Resolving die conflict between science and religion

While science can never prove or disprove God's involvement in influencing earth history, it can demonstrate that it is not unreasonable to believe in the Bible.

Leonard Brand, Ph.D., is professor of biology and paleontology at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

Such fields of science as physiology have few disputes with religion. They either complement the Bible or deal with subject matter that is not discussed in the Bible. But in fields like paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology, we see severe conflicts between the claims of science and the teachings of the Bible. These conflicts lead us to ask what roles science and religion each play in our search for truth. Must we either accept science and reject the Bible or vice versa, or is there a better way?

The scientific process is a good way of discovering truth, both in areas that the Bible doesn't discuss and in those that it does. Following the scientific method, we postulate explanations for the things we observe in nature and collect research data to test the validity of those explanations. Usually we do not have enough data to be completely certain that we have the correct explanation, or theory, but the data enable us to eliminate some of the incorrect theories.

For example, at one time nutritionists knew that certain types of food were beneficial and that some others were definitely harmful, but but they did not know much about specific nutritional requirements. The relatively few limits provided by the known facts allowed a broad range of theories about diet. The research that has given us more knowledge about physiology and nutrition about vitamins, cholesterol, parasites, and other dietary factors—has shown that some of the old theories were wrong.

Thus we see that the more inadequate our data are, the more room there is for uncertainty as to what is correct theory. As more data accumulate, we learn which theories are wrong, and our range of uncertainty is reduced (see figure 1). The accumulating data also enable us to develop theories that we had not thought of before. These new theories may be stepping stones to even better theories, or they may themselves stand the test of time and prove to be correct.

Let us look at another example, this time from the field of geology. Prior to 1950, sedimentary rocks composed of coarse-grained, graded beds (figure 2) were believed to have been deposited slowly, in shallow water. For instance, the Pliocene rocks in the Ventura Basin, near Ventura, California, consist of hundreds of graded beds. In accord with the then-current theory, scientists believed that these layers were deposited in shallow water, and that it took several years to deposit each layer. 1 Then in 1950 a paper was published reporting the discovery of a previously unknown phenomenon turbidity currents. 2 Turbidity currents are rapid, underwater mudflows that can deposit a layer of sand or mud over a large area. These layers, called turbidites, are often graded.

Turbidity currents provided an even more satisfactory explanation for the graded beds in the Ventura Basin.3 Each bed was now understood to have been deposited in minutes rather than years, and in comparatively deep water. Figure 3 illustrates how theory changes as new data accumulates, as previously unknown processes are discovered.

Relating science and the Bible

Many such changes have occurred in the history of science, and many more will undoubtedly yet occur as new discoveries are made. Science is always a progress report on the road to truth, not final, absolute truth. In contrast to that, the Bible claims to have originated with the God who has seen it all who under stands all of earth history and all natural law. How shall we relate the revelations of science and those of the Bible? To do so, we must decide how much confidence to place in the Bible and to what extent science can "correct" the Bible.

The more important of the many possible approaches to the relationship be tween science and Bible-oriented religion are:

1. Science only

2. Science and biblical faith separate

3. Science and Bible (dualist)

4. Bible superior

5. Bible only4

Those who accept the first model consider science the only reliable source of information. This model maintains that the Bible may contain inspirational reliwho accepts this view reinterprets or dis claims anything in the Bible that current scientific interpretations contradict.

Those who follow model 2 take the Bible more seriously than those who use model 1, but they keep science and biblical faith in two separate compartments and make no attempt to relate one to the other.

Dualists (model 3) consider both the Bible and science authoritative and, in the search for truth, take both sources seriously. They believe that conflict be tween these two sources arises only be cause of human limitations to the scientific process and/or in understanding the Bible.

Advocates of model 4 take both science and the Bible seriously, but recognize in the Bible a higher level of authority than they concede to science.

And finally, those who follow model 5 accept only the Bible as being reliable. They tend to reject all of science as a tool of the devil, designed by him to destroy faith.

Of the five models described above, numbers 1 and 5 represent the easiest ways to make a decision. They are essentially all-or-nothing approaches, and do not require much thought. I do not believe that either comes to grips with the problem realistically.

Model 2, keeping science and religious faith separate, is a popular model. It may even work well for a scientist whose field does not require him to think much about the history of life on earth. But what does the advocate of this model do when he encounters a Bible statement that contradicts the conclusions of science ? When faced with such a contradiction, Christians cannot keep the two sources isolated without putting their minds in neutral. They will then, even though they may not realize it, move from model 2 to one of the other models.

