For many people, science-theology relations may be illustrated by the plot line of the movie “Irreconcilable Differences” (1984). The movie dramatizes how Albert and Lucy fall in love, get married, and have a daughter named Casey. Then they are distracted from each other and are headed for divorce. However, Casey beats them to the punch. She sues to divorce her parents and the media has a field day. Should we accept a divorce between science and theology? Or do they have the compatibilities necessary for a fruitful marriage?
The National Academy of Science (in Science and Creationism) suggests that science and theology are “separate and mutually exclusive realms . . . whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both.” The Academy regards science-theology interaction as a “challenge to the integrity and effectiveness of our national education system and the hard-won evidenced-based foundations of Science, . . . [to] academic and intellectual freedom and to the fundamental principles of scientific thought.” At the same time the Academy denies that there is “an irreconcilable conflict between religion and science.”
What then is the proper relationship between the two disciplines? In order to find our way to the best future for Christian science-theology relations we need to understand better the history of these relations.
The Premodern Period.
For sixteen centuries, before the Protestant Reformation, premodern theology was influenced by two theologians above all others. First, Augustine (d. 430 A.D.) promoted the idea of Plato (d. 347 B.C.) that wisdom is superior to knowledge. As a result, theology was regarded as superior to science. Later, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 A.D.) promoted the idea of Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) that science is derived from first principles. Thus theology came to be regarded as the highest derived science.
Nevertheless, premodern theology contained the seeds of the idea of God-world separation that would produce a harvest of science-theology conflict in the modern period. The Eastern strand of premodern theology modeled the relations of God and nature as organic through the mediation of a Cosmic Christ. In contrast, Western theology modeled the transcendent world of God (neotos) as separated from the immanent human world (aisthetos) by a chasm (chorismos). This gap was bridged by a combination of rational natural theology grounded in nature and in revealed theology received by faith. However, God's word in Christ and in the language of Scripture was viewed as primarily a source of timeless doctrine about the transcendent divine order and only secondarily a support for ideas about the immanent natural order.
The Modern Period.
From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, there was a decline of traditional natural theology and a rise of methodological naturalism in modern science. Consequently, nature was modeled as a machine which was separated from God. Two philosopher-theologians are especially representative of this development. René Descartes (d. 1650) divided reality into matter and mind or spirit, and Immanuel Kant (d. 1804) divided knowledge into that which may be known and that which must be believed because of practical necessity.
In Understanding Modern Theology, Jeffrey Hopper comments that in the premodern period, for the most part, theology set the rules for science. "Now [in the modern period] this situation was reversed, and the findings of science were setting the problems for philosophy, which in turn was beginning to define new rules for theology." This led to increasing conflict between modern science and traditional theology. On the one hand, modern science undermines premodern views of the factual relevance of Scripture. On the other hand, modern critical hermeneutics views all language as descriptive of an immanent natural reality rather than a transcendent supernatural reality.
Modern theologians have responded in different ways. On one side, Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834), the father of Protestant Liberalism, sought a truce in the science-theology conflict by describing theology as a positive and practical science rather than as a pure science. He viewed Scripture as essentially a record of religious experience. On the other pole, Benjamin B. Warfield (d. 1921) was a foremost proponent of the view that Scripture records factual propositions. This view has come to be associated with fundamentalist and conservative theology.
The Postmodern Period
A growing number of scientists, theologians, and philosophers regard 20th and 21st century science as radically different from premodern derived science and modern methodological naturalism. However, others emphasize the continuity of the history of science. What is clear is that scientific models have undergone significant change. Nature is now modeled as a history in which the core of reality is mysterious.
Theology has also changed. Postcritical theologians usually use modern critical methods, but they recognize the limited theological usefulness of the “scientific” historical-critical paradigm with its emphasis on the human context of the formation of Scripture. As a result, much of postmodern thought tends toward irrationalism and nihilism.
At the same time, many contemporary theologians seek to overcome the imbalance of the premodern and modern emphases on transcendence and immanence. They do this by recognizing Jesus, Scripture, and nature as in some sense revelations of what Jerry Gill describes as a “mediated divine transcendence.”
Unfortunately, because of the tensions within postmodern thought, no new theological unity concerning science-theology relations has emerged. The tendencies toward division which developed in the premodern and modern periods have developed into a radical pluralism of postmodern views about Jesus, Scripture and nature. The premodern and modern influences continue. In addition, other types of theology have developed which view Scripture as witness to revelation (Neo-orthodox), symbolization of divine-human encounter (Existentialist), salvation message (Neo-evangelical), source of metaphors (Narrative), source of models (Feminist), foundation for freedom (Liberation), and as an unfolding of divine action (Process). These approaches to theology view the text of Scripture either as a revelation, as a witness to a historical revelation "behind" the text, or as a catalyst for contemporary revelation "in front of" the text.
Presently, the cutting edge of Christian theology involves the search for a viable model which deals with the manifold revelation of God in Jesus, Scripture, and nature. Such a model must engage the issue of the relations of science and theology. The relevance of Seventh-day Adventist theology for such a time as this may be indicated by the words of Ellen White. “The book of nature and the written word do not disagree; each sheds light on the other. Rightly understood they make us acquainted with God and his character by teaching us something of the wise and beneficent laws through which he works. We are thus led to adore his name and to have an intelligent trust in his word” (Signs of the Times, March 20, 1884).
Are there elements of premodern, modern, and postmodern science-theology relations which are compatible with a Bible based theology?
Is Adventist theology relevant in our postmodern time?
What are the advantages and risks of science-theology dialog?