“So you also when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”
Dear God, it’s me—Your servant in science. I wanted to thank You that my latest paper was accepted by such a prestigious journal. We put a lot of work into it, and it was nice to see our work recognized.
Lord, you got me through grad school, and by Your grace I’ve been doing well in research—for which I’m grateful. But, when it gets down to it, I’m just not feeling easy about this whole direction for me. I’m not sure how exactly I ended up with this particular research focus. I have learned a lot, but sometimes I have to ask myself, “Who really cares?” If no one ever found out about what I’m researching, the world would still go on. Lord, You’ve given me a good marriage, blessed me with kids, a good church, but … Lord, I don’t want to sound ungrateful … but what I really want is to do something significant for the kingdom of God. I mean, the time is going by. The years fly now, and it doesn’t seem like I’m doing much of eternal significance.
Oh, I have taught my share of Sunday school classes. And there was that short-term mission trip the year before last. And, yes, there was the meeting in Chicago where I was able to share my faith with several folks in my field. They were kind of surprised that a good scientist could be a believer.
Maybe I ought to quit the research game and join a student ministry. I seem to have a good rapport with college students. Or maybe, as we just heard at the missions conference at church last month about the great need for missionaries in third-world areas, and last week a representative from a relief agency made a presentation, my heart just went out to those needy people. Maybe I should explore the missions direction.
Lord, I just want to do something significant for the kingdom. I long to hear You say at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Please direct me to something that really counts.
How many of us have engaged in similar soul-searching over the significance of the tasks that take up the majority of our waking hours? God has been good to us, and we want to do something to show our gratefulness. We’ve wondered about our callings before God. Have we missed something? Does what we’re doing really count “for the kingdom”? Christians working in the sciences often wonder about such things. What is it about my scientific work that makes it count, that makes it a legitimate Christian calling? Or is science just an interesting thing I do while Christian activities in my life are played out in other avenues?
What might loving God in our scientific life look like? How is it related to being and knowing? Is it simply being a conscientious worker—a kind and fair laboratory director? Is it related to how many mistakes one makes in the lab? Is it witnessing at the lab bench or discussing spiritual things over coffee at scientific conferences? Is it developing arguments from science to defend the faith, encourage the church, and convince the world of God’s existence? Is it just showing that people who are good at science can be Christians—that there is nothing about modern scientific skills that works against heartfelt religion? Or is it just a way to earn a living? Labor well done is in general a noble thing, and if one gives faithfully to the church, it does move the kingdom ahead. Will God welcome a believer who spends a lifetime in the sciences into the kingdom saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant—who happened to be a scientist”? Or will He say, “Well done, good and faithful scientific servant”?
–Excerpted from Science and Grace (Crossway Books, 2006)
The answer to this and many other questions comes in Science and Grace, a richly confident new book by Covenant College professors Dr. Donald Petcher and Dr. Timothy Morris, which grew out of their classroom teachings. So how is this work different from the dozens of other books out now about science and faith?
“Grace,” the authors say. Science and Grace is drawing significant attention in academic circles, as well as with non-academics, whose heads might understandably be spinning from recent debates over science.
“A focus on grace helps us get out of the deeply entrenched conflict mode of the late modern period,” said Morris. “That is, science versus faith, scientific authority versus church authority, reason versus revelation. Grace as unmerited favor shifts the perspective from humans figuring out how to make our own way … to a perspective rooted in the desire to respond to what God has done.
“And idolatry emerges as another theme. Modern science is a wonderful gift, reflecting God’s favor in many ways, but it also provides a variety of alluring idols that we want to unmask.”
“We also suggest,” Petcher says, “what faithful responses to God’s favor in human scientific endeavors might be in various areas of science.” The right response, Petcher says, is “repentance, faith, dependency on the Spirit and faithful stewardship of his good gifts.”
Drs. Morris and Petcher recently spoke with byFaith associate editor Nat Belz:
NB: The elephant in the room, the word “evolution,” does not appear until the very end of the book, and then very briefly. Is that by intelligent design?
PETCHER: [laughs] Absolutely! We wanted to write a book about things that most people don’t think about, and most people just automatically think about the evolution/creation debate as all that Christians should think about in terms of science. That would be the reason for that. But we are working on another book!
