Challenging the Standard Models of Science and Faith

Jim Stump’s new book demonstrates the insufficiencies of the standard models of relationship between science and religion.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Thanks to Sarah Lane Ritchie (or “SLR” as we call her around the office because of her extra-fine resolution of the topics she writes about!) for her attention to my new book. She is generous in her praise, and insightful with her critique. Let me respond to a couple of her points, hoping to clarify and shed some more light on my intentions.

I spend the time I do on the relationship between science and religion (or what is really restricted to Christianity in this book), because it is the entry point to the discussion for almost everyone. Academic types like SLR are much further along in the discussion and perhaps weary of this entry point, but as the book is “An Introduction to the Issues” I thought it prudent to begin there. People hear the claims of science (e.g., humans have evolved from other life forms) and the claims of Christian theology (e.g., humans are made in God’s image), and the first question is “How are these claims related to each other?” Sarah correctly points out that I claimed there is not one covering answer to that question that suffices for all instances of interaction between science and Christianity (unless that answer is “It depends.”). But that is the descriptive task: how have they been related to each other by lots of people across lots of time? What about the prescriptive task: how should they be related?

I wrote the chapters more than three years ago, and my thinking has evolved some on the topic since then. I think I would say now that the Dialogue model has the most flexibility and provides for the most productive relationship between science and faith. And no doubt there is some disciplinary bias to this. I am trained as a philosopher, not professionally as a scientist or a theologian. That means for any question on which both science and theology have some opinions, I want to listen to both and interact with both, all the while respecting their professional domains. I think this helps too, to understand the “cognitive dualism” view I was advancing in the divine action chapter. Scientific explanations and theological explanations are two ways of thinking about the world. Neither gives an exhaustive explanation (that’s the example of the chemist and the artist she refers to).

This means I can respond to SLR’s question about miracles by saying: if a genuinely miraculous healing took place, there would be no scientific explanation for it. I don’t think there are scientific explanations for all of reality. So yes, science works with the “heuristic” of the causal closure of the physical world; I don’t think we’d have a scientific explanation for some event if part of that explanation is “and then a miracle happens.” It might really be true that a miracle happened; that just means the event is not fully describable by science. But within a scientific explanation, we’re not appealing to non-scientific entities or causes (though we must remember that historically, just what counts as scientific changes).

I think the more interesting cases (though the ones SLR thinks I’ve made “too easy”) are where we do have complete scientific explanations, and yet we also want to say in some sense that God did it too. That is where the cognitive dualism works best. I believe with the Nicene Creed (and Colossians 1) that all things were made through Christ. “All things” includes, say, the Hawaiian Islands, right? So God (through Christ, the Logos) created the Hawaiian Islands? I’ve been to the spot on the Big Island where you can still see the lava pouring out into the sea “creating” new land. And we’ve come to understand very well the process by which all of the islands were formed. Does having this complete scientific explanation mean that God really had nothing to do with it? No! We’re describing it from one perspective when we give that scientific explanation. There is more to be said, and we Christians think the “more to be said” is true of the Hawaiian Islands as well–not just some cute, mushy overlay on the “real” story. The Islands depend on God for their very existence, and perhaps they play some role in God’s ultimate plan for the earth. But those are not scientific statements, and do not need to be integrated into the scientific explanation. I can do the science without theology (as happens in laboratories all of the world, all the time). But if I only do science, I won’t have an exhaustive account of reality; I’m missing something important and real.

So, yes, that sounds a bit like “independence”, but I protest against that label because it surely is not Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” understanding of independence that says, “theologians, you go over there and have fun talking about values, while we scientist treat the real facts of the world.” That’s why I like Scruton’s phrase “cognitive dualism” because it asserts that scientists and theologians can look at the same event and see it “as” different things.

One last claim about this: I think it is perfectly legitimate to say theologically that God created human beings in his image, and that it is perfectly legitimate to say scientifically that humans beings evolved from other creatures as described by the process of evolution. I’m less sanguine about giving one coherent story that seamlessly integrates these two different claims. Science and theology are different discourses with their own vocabularies and concepts. I don’t think they should therefore be kept separate, but rather I want to bring them into the same room and hear speeches from each. That’s a dialogue. These multiple perspectives give us a richer, more complex understanding of reality than either could on its own.


It is extremely difficult for any one domain to provide a perfectly coherent logic/story, much less to weave one between two domains.

In the realm of theology, we necessarily speak of mysteries about God’s nature and interaction with us. The mystery of prayer. The mystery of the Trinity. The mystery of God’s providence.

But surely, you might ask, isn’t a realm like mathematics able to sustain a coherent logical framework? Think again! Godel showed by his incompleteness theorems that it is impossible to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all of mathematics.

So I think dialog is the right way to describe a productive interaction between faith and science. There is no way to resolve the problems with complete consistency. But we can gain greater understanding on our journey of stewardship of God’s grace and gifts.


BioLogos is fortunate to have Jim on its staff. He is an excellent philosopher who has a very good grasp on the issues involved in this discussion.

However with that said it raises a real question, which is What is the role of Philosophy in a discussion of Science and Theology? If philosophy is not a serious player in this conflict of disciplines, then how can he speak to these issues? If he as a philosopher is able to speak to these issues, then Philosophy must have standing equal Science and Theology.

