Episcopalians on Science and Faith: gettin’ it done (evangelicals could learn something)

Episcopalians on Science and Faith: gettin’ it done (evangelicals could learn something) May 11, 2013

“The goal of human knowing is neither to exalt science over other forms of inquiry nor to use theology as a magic wand to make things we can’t otherwise explain vanish. The goal of human knowing is instead to seek to engage God, the world, and ourselves in one unified frame of meaning.”
~The Very Rev. Gary Hall (Dean, Washington National Cathedral), “Cathedral Age” (Autumn 2012)

Recently I stumbled onto a website of the Episcopal Church, The Network for Science, Technology, and Faith. This website is an attempt to foster community on the issue of science and faith stemming from the Episcopal Church’s recent (77th General Convention, July 2012) statement affirming the essential compatibility of science and faith.

One resource developed by this body is a Catechism of Creation made up of three parts: Theology of CreationScience and Faith, and Caring for Creation. The presence of Parts 1 and 3 suggests a full-orbed approach that I feel is typically not part of the evangelical dialogue, and there is much to discuss here. But I want to focus on Part 2.

This Catechism is a breath of fresh air compared to the handwringing and fear that dominates the evangelical discussion.

The Catechism asks and answers 25 questions, which, as I see it, can be grouped under the following categories:

1. Science and the Bible

2. Big Bang

3. Biological Evolution: evidence for, alleged incompatibility with the Bible, implications for theology

4. Problems with “Young Earth Creationism” and “Intelligent Design”

5. Evolution and the spiritual life (the final question)

The first two questions, in my view, exude commonsense, and set the stage for what follows (my emphasis):

Does the Bible teach science? Do we find scientific knowledge in the Bible?

Episcopalians believe that the Bible “contains all things necessary to salvation” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 868): it is the inspired and authoritative source of truth about God, Christ, and the Christian life. But physicist and priest John Polkinghorne, following sixteenth-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, reminds us Anglicans and Episcopalians that the Bible does not contain all necessary truths about everything else. The Bible, including Genesis, is not a divinely dictated scientific textbook. We discover scientific knowledge about God’s universe in nature not Scripture.

How are we to treat concepts in the Bible that appear to be scientific?

Theologians throughout the history of the Church have explained these concepts this way: God inspired the ancient writers to describe the world in concepts and language they and their audiences could understand, not in our concepts and language. The ancient world-picture: a “three-storied” creation of the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth (Ex. 20:4), though meaningful in its own time, was replaced by succeeding models and most recently by our modern portrait of a vast universe with billions of galaxies. The Bible’s theological declarations about God and creation remain true because they are not dependent upon the ancient world-picture in which they appear.

I understand that evangelicals similarly inclined in their view of science and faith might want to start a Catechism  like this in some other way–several paragraphs about inerrancy, perhaps, to establish their territory and deflect criticism–but these Episcopalians launch right into it. They begin at the point where evangelicals gingerly try to end up:

the Bible is not a science book,

we understand the physical world more accurately than ancient people, but

God’s truth does not depend on the accuracy of ancient cosmologies.

Until evangelicals find a way to get to these points–quickly–there will be no true conversation on science and faith. The evangelical discussion tends to be preoccupied with with trying to decide on these basic matter of fact rather than treating them as givens and then moving the conversation forward.

The entire three-part Catechism is no magic potion to solve all problem, but it is worth reading.


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  • Andrew

    “the Bible is not a science book,
    we understand the physical world more accurately than ancient people, but
    God’s truth does not depend on the accuracy of ancient cosmologies.”

    Well put. Thanks!

    • elegance

      Andrew, I like your quote. Could it not also be accurately stated that, “God’s truth does not depend on the accuracy of ‘current’ cosmologies”?. It seems that today’s scientific community wishes to claim that it is in possession (or soon will be) of all the answers to the great questions of life in much the same way as the scientists did who insisted that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited around the earth. Wouldn’t a literal six day creation coincide more easily with the ‘big bang theory’ than a long drawn-out process? Quite frankly, the scientific community certainly gets it’s hackles up if anyone dares to question their authority and orthodoxy as quickly as conservative Christians do when scientists question theirs.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Elegance, your main point is incorrect. The “scientific community gets it’s hackles up if any dare question their authority?” You don’t seem to understand the basic gist of science . . they question each other all the time, that is how one advances within the community. If you have an assertion, you have to provide evidence for it via the scientific method. And then have it verified via peer review. I often hear apologists claim that “science is its own religion” and they frankly don’t understand the first thing about science. The only authority scientists get is if they have proven a theory/outcome correct via repeated observation. On the other hand, almost anyone can become a Conservative Christian authority if they have a degree and the right connections.

