A Lutheran View of Science
By Ronald A. Buelow, Ph.D., and Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.
Forward in Christ (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod), January 2004, pp. 12-13.
In April 2003, Lutheran educators gathered at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn., for a symposium on science. Dr. Ryan MacPherson delivered the keynote address. Dr. Ronald Buelow was one of the panel respondents. Buelow and MacPherson presented different interpretations of science, which attracted much interest from the audience. In this article, the two educators present their shared understanding of a Lutheran approach to science—science understood in two different senses. The authors emphasize the words of Hebrews 11:1,3: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. ... By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
Lutherans distinguish carefully between two senses of “science.” On the one hand, science refers to true knowledge. (“Science” comes from the Latin verb scire, “to know.”) Science must, therefore, agree with Scripture, where God reveals the truth about himself and the world that he created. Because of this agreement, we can speak of science as “divine.”
On the other hand, the word “science” can refer to human behavior. Science is what people do and think when they wear lab coats, conduct experiments, and interpret God’s creation. This human science differs from divine science, since scientists’ conclusions always are tentative and often are proven false by the scientists of later generations.
To be clear about which sense of “science” is meant, the remainder of this article will specify “divine” or “human” science.
Lutherans value the blessing of human science.
God created humans with reason and senses. We can observe God’s world and try to figure out how it works. The result is human science, with its laws of nature that enable scientists to make weather forecasts that aid travelers, to perform surgeries that help people with diseased or injured organs, and to build bridges that can support the weight of heavy trucks. In short, human science is one of many ways that God answers the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread,” which includes everything that we need for this body and life.
Lutherans recognize the limits of human science.
As wonderful as human science is, it also has limits. Human science is limited by the human mind itself, which always is humbled by the incomprehensibleness of God’s mind (Isaiah 55:8,9). Human science also is limited by original sin, which clouds the thinking of all scientists, Christian or not.
Over the centuries, many versions of the scientific method have been proposed. Some have worked better than others, but in all cases the conclusions reached by human science are always subject to revision. Newton’s laws of gravitation had to be dramatically revised in light of Einstein’s work. Biologists already have found it necessary to modify Darwin’s theory of evolution. Nothing in human science remains the same for very long.
Lutherans confess the certainty of divine science.
The knowledge of God revealed in the Scriptures is 100 percent certain. Sometimes this certainty enables Christians to determine which theories of human science are false. For example, the Bible’s teachings on creation show that Darwin’s theory of evolution to explain origins must be false. The Bible does not, however, enable Christians to know for sure if a particular theory of human science is true. For example, the Bible makes no claims as to whether people should prefer Newton’s or Einstein’s version of the theory of gravity. In fact, from a scriptural perspective one must remain open to the possibility that neither one of these is correct.
Divine science concerns itself primarily with salvation issues. Though Christians cannot say with certainty whether Einstein’s human science is true, they can confess the eternal truths of divine science, such as “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
Lutherans respect the vocations of scientists.
As noted above, God uses scientists—both believers and unbelievers—to bless all people with the things included in “daily bread.” When Christians pursue careers in human science, they have a special opportunity to glorify God and show love to their neighbor by using God’s gift of human reason to the best of their abilities.
Notable Lutheran scientists include Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), who discovered that planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths; Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), who invented a new way of cataloguing plant species; and the Lutheran pastor John Bachman (1790–1874), who became his generation’s leading expert on four-footed animals in America. More recently, a Lutheran physiologist named J. Robert Cade invented a beverage designed to prevent athletes from becoming dehydrated—Gatorade.
God could have used other people to accomplish these great things, but in choosing Christians, he provided them with opportunities “to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). In other words, a Christian’s scientific career is a special calling in sanctified living.
Lutherans bring a unique contribution to science education.
All science educators have the opportunity to serve their neighbors (both students and society in general) by teaching about human science and its benefits. Science educators in Christian schools have the additional responsibility and privilege of teaching all science from a Christian perspective. Lutheran teachers and students praise God for the incredible design and beauty that human science has revealed in God’s creation—design and beauty that also are proclaimed as divine science in the Scriptures.
Lutherans also recognize that human science, in its attempts to discover God’s workings in nature, sometimes misidentifies God’s designs. Lutherans teach human science as human science, and divine science as divine science, recognizing that the limits of human science often prevent the two from matching up perfectly.
Lutherans proclaim divine science, without trying to support it with arguments from human science.
Lutherans believe that human science can never make divine science more accurate or more convincing. The Holy Spirit brings people to a knowledge of divine science by planting faith in their hearts through the Word and the sacraments. Human science, which relies on human reason, cannot create or strengthen anyone’s trust in God. Therefore, it would be wrong to use human science as a “proof” of divine science.
Lutherans are careful, for example, not to allow arguments from creation science to take the place of the plain words of Scripture. Lutherans know that when the basic conclusions of creation science agree with Scripture, they must be correct. But Lutherans also keep in mind that the detailed arguments of creation science are drawn from human science and go beyond the plain words of Scripture. Lutherans do not rest their faith in the arguments of any human science, not even creation science. Faith must look to the Word alone, which is to say, to divine science alone.