Many people seem to think that Philosophy and Theology are two sides of the same thing. That is not true. Many philosophers do not believe in God. Theology must be independent enough of philosophy to criticize it and vice versa

On the other hand Dawkins as a materialist rejects the rationalism of Philosophy. Hawking says that Philosophy is dead and needs to be revived by being refashioned to meet the needs of Science. I agree that Philosophy needs to be refashioned, but to take away the independence of Philosophy would destroy its ability to criticize both Science and Theology.

So what we need is not a the debate between Science and Theology that we have now which is largely sterile, but a scholarly discussion of the issues involving Science, Philosophy, and Theology.
To do this we must recognize that Reality has more than two basic aspects, the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the spiritual, but three basic aspects, the physical, the rational, and the spiritual.

This triune concept of Reality means that humans are physical, mental, and spiritual, and we live in a world which has physical, mental, and spiritual. It means that Reality is Relational. It means that Science, Philosophy, and Theology are interdependent disciplines. Each has its own area of expertise. Each is able to dialogue with the other to gain a better understanding of Reality rooted in all three.

I think we is close to this understanding of Reality, but that final leap from Dualism to Triune is not an easy one.

While I sympathize with SLR’s critique of the multiple lens model for science and theology (the same model often labeled with the word “complementarity”), I also sympathize with that model. Let me quote an extended passage in an insightful little book by one of the great Christian thinkers of the last century. I mean The Clockwork Image by Donald MacKay, a biophysicist who was a vital voice in Christians In Science two generations ago.

There’s a famous passage on pp. 36-38, which I abridge as follows. Everything after this sentence is quoted from that location, right to the end of this comment. I’ve added nothing.

We are all familiar with those big advertising sign-boards that are made up of hundreds of electric lamps, wired to form a running sequence of words–the sort of thing one sees in Piccadilly Circus telling us that ‘Bongo is good for you.’ Suppose we were to ask an electrician to tell us in his technical language ‘what is on the board.’ He gives us a long, careful description in electrical terms, so complete that we can understand just what and how each lamp is flashing, and could if we wanted make a perfect copy of the sign from it.

Now suppose that some argumentative person complains that this painstaking description is still incomplete, on the grounds that it has failed to mention the advertisement. What are we to say? Well; in a sense, of course, he is right. There are words on the board, and the electrician indeed has not mentioned them. But does this mean that the electrician was not thorough enough, or that there were some parts of the board that were ‘outside his boundaries’? Of course not. It would make nonsense to try to improve the electrical description by adding something at the end so that it read, ‘What is on the board is so many electric lamps connected thus and so by so many feet of wire and so on–oh, and an advertisement saying, “Bongo is good for you”.’ The electrician’s account, in its own terms, is complete. He has in one sense accounted for every object and event on the board… What he has not accounted for is the thing as a whole. But this is outside of his terms of reference; it is not his job. The notion of an ‘advertisement’ does not appear among the explanatory concepts in his electrical textbooks.

… The advertisement is … the point or significance of what is there–something we find by starting all over again and describing the very same situation in different, but equally justifiable and illuminating categories. If you come to the board prepared to describe it only in electrical terms you will see nothing but lamps and wires. If you come to the very same board with a different state of readiness, prepared to read it, you will see the advertisement. There is nothing optional or arbitrary about this. Once you understand the language of each description, what is there to be described in each is a matter of fact.


“Stump’s suggestion that we need not commit to any single model; perhaps it is the case that “we must select the appropriate tool depending on the subject matter being studied” (39). In other words, perhaps we actually do need to adopt a conflict model at certain times, when science and Christianity seem to be vying for the same explanatory ground.”

Without having read your book, it seems to me ‘Science’ (which is just ‘Knowledge’ in Latin) is simply a composite of Observable and Belief. Therefore, there is no Science without Belief (Religion) and there can never be a conflict between Science and Religion. All our conflicts are instead between various Religious views.

Your example of interesting, but also problematic.

“BONGO IS GOOD FOR YOU” is not a meaningful message. If this sign is a good model for Reality, then we would live in a meaningless universe. However BioLogos subscribes to the Two Book concept of revelation that says that the universe reveals the Face of God as surely as the Bible does, but of course in a different way.

Therefore I would say that the4 message on the sign would be something like: John 3:16 or “In the Beginning was the Logos.” This more accurately depicts what the world is about from the Christian perspective. I would not expect nonbelievers to agree with this, but I would hope that they would agree that life does had meaning and purpose. This is the struggle that I am pursuing. In any case we must depict the universe as we see it, not as others do.

In this case we have the three dimensional universe: physical/scientific, rational/philosophical (words about the universe have meaning), and spiritual/theological (the universe has meaning and purpose.) It must be noted that people like Dawkins and Dennett claim that science demonstrates that the universe is solely physical, and without rationality and meaning.

The question is theological in that Christians believe Jesus Christ is the Logos Who gives Meaning and Purpose the universe. But it becomes scientific and philosophical when we find the universe is rational and does have meaning. This is why theology is important to science and philosophy.