MORRIS: In many ways, Christians have been involved at the tactical level, the close-in, on-the-battlefield fighting of evolution. One of the points of the book is how, in focusing on “how we can beat the evolutionists at the game of science,” we have ignored the larger strategic questions. We’re calling into question the way we’ve envisioned science in the modern age and whether that’s an appropriate way for Christians to envision the whole scientific endeavor. We want Christians to develop an explicitly Christian scientific mindset, which certainly would include design questions as a natural part of our investigation of God’s world. At the same time we encourage Christians to exercise an appropriate humility—both in how God’s designing purposes might be evident in creation, and in the way we advocate design considerations in the cultural science.
PETCHER: Frankly, we had planned originally to have a chapter or two that would’ve got a little bit into that, but the book got too big, so we’re spinning that off into our second book.
NB: The book presents such a big view of science, one that points us to the rule and work of Jesus Christ. Why then does it seem that all the “big science” is being done by scientists who do not necessarily see Christ as King of creation, or at least are not public with their faith? Is “big science” actually being done by believers?
PETCHER: This past [month] at the American Scientific Affiliation conference, the keynote speaker was Francis Collins. You might have heard of him. He would be a counterexample, in a sense. He has become very vocal only recently. Personally, I think he’s always been vocal about his Christianity, but now he’s being public, having written a popular level book. It may be that there are more Christians in science than we tend to think about, but they may not be actively portraying themselves as Christians. It’s hard to tell exactly how many there are.
MORRIS: Another side to that is, “How is it that non-Christians can do such good science?” We would say very briefly, “By the grace of God.” The subtitle of the book, God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences, indicates that even scientists who are using their science to shake their fists at God are only able to do their work and understand part of God’s creation through God’s grace.
PETCHER: Part of the point of the first chapter of the book, in the river metaphor, is to provide an accounting of how it is that people who are not Christians inevitably, if they’re good in their practice of science, will be able to do reputable science. That’s another thing we’re following up in our second book.
NB: Why is it important to refocus on Jesus the Creator?
PETCHER: I would say not only the Creator, but also the Mediator. What we tried to illustrate is that focusing on Christ as Creator and Mediator in both relation to creation as well as redemption is a picture that restores the active involvement of God at every level of creation at every moment. If we focus on just a vague notion, God, rather than the triune God, including Christ’s involvement and His Spirit’s presence in the world, then we miss a big part of that wonder that we ought to be able to behold. As sinful and rather blind beings, we have really to train ourselves to do that.
MORRIS: Another side of that is that we’re critiquing a typically modern strategy in which we tend to envision science as a neutral ground. We then think we can build a case for generic theism based on that and then we want to move from there to Christ the Redeemer—and that all makes sense to a modern mind. But that has some problems with it, not only the way it roots the whole progression in a supposedly neutral and autonomous human science, but it separates Christ from the Father in the work that they do together with the Spirit all the time. We want to resist this idea that we can have a theistic science without it being a Christocentric science. We think that Christians ought to have a robust Christocentric science and not just settle for a theistic science.
PETCHER: There’s a major theme you probably picked up on, and that is that we wanted to think about what we call “habits of the mind”; you know, how people think about various aspects of science. That’s reflected in the “Good and Faithful Scientific Servant” chapter. We’re trying to help people avoid wrong habits.
PETCHER: We also emphasize that the Creation story and the Redemption story are of a piece; they aren’t two separate stories, but God is working his purposes through creation to redeem His people. All of that is a Christocentric story, so that it also becomes impossible to separate theologically the Christ of creation from the Christ of redemption.
NB: Tell me a little about “gracious revelation,” as you call it. That’s sounds like a sweet theme for a scientist.
MORRIS: There’s an obsession, really, in the modern time period in history, for establishing an autonomous certainty for human knowledge. That strikes us as being wrongheaded from the start, from a Christian perspective. Nothing we do, whether it’s our good works, or knowing the truth, originates autonomously in ourselves. But human knowledge must be a response to a gracious and revealing God. That’s where the gracious revelation comes from: trying to emphasize our dependency on God’s revealing grace and purposes. Human knowledge is about responding to that revelation as His faithful children.