      • Msironen

        Please do name some scientists who insisted the “earth was flat” or that the “sun orbited around the earth”. Note: ancient philosophers and/or theologians don’t actually count as scientists (and even many of them got those questions right).

  • Dianne P

    Due to a move, I find myself attending an Episcopal church – the first time for me. I find them passionate about God and people, and reasoned about things of this world. Wow. Loving it.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Hard to say it better than in your concluding three points and summary statement Pete. Since the basic facts of the matter are so clear there must be many other things that obscure them for many evangelicals – especially many evangelical leaders. I’m not sure it matters or would help to try to discover what the sources of these blockages (fog producers) are, but they are real and effective. As you say, timely progress depends on finding a starting point somewhere further down the trail.

    And, thanks for the reference to this Catechism, it will be very useful.

  • Bev Mitchell


    “……one could say that God has a purpose rather than a fixed plan, a goal rather than a blueprint. As the nineteenth-century Anglican minister Charles Kingsley put it, God has made a world that is able to make itself. Polkinghorne states that God has given the world a free process, just as God has given human beings free choice. Divine Love (1 John 4:8) frees the universe and life to develop as they are able to by using all of their divinely given powers and capacities. The universe, as Augustine of Hippo said, is “God’s love song.” Because God’s Love is poured out within the creation, theologian Denis Edwards asserts that ‘the Trinitarian God is present to every creature in its being and becoming.’ ” From the Episcopalian Catechism of Creation (2005).

    This passage highlights many of the central issues of the problem for more conservative evangelicals who fear beginning at a point a bit further down the trail.

    As for the entire Episcopalian Catechism, a challenge should go out to all evangelicals asking: Are you willing to start here? If not, what parts of this do you not believe, and why?”

    One cautionary note. In their fine section on why Intelligent Design Theory is not the way to go, they make the following statement “Design in living organisms is now understood to be an internal rather than an external process, their forms arising within the creatures themselves rather than being imposed from without.” This strictly follows the New Synthesis of evolutionary biology (the largely successful blending of natural selection and genetics). A much better understanding of the essential role of external (environmental, epigenetic) factors on the “forms” that we observe is now gaining ground. Adjustments will be necessary in theological expressions like this, but the essential points remain.

    A great semi-popular reference for quickly getting up to date on the biological side of the current discussion is “Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution” by Scott F. Gilbert and David Epel. Sinauer 2009.

    • peteenns

      Well put, Bev. Why not start there? At the end of the day it comes down to a literalist hermeneutic of some sort and protecting evangelical systematic theology. I understand the attraction of both of these things, but they won’t make evolution go away.

      • Hanan

        >literalist hermeneutic of some sort and protecting evangelical systematic theology.

        Understandable no? How small can God become till he just doesn’t exist? In fact, I wonder if all these conversations will one day be part of some great sociological book on the topic of cultural evolution away from theism? Once upon a time, God created all, had a specific outcome in mind and was involved in everything. Then, slowly, God was just a button pusher. He had no specific plan. Then, one day, He just disappeared and man continued.

  • rvs

    I like this sentence below from the second part of the catechism. It’s strikes me as the sort of thing one would say after reading Job:

    In a resolution passed by General Convention in 1982, the Church affirmed the ability of God to create in any form and fashion, which would include evolution.

  • AHH

    Excellent points, but unlikely to get traction given the reputation of the Episcopal Church among Evangelicals.
    What is needed is for these wise observations about science and scripture to be upheld by more sources with real Evangelical cred. Like a statement from Wheaton, or the ETS (hey, I can dream), or I’d even settle for Rick Warren. Scot McKnight is working on a book which might help … and Tim Keller has said some helpful things …

    • Rick

      I agree. Bad choice for a resource if one expects Evangelical interest. Now, if on the other hand, the Anglican side was emphasized, it might get a little more traction.

    • peteenns

      The problem, though, is that you won’t get these statements from mainstream evangelicalism. I am hoping by posts like this one to give those already seeking a different way to see wisdom elsewhere. I have no delusions (or interest) in convincing gatekeepers

  • Andrew Dowling

    “The Bible is not a science book;” very true, and I’d also add “the Bible is not a history book”, . . . in terms of history in the modern sense (although of course there are parts/elements that are historical throughout the OT and NTs, none of the books reflect history as simply “just the facts, ma’m”)

    • Hominid

      Why do people still take this question seriously? The bible is a collection of legends, myths, and cautionary tales – it’s pure FICTION.

