Science and Truth

Any excursion by science beyond the observable facts must rely on theory and is thus open to question.”

“We can accept the methods and claims of science only as long as they do not contradict the higher authority of Scripture. When such conflicts occur, we must humbly submit our thoughts to God’s Word . . . .”


For the last four hundred years there has been a tense struggle between science and Scripture. Why has this. been the case? The reason is very simple: both claim to have knowledge of reality beyond that which is immediately observed by us. Difficulties arise, of course, when conflicting accounts are given. Which are we then to believe—science or Scripture?

Historically. most churches have slowly but surely allowed science to modify their view of Scripture. Our church is one of the few who have long resisted this trend. Recently, however, there has been increasing pressure within our Own denomination to give into the presumed authOrity of science. Thus, it is becoming fashionable to suggest that our interpretation of Scripture is subject to correction by science.

To what extent may science sit in judgment on Scripture? Is it possible to justify science’s claim to truth? Let’s briefly re-examine the nature of scientific knowledge to see if it can provide any answers to these important questions.


Why do we do science? Our prime justification comes from the cultural mandate –to subdue the earth for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind. This suggests that the ultimate goal of science is technology. To this end the objectives of science are (1) to study (via observation and experimentation) the structure of nature and (2) to apply the resulting knowledge usefully.

The central issue is whether science does not have an additional function. Namely, to provide information about events which have not been directly experienced by us. Can science tell us with certainty anything about the past, future or unobserved parts of the universe? This is the crucial question. To answer it we must first examine the methods of science.


How do scientists arrive at their conclusions? In order to understand the physical universe, science must start with am experiences of that universe. Since these are acquired through our senses (e.g., by seeing, hearing, etc.) they are often referred to as “sense-data.” The scientist’s first task is to collect and record such experienced sense-data.

As this will usually yield a large number of basic observed facts, the next step is to examine the data for any distinct patterns or regularities. These are what we call “physical laws.” The discovery of such laws permits us to summarize our experiences in a much more economical form.

Now comes the important step. The scientist wants to use his limited number of facts to learn about those facts of the world which he has not observed. He can do this only by making certain assumptions (or “theories”) about the world. The most used theory is the assumption that the physical laws we observe here and now will be valid everywhere and always (i.e., the theory that nature is “uniform”). This permits us to predict events in the future (or past).

However, the scientist strives to do more than this. He wants to provide explanations as to why certain events occur. Certainly, describing a particular event as a specific instance of a more general physical law is a first step in this direction. But he seeks to explain also the occurrence of the law itself. A regularity expressed by a law is then explained by showing that it holds as a consequence of certain other, more general laws or of more fundamental and comprehensive theoretical principles. A good theory will not only allow previously known laws to be derived from it but leads to the discovery of new laws.

One of the foremost objectives of science is, therefore, to develop theories which will thus explain the regularities expressed by general laws.

In summary, it is seen that science consists of primarily three parts: (1) collecting data (2) using this data to determine physical laws and (3) extending and explaining these laws via theories.


If theories go beyond our immediate experiences, how are they discovered? They can’t be derived from strict logic, for that by itself can tell us nothing about the unobserved world. But neither can they be found from our experiences, for it is clear—by definition—that aspects of the world which lie beyond our experiences have not been experienced by us.

It is generally recognized that, rather than being based on reason or fact, theories are primarily the product of a scientist’s creative imagination. Or, as some prefer to call it, intuition. Theories are not so much given to us by nature as imposed by us on nature. Perhaps they are more accurately to be termed “inventions” rather than “discoveries.” Naturally, this poses a serious problem: how can we know whether any theory used to explain an event does in fact agree with reality? It is possible, in principle, to construct any number of theories capable of explaining facts already known. How can we find the correct one? New observations may prove some theories to be false. We can thus eliminate these. However, the possibility always remains that further evidence may likewise exclude any remaining theory. Hence no theory can ever be proved by science to be certain.

Nevertheless, scientists do feel that some theories are more probably true than others. When choosing among competing theories, all consistent with the observed facts, science will generally prefer the simplest (or, perhaps, the most beautiful, or useful). But why should a simple theory be more likely to be true than a complex one? Neither logic nor experience compel us to accept any particular theory, consistent with observed facts, as being more (or less) “true” than others. This choice is made purely on philosophical grounds.

