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Theology and Science (the Academic Disciplines): A Comparative Study

Part I

After attempting in the previous issue of the Voice of Orthodoxy to examine the unique nature of Orthodox theology, as it is understood from within the Eastern Orthodox perspective, this article will specifically focus its attention on the relationship between ‘theology’ and ‘science’ and in light of this give consideration to the question whether theology can and should be accounted for as a science.

Science and theology have had an interesting and varied relationship throughout history. This article will discuss some of the tensions and accords that have come to the fore between the two disciplines over the years.

Indeed, with the emergence of the so-called ‘modern scientific worldview’ in the seventeenth century, this relationship has unfortunately been characterized by increasing conflict.[1]  Thankfully, however, recent shifts that both science and theology have enjoyed is perhaps an indication that the time is now ripe for renewed cooperation and new possibilities especially in view of certain serious and pressing challenges facing the world today.

In light of this, this article will consider the following three points: 1. the different approaches to the question of the relationship between science and theology in the early Church and today; 2. the emergence of modern science and its impact on the study of theology; and finally 3. based on these findings whether or not theology can be called a science today and what relationship could best be said to characterise the Eastern Orthodox perspective.

The Different Approaches

From very early on in the early Patristic period,[2] different approaches were taken with regards to the relationship between science and theology. Already, during this time, the encounter between Christianity and Hellenistic thought was met with a variety of different responses. At times it was a strained and tenuous one whilst at other times there was creative and fruitful dialogue.

Those ‘theologians’ with a favourable predisposition were able to adopt the current philosophical terminology of the time transforming its meaning in such a way so as to give adequate expression to the mystery of God-become-Incarnate especially at a time where a multiplicity of teachings were rife. This is precisely what Florovsky termed the ‘Christianization of Hellenism’ as opposed to Harnark’s claim which saw the demise of the ekklesia by post-biblical times and which therefore spoke in terms of a ‘Hellenization of Christianity’.  On a most basic level there were three approaches in the early Church: those which saw no possible interaction between theology and science, those who identified a creative interaction – and therefore possibilities for dialogue – and thirdly, those who believed that there could be a harmonious synthesis between the two domains.

Belonging to this first school, Tertullian (d.220AD), for example, believed that no such meeting could take place:

What is there to be found in common between Athens and Jerusalem? Or what is there in common between the academy and the church? It is not right to be curious and inquisitive, having known Jesus Christ and the Gospel. When one believes, one desires nothing beyond this belief.[3]

According to Tertullian secular knowledge – or we could say the human academic disciplines in general – was so diametrically different from, and even opposed to, theology that no encounter could or should take place. We see here, that Tertullian not only saw the two disciplines in autonomous terms but was also hostile towards the idea that theology could engage with secular knowledge. Even before Tertullian in the West, Tatian (d. ca. 185AD), an Assyrian eastern Christian writer outrightly rejected Greek culture and its encounter with theology.

Justin Martyr (d. 165AD), on the other hand, took a somewhat different approach. In wanting to dialogue with the secular classical authors of his time, he put forward the now classic theory of the ‘spermatic logos [σπερματικός λόγος]’ which claimed that there were seeds of truth in many classical authors who had unwittingly anticipated many Christian truths even before the Incarnation which brought with it the fullness of Truth. In this regard, he wrote:

Each of the classical authors taught correctly whenever they saw that which is related to Christianity through their participation-in-seed of the divine word… All these authors were able to see the truth darkly through the implanted seed of the Word dwelling in them.[4]

For Justin Martyr, philosophical knowledge was not altogether irrelevant as it contained aspects or ‘seeds’ of truth which came to be fully revealed with Christianity. Several centuries later, many fathers, but especially the Cappadocians would champion this approach as is evidenced in their writings.

Still, other early Christian writers went further implying an almost harmonious relationship between theology and pagan knowledge. The greatest example of this approach can be found in the writings championed by Clement of Alexandria (d.215AD):

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration… For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and the New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, “to Christ.” Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.[5]

In referring to philosophy in terms of ‘consequence’, Clement understood philosophical knowledge in general as the indirect revelation of God. The old and new Testaments, on the other hand, were the primary or immediate revelatory acts of the Word of God.

