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and the Christian Faith
By Gary F. Zeolla
"Distant Origin" was the title of a recent episode of Star Trek: Voyager.1 In the show, an alien scientist (a "Voth") was proposing a new theory as to the origin of his species. But the leaders of his planet opposed his theory because it was "contrary to doctrine" and declared "heresy." He was eventually forced to recant his view and agree to not conduct further research in that particular subject.2
The apparent implication was that religion stands in the way of scientific progress. But is this claim true? More specifically, does the Christian faith impend scientific progress?
The Christian Origins of Science
At the time the above episode of Voyager aired I was reading a very interesting book titled The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, by Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton.3 This book addresses the implications made in Voyager.
Francis Schaeffer also addresses this topic in How Should We Then Live? and other books in his Complete Works.4 Also, Henry M. Morris book The Biblical Basis for Modern Science is devoted to this subject.5 Quotations from these books will be utilized in this article.6
Pearcey and Thaxtons book begins by stating, "The most curious aspect of the scientific world we live in, says science writer Loren Eiseley, is that it exists at all . Science, Eiseley concludes, is not natural to mankind at all."
One evidence that science is not "natural" to humans is, " several great civilizations have arisen and fallen without the benefit of scientific philosophy."
So how did science begin? "In short, it is "an invented cultural institution." Moreover, science, " demands some kind of unique soil in which to flourish." The authors identify that "soil" as the Christian faith, "Christianity provided both intellectual presuppositions and moral sanction for the development of modern science."
Moreover, "Scientists and historians such as Alfred North Whitehead and Michael B. Foster became convinced that, far from impending the progress of science, Christianity had actually encouraged itthat the Christian culture within which science arose was not a menace but a midwife to science."
The authors conclude, "It should not be terribly surprising that Christianity was an important ally of the scientific enterprise. After all, modern science arose within a culture saturated with the Christian faith. It was Christianized Europe that became the birthplace of modern sciencethere and nowhere else." 7
Francis Schaeffer also refers to Whitehead, along with J. Robert Oppenheimer. He states that "Whitehead was a widely respected mathematician and philosopher" while "Oppenheimer wrote on a wide range of subjects related to science, in addition to writing in his own field on the structure of the atom and atomic energy."
Schaeffer then writes, "As far as I know, neither of the two men were Christians or claimed to be Christians; yet both were straightforward in acknowledging that modern science was born out of the Christian world-view."8 And further, "Whitehead was absolutely right about this. He was not a Christian, but he understood that there would have never been modern science without the biblical view of Christianity."9
The early scientists, including the founders of many scientific disciplines, held strong Christian convictions. In the first appendix to his book, Morris lists forty-one "Scientific Disciplines Established by Bible-Believing Scientists."10
Morris observes, "Some skeptics might say that such men were merely products of their timesthat everyone believed in God and the Bible at the time. But thats exactly the point! It was no coincidence that it was in the milieu of the Reformation and the Great Awakening that modern science first grew and began to thrive."11
Why the Christian Worldview?
So modern science developed within the Christian worldview and those who laid the foundations for modern science held Christian beliefs. Moreover, even non-Christians acknowledge that science developed within the Christian framework. But why did modern science develop within the Christian worldview - "there and nowhere else?"
Pearcey and Thaxton write:
Scientific investigation depends upon certain assumptions about the worldand science is impossible until those assumptions are in place. As Foster argues, Western thinkers had to ascribe to nature the character and attributes that made it a possible object of scientific study in advance of the actual establishment of science. As Whitehead puts it, "faith in the possibility of science" came antecedently to the development of actual scientific theory.12
What are some of these assumptions that have to be in place for science to develop? Schaeffer writes, "Christianity believes that God has created an external world that is really there; and because He is a reasonable God, one can expect to be able to find the order of the universe by reason."13
Three main presuppositions are presented here: The world is real; God is reasonable; the order of the universe can be determined by reason.
Schaeffer writes further, "Living within the concept that the world was created by a reasonable God, scientists could move with confidence, expecting to be able to find out about the world by observation and experimentation. This was their epistemological basethe philosophical foundations with which they were sure they could know (Epistemology is the theory of knowledgehow we know, or how we know we can know)."14
So believing a reasonable God created a reasonable world provides a basis to believe it is possible to "know" the world.
