To What Extent Should I Put My Trust in Science?
Posted On July 19, 2022
Written by Dr. Keith Mathison, professor of systematic theology
In the most general sense, the word “science” means knowledge. However, as the_ Oxford English Dictionary_ explains, “science” today usually refers to the natural sciences and is therefore “restricted to those branches of study that relate to the phenomena of the material universe and their laws.” In other words, science refers to the knowledge acquired in fields of study such as physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy. The question, then, is: To what extent should I put my trust in these branches of study? The question arises for Christians because many of those who have devoted their lives to studying these fields claim that the knowledge they have acquired contradicts the teaching of Scripture. Because Christians believe that Scripture is the very Word of God, they believe it is the ultimate source of knowledge. How then are Christians to respond when there are allegations of conflict between what God has revealed in His inspired Word and what is true of the things He has created?
Before we can begin to respond to this question, it is important to make some fundamental distinctions. First, God has revealed Himself in His created works (Rom. 1:19–20). The Belgic Confession refers to God’s created universe as “a most elegant book” through which we know God. Second, God has also revealed Himself through His spoken and written Word (Heb. 1:1–2; 2 Tim. 3:16). So, God reveals Himself through His Word and through the works of His hands. What God reveals about Himself through these two means cannot be contradictory.
Human beings can study both the medium of God’s two means of revelation as well as the content of those two means of revelation. Those who study the medium of general revelation are natural scientists who study the nature of rocks and stars and fish and frogs. Those who study the medium of special revelation are those who study things like papyri and ink to determine the age of manuscripts. Those who study the content of general revelation are natural theologians. They study what can be known of God solely through the examination of God’s created works. Those who study the content of special revelation are biblical and systematic theologians.
Now, here is the important point. Human beings are fallible, whether they are Christians or non-Christians. Human beings can and have at times misinterpreted both the medium and the content of general and special revelation. The misinterpretation of the medium of general revelation has led to theories such as spontaneous generation, phlogiston, the luminiferous aether, and the Ptolemaic model of the universe. The misinterpretation of the medium of special revelation has led to the erroneous dating of biblical texts. The misinterpretation of the content of general revelation has led to all manner of false religions and idolatry. The misinterpretation of the content of special revelation has led to all manner of theological disputes over issues such as eschatology and the sacraments. Contradictions, therefore, are never the fault of God. They are always the fault of the fallible human interpreters of God’s creation and God’s revelation.
The human beings involved in the natural sciences are just as fallen and fallible as the human beings involved in every other field of study. What that means is that whatever trust we put in natural science, it cannot be unqualified. It is a fallible human endeavor. However, we also cannot live in a perpetual state of agnosticism about everything natural scientists claim to have discovered about the created world. None of us do that anyway. All of us place a certain level of implicit trust in science every time we take a seat on an airplane, drive over a bridge, or take an aspirin.
So, to what extent should I put my trust in science? The short answer is that we should be able to put qualified trust in the results of science as long as those results have been firmly established and as long as those results do not contradict what God has definitively revealed in Scripture. There is no reason, for example, to doubt the law of gravity. To do so is going to result in unnecessary pain or death. Of course, we have to recall that interpreters of Scripture are fallible too and have made mistakes. If there is a contradiction, it will be necessary to determine whether it is due to a misinterpretation on the part of a biblical or systematic theologian or whether it is due to a misinterpretation on the part of a natural scientist.
That is not always easy to do because a lot of specialized training is involved in these fields of study. Biblical and systematic theology, for example, both involve the in-depth study of ancient languages. The natural sciences often involve the study of high-level mathematics. Not every individual is competent or qualified to evaluate the evidence in these fields. Most of us have to rely to one degree or another on brothers and sisters in Christ who are qualified and gifted in these fields. Sometimes this doesn’t sit well in a culture that has persuaded us that we are all experts on everything, but as Christians we have to go against the culture on this point. As Christians, we have to understand that each member of the body has different gifts, and we need all of the members of the body (1 Cor. 12:12–31).