Theology for the Masses

November 16, 2006

Structural Analysis of Christianity’s Conflicts with Science

Filed under: Religion and Science — Henry Imler @ 12:23 am

The following is my writing sample submitted for my application to the Religious Studies Master’s Program at the University of Missouri[1] Here is the link to the PDF file: The Structural Analysis of Christianity.

Introduction, the conflict between Christianity and ScienceIn 1615 C.E. the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany received a letter from a friend of hers. The letter sparked off one of the great confrontations between the thinkers of Christianity and those of science. It was one of the major battles between two ideologies that had been diametrically opposed since their respective conceptions. At least that was the way it was seen for many years afterward. Such a view is called the Conflict Theory[2] It states that religion and science have always been opposed to each other’s ideas and are in a state of perpetual conflict. Was the Trial of Galileo only a flash point in an old, unending war between two veins of thought? It is the purpose of this paper to argue that the conflict theory is wrong and to put forth an alternate structure to the conflicts between science and Christianity. The two most famous conflicts between Christianity and science, Heliocentrism and evolution, will be examined and compared to see what patterns emerge.

Some historians will say these two examples of conflicts between Science and Christianity are perfect examples of conflict theory. Instead the opposite is true. Christianity desires to see the world as it is and places a high value on truth for its own sake. Because of this, most minor discoveries and several major ones are rapidly assimilated into Christian theology. An instance of a major development in science being rapidly Christianized is Hubble�s realization that the universe is expanding and therefore must have a beginning. This shattered the steady-state theory of the universe. The Christianity welcomed this new discovery, as it was much easier to reconcile with it�s theology than Aquinas�s workaround of the universe being both eternal and created. Aquinas had gotten around this apparent contradiction by saying that things that are dependent on God for their existence can be considered created.

Major conflict only emerges when Christianity finds itself at odds with science that it cannot easily Christianize and there is no overwhelming proof of the validation of the theory. By looking at the two following examples one can summarize the process. There are approximately six stages that the movement goes through to right itself. First the Church forms a belief about the world that is harmonious with the science of the time. After time, this belief is fused into its core values because of the high value the Church places on truth for its own sake; after the fusing it ossifies and a violation of the belief is thought to unravel the whole of the belief system�s worldview. Science however, remains fluid and revises itself. Since the Church has already discovered how the world works in a way that makes sense to them and that meshes well with their theology, the Church rejects the new version of science. This rejection ultimately leads to a public confrontation in which science is ultimately victorious. The Church is then left with a choice; it can either respond to the defeat with new theology, or loop back to the fourth stage, denial.

Early Conflicts and Resolution Up until its contact with the ideas of Aristotle, the Church assumed God created the world a few thousand years ago, earth sat in the center of all creation, and God�s will drove everything. The Church�s attitude towards science can be best characterized by what is known as the Handmaiden theory. In this view, Scripture was considered as the true representation of reality. Science was seen as something that could bolster Scripture, help explain what Scripture was silent about, but never would it contradict Scripture. This was impossible because Scripture was truth and truth could never contradict truth. Humans were imbued with reason that mirrored God’s, but because humans were tainted with original sin, our reason was prone to failure. Therefore, it was assumed that when reason ventured so far away from Scripture that it conflicted with it, the Church simply dismissed it as necessarily erroneous.

Once the Church was confronted with the ideas of Aristotle, it ran into several serious problems. Aristotle’s world view made wonderful sense. So wonderful, in fact that it seemed to be the only explanation of the natural world. Despite all of its appeals, it came to several logical conclusions that were unacceptable for the Church. In the Aristotelian framework, the universe was completely self contained and eternal, even the prime mover was contained within the system. In the Christian view, God was the creator of the system and stood outside it. God himself was seemingly rendered impotent. God was assumed to be the most perfect being. The most perfect being must have the most perfect thoughts. Therefore, the only thing that God is allowed by logic to think about is Himself. This stood in stark contrast with the personally involved god of the Christian scriptures. Similar disagreements arose on the topics of the soul’s essence and the naturalistic vs. providential view of history.

At first the Church tried to trim down the Aristotelian worldview. In 1231 pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull that warned against the errors contained in the Aristotle’s natural philosophy[3] It requested that the errors be trimmed out and then the parts that aligned with the Church�s interpretation of scripture could be taught. This approach never panned out because the �Aristotelian philosophy was simply too valuable to relinquish.[4]

Instead the philosophy was taught across the board and attempts were
made to Christianize Aristotle. The most successful in this undertaking was Thomas Aquinas. He was able to successfully mesh the philosophy of the Church and of Aristotle. The accommodation went both ways, parts of Christianity were aristoteleanized and parts of Aristotle were Christianized. The Church seemed to have found the balance in the well rationalized philosophy of Aquinas. His was a system that explained reality and theology in a way that was almost perfectly harmonious.

