Science and Christian Faith: Conflict or Cooperation?

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The popular image of the relationship between science and Christian faith is one of antagonism, conflict, and even warfare. By contrast, I will attempt to show that despite some episodes of tension, the overall relationship between science and biblical theism has been largely cooperative and fruitful. We’ll look first at the origins of modern science and the origins of the conflict thesis; then at the Galileo affair and the reactions of Christian scientists and theologians to the theory of evolution. Finally, I’ll make a few remarks on the complementary relationship between science and Christian faith.

The Origins of Modern Science

The scientific revolution

Modern science arose in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The events of that period are known to us as the scientific revolution. The first (in 1543) was the publication by Nicholas Copernicus of his heliocentric model of the solar system.1 Among the developments that followed were Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Galileo’s telescopic observations, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and experimental studies of gases by the chemist Robert Boyle. It is significant that the scientific revolution occurred in a culture permeated with a Christian worldview and striking that nearly all its leaders were deeply committed to the Christian Faith. Both Copernicus, an administrator of the Roman Catholic Church, and Johannes Kepler, a Protestant, were devout Christian believers. Galileo remained faithful to his church, despite the opposition of individuals in the academic and ecclesiastical establishments who were unable to accommodate his discoveries to their Aristotelian view of the world. Newton spent more time studying the Bible than doing science,2 and both Newton and Boyle were prodigious theological writers.

Why did modern science arise in Christian culture?

One can ask the question: Why is it that modern science arose in the Christian culture of Western Europe, rather than in ancient Egypt, Greece, China, or the Middle East? Though non-Christian societies made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy, none of those societies produced anything remotely like modern science.

For science to get going, one needs a set of presuppositions, or foundational beliefs, about the natural world. These beliefs include the following:
1. The universe is good, and it is a good thing to know about it. If people believe that matter is evil, they won’t be inclined to investigate it.
2. The universe is regular, orderly, and rational. If people believe that material behavior lacks order, they won’t bother to study it.
3. This order could be of two types. It could be necessary order, in which case we should be able to discover the order by pure thought. Alternatively, it could be contingent order, in which case we must discover the order by observation and experiment. Belief in necessary order is disastrous for science, whereas belief in contingent order is essential to its development.
4. Human sense perception and reason are basically reliable, and the regular patterns of material behavior are intelligible to the human mind.

These beliefs seem obvious to us, but only because we live in a culture that has held them for hundreds of years. Other cultures held quite different beliefs about the material world.

A number of historians have suggested that modern science arose in a Christian culture because core Christian beliefs provided the presuppositions needed for science to get started. British scholar, R. G. Collingwood, has written:

“The presuppositions that go to make up this Catholic faith, preserved for many centuries by the religious institutions of Christendom, have as a matter of historical fact been the main or fundamental presuppositions of natural science ever since.”3

How do these presuppositions follow from core Christian beliefs?
1. The scientists of the 17th Century believed the material world to be good because God had made it good. Genesis 1 ends with the comment, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Moreover, the essential goodness of matter is affirmed by the Incarnation.
2. The founders of modern science believed that the universe is regular, orderly, and rational because God is personal, rational, and faithful.
3. They believed that the order of the universe is contingent because the existence and behavior of the created world depends on the will of a sovereign Creator. The importance of this theological perspective, for science, is that one cannot deduce the behavior of the natural world from first principles. God could have made a world that behaved in any way he wished, so if you want to know how the world does behave, you have got to go and look. Hence, the importance of observation and experiment, an approach that distinguished the science of the 17th Century from the deductive approach of the ancient Greeks.4
4. 17th Century scientists believed that the behavior of the material world is intelligible to human reason because God has made us in his image and given us a mind with which to think.

All these beliefs follow from the Christian doctrine of creation.

19th and 20th Century Christian scientists

It is true that there was a decline of religious faith among scientists following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Nevertheless, Darwin’s work does not seem to have shaken the faith of the great physicists of the 19th Century. Michael Faraday, James Joule, Lord Kelvin, and James Clerk Maxwell, for example, were all devout Christian believers. In the 20th Century, the astronomer Arthur Eddington, Charles Towns and William Phillips, Nobel laureates in physics, and Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, have publicly affirmed their belief in God. Collins has expressed the spiritual wonder of scientific research in these words: “When something new is revealed about the human genome, I experience a feeling of awe at the realization that humanity now knows something only God knew before.”5

I mention the theistic beliefs of these leading scientists, not to claim that most contemporary scientists are theists, but simply to challenge the popular image of conflict between science and religion.6

The Origins of the Conflict Model: J. W. Draper and A. D. White

If the beliefs of biblical theism played such an important role in nurturing the beginnings of modern science, why is it that science and religion are so often portrayed as antagonists? The warfare, or conflict, model was advanced by two very influential books: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875)7 and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).8 Draper and White saw science and religion as two contending powers—one dealing with testable facts, the other deserting reason for faith; the one expanding, the other contracting, as science conquered more and more territory from religion.

Draper’s book was a diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church, in reaction to the 1870 announcement of papal infallibility and a papal encyclical stating that public institutions that teach science should not be exempt from the Church’s authority. White was an American historian and the first president of Cornell University. He was upset by clerical opposition to Cornell’s nonsectarian charter.

