Science and Christian Faith: Conflict or Cooperation?

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Another frequently cited example of the conflict between science and religion is the debate over evolution. Reactions to Darwin’s ideas, however, were considerably more complex and nuanced than is generally realized.12

Scientist’s reactions to evolution

Initially, some scientists opposed evolution while others welcomed it. For example, Lord Kelvin was skeptical because his calculations of the rate of cooling of the earth indicated that its age was as short as fifty million years, far too short for evolution to have taken place.

On the other hand, Asa Gray, a Harvard professor and the most distinguished botanist in America, was both an evangelical Christian and a staunch defender of Darwinism. In one of his papers, he introduced himself as “one who is scientifically, and in his own fashion, a Darwinian, philosophically a convinced theist, and religiously an acceptor of the ‘creed commonly called the Nicene.’”13 (It is interesting to note that Gray was a Sunday school teacher at Park Street Church in Boston.)

Theologian’s reactions to evolution

The initial reactions of theologians to evolution were similarly mixed. Charles Hodge, professor of theology at Princeton, was opposed, believing that Darwinism was a ‘mere hypothesis’ and that it destroyed design. Other Princeton theologians, such as James McCosh and B. B. Warfield, defended evolution. Warfield, well known for his support of biblical inerrancy, described himself as “a Darwinian of the purest water,” and said, “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation…. that need be opposed to evolution.”14

In retrospect, it is surprising how quickly and widely Darwinian theory was accepted. According to the British historian Owen Chadwick, by 1885, acceptance of the view that evolution and Christian doctrine were compatible was more or less complete among more educated Christians.15 In his book, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, David Livingstone says, “By the time of the outbreak of the First World War, evangelicals in science and theology had found the necessary resources to accommodate evolutionary biology to their evangelical outlook.”16


By the mid 1920s, the situation in America had changed dramatically. This was the period of the growth of fundamentalism and a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, particularly among Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Missouri-Synod Lutherans. A chief spokesman was the Adventist George McCready Price, who advocated a recent creation and claimed that the earth’s geological features resulted from the Genesis flood.17

Price’s views won few converts. Nearly forty years later, however, his ideas were restated in a 1961 book by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris called The Genesis Flood.18 This book, which sold over 200,000 copies, launched the so called creationist, or creation science, movement—which, in my view, has been an apologetic disaster.

Though most educated Christians reject creationism, all Christians believe in creation. The Nicene Creed declares: “We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

Our doctrine of creation is most simply stated in the New Testament—in the first chapters of John, Hebrews, and Colossians—which assert that the material world has been made by God through Christ, who sustains it in being and in whom all things hold together.19 Scripture, however, does not give us a scientific description of material processes, which brings me to a few closing remarks about the complementarity of science and Christian faith.


Both science and faith seek after truth, but they answer largely different kinds of questions.20 Science is concerned with the properties and patterned behavior of material systems and with cosmic history. Science traces the history of the cosmos from the big bang to the condensation of galaxies, from the evolution of the chemical elements in the interior of stars to the origin and evolution of carbon-based life. Parts of the story are well established, while other parts remain speculative and subject to change. Although our present understanding of the natural world is incomplete, the search for new knowledge goes on and is at the heart of the scientific enterprise.

The Christian faith does not offer a mechanistic description of material behavior. It is concerned with a different set of questions, such as: What is the ultimate cause of the existence of the universe? Who governs the material world, or is it self governing? What is the meaning and purpose of human life? These are metaphysical questions, and are not answered by science. For answers to these questions, one must go to philosophy, religion, or whatever is the source of one’s worldview.

Christians should address questions of ultimate cause, meaning, and purpose to Scripture, whereas we should address scientific questions to the creation itself. This point was recognized 400 years ago by Francis Bacon, who first spoke of the two books of God:

“Let no man…think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy (i.e. science)…. Only let men beware…that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.”21

Robert C. Fay is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Cornell University. The fifth edition of his textbook, Chemistry, co-authored with Professor Emeritus John McMurry, will be published in 2007. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.

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