Morris adds that scientific research requires, " a world view in which like causes like effects, where natural phenomena follow fixed and intelligible laws, and where we can have confidence that we can think rationally and meaningfully."15
Morris is saying it is necessary to assume nature follows fixed laws and that humans can think rationally for science to function. The Christian doctrines of the universe being created by a rational God and humans being created in the image of this God provides a basis for these requirements.
Pearcey and Thaxton elaborate on some of the above points, while adding a few more. They also contrast these points with the teachings of other worldviews. They show how the Christian presuppositions could lead to the rise in modern science while the teachings of the other belief systems could not. The points they discuss are summarized below:16
1. Nature is real: The first point was referred to above by Schaeffer when he said, "God has created an external world that is really there." The external world is really there. No kidding! Right? Well actually, " many belief systems regard nature as unreal . Hinduism, for instance teaches that the everyday world of material objects is Maya, illusion."
If one believes the world is not really there, then there is not an incentive to investigate it. But the Christian doctrine of a real creation provides an incentive (Gen 1:1; Neh 9:6; Rev 4:11).
2. The universe is good: Pearcey and Thaxton write, "The ancient world often equated the material world with evil and disorder; hence it denigrated anything to do with material things . Many historians believe this is one reason the Greeks did not develop an empirical science, which requires practical, hands-on observation and experimentation."
However, the Christian faith teaches the creation is "good." Even with the Fall, this goodness is not eradicated. This higher view of nature led to the Christian belief that the material world is worthy of investigation (Gen 1:31; Ps 111:2,3; 1Tim 4:4).
3. Relationship of God and nature: Animism and pantheism teach that God and nature are in some way the same. Animism is, "The idea that all things in the universe are invested with a life force, soul, or mind" while "Pantheism is the belief that God is all, and all is God." Either way, such beliefs impend the investigation of nature.
Pearcey and Thaxton explain, "As long as nature commands religious worship, dissecting her is judged impious. As long as the world is charged with divine beings and powers, the only appropriate response is to supplicate them or ward them off. "
However, the Christian faith teaches God is transcendent. This term refers to, " the distinction and separateness of God from creation." He is over nature, not the same as it. This doctrine enabled scientific studies to begin, "The monotheism of the Bible exorcised the gods of nature, freeing humanity to enjoy and investigate without fear. When the world is no longer an object of worship, thenand only thencould it become an object of study" (Ps 102:25-27; Acts 14:14; Hab 2:19-20).
4. One God, not many: Polytheism is, "The belief in the existence of more than one God." But if many gods had created the universe there would be no reason to assume it is coherent and dependable. Each god may have created his portion with different physical laws. Yet, as Morris indicated above, the assumption that "natural phenomena follow fixed and intelligible laws" is necessary for scientific studies.
However, the Christian faith teaches monotheism, "The belief in only one God."17 Moreover, "The God revealed in the Bible is trustworthy and dependable; the creation of such a God must be likewise dependable." So Christian monotheism provides a basis to believe the universe follows fixed and intelligible laws (Isa 43:10; 46:8-11; Ps 19:1,2; Jer 10:11,12; Rom 11:29).
5. Laws of nature: The next point builds on the two above. As indicated, the universe follows fixed and intelligible laws. These laws are generally called the laws of nature. This phrase, " is so familiar to the modern mind that we are generally unaware of its uniqueness. People in pagan cultures who see nature as alive and moved by mysterious forces are not likely to develop the conviction that all natural occurrences are lawful and intelligible."
Contrary to this view, "The Biblical God is the Divine Legislator who governs nature by decrees set down in the beginning . The order of the reasoning is important here. The early scientist did not argue that the world was lawfully ordered, and therefore there must be a rational God. Instead, they argued that there was a rational God, therefore the world must be lawfully ordered."
So the Christian doctrine of a rational God provides a basis for belief in a rational universe (Gen 8:22; Ps 104:3-33; 148:6; Job 28:26,27; Jer 5:24; 31:35; 33:20; James 1:17).
6. The Imago Dei: For science to proceed, along with a belief in a rational universe, it is also necessary to believe that humans have the rational capacity to understand the universe. For instance, the Chinese did not developed modern science because they, " had no belief in an intelligible order in nature nor in the human ability to decode an order should it exist."
