Dissecting religion and science through the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod lens


Last year the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) published a report titled In Christ All Things Hold Together: The Intersection of Science and Christian Theology.

The substance of the report is set out in five chapters: Theological Foundations, Historical Context, Philosophical Issues, Biblical Knowledge and Scientific Knowledge, and Practical Applications. Throughout there are good features and problematic ones. I’ll discuss the content in the latter order.

I begin, though, with the opening statement about “The Challenge of Scientism” (p.5). The report is apparently responding to claims that the methods of the natural sciences are superior to all other ways of knowing, regardless of the subject. That idea is often allied with philosophical naturalism, the belief that there is no reality beyond the world that the sciences study.

Scientism and philosophical naturalism are indeed alive and well today, and are the stock in trade of many of the “new atheists”. They do challenge Christianity and other religions. But most of us involved in science-theology dialogue also see a challenge from the other end of the spectrum, rejection of well-supported scientific knowledge about the world because it conflicts with traditional theologies. We’ll come to that concern in due time.

Positive Features

The first good feature of this report is just that it exists. As I noted in the October 2015 edition of Covalence, mainline churches generally do little to help people deal with issues raised by science beyond saying that they don’t present any problem for faith. The extensive work that’s been done in the science-religion field over the past few decades has little impact at the congregational level. It’s good that the Missouri Synod has made some attempt to address the matter.

The report’s criticisms of scientism and philosophical naturalism are generally on target. Luther and the Lutheran tradition have recognized an appropriate role for reason, not only in understanding the world but in theology. In the latter area, reason is allowed a ministerial role but not a magisterial one. It can and should serve theology, the enterprise of faith in search of understanding. Theology, beginning with the basic claims that derive from revelation, should be rational. But reason cannot teach faith whether or not those claims are valid.

Because our minds are finite and our thinking is distorted by sin, we should not expect what theologian Paul Tillich called “technical reason” to tell us fully about ultimate concerns.  One attempt of scientism to answer ultimate questions that the report criticizes (pp.137-138) is physicist Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing. That book gives a good picture of current work in physical cosmology but its argument that science can explain why there is something rather than nothing is a bait and switch: The quantum vacuum isn’t nothing and a universe could emerge from vacuum fluctuations so something could come from nothing.

The report also emphasizes that Christian theology can support and encourage scientific work. While other cultures achieved some understanding of the world, what we call science “took off” in a unique fashion in the 16th and 17th centuries in a culture pervaded by a Christian world view. As the report quotes philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (p.8), the scientific outlook developed “from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and the rationality of a Greek philosopher.”

The Bible contributed to the origin of modern science not just “the personal energy of Jehovah” but a picture of an orderly creation. Creation came to be through the Logos, the Word or Reason of God, and the Christ Hymn of Colossians (1:15-20) ascribes its ordering to Christ, in whom “all things hold together,” the statement taken as the report’s title. This means that creation not only has its beginning in Christ but that he is “still personally present as the unifying thread throughout the fabric of creation” (p.35).

All this is not just a matter of historical influences. While one need not be a Christian to be a scientist, a lot of scientists are. That in itself is sufficient to refute wild charges sometimes made today to the effect that there is fundamental incompatibility between science and religious belief.  (That usually means that only a person who accepts scientism can be a scientist.)

Lutherans have emphasized the concept of vocation, and the report gives considerable attention to the idea that scientific work should be understood as a vocation. It should be seen as “a calling from God to serve our neighbor where He has placed us using the gifts He has provided” (p.25). This does not mean that scientists should pursue only practical benefits. A scientist who rejoices in understanding how the world works can share that knowledge and joy with others.

One problem the report addresses is the replacement of the sense of science as a vocation by the idea of it as a profession. This has tended to separate the work of scientists who are Christians from their life of faith. I would add that this problem is exacerbated by the fact that in some congregations scientific work is regarded with bemusement or suspicion, so that scientists feel it best to leave their vocational identity at the church door. These difficulties can be dealt with only if congregations find ways to honor the vocations of scientists.

Negative Features

One questionable aspect of the report is its emphasis on natural theology and the “two books” metaphor, the idea that we can learn about God from “the book of God’s works” and “the book of God’s Word.”  Study of a book enables us to understand its subject matter, not necessarily its author.  As Ezra Pound said, you can tell a bad critic when he starts criticizing the poet instead of the poem.

