A Pastor’s Approach to Science (RJS)

Recently BioLogos posted a talk given by Pastor Joel Hunter at the March 2012 Theology of Celebration Workshop. I was at this workshop, and have had the privilege of meeting Joel Hunter a couple of times. He approaches the issue of science and faith with discernment, wisdom, and a pastor’s heart for his people. This means that he neither forces evolution down the throats of his congregation nor avoids the issue. To force the issue would be disrespectful of those devout Christians for whom evolution is the enemy, especially true in the South (his church is in Florida). To ignore the issue is to abandon those struggling over the apparent conflict between the science they’ve come to understand and faith in Jesus Christ.

This was an outstanding talk when originally delivered, and nearly as good (although not as powerful) as a written blog post. I strongly recommend the whole thing – A Pastor’s Approach to Science – not just the bits I highlight and comment on here.

In the United States the central task of most evangelical pastors is to exegete Scripture in ways that it continues God’s story (as fulfilled in His Son) in our present and personal lives. Such a task demands a comprehensive approach. We are not mere intellectual depositories, or we would be Gnostics. We are not summaries of moral right and wrong actions, or behavior modification would be all we need. We are not only spirit, or meditation/worship would be our exclusive activity. We have bodies and we reside in a physical world that is not only our environment, but a part of God’s ongoing revelation of Himself (Romans 1:20).

Is it possible to fully understand and practice Scripture without connecting with science? If science reveals God’s attributes, how can we fully relate to Him without some ongoing reference to the information revealed in scientific inquiry? Even more specifically, as preaching pastors, how many are we excluding if we ignore important facets of our congregations’ worldviews?

Hunter gives three guidelines that  that shape  his approach to science, and especially evolution, in the context of a sermon – as this is a key teaching opportunity in an evangelical church – and in the context of the church as a whole.

 1. I decided on a hermeneutical approach. How would God’s patterns in creation published in scientific findings inform my understanding of Scripture?

I would use the “Dialogue” (W.G. Pollard Physicist and Christian: a dialogue between the communities, 1961) approach, since it emphasizes insight and investigation rather than answers, thereby leading to a sense of wonder and worship. Such an approach minimizes the hubris of knowledge (that will almost certainly pass away) and the hostility toward different perspectives.

2. I decided on a related-referential model rather than an issue-oriented one.

… So I use science as “now what do you make of that?” kind of illustration rather than an argument for my perspective.

The model must also fit the personality of the church. In our church issue-oriented subjects must be taught in classes or small groups where people have the chance to question/comment in ways not usually done in response to sermons.

3. Our church has decided that being a witness of the incarnate Christ means engaging, and learning from, the world as it is presently.

Following God’s example in Christ is entering into the world and serving in all its realms: spiritual, emotional, physical, and social.

Christ used the common knowledge people already had (much of it from nature) to reveal God.

That the model must fit the personality and location of the church is an important point. An appropriate approach in Longwood Florida where Joel Hunter is located, will differ from an appropriate approach for Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City and the people Tim Keller aims to reach, and both of these will differ from an appropriate approach for a church in a major University town desiring an effective ministry building disciples among students, scientists, and scholars.

But Hunter makes another important point – one I think fits not just his church but a wide range of churches. “In our church issue-oriented subjects must be taught in classes or small groups where people have the chance to question/comment in ways not usually done in response to sermons.”  By and large “we” (i.e. large swaths of evangelicalism) have abandoned classes as “so 1960′s” for  a church mix consisting only of general audience sermons (often intentionally simple so as not to put off the seeker) and amateur led small groups with little effective guidance and insufficient expertise (and too often remarkably large dollops of errant thinking). We have no forum for effectively introducing issues-oriented subjects to the audiences who need to wrestle with the ideas. There are many issues in 21st century Christianity that are not well suited to the sermon – small group program.

Summary Thoughts … From the last section of Hunter’s post:

My goal as a pastor is to equip the saints in my sphere of influence to see Christ and to worship Him. If those in my influence only can see God in Scripture, then they are half blind. But if we together can help each other see the unfolding redemptive purposes of every realm – of scientific inquiry, of business practice, of artistic expression, of church/family support for every individual in every field of endeavor – then we will be not only 20-20 but 3-D in every direction!

Of course, such a result will require a more comprehensive approach in preaching. And such comprehension will require a continuing dialogue with those who can help us see the truth from different perspectives.

