Science and Faith / Scienza e Fede


Un testo preparato dal network “Scienza, Tecnologia e Fede” della Chiesa Episcopale degli U.S.A.

Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is,

source and foundation of time and space,
matter and energy, life and consciousness;
grant to all who study the mysteries of your creation,
grace to be true witnesses to your glory
and faithful stewards of your gifts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Adapted from the Collect of the Society of Ordained Scientists]

Does the Bible teach science? Do we find scientific knowledge in the Bible?

Episcopalians believe that the Bible “contains all things necessary to salvation” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 868): it is the inspired and authoritative source of truth about God, Christ, and the Christian life. But physicist and priest John Polkinghorne, following sixteenth-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, reminds us Anglicans and Episcopalians that the Bible does not contain all necessary truths about everything else. The Bible, including Genesis, is not a divinely dictated scientific textbook. We discover scientific knowledge about God’s universe in nature not Scripture.

How are we to treat concepts in the Bible that appear to be scientific?

Theologians throughout the history of the Church have explained these concepts this way: God inspired the ancient writers to describe the world in concepts and language they and their audiences could understand, not in our concepts and language. The ancient world-picture: a “three-storied” creation of the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth (Ex. 20:4), though meaningful in its own time, was replaced by succeeding models and most recently by our modern portrait of a vast universe with billions of galaxies. The Bible’s theological declarations about God and creation remain true because they are not dependent upon the ancient world-picture in which they appear.

Are not science and the Bible in conflict with one another, as many Christians believe?

Both some non-believers and some conservative Christians promote this Conflict approach. The former group claims that the universe is all there is and therefore the concept of God is outdated and irrelevant. Some conservative Christians perceive modern scientific theories to be hostile to their Christian faith and reject them as contrary to their beliefs about the Bible. There is a middle way, which some call a Complementary approach. Its supporters say that while they are separate fields of study with different sources of knowledge, science and Christian theology can complement one another in the quest for truth and understanding. Together they can create a more complete understanding of and give greater meaning to our world.

What are the major features of our contemporary cosmology?

Scientific evidence shows that we live in a universe so enormous that it is difficult for the human mind to grasp. This universe has no “up” or “down,” no center and no edge. It has been expanding for about 14 billion years from an event called the “Big Bang.” From that singular event, space and time and various forms of matter and energy have emerged. Billions of galaxies, each made up of billions of stars and countless numbers of planets, have come into existence. Scientists still seek to understand many mysterious features of the universe.

Does Big Bang cosmology prove the doctrine of creation out of nothing?

No. Big Bang cosmology seems to be in tune with both the concepts of creation out of nothing and continuous creation. However, theology does not depend upon science to verify its doctrines, just as science does not depend upon theology to verify its theories. However, science can inspire theology to think new thoughts about the relationship between God and the creation, as Big Bang cosmology and evolution have done.

Is it proper to speak of an evolving creation?

Yes. When astronomers look out into space they look back in time. Thus, they are able to see our universe at many stages of cosmic evolution since its beginning in the Big Bang. Here on earth biologists, paleontologists, geneticists and other scientists are showing that life has evolved over four billion years, and are reconstructing evolution’s history. None of these scientific discoveries and the theories that explain them stands in conflict with what the Bible reveals about God’s relationship to the creation.

Isn’t evolution just a theory?

Theories are not mere guesses or hypotheses, as people often suppose. When enough evidence supports a hypothesis that has been created to explain some facts of nature, it becomes a theory. A theory is a well-established concept that is confirmed by further scientific discoveries and is able to predict new discoveries. The Big Bang theory and cosmic evolution are confirmed by discoveries in physics ranging from the smallest known particles of matter to the processes by which galaxies are formed. Biological evolution is a web of theories strongly supported by observations and experiments. It fits in with what we know about the physical evolution of the universe, and has been confirmed by evidence gathered from the remains of extinct species and from the forms and environments of living species.

What is biological evolution?

