The Christian and Science (pt. 2)

from Apr 16, 2009 Category: Articles

(Continued from The Christian and Science pt. 1)

Is Aquinas to Blame?
Many Protestant scholars venture earlier into church history and lay the blame for this division at the feet of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Among Protestant thinkers, there seems to be a kind of allergy to the work of Aquinas. Francis Schaeffer, for example, is one who would lay much of the blame for today’s schizophrenic view on Aquinas. Schaeffer argued that the root of modern man’s trauma lies in the separation that Aquinas made between the realms of nature and grace. The realm of nature is the daily arena of his visible world, the scientific inquiry. The realm of grace is the supernatural realm of God. If Aquinas did in fact separate nature and grace, then certainly Dr. Schaeffer would be correct in pointing the finger at Saint Thomas for causing a significant part of modern man’s dilemma. I plead for Aquinas, that he was not guilty of the charge. Aquinas did everything in his power to prevent a separation of nature and grace. He labored tirelessly to combat the efforts of philosophers who were making such a separation. Let us briefly consider the historical background.

In Aquinas’s day, the Christian world faced the greatest threat that it had seen in centuries. This threat did not come from existentialism or pragmatism or secularism. The threat to the church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was the rising tide of Islamic religion and philosophy. The Crusades had attempted to recapture the sacred places of traditional Christianity, which had fallen under the dominion of the Turks. Islam had made an enormous impact in the world and was now reaching into Western civilization.

The greatest philosophical thinkers of the Islamic world had combined Islamic religion with Aristotelian philosophy to produce a system which they called “integral Aristotelianism.” The technical term is not important to remember but the emerging relationship it represented is important. The product of this thought became widespread during this time and it greatly affected Christians. The key idea was called by the Islamic philosophers “double truth.” The concept of double truth was that a notion could be true in theology or religion and, at the same time, false in philosophy or science. A person was expected to go through life holding both views which were, in fact, contradictory. In the twentieth century, this notion of double truth is more widespread than in any other period of civilization, even though we do not call it by that term.

I can illustrate the idea this way: on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I may say that I believe in chance evolution with no rhyme nor reason for it. Evolution was merely a chaotic result of chance. However, on Sunday I may believe that man was created in the image of God. By faith, I believe that man has dignity and purpose; that he is rooted and grounded in an intelligent act of creation by an Eternal Being. The rest of the week I have to be an honest scientist and believe that man emerged as a cosmic accident. How can I hold those two views at the same time? I am not attempting to raise issues concerning the various viewpoints of evolution and creationism. My purpose is to show that a belief in the two extremes at the same time demands a kind of intellectual schizophrenia. The two viewpoints are utterly incompatible. Yet people today want to be spiritual, and at the same time they want to be scientific. How can we deal with this dilemma?

Aquinas addressed the problem by distinguishing between nature and grace. Notice that he merely distinguished between the two, he did not separate them. He distinguished between those things which could be learned through a study of nature and those things which could only be learned through a study of grace.

Here we face a subtle matter that is often missed even by acute thinkers. There is a subtle difference between a distinction and a separation. Though the difference is subtle, it is vastly important. It has been said that “A woman’s prerogative is to change her mind.” We might add to that the saying, “A theologian’s prerogative is to make distinctions.”

One of the most important distinctions we can make is the distinction between a distinction and a separation. It is one thing to distinguish things; it is quite another thing to separate them. If I distinguish your body and your soul I do you no harm. If I separate your body and your soul, I murder you. If we distinguish the divine and human natures of Christ, we are orthodox; if we separate the divine and human natures of Christ, we are gross heretics.

When Aquinas distinguished between nature and grace, he said that we can learn certain truths only through the study of nature. We can study Scripture and pray all we want and we will not be able to discern the route that is taken by the blood in the human circulatory system. Nor will a close scrutiny of the Bible reveal all the intricacies involved in the Second Law of Thermodynamics or the process of an amoeba’s split and growth. These things we learn through a study of nature. The Bible does not discuss every aspect of knowledge that is available to us.

Aquinas also said that certain things can only be learned by grace, by special revelation. We can study the circulatory system of the body, geometry tables, or any other scientific discipline but we will never discern in them the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. Through a study of nature, we will never learn of the Atonement of Jesus or the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Such information comes to us from God in Scripture.

All Truth Meets at the Top
Aquinas then insisted that there are “mixed articles,” truths that can be learned from both nature and revelation. An example of a mixed article would be the knowledge that God exists. Aquinas was not separating nature and grace; he was showing us that both nature and grace ultimately lead us to the same place, to God. A study of nature may not teach us everything there is to know about God, but a correct study of nature will certainly teach us that there is a God.

Aquinas was an apostle of the unity of truth. His working assumption was that all truth meets at the top. What is true in science will ultimately undergird that which is true in religion. He is not saying that contradictions will be resolved at the top. He is saying that truth is always consistent and coherent. We may have in the Bible one source of information about reality, and in nature another source of information about reality. The Bible may provide information that is not obtainable from nature and, vice versa, nature may supply data which we have no knowledge of from the Bible. But those two sources of information can never conflict with each other if, indeed, we understand them aright. Does that mean that Aquinas therefore subordinated the Bible to science? Not at all. He affirmed that the highest source of truth is God’s divine revelation in the Scriptures.

Yet the Bible is not the only source of revelation. There is that which we call “general revelation,” and it comes to us from nature. The Bible itself speaks of it. What is known from nature can supplement what is known from the Bible. It can never contradict it. What do we do, however, if sometimes nature seems to contradict the Bible? This was the crucial problem in the case of Galileo. Galileo said, “I can prove that the earth is not in the center of the solar system by means of my telescope. Before now, we were unable to examine this with the eye, but now we can.” Galileo said to the princes of the church, “Look through this telescope and see if I’m not right.” The church leaders refused to look because they had already set in concrete a dogma that said that the earth was the center of the solar system. The princes said, “We don’t care what the telescope says. You must be wrong because the Bible says that the earth is the center.”

If the Bible teaches unequivocably that the earth is the center of the universe, then the center of the universe is the earth. However, we must first examine the Scriptures to see if God indeed says that. If there is absolutely no doubt that God says the earth is the center, then we know that the earth is the center of the universe regardless of what Galileo says. We can applaud to a certain degree the obstinacy of the church leaders because they were convinced that God had said one thing and they heard Galileo say another.

But the Bible does not say that the earth is the center of the universe. The debate was not between God and Galileo, as the Catholic princes insisted; it was between the Ptolemaic astronomers and the Copernican astronomers. Unfortunately, the church rulers had put its blessing upon an earlier scientific model that they should not have blessed. They got egg on their faces when they tied the Ptolemaic system with divine revelation and eventually had to confess that they were wrong. In the final analysis, it was not a conflict between the Word of God and the word of Galileo. It is quite possible for science to correct theology. Understand—it is impossible for science to correct the Word of God, but it is possible for science to correct the word of the theologian. The judicious theologian must be careful to examine knowledge that comes to us from nature as well as knowledge that comes to us from grace, lest in a misguided zeal he establishes false conflicts between the two.

Historically, an example of a healthy attitude toward science and revelation was found in Isaac Newton. He did not live in fear of contradicting his faith through the study of the world. He said that the activity of the scientist is to think God’s thoughts after him. Newton’s was a humble, as well as a careful approach. He understood that all truth meets at the top.

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This is part nineteen of R.C. Sproul’s book Lifeviews first published by Revell in 1986. In this series we are learning how Christians are called by God to make an impact on culture and society.