Natural Theology and Science

By: Jim Virkler; ©2012

Alister McGrath is a theologian and scientist of high reputation. He has written a three-volume work on the relationship between Christian theology and the natural sciences entitled A Scientific Theology. McGrath approaches his subject from a position of creedal purity and orthodoxy, described by McGrath as a characteristic of evangelical faith. Many other books authored by McGrath express enthusiasm for the interface between Christian theology and the natural sciences.

McGrath delivered the Gifford lectures for the John Templeton Foundation in 2009. His topic was “A Fine-tuned Universe: Science, Theology, and the Quest for Meaning.” He would assert that the reality of the natural order helps us affirm the objective reality of God. This observation, however, falls short of McGrath’s extensive development and description of the connection between Christian theology and the natural sciences. Perhaps he would defer to his own commentary after volume 3 was written: “I have certainly not achieved real closure on the issues it aimed to address.”

The writings of McGrath address my personal query: Do we wish to describe objective reality only in human terms? Or do we wish, by our investigation, to help us identify the Creator and His works? Does our personal exploration of the natural order help us identify the objective reality of God? Above all, these realities are our primary concern.

McGrath speaks of the provisionality of the findings of science. The conclusions of science are known to change. Therefore, he seeks to address the interface of science and faith on a level positioned above the explicit timeline and origins questions. Stated another way, when questions emerge where specific events and processes on the historical timeline are raised, we may describe our responses in more general theological terms.

For the past few years I have conducted extensive high level email and in-person discussions with several evangelical friends, well-known professionals in their fields of science and education. Their insistence that science is viewed by nearly all of today’s scientists as a naturalistic enterprise is viewed with concern by McGrath in one of his recent writings: “Scientists, like all other professionals, are strongly territorial and resent intrusion into their territory by those who are not members of their guild. Natural theology, some of their members would maintain, represents such a scholarly trespass, opening the door to intellectual contamination.” Even some Christians practicing in scientific fields endorse the notion that the blending of modern science and natural theology represents a “scholarly trespass.” Their “territory” is not to be entered unless the password of naturalism and naturalistic is repeated and observed in de facto scientific practice.

Several exact quotations from the letters of my personal friends serve to illustrate what McGrath may mean by his concept of scholarly trespass: (1) Science is an intrinsically limited discourse, limited precisely because its presuppositions are properly naturalistic; (2) I believe modern science as such was always secular in the sense of embracing methodological naturalism; (3) They (science and religion) are not a single, self-consistent whole but two very different ways of viewing reality; (4) We are convinced, however, that standard science does not deal with God and his activities. It is not competent to do so. Science may reach a point where it throws up its hands and simply admits: We can’t figure out how humans emerged, at least not within the framework of our methodological naturalism. But for now, they do not believe they are at this point, and they consider bringing God into the picture violates their principle of methodological naturalism.

Dr. McGrath’s writings are a laudable effort to bridge the gap between science and theology. The dimensions of this discussion are broad, indeed. To the degree we embrace secular science with its naturalistic presuppositions, we will always experience impasse as we communicate our revelations concerning the science/faith interface with those who do not share our concept of God as Creator and Sustainer of all things.

Caution must guide us as we embrace the “provisionality” of contemporary science theory of “molecules to man” evolution. Many enthusiasts of the interdigitation between science and natural theology seldom warn of unanswered questions and controversies concerning evolutionary theory as a broad conceptual belief framework into which thousands of observations must fit. Brilliant proponents of the theology/science interface present biological evolution as a God-supervised process and explain how it is supposed to work according to a naturalistic process. On the other hand, explaining the sequence of developmental events of our “fine-tuned universe” since the original creation, complete with its God-ordained, front-loaded physical constants, is a relatively simple issue by comparison. But when earth’s complex bio-chemical life first appeared, followed by numerous “biological big bangs” over succeeding eons of time–that is another matter.

My discussion does not include a scientific rationale for transcendent creation events. Many scientists have produced such rationale. In particular, the writings of Dr. Stephen C. Meyer in Signature in the Cell have generated a powerful apologetic for sudden and supernatural production of coded genetics for earth’s multiple life forms. His writings harmonize science and theology. The Apostle Paul penned a brief description of his vision of a scientific theology. Its single verse simplicity and majesty are unmatched: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (Rom. 1:20 NIV)

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