A Pastor’s Approach to Science (RJS)

A Pastor’s Approach to Science (RJS) September 11, 2012

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.

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