Does Science Really Contradict Scripture? Eleven Principles for Apparent Tensions – Vern Poythress

ABSTRACT: Thoughtful Christians familiar with the claims of modern science recognize apparent disagreements between the Bible and scientific claims. Many of the biggest tensions, however, arise not from the findings of science but from the philosophical assumptions of non-Christian scientists. For the tensions that remain, Scripture offers principles for wisely navigating them in ways that honor God’s revelation. In the end, because God is consistent with himself, all apparent disagreements are just that: apparent. And until we find their resolution, God has told us all we need to know in order to trust him.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Vern Poythress, distinguished professor of New Testament, biblical interpretation, and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, to offer principles for navigating apparent disagreements between Scripture and science.

Apparent disagreements between the Bible and scientific claims trouble some people, and understandably so. Three areas of apparent tension quickly come to mind.

What about evolution?
What about the days of creation?
What about miracles?

How do we tackle these questions?

Question of Miracles

The third area of tension, about miracles, can serve as a useful place to start. Did God speak in an audible voice from the top of Mount Sinai, as described in Exodus 19–20? Did Jesus multiply the loaves and the fish to feed five thousand men (Matthew 14:13–21)? Did Jesus cast out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21–28)? Do evil spirits even exist? Did Jesus raise Jairus’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43)? Did Jesus himself rise from the dead (Matthew 16:21; 28:1–10)?

Quite a few people in our day would say that “science has shown us” that miracles are impossible. It is true that some scientists would claim that miracles are impossible. But other scientists, especially scientists who are Christians, would say that miracles are possible and that the miracles described in the Bible actually happened.

The difference in viewpoint here is not due to the results of scientific investigation. It is due to differences in people’s view of God and the world — to differences in worldview, we might say. If you believe in a personal God who can do whatever he wishes, you also believe that he can work in an exceptional way any time he wants. In other words, he can work a miracle. On the other hand, if you do not believe in God at all, you probably expect that there are no exceptions. You think that the laws of the universe are just mechanical and impersonal.

So the deepest question is about the nature of the world. Are the roots of the world ultimately personal or impersonal? God is personal. He made the world with personal purposes. And every day he continues to govern the world with personal purposes, even down to every detail (Psalm 104:14; Proverbs 16:33; Matthew 10:29–30).

Regularities (‘Law’)

The regular processes that scientists study are processes controlled by God. The regularities exist only because God exists. “He makes his sun rise” (Matthew 5:45; see Genesis 8:22). He causes “the grass to grow for the livestock” (Psalm 104:14). Science is possible only because there are regularities. And the regularities are there because God is consistent with himself. He has a plan, and he is faithful day by day in carrying it out.

But because God is personal, there may also be exceptional cases, which are due to his personal purposes. For example, the resurrection of Christ is highly exceptional. People in the first century did not have the findings of modern science that we have, but they knew just as clearly as we do that people do not rise from the dead. In other words, they knew right away that the resurrection of Jesus was an exception to normal experience.

So how is such an event possible? If God is God, he can make exceptions. No one can say to him, “Oh, by the way, you are not allowed to do that!” And in the case of the resurrection of Christ, we can see some reasons why God did it. It was not an irrational, meaningless exception. No. Through the resurrection of Christ, God not only brought the body of Christ to resurrection life, but accomplished deliverance from death and damnation for all who belong to Christ (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:45–49). The whole of it makes sense, provided that you believe in God.

Let us consider God’s rule over the world in greater detail. God governs the world by speaking. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). It is God who spoke and specified that plants reproduce “according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:11–12). It is God who rules the weather by speaking: “He sends out his word, and melts [the snow and ice]” (Psalm 147:18). When scientists seek to discover scientific laws, they are actually looking for the word of God that governs the processes they are studying. If they think they understand a specific regularity, they may call it a “law”: Newton’s laws of motion, Newton’s law of gravitation, Kirchhoff’s laws for electric circuits. These laws are human summaries of the actual law — namely, God’s word, his speech, which governs motion and gravity and electric circuits and everything else.

It should be clear, then, that scientific investigation depends on God, day by day. It could never show the impossibility of miracles. Scientists discover what some of the regularities are. But they cannot tell God that he cannot act exceptionally.

