Review: A Christian Theology of Science

A Christian Theology of Science, Paul Tyson. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022.

Summary: Rather than simply another treatment of the way science and religion ought relate, begins with creedal Christianity, develops a theology of science, and argues that Christians treat theology as their “first truth discourse.”

There have been many books written about theology and science. This is not one of them. The author proposes instead to develop a theology of science. He considers the existing theology and science discussion, marked by adaptation, withdrawal, and appropriation as a failed project. He begins with definitions, considering theology as prescriptive thinking about God and reality, and science as descriptive thinking of the physical universe. He notes for the first time here that science has largely taken the place of theology as a “first truth discourse” relegating theology to a largely supernatural “upper story,” in the process, eliminating grounds for both meaning and ethics.

Tyson will eventually discuss the theological roots of modern science, but first he begins with how science as a first truth discourse assesses historic creedal Christianity, particularly the incarnation, the virgin birth, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. By scientific criteria of rationalism and empiricism, only the historic death of Christ may survive. Tyson notes how this has influenced historical-critical reading of the Bible, de-supernaturalizing the text. He then turns the tables and considers science through the lens of theology as a first truth discourse.

He begins with God as source of all created essence and existence. This distinguishes theology as theocentric ontological foundationalism (TOF) as opposed to science’s egocentric epistemological foundationalism (EEF). The first believes in order to know, the latter must first know in order to believe. He notes how after Kant, the EEF project is subject to radical skepticism. How can we be certain we know anything? By contrast, TOF believes both in a God who creates the world and “communicates actively with our own minds” bridging the object-subject divide making at least the partial and progressive understanding of truth about all of reality, metaphysical and physical, possible, and giving warrant to the scientific enterprise. He goes on to critique nominal and voluntarist reductionism.

He then revisits the history, and how theology and the science birthed out of it grew increasingly apart, to the point of a great reversal in which science became privileged as the first truth discourse. He notes the philosophical challenges of Voltaire, Hume, Wolff, and Kant, as well as the advent of historical-critical studies in the seventeenth century which eroded confidence in the supernatural creedal elements of Christianity. The year 1870 demarcates a significant turning point as empiricist accounts of origins and the cosmos supplant a supernatural account already weakened from within. He then recounts efforts to reconcile science and Christianity: functional demarcations that do not overlap, Polkinghorne’s autonomous overlap, and integration approaches (which suffer a double truth problem).

Tyson considers what it means to think “after” science but not “after” theology. He notes the problems that have resulted from science’s hegemony in the environmental devastation, and the threats of nuclear destruction, the capabilities of surveillance capitalism, and more and begins to develop a theology of science as first truth discourse. He begins with theological epistemology, that is “Christian philosophical theologies concerning the matrix of divine grace, human sin, an intelligible and ordered world, sensory perception, mental illumination, meaning, and scientific and other truth” (p. 100). He does this by elaborating Plato’s four levels of awareness within a Christian framework: noesis, dianoia, pistis, and eikasis.

This is followed by a case study argument of myth and history around the Edenic fall, contending that while the tension cannot be eliminated, affirmation of the biblical doctrine of the fall, cannot be jettisoned. He deals with the tension by being agnostic about the natural history, that one cannot know from the natural history whether there was a fall, which does not warrant dismissing such a belief.

He concludes, arguing for an integrative zone of knowledge (science) and understanding (theology) based on the theological epistemology already discussed. He contends that this approach, both undergirding and informing science within a wisdom framework can be vital in addressing everything from the framing of theory to the uses (technology) to which science is put. I would like to have seen some discussion of the apprehensions scientists have that granting theology a first truth discourse status would lead to declaring certain areas of research “off limits” beyond the current internal processes of institutional review boards, particularly in our current (US) context where political power yoked to religious interests are used to constrain certain avenues of investigation.