      The same can be said for the so called ‘debate’ over whether science and faith are reconcilable or compatible – they are NOT. Make-believe and the exposition of reality do not blend.

      • CincinnatiRIck

        While I normally find myself in agreement with you, I must differ here.

        I fully understand why some folks need to believe that a book written by human beings has it right that the Earth was created only 6000 years ago or that species were created in one fell swoop, separate and apart from each other. One can only feel sorry for them. But I feel no sorrow for, or kinship with, those who really ought to know better than to assert that Science has, or ever will, shed light on the question as to the prime mover behind the universe that they are striving mightily to better understand. I applaud and value their efforts to understand even as I condemn any who presume to know the cause…or try to claim, with the air of certainty, that there is none.

        • Hominid

          At no time have I ever asserted that science can ‘shed light on the question as to the prime mover.’ I am fully aware of the limitations of science, even with regard to material reality, and have often voiced them. My point is that making up mystical answers to unanswerable ‘questions’ is worse than admitting ignorance.

          • CincinnatiRIck

            As an agnostic, I share that very practical approach in my personal life. But it is also necessary to recognize that we live in a world where things have meaning, cause and purpose and it is only natural that we would want and even need to project that experience on ourselves: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

            You say ” Make-believe and the exposition of reality do not blend.” They may not “blend” (very well) but they certainly do complement one another in the human condition we all share.

            As the Ancient Mariner was only freed of his albatross when he blessed and found beauty in the slimy creatures of the sea, I have repented of the hubris and contempt for those “making up mystical answers to unanswerable questions.” And if the child’s play of putting them down makes me feel good about myself, what does that say of me….or you?

          • Hominid

            I have expressed no ‘contempt’ for theists nor do I hold any. I disputed that science and faith are compatible. You’re inference is mistaken.

          • CincinnatiRIck

            Definition of COMPATIBLE

            1: capable of existing together in harmony


            As long as faith does not pretend to answer to questions within the current competence of science and science does not pretend to answer to questions beyond its current competence, the two are quite compatible.

            I do not pretend to know if that is a full blown albatross or merely a chip on your shoulder. In either case, I don’t need to tell you (because you already know it) that you would do well to lose it.

          • Hominid

            That’s absurd. If the subject matter is reality – which is what we’re talking about – one cannot accept faith as evidence of anything. If you’re arguing that a tennis player can also be a lawyer, then, sure, one can wear a scientist’s hat in the lab and a theist’s hat in church. But, that evades the issue.

            You seem intent on personalizing this discussion. Thatt’s not going to work with me, Sunshine.

          • CincinnatiRIck

            one cannot accept faith as evidence of anything


            And who said anything at all about “evidence”? Evidence is only a means to an end. The human thirst is for understanding and explanation (preferably one that validates a purpose and meaning for humanity, writ on both large and personal levels). When it cannot find explanation by empirical methods, it will project, even to the point of anthropomorphizing a prime mover. But, of course, it is no reflection on God, if there be one, that men, influenced by their disparate cultures, would cloak and see him in whatever trappings they find most familiar and comfortable.

            This thread is as extinct as your avatar…only you and I are reading this. But serious discussion evidently makes you uncomfortable…so continue to shoot the sitting ducks and accept my apologies for rattling your cage.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Hom, while much of the Bible is woven with myth, to call the entire Bible a work of pure fiction is simply incorrect and frankly just lazy exaggeration. The very wide majority of secular historians contend there are stories and elements of the Bible that derive from history, including that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person.

  • Cantankerous.Me

    Anyone who truly understands the nature of the Intelligent Design “debates” knows that little discussion where it actually mattered was ever given a chance to take place. Christian thinkers who posed challenges against presumption of Materialism were not fumbling over “trying to decide” how to answer these questions. They were offering alternative ways to understand empirical data in a way which should have at least been welcomed as part of a diverse range of opinion. Instead, many reacted in fear, and engaged in what honestly seemed more like modern-day witch hunts to ruin and discredit people because the views they presented were contrary to conventional wisdom.

    I say this as constructively as I can. I would prefer fellow Christians to instead take on and encourage a more inclusive response to their brothers and sisters who would prefer to approach these issues–in good faith–in their own way. One might be forgiven by seeing in this blog post a hint of arrogance that benighted Evangelicals should simply come of age and abandon their approach in favor of one better accepted by those partial to metaphysical Naturalism.