Secondly, the order in which we read the books matters.  I saw Terminator 2 before the original Terminator, and while I had a general idea of what was happening, I didn’t really know the characters or the point of some of the action.  Similarly, if we don’t know the main character in the book of God’s Word — God — we may get wrong ideas about the main character in the book of God’s works.

That’s the problem with the old idea that natural theology can be the “forecourt” of the temple of Christianity.  Paul argues in Romans 1 that sin causes people to misinterpret evidence for God in creation and to attribute it to idols.  So Luther says in the Heidelberg Theses, (with obvious reference to Romans 1:20) that a person who wants to know God in that way “does not deserve to be called a theologian.”

The report discusses the rise in belief in autonomous human reason, naturalism and deism consequent upon early scientific successes but does not call attention to the role that natural theology played in this. A natural knowledge of God can come to be seen as what is essential for religion, with distinctive Christian doctrines such as redemption secondary additions.  Historian of science Richard Westfall spoke of this in Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England, saying in one place, “In abandoning the true ground of Christianity and arguing religion as though it were natural philosophy, the virtuosi [scientists] did more to challenge traditional Christianity than all of the ‘atheists’ with whom they did battle.”

Another example of the dangers of natural theology can be seen in today’s Intelligent Design (ID) movement, a movement upon which the report places some reliance (pp.36-42).  While appropriate cautionary things may be said about the identity of the putative Designer (pp.86-87), anyone familiar with the rise of the ID movement and the way its claims have been used by some Christians will see that the Designer is supposed to be God.  And while this is by no means inevitable, that can result in just one more idol, the Great Designer.

That movement also has scientific problems. Modest versions of cosmic design arguments, using fine tuning of cosmic parameters (pp.36-40) are quite plausible.  (It is not true, however, that multiverse theories which provide an alternative to design were proposed only for that purpose, as suggested on p.39.) But arguments for ID based on claims about information theory and the supposed “irreducible complexity” of some biological entities (pp.40-42, 86-87) are much more questionable and are not widely accepted by scientists who work in the relevant fields.

The stumbling block for the ID program is a generally accepted rule of scientific procedure, methodological (not philosophical) naturalism: God or other supernatural entities cannot be elements of a scientific theory. No competent scientist, whatever his or her religious beliefs, will be content to explain a puzzling result of some experiment with “God did it.” The scientist who is a Christian will agree that God in some sense did do it.  The scientific question is, by what means, through what natural processes, did God do it?

Methodological naturalism restricts science to phenomena that can, in principle, be explained in terms of natural processes. If something hasn’t been explained in that way, science hasn’t explained it, though it may in the future.

The report wants to limit methodological naturalism to so-called “operations science” (p.83), in distinction from historical science. But this is spurious – the study of historical events and the origins of things are applications of “operations science.” The demise of the dinosaurs (p.83) is understood in terms of an asteroid impact, for which there is physical evidence, and the resultant atmospheric and biological effects of which operations science knows.

The report excludes from the limitations of methodological naturalism the origin of life. “[S]ince biology is interested in the origin of life, it pushes us beyond secondary causes” (p.58) – i.e., the origin of living things cannot be explained in terms of natural processes. This is a popular idea — poet Joyce Kilmer’s “But only God can make a tree.”

There is, though, no good theological reason to think that God can’t make living things by means of natural processes.  As some of the church fathers realized, the first creation account of Genesis pictures God creating living things mediately — “Let the earth put forth vegetation” and “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures” (1:11 & 20).

The report has no real discussion of the views of contemporary figures involved in mainstream science-theology dialogue, other than Robin Collins’ and George Ellis’ support of fine tuning.  Barbour, Pannenberg, and Polkinghorne, to give a few prominent scholars, are never mentioned.  Nor do we hear anything about organizations such as the American Scientific Affiliation, The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences or the Zygon Center for Religion and Science.  National science organizations are said to “exert a powerful influence in favor of secular conformity” (p.8) but there is no reference to the American Association for he Advancement of Science’s DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion) program.

That is perhaps understandable, though it gives the discussion a rather parochial appearance. But there is a more serious problem. It’s pretty clear that those who developed this report are opposed to current thought in some important areas of modern science, but it neither seriously engages with the theories that it opposes nor gives any suggestions for scientific alternatives. It would have been helpful had the report devoted more attention to science and less to history and philosophy.