Model 2 fails at the very point where it is supposed to help direct our search for truth. It avoids the issue, or pretends that it doesn't exist, and so I conclude that this model is not worthy of further discussion.

Models 3 and 4 resemble each other, except that model 4 places more confidence in the Bible and man's ability to correctly understand the Bible than in man's ability to interpret scientific data correctly. This difference is likely to be more pronounced in areas of philosophical conflict, such as theories of origins.

I propose that the most fruitful approach to the study of origins and of earth history is to be found somewhere in the vicinity of models 3 and 4. Furthermore, I believe that one of the most crucial features of this ideal model will be its definition of the approach to be taken in resolving conflicts that arise between science and religion between our interpretation of revelation and our interpretation of scientific data. The rest of this article proposes such an approach.

A working relationship My approach is founded on a conviction, supported by many lines of evidence, that the prophets do indeed speak for a loving and all-knowing God whose messages we can trust. When the accumulating data from scientific research suggest new ideas or hypotheses, we can build an effective working relationship between science and revelation by following these two steps:

1. If the new idea involves a subject about which we think the Bible may speak, we should examine all relevant Bible texts, comparing scripture with scripture and using the Bible as its own interpreter. In addition, we must use all the latest information that can help us to understand the meaning of the text. Exactly what does the Bible say and what does it not say about our new idea? Is the idea compatible with the Bible or not? Do the relevant biblical statements say what we thought they said, or have we been reading between the lines?

2. We then must draw one of the fol lowing conclusions, or some appropriate variation of one of these:

a. Revelation does not speak to this issue at all, and does not help us in our research.

b. Revelation does address this topic, but does not say anything against the new idea; there is no biblical reason not to accept it as a possibility. If we come to this conclusion, we must then proceed with further scientific research to test the idea rigorously. This research may give us increased confidence in the idea, or it may lead to even better hypotheses that we must also compare with the Scriptures.

c. Revelation clearly contradicts the new idea. This conclusion tells us to go back and do some more research because there is something wrong with our interpretation of the data.

If we follow this process, we maintain the Bible as the standard for religious doctrines, and yet allow science and the Bible to shed light on each other. In some instances, science will suggest ideas that may help us to recognize that we have been reading some preconceived idea into the Bible that really is not there. In other cases the Bible may help us to recognize incorrect scientific theories, so that we can turn our efforts to ward developing more accurate interpretations of the data.

Copernicus, Darwin, and the church

Examples from the history of science and from current conflicts illustrate the application of this approach:

1. The Copernican revolution in astronomy. Long before the Middle Ages scientists had developed the theory that the earth is the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies rotate around our earth a theory we refer to as the theory of geocentricity. This concept was not merely a bit of fuzzy superstition; it was a carefully developed theory with sophisticated mathematical models describing the movements of stars and planets, sup ported by volumes of observational data. As the Christian church developed, it so incorporated the theory of geocentricity into its dogma that a challenge to this theory was considered a challenge to the Scriptures and to the church itself.

Copernicus introduced a new theory the theory of heliocentricity. According to his radical new idea, the earth and the other planets rotate around the sun. If, instead of persecuting the advocates of the new theory, the church had carefully investigated what the Scriptures said, it could have avoided a serious mistake. The church would have found that the Bible does not address itself to the issue of whether the earth rotates around the sun or vice versa. One can only claim that the Bible supports the theory of geocentricity by resorting to arguments akin to saying that twentieth-century scientists must believe in that theory because they speak of the sun's rising and setting.

Careful Bible study would have shown that Copernicus's theory was not unbiblical. Instead of being made to oppose each other, both science and Scripture could have been used to explore this issue.

2. The theory of evolution. Prior to the nineteenth century, it was generally believed that animal and plant species do not change, that every species has remained the same since it was created—a concept known as "fixity of species." The church, assuming that the Genesis creation account supported this very static concept of nature, again incorporated contemporary scientific thought into its dogma. Charles Darwin and his contemporaries saw evidence that animals and plants do change, and so an other conflict between science and the church started. Because of the complexity of this issue, I will discuss the conflict in two parts: (a) the theory that organ isms do change, resulting in variations within created groups, and (b) the theory that the major groups of animals originated by evolution and not by creation.

a. Microevolution and speciation. When the theory of evolution was pro posed, it was generally believed that the entire concept of evolutionary change was incompatible with the biblical ac count of creation. But if Darwin and his contemporaries had studied the Bible carefully, they would surely have concluded that it in no way denies the possibility of changes occurring within the created groups of plants and animals 6 nor the production of new types of organ isms to at least the species and generic level. In fact, a creationist must believe that some changes have occurred, or else believe that God designed and made even the destructive things that we see in nature.

