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How Scientism Finds Its Way Into the Church

Allegiance to academia at the expense of Scripture

Paul Franks on June 6, 2018

As I discussed in a previous article, many in our culture today have come to accept the claim that only science can give us truths about reality. So, if it turns out that science has nothing to say about morality or religion, then no one can really know whether moral or religious claims are true or false.

We can call this version of scientism “strong scientism.” I’m not sure any Christian could consistently endorse this view since it seems to preclude knowledge of God’s existence. In any case, it turns out that this view is self-defeating. After all, the claim, “We should only accept scientific claims” is not itself a scientific claim but a philosophical one.

However, there is a second kind of scientism (we can just call it “weak scientism”) that isn’t self-defeating but is nearly as problematic for those who care to embrace historic truth claims of Christianity. Unfortunately, it seems this view is slowly beginning to creep its way into our Christian communities.

The main difference between these two understandings of scientism is that the weak variety allows for knowledge outside the realm of science. So, for example, it’s possible to know various moral and religious truths, even if a scientific process or scientific theory didn’t establish them.

But in this view scientific knowledge remains vastly superior to non-scientific knowledge. So if there is ever a conflict between beliefs that come through science and those that come through other sources (e.g., theology, philosophy, ethics), then science wins.

Although weak scientism is an improvement over strong scientism, it still gives the sciences too much control over what we should accept as true. To use just one example of the problems this approach can create, consider the approach of Christian scholar Peter Enns to the origin of humanity and of sin.

In his book, The Evolution of Adam, Enns writes: “The state of scientific knowledge is driving Christians to rethink some important issues. The challenge of evolution is here to stay, and its effect on how Christians read Genesis and Paul must be deliberately addressed.”

Now there’s not much to worry about in this passage. Enns is almost certainly right that this challenge is “here to stay” and so we would be fools to ignore developments in evolutionary theory. The problem arises when we see just how it is that Enns suggests we go about rethinking those important issues.

Consider, for example, a few passages from The Evolution of Adam. Enns writes, “Evolution is a serious challenge to how Christians have traditionally understood at least three central issues of the faith: the origin of humanity, of sin, and of death. …

“Evolution is not an add-on to Christianity: it demands synthesis because it forces serious intellectual engagement with some important issues. Such a synthesis requires a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do.”

Now it is true that evolutionary accounts of human origins challenge traditional conceptions of Christianity. What is surprising is how Enns chooses to deal with those challenges. Although in that same book he often talks about the evolution-Christianity dialogue, it turns out that it’s not really a “dialogue” at all. Instead, it is a monologue, and evolution is the one doing the talking.

The interaction between science and theology needs to be a true conversation and not just a monologue.

Whenever there is a conflict between the two, science wins out. Consider, for example, the origin of humanity. The biblical description of human origins, Enns says, “cannot in any way be joined to modern scientific models.” According to Enns, science says there couldn’t have been a literal Adam, so it doesn’t really matter that the Bible suggests otherwise.

But it doesn’t stop there. Enns takes the same approach to the origin of sin and death: “By saying that Paul’s Adam is not the historical first man, we are leaving behind Paul’s understanding of the cause of the universal plight of sin and death.”

Enns agrees that Paul thought Adam was a real person and that through Adam came sin and death. Enns just thinks the scientific evidence demonstrates that the apostle Paul was wrong.

So, when it comes to both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin and death, Enns opts to reject the biblical account of each for an account that is consistent with evolutionary thinking. What would motivate a Christian to take this approach? Well, elsewhere Enns gives us a clue. What we see is that he’s adopted the weak scientism mentioned earlier.

In an online article, Enns wrote, “My starting point for how I handle this issue of Adam is twofold: (1) I accept the overwhelming scientific consensus concerning evolution, and (2) our considerable knowledge of how ancient stories of origins functioned. These factors affect how we read the Adam story and they cannot be dismissed or marginalized.”

Now, we shouldn’t be too surprised that when you begin with the “overwhelming scientific consensus concerning evolution” you end up with an account of the origins of humanity, sin and death that fits well within an evolutionary story.

You can look high and low in his book, but I don’t think you’ll find a single instance where Enns allows the biblical data to demand a rereading of a claim in science. That is how his commitment to weak scientism comes into play.

So, how do we respond to those who have adopted this approach to understanding reality? Here are just a couple of ideas.

First, it’s important that you not run and hide any time science comes up. Far too many Christians have simply decided to avoid the sciences altogether. As a result, there are now too few scientists working in the field who maintain a correct approach to the sciences.

Second, we need to recognize that both science and theology (and philosophy, biblical studies, etc.) involve describing the world around us. Those descriptions should interact with one another in mutually reinforcing ways. This means that at times there will be advances in science that help us see that we need to revisit our interpretation of the Bible.

For example, Psalm 113:2-3 says, “Blessed be the name of the LORD, from this time forth and forevermore! From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised! (ESV).” It would be wrong to conclude from this passage that the sun literally rises and sets. That’s not the point of these verses.

Instead, the passage is about praising the Lord from the time we get up to the time we go to sleep. Some in the past might have thought the text suggested the sun moves up and down each day, but we now know that’s not the case.

In the same way, though, an understanding of what the Bible is teaching can help us see that we need to revisit our interpretation of the scientific data.

This means that once we come to learn that Paul did indeed teach that Adam was the literal entry point for sin and death, then we are epistemically justified in rejecting evolutionary theories that eliminate Adam altogether. In other words, the interaction between science and theology needs to be a true conversation and not just a monologue.

If you are interested in some of the other theological consequences of rejecting a literal Adam, or in a philosophical case for Adam’s existence, I recommend an article I co-wrote with Richard Davis, “Adam, Eve, and the Gospel.”

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