A Reformed Approach to the Interactions of Science and Religion

June 25, 2015

The previous article described four models of the interaction of science and religion:

  • Conflict: religion and science are mutually incompatible
  • Independence: religion and science talk about different things so they don’t interact
  • Dialogue: religion and science are mostly separate but there are areas where they come in contact, from different perspectives
  • Integration: religion and science are closely and inextricably intertwined

In this article I will critique them from a Reformed perspective.


I feel that the conflict model should not be readily embraced by Reformed Christians. Since the same God is revealing his works both through the scientific study of the creation and through his Word, they should not conflict. However, since both science (the practice of studying the creation) and religion (the practice of living out one’s faith life according to God’s Word) are human activities, they are susceptible to misinterpretation. True, because creation speaks without words, Scripture speaks more clearly, but Scripture, too, can be misinterpreted. I agree that God’s Word is infallible, but when one takes a particular interpretation without acknowledging that it is just that – an interpretation – we can run into difficulty. Moreover, interpretations can easily read current science into Scripture, which ignores the original context in which the text was written and forces Scripture to say what it never intended to say. Third, to deny the validity of science while at the same time reaping the benefits of that same science in one’s daily life (e.g. dismissing radioactive dating while using the same science in medical treatments, or using a GPS unit, which relies on the same science used to measure the distance to stars) seems somewhat disingenuous. God’s works are revealed both in the creation and in Scripture, and we must acknowledge them both.


As was mentioned in the previous article, the independence position seems naïve. True, the focus of general revelation is different from special revelation, but both speak of reality. Our religious beliefs cannot be simply personal in that they don’t affect anyone else, because they speak about real persons and real events, such as the resurrection of Christ.

Another weakness of this position, pointed out by Barbour, is that science isn’t as objective as it is often portrayed. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed how science works within paradigms, or understandings of the world (examples of such paradigms include phlogiston theory and Newtonian physics). Such paradigms may not be correct but serve as frameworks for scientific study. Scientists continue to work within a paradigm until it becomes untenable and is replaced by a better paradigm.

Conversely, the study of religion is not as subjective as often portrayed. The Christian faith is based upon God’s revelation in the Bible. While there are clearly differences in interpretation, the Bible provides a standard for evaluation and guidance in one’s Christian faith and life.


The dialogue position seems intuitively attractive. Science and religion largely address different questions and serve different purposes. But since they both address reality, they occasionally speak to the same thing.

One particularly challenging example of dialogue is the nature of being human. How are humans different from animals? Clearly there are quantitative differences in intelligence and communication ability, to name just two. But do humans have aspects that are completely lacking in animals?

From a theological perspective we have a discontinuity between humans and animals – humans are created in the image of God and animals aren’t. We have a covenant relationship with God that includes norms for behavior. Animals act on instinct and are not held responsible for their behavior. But does being made in the image of God include features possessed by humans that are lacking in animals? Is this a scientific or a theological question?

Whether or not there are qualitative differences between humans and animals is relevant to the creation/evolution debate. If humans gradually evolved from an apelike ancestor, when and how would these qualitative differences have arisen? Does an evolutionary/animal origin of humans preclude such a discontinuity between humans and animals? This question has both scientific and theological implications.1


From a Reformational perspective, one would think that the integration position would be the most attractive. After all, we proclaim with Abraham Kuyper that there is no aspect of our human existence over which Christ does not claim authority. Thus, our scientific activities are also considered religious. However, while every scientific activity is done Coram Deo, before the face of God, and is an act of worship, scientific activities are done differently than religious activities. They use different approaches, in different communities. How can they be truly integrated? We need to be intentional and explicit on how it occurs.

The integration position allows for religion and science to mutually inform each other. Some people may be uncomfortable with such a statement. It is true that the Bible (or rather our faith, which is based on the Bible) shapes how we see the world, but does science shape how we read the Bible as well? In other words, does science shape our faith?