Of course, as long as we are concerned only with the practical aspect of science, it really doesn’t matter whether a theory is “true” or not. The main thing then is that they be useful. They can be very important as convenient calculating devices which enable us to make new predictions, to represent known laws, and to suggest new ones. Simple theories are then preferred on the obvious grounds that such theories are easier to use.

The “truth” question becomes a problem only when we want to learn about parts of nature unobserved by us. Since we are not obliged to consider any scientific theory as anything more than a useful fiction, it follows that the ability of science to provide realistic answers must be severely limited. Indeed, history testifies that the road to scientific “truth” is richly paved with abandoned theories.


This conclusion regarding scientific theories is very important for it demands that we distinguish sharply between “fact” and “theory.” Any excursion by science beyond the observable facts must rely on theory and is thus open to question.

It is noteworthy that the traditional confrontations of Scripture by science have generally been situations where Biblical statements regarding reality were challenged on the basis of scientific theoretical speculation rather than simple facts. Consider some classic examples:

(1) The Copernican revolution supposedly disproved the belief that the universe revolves about a stationary earth. Yet all we can possibly observe is the relative rotation of the sky with respect to the earth. The facts alone do not allow us to decide which is moving in an absolute sense.

(2) Geology supposedly disproved the belief that the world is only some 6000 years old. Yet all we can observe are present land formations and elemental abundances. These facts alone say nothing about the past.

Similarly, for paleontology and archaeology the observed facts—fossils and artifacts—themselves reveal nothing about the past. Nature is not necessarily a textbook of history.

In all these cases the scientific conclusions at issue are due, not to the observed facts, but to the theories used to explain the facts. A study of nature, as we have seen, can yield direct knowledge only of the present, observable structure of the universe. Hence, Biblical evidence is questioned not because it con; flicts with facts, but because it conflicts with scientific theory.

We need not be surprised that science so often conflicts with Scripture. Theories can reliably describe only the facts upon which they are based. They can do no more than guess as to what may take place outside these limits. Since the secular scientist’s set of facts generally does not include Scriptural evidence, it is hardly to be expected that his theoretical speculation will agree with such evidence. On the contrary, the failure of science to reproduce Biblical data merely serves to illustrate the pitiful inadequacy of man‘s theorizing.


Clearly, science is in a position to judge Scripture only if it can be shown that when conBicts arise. the Bible is even less reliable than scientific theory. For those who believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of God this is, of course, an extremely difficult task. Nevertheless, such attempts have been made. In general, this involves either (1) questioning the interpretation of Scripture or (2) limiting Biblical authority.

Arguments along the first line are usually based on the premise that, while Scripture may well be infallible, our human interpretations of it certainly are not. Hence, we should allow enough leeway to accommodate interpretations compatible with science.

In response to this it must be pointed out that we must apply consistent, objective rules of interpretation. Otherwise Scripture will become merely a reflection of our own biases. Reformed hermeneutics has, therefore, always insisted that Scripture must be its own interpreter. This demands literal interpretations unless internal evidence dictates otherwise.

A similar criticism may be directed against the second approach. For if we are to somehow limit Biblical authority, how are we to decide what is and what is not authoritative? Again, we must have objective criteria. But since we cant decide beforehand on what aspects the Bible is going to speak truthfully, these limits can only come from Scripture itself. Otherwise we are again in the position of being willing to listen only to that which is agreeable to us. However, Scripture gives no hint that its authority is in any way limited.

It is, therefore, hard to see how we can possibly allow science to “correct” our interpretation of Scripture without thereby denying Scripture to be God’s Word.


Regardless of how well scientific theories may explain the world, we have seen that there is no reason why we should consider them to be more than merely convenient, human inventions. Scripture conflicts not with observed facts, but only with theories devised to explain these facts.

Consequently, clashes between science and Scripture ultimately reduce to clashes between man‘s thoughts and God‘s Word. They are the result of man‘s foolish unwillingness to bow before God. For is it not, to say the least, arrogant to think that the interpretation of God’s Word is subject to correction by one human theoretical speculation?

Are we then to cease our scientific theorizing? Certainly notion the contrary, insofar as theories aid us in fulfilling the cultural mandate we must make use of them. If certain theories help us to subdue and control nature—fine, use them! We must, however, always be careful to avoid the temptation to equate our theories with truth.

We can accept the methods and claims of science only as long as they do not contradict the higher authority of Scripture. When such conflicts occur, we must humbly submit our thoughts to God’s Word and modify our views accordingly.