalistic worldviews with a theistic one. However, this approach often merely exacerbates tensions and promotes alienation. Ian Hutchinson (7) suggests that the Church today should be more concerned with getting the positive message of the gospel out rather than “continue intellectual arguments from the 19th century”.
To practice science as a Christian is not oxymoronic, but instead must be purposeful, with our “spectacles of faith” donned. Since the world is truly a product of God’s creativity and workmanship, its study offers great insight into the mind and character of God. Certain responsibilities come to those scientists who are active in their Christian faith. Firstly, we should aid the church in its response to new (and old) scientific information regarding the natural world; and secondly, we are called to bring our faith into the scientific establishment as a witness. Thirdly, Wright (2) directs the empirical Christian to “ask the right questions” in their scholarship. The “right questions” are those that address value and purpose and governance in the natural world. Asking questions like these should lead us to God and are the mode of what Wright refers to as natural theology. And fourthly, at the Christian academy, a final responsibility manifests itself as a core teaching philosophy: the active and deliberate integration of the Christian faith and knowledge obtained using modern scientific techniques.
The integration of faith and learning is not characterized simply by living a Christian lifestyle, nor a public relations campaign, but more than this it is a scholarly project. Faith-learning integration strives to determine what integral relationships exist between Christian faith and human knowledge and develop those relationships. Wolfe (8) states that “Genuine integration occurs when an assumption or concern can be shown to be internally shared by (integral to) both the Judaeo-Christian vision and an academic discipline.” Part of being a scholar and professor of the biological sciences is to explore the juxtaposition of biological investigation and Christian theology.
For me, the integration of biological science with my Christian faith is imperative because there is unity in truth, because God is Lord over all of life and all compartments of life, and because of its impact on the goals of education. All truth is God’s truth, including that which is learned from a study of life on earth. Though knowledge may be obtained by different methods, this knowledge can inform our understanding of the nature of God. God must also not be solely relegated or compartmentalized to being Lord of one’s spiritual endeavors, but as Lord over all aspects of living, including one’s vocation. Recognizing that God is integral to all aspects in one’s life, a life science educator should design curricula with specific ends in mind and include how biology and the Christian doctrine relate can inform one another. Essentially, biological science is learned from the perspective of a Biblical worldview.
One of several fundamental insights from the Christian worldview that are relevant to biological sciences includes the doctrine of creation. The writer of Genesis begins God’s written revelation by describing the creation of the universe: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). God Himself is behind the origin and creation of all that can be observed. Genesis describes a creative and purposeful God who crafts a world. Experience and observation informs us of a creation that is in many ways predictable. Scientists study the regular patterns of nature and call them natural laws. Our understanding of such laws are merely an approximate comprehension of God’s sustaining hand in our world. Consider the words of Jeremiah: “When He utters His voice, there is a tumult of waters in the heavens. And He causes the clouds to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain, And brings out the wind from His storehouses.” (Jer 10:13) The study of nature shows God’s glory and wisdom and further resolves our view of reality.
The author of Genesis also testifies to the goodness of God’s creation. “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen 1:31a) God Himself was making a statement of the value of His creation. It is possible the Creation illustrates God’s wisdom, creativity, beauty, majesty, and power among many other attributes. The goodness of creation clearly displays the glory of God. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” (Ps 19:1) As nature declares His praises, so should we.
The harmony of natural systems is a testimony to God and His glory and wisdom. Our relationship to one another and to God’s creation is demonstrated by the interdependence of natural systems at all levels, from the inner workings of the cell to the delicate ecological balance of the biosphere. If we take care to observe what is beautiful, orderly, and purposeful in this world, then we are led to seek our Creator and His will for the created.
It is not too far into the story of Genesis that we learn of our fallen state. All of creation is not completely as it was intended to be, but instead it is a distortion of perfection. Creation is now a blend of goodness and “fallenness”. God’s plan is for restoration of relationship with His people and creation itself. The work of Jesus Christ is one of salvation and redemption; it is a story of the creator coming to redeem His creation. As followers of Christ, we are called to join him in his ministry of easing suffering and improving the lives of our fellows. The science of biology brings glory to our Lord and contribution to His Kingdom when it is applied to His mission of redemption.
Modern biology reaches perhaps more deeply into human thought and life than other natural sciences. As a result of both the genetic revolution and the advent of technology that allows the investigation of cellular life at an unprecedented level of detail, biologists are now capable of rapidly altering life on earth. No longer a mere descriptive science, biology is now a significant power that is reshaping human civilization, and may soon attempt to redefine what it is to be human. Christians in the life sciences should be interpreting new biological facts and technologies for the church, providing an understanding that will strengthen the role of Christians in bioethical debates facing our society.
Genetics has matured as a science and the knowledge obtained from sequencing the DNA from a significant number of organisms, including the human, has enabled our society to genetically modify plants and animals. As a result, new possibilities have arisen in agriculture and human medicine. Crops that are drought-resistant, insect-resistant, heat/frost-resistant, and produce larger fruits or other edible portions, are in wide-spread use and reducing world hunger. Gene therapy, novel drug design, and stem-cell technology are drastically easing pain, sickness, suffering and need, all of which is in line with a Christian mission of redemption. However, there are ethical considerations: Do modified crops pose an ecological danger? Is the use of embryonic stem cells ethical? Should we modify the genetic code of a human only to heal physiologic dysfunction? How do we define “dysfunction”? Do all people have access to modern medical procedures?
Biology also speaks to the concept of stewardship of the environment. God has provided us with a model of how to be a good steward. God’s relationship with His creation was one of blessing. As we are made in His image, we bear a responsibility to manage our world in a Godly manner. Though scripture commands us to fill the earth and subdue it, we must recognize that the earth may at some point be filled. Our society must contend with overpopulation, pollution, and resource depletion.
In “The Idea of a Christian College” (9), Arthur Holmes states that Christian theology has the least far-ranging impact in the natural sciences relative to the humanities and behavioral sciences. I would respectfully disagree. Perhaps the impact of the biological sciences was not yet foreseeable in 1975, the text’s publication date. In the 21st century, human technology will reshape human culture. As a disciple of Christ and a biologist, surely I was “made for such a time as this” (see Esther 4:14). I look forward to continuing the challenge of educating both mind and heart at George Fox University.
*All scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New American Standard Version.
1. Darwin, Charles. “The Origin of Species.” New American Library. New York. Mentor Edition 1958. (1st Edition November 24, 1859)
2. Wright, Richard T. “Biology through the Eyes of Faith.” Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco. 1989.
3. Falk, Darrel R. “Coming to Peace with Science, Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology.” 2004.
4. Schaefer, Francis A. “How Should We Then Live.” Crossway Books. 1976.
5. Morrison, Terry. “What are the Essential Biblical Principles?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. 53(4):236-237. 2001.
6. Guthrie, Shirley C. “Christian Doctrine” Revised Ed. Westminster John Knox Press. Louisville. 1994.
7. Hutchinson, I. “Science: Christian and Natural.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. 55(2):72-79. 2003.
8. Heie, Harold and David L. Wolfe, eds., “The Reality of Christian Learning: Strategies for Faith-Discipline Integration” Christian University Press. Grand Rapids. 1987.
9. Holmes, Arthur F. “The Idea of a Christian College.” Revised Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Grand Rapids. 1975.