Despite the fact that science itself has generally been regarded as a good thing, a surprising number of Christians seem shocked that I find it possible to be a scientist while having strong religious convictions. This idea seems to spring out of two things.
Firstly, the idea that pursuit of knowledge is in some ways worldly, and detracts from personal religion. It is true that, as fallen creatures, we naturally prone to give things a pre-eminence which they do not deserve. However, this is the case for any job or interest we may have, unless the Lord keeps us. In this respect, scientists need to be kept from making too much of their calling, to the detriment of personal religion, as any other person who enjoys their job. When it comes to careers in science, the sin is in the way and reason we pursue knowledge, not in the pursuit of knowledge per se. Ideally, the pursuit of science should open a window on the wondrous works of God in creation. From personal experience, I can only say that some of the glimpses into the marvels of God’s creating wisdom and power can be greatly stimulating to personal religion.
Secondly, some people may find the idea of believers as scientists odd because they judge science as being intrinsically opposed to the Bible. This is probably mainly due to the emphasis placed by modern society on aspects of science which are contrary to the Bible, especially evolution. I believe that this is based on a failure to understand what the Bible says about science.
So, in order to examine this question of whether a Christian can be a scientist, we must first ask: What does the Bible say about science?
Scientific observations in Scripture
It is important to realise that the Bible is not a scientific textbook. Nevertheless, it outlines the general principles of how we are to understand God’s creation. It records some of the ways in which God’s creation has been closely observed by man since time began, and how this observation is rewarded both by 1) an understanding of the order in creation and 2) the deeper knowledge of a Personal Creator, who in his Divine wisdom made things the way they are.
In the Bible we find observations of what scientists today call the hydrological cycle. This must have been a great mystery, yet Job describes it in detail: ‘For he maketh small the drops of water: they pour down rain according to the vapour thereof: which the clouds do drop and distil upon man abundantly.’ (Job 36: 27-28) We find a similar understanding in Ecclesiastes: ‘All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.’ (Eccles 1: 7). Water is drawn up from the earth into the clouds, the clouds move inland, and the water returns to the earth as rain. Contemporary understanding of this process may include more details, but the basic principles remain the same.
Similarly, consider the composition of clouds. We might think that the only visible association there could be between clouds and water would be that it was cloudy when it rained. Yet the mystery of the clouds is that however light and airy they appear, in fact they hold tons of water – water, the same substance which falls straight to the ground when you pour it out. The reason why clouds float is not that they are lighter than air! Again, although over time we have increased in understanding of the complex laws of physics which keep the clouds in the sky, the basic principles were described by Job long ago: ‘He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds; and the cloud is not rent under them’ (Job 26: 8), and, ‘Dost thou know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of him which is perfect in knowledge?’ (Job 37: 16)
As one final example we can take the currents of the wind, and currents like the Gulf Stream in the sea. Although in one sense we can only marvel as ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth,’ since we ‘cannot tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth,’ this is not the whole story. The wind does have clearly defined paths, which are believed to be controlled by the energy of the sun. Yet this too is described in Ecclesiastes: ‘The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits’ (Eccles 1: 6). We can also seen an allusion to currents in the sea, when the psalmist in Psalm 8 speaks of the ‘paths of the sea’ which fish swim in, even though our detailed contemporary knowledge did not appear till 1786 when Benjamin Franklin wrote the first modern account of ocean currents.
These examples show that the ‘scientific method’ adopted by Job and Solomon and others is to couple a detailed, admiring description of the process with a clear, worshipping acknowledgement of the skill and power of God in making the process work as it does. Christians in science today should equally be able to follow these same principles.
Science as commissioned by God
Many of the Reformers, in particular Martin Luther and John Calvin, viewed science as being a Divine command, expressed in the words of God to Adam, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ Calvin and Luther both saw in the command to subdue the material world a divine commission to scientific pursuit, even before the Fall. By this ‘subduing’ we are to understand human beings acquiring knowledge about the world around us and harnessing or mastering it in a way which brings it into our service.
Of course, when Eve and Adam took of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their fall did not increase their scientific ability, but rather irreparably damaged the faculties which they possessed in their state of innocence. Mankind lost the knowledge of God’s creation – the capability to see how everything was fitly made by God. In fact the Bible tells us that we can only understand that the worlds were framed by God, by the working of faith: ‘Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear’ (Hebrews 11: 3). As we do not have faith of ourselves, for it is entirely the gift of God, we can see that when we lost the knowledge of God by the fall, we also lost the fundamental prerequisite for real scientific understanding.
Nevertheless, the Fall did not stop God reiterating his command, that man should be intimately connected with the world that surrounded him in an attempt to subdue it. Indeed, this command was given in conjunction with the first gospel promise (Genesis 3: 14-19). It was again restated to Noah when he came out of the ark, setting forth man’s dominion over the world around him (Genesis 9: 2). Later, when David felt his own insignificance and cried out in awe at the wonders of creation around him (‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him?’ (Psalm 8: 4)), he answered his own question in terms of the divine command: ‘Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet’ (Psalm 8: 5-8).
The place and purpose of science
Seen in this light, science undoubtedly has its place in the study of Christian doctrine. Traditionally, the second locus of Christian doctrine is anthropology, or the study of man’s relationship with God. Here belongs the study of creation, and the science of all that was created. To divorce science from religion, to the extent that some Christians may like to, is actually to wipe out a very important part of Christian doctrine, for it is in the right pursuit of science that we see the full glory of God’s creation and of his wisdom and omnipotence. It was scientific knowledge which made the Psalmist exclaim, ‘I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well!’ (Psalm 139: 14)
It is also in this light that we see the biblical purpose of science: the glory of God, the master of the universe. It is often in scientific pursuit that we come to know the incomprehensibility of God. I remember once looking at the shelves upon shelves of books in the college library at Wye, all on the subject of agricultural science – such a vast body of knowledge. But, despite all that knowledge, we still cannot really predict the weather, nor have we really plumbed the depths of the germinating seed, nor have we uncovered the minutiae of the atomic particle. Certainly, we have scarcely begun to see the wisdom and power of God who created it all. Viewed from this perspective, human knowledge is so feeble! We can only respond with worship towards our Creator. As Joseph Hart, the 18th century hymn-writer, said:
The little too that’s known,
Which, children-like, we boast,
Will fade, like glow-worms in the sun,
Or drops in ocean lost.
Indeed, it was Socrates, the Greek philosopher, who said: ‘One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.’ It is only when we realise our inability to grasp material things in scientific pursuit that we truly begin to realise the glory of God in his creation.
This is Part 2 of a two-part series on Science and Faith – click here for Part 1 – Incompatible or a divine union?