Book Review : Christianity & Science

By James Jeffery

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the works of Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). Bavinck scholars in the likes of James Eglinton, Cameron Clausing, Nathaniel Sutanto, and Greg Parker have made significant contributions to the field, not only in their analysis of Bavinck’s theology, but also in providing contemporary translations of his works. Christianity and Science is one such translation, which we can be thankful to Sutanto, Eglinton and Brock for producing! Personally, I think the book is worth purchasing if only to read the 39 page ‘Editor’s Introduction’ which summarises Bavinck’s work and underscores its relevance for today.  

At its heart, Christianity and Science shows the Christian foundations that lay beneath the study of science. Bavinck insists why they are necessary if the discipline of science is to flourish the way God intended it to. Bavinck intended Christianity and Science to be read as a companion to Christian Worldview, which he wrote as a Biblical response to modernity and the challenges facing believers at the turn of the 20th century (A new translation of this work was published by the aforementioned scholars in 2019!). Though I cannot comment on the quality of translation itself given my inability to read Dutch, the subject matter of Christianity and Science is as relevant today as when it was first penned. 

The central thesis of Christianity and Science is that Christians have in Jesus Christ an anchor not only for salvation, but also truth itself. Bavinck writes: 

“The apostles of Jesus planted the banner of truth in that world of unbelief and superstition. After all, the Christian religion is not merely the religion of grace. It is also the religion of truth.” (p. 50)

By implication, science is not to be seen as a secular discipline to be undertaken in separation from theology. Rather, it is only because we bear the image of a loving God that we have the capacity to study the world using scientific methods. Yet, we live in a time when many continue to insist that faith and science are separate entities, with even many Christians treating them in such a way. Bavinck insists that this must not be so. 

Science versus Christianity?

Today it is almost assumed that science and Christianity are in conflict. Many believe that science deals with facts, whereas Christianity deals with fiction. Science deals with objectivity, while Christianity deals with subjectivity. Science presents evidence, whereas Christianity demands faith. Bavinck destroys these false dichotomies and gets to the heart of the issue. According to Bavinck, faith and reason must be understood as two sides of the same coin. 

Bavinck wrote in the shadow of Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), in a socio-religious climate which saw naturalistic ‘science’ as the emancipator of man. Nevertheless, it would have been helpful if Bavinck had presented a theological and philosophical critique of Darwinian Evolution and its incompatibility with the Biblical creation account. After all, this is often the crux of the science-Christianity debate. Nevertheless, the principles and presuppositions presented in Christianity and Science can certainly be applied to the evolution/creation debate.

While Bavinck never uses the term ‘scientism,’ this philosophy is the bullseye of his work. Scientism is the notion that ‘science alone can render truth about the world and reality.’ Yet, as apologist Frank Turek aptly put it: “Science doesn’t say anything — scientists do.” Therefore, when conflicts between science and Christianity appear, our instinct should not be to throw aside Scripture in pursuit of ‘science.’ Rather, we should analyse the arguments through the lens of God’s Word, recognising the theological implications of the issue at hand.  

While scientism does not have the same momentum it had during the heyday of Richard Dawkins, many still hold to its erroneous presuppositions. The post-Christian, postmodern society in which we find ourselves continues to bear marks of its faulty presuppositions. In many ways, Bavinck’s critiques of scientific positivism — the 19th century dogma which argued all knowledge can be gained apart from supernatural revelation — can be applied to scientism today.

All science is conducted through the lens of a worldview, and Bavinck is adamant to emphasise this. He writes:

“As such, by its very nature, each religious confession lays claim on the entire world. If each religion is accompanied by a certain view of the world and humanity, of nature and history—which it always is—then through this it binds the whole of a person’s life and also, spe- cifically, [his] science. The degree and extent to which science is bound to these religious convictions can differ, but the principle is always the same. Every religion brings with it a series of ideas that are established for the confessor before, and independently of, all scientific research.” (p. 180)

This touches on the question of epistemology and ethics, two facets that are deeply shaped by one’s convictions and motivations while undertaking scientific investigation. Furthermore, Bavinck recognises that Christianity and science are not pitted against one another — rather, the proper study of the natural world must be governed and regulated by divine truths revealed in Scripture. Little has changed in the field of science since Bavinck published this work. The editors are correct to write:

“A century on, while many secularized Westerners continue to ponder the place of religion in a scientific world, Bavinck’s text challenges us to invert this perspective and learn, instead, to ponder the place of science in a religious world” (p. 15).