I appreciated the author’s commitment to theology as a first truth discourse, and what this would look like vis a vis science. I was gladdened when seeing so many Christians deny the fall of Adam in light of evolutionary theories that Tyson affirmed this and other elements of the creed, modelling how this might be done in a theology of science framework. The work on theological epistemology addresses the skepticism faced by egocentric epistemological foundationalism and complements methodological naturalism with a theological perspective that accounts for meaning and ethics and informs empirical research and rationalist deductions. He helps move the conversation beyond our current theology and science models, encouraging a proper and humble confidence in Christian truth that may actually renew science and protect it from some of its worst excesses.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Private Doubt, Public Dilemma

Private Doubt, Public DilemmaPrivate Doubt, Public Dilemma by Keith Thomson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Summary: This book, drawn from Thomson’s 2012 Terry Lectures, explores the conflict between religion and science through a look at two men who struggled with this conflict, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin, considering how they handled scientific findings that conflicted with their beliefs and the public aftermath and expresses hope for a different engagement in the future.

Are science and religious belief in conflict? Certainly much of the history of the last couple centuries would suggest this is the case. What Keith Thomson does is examine this conflict, not as two blocks of people opposed to one another, but in terms of what happens when scientific findings conflict with one’s established beliefs, creating both personal doubts and a public dilemma when one publishes these findings, knowing they will conflict with the beliefs of others.

Thomson uses two figures to portray this conflict: Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin. For Jefferson, as he was compiling his Notes on the State of Virginia, the issue was geology and the apparent great age of rock formations he was studying. Privately, Jefferson had moved from Christian faith to a vague deism, even as these findings challenged prevailing interpretations. In his case, however, he recognized that this gave his political rivals an issue and he decided to leave the matter unresolved and publicly espoused more conventional beliefs.

A similar issue faced Darwin, who at one time considered training to be a clergyman. As he came to write On the Origin of the Species, he also struggled with the implications of the theory he was proposing which denied the special creation of different kinds of species but argued that processes of natural selection could account for the rise of different species. Darwin was so troubled by all this that he relied on others to publicly defend his ideas, Aldous Huxley against Bishop Wilberforce in England, and Asa Gray against Louis Agassiz in the United States.

Thomson argues that the public debates and dilemmas are a public manifestation of the clash between old and new knowledge and between differing sources of authority rooted in the new (scientific) and old (religious) knowledge. His hope seems to be that in time, the influence of the old authority will lessen and that religious people and scientists will co-operate on a broad range of issues from climate change to biotechnology.

What troubled me was not so much the places where science and religion conflict about understanding of the physical world. Even in Darwin’s time, theologians like B.B. Warfield were responding cogently and with an openness to the “new” scientific knowledge. Rather, it is the assumption that religion should step aside with its ethical reservations when science asserts that something both can and ought to be done. His treatment of contraception is a case in point. While I think there could be a place for dialogue with the Roman church about its categorical refusal to permit contraception by other than natural means, I found Thomson’s dismissiveness of the church’s concerns about how contraception results in the “banalization of sexuality” singularly condescending. If religious reservations on other ethical questions raised by new technology and new scientific findings are thus simply brushed aside, there is little hope for a real engagement between thoughtful scientists and religious believers. (I would acknowledge that there are certainly reactionary religious ideologues who resist any advances in science and that these often garner far more media attention than thoughtful religious believers who engage in a far more constructive fashion–Francis Collins and his BioLogos Foundation is a good example of the latter.)

What I think is part of Thomson’s problem in these lectures and this book is that he assumes only two kinds of people: either those who mute their religious beliefs because of their science, and those “fundamentalist” believers who resist the advance of science. What I wish he would have done is highlight those in Darwin’s time and ours who do the far more difficult thing–holding firm religious beliefs and rigorous science in a creative tension, taking a both/and rather than either/or approach. I think such individuals in fact represent the best “way forward” in bridging the divide, perceived or real, between religion and science in a way that allows us to address the greatest hindrances to the flourishing of human beings and the rest of, dare I say it, creation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher as an ebook via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”