I recently listened to a lecture by Keith Ward entitled “Misusing Darwin.” In this lecture, Ward makes a very compelling argument about what he sees as the unfounded assumption that scientific methodology de facto requires (or presumes, at least) a commitment to philosophical materialism.

While there is a lot of ground covered in this lecture, one section was particularly interesting to me. Here, Ward launches into a discussion about some common misconceptions about the compatibility of science and Christian theology. As a background, Ward notes the [potentially] unfortunate state of modern, popular Christian theology about “origins” in the West and its commitment to a literalist interpretation of the Genesis accounts of creation. As a means of contrast, Ward notes (rightly) that this theological position is actually quite a modern development: historically, theologians have classically interpreted the Genesis accounts allegorically–or at least not “literally.”

So from where does this often rabid allegiance to a literalist interpretation of the Genesis account come? Ward suggests that such a hermeneutic is precisely associated with the rise of scientific methodology.

And this is not surprising. The advent of scientific methodology was borne out of a radical shift in philosophy in the West. The Enlightenment brought with it a deeply penetrating optimism in the power of human reason and knowledge. With this optimism, however, developed a commitment to reason as the final (or at least primary) adjudicator of “truth”–that is, in order for an idea, historical event, etc. to attain to “truth,” it necessarily had to reasonably established through argument, experiment, observation, etc. In light of this, it’s not difficult to see how the interpretive approach to Genesis shifted. After all, if “truth” had to be established through “objective” criteria, it was no longer sufficient (at least to some) to allegorize the events in Genesis. The proof of historicity needed something “real,” something “observable,” something tangible to hold on to.

So then emerged the literalist interpretation of the Genesis accounts. But what is interesting is that early proponents of this approach pursued such an interpretation not out of a felt need to “defend” the Scriptures from scientific methodology. Quite to the contrary, they were convinced that scientific methodology would bear out their claims in an objectively demonstrable way. After all, science was making incredible advances in all aspects of life, from technology, to politics, to social behavior, to medicine, etc. It’s not surprising, then, that theologians felt the same promise would hold true for historical, biblical research, that given enough time, experimentation, and historical research, they could objectively prove the accounts of Genesis as they interpreted them.

Fast forward a hundred years, it is clear that this venture has failed. By failed, of course, I do not necessarily mean that the evidence these individuals thought would be uncovered is completely non-existent. What I do mean, however, is that the interpretation of the Genesis accounts (and of theologizing about cosmological origins) on the basis of scientific methodology has been a complete failure. The objective demonstration of divine activity within the universe has failed to materialize, and there remains no methodological way by which to test or observe the presupposed literal interpretation of the Genesis accounts.

What is most curious, however, is that despite this failure of utilizing the scientific method to establish the literalist interpretation of Genesis, the approach to proving this interpretation has not changed. Proponents of a literalist interpretation still search for, manipulate, or otherwise seek to utilize evidence based on scientific methodology that will provide the “objective” evidence they need. Additionally, they seem to also intentionally ignore evidence that is based off of the exact same methodology they employ when it does not support the end they seek to establish. So these proponents are left in a contradictory position: they want to leverage the scientific method to establish the “truth” of Genesis, yet are unwilling to accept any competing picture of the universe that is revealed by the same.

Does this contradiction, then, mean that the Christian view of inspiration of Scripture has been overthrown? Does it mean that all confidence in its contents has been inextricably undermined because of the failed venture outlined above? Absolutely not. As we’ve seen, the failure lies not in the Scriptures themselves, but rather in the inappropriate, and completely unprecedented subversion of biblical interpretation to a hermeneutic completely external to the rule of faith. Scientific methodology, by its very nature, is concerned ONLY with the physical universe. That which is observable, demonstrable, and measurable is the boundary limit for its authority. Questions about that which lies beyond this boundary–God, other universes, etc–are not within its domain whatsoever. And this is precisely why the interpretive venture failed. Theologians incorporated the boundary-limited natural sciences in an attempt to establish evidence for a super-natural God. Not surprisingly, scientific methodology proved to be a poor and inadequate mechanism for establishing this belief, and competing philosophies jumped on the failure as de facto anti-proof for the existence of God and legitimacy of Scripture.

