How Should a Christian Relate to a Scientific Naturalist?

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APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot
J. P. Moreland, is an American philosopher, theologian, and Christian apologist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. He received a Ph.D., University of Southern California, M.A., University of California, Riverside, Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary, B.S., University of Missouri.

“I’m too scientific for religious superstition. Science is the only way of gaining knowledge of reality, and it tells us the physical world is all there is.” This claim, espoused by scientific naturalists, is called scientism, the view that science is the paradigm of truth and rationality.

There are two forms of scientism: strong and weak. Strong scientism implies that something is true if and only if it is a scientific claim that has been successfully tested and used according to appropriate scientific methodology. Within this view there are no truths apart from scientific truths, and even if there were, there would be no reason to believe them.

Weak scientism allows for truths to exist apart from science and grants them some minimal rational status without scientific support. Still, weak scientism implies that science is the most authoritative sector of human learning.

If either form is true, drastic implications result for theology. If strong scientism is true, then theology is not a cognitive enterprise at all and there is no such thing as theological knowledge. If weak scientism is true, then the conversation between theology and science will be a monologue, with theology listening to science and waiting for its support.

What, then, should we say about scientism, and what should Christians say to those who hold this belief?

Note first that strong scientism is self-refuting. Strong scientism is not itself a proposition of science but a proposition of philosophy about science to the effect that only scientific propositions are true and/or rational. And strong scientism is itself offered as a true, rationally justified position. Propositions that are self-refuting do not just happen to be false; they are necessarily false—it is not possible for them to be true. No future progress will have the slightest effect on making strong scientism more acceptable.

Two more problems count equally against strong and weak scientism. First, scientism does not adequately allow for the task of stating and defending the necessary presuppositions for science itself to be practiced. Thus, scientism shows itself to be a foe and not a friend of science. Science cannot be practiced in thin air. Scientism has many assumptions, each has been challenged, and the task of stating and defending these assumptions is a philosophical one. The conclusions of science cannot be more certain than the presuppositions it rests upon and uses to reach those conclusions.

Strong scientism rules out these presuppositions altogether because neither the presuppositions themselves nor their defense are scientific matters. Weak scientism misconstrues its strength because it believes that scientific propositions have greater intellectual authority than those of other fields, such as philosophy. This would mean that the conclusions of science are more certain than the philosophical presuppositions used to justify and reach those conclusions, and that is absurd.

Here are some of the philosophical presuppositions of science:

  • the existence of a theory of an independent, external world
  • the orderly nature of the external world
  • the knowability of the external world
  • the existence of truth
  • the existence of the laws of logic
  • the reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment
  • the adequacy of language to describe the world
  • the existence of values used in science (e.g., “Test theories fairly and report test results honestly”)

Second, there are true, rational beliefs in fields outside science. Strong scientism does not allow for this fact, and it is therefore to be rejected as an account of our intellectual enterprise.

Moreover, some claims outside science (for instance, “Torturing babies is wrong” or “I am now thinking about science”) are better justified than some believed within science (for example, “Evolution takes place through a series of very small steps”). It is not hard to believe that many of our currently held scientific beliefs will and should be revised or abandoned in a hundred years, but it would be hard to see how the same could be said of the nonscientific propositions just cited. Weak scientism does not account for this fact.

In sum, scientism in both forms is inadequate, and it is important for Christians to integrate science and theology with genuine respect for both.

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

20:9 The book of Proverbs clearly recognizes human depravity.

20:24 This verse recognizes what Ec affirms as well. The work of God in human affairs is beyond human understanding. The implication of this is that people should recognize their dependence on God and trust Him. See note on 16:9.

20:30 Proverbs recognizes that whether the context is the family, society, or one’s relationship with God, painful methods of discipline are sometimes the only thing that will get a person’s attention and get them moving along the path of wisdom. Presupposed in this is that the discipline is wisely and appropriately administered. See note on 13:24.

21:12 There is an ambiguity in the proverb in that it is unclear whether the “Righteous One” is God or a person. Such ambiguities are a reflection on our interpretive ability rather than a reflection on the truth of God’s Word or its authority. No one argues that our ability to interpret Scripture is inerrant, and the inerrancy of the Bible is in no way undermined by the ambiguity of a proverb or by interpretive difficulties.

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22:6 This is a general statement about an important aspect of raising children. Children who grow up in an environment where God’s truth is modeled and where they are encouraged to live according to God’s order will likely end up embracing those values and living by them. There will be exceptions to the general rule. Proverbs recognizes that there are other important variables besides the parents’ teaching. Young people will often receive input from their peers (1:8–19) that can lead them away from God’s truth. The early chapters of Pr regularly exhort the young person to choose the parents’ teaching. This makes it clear that the will of the child and his ability to choose also play decisive roles in how the child turns out.

22:10 The “mocker” or scoffer is the most deliberate and intentional of the fools described in Pr. While there is more to dealing with strife than this, it is often the case that a divisive and disruptive person must be removed from the group before any real progress can be made.

22:15 See note on 13:24 about discipline.

22:17–24:22 Similarities exist between this section of Pr and an Egyptian composition called the Instructions of Amenemope, and the similarities suggest some sort of literary influence. Present evidence seems to indicate that the Egyptian piece is older than Pr, and it may well be that the biblical material was influenced by the Egyptian composition. The theology of this biblical section is thoroughly Israelite, and it is clear that the influence did not extend into that area. People made in the image of God have the ability to discover some of God’s order, and no theological problem is created if sages in Israel were influenced by Egyptian observations about wisdom. In this case the divine inspiration of the biblical material relates to the way the material was selected and modified for inclusion into inspired Scripture.

23:13 For more on discipline, see note on 13:24.

23:29–35 See note on 20:1 about drunkenness.

24:11–12 God expects His people to respond to those who are in mortal danger. These verses apply to situations where a person has a casual awareness of a situation where a brother or sister is in danger or in great need and dismisses the need. It may also apply to situations where one should have known of the need. Responsibility for failing to help cannot be escaped by claiming that one did not know.

26:3 Some people refuse to respond to gentler means of discipline, and as 27:22 makes clear, some refuse to respond to even the harshest discipline. See note on 20:30.

26:10 This is another proverb that is very difficult to translate and interpret. See note on 21:12.

The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 946–955.

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