Science and Faith: The Contemporary World

The early 20th Century

Although many Christians were concerned about the challenges implicit in Darwin’s evolutionary theory, through the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, few Christian scholars advocated for a young Earth.  Most conservative and evangelical scholars in the early 20th century accommodated new scientific theories in their work,

In The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, a collection of 90 essays published from 1910 to 1915, written to define conservative Protestant doctrine and foundational to modern fundamentalism, James Orr, George Frederick Wright, B.B. Warfield and other leading scholars wrote positively about modern science, an old Earth, and against a narrow literal reading of Genesis’ creation narratives. While the authors of The Fundamentals did struggle with some challenges associated with evolutionary theory, they were open to its possibilities as one way the God could work in the world.  Wright, for instance, emphasized a necessary distinction between evolution as a scientific theory of species transmutation  and evolutionism as a metaphysical worldview.  Wright, Orr, and the other authors integrated the scientific theory of evolution into their biblical theology while rejecting an often-atheistic evolutionism as a comprehensive worldview.  “‘Evolution,’ in short,” wrote Orr, “is coming to be recognized as but a new name for ‘creation, only that the creative power (God) now works from within, instead of, as in the old conception, in an external, plastic fashion.”

Some Christians certainly did subscribe to a reading of Scripture that saw the entire and complete history of the universe described in the text of Genesis (a few thousand years ago) to Revelation (to  be fulfilled shortly).  This perspective was popularized in the 17th Century by James Ussher, who dated the Earth’s creation on October 23, 4004 B.C., a chronology often referenced uncritically in annotated versions of the Bible into the 20th Century.

The main critique of these young Earth scholars was not about the age of the Earth itself as other issues, including

  1. the potential atheism latent in evolutionary theory.  This was actively and publicly promoted by the likes of Thomas Huxley to explicitly attack Christianity, and
  2. the expansion of the theory to society (social Darwinism). Darwinism, applied to social relationships, was perceived to promote hatred and conflict, to inhibit upward social and economic mobility of the poor and oppressed, to promote eugenics, to spread communism, and to be a prime cause of global war.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the leading advocates for a highly literalistic interpretation of the Bible were Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and dispensationalist Christians who were all trying to accurately predict events from Scripture.   Dispensationalism was developed in large part by John Nelson Darby in the early 19th Century and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909).

For Seventh-day Adventists, their conviction about a young Earth was reinforced by one of the visions of their founding prophet, Ellen G. White.  In her mystical vision she laid the foundations for what has come to knows as “Flood Geology” – most of the Earth’s landforms, fossils, rock strata, etc., could be accounted for by a global flood, taking a literal interpretation of Genesis 6-9.  This aproach to landscape formation was popularized by Seventh Day Adventist amateur geologist, George McCready Price, in which he emphasized the role of a global flood on geomorphology and geology.   His views were promoted by an article published in the Princeton Theological Review in 1926.

Meanwhile, major political and social upheavals resulted in many Christians struggling with the tumultuous pace of change associated with modernity.  in the early 20th Century the horrors of World War I, the Russian Revolution with its overthrow of long established power and religion, the growth of biblical criticism and liberal theology, and an expanding humanism and secularism were threatening to many Christians.  In this time of cultural and social change, many evangelical Christians seized on Price’s theories.  Presbyterian minister Harry Rimmer, three time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, and Baptist minister William Bell Riley spoke, taught, and wrote widely against evolution, founding the Anti-Evolution League of America and the World Christian Fundamentals Association .

This growing sense of conflict between Riley’s World Christian Fundamentals Association fundamentalists and both Christian modernists and scientists was symbolically crystallized in the Scopes Trial (1925).  The trial focused on the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools.   Backed by Riley’s organizations, Bryan argued against teaching evolution in publicly funded schools.   The result of the trial was a deep schism between some conservative Christians, who who said the teaching of evolution was contrary to the Bible (which took priority over all other knowledge), and those, Christian and otherwise, who believed evolution was not inconsistent with Christianity.

Since the 1920’s, this “Great Divide” between Christians continued to widen.  On the one hand there are those who reject modern scientific theories such as evolution, astrophysics (age of the universe and stellar processes), geology and geography (landform processes) based on an argument for biblical literalism and creation science.  On the other hand there are those who integrate modern scientific theories and discoveries with their reading of Scripture as theology, not as science.  “It is quite a stretch from Warfield, who saw evolution as the expression of divine providence, to Price, who denounced it as a theory of Satanic origin,” writes Livingstone (p.166).