I would say that it does, on several levels. Nearly all Christians would agree that we need general revelation in order to understand what special revelation is saying; the Bible is translated into a language we understand; it refers to things and concepts that we know by general revelation. Moreover, understanding the context of a Scripture passage helps us to see better the nuances of a text. The imagery that is used in the Bible, e.g. the references to us as sheep, requires an understanding of the creation (or more precisely, the authors’ understanding of the creation) for maximum impact. And on a different level, seeing the beauty and intricacy of creation, e.g. the interconnectedness and robustness of signaling pathways in a cell, helps us see God’s power and wisdom more clearly.

But, while these uses of general revelation to understand special revelation are probably not too controversial, I suspect that many — including me – are uncomfortable when ‘science’ threatens to change our interpretation of Scripture. Sometimes, despite our best theological and scientific study, religion and science still seem to be in conflict. In the final installment of this series I will give examples of such apparent conflicts and how Reformed Christians might deal with them.

About the Author

  1. Interestingly, the Reformed philosopher Jacob Klapwijk in his book Purpose in the Living World? Creation and Emergent Evolution accepts an evolutionary origin of humans but also argues that humans have aspects that are not possessed by animals. These include religious, aesthetic, and economic senses. To account for this discontinuity, Klapwijk argues that these aspects emerged during the evolutionary process. However, the nature of that emergence is not clear. Emergence certainly occurs in embryonic development; an embryo cannot think or have an aesthetic sense. But such an emergence is teleological. The embryo has the instructions to ensure that these faculties will emerge in development. Does a similar teleology occur in evolutionary development? 

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  1. How many problems disappear if we confess not that “The Christian faith is based upon God’s revelation in the Bible” but that faith embraces the revelation of God that is his Word, Jesus Christ?

    The problems of faith/reason and science/religion may often be self-generated red herrings — idols of a naive biblicism that clashes with reason and science because it poses unreasonable (and perhaps unfaithful) questions. Why should it create a crisis of faith if the truth intention of the creation story and the meaning of its central characters is not lodged in precise world-historical events?

    When scripture is approached with the “science” of the historian, the linguist, or the literary and textual analyst the “literal” and “factual” matter recedes and becomes ambiguous, but this too is only threatening if one has based faith on a certain idea of the Bible and the ways in which it registers its truths. If the living Word remains the overarching ground of its truth and meaning then we can tolerate this ambiguity and limitation.

    As Augustine put it, our readings of scripture may be uncertain and flawed, but as long as our error correction is Christ we know a good reading is any that is in line with the good news: God’s love for us.

    Another observation: I may be misunderstanding Klapwijk who I have not read, but if he is suggesting that later social and cognitive development is somehow determined by being coded into embryos via some sort of “instructions” I feel this is far too reductive. There is no such guarantee that every human child will learn language and have a reasonably well-structured psyche. If they are subjected to isolation and trauma, the opposite is true — actual cases suggest a permanent psychosis and inability to ever learn language can be a possible outcome. This points to the mystery of sociability — and love. I think of the emergence of the first humans as those who somehow mysteriously came to consciousness, language, and self-awareness of their need for loving, ordered relations with others. Genesis in its own unique way reveals the essence of this mystery — and its tragic dimensions — as nothing else on record does.

    1. Bruce,
      Thanks for your helpful comments. I agree that many of the apparent conflicts may be due to our particular interpretation of a Scripture passage e.g. Genesis 1. However, sometimes the best interpretations still seem to bring us into conflict, as I will discuss in the final installment.
      As for Klapwijk, he would not say that the higher stages of development are encoded in the embryos. As an anti-reductionist he would say that these phenomena are irreducible but emerge during development. He does not suggest how these properties could emerge; indeed, if they were encoded, then it wouldn’t be emergence. For more information please see my review of Klapwijk’s book (and another book) starting on page 29 in Pro Rege: