Thursday, April 23, 2009

Is Scientific Knowledge Abstract?

As I read writings by ministers and theologians who have minimal scientific training, yet confidently assure us that they know the Bible teaches a literal six day creation, I wonder how they can ignore what the creation is telling us through the evidences of the stars, the rocks, radioactivity etc., that the earth is vastly older than ten thousand years old.

I can understand someone who recognizes their weakness in understanding science, and thus their impressions about what science claims to say are tentative. I can also understand someone whose understanding of science leads to a conflict with how they in good faith interpret Scripture. Indeed, that was my position for a couple of years, and doubtless the same for my colleagues. At least such people recognize a conflict and they regard the scientific findings with a healthy skepticism. But that’s different from someone who holds to a particular interpretation of Scripture and cares not a whit what God reveals in creation. God clearly reveals himself in the creation (Isaiah 28:23-29, Proverbs 6:6-8, BC Art. 2) so why is this ignored?

Perhaps people think science is a fundamentally different way of thinking than “regular” thinking or that scientific knowledge is somehow different from "regular" knowledge. Once concepts become difficult, do they become abstract and can thus be ignored?

When time permits (and Dordt’s semester extends well into May) I would like to post short articles explaining some of the concepts that address issues like evolution, age of the earth/universe etc., hopefully in an accessible way. Stay tuned.


Benjamin said...

I will be tuned like the strong nuclear force (perhaps not that finely tuned, but that was my attempt at humour).

Ben Vandergugten

Anonymous said...

Imagine reading the following:

"As I read writings by scientists who have minimal training in theology and exegesis, yet confidently assure us that they know the Bible does NOT teach a literal six day creation, I wonder how they can ignore the Bible's message that the universe is vastly younger than 4.5 billion years."

Doesn't sound very respectful, does it?

Rob Schouten

Rob Schouten

Tony Jelsma said...

Rob Schouten makes an interesting comment. Leaving aside the question of the age of the universe for the moment, many scientists with minimal theological training do confidently assert a theological position, disregarding what Scripture says. Both are disrepectful to God's revelation and I encounter both in my role as a Christian science professor.
As Nancy Pearcey describes in her book Total Truth, our society frequently promotes a fact-value dichotomy, where science tells us the facts and religion gives us the values. Unfortunately, only science is given truth claims.

A purpose of this blog is to investigate scientific findings in the light of Scripture, recognizing that both science and theology are human activities and thus fallible. Thus it is not a "fact" that the universe is vastly older than ten thousand years but the preponderance of the evidence indicates this and we would be wise not to ignore the evidence.

Some parts of our theology fly in the face of science, like Christ's incarnation and resurrection, but I am not about to give these up despite what science says. However, I feel the age of the universe is not in that category.

We are open to challenge and further discussion so that our beliefs are consistent with what God reveals in both creation and Scripture.

Arnold Sikkema said...

Rob: I personally find neither your counterpoint nor Tony's original disrespectful. But many of us in the sciences have in fact given careful consideration to Reformed exegesis, and the weight of Reformed Biblical scholarship (going back to Calvin, Kuyper, Schilder and continuing to the present with Collins, Poythress, Godfrey) seems to us to quite clearly indicate that it is well within the Reformed umbrella to interpret Genesis 1, taking into account its historical-cultural and textual context, as not having the age of the universe as any part of its content or message, and thus to not conflict with the evidences for a universe 13.7 billion years old and an earth 4.5 billion years old.

Jonathan C. Vanpopta said...

Tony: I am curious about your distinction between scientific and "regular" knowledge. It seems to me that the inductive method of the natural sciences, based on sensory perception, is much more 'regular' in our modern society than any form of (value-based) deductive method used in theology. I have never thought the natural sciences to be abstract, but rather, very concrete and phenomenological, and this is what makes the modern scientific method more appealing to popular society. From my perspective (as a theology student) the situation seems to be quite the opposite of the one you have suggested. In fact, it seems like a much more substantial struggle to promote a type of "Faith seeking Understanding" method of study in our current culture. Perhaps I am simply not understanding your argument, or perhaps I am misinterpreting your terminology, but I would appreciate further clarification, either in a comment or a future post. Thanks.

Jonathan Vanpopta

Anonymous said...

I'm disappointed and concerned by much of the material being shared on this forum regarding age of earth, man's origin, and what to do with first chapters in Genesis. It simply does not pass the "sniff test" of simple faith and sobriety. I am not convinced that this type of discussion makes it any easier for covenant youth to embrace the Biblical and confessional truths that our fathers have taught us to love. The goal of passing on that Biblical and confessional heritage inspires me. Goals that get in the way of that distress me.

Otto Bouwman

Tony Jelsma said...

Can you elaborate on what you mean by the "sniff test of simple faith and sobriety?" In particular, how does a Reformed hermeneutic lead to a simplistic reading of Scripture?

The reason I wrote my article is because I am convinced that the simple "face value" reading of the early chapters of Genesis is not Reformed.

Please clarify.

Tony Jelsma said...

In response to Jonathan van Popta's comment:

Evidently I wasn’t clear enough. I personally don’t see a distinction between scientific and “regular” knowledge (and I’m glad you don’t either) but I’m wondering if others do. Being immersed in scientific thinking and teaching, I see the same thought processes going on in science and in the “normal world.” But I wonder if Christians with a less scientific background might encounter scientific evidence, conclude that, “It’s too complicated for me,” and therefore ignore or marginalize it.

You’re right that bringing worldview issues of "Faith seeking Understanding" into scientific discussions is more difficult. It is a challenge, not only to recognize that everyone has a worldview, but also to be able to see beyond one’s own worldview to that of others, thereby challenging one’s own presuppositions.

Anonymous said...


As a "youth" working towards a PhD in physics, trust me, these discussions are good for my faith. I have been thinking about these issues a fair bit recently and I don't understand how one who has given them significant thought can simply brush them off. Yet often times when I try to discuss them I get the feeling I am looked down on for not having simple faith. This has lead me to avoid these discussions with people who could potentially help me deal them and leaves me to formulate my thoughts on my own.

This forum is a great place to discuss or hear from people who have already gone or are going through this thought process searching for the truth.

Lee Rozema

Tony Baartman said...

Many years ago people believed that emotions and feelings originated in the heart. That fleshy hunk of muscle which when its beating stops, the organism to which it belongs dies. In this more modern age we know much more about how the body works and we know that all thought including emotion and feelings, originate in the brain. The heart plays no role in cognisance.
I did a search of the word "heart" in the NIV Bible online and it came up with 743 texts containing this word.
Does the fact that the Bible is incorrect in implying that all thought originates in the heart mean that the Bible can't be trusted as a revelation from God himself? Of course not.
We have to keep in mind the fact that the scriptures have been written by people, with inspiration from the Holy Spirit of course, by people who lived thousands of years ago. It's clear to me that human understanding has grown substantially since then. Evidenced by the fact that humans didn't have things like electricity until only recently in their history.

Occasionally someone from outside our church will learn that I'm a Christian. More than once the next question out of them is "do you believe in evolution?" I'm quite confident that a very large number of people completely write off Christianity simply because a lot of Christians say that scientists are wrong and are out to deceive the general public. Because of this they will not entertain the idea that perhaps Christianity may be worth investigating.

Tony Baartman

Anonymous said...

Otto Bouwman,

I agree with Lee that these matters are important for covenant youth to discuss in an environment such as this. If I am unable to openly discuss this topic in a Christian setting, how am I ever going to be able to tackle the issue when I come upon it in a secular environment? Whether or not you think it “should” be an issue, in many academic fields we are faced with the reality that it “is” an issue.

I personally had the opportunity to go to a Christian university (Trinity Western) where I was challenged by my professors to (re)consider my views on these issues. I am incredibly thankful that I was challenged in this Christian setting where my professors (a couple of whom have posted/commented here) had my best interests in mind when addressing this issue. Rather than mock my Christian views and present me with a “Christianity or evolution” ultimatum (an ultimatum which I’d expect from those who oppose Christianity, but which I unfortunately also get from many of my fellow Christians), my professors encouraged me to consider what and why I believed what I do, and how I can go about defending this. I still have many questions about this topic, and thus I find myself reading this blog and “fence sitting” at the moment. However, these questions have not weakened my acceptance of the “Biblical and confessional truths” I was raised with... rather, I have become more confident that I can believe in and defend these truths in the midst of my uncertainties about the current topic at hand.

Jessica Vanderploeg