However, Darwin apparently did not reexamine the scriptural teachings. He concluded that since his evidence invalidated what he believed to be the biblical creation account, we must explain the origin of all living things by some mechanism other than creation. This brings us to the second part of the theory of evolution.

b. Evolution of the major groups of organisms. Darwin's theory proposes that even the major groups of living things have arisen by evolution, and thus all life is the result of evolution, not creation. If Charles Darwin had been comparing his Bible with his theory, he would have found that although the Bible doesn't say anything against microevolution, it does clearly state that the major groups of both plants and animals (including fruit trees, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and man) were created by the end of creation week. This is definitely not compatible with part of the theory of evolution.

If the approach I have described above had been followed, it could have led to the development of a theory that included creation of the major groups of living things, with limited evolutionary changes occurring within the created groups after creation. Such a theory would be consistent with Scripture and with the scientific data, and could have been an excellent example of the Bible and science shedding light on each other.

3. Geology. The church has been in conflict with geologists for more than a century, but we will look at this issue from the perspective of the 1980s. Science has proposed a theory that claims that the geologic deposits and the fossils they contain have accumulated over hundreds of millions of years. When we come to the inspired writings, we find that, while the prophets had little to say about astronomy or microevolution, they did make statements indicating that life on earth (and thus also the rocks containing fossils) has only existed for a few thousand years. We also find that during that time there was a worldwide flood of major geological significance.7

From this I conclude that Scripture indicates that current geological theory is not correct; the data are not being interpreted properly. Our task, then, is to go back to the research lab and develop a better theory, one that is in harmony with both the scientific and the revealed data.

Harmonizing impossible data

How do we deal with data such as that derived from radiometric dating, data that seem impossible to harmonize with the biblical view of earth history? In doing so, we have to consider the following two propositions:

1. There are no significant new principles to be discovered in this field; the data are mostly being interpreted correctly.

2. There are new principles to be dis covered that will lead to significant reinterpretations of data.

Do we have data that will allow us to test between propositions 1 and 2; to determine whether radiometric dating the ory is more like theories of graded bed deposition after the discovery of turbidites, or before their disco very? If science could determine which proposition is true, we would have the key to answering a lot of difficult questions. But science cannot make such a determination. To do so would require that we go into the past and observe what really happened, or go into the future and see what data will be available then, or talk to someone who has done one of these. The prophets claim to have some of that type of information, but science definitely does not.

Since we cannot prove which is correct, should we assume that 1 is correct if there is no definite evidence for 2 ? Science would normally take that approach, but we must remember that that is only a practical working approach, not a method for determining truth. A scientist must push ahead with the most successful theory available at the time, trusting that the data will eventually tell us if the theory is wrong. That approach may not be satisfactory for us as Christians as we compare the Word of God with cur rent scientific theories and make decisions regarding eternal truth.

I believe that there are fundamental scientific principles yet to be discovered that will explain the data that seem to contradict Scripture. The history of science does not support the notion that a well-developed theory must be true if at a given time there is little or no convincing evidence against it. Before the discovery of turbidites there seemed to be good evidence that the then-current theory was correct. Even as some problems with that theory began to appear, scientists did not have the information necessary to envision a better explanation until turbidites were discovered. A Christian who is convinced that there is sufficient evidence that God's revelations to us through His prophets are trustworthy will believe that in the field of radiometric dating there must be one or more discoveries yet to be made as significant as or more significant than the discovery of turbidites.

The decision in favor of the current scientific interpretation of radiometric dating and the decision against that interpretation are both made on the basis of faith. Those with more faith in current scientific theories than in revelation will likely conclude that radiometric dates as currently interpreted are accurate. However, those whose faith in the prophetic writings is stronger than their faith in current scientific theories will be convinced that radiometric dates of fossiliferous deposits are not correct. Scientific progress can result from our search for harmony between science and revelation if we take the next step and use the scientific method to develop and test new theories to explain radiometric phenomena and other data.

1. J. E. Eaton, "The Bypassing and Discontinuous Deposition of Sedimentary Materials," American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin 13 (1929): 713-761.

2. M. L. Natland and P. H. Kuenen, "Sedimentary History of the Ventura Basin, California, and the Action of Turbidity Currents," Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists Special Publication 2 (1951): 76-107.