However, the Christian doctrine of the Imago Dei teaches humans are created in the image of God. And since God is a rational Being, we are also rational beings. Even with the Fall, the Imago Dei was not eradicated. So the Christian teaching of the Imago Dei provides a basis to believe we can understand the universe (Gen 1:26,27; 9:6; James 3:9).
7. Creatio ex nihilo: Pearcey and Thaxton observe, "In all other religions, the creation of the world begins with some kind of pre-existing substance with its own inherent nature. As a result, the creator is not absolute and does not have the freedom to mold the world exactly as he wills. For example, in Greek philosophy the world consists of eternal matter structured by eternal rational universals called Ideals or Forms."
The creator would try to create objects following the pattern of one of these Ideals or Forms; but the "inherent nature" of matter could prevent him from forming it exactly as he wanted. "As a result, the Greeks expected a level of imprecision in nature, certain fuzziness at the edges."
However, the Christian faith teaches the doctrine of Creatio ex nihilo. This phrase means, "God created without the use of pre-existing materials."18 So God would not be limited by any "inherent nature" in pre-existent substances in His creating. He could create just as He willed.
The importance of this difference can be seen in how one interprets empirical observations, "For the Platonist, if a line in nature is not quite circular, that is because nature is an only partially successful approximation of geometrical Ideals. But for the Christian, if God wanted the line to be circular, he would have made it that way. If it not exactly a circle, it must be exactly something elseperhaps an ellipse."
Being freed from the idea of Ideals, Kepler was able to postulate that the planets moved in elliptical, not circular orbits. "Thus the application of geometry and mathematics to the analysis of physical motion rests on the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo" (Ps 33:6; John 1:3; Col 1:16; Heb 11:3)
8. God created freely: This point is related to the one above. As indicated, Grecian philosophy taught objects in our world are approximations of eternal Ideals or Forms. These Ideals determine how an object is to be used.
As a result, Aristotle taught, "The scientist best understands a natural object by asking what it is used for. Once the purpose has been uncovered, in Aristotles view, the scientist knows all that is really necessary." So once you determine that a particular part of an animal is used for flying, it is enough to say it is a wing. Further study of it is unnecessary.
But Christians eventually rejected this concept. "The shift began when some Christians became troubled by the Aristotelian concept of Forms. The concept appeared to limit Gods creative activity, as though God had to make do with the prescribed properties of matter." This shift led to "voluntarist theology."
"Voluntarism insisted that the structure of the universeindeed, its very existenceis not rationally necessary but is contingent upon the free and transcendent will of God."
The logical outcome of this theological framework was, "No armchair science, premised on how God must have organized things, was permissible. Science must observe and experiment" (Ps 66:5; 107:43; 115:3; 135:6,7; Eph 1:11; Rev 4:11).
9. Transcending nature: As indicated in point #3, animism and pantheism teach that God and nature (and by implication, humans) are in some way the same. As such, "The human mind is thoroughly embedded in nature; it does not transcend it as subject against object. As a consequence humans are interested in knowing nature only in order to adapt and conform to it, not in order to harness its forces for practical ends."
However, as also indicated above, the Christian faith teaches God is transcendent over nature and we are created in His image. So we are capable of transcending nature. Thus, "Humans are free to manipulate it, both theoretically and in mathematical formulas and practically by experiment. In this way, Christianity provided both an intellectual framework and a motive for developing technology" (Gen 2:15,19; 1Kings 4:29-34; Prov 25:2)
10. Motives for science: The mention of motive leads to the last point Pearcey and Thaxton discuss. The Christian faith provided motives to pursue scientific research. First, the early scientists believed investigating Gods creation was a way of glorifying and serving Him.
For instance, "In one of his notebooks, Kepler broke spontaneously into prayer: I give you thanks, Creator and God, that you have given me this joy in thy creation, and I rejoice in the works of your hands. See I have now completed the work to which I was called. In it I have used all the talents you have lent to my spirit."
Second, "Christians found Biblical justification for an active use of nature in the creation account (Genesis 1:28), where God gives human beings dominion over the earth. Dominion was understood not as license to exploit nature ruthlessly but as a responsibility to cultivate it, care for it, and harness its forces for human benefit."