Biological evolution means that living things change over time. A great variety and diversity of organisms have come into existence over the past four billion years from one or a few original life forms. All living things; bacteria, archaebacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals, including human beings; are descendants of other life forms, most of which are extinct. The evidence for evolution shows that all life on earth is related and interconnected, and is often depicted as a great “Tree of Life.” Evolution happens gradually, sometimes at a rapid rate and sometimes slowly, but never with discontinuities. Evolution happens because of natural selection; in the face of environmental pressures, some organisms will survive at higher rates than others. Charles Darwin was the first to bring together all these ideas. Scientific researchers since Darwin have refined and added to them, but never thrown out his basic theoretical framework.

What evidence has nature provided to support biological evolution?

There are three major areas of evidence: the fossil record, biogeography, and genetics.

Fossils of hundreds of thousands of now extinct species show that life has evolved from simpler to more complex forms over millions of years. Thousands of transitional fossils help us to understand how the changes took place. Scientists use techniques based on the rate at which radioactive elements decay to date fossils and the rock layers in which they are found. In this way layers of fossils from one part of the world can be related to fossils of a similar age from another continent. These studies, combined with comparing the structures of various fossilized creatures, provide evidence for the relationships over time among living things.

While paleontologists study fossils and their relationships over time, biogeographers study the relationships and changes in species from one place to another. The distribution of species provides clues to how they evolved. For centuries naturalists have noted that similar creatures living in separate locations show differences in appearance and behavior, particularly when they do not interbreed. The unique plants and animals of islands have provided some of the most dramatic examples of evolution. The finches of the Galapagos Islands that inspired Darwin are one famous example.

Studies in genetics provide the third major field of evidence. Genes carry instructions for making proteins, basic to all life. An analogy to language is helpful in explaining how genetics helps us understand evolution. Genes speak a universal language using only four chemical letters. The structure of the DNA molecule, which carries the genes, is identical in all life; that is, it uses the same grammar. But the arrangement and number of genes vary widely among species. Thus each species has its story. Individuals have different versions of that story. Similarities and differences in genetic make-up, then, help scientists identify how closely or distantly related individuals and species are.

Beginning in the twentieth century, genetic research has added tremendously to the knowledge gained from fossils and biogeography. Together they show that the diversity of life has evolved; it was not produced by a series of separate acts of creation.

What evidence is there that human beings are also evolved creatures?

Fossil discoveries show that human beings and monkeys, chimpanzees, and other primates can trace their lineage to a common ancestor living about seven million years ago. We humans share almost identical DNA and key protein molecules with chimpanzees. We also are the most recent descendents of a line of hominid creatures now extinct. The earliest fossils of our human-like ancestors are about 6.7 million years old. The first modern humans appeared about 120,000 years ago.

Does this picture of human evolution conflict with the biblical statement that we humans are made in the image and likeness of God?

The phrase does not refer to a physical image and likeness, since God is spirit (John 4:24). Theologians have sought to explain “image and likeness” in various ways: that it refers to those divine gifts of unconditional love and compassion, our reason and imagination, our moral and ethical capacities, our freedom, or our creativity. To think that these gifts may have been bestowed through the evolutionary process does not conflict with biblical and theological notions that God acts in creation. Scripture affirms that God was involved (Gen. 1:26-27).

Has the Episcopal Church spoken officially on evolution?

No. However, clergy and scientists from both the Catholic and Evangelical traditions in Anglicanism have accepted evolution from Darwin’s time to the present. In a resolution passed by General Convention in 1982, the Church affirmed the ability of God to create in any form and fashion, which would include evolution. Several Anglicans and Episcopalians, some of whom are both theologians and scientists, are contributing to the development of new theologies of an evolving creation.

What are theologians saying about God’s creating activities in light of modern scientific discoveries and theories?

While theologians have proposed different models of how God acts in an evolving world, they agree that God is best understood as interacting with the world rather than intervening in it; a God intimately present in the world (as Scripture also reveals) rather than a God “out there.” According to Anglican priest and biologist Arthur Peacocke, God acts as Creator “in, with and under” the natural processes of chance and natural selection. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes that God uses random genetic mutations to ensure variety, resilience, novelty and freedom in the world. At the same time, the universe operates by certain natural laws or “secondary causes” by which God, the Primary Cause, ensures regularity and reliability in nature. Physicist and theologian Howard Van Till writes that God has creatively and generously given the creation all of the powers and capacities “in the beginning” that enable it to organize and transform itself into the variety of atoms, molecules, chemical elements, galaxies, stars, and planets in the universe, and species of living things on this earth.

