Integrating faith and science
by Rahel Davidson Schafer
I absolutely love theology. I have just finished a Master’s degree in religion with an emphasis in Old Testament, and have fallen in love with Hebrew and am digging deeply into biblical truth. I have especially found myself bowing ever more humbly before the God who speaks to us so richly, beautifully, and truthfully through His precious book.
I absolutely love science. My undergraduate degree was in biology, and I am now working on a Master’s degree in biology. I have fallen in love with learning more about nature and all of the intricately beautiful details and broad systems of which it consists. Through studying science, I have also fallen more and more on my face before the great Creator God, who can only be seen dimly now through this sinful world, but who is still revealed over and over again.
In the current debate between theology and science, many of the issues seem insoluble and irreconcilable. The conflict has indeed been great at times in my own mind and experience as a student. I would like to share my perspective and journey as a student in both areas.
Growth in classwork
The classes I took in science and theology helped form my beliefs and opinions. One of the most important skills that I have cultivated is how to read scientific papers critically. So often, we accept what science says as fact, and don’t take time to sift between data and interpretation. I spent many hours reading papers from a variety of scientific journals and culling out actual data. In papers dealing with origins, there was sometimes not much data at all, and the interpretations from a naturalistic viewpoint were presented as fact.
This skill of differentiating between data and interpretation has proved crucial in my questions of science and faith. I have come to realize that it is unfair when people use what they call “overwhelming scientific proof” that the biblical account of Creation is false. I realized that some of them know little about science, or have completely missed the importance of distinguishing between data and interpretation. I have learned how important it is that those who have not studied in a certain field be tentative, rather than dogmatic, in their statements.
Science does aim to find the truth about the natural world, but it is not meant to provide incontrovertible evidence that something is true. Scientific knowledge will always be incomplete, and there is always more evidence to come in—and often other ways of interpreting data than are usually thought of or shared. We will always be gaining better tools and better techniques, but there is a limit to our understanding.
I think this especially holds true when science attempts to speak to what happened at the beginning of the universe, the Earth, and life on this Earth. We have many records of what has happened on this Earth, and we have many observations of the natural world made over hundreds and even thousands of years. But no human was able to observe and take detailed notes as life began. We can speculate all we want, using much data from the geologic column, the many dating methods now available, fossil patterns, etc. But it will always remain speculation unless someone can go back there in time, or unless God chooses to reveal all the specifics to us.
In scientific language, reading the Genesis creation story as literal and historical would probably be called just another interpretation of the biblical data. But if I call myself a Christian, this data is unlike scientific data. The biblical data is incontrovertible, pointing towards a literal and historical interpretation of Genesis, not a multitude of possible interpretations. If I was not an Adventist Christian, I could call the biblical accounts anything I wanted, I suppose.
However, I was interested to read the major critical commentaries on Genesis for the exegesis paper I wrote on Genesis 1:1-3. They all find that Genesis 1-11 is clearly meant to be taken as historical and literal, and anyone who reads it otherwise (such as mythical or theological) is not really understanding the Hebrew.
In my hermeneutics classes, I learned the difference between simply reading and translating Hebrew, and actually interpreting it and comparing Scripture with Scripture. I have dug in depth into Hebrew grammar and syntax, wrestling with tough issues in the text, and understanding them from principles within the Bible itself, not anything I placed on the Bible from the outside. I learned about the structures of chapters, books, and even whole sections of the Bible, how they are interrelated, and form a beautiful and perfect whole. I read about the central orientation point of the Bible, and how it was crafted by God to reflect this in perfect symmetry.
But most important of all, I studied what the Bible has to say about itself. If I am to call myself a Christian, who takes the Bible as my rule of faith, I must do just that. And the Bible tells me how I must take the totality of the Scriptures as truth, as revealed by God. I must also take the stories of the Old Testament as literal and historical, unless the author’s intention and the style of the Hebrew text are obviously different, such as in the apocalyptic genre. These principles were not just thought up by my teachers or by some church committee. They come straight from the Word of God.
Many have tried to undermine the Bible, when it talks of Creation, the Flood, and even the historicity of the patriarchs and the prophets. But if I believe that Jesus is my Savior, and that He has been resurrected and will come again, how can I disbelieve the Creation story, since the New Testament is based so fully on the Old Testament? Isn’t doing so faulty theology, and even going against God and His Word? Unless one takes the Bible’s own statements about itself seriously, one leaves in doubt all biblical accounts, whether they be theological or historical. If I don’t believe in the whole Bible as truth, what point is there in my being an Adventist Christian?
So I began to see even more clearly through my classwork that for me it is all or nothing. I either believe the Bible, or I don’t. There is no reconcilable halfway ground. Jesus has called me to a radical belief in Him and in His creation of the world as recorded in Genesis. Yes, there is some evidence, enough to believe, but not enough to prove that it is true. Just as when I consider evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, proof must give way to radical faith.
An adequate perspective
So, how then do I as a graduate student deal with the big unanswered questions in the apparent conflict between science and Genesis, such as the order of the fossil record, biogeography, the mammalian evolutionary sequence, the time assignments to the various layers, etc.? Honestly, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I often reside in uncertainty and mystery as I study and research these issues. By studying both science and theology, I hope to find answers, and yet sometimes I come up with only further questions. However, in my studies, I have become convicted that there is much more harmony than is often admitted, either by scientists or theologians. I find that attempts have been made to look at the data and show alternative interpretations. If these are few and far between, it is not because there is a lack of data that can support either view. It is simply that there are not many who are actually searching for harmony, and few scientists that believe in God’s Word (compared to the number of secular ones) are working to understand such conundrums.
So, I have decided to spend my life, as God leads it, in finding new and creative ways to be true to Scripture and yet to practice good science. I have a shelf in my mind upon which I place my questions. Sometimes, I find that just a little while later, I run across another scientific interpretation that conflicts with the one that brought up questions, and it ends up confirming my faith. In most cases, however, I still have no answers to my questions. But this does not make me believe God’s Word less. We have come so far in science, but there are still myriads of mysteries that have not yet been solved, or even begun to be understood. And there is always more data to come in on issues that we now think we understand so well. I plan to keep practicing my critical thinking skills in determining actual data, and then try to consider other alternatives to the interpretation given, rather than just accepting it as fact.
Admittedly, this method is hard to follow. Sometimes I think about how easy it would be to give up trying to solve these issues altogether. But I have resolved by God’s grace to never give up my absolute faith in His Word, or my joy in exploring His creation. I don’t know how He will continue to lead, or if He will ever answer all my questions here in this world. But that is ok. Because I am human, and a sinful one at that. He is God! There are things that I will probably need eternity to understand, but my lack of understanding mustn’t lead to a lack of faith.
The Scriptural framework
God delights in those who “tremble at [His] word,” and this has become my undergirding principle (Isaiah 66:2, NIV). If I begin to doubt any part of Scripture, I am placing myself above the Bible, putting my reason first. And if I truly believe that the Bible is God’s Word, I am doing what Lucifer tried to do, placing myself above God. As Jesus has said, What does it matter if I gain the whole world, but lose my own soul? I am not saying that if I believe in a literal, historical Creation that I will be saved and otherwise lost. But I have come to realize how essential it is that I hold on to God’s Word as most important. If I don’t believe in Genesis 1-11 as literal and historical, why should I then believe in any of the rest of the Bible?
In summary, I have chosen to make the Bible my rule and standard of life, and that includes taking Genesis 1-11 as literal and historical. Studying the Bible and theology is the joy of my life. And as an eager young scientist, I have the privilege and duty of considering new and exciting interpretations of the same data that those under a naturalistic frame of reference can see only in one way.
The questions that science raises for the biblical account are very important to consider and can lead to a closer and deeper exegesis than might otherwise be done, but the Bible alone must be the final word when there is conflict between good exegesis and apparently good science. Some things will probably always be mysteries here on Earth, but I am called to continue to study and search. I must keep on going back to the Bible to get a clearer picture of the truth, and then going ever broader in scientific research to find the best and true interpretation of the data, not just the one that first fits my worldview. I must do the best science that I can in a sinful world and with a limited mind, knowing that, when rightly understood, God’s second book of nature only reinforces what His primary revelation tells me. I must also remain open to new, deeper understanding of God’s Word, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Isn’t it better to doubt the interpretations of a naturalistic worldview than to doubt God’s Word? Obviously, we should not ignore the problems that science seems to throw upon the Bible, but find new and creative ways to uphold Scripture as literal and historical, and let good science flow from within this framework. I believe that this is a necessity if we are to call ourselves Seventh-day Adventist Christians.
Rahel Davidson Schafer is a graduate student at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Her email: firstname.lastname@example.org.