The report does not say flatly “The theory of evolution is wrong,” but evolutionary ideas are dealt with disparagingly. The brief description of Darwin’s contribution (pp.65-66) downplays it. The possibility that neo-Darwinian evolution could be understood apart from “reductive materialism” (p.32), as with theologian Bob Russell’s suggestion that God could provide guidance for the process at the quantum level, is not considered.

The report’s stance is clarified on p.109 when we are told that we are to understand, on the basis of biblical texts, that heaven and earth were created “in the span of six days.”  Unless those days are interpreted as much longer periods (which I think the report would not regard as the text’s “plain meaning”) that rules out macroevolution. And a creation of “heaven and earth” in six literal days is quite different from today’s scientific picture of an earth that is 4.5 billion years old and a universe that has been expanding for nearly 14 billion years.

How are scientists – and indeed any interested people – in the Missouri Synod supposed to deal with the massive array of data, connected by well tested theories, that astrophysicists, geologists, geophysicists, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, geneticists and workers in other areas present in support of the current scientific picture of the world? No help is given with that.

To its credit, the report does not appeal to the approach of “creation science” and cautions against the idea that that biblical texts should be read as modern scientific accounts. Nor does it endorse the “apparent age” notion which makes God the creator of a gigantic hoax. Some “young earthers” have argued that the fall of Adam radically changed the character of the universe, thus accounting for the appearance of great age. There is perhaps a hint of this on p.18 when it’s said that “the assumption that processes observed in the present operated in the same way in the remote past” might be false, but the report doesn’t pursue that idea.  In any case it’s a cosmic version of an idea about original sin that was rejected by the First Article of the Formula of Concord.  It would, in effect, make some evil power the creator of the universe we observe.

The Core Issue

My desire to start this review with positive features of the report has resulted in delaying to the end a basic disagreement between its approach and that of what I have called the mainline science-theology dialogue. Most readers probably know what that is — LCMS insistence that the Bible is “inerrant” and “the infallible truth, also in those parts which treat of historical, geographical, and other secular matters” (pp.10, 103). In connection with scientific matters, the difference between those claims and the statement in Chapter 2 of the ELCA Constitution that the scriptures are “the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life” is significant.

This is not the place to start another chapter of intra-Lutheran debates on this subject. Instead I would like to end on a positive note by pointing out a couple of tactics that the report might be open to.

A principle of biblical interpretation endorsed by the report is to “Begin with the plain meaning of the text” (p.107).  All too often “history as it really happened” is taken as the default setting for the plain meaning. But, to take an important example, the differences between the two Genesis creation accounts suggest that perhaps neither one, and certainly not “harmonization” of them, should be read as straight historical narrative.  It makes at least as much sense to read the first account as liturgy or to use theologian Karl Barth’s concept of “saga” for these accounts.

And why not consider what we know with some certainty about the physical world and its processes in deciding on that plain meaning? Pascal had some worthwhile comments about that in the Eighteenth Provincial Letter. This does not mean that Genesis 1 and 2, e.g., should be read as scientific accounts, but as different types of texts that compliment such accounts.

Another possibility is to pursue the report’s statement that “The Scriptures generally describe the world … the way it appears to us using our five senses and according to our given, common-sense reactions to it” (p.112). To people of the ancient near east the sky looked like a solid dome. Rain could be explained by waters above the dome coming down when “the windows of the heavens were opened” (Genesis 7:11).  So God is pictured as creating a dome over the earth and waters above it (Genesis 1:6-7).

We know today that that isn’t the way the world is. There is little point in appealing to Luther’s adherence to the “plain meaning” of these verses (p.123).
Luther lived in the sixteenth century and didn’t know about the explorations of space that have given us a completely different understanding.

Perhaps instead we should pursue a parallel Luther drew between the Word of God made flesh — a male Jewish human in a particular cultural setting — and the Word of God written by humans in a culture with a certain level of understanding of the world. In inspiring the writers of the Genesis accounts, God apparently did not feel it necessary to correct what we now know to be an erroneous picture of the world.

Those suggestions might, if pursued, be of use in dealing with a problem I noted earlier — helping people come to grips with scientific evidence about the development of the universe, the earth, and life on it. Whether or not that course is followed, I hope that LCMS will take the problem seriously.

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972.  He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

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