I really like the way Joel Hunter put this – and would like to twist it a little to my perspective:

My goal as a Christian and a scientist in the church is to equip the saints in my sphere of influence to see Christ and to worship Him and to see the unfolding redemptive purpose in the realm of my field – scientific inquiry.

We don’t need a dialogue between communities. We need a dialogue within our community – the church of Jesus Christ. We need dialogue between and teaching from Christians with expertise in Greek, Hebrew, Cosmology, Biology, Chemistry and more (Hunter adds Business, Art, and we could extend the list). All are parts of the body of Christ. We need a dialogue respecting expertise on all sides, and this comes most effectively in personal relationships and face to face discussions.

Pastors, What do you think of Joel Hunter’s approach to science?

How can we engage Christians with expertise in science in this dialogue?

Here is another question – I’d like different perspectives on this question.

Does the pressure on a pastor to be the leader, the “go to man” with the answers, stand in the way of effective dialogue?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • http://www.sojournintoexile.com Nithin Thompson

    I pastor youth but also have my hand in a couple other church ministries as well. I like Joel’s approach, because he has a well thought out approach. I find that most pastors don’t have an approach with dealing with science. A few years ago our executive pastor did a class on creation/evolution and brought in young earthers and theistic evolutionists (or evolutionary creationists?). And it was a stimulating if tense dialogue at times.

    I think for most pastors, there is the pressue to be the answer man or woman. This is fortified by the output of books on a battery of subjects and issues (sexual therapy, political analysis, relationship advice, cultural critic, etc.) So most pastors haven’t spent enought time on a few subjects going deep getting a variety of perspectives. I think most pastors don’t need to have the answers, but need to know where to go to get some perspectives to help congregants through. Whenever I preach I try to recommend a couple books, articles or websites for further research. This blog has been especially helpful and a blessing.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I take exception. Florida is not in the South, you have to go north to get to the South from there.

  • T

    DRT, big parts of Florida are very much the South. North Florida and the panhandle are part of the South, as are other parts in Central Florida. It just depends.

    Good post.

  • Doug Hendricks

    DRT From where I sit in FL I know exactly what you mean, but what T said is true.

    “… amateur led small groups with little effective guidance and insufficient expertise (and too often remarkably large dollops of errant thinking). We have no forum for effectively introducing issues-oriented subjects to the audiences who need to wrestle with the ideas.”- So true!

    Why isn’t this the approach of every pastor/leader?

  • Sam

    Great approach and filled with pastoral wisdom. A pastor isn’t the answer guy unless it affects the way our flock views God, and in our context, issues of science and evolution are deeply theological for most Christians (and many non-believers). Then we must be ready to give an answer. The only quibble I have is the underlying assumption that there’s a 50/50 split between God’s revelation in his word and his revelation in nature. Only seeing God in scripture does not make us “half-blind,” it just makes us ignorant of the current tides of research in different realms. Seeing God in scripture PRIMARILY must be priority for the pastor as well as the scientist and the artist and the economist. Otherwise we would all have to turn into scientists and artists and philosophers and astro physicists ad nauseum. Scripture always forms us and shapes all our cognitive faculties, and must be given primacy of place among the manifold ways God has revealed himself.

  • Joe Canner

    “…issue-oriented subjects must be taught in classes or small groups where people have the chance to question/comment in ways not usually done in response to sermons.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this. When I preach, I can only cover the basic principles of a topic in 30 minutes. It is often quite apparent that that there is much that could be said and discussed about the topic. These discussions would be much better suited for smaller groups where the practical applications of the message can be hashed out amongst those who will be walking along side of you and holding you accountable.

    This approach would also save the church from having to air its dirty laundry on Sunday morning and say things that are not really aimed at the outside world in the first place.

  • http://www.jesustheradicalpastor.com John W Frye

    As a pastor, I can verify that no pastor will be competent to “the go to answer man” on a topic as crucial as Hunter raises. Pastors can clear the clutter off the table of dialogue and make sure those at the table know their fields (science, theology) and whose aim is mutual understanding, not winning a fight.

  • RJS

    Sam (#5),

    I am not going to quibble about “primarily”‘s or “half blind” percentages. I think that is a bit beside the point. I think you make an important point – although I disagree a little with what I think you are saying. So, some rambling thoughts:

    The first thing I’d say is that God created the world – therefore the world we see reveals something of God’s purpose and nature. If we don’t think it is consistent, we are probably missing something important (our interpretation of scripture may very well be wrong).

    The second thing is that we see God in the face of Jesus Christ. Our most significant source of knowledge of Christ is scripture.

    The third thing is that Christ fulfills the scripture – therefore we only really understand (not that we ever do entirely) the face of Christ if we are familiar with the whole sweep of scripture.

    But – the fourth thing is that scripture is not the kind of book most evangelicals seem to think it is. We can’t get too tied to our ideas about scripture.

    There are essential aspects of God that we only learn through scripture (directly or indirectly) – but I am not sure what percentage this is. Scripture – the whole sweep of scripture – forms us and shapes us. In this sense I agree completely that scripture is primary.

  • AJG

    “and both of these will differ from an appropriate approach for a church in a major University town desiring an effective ministry building disciples among students, scientists, and scholars.”

    Oh man does this describe my church. we sit across the street from one of the largest universities in the United States. Or pastor, who is relatively new, comes from the heart of the Bible Belt and thinks that if you deny a literal Adam and Eve that the whole gospel falls apart. We have a highly educated congregation, of which a large portion accepts evolution as a scientific fact. It is creating a great amount of discord in the church. When he was called, the search team emphasized that we needed a pastor who could engage a secular, college crowd, but instead we have a pastor who seeks to butt heads with anyone who disagrees with a literal interpretation of Genesis. Very frustrating.

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS,

    Very, very encouraging. May this approach be adopted and adapted by many. You say “We need a dialogue respecting expertise on all sides, and this comes most effectively in personal relationships and face to face discussions.”  This conclusion came up here a few months ago, and it is fundamental to the approach Hunter practices. Be sisters and brothers in Christ first, then have those with appropriate gifts and scientific background lead the classes that try to come to grips with the issues. Fortunately the necessary literature to support this is beginning to be published, so there is even a possibility that some more or less agreed upon approach could emerge, at least in some church communities. This is also a wonderful area for some level of ecumenical cooperation. Such an approach would add another level of complexity, and angst for some, but, with sensitive and skilled guidance, the benefits could be substantial. This may be especially true for small congregations who may not have the right combination of people to make this work on their own. There is also room here for considerable leadership from the general superintendent, bishop level. Well, we can dream, no?

  • RJS

    AJG,

    Very frustrating. No leader in my church has made this a core issue in any way. I expect there have been a variety of positions. (I’m not a leader – but don’t make it a core issue either.)

    There was a post a few weeks ago where we got into a discussion of the value of Greek and Hebrew for teachers in the church. I think Greek and Hebrew are very important – but not all teaching is textual exegesis. I wish, at times, that those who extol languages, cultural studies, etc. would step back and wonder if, perhaps, their handling of science looks as foolish as my analysis of a Hebrew text would look. We are all parts of the body with different gifts, skills, training … it might help if we considered this unity and diversity of the body a bit more (1 Cor 12).

  • Bev Mitchell

    Re: #11

    Amen! RJS, and ditto for biology.

    I recently concluded a response to someone who seemed to think studying a little biology would help.

    “That’s biology – a mountain of facts yes, but facts that tie together beautifully after much consideration and study. We face exactly the same thing when we come to Scripture. I would no more expect someone to understand biology properly after a few courses than I would trust a “theologian” who has aced Greek, Hebrew and Survey of the Bible in first year seminary.”

    As people who seek to understand what Scripture is saying, and what it is meant to say, we need to accept the generally agreed upon conclusions of main-stream science, and other sound scholarship, and see what kinds of adjustments are needed to our interpretations and – fear warning here – to our ideas about God and his creations (the plural is intentional). Many have already shown in their excellent books that this approach need not offend orthodoxy. Indeed it will strengthen faith. For the sake of the next generation of students we need to press on with the task.

  • http://www.CutTheReligiousCheese.com Noah Filipiak

    As a senior pastor, this is a difficult topic to dialogue on for me because I am looked to as having the stance that our church has (even though our church doesn’t have a stance on this issue, one is undoubtedly assumed by some). So I’m afraid of being labeled a heretic by the more conservative folks in my congregation when I present hermeneutical arguments that are aimed to help non-Christians and/or struggling Christians to whom are throwing out faith in Christ altogether over these types of issues. My fear in this is being labeled “unbiblical” by my more conservative brothers and sisters. Personally, I don’t even care much about the view a person holds on this, but what I do care about is that these issues push people away from Jesus, so I want to help build bridges for them if possible, rather than get in debates with conservatives on it.


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