In addition, Christians found significance in Adams naming of the animals. In Hebrew, " to name something is to assert mastery over it." Also, " a name should express the essential nature of a thing."
So Adam had to carefully analyze the animals to give them appropriate names. "Thus Genesis appeared to give divine justification to the study and analysis of the natural world."
Further, science was viewed as one way of alleviating the effects of the Fall (Genesis 3). "Thus science was permeated with religious concern for the poor and the sick, with humanitarian effort to alleviate toil and tedium."
This last point was particularly revolutionary, " the idea of improving ones life cannot occur to people trapped in a cyclic, fatalistic, or deterministic view of history" (Ps 19:1-6; 115:16; Ezek 34:4-Matt 25:32-45; Acts 20:35; 1John 3:17,18).
Does Science have a Future?
Voyager was partially correct. There are some religious and even philosophical views that can impend scientific progress. But the Christian faith is not one of them! In fact, the Christian faith provided the basic presuppositions that made the scientific revolution possible and it provides motives for scientific study.
But this conclusion raises a very interesting (and possibly disturbing) question. If the Christian faith originally provided the impetus for the scientific revolution, can science continue when Christian beliefs are no longer generally accepted in a culture?
Pearcey and Thaxton write:
Belief in a rational God led to the assumption of an ordered, rational universe. "And science today," says Eiseley, is still "sustained by that assumption." The question is: How long will that assumption continue to sustain science?
It may turn out that science is detachable from the Biblical presuppositions and motivations that sustained its initial development. Science may prove itself to be self-sustaining, driven by sheer intellectual curiosity and technological success.
Yet, once separated from the teaching of divine creation, science has no philosophical ground for its most basic assumptionthe lawfulness of nature."19
Schaeffer says similarly:
What then has happened to science? In brief, science, as it now usually is conceived, has no epistemological basethat is, no base for being sure that what scientists think they observe corresponds to what really exists. men can go on learning about the universe. But the point is that the humanist has no base for knowing within his own philosophic system. His optimism about knowing the external world is weakened.20
So now the tables appear to have turned. Not only is the Christian faith not an impediment to scientific progress, it just may well be necessary for its continuation. The Christian faith provided the epistemological base for scientific studies. Can science continue without that base? Only time will tell.
To respond to a comment I received, the above article is referring to the historical realities: modern science originated in monotheistic countries, not pantheistic ones. It is true that today there are pantheists who are concerned with scientific investigation, but that is more because of western influence not because of anything inherent in pantheism. If it was the latter then modern science should have originated in some pantheistic country rather in theistic ones.
Footnotes: All Scripture
references from: The New King James Version. Nashville,
TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
1 Originally aired April 30, 1997 on UPN.
2 The story-line paralleled the popular conception of events surrounding the Galileo controversy and his support of Copernicans heliocentric theory. Many believe this incident was a case of "religion vs. science." This misconception is addressed in my article Science and the Bible. The book mentioned in the next note also discusses this controversy on pages 37-40 and 63-66.
3 Nancy R. Pearcey & Charles B. Thaxton. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Wheaton, IL: Crossways Books, 1994).
4 Francis A. Schaeffer, Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer. (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1982).
5 Henry M. Morris, The Biblical Basis for Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984).
6 The reading of any of these books is highly recommended.
7 Pearcey and Thaxton, pp. 17-21.
8 Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? - Complete Works. Vol. 5, p.157.
9 Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man - Complete Works. Vol. 5, p.27.
10 Morris, pp. 463-464.
11 Morris, p.29.
12 Pearcey and Thaxton, p. 21. Italics in original.
13 Francis Schaeffer, Pollution, p.27. Italics in original.
14 Schaeffer. How?, pp. 158-9. Italics in original.
15 Morris, p.29.
16 Unless otherwise indicated, all of quotes in the following section are from Pearcey and Thaxton, pp. 21-37.
17 Definitions from: George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols, Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions, and the Occult (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 22, 219, 277,223,186, respectively.
18 Millard J. Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986), p.38.
19 Pearcey and Thaxton, pp. 41-42. Italics in original.
20 Schaeffer, How?, p.206. Italics in original.
Voyager, Science, and the Christian Faith. Copyright © 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article was published in Darkness to Light
and posted on this Web site in June1997.
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