Poythress Podcast on Christianity & Science
April 29, 2009
Interview with Vern Poythress
about the book Redeeming Science
[originally published in The Book Report (fall, 2006) 11-12, published by Crossway Books, and available online here. Used with permission.]
VERN S. POYTHRESS is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where he has been teaching since 1976. He holds degrees from California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Westminster Theological Seminary, University of Cambridge, and University of Stellenbosch.
Crossway Books (CB): Why is science a vital subject for Christian reflection?
Vern Poythress (VP): To begin with, science is culturally significant, and responsible Christian interaction with our culture should reckon carefully with science and its meaning. But Christians have even more important motivations. God displays his wisdom and power in the things that he has made (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-6). So the study of God’s creation, including scientific study, ought to lead to praise and admiration of God. Moreover, scientific exploration fits in with the original commandment given to man, to “fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion. . .” (Gen. 1:28). Scientific endeavor, rightly understood, is a positive act of obedience to God. Nowadays many people expect tension between Christian faith and science. But this is contrary to what should be. Hence there is all the more reason to rethink what science is about and how Christians can approach science positively.
CB: Why do you think some Christians are afraid of science?
VP: The rise of modern science occurred within the context of a Christian worldview, and in the past many scientists have been devout Christians. But more recently Christians have experienced a number of attacks on faith and the Bible that appeal to the prestige of science. In our modern culture some people say, quite wrongly, that science disproves the possibility of miracles. Others have built a materialistic worldview out of Darwinian evolution, claiming that evolution is a replacement for God. In reaction, Christians may be tempted simply to withdraw from confrontation, or they may become anti-intellectual, mistakenly thinking that the mere use of intellectual powers, rather than their abuse, is the source of the problem. They may forget that when rightfully done, science pursues God’s truth.
CB: How did your passion for science develop?
VP: I got fascinated with arithmetic even in kindergarten. Mathematics was an early and long-lasting love for me. I enjoyed the precision and power shown in even the elementary forms of arithmetic. Only later did I come to understand that I was seeing in mathematics a reflection of the power of God. My interest soon expanded to include sciences, where scientific laws also showed precision and power. If I had not majored in mathematics in college, I would have majored in physics.
CB: In what ways are science and mathematics linked to beauty?
VP: Many scientists and mathematicians pursue their studies partly because they find exhibitions of beauty at almost every turn, both in the general laws in science and in the particulars—particular plants and animals, particular rocks, particular stars and galaxies. I would have liked to include in Redeeming Science a large number of color photographs of honeycombs, butterflies, raccoons, galaxies, mountains, ants, and microscope slides of cells and organs in order to remind people of the beauties related to science. But anytime they want, people can go onto the Internet and see such photographs. Or they may go outside or simply look at their own hands. One of the particular ties between beauty and mathematics lies in the concept of symmetry. A butterfly displays bilateral symmetry, in which the left- and right-hand sides of the butterfly are mirror images of one another. A honeycomb displays six-fold symmetry in its arrangement of hexagonal cells. Symmetry is closely related to beauty. The Bible’s expositions concerning God show how both symmetry and beauty within this world reflect the original beauty of God.
CB: What do you find unfortunate about the way in which science is taught today?
VP: God shows his majesty, power, and wisdom in the things that science investigates, and science is attractive to human beings—even those who do not consciously acknowledge the existence of God—precisely because of this display of reflections of his character. But secular ideology today exerts constant, systematic pressure to detach science from God and treat it as just “there.” According to modern thinking, the world is a product of chance, or a product of we-do-not-know-what. The very existence of science then has no explanation.
This detachment of science from God ultimately empties science of meaning. So science in school too often becomes facts to memorize merely in order to get a grade. Or it becomes a story of human triumphs in insight, but with no explanation for the origins of insight or for why the world can be understood at all. Or for those who are talented in science, science becomes a means to personal achievement, power, and intellectual pride, all construed selfishly. Human motivation for science then becomes a hollow shell of what it could be.
CB: In what ways is science pertinent to understanding the Bible?
