A Marriage Made in Heaven

Many people who have investigated the relationship between theology and science realize that no single model is adequate to serve as a general description of this relationship. The manner in which these two fields relate to one another (or fail to relate, as the case may be) varies greatly from place to place. Hence, some writers from more mainline traditions have been known to declare with confidence that the days of conflict between people of faith and people of science are long gone. A few even go so far as to assert that it is now inconceivable that believers anywhere would still be so naive as to try to assess a given scientific theory by reference to specific Bible verses. However, as many pastors and church leaders from more conservative traditions know, these sunny declarations that the war between science and theology has ended are overly optimistic. Science continues to be regarded with a measure of suspicion in many churches, where Christians face a simple choice: you may believe either what science tells you or what God tells you through his Word, because you cannot typically affirm both.

In his book, Creation (Eerdmans, 2002), Hans Schwarz appears to be generally aware that such an anti-science mindset persists in some portions of the Christian church worldwide. However, he also believes that on the whole, “religion and the sciences are no longer on a collision course” (viii). Yet, he fears that this ceasefire has come not because of any fruitful negotiations but instead by a mutual agreement that each field will just ignore the other. Theology and science may no longer be shooting at each other as was once true, but neither are they enriching one another as Schwarz thinks they should. It will not do, in short, to adopt the approach of the late Stephen Jay Gould who claimed that theology and science were simply non-overlapping fields, each of which can and must do its work without reference to the other. Instead, Schwarz believes that Christians in the twenty-first century need to do their theological work in conversation with science, recognizing in the manifold fruits of scientific investigations a treasure trove of information that ultimately tells us more about God, creation, and our place in that creation.

Schwarz, a professor at the University of Regensburg in Germany and a visiting professor at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, has written an accessible book that handily sums up the complexities that characterize the relationship between science and theology. What’s more, the work is clearly premised on the belief that God not only created this universe in its every detail but continues to preserve it, even as this same God guides the cosmos toward the divine, eschatological goal of a new creation. Schwarz consistently operates from this confident stance of “faith seeking understanding.”

Throughout the book Schwarz displays good historical sense as he provides readers with a kind of guided tour of the last 500 years during which science as we now know it in the Western world developed. The author notes that the history of the interaction between science and theology has see-sawed between times when theology and science fruitfully helped one another and times when each impugned the other’s claims to truth. Schwarz points out, however, that when the scientific community (or an individual scientist within that community) has actively tried to remove God from the picture, this was fueled not by scientific research per se but by external influences such as materialism, philosophy, and sometimes atheism arrived at on other grounds. Schwarz is wise to separate science from the philosophical-religious trappings in which it is often cloaked. Indeed, this is a key move that enables Schwarz to make his case that science, in and of itself, need not be seen as the enemy of the Christian faith and can, therefore, even be a partner to the faith.

In order to illustrate the ways science can enrich the theological enterprise, Schwarz devotes a fair amount of space to summarizing scientific theories. Along the way, he notes potential theological applications of such scientific data while also being careful to comment on what he deems to be wrong-headed or incomplete theological schools of thought. Schwarz is, for instance, wary of full-blown process theology despite the good and valid insights that can be gained by studying this line of thought. Schwarz also pauses to comment on other intersections of faith and science, including the creationist school of thought.

The author notes some of the reasons why past eras in the church moved away from engaging the created order, but he devotes the book’s longest section to what he terms “The Gradual Rediscovery of the Created Order” within Christian circles. Much of this section is a catalog-like summary of the contributions of theologians such as Hodge, Ritschl, Barth, Teilhard, Torrance, Cobb, Pannenberg, and Moltmann, and others who have contributed to recovering a theological framework for creation. Additionally, the scientific (and sometimes quasi-religious) works of scientists like Stephen Hawking, Paul Davis, and Frank Tipler are brought into the conversation.

Creation concludes with a lengthy section on “Developing a Christian Understanding of Creation,” and here Schwarz ranges broadly (possibly too broadly) to encapsulate a variety of scriptural/theological resources and themes. Included in this section is a brief look at the biblical accounts of creation from Genesis 1-2, an inquiry into the meaning of an ex nihilo creation, the doctrine of general providence (including God’s role in nature, in morality, and in the course of human history), the doctrine of special providence (including an examination of miracles and the role played by prayer), and the “completion of creation” when God makes all things new. Since all of this is covered in about 75 pages, it goes without saying that none of these topics is treated exhaustively. Some of this material is so tightly compacted the reader may wish Schwarz had left it out in order to develop the remaining matters in finer, clearer detail. (For instance, does a book about the physical creation and its relationship to science really need a section on prayer, discourses on morality, and an attempt to relate providence to some of history’s less savory events and leaders?)

But these are not major criticisms. This reader deeply appreciated Schwarz’s consistent (and very orthodox) attempts to remind readers that the God who created this universe has never stopped that creative process. God is therefore to be found throughout the reality that science investigates, and not only occasionally, as on some mistaken “God of the gaps” model. Further, if this universe has a bright future beyond that time when “moons shall wax and wane no more” (that is, beyond the end of the physical universe that science assures us will come), then it will be only because of the good and gracious work of God. Science by itself can proffer no such hope, but science interpreted and utilized in a theological context can. Or, as Schwarz says in the book’s concluding line, “The assurance and confidence that we are not here by accident, that we know where we are going and that somebody cares, alleviates human anxiety and makes life both bearable and rewarding” (241). This fine book reminds us of such good truths. Professor Schwarz is to be commended for having presented these reminders to his fellow believers in fresh, thorough, and invigorating ways.

Scott Hoezee is pastor of Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and review editor of Perspectives.