So what does this mean for Christian belief?

It is clear that scientific methodology should no longer be (mis)used to establish certain interpretations of Genesis. After all, the “literalist” interpretation failed not for lack of effort, resources, or persistence; it failed because the “evidence” is simply not there, and will never be found. The inevitably of this conclusion is based not on the fact that God’s creative work has been definitively proven to be false, but that science is incapable of answering the kinds of questions engendered in the presuppositions of the approach.

But what is more interesting is that in light of all the advances in the physical sciences, and in spite of the failed attempt to link biblical interpretation to scientific methodology, there does not need to be a revision to Christian theology in regards to origins. Truly enough, the literalist interpretation–complete with its inappropriate reliance upon (and concomitant rejection of) of scientific methodology–should be jettisoned. However, what will be left is the historical belief that has endured for thousands of years within Christian thought.

At this point, however it should be noted that the difference between the two interpretive methodologies is crucially important. The literalist interpretation, as seen, was doomed from the start, precisely because of its alliance with a particular philosophy, one that is outside of the historic rule of faith. Because philosophies inevitably shift, the force of the literalist interpretation was boundary-limited to environments in which the reliant philosophy was accepted; once those philosophical winds shifted, it could no longer have been a viable interpretation (even if it had originally succeeded in demonstrating, on the basis of science, the literalist interpretation of the Genesis origins accounts). The historical, allegorical interpretation, however, is bound to no philosophical loyalties outside of the rule of faith and historic witness of the church and Scriptures. It places belief in divine origins and the meaningfulness of Genesis to Christian faith not in the domain of observation, demonstration, and hypothesizing, but rather firmly and exclusively within the mystery of faith. In this domain, belief in divine origins is secure from all external philosophical attack, for it seeks to establish itself not on the merits of any external system, but ONLY upon the tradition of faith and canons of belief handed down through the generations of the faithful.

What this means, of course, is that religious faith can no longer feel free to inappropriately interject itself into areas beyond its own boundaries. While religious belief can posit a divine origin for the universe, it cannot authoritatively dictate the mechanism for this creative act (or a mechanism at all, to be more accurate): that is, believing in God as creator is one thing; using this belief as a pre-requisite for a scientific explanation for the development and physical constitution of the universe is quite another.

True enough, this thought might seem unpalatable to those who have held to the false union of religious belief and scientific methodology. However, the bifurcation will actually prove beneficial. Current science gives us a picture of the universe that has evolved over billions of years, and this principle of evolution seems to pervade every aspect of the physical universe. While one might object to this conclusion, the best scientific observations, experiments, and mathematical models reveal this underlying structure. But this is really just the current trend and the best model given the data. One hundred, one thousand, and one hundred thousand years from now, current trends in philosophy–including scientific methodology–will be replaced by others. While remnants may remain, they will undoubtedly be overthrown in an Enlightenment-style blitzkrieg, not necessarily because they are illegitimate, but more precisely because that is just “the way” of human philosophy.

So we can then see the inherent danger in linking articles of faith to any particular philosophical trend, for if philosophies come and go with the waxing and waning of the human species, so do religious principles which are inextricably based on the same. That is, even if one were to utilize scientific methodology to somehow establish the existence of God and “literal” accounts of the creation narratives, such a “victory” would be good only insofar as scientific methodology remains a viable approach to studying the universe and reality. The moment that is overthrown in favor of a more popular, productive, or sexy philosophy, so too are the conclusions of any religious principles and directives which are linked to the same.

The response of Christian faith then, is simply to return to its roots. Instead of trying to establish the proof of faith (which is itself a misnomer) on human philosophies and methodologies that are external to itself, we must ensure that it is rule of faith, the historical witness and tradition of the church and the Scriptures, that informs our thinking. This approach will, in the first sense, prevent an inappropriate syncretism between the content of faith and the conclusions of external philosophies. However, it will also free us from the burden of needing to defend Christian belief on the terms of whatever philosophies or methodologies might seem to threaten it, opening up to us the possibility of, in fact, embracing that which philosophy and science might have to teach us.