Since World War 2, this divide has become even more pronounced.   The causes for this are many.  Among them:

  • Wars – two World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam, wars in the Middle East – have led people to question modernism, technology, scientific advancement, and the atheism perceived to be underlying them.
  • evolutionary theory was explicitly blamed for social and moral problems:   socialism, Nazism, eugenics, rising racial tensions, crime, and changing social and personal values.
  • increased ethnic, social,and religious diversity was changing the demographic profile – including the racial and religious profile – of countries like the United States which was perceived as threatening traditional “Christian” values.
  • within Christian circles, there was a more and more fundamentalist reaction to theological trends including higher criticism, liberal theology, modernism, and atheism. Increasingly these were explicitly linked to evolutionary theory.
  • school textbooks began to teach evolution without reservation; many Christians felt this was an aggressive attack on the Bible and the perceived Christian foundations of society.
  • the pace of change in the late 20th and 21st centuries has encouraged some people to find comfort in a perceived “better” past.

While some Christians took on the challenge of wrestling with how their faith engages the rapid pace of change, others looked to bolster a defense using biblical literalism as a key tool.  John Whitcomb and Henry Morris updated Price’s Seventy-Day Adventist flood geology in their book, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (1961).  Whitcomb and Morris argued that Noah’s flood could account for the geological evidence for an older earth.  Catalyzed by Morris’ writings, Young Earth Creationist networks began to grow and continue to flourish, providing alternative explanations for cosmic, geologic and biologic phenomena that fit with their biblical interpretations.

These Christians use a concordist  interpretative framework:  biblical statements are read literally as scientific statements.  For instance, an interpretation of Genesis 1 that reads it as a literal six 24 hour descriptive history of  the actual and complete creation of the world would be a concordist understanding.  This is appealing as  a clear, straightforward reading of the text.  However it relies on a modern conception of what science and history are, force modern scientific categories onto ancient texts, and emphasize the “scientific” meaning of texts over other forms of truth in the Scripture, such as theological meaning.  This interpretive approach has resulted in a lot of Bible-science controversies.

Other Christians, however, continue to have no difficulty combining modern scientific thought with Christian theology, approaching the issues form a variety of perspectives.  As Alvin Plantinga argues, they see “a superficial conflict but deep concord between theistic religion (Christianity) and science” (Where the Conflict Really Lies, p. 265).  Since the observed universe is God’s creation and the Bible is God’s Word, good science and good theology come together to reinforce one another’s truth.

These Christians use a nonconcordist interpretative framework:  biblical statements are not intended to be scientific statements.  Instead, Scripture passages, such as Genesis 1, need to be interpreted within their own historical and cultural contexts, discerning how the original authors and audiences understood them.   In general, non concordist understandings avoid Bible-science controversies.  However these interpretations are criticized as too allegorical, too interpretative, and less authoritative than more literal readings.

Among the Christians working in the sciences in universities, research, and business whom I interviewed, all had no difficulty with evolutionary theory and an ancient universe/Earth.  They all did acknowledge God’s role in both initial creation and continuing creation.  And they all did have a high view of the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of Scripture, however they would differ from young-Earth creationists on the literary genre and interpretation of biblical texts.

Ways to understand the relationship between science and religion

Through the latter half or the 20th century and into the 21st century, the relationship between science and religion (in general) and science and Christianity (specifically) has become increasingly complex and nuanced. Many scholars have tried to create frameworks for considering options in the interaction between science and Christianity.

The most helpful, I find, is proposed by Ian Barbour.  Barbour’s models for the relationship between religion and science are:

  1. Conflict. In the conflict model, EITHER Christianity is true and “mainstream” science is false OR science is true and Christianity is false.  Christianity and science are mutually exclusive and in intractable conflict. This is the model underlying the young earth, anti-evolutionary perspectives of some Christians (Henry Morris, Ken Ham) and the anti-religion writings and convictions of some atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens).  This approach makes for great news headlines!  At one extreme, nonconcordist interpretations of Scripture and biblical literalism (and the “scientific creationism” it has developed) struggle to account for observed reality and, therefore, respect in the scientific community.  At the other extreme, atheists adopting an explicitly scientistic worldview cannot adequately deal with ultimate questions, ethical challenges, and values  A reductionist framework that excludes God simply cannot account for the fullness of human experience.  Conflict has NOT been the historic model, but really began in the post-Darwinian era.
  2. Independence. The independence model states that science and religion can both be true as long as they keep to their separate domains (or “non-overlapping magisteria“).  Science can answer questions about what exists and how things work.  Christianity can answer questions about why things are the way they are, ultimate origins, teleology, and ethics.  In terms of evolution, God is the Creator – the ‘why’ – and evolution is process – the ‘how.’  In the simplest of terms, then, issues like evolution, technology, and medicine belong to science, while ethics, purpose, values, and ultimate questions belong to religion.  Stephen Jay Gould advocates for this approach, as does Steven Weinberg“It is not that the modern scientist makes a decision form the start that there are no supernatural persons … there are good scientists who are seriously religious.  Rather, the idea is to see how far one can go without supposing supernatural intervention.  Only in this way can we do science” (p.44).  In real life, the two domains are not as separate as we might like them to be.  Scientific research inevitably leads to questions of ethics, morality, purpose, and ultimate causation; religious inquiry explores God’s creation and physical realities which intersects with scientific research.
  3. Dialogue. In the dialogue model, science and religion are partners in a conversation, each bringing their unique knowledge and expertise to enrich the other.  This model is not common in the media (it doesn’t make for juicy headlines like the conflict model, or allow simple either/or independence), but it is more common in academic writing on science and religion in areas  to which they both claim knowledge, for instance in ethics. The challenges in genuine dialogue, however, are (1) mutual respect – both scientists and theologians need genuinely to respect one another, and (2) knowledge of both disciplines – few people are able adequately to speak intelligently about both a scientific and theological discipline.  Often science and religion are still seen as separate entities, simply offering different, but complementary, understandings.
  4. Integration. The integration model takes dialogue and conversation much further and posits the truth of science and religion can be integrated into a more complete or full “whole” – without science we only understand God and His creation in part; without Christianity we understand the universe and God only in part.  Integration seeks to take seriously the “Book of God’s Word” and the “Book of God’s World” and knit them together as authentic and consistent divine revelation.   More than just providing complementary descriptions of reality, science and religion are intimately intertwined.  Christians who use a concordist interpretive framework, understanding the Bible does not intend to provide scientific knowledge, often have little difficulty integrating their research with their faith.  This is the approach, in various forms, I found most common in my interviews.  Scientists genuinely sought to explore the world honestly and openly, recognizing it as God’s creation and revelation.  They also sought to read the Bible honestly and openly, knowing it is God’s self-revelation.  Each was able to integrate and harmonize these in a consistent understanding that took both sources of divine revelation seriously.
“Camps” on the contemporary landscape

There are, of course, many “camps” on the contemporary science and Christianity landscape.   Unfortunately, hostility, suspicion, and vitriol characterize many of the interactions between advocates of different understandings.  Christian love, grace, understanding, mercy, and forgiveness sometimes seem in short supply.

Camps include (often with subtle  – or not so subtle – internal divisions):

These camps have caused acrimonious divisions within the global Christian church, denominations, educational institutions, and local churches.

As an observer of this within each of these contexts, I would note that  the blatant hostility, aggressiveness, and arrogance of some writers, speakers, bloggers on science and Christianity does not reflect Christian values.  And the vitriol can create real stress for some people working in the sciences.  Especially when individuals in churches confront scientists with the latest post/article/video clip attacking the scientist’s presuppositions, they can feel threatened and unsafe in their churches.

challenges for churches in the 21st Century

In this era of heightened rhetoric, how do churches minster with scientists?  What are the challenges in this highly polarized – and often intolerant and unloving – intellectual climate?

  • How do we create safe, tolerant, supportive communities where people with very different perspectives on issues, such as science and the Bible, can respect one another.
  • How can we model authentic Christian community, when we differ on  interpretations of some Scriptures?
  • How do we understand and apply God’s message in the Bible, a prescientific collection of texts, in a scientifically-obsessed culture?

Perhaps we need to reflect more deeply on what Christian character looks like, the nature of authentic Christian dialogue, the values of genuine Christian debate, and the real essentials of Christian doctrine …  More about that later.


Examples of contemporary scientists who are Christian are many.  Check out the Scientists and Faith Resources Page.


I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.