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As a Christian, how do I reconcile stories from the Bible with current scientific thought?

Author of The Spirit Searches Everything: Keeping Life's Questions

on Today's Church in America




  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

CHRISTIANITY Islam | Judaism
What is the view of the relationship between religion and science?
by Kendra Hotz

Throughout the history of Christianity, there have been questions about the relationship between what can be learned through the use of reason and what is taught in scripture, and these questions remain largely open. Christians differ significantly in how they understand the relationship between faith and science.

Especially with the advent of evolutionary biology, Christians have had to rethink what their faith teaches regarding the creation of humankind. Did God create human beings, in their current form, in a special act? Or did humanity arise out of a gradual process that also shaped other species? Contributions from disciplines such as geology and physics, which reveal a very ancient beginning for the earth and the cosmos as a whole, have also caused Christians to revisit their views of how science and faith interesect. Should Genesis 1, with its presentation of a six-day creation be interpreted literally, or does it present theological truths in metaphorical form?

Modern Christians may assume that the tradition interpreted Genesis 1 literally, and that only in recent times have new interpretations been advanced, but such was not always or consistently the case. In his commentary on the book of Genesis, for instance, John Calvin, a sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer, expressed a view common among Christians of his and earlier times that the creation accounts contained in that book should not be mistaken for literal or scientific accounts of how things came to be. Instead, Genesis contains a theological account of the relationship between God and the creation.

Calvin chided those who asked of Genesis, whose author he took to be Moses, questions it was not prepared to answer, saying,

For as it became a theologian, he has respect to us rather than to the stars…. Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons endued with common sense are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.1

Calvin and theologians like him argue that scripture teaches what is necessary for salvation, reveals the nature of God, and guides believers toward righteousness. Its intent is not to present objective historical, geographical, or scientific facts. These things can be discerned through the use of reason and by observing the natural order. Ultimately, such Christians expect that what is revealed through reason and what is revealed in scripture will not conflict, but during the process of discovery, it may remain unclear how these two sources of truth correspond.

Some Christian theologians will go so far as to claim that what is discovered through science may properly shape and correct theological claims.2 Theological claims about the extent of human free will may be qualified by insights from psychology and sociology. Claims about natural evil—evil that is not directly caused by human sinfulness—will be informed by insights from the natural sciences.

In sharp contrast to this tradition of accepting scientific accounts of creation that differ from a literal interpretation of Genesis, some evangelical Christians, especially in America, find faith and science, especially evolutionary biology, to be in irreconcilable conflict. These Christians would argue that Genesis teaches that God created everything in six days, approximately 6000 years ago, and that humankind began with two individuals, Adam and Eve, whom God created at that time.

The idea that humanity evolved from other life forms, they would insist, compromises the fundamental theological affirmation that humanity was created in the image of God. They would also argue that science, freed from an atheistic bias, would not conflict with these claims. Evolutionary claims, they argue, are unsupported by the evidence, and careful observation of the natural order indicates that it is too complex and well-ordered to have come into existence without an intelligent designer.

1. John Calvin, “Commentary on Genesis,” Volume 1, Chapter 1, verse 16. The text is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

2. See, for example, James Gustafson, An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self Doubt. (Augusburg Fortress Press, 2003).


Copyright ©2006 Kendra Hotz

Kendra G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor (with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections (2006) and coauthor of Transforming Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.

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