Faith and Science
Friend or Foe
by Amos Yong
Many Pentecostals have assumed or heard that the Bible conflicts with modern science. This is especially true when discussing scientific theories about the age of the earth and the origins and development of life. Often pastors broadcast this assumption from their pulpits in ways that move our college-and university-educated members to reconsider whether they can, with good conscience, remain in our churches. It is not necessarily that these members think they know better. But they do know there are a variety of views about scientific theories. A pastor’s insistence that there is only one way to see things says to these members: “Leave your mind at the door before you come into church.” This may not be the intended message, but it is implicit in the way pastors sometimes talk about the 7 days of creation when our audience has come to understand the ancient Hebrews did not interpret these as literally as we do.
We should be aware, however, that over the last two generations more and more Pentecostals have gone on for higher education, with an increasing number in the sciences. And as they have studied the theological and scientific disciplines, they also have come to entertain a spectrum of positions. While too many have, as a result, left our churches, a good number have remained faithful to the Pentecostal message. For those who have stayed, what binds them together is the conviction that their faith and their scientific knowledge are not necessarily antagonistic.
This article summarizes four basics positions of how theology and science have interacted and makes some recommendations.
Four Positions Concerning Theology and Science
The first position is the historic position of conflict. Some Pentecostals remain convinced that whenever science appears to contradict the plain sense of the Bible, science must be wrong. Therefore, if the Bible says that God created the world in 7 days, then any theories that the earth is older than that must be false. This view assumes that the Book of Genesis provides an ancient scientific account that is in concordance with later scientific developments. However, the basis for such an assumption is not obvious. Genesis 1–3 could well reflect God’s accommodation to the understanding of the ancient world instead. If so, then it tells us about God the Creator as opposed not to modern science, but to the creation myths of the ancient world.
The conflict position remains important if contemporary science oversteps its boundaries. Some scientists go beyond what science says to make metaphysical and theological claims. These claims also come with a set of presuppositions, such as matter or nature is all there is. This is not genuine science but scientism. Pentecostals need to resist such assertions.
The second position views theology and science as independent. In broad terms, those who hold this view say that science concerns nature and the material world, while theology concerns morality, the spiritual world, and the afterlife. Different norms and methods guide these two views, and they should not conflict with each other.
For many, the independence model works because there are differences in assumptions and approaches between theology and science. There is also a practical aspect to this position. It is probably most prevalent among Pentecostals who end up working in the theological or scientific disciplines. Because it takes years of graduate-level education to master a discipline, most Pentecostals have neither the time nor resources to gain sufficient expertise in both arenas to form a well-reasoned opinion.
However, while such a truce between theology and science might make it easy to do our work and retain our faith, it does not provide resources for integrating our faith and our work in the modern world. The result is that many Pentecostal scientists go to church on Sundays and lift up holy hands but then go back to their scientific laboratories during the week and do not think much about the theological aspects of their work.
On the other side, Pentecostal theologians and all Christians use scientific technology continuously — from electronics to communications to transportation to medicine and beyond. Yet theologians do not think much about how to reconcile their theology with the science that makes such technology possible. If this continues in our churches, our students who go off to secular colleges and universities will not be able to make theological sense of what they are learning. In reality, we do not live in compartmentalized silos. While we wear different hats — as theologians, scientists, spouses, parents, etc. — we still share a common world given to us by God.
The third position sees theology and science as cooperating with each other. There are certainly different forms of such cooperation. Two of the most popular currently among evangelical and Pentecostal scientists and theologians are intelligent design (ID) and old-earth creationism (OEC). The ID movement has a formally organized platform but also includes many others who are not a part of the formal ID organizations yet believe we can detect design in nature. Most of the latter insist that whatever else science might tell us about how things came about, theology tells us why they have come about. Theology reveals what science currently struggles to recognize — that nature reveals features that suggest a designer, who believers worship as God.
The challenge for ID at this point is that most mainstream scientists say this belief does not employ the scientific method and has not produced any testable hypotheses. In short, ID might belong in a theology classroom but not in a science classroom. Things may change going forward, however, as many scientists are working diligently to develop the scientific aspects of this idea.
OEC also comes in many forms. What binds these forms together is a commitment to God’s creative and providential activity in the world, and acceptance of the evidence for a very ancient earth and cosmos of at least millions if not billions of years. Some OEC advocates believe that the “days” of Genesis 1 refer to incalculable eons of time. Others believe in a primordial fall that inserts a lengthy period between the first and second verses of Genesis 1. A third group accepts the standard accounts of the sciences regarding an old earth and some kind of theory of progressive creation. Within this camp, many believe only in microevolution (within species), but a few also accept macroevolution (across species). Yet all OEC supporters accept that however things came about or developed, they did so directed by God’s creative handiwork.
The challenge for those who believe in cooperation between theology and science is that there are so many variables to consider and so many possible positions to adhere to about how such cooperation ought to proceed. Some are willing to cooperate, but they are not as trusting of science since its hypotheses and theories are continuously subject to change. They would be concerned that others urging cooperation are too willing to assume science is right and risk undermining biblical faith.
This leads to the fourth option: that of theology and science in dialogue or partnership. If the third model assumes a kind of cooperative enterprise, the fourth model simply says that we ought not to presume such cooperation is always possible. However, neither should we assume conflict or independence either. Instead, theologians and scientists need to be open to consulting and learning from each other. After all, as Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:121). In some cases, we might find that we need to oppose what science suggests because of scientism. In other cases, there could be cooperation at various levels. Nevertheless, we must discern these on a case-by-case basis. This requires that both sides be willing to collaborate in a search for truth.