Science Then and Now

The history of the rise of modern science confirms this principle. Many of the early scientists, like Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton, were Christian believers themselves, or were heavily influenced by a Christian worldview. It was the Christian worldview that gave them the incentive to study the world and look for regularities. Because they believed in one God, who was the source of all rationality, they knew that the world itself was governed rationally. There was hope for understanding it. This hopeful situation contrasts with what happens in polytheistic religions. If there are many gods and if they fight with each other, the world itself is semi-chaotic. It may seem to be hopeless to find in it a consistent order.

The early scientists also knew that man was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). So there was hope that the human mind could be fundamentally in tune with the mind of God. Even though our minds are limited, there was hope that, with God’s help, we could begin to understand some of his ways in governing the world.

By contrast, in our day many people understand science as a discipline radically at odds with God. Scientific laws are thought to be an impersonal mechanism. It is this assumption about an impersonal origin, rather than the details of scientific experiments, that is the source of religious skepticism. In other words, when some people do work in science, they bring in an assumption about an impersonal origin, before they ever start. They bring that assumption into whatever science they study. Even Christians who engage in science may unconsciously absorb the assumption. It is inevitable, if they follow that assumption consistently, that they will not allow exceptions. They will deny the possibility of miracles.

This assumption of impersonalism helps to explain why there is so much conflict about evolution and the days of creation. The standard mainstream approach to evolution says that new plants and animals originate only by very gradual, unguided processes that go back to the first cell, and even before that (so-called “chemical evolution”). The framework of assumptions includes the assumption that God did not in a sudden way miraculously create any new species or any family of living things. People also hold this assumption when they come to the subject of the origin of humanity. Before ever looking at genetic information or fossil bones from apes, the mainstream scientist assumes, as a given, that humanity must have originated by gradual processes from earlier kinds of creatures. And the most likely predecessors are apes. (Even before the rise of Darwin’s theory, biologists who classified animals into larger groups saw that on anatomical grounds the natural larger group for human beings was the primates.)

Origin of the Universe

Similar influences from assumptions confront us when we look at scientific theories for the origin of the universe. The usual mainstream approach assumes from the beginning that there are no miracles, no discontinuities in the normal operation of physical causes. The reconstruction of the past history of the universe assumes that the past history operates in line with the same system of physical regularities that scientists can test today in the laboratory. It is an assumption. No one proves it. Indeed, no one can prove it, because we cannot literally transport ourselves into the past with a time machine. For all we know, God may have governed the universe differently in the past. God is a personal God, not a set of mechanical rules.

The key role of assumption becomes vividly evident if we consider briefly one of the theories that Christians have suggested, to show the possibility of harmony between the Bible and the current state of the universe. There are a number of such theories, and several of them have some merit. This particular theory, called the theory of “mature creation,” observes that God created Adam and Eve as mature (Genesis 2:7, 21–22). Neither of them was a helpless baby when God first created them. But if God created them mature, is it not possible that he created the entire universe mature? And could it not have been coherently mature, so that it coherently looked billions of years old? Let us suppose that Adam looked about 24 years old. So the universe could have looked 14 billion years old, at the end of the period of six days during which God created it and brought it to maturity.

Not everyone is fond of this theory. To some, it may feel like a trick. But it illustrates the fact that scientists do not actually know for sure how old the universe is. They cannot say to God, “You can’t do it that way.” God is God.

Difficulties with Mindless Evolution

Ironically, severe difficulties for scientific explanation arise not in a Christian approach, but in an atheistic approach. How? Most forms of modern atheism say that human beings arose by mindless evolution from random motions of atoms and molecules. According to these conceptions, we are a cosmic accident. Our origin is thoroughly impersonal. There is no personal plan from God. There is no special reason for expecting that human beings with their distinctly personal qualities would arise from the evolutionary goo. In the end, we are just blobs of goo. We just happen to have some peculiar and unaccountable abilities to be conscious and to think about truth.