VP: In my book I have mainly been concerned with traveling in the other direction, namely, to explore how the Bible’s teaching about God, the Word of God, the wisdom of God, and God’s control over the world offer a fruitful framework for understanding science. But we must also learn how to deal with situations where there appears to be a contradiction between some scientific result and the teaching of the Bible. The Bible is God’s Word, and so it can be trusted. The world around us is God’s world, and so there is no actual contradiction between what God does in the world and what he says in the Bible. When there appears to be a contradiction, we must be patient. We look carefully at modern science to see whether the world is being fairly interpreted, or whether biases or hidden assumptions have affected the conclusions.
We also look again at the Bible to see whether we have properly understood it. At this level there can be mutual influence in our growing understanding of both the Bible and of science. But it is important that we do not resort to a simplistic, hasty solution where we distort the Bible’s teaching for the sake of harmonizing it with whatever is claimed to be the latest science, or where we distort the situation in modern science in order to force a simplistic harmonization with the Bible.
CB: What exactly is evolutionary naturalism, and why is it popular today?
VP: Evolutionary naturalism is a worldview according to which God and angels and demons do not exist, and the world is ultimately nothing more than matter and energy. It says that there is no ultimate purpose in the world, and humanity is destined ultimately to die out. Evolutionary naturalism is a philosophy, a substitute for religion that gives “big” answers to the questions of the meaning of the world and life and humanity. The growth of the theory of Darwinian evolution has made it possible to claim plausibly that all of life, including human beings, arose by gradual naturalistic processes from earlier life and ultimately from nonlife. The worldview of evolutionary naturalism relies on the scientific prestige of Darwinian theory, and at the same time smuggles in the philosophical premises that the material aspect of the world is all that there is and that evolution is unguided and purposeless.
CB: What are some of the responsibilities and privileges conferred upon man in relation to God and the created order?
VP: Christians have rightly sensed the importance of the original command given to mankind in Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (v. 28). When God gave dominion to man, he made man a king over the created things around him. But it is important to note that Genesis 1 emphatically places man’s kingship in the context of God’s higher kingship. God by his rule over creation is the original king, and man is made “in the image of God” (vv. 26-27). When man’s work takes place as instructed by God’s prior wisdom and example, it means that there will be a harmony between thoughtful development of dominion and the preservation of the beauty already in the world. There is no disharmony between loving nature and transforming it, even though in the present fallen situation we often see human beings at odds over this issue.
In Genesis 2 Adam made a beginning by observing the various animals, giving them appropriate names, and noticing that no animal was suitable as a mate for him (vv. 19-20). This original naming process made the first steps in observing animals and classifying them, thus beginning taxonomy. In his work Adam anticipated the scientific task of understanding the world. In principle, the kingly task of dominion ought to be guided by understanding, just as modern technology is guided by understanding. Rightly understood, Genesis 1 and 2 give man an invitation to start on the road to science and technology. Even after the fall of man into sin, the impulse toward understanding and dominion, toward science and technology, still remains in man. But sin twists the development, so that now, when sin infects human beings, neither science nor technology develops with pure motives or with a clear vision of the wisdom of God.
CB: Your book contains a chapter entitled, “The Role of Christ as Redeemer in Science.” How would you summarize the role of Christ in science?
VP: The Bible teaches that Christ, after his resurrection victory, ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12-13). It is important to see that his ascension is not merely a confirmation of his deity, but a statement about his humanity. Christ as man has ascended to a position of dominion. Ephesians 1:21-22 describes Christ’s dominion in language reminiscent of Psalm 8:6, which is about man’s dominion. Christ as the last Adam achieved the dominion that the first Adam failed to achieve because of sin (1 Cor. 15:25, 45-49). Christ not only has comprehensive dominion (a kingly idea) but comprehensive wisdom (Col. 2:3; a prophetic idea).
Thus, as the last Adam, Christ has achieved the goal in understanding and in dominion that was originally set before Adam. In other words, Christ has achieved all the purposes of man both in the area of science (understanding the world) and in the area of technology (exercising dominion). Yet that does not mean that our own efforts on earth are futile. On the contrary, Christians should do their own work in science and in technology and in every area of life, knowing that they are united to Christ and that they are participating in working out the effects of what Christ has achieved. We have much deeper reasons than does the rest of the world for appreciating science and devoting efforts toward serving God in scientific endeavors.