In this evolving universe, God does not dictate the outcome of nature’s activities, but allows the world to become what it is able to become in all of its diversity: one could say that God has a purpose rather than a fixed plan, a goal rather than a blueprint. As the nineteenth-century Anglican minister Charles Kingsley put it, God has made a world that is able to make itself. Polkinghorne states that God has given the world a free process, just as God has given human beings free choice. Divine Love (1 John 4:8) frees the universe and life to develop as they are able to by using all of their divinely given powers and capacities. The universe, as Augustine of Hippo said in the fourth century, is “God’s love song.” Because God’s Love is poured out within the creation, theologian Denis Edwards asserts that “the Trinitarian God is present to every creature in its being and becoming.” These are but some of the concepts that contemporary theologians are offering to account for God’s relationship to an evolving creation.

How do these theological models of God’s relationship square with the belief that God’s sovereign power controls the universe?

Knowing the creation as evolving also helps us to think of God’s relationship to the cosmos in another way. In Phil. 2:5-11, Christ is said to “empty himself” of divinity and take in human form the role of a servant. The Greek word for emptying is kenosis. A kenotic theology of creation expresses the notion that the Triune God freely and graciously withdraws absolute power in order to “let the world be” (Genesis 1). A loving parent is faithful to her child, guides and protects him, but allows him to become his own self. In a comparable but more profound way, God the Divine Lover loves God’s own creation, faithfully holding it in existence, calling it to greater levels of complexity and beauty, but allowing the physical laws that govern the galaxies, and those of chance, environment, and selection that govern life, to take cosmic and biotic evolution in whatever directions the gifts given to creation permit. God’s kenosis gives the universe its freedom and opens up its future; God’s covenantal faithfulness and natural laws ensure its cohesion and regularity.

If evolution is said to take millions of years, how is this consistent with the biblical six days of creation?

Early Church theologians like Basil of Caesarea (330-379 AD) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) said that the six days should not be understood as scientific chronology. Rather, they provide a literary framework that the inspired writer used to organize and present the various elements of the creation. They express a topical not a temporal order. Most biblical scholars now recognize that the six days also perform an important symbolic function: they convey that the commandment for a Sabbath day of rest was established at the very beginning of creation.

Why are many Christians opposed and hostile to evolution?

Many Christians have been taught to believe that evolution is opposed to creation, and that a believer cannot accept evolution and also believe in God. Neither of these assertions is true. Two alternatives to biological evolution put forth by some Christians are called “Young Earth Creationism” and “Intelligent Design.”

What is “Young Earth Creationism”?

Young earth creationists interpret the creation stories in Genesis as historical and scientific accounts about the way God originated the universe. They believe that the earth and the whole cosmos were created in six literal twenty-four hour days some 6,000 years ago, and that God separately created each living “kind.” They claim that there is scientific evidence to back up their interpretation of the Bible. However, they reject any evidence that does not fit their biblical interpretation, including all of the compelling evidence that the universe is billions of years old and that species have evolved. Young earth creationists oppose the teaching of evolution not only because it is contrary to their interpretation of the Bible but also because they believe that the teaching of evolution is responsible for changes in modern society they consider harmful to Christian morality.

How have the scientific community and other Christians responded to young earth creationism?

All but a very few natural scientists, including the great majority of those who are Christians, have rejected the scientific claims of the creationists, because the evidence both for an earth and universe billions of years old and for biological evolution is decisive. Social scientists have pointed to the lack of evidence for making the teaching of evolution responsible for changes in morality that upset many Christians. Christian critics point out that its advocates mix science and theology together in a confusing manner and insist that their interpretation of the Bible must be accepted over contradictory scientific evidence, no matter how valid.

Has the Episcopal Church spoken on the creationists’ claims?

