Posted by: dacalu | 16 April 2014

Christianity and Scientific Knowledge

Today I had the honor of speaking about the environment in faith and science at Harvard Divinity School. Students sent me questions ahead of time, allowing me to format these responses.

Question 2: Given that we have come to know the world so differently, how can we read the Bible and the creed again (which were written in another age)?

Every age struggles to apply the wisdom of God, including scripture, in light of their best understanding of the world. From my perspective, I don’t see this as any different for us than for Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Origen (182-254), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), or Albert the Great (1193-1280). All four of them are highly influential Christian theologians who struggled with faith and secular knowledge of the natural world (science or “natural philosophy”). All four faced criticism from both sides as they tried to integrate the two.

I do think science gives us tremendous power to shape our world, and with that power comes a responsibility to do so in light of the love of Christ.

I usually quote a few lines from Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. In commenting on the days of creation in Genesis 1:

“At the time when night is with us, the sun is illuminating with its presence those parts of the world through which it returns from the place of its setting to that of its rising. Hence it is that for the whole twenty-four hours of the sun’s circuit there is always day in one place and night in another. Surely, then, we are not going to place God in a region where it will be evening for Him as the sun’s light leaves that land for another.”

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

“When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. ”

Note that, writing in the 5th century, Augustine takes the spherical Earth as a given. He finds the 24-hour interpretation of the days of creation to be poor science and poorer theology. Augustine is arguably the most influential theologian in Christianity (after Paul). From my perspective we covered these issues – “6-day creation” and “science and scripture” – 16 centuries ago and, if there is to be a conservative Christian position (based on history, popularity, and authority), it must be for a willingness to reinvestigate scripture when science suggests we’ve interpreted it incorrectly.


With Augustine, I find science a helpful tool – one among many – for discovering the truth of God in the Bible. Our age is not unique in our call to humility before all types of true knowledge and our vocation to be deeply curious about the world God has made.



  1. An interesting post indeed. St. Augustine was certainly a man well ahead of his time. I think many, even in our age struggle to accept his views, otherwise, we should not be seeing the conflict thesis still roaming about in both religious and scientific communities. In defence on Copernicanism and when commenting on the general relation between science and religion, Galileo constantly refers to St. Augustine. This can well be seen in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”. If interested, please follow this link ( where I have briefly described Galileo’s use of St. Augustine’s ideas in defence of the authority of science.

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