Review of J. P. Moreland’s Christianity and the Nature of Science

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 52/1 (1990): 173-175. Used with permission.]

J. P. Moreland: Christianity and the Nature of Science.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989.  263.  $14.95

 

The debate about the relation between religion and science is not a first-order problem that can be solved from within science, but a second-order problem about the nature of both religion and science.  This problem involves questions of epistemology, standards for rationality, the nature of boundaries between disciplines, and the relation between what science has been in the past and what it ought to be in the future.  All of these questions are philosophical, not scientific, in nature.  By acquainting readers with a broad spectrum of contemporary philosophical discussion on epistemology and philosophy of science, Moreland easily dispels the popular secularist myths of scientism: the idea that science is the sole source of high-quality knowledge, that it is and ought to remain free from religious or philosophical influence, that scientific method is a clearly-defined, wholly objective means of arriving at truth, and that present-day theories always represent the full truth.

In addition Moreland includes in his attack the “complementarity view” popular among some Christians, namely the view that religion and science answer complementary questions (why? and how?) and therefore cannot possibly conflict in practice.  Moreland commends the complementarians for their insights, but rightly rejects their too-neat dichotomy when used as a total model (p. 12; see also p. 207n48).  He rightly maintains that Christianity and science interact in complex ways, and that God may, if he wishes, provide information within the Bible directly relevant to particular scientific theories such as Darwinian evolution.

Chapters 1 and 2, on the definition of science and scientific methodology, persuasively argue that both science and scientific methodology constitute clusters of phenomena that can be only loosely defined or distinguished from other forms of knowledge and research–including philosophy and theology.  Simple definitions taken from college textbooks and from a legal case are easily shown to be fatally flawed.

Chapter 3, on the limits of science, shows that all science depends on antecedent presuppositions forming part of a world view, and reminds us that special sciences cannot afford to ignore reasoning from other fields.

Chapters 4 and 5 introduce readers to the spectrum of philosophical approaches to the nature of scientific claims–are they approximately true descriptions of the real world (“scientific realism”) or pragmatic recipes that help us to cope (one form of “scientific antirealism”)?  Moreland as an evangelical Christian believes in the reality and rationality of the created world, and so is most favorable to scientific realism.  But he also takes care to acquaint readers with the antirealist reflections of Thomas S. Kuhn.  Kuhn’s work leads Moreland to a chastened form of realism wherein some areas of science might represent truth but other areas are perhaps only temporary pragmatic recipes.

Chapter 6 applies the insights of the preceding chapters in order to defend the scientific status of scientific creationism.  Moreland not only makes his case but also succeeds in illumining why the debates over creationism are so shrill: they are in part philosophic, epistemic, and value-laden debates about the nature of science.  Scientists who enter these debates must inevitably rely not on their scientific competence but on their own tacit world view, and the personal values they have invested in it.  The entrance of world view issues is not typically appreciated for what it is.

Moreland wisely concentrates on the philosophical issues regarding the nature of science.  Hence he can make his point even while acknowledging that creationism is currently “less adequate than evolutionary theory regarding fruitfulness in guiding new research” (p. 242).  He explicitly disclaims scientific competence to adjudicate regarding the details (p. 241).  He notes that theistic alternatives to special creationism exist in the form of progressive creationism and theistic evolution (pp. 219-20).  Popular evangelicalism could learn from this humility.

Moreland as an evangelical writes primarily for the benefit of other evangelicals.  But because his book is rooted in the mainstream of philosophical discussion, it would be suitable for a much broader audience.  Moreland is well informed about philosophy, but speaks clearly to readers with no previous philosophical background.  Moroever, his judgments concerning debatable philosophical issues are typically cautious and eclectic, making it difficult to quarrel with his moderation.  In a multitude of ways, then, Moreland’s book is an excellent introduction to its subject.

Van Tilians will nevertheless regret the absence of some things that have characterized their own philosophical analysis.  In apologetics Moreland is confessedly an evidentialist, not a presuppositionalist (p. 205n42).  Without explicitly saying so, his book tends to give the impression that philosophic reasonableness is a neutral something, the same for Christian and non-Christian alike.  Moreland thinks that Christianity and Christian-influenced research should in fairness be given space in the intellectual arena, but one misses the Van Tilian, yes biblical, claim that Christ is Lord of all, that all resistance to his claims–in science or any other area–is sinful, and that no space is left in the whole world for any rival.  Van Tilians would like to hear about the absolute ethical antithesis between covenant keepers and covenant breakers.

Moreover, the lack of deep input from Reformed theology may subtly affect philosophical decisions.  For example, Moreland like many other evangelical philosophers prefers a correspondence theory of truth (pp. 119-20, 147n6).  But a Van Tilian might still fear that such correspondence is construed in terms of a self-sufficient relation between self-existent facts and self-existent abstract propositions, rather than analogical correspondence to the mind of God, who ordains all facts and knows all propositional truths.  In a more self-consciously theistic theory, truth may be described in terms of correspondence with the facts, in terms of coherence with the mind of God, and in terms of personal fellowship with the wisdom of God, all three of which are equally ultimate perspectives on the truth (see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987) 123-64.

Moreland’s eclecticism picks up what is most reasonable within Western philosophical tradition.  But unfortunately anti-Christian tendencies are at work within that tradition.  The very way modern philosophy frames its questions and sets up its alternatives may therefore hinder him from constructing an enduring platform.  Despite these potential long-range problems, Moreland’s book is good.  He concentrates on destroying the pretensions of scientism, and such destruction may be accomplished even by appealing to opinions within the enemy camp (Acts 17:28).

 

Vern Sheridan Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania