When it comes to squaring science with Scripture, one theologian says it may be more about a person’s own understanding than anything else.
Vern Poythress, author and professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, said some of the most significant tensions in the Bible are linked directly to presuppositions made by non-Christian thinkers rather than scientific findings.
In a column for the apologist website Desiring God, Pothyress noted that there are typically three main areas of tension between scientific research and Scripture: evolution, creation and miracles.
The subject of miracles, Pothyress wrote, can perhaps prove the most useful in discussing the transcendence of physical laws by a God who reveals Himself to be omnipotent and active in His creation.
“If you believe in a personal God who can do whatever he wishes, you also believe that he can work in an exceptional way any time he wants,” said Poythress. “In other words, he can work a miracle.”
Regularities in scientific law reinforce the notion of God’s existence since such regularities allow science to be possible and reveal God’s nature, Poythress added.
One such example is that “He makes his sun rise,” as Jesus said in Matthew 5:45.
In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul tells a crowd gathered in Lystra that “the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them ... has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons.”
However, the personal nature of God means He can act in exceptional ways that may transcend the physical — though never the moral — laws which He has established, Poythress said.
Jesus Christ rising from the dead is the ultimate example of God transcending such laws for His own purpose.
"People in the first century did not have the findings of modern science that we have, but they knew just as clearly as we do that people do not rise from the dead,” he said. “In other words, they knew right away that the resurrection of Jesus was an exception to normal experience.”
Rather than detracting from God’s person or character, such exceptions serve to show His sovereignty over creation without the need to acknowledge any opposition or complaints, Poythress said.
When scientists study regularities such as Newton’s laws of motion or Kirchhoff’s laws for electric circuits, Poythress contends that what they’re studying is the Word of God, which upholds all of creation and governs its physical laws, according to Hebrews 1:3.
Emphasizing that some of the earliest scientists like Newton, Copernicus and Galileo were either Christians or heavily influenced by Christianity, Poythress asserted a biblical worldview spurred such men to seek out regularities in science.
“Because they believed in one God, who was the source of all rationality, they knew that the world itself was governed rationally,” he said. “There was hope for understanding it.”
That meant the pursuit of scientific knowledge was always informed by the belief that, since we were made in God’s image, as human beings, we might be able to aspire to understand the mind and ways of a Being infinitely wiser and more powerful than ourselves.
Today’s scientists, Poythress said, face an entirely different landscape, one in which scientific laws are presupposed to be impersonal in origin rather than being grounded in an unchanging divine nature.
“Even Christians who engage in science may unconsciously absorb the assumption,” said Poythress. “It is inevitable, if they follow that assumption consistently, that they will not allow exceptions. They will deny the possibility of miracles.”
The notion of an impersonal God also heavily informs the doctrines of our current scientific age. Research into the universe’s origin and evolution “assumes from the beginning that there are no miracles, no discontinuities in the normal operation of physical causes,” Poythress says.
“It is an assumption. No one proves it,” he added. “Indeed, no one can prove it because we cannot literally transport ourselves into the past with a time machine. For all we know, God may have governed the universe differently in the past.”
Ironically, such presuppositions also result in the undermining of atheistic evolution.
“All that an atheistic theory of evolution requires is that we would be fit to survive. It cannot guarantee that our consciousness makes any difference (because survival is all about the proper firing of neurons, not consciousness)," Poythress wrote.
"So there is no reason to believe that our minds are in contact with the truth. And if that is so, there is no reason to believe that the theory of evolution, which is a product of our minds, is in contact with the truth. The theory of evolution fails to provide a basis for believing that it is true.”
That logic hasn’t stopped the Church from adopting such views.
A 2019 Pew study found that 32% of white Evangelical Protestants believe “humans have evolved over time” rather than having always existed in their present form. A majority of mainline Protestants — 83% — said they agree with the evolutionary model.
Gallup has also documented a decline in the number of Americans who believe God created man in its present form.
While 44% held that view in 1981, a new low of 38% supported that view as of 2017.
Meanwhile, the number of those who believe human beings developed and that God had no part in the process increased from 9% to 19% over the past three decades.
To help believers navigate through an often confusing maze of headlines and “scientific” assertions, Poythress laid out 11 Biblical principles to deal with apparent contradictions:
1.“Our basic assumption: God rules the world.” — God is a personal God, He can act in exceptional ways (“miracles”) if he chooses.
2. “God is consistent.” — God cannot contradict Himself, what He reveals through Scripture and how He chooses to act are eternally consistent.
3. “The Bible is the word of God.” — The Bible declares itself trustworthy and inspired by God Himself, we can rest on its inerrancy and authority.
4. “God gave human beings dominion, so scientific investigation is legitimate." — Modern science was berthed in assumptions of a biblical worldview.
5. “Scientists’ formulations are not the word of God, but human reflections concerning evidence in the world.” — Unlike the Bible, science does not claim to be unchanging and even well-established theories are fallible in principle.
6. “Though the Bible is infallible, all later human interpretations of the Bible are fallible.” — There is a critical distinction between what the Bible says and what any human interpreter believes it says.
7. “Apparent discrepancies between the Bible and science are discrepancies between fallible human interpretations of the Bible and fallible scientific pronouncements, based on fallible interpretations of evidence from the world.” — Human fallibility, extends to interpreting both the Bible and scientific findings.
8. “An apparent discrepancy needs further investigation.” — When we do come across something that appears to contradict, it can be attributed either to a mistake in biblical interpretation, in scientific reasoning, or both.
9. “The Bible has a practical priority, because of its design by God.” — The Psalms speak of a real impact of the word of God on our daily lives, not just abstract theology.
10. “When there is an apparent discrepancy, we should see whether there are competing explanations from scientists or from Bible interpreters.” — Not unlike theology, science is rarely limited to a lone scientific opinion.
11. “The Bible gives us sufficient instruction for the next practical step in obeying God, even when we have many unanswered questions about the apparent discrepancies.” — Ultimately, God’s grace helps us settle into those questions we have that we not find explicitly answered in His Word.
With degrees from Westminster, Cambridge, Harvard and Caltech, Poythress has written several books, including Knowing and the Trinity: How Perspectives in Human Knowledge Imitate the Trinity and The Mystery of the Trinity: A Trinitarian Approach to the Attributes of God.