So convincing was Aquinas’ work that a few hundred years later, at the Council of Trent, a major development occurred. Martin Luther, in 1517, first openly challenged the authority and doctrine of the Catholic Church. His challenge sparked the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Church responded in several ways. They tried refuting, repressing, and responding to the challenges that Protestants laid before them. One of the responses of the Catholic Church was its own counter reformation. The Council of Trent, held in several sessions starting in 1545 and ending in 1563, shored up the Church’s position on several topics, such as the sale of indulgences and the nature of salvation. The issue of importance to the Galileo trial was the formal induction of tradition in to the cannon. The Church said that the Holy Spirit had not only spoken though the Apostles, but also the Church Fathers and the Church Doctors. The interesting part is that the Church gets to decide who the Church Fathers and the Church Doctors are. Once a person is named a Church Father or a Church Doctor, their works are considered to be inspired. As expected, Aquinas was named placed into this category. Along with his works, his philosophy not only became the official Church stance, but also were viewed to be inspired. As a consequence of Aquinas’ worldview being inducted, the geocentric worldview of Aristotle was also viewed to be inspired. The Council of Trent also declared that only the Church could interpret scripture.

The Cannonization of Aquinas and HeliocentricismAt first glance, this might not seem to be such a large problem. After all, Aristotle did such a marvelous job of explaining reality. As a matter of fact, the Church was quite tolerant of other theories to explain the workings of the world. However, one needs to understand the meaning of the word �theory� at this time. The word conveyed a sense of simply �saving the phenomenon�, not explaining reality. That is why Copernicus’ system was used by the Pope to reform the calendar. It was seen by the Church simply as a good method of calculation, not a depiction of reality, and Copernicus, despite his true feelings, did not press the issue as reality.

Galileo did not take the same path as Copernicus. Galileo saw that the Church was attached to geocentricism, a theory that was increasingly being recognized as being fundamentally flawed. He was worried that as the general populace realized this, they would abandon the Church. Being the good catholic that he was[5] he sought to convince the Church the error of their ways and thus aid in the saving of the rolls. In his above mentioned letter to Christina he declared that the Copernican view did represent reality and that scripture should be reinterpreted to follow the findings of science, namely, the Copernican theory. The Church was not up to his challenge. Both of these ideas: the claim of reality of the Copernican model, and the elevation of science over scripture were unacceptable to the Church; as the Council of Trent had permanently excluded them from acceptance by the Catholic Church. Thus began the Trial of Galileo. While Galileo was found guilty, forced to recant Copernicanism, and Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was banned, most of the damage had been done in the public�s eye. The Church however, was slow to officially endorse a heliocentric universe. It was only until 1820 the Catholic Church officially accepted heliocentricism1 when it allowed Canon Settele to publish a work that took Copernicanism for granted.

The conflict in our times, Evolution and Christian FundamentalismSince the times of Galileo, Christianity has found a conflict with science with Darwinian evolution. Since Darwin’s publishing of The Origin of the Species, Christianity’s response has been as seemingly random as the supposed process of genetic variation that powers evolution’s steam engine. There were, and still are, strict creationists, progressive creationists, day-age theorists, theistic evolutionists, divine fiat proponents, old earth defenders, young earth defenders; coming in Evangelical and Fundamentalist flavors.

It is important to begin with several clarifications of easily confused terms. To begin with, the Christian sects Evangelical and Fundamentalist often are encountered in the creation/evolution debate. The term Evangelical, while hard to pinpoint, denotes the branch of Protestant Christianity that promote Biblical Authority as the highest form of authority, the �individual over the collective�, �emphasis on heartfelt religion�, whose main goal is to convert as many people to the faith and keep them converted[6] Fundamentalism is a subsection of Evangelicalism that adheres to a more conservative position with even more unyielding disposition. A self proclaimed champion of creation science, Dr. G. T. Sharp in his �World View Perception Survey�, fundamentalism is described as �far-right non-charismatic [Christianity].� [7] Both sects sprung out of the Newtonian Science of the eighteenth century. With an emphasis on spreading their message and a Newtonian optimism that sees the universe as mechanical and knowable, the assumption was made that one can use natural theology to demonstrate the truths of the Bible. If the Bible was correct scientifically and historically, then it followed that it would also be correct spiritually. For a religious group obsessed with converting each human being on the planet to their religion, the authenticity and authority of the text would be of paramount importance. A literal interpretation of the Bible, to the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, is the foundation of a godly and thus optimal society. When the term Christianity or creationist is used it will refer to both groups.