3. P. H. Kuenen and C. I. Migliorini, "Turbidity Currents as a Cause of Graded Bedding," Journal of Geology 58 (1950): 91-127.

4. Loosely adapted from W. W. Watts, "Christ and Science," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 28 (1976): 9-11.

5. T. S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957).

6. H. G. Coffin, Creation: Accident or Design? (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1969).

7. L. R. Brand, "Faith and the Flood," Ministry, February 1980, pp. 26, 27.

Charles Darwin had been comparing his
Bible with his theory, he would have
found that although the Bible doesn't say
anything against microevolution, it does
clearly state that the major groups of both
plants and animals (including fruit trees,
fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and man)
were created by the end of creation week.
This is definitely not compatible with
part of the theory of evolution.
If the approach I have described above
had been followed, it could have led to
the development of a theory that in
cluded creation of the major groups of
living things, with limited evolutionary
changes occurring within the created
groups after creation. Such a theory
would be consistent with Scripture and
with the scientific data, and could have
been an excellent example of the Bible
and science shedding light on each
other.
3. Geology. The church has been in
conflict with geologists for more than a
century, but we will look at this issue
from the perspective of the 1980s. Sci
ence has proposed a theory that claims
that the geologic deposits and the fossils
they contain have accumulated over
hundreds of millions of years. When we
come to the inspired writings, we find
that, while the prophets had little to say
about astronomy or microevolution,
they did make statements indicating that
life on earth (and thus also the rocks con
taining fossils) has only existed for a few
thousand years. We also find that during
that time there was a worldwide flood of
major geological significance. 7
From this I conclude that Scripture
indicates that current geological theory
is not correct; the data are not being in
terpreted properly. Our task, then, is to
go back to the research lab and develop a
better theory, one that is in harmony
with both the scientific and the revealed
data.
Harmonizing impossible data
How do we deal with data such as that
derived from radiometric dating, data
that seem impossible to harmonize with
the biblical view of earth history? In do
ing so, we have to consider the following
two propositions:
1. There are no significant new prin
ciples to be discovered in this field; the
data are mostly being interpreted
correctly.
2. There are new principles to be dis
covered that will lead to significant reinterpretations
of data.
Do we have data that will allow us to
test between propositions 1 and 2; to de
termine whether radiometric dating the
ory is more like theories of graded bed
deposition after the discovery of turbidites,
or before their disco very? If science
could determine which proposition is
true, we would have the key to answering
a lot of difficult questions. But science
cannot make such a determination. To
do so would require that we go into the
past and observe what really happened,
or go into the future and see what data
will be available then, or talk to someone
who has done one of these. The prophets
claim to have some of that type of infor
mation, but science definitely does not.
Since we cannot prove which is cor
rect, should we assume that 1 is correct if
there is no definite evidence for 2 ? Sci
ence would normally take that approach,
but we must remember that that is only a
practical working approach, not a
method for determining truth. A scien
tist must push ahead with the most suc
cessful theory available at the time, trust
ing that the data will eventually tell us if
the theory is wrong. That approach may
not be satisfactory for us as Christians as
we compare the Word of God with cur
rent scientific theories and make deci
sions regarding eternal truth.
I believe that there are fundamental
scientific principles yet to be discovered
that will explain the data that seem to
contradict Scripture. The history of sci
ence does not support the notion that a
well-developed theory must be true if at a
given time there is little or no convincing
evidence against it. Before the discovery
of turbidites there seemed to be good ev
idence that the then-current theory was
correct. Even as some problems with that
theory began to appear, scientists did not
have the information necessary to envi
sion a better explanation until turbidites
were discovered. A Christian who is con
vinced that there is sufficient evidence
that God's revelations to us through His
prophets are trustworthy will believe that
in the field of radiometric dating there
must be one or more discoveries yet to be
made as significant as or more significant
than the discovery of turbidites.
The decision in favor of the current
scientific interpretation of radiometric
dating and the decision against that in
terpretation are both made on the basis of
faith. Those with more faith in current
scientific theories than in revelation will
likely conclude that radiometric dates
as currently interpreted are accurate.
However, those whose faith in the pro
phetic writings is stronger than their
faith in current scientific theories will
be convinced that radiometric dates of
fossiliferous deposits are not correct. Sci
entific progress can result from our search
for harmony between science and revela
tion if we take the next step and use the
scientific method to develop and test
new theories to explain radiometric phe
nomena and other data.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Leonard Brand, Ph.D., is professor of biology and paleontology at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

January 1988

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