In 1982, General Convention passed a resolution (a) to “affirm its belief in the glorious ability of God to create in any manner,” (b) “and in this affirmation reject the rigid dogmatism of the ‘Creationist’ movement” and (c) further affirmed “our support of the scientists, educators, and theologians in the search for truth in this creation that God has given and entrusted to us.”

What is “Intelligent Design”?

The proponents of the Intelligent Design Movement assert that it is possible to discern scientifically the actions of God in nature. They claim that certain features of living organisms are “irreducibly complex,” too complex to believe that they could ever have developed through biological evolution. Therefore, they can be accounted for only by the direct action of an Intelligent Designer. Most advocates of “Intelligent Design” oppose biological evolution, which they equate with what they call “Naturalism.” They define “Naturalism” as a philosophical belief system that claims that nature is all that exists, and therefore there is no God who acts in nature. To scientists, however, “naturalism” has a far different meaning: they seek to study and seek to understand nature using methods that make no claims either for or against the existence of God.

How have the scientific and theological communities responded to the Intelligent Design Movement?

Some within the scientific community are persuaded by the arguments of Intelligent Design advocates, particularly by their writings on the various levels of complexity in organisms. Many Christians accept the arguments of the Intelligent Design advocates because they believe they confirm their faith in a creating God. However, the great majority of scientists say that claims of “Intelligent Design” have not been backed up by valid scientific research and evidence. Christian critics reject the notion that God should or can be brought in as a part of scientific explanation. The “Intelligent Design” argument implies that God has to step in from time to time to keep creative processes going because living things lack powers and capacities God did not give the universe earlier. Many scientists and theologians assert that

Intelligent Design advocates fail to distinguish between “evolutionism” as a philosophy and “evolution” as a science with a web of theories based upon a great deal of scientific evidence.

Has the Episcopal Church spoken officially on the claims of the Intelligent Design Movement?

No. Although some Episcopalians are attracted to this concept, many Anglicans and Episcopalians who are scientists oppose the Intelligent Design Movement for the same reasons the vast majority of other scientists do. They also reject the way Intelligent Design advocates meld together and confuse science and theology. Nature and Scripture present different kinds of truths about creation. It is not science’s task to discover God in Nature; it is theology’s task to proclaim the revelation of the creating God in Scripture.

Why cannot one speak of God’s creation as the work of a Designer who manifests intelligence in the features observed in the universe?

One can maintain that God’s creation shows design without agreeing with the arguments of the Intelligent Design Movement. Instead of implying a “Designer God” who from time to time intervenes in the creation, one may speak of a Creator who has built capabilities and processes for design into the very structure of the universe from its beginning. For example, many scientists have noted a remarkable set of coincidences in the values of the forces that hold atoms, molecules, stars and galaxies together. If any of these values were different by even the tiniest amount, our universe and life could not exist. These facts give Christians reasons to believe that we live in a created universe that has been given the capacities for design. But, this is a theological conclusion based upon an interpretation of scientific data and not a scientific argument for the existence of a Designer.

If new species arise through evolution, then why do creatures exhibit features that look like they are designed?

Theologians once argued that the structures of the heavens and the designs of living creatures provide evidences for the existence of God. We now know that the structures of matter and living things are actually the outcome of evolutionary processes. Design in living organisms is now understood to be an internal rather than an external process, their forms arising within the creatures themselves rather than being imposed from without. Theologically speaking, we can understand the powers and capacities in nature that produce evolving and emerging design in creatures as a sign of the giftedness of creation, and give glory to God for it.

If God creates through evolutionary processes, how may this awareness enhance my spiritual life?

The God of evolution is the biblical God, subtle and gracious, who interacts with and rejoices in the enormous variety, diversity, and beauty of this evolving creation. When we contemplate the tremendous gift of freedom God has bestowed upon the creation, and how the Holy Spirit preserves in covenantal faithfulness the physical laws, powers and processes that enable such variety and beauty, these thoughts may move our hearts to a deeper admiration, awe and gratitude for God’s works. They may inspire a curiosity to know God’s creation more deeply, celebrate it with thanksgiving, and devote ourselves to caring for it.