The problem with Evolution began with its perceived incompatibility with the Christian core beliefs. The first of which is a rejection of a literal six-day creation. If the Bible is taken literally, the special creation of Genesis should have taken place roughly four to ten thousand years ago. Darwinian Evolution requires at the very least a thousand times that span of time to begin to work. Add to that a naturalistic formation of life on a planet that took perhaps a billion years to cool to a temperature that would allow liquid water to exist; the period expands exponentially. All of this flies the face of strict creationist�s time line of the universe. The third objection is the mechanics of evolution. Evolution is believed to use the process of random changes in genetic material and natural selection to produce it’s variance of organisms. Success is measured by reproductive success. This is entirely incompatible with the teleological view of life of the creationists. God created life for a purpose. Everything has its place; order is supreme. This view of the world was inherited from the popular notions of Newton and Bacon, whose approach the Christians found very profitable for their cause. The early naturalist science seemed to be the pathway towards sound apologetics. At first, all was blissful; science, however, as it usually does, modified its best guesses and invented new ones to describe reality. The onset of higher criticism, old earth geology and ultimately Darwinian Evolution flew in the face of the apologetics of the Christian faith.

The Response
The Christian scientists responded as best they knew how. In the language and method inherited by them from Newton and Bacon, they responded, with moderate success. It is worthy to note that while the creationists used, respected, and helped advance naturalistic science; they saw it only as a buttress for the furthering of their faith. It was not seen as being of equal value as a literal interpretation of the Bible.The largest obstacle for the creationists was the infusion of the soul into the body of man. The timing of this event has all sorts of implications built into it. The soul is what sets humans apart from the rest of creation. God is supposed to have imbued the body of man with a soul at the creation of the first man, Adam. The central tenant of Christian theology is that human souls have been corrupted and that Jesus sacrificed himself in order to take the corrupted souls place before the divine judgment. If humans evolved from lesser beings, then when did humanity attain the soul? This central question needed answered if Christianity were to accept evolution.

The problems created by the evolutionary theories were met by responses typical of the movement’s ideals. There was not a unified reaction agreed upon by any council, but instead individuals and small groups working together formulated counter-theories that they believed could account for all the facts and givens that they had collected. The creationists split into two camps, the old earth and young earth creationists. The young earth creationists, for the most part, had a unified view, as a young earth would only allow for so many variations on the theory. It was their �upper limit.� They applied their �scientific� methods to the problems they encountered and battled with little formal success against the popular scientific community. The work of Whitecomb and Morris, was the textbook of the creationists for many years, The Genesis Flood. While some tried to refute the science of the day, others sought ways to make a literal account of Genesis match current scientific theory. Starlight and Time, a recent scientific paper by Dr. D. Russell Humphreys, tries to mesh big bang cosmology and a literal six day creation. He begins with God creating a �white hole� of water two light years across with an even horizon of 500,000 light years. He then simulates mathematically what would happen to this great mass of water and tries to reconcile it with Genesis one[8]

Old earth creationists, as opposed to the young earth creationists, were not nearly as unified in their approach. Some thought that each day of creation was an epoch of history. Others posited that there was a previous creation that was destroyed and then in six days God recreated or reshaped the world as described in Genesis. The divine fiat theory postulates that God spoke out the commands in six successive days; the outworking of the commands, or fiats, took varying lengths of overlapping times. All of these differed from the theistic evolutionists in that they still maintained a special creation of mankind with the imbuing of the soul at that. The theistic evolutionists could not point to a specific point where god granted a soul to man. The old earth creationists were branded as dissenters of the true faith by the young earth creationists. The young earth creationists were named fools by the old earth creationists for being blind to obvious �scientific facts.� The pursuits by both parties were, for the most part, done in earnest. No deliberate falsifying of data was to be found, instead a widespread interpretation of the observations mathematics from a completely different paradigm.