Scientism is grounded upon the faulty presuppositions of naturalism, and therefore antisupernaturalism, materialism, and a rejection of revelation. He writes:

“…understood properly, all revelation presupposes a world behind and above this one, which enters into this one and makes itself knowable to us by usual or unusual means.” (p. 173)

These presuppositions all inevitably hinder the progress of science. They limit its scope and elevate man above his rightful station as a finite creature created by an infinite God. In contrast to scientism, Bavinck argues that science itself must be built upon Christian presuppositions, lest it lose its essential character, emptying it of its power. He draws a distinction between ‘unbelieving science’ and true science, and the fruits of each (pp. 43-44). Only the Christian is capable of holding the ‘empirical and the metaphysical together’ — the product of which is ‘Christian science’ (p. 20). FYI, we’re not talking about the organisation known as ‘Christian Science.’ 

Bavinck traces the history of Christian engagement with the natural sciences throughout the ages, back to the times of Augustine (p. 56). The conviction that the world is designed, ordered, and purposeful has fuelled Christians to investigate it, understand patterns and relationships, and subsequently praise and glorify God for his goodness and grace. Nevertheless, the sciences have also always left Christians humble, for any investigation exposes the sheer ignorance of humanity to the infinite knowledge beyond us. Any amount of investigation reminds us of our finitude and intellectual limitations in comparison to the omniscience God of all creation. 

Only when science is conducted through a Christian worldview will it emanate God’s glory. Furthermore, Bavinck argues that: 

“…only so can science, not in place of but alongside [the Christian] religion, be of benefit to humanity if it recognizes the human being’s reasonable and moral nature and builds upon this in faith.” (p. 150)

Christian Universities

While maintaining certain distinctions between the natural sciences and theology, Bavinck comments on the demise of seminaries during his life:

“They have conceded that there was no knowledge of God to be obtained, and that, as such, theology has no right to the name of science. They have insisted that the faculty of theology should be turned into a faculty of religious science, and have seen their wishes fulfilled in the Higher Education Act of 1876.” (p. 151)  

We are a long way down the stream since Bavinck wrote these words, and yet they ring eerily similar to what we are witnessing across the West today. Such an exhortation is sorely needed as many Christian institutions are pressured to surrender their curriculum and theological convictions to the secular state. 

Bavinck understood that all education is presuppositional. That is, all education is delivered through the matrix of a particular philosophical or religion religious worldview. As Joe Boot of the Ezra Institute writes:

“A neutral education is philosophically, theologically, and functionally impossible; the very attempt to generate such an approach is unfaithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Similarly, Bavinck writes:

“A man may reduce religion as much as he wants. However, as long as it rightly bears the name of religion, it is accompanied by a number of ideas that drive scientific research in a certain direction and influence the scientific result.” (p. 181)

In contrast to secular education that claims ‘neutrality,’ Biblical Christianity asserts that all people are fundamentally worshippers. The object of our worship shapes the way we undertake education. Thus, the notion that a secular school can teach subjects objectively is itself a falsity that Christians must reject. 

Boot continues

“Non-Christian education is thus, by definition, godless education, whereas Christian education is God-centred education.  What is most central and important to the Christian is entirely left out by ‘neutral’ education. The implications of this are immediate.  Godless education denies that we are created responsible to God, which entails the notion that man cannot transgress God’s law, for there is no law to transgress.  If man cannot transgress, then he is not a sinner, and so does not need Christ or the gospel. A child educated in such a view soon believes that he does not need to live and think in terms of the triune God of Scripture, but must think and live only for himself.”

Bavinck concludes Christianity and Science with these powerful words:

“Thus, Christian science is a science that investigates all things by the light of that revelation and, therefore, sees them as they truly are in their essence. In the eyes of the world this might be foolishness, but the folly of God is wiser than men, just as the weakness of God is stronger than men. “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth” [2 Cor. 13:8].” (p. 225)

Given that Christians are blessed with the true framework through which to understand the world, we are in the best place to advance the field of science (if we diligently apply ourselves to doing so). Thus, while the temptation for Christians to retreat into Amish communities is real, there is no room for defeatism in our religion, and Bavinck knew this well. Instead, he insists that our faith in Christ must not only lead us to proclaim the gospel, but also establish and invest in Christian institutions. Such institutions must be grounded in Biblical presuppositions and deliver education through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As history testifies, education has the power to change an entire generation. Christians are in the best position to provide such an education through the lens of the gospel. 

The Bottom Line

J.I. Packer noted that Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics ‘remain after a century the supreme achievement of its kind.’ A similar comment can be made about Christianity and Science, whose message is critical for our postmodern age. Ultimately, it is only when scientific investigation is directed and grounded upon Christian presuppositions that it is capable of achieving what it was designed by God to achieve. In contrast to secular science, Christian science always ends in doxology, for the God who gave us the means to study the world is the one to whom all glory rightly belongs.

While Christianity and Science is certainly not a book for all, it is an excellent resource for those with a scholarly bent. I suspect its enduring significance will be manifest when debates concerning the relationship between science and Christianity are reignited in years to come. 

**I received this book from Crossway in exchange for an honest review.**