But then can we trust our own minds? All that an atheistic theory of evolution requires is that we would be fit to survive. It cannot guarantee that our consciousness makes any difference (because survival is all about the proper firing of neurons, not consciousness). So there is no reason to believe that our minds are in contact with the truth. And if that is so, there is no reason to believe that the theory of evolution, which is a product of our minds, is in contact with the truth. The theory of evolution fails to provide a basis for believing that it is true.1

Guiding Principles for Dealing with Difficulties

Now, let us begin to list some of the guiding principles that can help us deal with apparent discrepancies between the Bible and science. In such a short space, of course, these principles are not a comprehensive treatment of such a large topic. For readers interested in learning more about the relationship between Scripture, science, and how God works in the world, I would recommend Reijer Hooykaas’s Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, John Piper’s Providence, and my own books Redeeming Science and Interpreting Eden.2

Principle 1

Our basic assumption: God rules the world.

We need as our basic assumption the truth that God created the world and that he rules it. God is our personal God, not a set of mechanical rules. God can act in exceptional ways (“miracles”) if he chooses. This assumption sets the stage for all the detailed study of the Bible and of the world.

Principle 2

God is consistent.

God is consistent with himself. Since he is consistent with himself, what he says in the Bible and what he does in ruling the world are consistent. There is no actual discrepancy between the Bible and the facts about the world. The discrepancies that come up are apparent. Because we are finite and God is infinite, we do not know everything. We cannot guarantee that, within one lifetime or many lifetimes on earth, we will be able to solve completely to our own satisfaction all the apparent discrepancies. There is hope that we might solve at least some of them, if not many of them, because the discrepancies are only apparent. But we cannot guarantee beforehand when a solution will arise.

We must be patient and trust God. He knows what he is doing, even when we do not. These are fundamental aspects of Christian living. Everyone in his individual life confronts events that seem inexplicable and frustrating and painful. The events may seem to be incompatible with God’s goodness and with what we expect him to do. (Think of Job.) The same kind of dissonance that happens in our personal life can also happen when we try to compare the claims in the Bible with the claims made by modern scientists.

Principle 3

The Bible is the word of God.

The Bible is what God says. God has put his word in writing, through human authors whom he raised up and directed. So what the Bible says is fully trustworthy. What the Bible says is true.

Whole books are devoted to showing that the Bible is the word of God.3 We cannot repeat all the arguments here. Let us mention only a few verses, in order to remember that the Bible makes this claim for itself. The most famous verse for showing that the Bible is the word of God is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” Similarly, 2 Peter 1:21 says, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Jesus affirms the divine authority of the Old Testament in a number of places (Matthew 5:17–20; 19:4; John 10:35). These verses are the tip of the iceberg.

Principle 4

God gave human beings dominion, so scientific investigation is legitimate.

As we saw earlier, the people responsible for the early steps in the growth of modern science operated with assumptions in tune with a biblical worldview. The truths about God and about their being made in the image of God actually encouraged their scientific explorations. The same should be true today. Scientists work more robustly if they can come back to serving a personal God, rather than imagining that laws are impersonal mechanisms.

Principle 5

Scientists’ formulations are not the word of God, but human reflections concerning evidence in the world.

Scientific formulations are not parallel to the Bible. The Bible is infallible, because it is the word of God. It is composed of words and sentences that God crafted (through human authors) in order to express the truth and communicate it to us. We can trust what it says.

By contrast, all the work of modern scientists is human work. God gives them gifts. God gives them insights. God gives them energy for their labors. But it is all fallible. Scientists may say many true things, but because they are fallible, we cannot merely assume that what they say is true. It has to be tested. And of course, when sciences are operating in a healthy way, the first line of testing is through other scientists. Experiments may be repeated, under varying conditions. Alternative hypotheses may be tried out.

Sometimes a particular scientific theory settles in. Scientists have growing confidence in a single theory, which the majority see as the right explanation, fruitful in further research. Newton’s theory of gravity became one such theory. It seemed to many scientists that it was a kind of final answer about the working of gravity. Knowledgeable people felt that it was destined never to be superseded. But it turned out, even then, that it was not the final theory. It was eventually superseded by Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity and theory of general relativity.

Normally we have confidence in established theories, because they have borne the test of time. But even here, we should remind ourselves of several cautions.