The challenge here, of course, is that the scientific establishment is not usually in the habit of consulting with Pentecostals on matters related to their research. On the other side, neither have Pentecostals prepared themselves to engage these matters through an informed Christian faith. We Pentecostals appear content to use the results of modern science when it suits our purposes. Yet we fail to see that the underlying science that makes possible the comforts of modern life invite deeper theological reflection on biblical teachings as well.
If Pentecostals inform themselves about both theology and the sciences, they might find that this partnership model provides a fruitful way forward. On the one hand, we will be more likely to encourage our scientists in their work and create opportunities for our scientists and theologians to work together. On the other hand, we will provide a model for our children to emulate so they can be better prepared for a world that will be even more complex than it currently is. Theologically, we might also come to see that our presuppositions about life in the Spirit do not oppose the life of the mind or the scientific vocation. In fact, the Scriptures teach the creation of all things not only through Jesus as the Word of God (Colossians 1:16,17 and Hebrews 1:2), but also through God’s Spirit or breath, which “swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Further, the work of the Spirit in the world is clear:
- “If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together,and all mortals return to dust” (Job 34:14,15);
- “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created;and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:29,30);
- The prophet Isaiah also foretells that “until a spirit from on high is poured out on us,and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,and the fruitful field is deemed aforest” (Isaiah 32:15).
In other words, whereas previous generations might have thought that the work of the Spirit was only in our hearts, the Bible tells us otherwise. The Spirit’s work is intimately present and active in our bodies (which we experience daily), in the church, and in God’s creation as a whole.
Perhaps we could also see that if God can speak to us through the many tongues and languages of Pentecost, then science, correctly understood, might also be a means to declare and witness “about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). We need to support pioneering researchers and thinkers to venture into both fields. They might provide an interpretation and translations of the difficult languages that constitute both theology and science.
The church has long believed that God has revealed His glory in His two books: Scripture and nature. If the Holy Spirit leads the people of God into all truth, will not the Spirit lead theologians and scientists together also in unveiling the truth of God and the world? Of course, whatever our pronouncements, we need to always follow the apostle Paul’s guidelines. When people give prophecies in the congregation, he warned, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29). Why should this be any different for our theologians and scientists?
Here are a few recommendations. First, we need to realize that for much of the 2,000-year history of the Church, Christians were at the forefront of scientific discovery. As the Assemblies of God’s position paper on “The Doctrine of Creation” (passed by the General Presbytery on July 30, 2011), says: “Believing scientists and biblical scholars consider no fundamental conflict to exist between God’s Word and His works” (available at http://www.ag.org/top/beliefs/position_papers/). Let us not allow a strident set of atheistic voices from the science community or an equally anxious set of fundamentalist Christian perspectives perpetuate a warfare mentality between theology and science. Let us instead distinguish what is nonnegotiable, like the existence of God as Creator, from issues of second-tier import, and then allow our believing scientists and our faithful theologians to keep doing their work at this level.
Perhaps one way we can foster sound biblical and theological reflection on scientific matters is by inviting any scientists or science teachers in our congregations to share their testimonies. Another way is to incorporate the testimonies of believing scientists into our sermons and teaching.
Second, we need to support Assemblies of God higher education. The Alliance for AG Higher Education has been proactive in promoting the work of our schools and our faculties. Inquire about having faculty from one of our Assemblies of God universities visit your church. Many faculty, even those who work in the sciences, have a call to preach and carry ministerial credentials. Others can share how their Pentecostal faith informs their work. Most of our schools have church ministries offices that can coordinate such visits from faculty. Such exposure to our church members will encourage our young people to aspire to all that God might call them to through a college education.
Jesus urged us to love God not only with all of our heart, soul, and strength, but also with all of our mind (Luke 10:27). Our colleges and universities can help us do better in this regard.
My final set of recommendations is that we need to continue to work to overcome the history and culture of anti–intellectualism that persists in some segments of the Pentecostal church. When Pentecostals first emerged in the early 20th century, the educational establishment marginalized them and in turn Pentecostals demonized the educational establishment. But times have changed. So how do we transform the climate from one that has been hostile to academia and science?
Pastors need to get to know the scientists, medical personnel, and science teachers attending their congregations. The latter listen to their pastors each week. Pastors need to find out about their work and their views, and perhaps read books they recommend on topics of mutual interest. Then, involve them more intentionally in the life of the church? Have them lead adult education classes or make presentations to the senior high group about how they integrate their faith and their work. Have open forums involving these resident experts that provide space to discuss questions our students are encountering in public schools. These events will go a long way to quelling the fears that are otherwise hyped by the volatile rhetoric of the media.
Do not make Christians in the scientific community feel like they do not belong. God has called them to their vocation, and they can help us do better in loving God with our minds. By fostering such discussions within our churches, and by furthering relationships between our colleges and our churches, we will create environments of research, scholarship, and dialogue. This will in turn motivate pastors and scientists to compare notes, listen to, and learn from one another. Along the way, this will inspire them to bring their Pentecostal perspectives to the wider theology and science academies.
Why continue to allow the secular or non-Pentecostal voices in the theology and science fields to set the research agendas? How might we also develop methods and approaches to explore and better understand Pentecostal experiences and phenomena like healing and the miraculous? Our Pentecostal faith should not be threatened by theological and scientific study; it should instead be enriched by it.
Continue to be vigilant in prayer for the Pentecostal movement. The Father of Jesus Christ who had led us by the Spirit to the ends of the earth will not abandon us as we step into the halls of academia and scientific inquiry. Instead, the Spirit who leads the church of Christ into all truth will continue to guard our hearts and minds. The same Spirit will empower us to bear witness to the truth in ways that will turn others to Christ.
1. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version / Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. — Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, ã1989. Used by permission. All rights reserved.