As time wore on, the position of the creationists became less and less accepted by the mainstream scientists. In popular society however, especially in the United States, the view that there was a recent creation of the earth and the life upon it was held by a substantial portion of the population. In the public circle, the creationists still held the high ground. This all changed in the decade following the Scopes Trial. Public perception turned against them and the creationist movement went underground. No longer did they seek public vindication and acceptance of their beliefs and try to bar Darwinism in from the classroom. Instead, they regrouped, so to speak, rehashing their theories, forming societies, cultivating interest on the local congregation level. As they saw problems arise and grow in society, they equated the root of the problem with the supplanting of biblical notions as the root of the national culture with the notions of Evolution. Figure 1 below is a comic drawn by Dr. Sharp, in the third volume of Science According to Moses. It demonstrates the perception that creationists have of the effects of Evolution�s metaphysical groundwork on culture. The creationists believed that they were involved in a culture war and that perception was passed to the congregations of the Christian Churches.

The creationists, having lost the culture war sought a way to reenter into the public arena and regain their lost influence. For the first time since the early 20th century, respected scientists began a new movement in the creationism / evolution debate. They entered into the debate sanitizing their robes of all mentions of god and the bible; calling the movement Intelligent Design. Gone were the names of �Biblical Creationism� and �Flood Genealogy.� Instead this reinvention attacks the presumptions of Naturalism and looks for evidences for design in the natural world. Intelligent Design does not press hard-line biblical creationism; instead, they merely try to demonstrate a need for a third party that designed the universe and life within it. They exploited the gaps in science, used the currently unexplainable to point to a designer. There are four main points that proponents of Intelligent Design use[9] ; the mechanics of Evolution only describe microevolution, but do not work on a macro-evolutionary scale, a re-hash of Paley�s �a watch requires a watchmaker� argument of biological mechanisms, chance-based arguments are expounded to argue for a �fine-tuned universe,� and finally, the Naturalistic assumption is attacked. Intelligent Design says that a truly unbiased science must not philosophically exclude supernatural events or agents. Such an a priori bias betrays a genuine search for knowledge. Intelligent Design is trying to work its way into the classroom again, under the auspices of equal treatment. The strategy has changed; no longer do they seek the expulsion of Evolution from the classroom, but instead allowance into the classroom as a competing theory. While they seem to call for a new form of deism, the exposed and now infamous Wedge Document outlines the deeper purpose of intelligent design. Following from the conception that the theory of Evolution has corrupted culture and is directly responsible for the growth of certain social ills; Intelligent Design is in fact �designed� to create the first crack in the monolith of our secular society. Once this entry point is gained, Christianity can invade and rescue society from its ills.

SummaryDo both conflicts exhibit the six stages of resolution? The first stage of the conflict involves the production of a belief system that agrees with the current science of the day. The Catholic Church had bonded itself to an Aristotelian science and the Evangelicals to Newton�s and Paley�s science. Phase two involves the revision of science that fundamentally conflicts with Christianity�s theology. The Copernican model of the universe replaced the Aristotelian model and likewise, Darwinian Evolution replaced the neat package of Paley and Newtonian science. The idea of the earth going around the sun and a long, naturalistic development of the species were abhorrent to the Catholic and Evangelical churches, respectively. As a result, both branches of Christianity denied the new science, setting the stage for the conflict. Each found it highly publicized and politicalized trials, the Trial of Galileo and the Scopes Trial. While Christianity won both trials, they lost in the public�s eye and the scientific theory they were reacting against continued to gather steam until it was almost universally accepted in the public�s eye. The Catholic Church finally accepted the heliocentric theory while Evangelical Christianity is currently looping around stages four through six. It took the Catholic Church over two hundred years to fully accept heliocentricism and there is no reason to believe that it will take the evangelicals a similar amount of time to do the same with evolution.

1 Benedict XIV unofficially allowed heliocentricism to be tolerated in 1740 by removing the works of Copernicus from the Index of Banned books.


  1. University of Missouri – Religious Studies Departmental Homepage
  2. Wilson, David. The Historiography of Science and Religion. Science and Religion. 2002. John Hopkins University Press. p.14
  3. Lindberg, David. Medieval Science and Religion. Science and Religion. 2002. John Hopkins University Press. p.66
  4. – Ibid, 67
  5. Alioto, Anthony. Lecture notes from Science and Religion. 05/2004.
  6. Noll, Mark A. �Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism�. Science and Religion. Ed. Gary B. Gangrenous. Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 2002, 262-263.
  7. Sharp, G. T. Science According to Moses. 3rd ed. Vol. 3. Noble, OK: Creation Truth Publications, 2000. 95.
  8. – D. Russell Humphreys. Starlight and Time. Master Books. Green Forrest, AK. 1994. 32.
  9. Wikipedia – Intelligent Design


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