The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen issues around science and faith become more and more diverse.

Although many Christians were concerned about the challenges implicit in Darwin’s evolutionary theory, through the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, few Christian scholars advocated for a young Earth.

Certainly a minority of Christians did believe the Earth was young through the 1950’s. Some of the Reformers, including  John Calvin and Martin Luther, emphasized a literal reading of the Bible as translated, believing in an ordinary day, and maintaining this younger-Earth view.  This was a common popular views through the 17th century, typified by James Ussher (1581-1656), an Irish archbishop, who  established a historical chronology based on his interpretation of Scripture:  he dated the first day of creation at October 22, 4004 BC.

Through the 18th and 19th centuries, the work of geologists undermined much of this:  mainstream science had abandoned a young Earth as a serious hypothesis.  At the dawn of the 20th century, the leading advocates for a young Earth were Seventh-day Adventists:  their conviction was in large part based on one of the many visions of their founding prophet, Ellen G. White.  In her mystical visions she laid the foundations for what has come to knows as “Flood Geology” – most of the Earth’s landforms, fossils, etc., can be accounted for by a global flood as described in a literal interpretation of Genesis 6-9.  This was popularized by Seventh Day Adventist amateur geologist, George McCready Price, in which he emphasized the role of a global flood on geomorphology and geology.

Most conservative, evangelical Christians in the early 20th century did not subscribe to this theory.  In The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, a collection of 90 essays published from 1910 to 1915, written to define conservative Protestant doctrine and foundational to modern fundamentalism, James Orr wrote positively about modern science, an old Earth, and against a narrow literal reading of Genesis’ creation narratives.  While the authors of The Fundamentals did struggle with some challenges associated with evolutionary theory, they were open to its possibilities as one way the God could work in the world.  Even William Jennings Bryan, famous for his attacks on evolution in the Scopes Monkey Trial, never questioned an old Earth.  Bryan believed evolution challenged the Bible and potentially undermined social morality.  Echoing earlier Christians, he said, “I have a right to assume, and I prefer to assume, a Designer back of the design— a Creator back of the creation.”

After World War 2, conflict between some Christians and some people in the sciences began to emerge more and more.  The causes for this are many.  Among them:

  • Wars – two World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam – led people to question modernism, technology, scientific advancement, and the rationalism underlying them.
  • evolutionary theory was explicitly linked with social and moral problems, socialism, Nazism, eugenics, rising racial tensions, crime, and changing social and personal values.
  • increased ethnic, social,and religious diversity was changing the demographic profile – including the racial and religious profile – of countries like the United States
  • within Christian circles, there was a more and more fundamentalist reaction to theological trends including higher criticism, liberal theology, Modernism, and atheism.  Increasingly these were linked to evolutionary theory.
  • with the 100th anniversary of The Origin of Species in 1959, many academics wanted Darwin’s theories more widely known and taught.
  • in the United States, school textbooks began to teach evolution without reservation; many Christians felt this was an aggressive attack on the Bible.
  • the pace of change in the late 20th and 21st centuries has encouraged some people to find comfort in a perceived “better” past.

In the midst of this disenchantment with technology and  social and religious change, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris updated Price’s Adventist flood geology in The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (1961).  Whitcomb and Morris argued that Noah’s flood could account for the geological evidence for an older earth.  Catalyzed by Morris’ writings, a Young Earth Creationist network began to grow and continues to flourish, providing alternative explanations for cosmic, geologic and biologic phenomena that fit with their biblical interpretations.

Other Christians, however, continued to have no difficulty combining modern scientific thought with Christian theology, approaching the issues form a variety of perspectives.

Through the latter half or the 20th century and into the 21st century, the relationship between science and religion (in general) and science and Christianity (specifically) has become increasingly complex and nuanced.  Many scholars have tried to create frameworks for considering options in the interaction between science and Christianity, the most helpful, I find, being that proposed by Ian Barbour. Barbour’s models are:

  1. Conflict.  In the conflict model, EITHER Christianity is true and “mainstream” science is false OR science is true and Christianity is false – they are mutually exclusive and in intractable conflict.  This is the model underlying the young earth, anti-evolutionary perspectives of some Christians (Henry Morris, Ken Ham) and the anti-religion writings and convictions of some atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens).  Underlying this is a fundamental clash of worldviews between a biblical literalism and philosophical naturalism – one espousing a literalistic reading of certain biblical texts, a belief in a few thousand year old universe, it and all species spoken into being over 6 24 hour periods, and a suspicion of human inductive reason, while the other lionizes the scientific method and reductionism.  This approach, of course, makes for great news headlines!  But biblical literalism (and the “scientific creationism” it has developed) struggles to account for observed reality, and the new atheists cannot adequately deal with ultimate questions, ethical challenges, and values in a reductionist framework.
  2. Independence.  The independence model states that science and religion can both be true as long as they are kept to their separate domains (or “non-overlapping magisteria”).  Science can answer questions about what exists and how it works.  Christianity can answer questions about why things are the way they are, ultimate origins, teleology, and ethics.  In terms of evolution, God is the Creator – the ‘why’ – and evolution is process – the ‘how.’  In the simplest of terms, then, issues like evolution, technology, and medicine belong to science, while ethics, purpose, values, and ultimate questions belong to religion.  Stephen Jay Gould was an advocate of this approach.  In the media, if science and religion are not presented as in conflict, they are each perceived as having its domains of expertise – they are treated as completely distinct from one another.  In lived practice, the two domains are not as separate as we might like them to be.  Scientific research inevitably leads to questions of ethics, morality, and ultimate causation; religious inquiry explores the physical realities in which and intersects with scientific research.
  3. Dialogue.  In the dialogue model, science and religion are partners in a conversation, each bringing their unique knowledge and expertise to enrich the other.  This model is not as common in the media (it doesn’t make for juicy headlines like the conflict model, or allow simple either/or independence), but it is more common in academic writing on science and religion.   the areas mentioned above and to which they both claim knowledge.  The challenges in genuine dialogue, however, are (1) mutual respect – both scientists and theologians need genuinely to respect one another, and (2) knowledge of both disciplines – few people are able adequately to speak intelligently about both a scientific and theological discipline.
  4. Integration.  The integration model takes dialogue and conversation much further and posits the truth of science and religion can be integrated into a more complete or full “whole” – without science we only understand God and His creation in part; without Christianity we understand the universe and God only in part.  This model was exemplified in the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who sought to integrate science, including evolution, with Christianity.  At it’s best, however, integration really does seek to take seriously the “Book of God’s Word” and the “Book of God’s World” and knit them together as authentic and consistent divine revelation.  In geography we often speak of natural “systems” – an anti-reductionist approach that emphasizes the interconnectedness of organisms and systems:  studying the actual natural world is a holistic endeavour.  But this can be problematic.  For some people, for example scientific creationists, their “scientific” conclusions are predetermined by their model of biblical interpretation:  only explanations that fit their interpretative framework can be true.  For others, ardent atheists, their assertions are predetermined by their faith in scientific materialism as the only way of knowing:  since science cannot prove God, God must not exist.

While I appreciate elements of each of these models, I would propose a refinement of the integration approach, which I might call “dynamic ”

The number of Christians in the sciences has grown immensely during the last century.  Among those who have sought to understand their faith with their science through dialogue or integration are:

John Polkinghorne

Alister McGrath

David Wilkinson

Katharine Hayhoe

Mark Harris



I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.