Much of the tension between scientists and the Church during the second half of the 19th Century can be attributed to sociological factors. This is the period in which science was first recognized as a professional activity. In fact, the word “scientist” was not in use before 1834. Previously, persons we would identify as scientists were called natural philosophers. Those who studied geology and biology in England tended to be amateur, gentlemen naturalists, often clerics, who were either wealthy themselves or supported by wealthy patrons. Part of the reason for antagonism between the newly emerging class of professional scientists and the Church was a struggle for independence, funding, and cultural prestige. Leading contemporary historians of science such as David Lindberg, Ronald Numbers, and John Hedley Brooke believe that Draper and White “read the past through battle-scarred glasses,” and that their warfare model is deeply flawed.9 Unfortunately, the image of science and religion as conflicting, polar opposites persists in the public mind, and it is kept alive by a small minority of scientists who, in their popular writings, advance a materialist worldview in the guise of science.10

The Galileo Affair

Supporters of the conflict model often cite the clash between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church as a textbook case of the victory of enlightened science over obscurantist religion. That description, however, oversimplifies the story.11

In the 16th Century, the philosophy of Aristotle reigned supreme in the universities. Aristotle believed that the earth was the center of the universe with the sun and the planets revolving around the earth in perfect circular motion. He also believed that heavenly bodies differed from earthly objects in being incorruptible, perfect spheres, and that no changes could take place in the heavens. Aristotle’s ideas had been integrated into Christian theology by Thomas Aquinas, and so both the academic and ecclesiastical establishments were dominated by the philosophy of Aristotle. All of this was challenged by the Copernican model of the solar system, the elliptical planetary orbits of Kepler, and the supernova of 1604. Furthermore, through his telescope, Galileo observed mountains and craters on the moon and sunspots on the sun, demonstrating that neither of these heavenly bodies is a changeless, perfect sphere.

As a medical student at the University of Pisa, Galileo began a running controversy with his Aristotelian professors that lasted for nearly half a century. He was an argumentative character known by the nickname, “The Wrangler.” When Galileo returned to Pisa at the age of twenty-five as professor of mathematics, his older Aristotelian colleagues would sit in on his lectures and hiss at comments with which they disagreed. Later, in his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo put the arguments of the Aristotelians into the mouth of Simplicio, a foolish fellow who articulates the anti-Copernican viewpoint. Because Galileo had so alienated the academic establishment, it is not surprising that the academics enlisted the Church in their effort to discredit him. In popular accounts of this affair, however, one seldom hears of the role of the Aristotelian university professors.

Part of the conflict between Galileo and the Aristotelians arose from a literal reading of biblical texts such as Psalm 93:1 which says, “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Galileo believed that God has given us two books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. He said, “Both the Holy Scriptures and Nature proceed from the divine Word,” and that these “two truths can never contradict each other.” He warned against “the carrying of Holy Scripture into disputes about scientific conclusions.” In the Bible, he said, the Holy Ghost intends to teach “how one goes to Heaven, not how the heavens go” (Galileo, quoting Cardinal Baronius).

The lesson for us, I believe, is that the texts from the Psalms are poetic expressions of praise and worship and are not intended to teach astronomy. When a literal reading of a biblical text is in clear contradiction with a demonstrated scientific fact, the literal reading must be reexamined because the truths of Scripture and the truths of nature cannot contradict one another.


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.


1 N. Copernicus, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium Libri Sex (Six Books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), 1543. For an English translation, see Nicholas Copernicus On the Revolutions, edited by J. Dobrzycki, translation and commentary by E. Rosen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

2 F. H. T. Rhodes, “Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe,” in D. M. MacKay, ed., Christianity in a Mechanistic Universe and other essays (Chicago: InterVarsity Press,1965), 19.

3 R. G. Collingwood, Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1940), 227.

4 C. A. Russell, Cross-Currents: Interactions between Science and Faith (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Bookstore, 1993), 67-71.

5 Quoted by G. Easterbrook, “Science and God: A Warming Trend?” Science 227 (15 August 1997): 890-893.

6 Brief biographies of 48 Christian scientists may be found in D. Graves, Scientists of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Resources, 1996).

7 J. W. Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1875).

8 A. D. White, History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1896).

9 (a) D. C. Lindberg and R. L. Numbers, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 1-18; (b) J. H. Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 33-42.

10 C. Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980); I. Asimov, In them Beginning (New York: Crown Publishers, 1981); R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986); P. W. Atkins, Creation Revisited (Oxford; New York: W. H. Freeman, 1992).

11 For a brief review, see C. E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1986), 81-125.

12 D. N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).

13 Quoted by Livingstone, ref. 12, p. 66.

14 Quoted by Livingstone, ref. 12, pp. 115, 118.

15 D. Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 203.

16 Livingstone, ref. 12, p. 146.

17 R. L. Numbers, The Creationists, in ref. 9a, pp. 400-410.

18 J. C. Whitcomb, Jr. and H. M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 1961).

19 John 1:1-3; Hebrews 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17.

20 For a discussion of the kinds of questions addressed by science and the Christian Faith, see H. J. Van Till, The Fourth Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1986), 193-248; H. J. Van Till, R. E. Snow, J. H. Stek, and D. A. Young, Portraits of Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1990), 126-151.

21 Quoted by Alexander, ref. 15, p. 64.

Some Resources

D. Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).

J. H. Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

D. Graves, Scientists of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Resources, 1996).

W. R. Hearn, Being a Christian in Science (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1997).

C. E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1986).

M. A. Jeeves and R. J. Berry, Science, Life, and Christian Belief (Leicester, UK: Apollos, 1998).

D. C. Lindberg and R. L. Numbers, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

D. N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987).

D. M. MacKay, The Clock Work Image: A Christian Perspective on Science (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974).

J. Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

C. A. Russell, Cross-Currents: Interactions between Science and Faith (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Bookstore, 1993).

H. J. Van Till, The Fourth Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1986).

H. J. Van Till, R. E. Snow, J. H. Stek, and D. A. Young, Portraits of Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1990).

H. J. Van Till, D. A. Young, and C. Menninga, Science Held Hostage: What’s Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).

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