Even well-established theories are fallible in principle.
Even well-established theories may have exceptions, because God is a personal God who can work miracles.
Even well-established theories, such as Newton’s theory of gravity, can be superseded in surprising ways by a later theory.
Even well-established theories can have deep difficulties and call for suspicion, if they rely on hidden assumptions that are false. For Darwinism, one such assumption is that biological development is unguided (purposeless).
Theories about the past require assumptions about the continuities of lawful regularities in the past. They are intrinsically on a less firm basis than theories that can be tested in the present (such as Newton’s theory of gravity, or Kirchhoff’s laws for electrical circuits).

We must therefore distinguish two kinds of scientific investigation. Historical science tries to reconstruct the past. It includes theories about the origins of kinds of plants and animals; theories about the origins of the geologic strata; theories about the origin of the moon, the planets, the comets, and the asteroids; and theories about the origins of galaxies. Nomothetic science studies the regularities of processes that are currently taking place. Nomothetic science is more firmly established, because it rests on repeatable experiments. Historical science has to deal with one-of-a-kind events in the past. Some of these events may have been miraculous. Nomothetic science avoids the difficulties of the miraculous by relying on repetition. A single anomalous event would eventually be excluded from a formulation that describes regularities.

Principle 6

Though the Bible is infallible, all later human interpretations of the Bible are fallible.

We must distinguish what the Bible says from what we or other human interpreters think it says or implies. The basic teachings of the Bible concerning salvation are clear. But not all the details of its affirmations are equally clear. The Westminster Confession of Faith gives a balanced summary concerning the clarity of the Bible:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

Because not everything is equally clear, and because even the parts that are clear can be twisted in people’s minds because of sin, all merely human interpretations are fallible.

Principle 7

Apparent discrepancies between the Bible and science are discrepancies between fallible human interpretations of the Bible and fallible scientific pronouncements, based on fallible interpretations of evidence from the world.

The source of discrepancies lies in human fallibility, which extends both to interpretations of the Bible and to everything in modern sciences. There is no discrepancy in God himself. There is no discrepancy between what the Bible actually affirms and what is true concerning the world.

Principle 8

An apparent discrepancy needs further investigation.

When we find an apparent discrepancy, we do not immediately know whether it is due to a mistake in biblical interpretation, a mistake in scientific reasoning, or both. We should continue to trust that God is true, and wait patiently while we try to find the sources of mistakes.

Principle 9

The Bible has a practical priority, because of its design by God.

God designed the Bible to function as our guide in life (Psalm 19:7–11; 119:105). It is wisely tailored to our need for guidance and the need for a comprehensive remedy for sin. Moreover, it is completely true. It is a verbal expression, unlike the nonverbal evidence found in the created world. We should trust what it says. But we should also beware of trying to force it to provide answers about technical scientific details, which lie beyond what it actually says.

Principle 10

When there is an apparent discrepancy, we should see whether there are competing explanations from scientists or from Bible interpreters.

Scientific opinion is often divided. There is often one or even several minority opinions, as well as a majority opinion. Majority opinion tends to get amplified by social pressure and in the popular press.

People who are not scientists themselves may feel that they are not competent to evaluate the claims of specialists. But frequently, scientists make claims far outside of their specialty, and in that kind of case they have no special competence beyond anyone else. Even when they make claims within their specialty, there may be competing viewpoints and competing claims that they do not want to mention. We do well to be aware that the actual work of science has a social component, and that healthy science includes healthy disagreements, which sometimes extend even into the middle of major theories. (There are to this day competing interpretations of the meaning of quantum mechanics.)

If an ordinary person wants to be well-informed about a particular special issue, he should be careful not merely to do his reading within a single circle of opinion, even if it is a Christian circle (other Christians may disagree).

Principle 11

The Bible gives us sufficient instruction for the next practical step in obeying God, even when we have many unanswered questions about the apparent discrepancies.

God is faithful, and he understands the limitations of our knowledge. He has given us enough to know him, through Jesus Christ, and to walk in his way.

A much more sophisticated and extended form of this argument occurs in Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 

I’ve also written on this topic in shorter form in the article “Let There Be Light.” Finally, see also R.C. Sproul’s short article “Science and Theology.” 

See, for example, John Piper, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016); John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010); Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (1948; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2020). 

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