Upon highlighting the prevalence of diverse attitudes of theology towards science in the early Patristic period it would come as no surprise to see these very same variegated approaches persistent to this day. In recent years, for example, a quite sizeable number of scientists – and for that matter theologians – have argued that the two domains of science and theology possess irreconcilable differences [the so-called warfare of science and theology] thereby causing renewed strain in this relationship. Leading scientist, Richard Dawkins, author of the recent book The God Delusion, is but one example of one who has not only failed to acknowledge any relationship between science and theology, but at the same time questioned and vehemently attacked the presence of theology:

Science has eradicated smallpox, can immunise against most previously deadly viruses, and kill most previously deadly bacteria. Theology has done nothing but talk of pestilence as the wages of sin… What has theology ever said those of the smallest use to anybody?[6]

On the other hand, other scientists, whilst not forthrightly in opposition to theology nevertheless argue that the disciplines are markedly distinct – which to some extent is true – but also claim that there can be no possibility of contact – or for that matter conflict – due to their disparate methodologies. In this way, there is no dialogue and both work in complete parallelism to each other as if the other did not exist. Furthermore, they see no value in incorporating each other’s findings in their domain believing, on the contrary, that their perspective is self-sufficient. One would question, however, the benefit of such an approach for both disciplines especially in their endeavour to confront and deal with some very complex challenges facing the world today.

On the other extreme today, there is also a belief that there can be total agreement between science and theology and concurrent methodologies are often employed. More often than not, in such an approach, it is theology that attempts to identify itself entirely with the modern scientific approach but in so doing loses its distinctiveness. Accordingly, in such a synthetic approach, however, there is the real danger of syncretism in which there is a mixture of scientific and theological data.

Somewhere in between, however, the synthetic approach and that marked by open conflict or mutual indifference there is a more reconciliatory perspective in which differences between science and theology are not excluded, nonetheless each domain is aware and acknowledges each other’s methodology and aspirations and therefore seeks real dialogue. One such person, could be said to be popular science writer and physicist Paul Davies:

we have to embrace a different concept of understanding from that of rational explanation. Possibly the mystical path is a way to such an understanding. I have never had a mystical experience myself, but I keep an open mind about the value of such experiences. Maybe they provide the only route beyond the limit to which science and philosophy can take us the only possible path to the Ultimate.[7]

The above comments reflect in a more nuanced way the different attitudes with regards to the commonly held views of the relationship between theology and science today. In an attempt to analyse the complexities of this tenuous relationship, John Haught, in his book, Christianity and Science, has identified four responses:

1)     conflict, whereby theology and science possess irreconcilable differences [the warfare of science and religion];

2)     contrast, where it is believed that in theology and science there is complete parallelism and incompatible methodologies [mutual indifference];

3)     contact, in which theology and science, whilst distinct in their methods and objects of study, nevertheless are aware and acknowledge each other’s methodologies and aspirations [dialogue];

4)     confirmation with theology and science in which there is believed to be mutual consistency and both pointing towards a common purpose [synthesis].[8]

Beyond conflict or mutual indifference between science and theology this article will ultimately argue that there is a possible way forward allowing for real contact between the two disciplines where both could work together towards solving contemporary challenges from ‘a complex perspective’, namely one which recognised scientific expertise together with spiritual criteria.[9]

Notwithstanding, the legitimacy, to some extent, of all approaches, since there was no uniformity even in the Patristic period, the claim will be made in this article, that on the whole and by far more prevalent for the Fathers was the approach involving theology’s dialogue with other academic domains. Indeed, this has been the attitude of the Ecumenical Patriarchate which has initiated a number of international symposia and environmental seminars which has brought together both theologians and scientists in order to deal with the contemporary ecological crisis.[10]

By Dr Philip Kariatlis


[1] A most well-known work putting forward this ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ theory was that by Andrew Dickson White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896).

[2] For the Patristic overview, I am especially indebted to John Chryssavgis, The Way of the Fathers: Exploring the Patristic Mind (Thessalonika: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1998), 107-113.

[3] Tertullian, On Prescription against Heretics 7, in ed. F Oehler, Tertulliani Opera Omnia, 3 vol. (Leipniz, 1854).

[4] Justin Martyr, Apology II, 13 and 46, in ed. A. Blunt, Apologies (Cambridge, 1911).

[5] Clement, Stromateis I, v, 28.

[6] Richard Dawkins, ‘The Emptiness of Theology’, Free Inquiry 18(1998): 6.

[7] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (Ringwood: Penguin, Australia, 1992), 231-232.

[8] John F. Haught, Christianity and Science: Towards a Theology of Nature (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 122-131. Also, in his earlier work, Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation (Mahway, NJ: Paulist), 1995.

[9] Cf. (Revd) Doru Costache, ‘Christian Worldview: Understandings from St Basil the Great’, Phronema 25(2010): 22-28.

[10] For more information, see http://www.rsesymposia.org/.

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