PETCHER: That also includes the knowledge that we get from our experience in creation – our scientific study.
NB: Why is a proper understanding of the church important to good science?
MORRIS: There are quite a few sections where we speak about the relationship of the church to science and of the sciences to the church. This really just reflects our own conviction that the church as an organism, as an institution, is the centerpiece of God’s work in history. So it pains us that so much of the battle has been seen as pitting the church against science. Quite a bit of that discussion was to try to give Christian scientists the sense that our first allegiance is to the Church. It is easy to fall into the modern caricature of the scientist who is just standing for “objective” truth against the backward religious folks who just want to exert their authority and squish the fruits of modern science they find unsettling. I think even Christian scientists struggle with that caricature in the way they deal with church. We try to say that at the end of the day, as a scientist, even if I believe that my church might be making a mistake, in doctrinal issues, I’m to accept the authority of the church. We also write about church leaders and how being heavy-handed and making pronouncements without understanding the situation is not a faithful way to carry out their responsibilities. For both of us, Don and me, the church has a central role in God’s work and the lives of Christian scientists, and properly so.
NB: You say that God’s mercies are new every day, and that phrase is kind of a preface to saying, in effect, that so is His Creation. How does that jibe with the idea that He created it and called it good?
PETCHER: Is this a continuity-versus-new-creation question?
PETCHER: The continuity issue really has to do with His covenant faithfulness, and I think that is a point that has been missed in terms of looking at what He created and how He sustains or upholds it. So you might think of “covenant faithfulness” as a mediating idea between those two notions. Jonathan Edwards actually thought that it was essentially a new creation every day. That’s what’s known as occasionalism. There’s also the other tendency to think that it was created with all the laws built in, and that it just kind of goes on its own; there you have the tendency to separate God out of the picture. To realize that His covenant faithfulness is both what gives it the continuity and what makes it a new, fresh wonder every time we look at it—that’s an important balance between those two.
MORRIS: Your question seemed to be something we’ve discussed around Covenant [College] quite a bit, and that is: Is the consummation back to Eden, or is it Eden plus? Our idea, and the eschatology that drives it, is that it’s not just back to Eden, but that God’s declaration of it being “good” was not necessarily “good-full-stop,” but it’s good in that Christ’s preeminence will be made even more obvious as history progresses. So God is doing in the world more than just restoration. That’s why we like the term consummation rather than just restoration.
NB: The mandate came pre-Fall, you’re saying.
MORRIS: Right, yes. There is a purpose for history. We bang away again and again at the preeminence of Christ being demonstrated. That purpose for history is one package; you can’t separate out the creational purpose and the redemptive purpose.
NB: Where there is “war” and not “engagement,” who wins in the short term, the next 20 years? The kingdom of Christ or what you described as the “culture of science”?
PETCHER: We can bring shame upon the gospel by not conducting ourselves before the world appropriately. And if we’re arguing about science (which in some senses is not all that important or central to the gospel) before the watching world, in a way that’s not terribly civil, of course isn’t breaking any ground from their standpoint, then I think we stand to lose more than win.
MORRIS: One kind of offshoot of that, we talked earlier about how in the modern world, most Christians have thought of science as being a “neutral” science, and then that it seems to them that that “neutral” science somehow became “non-neutral” and is beginning to be used against Christians. A lot of the voices in the discussion nowadays want somehow to get back to an ideal of “neutral” science.
PETCHER: One that implicitly supports Christianity by assumption.
MORRIS: Right. So we think that’s confusing our call as Christians to be involved in a common science with the idea that there can be a truly “neutral” science. So we should be involved in our cultural science as believers. In fact, we’re called as believers to be engaged. And I think the “warfare era” has not been good for anybody, and certainly has not been good for the church. Part of the warfare has come from the misunderstanding, we believe, that science ought to be the “neutral” enterprise. It ought to be a common enterprise, where, by God’s grace, we see many things in a similar way. Inevitably, deeper convictions are going to come out in the science we do. For Christians, it doesn’t have to be explicitly Christian, but that should cause us to want to be engaged and involved in the science around us, even if there are strands within it that we disagree with.
Nat Belz is the associate editor of byFaith.