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.