This paper presents the conflicts between Christianity and Science pertaining to differing cosmologies. Our ultimate concern is whether the sources of conflict between biblical and scientific cosmologies are due to contradictory data or erroneous interpretations of the data. Our contention is that the points of opposition between biblical and scientific cosmologies have arisen primarily due to opposing philosophical views applied to the interpretation of events and statements related to the origin and formation of the universe. Thus our principal objective is to identify the philosophical presuppositions and their influences on the interpretation of cosmological data.
In the last three centuries many conflicts have arisen between science and Christianity on various topics. Two major controversial topics of contemporary concern are the origin and formation of life and the universe. The theories of evolution and cosmology share a number of controversies in common. Although it would be instructive to discuss how these controversies are related the subject of this discussion will be limited to the philosophical issues surrounding modern cosmology.
In addressing the conflicts between scientific and biblical cosmologies, it is important for the sake of clarity to distinguish between the domains of Science and Theology. It can be said in very broad terms that Science is a methodology for interpreting physical data and concerns itself with the description of events. Theology, on the other hand, is a methodology for interpreting biblical text (scriptures as linguistic data) and primarily concerns itself with the significance of events. Science and theology in these broad contexts are somewhat mutually exclusive in that they address topics to which the others methodologies do not apply. Nevertheless, there are biblical statements about the physical world and thus there are overlapping scientific and religious views regarding the nature of the physical world. Conflict arises when the theological and scientific interpretations concerning those events held in common are in disagreement.Footnote1 The nature of the disagreement is sometimes problematic because both theologian and scientist have on occasion commented on issues outside their competence. Furthermore both disciplines, science and theology, have employed their distinctive methodologies to attack problems to which their methods do not apply. This has all contributed to various points of opposition between science and Christianity.
The controversies between biblical and scientific cosmologies will be discussed in the context of the following central questions:
We will attempt to show that the points of opposition are philosophical in origin and not necessarily a contradiction between scientific data and scriptures.
This can be a difficult task because philosophical views are often so deeply embedded in our basic understanding of the world that we can be unaware of their presence without considerable reflection. According to Donald MacKay "it is never too easy to distinguish hard scientific data from the philosophical extrapolations from them which are put about in the name of Science." Similarly it is often difficult to distinguish the true meaning of biblical scriptures from the philosophical extrapolations that are put about in the name of Christianity. A classic illustration of the conflict between theology and scientific cosmology is given by the following example:
In 1615 a conflict arose between Galileo Galilei and the Roman Catholic Church. A priest named Niccolo Lorini sent a letter to the Inquisitors-General in Rome expressing his concern that the followers of Galileo "were taking upon themselves to expound the Holy Scriptures according to their private lights,...that they were trampling underfoot all of Aristotle's philosophy....I believe that the Galilieans are orderly men and all good Christians, but a little wise and cocky in their opinions."
Although the conflict focussed on interpretation of scripture it was the underlying philosophical foundation of the interpretations that produced the conflict. In this case the official Church doctrine was aligned with the philosophy of Aristotle. It was the conclusions drawn from Aristotle's view of cosmology that Galileo challenged and not the biblical view.
This then is the principal thesis to be developed here: the conflicts between theology and science on the subject of cosmology are generally rooted in either opposing philosophical views or philosophical confusions between the data and their interpretation. It is proposed that theology and science are both tainted with their own unstated philosophical presuppositions (either unwittingly or deceptively by the theologian and scientist) thus affecting their various interpretations of cosmology. If the Christian view point holds science to represent truth revealed by God through nature and scripture to represent truth provided through God's special revelation, then the two "truths" cannot be contradictory. This does not necessitate a natural theology, nor preclude it, but it does require nature and revelation to make compatible statements.
There is generally held to be a dichotomous relationship between science and religion. As discussed in the introduction the description of physical events falls under the purview of science while explanation of the significance of events is often considered to be the domain of religion. In this sense the activities of these two fields have at times been considered to be mutually exclusive. While science and religion may claim some exclusivity they also by nature of their activity and claims have a domain where they must interact. Thus if one is to make a broad statement about the relationship between science and religion, and particularly on the specific subject of cosmology, it would be more accurate to describe them as complementary. If we ascribe rational qualities to both science and religion then it is impossible to maintain that they are mutually exclusive with respect to their statements about the nature of events. The complementary nature of theology and science does not mean that the two cannot make contradictory statements provided one or both are in error. Nor does this mean that one can always have it both ways by invoking complementarity to declare opposing statements only have the "appearance" of contradiction. Thus the question remains; what is the relationship between scientific cosmology and biblical cosmology?
To properly address conflicts between biblical and scientific cosmologies one must establish if a proper relationship between theology and science exists and, if so, the relationship must be defined. There are four sharply contrasting views regarding this relationship:
The concordist view requires biblical and scientific interpretations to harmonize. This view admits possible contradictions and attempts to resolve them. The purely religious view claims science and religion are mutually exclusive domains of study and cannot legitimately interact. Any contradictions arising between theology and science are pseudo-problems arising from one discipline trespassing on the other's proper domain. Complementarity asserts that theology and science are addressing different levels of one underlying reality. Complementary descriptions of reality on occasion gives rise to the appearance of theological and scientific contradictions. However these pseudo-contradictions occur because of confusions that arise when the predicates used by the two distinct languages (theological versus scientific) to describe each level of existence are mixed. Dogmatism is an appeal to the authority of one interpretative scheme over the other. Scientific atheists and religious fundamentalists tend to hold this view. The relationship between science and theology adopted in the following discussion is one of moderate concordism and complementarity. We avoid dogmatism because there is substantial evidential basis for the validity of both scientific and theological methodologies. The purely religious view is avoided because it tends to produce a dualistic view that implies the physical aspects of life are irrelevant to spiritual concerns and vice versa. This leads to noninteracting spiritual and physical worlds which is contrary to the biblical theme concerning the relationship between God and man.
1. For example Genesis 1:1 states that the universe was created and had a beginning. Romans 4:17 says God calls things into being that did not exist. Until this century science generally accepted the universe as being eternal, thus denying that the universe had a beginning and held that nothing could be made out of nothing.