    At least, inclusiveness would seem to be what I’d expect from most people here. Is the tent not big enough to include even Evangelical brethren in the conversation?

    • Cantankerous.Me

      Full disclosure, I do share disagreement over the necessity/wisdom of young-earth creationism, I see the fact that evolution has occurred as non-controversial, and I’ve never denied anything about the Big Bang Theory. But one can affirm all these things and still have something valuable to contribute from within an ID paradigm. In no way am I suggesting that allowing for and encouraging more inclusiveness that opposition to any/each of these views will therefore prove equally valid with prevailing consensus. But I would prefer fellow Christians set the example for secular colleagues and promote an atmosphere of greater inclusiveness than has been tolerated in the past.

  • Thank you for posting this article, Peter Enns! Truly appreciate it! I bookmarked the Episcopal Church’s Network for Science, Technology & Faith page and learned something new! I am very much in favor of the compatibility of science and religion/faith/spirituality, and the Episcopalians seem to be moving in the right direction, indeed! Excellent piece! 🙂

  • James

    Evangelicals can’t get to these points quickly because they hold to conservative hermeneutics in the face of liberalism and secularism. The wind in the willows of scientific advance will help them feel free eventually (when all the theological ducks are in a row) to step out into a fuller stream of the Spirit’s movements today.

  • Hanan

    From the link:

    “In this evolving universe, God does not dictate the outcome of nature’s activities, but allows the world to become what it is able to become in all of its diversity: one could say that God has a purpose rather than a fixed plan, a goal rather than a blueprint.”

    I think this is the the part that Theistic Evolution proponents have a hard time explaining without sounding incredibly vague (just read BioLogos). What exactly does it mean to say God does not dictate the outcome but allows for the world to become what it will become? Does that mean that man was chance? Does that mean that God may have had to settle on a really smart octopus? This sounds more like Deism than it does Theism.

    • Hanan

      Any Episcopalians care to respond? Or how about Peter? How would you respond?

      • Jonathan Galliher

        Well, I’m an Episcopalian, but I can’t speak for all my fellow Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church doesn’t try to impose doctrinal uniformity on its lay members, and even priests have quite a lot of latitude in what they believe and teach.

        I would say that God’s permitting natural processes to run goes right along with God’s permitting humans to do as they want most of the time. As with human free will, this doesn’t mean denying God’s action. It just means assuming that God only positively wills specific outcomes (and ensures they come to be) when those specific outcomes are necessary to accomplish God’s work of salvation. The rest of the time, while some courses of action are better than others, we’re free to do whatever seems best at the time. Incidentally, this degree of latitude is very helpful for dealing with the Problem of Evil as well.

        • Hanan

          How can you reconcile God intervening for a specific outcome with natural process? Why have natural process if God has a specific outcome that he desires? Might as well say that EVERYTHING is his will no? But that does not seem to be what these Episcopalians are saying.

          • Jonathan Galliher

            There’s often a huge gap between outcomes and the different processes by which that outcome can be achieved, and that gap just gets bigger when we move from looking for a specific concrete, physical outcome to shaping society or history.

            Besides, a lot of the natural processes have very little to do with salvation, so why would God interfere with them? It’s not like we’re saved by reciting a magic set of words, even internally, or by willfully assenting to intellectual proposition, so there’s no reason for God to be perpetually performing magic tricks or apparently overturning natural processes just to try to get our attention.

            Also, don’t forget that nature isn’t monolithic. While the various natural processes are connected, even humans can intervene to redirect some of them.

    • Gabe

      What’s wrong with a really smart octopus? No, really. I think God’s purpose was to actualize a self-created and self-creating universe with an extremely high probability of producing genuinely distinct persons. This would be Deism–if God didn’t also desire to enter into a relationship with any persons that may come about. God is involved with God’s creatures, but God must remain distant in their coming about in order to insure that they are genuinely distinct persons and not mere extensions of God.

    • ScientistforChrist

      I’ve not heard that “Theistic Evolution” is a well-defined position (contrasted with the well-defined position of Young Earth Creation), but I have held a theistic view of evolution for a very long time and would like to answer without being “incredibly” vague (I hope).

      God does dictate the outcomes. God also dictates the process. If God is not dictating both, then it is Deism, not Theism. You might come back and say, what about randomness in the process of evolution? The answer is simply that random means we can’t predict the outcome–this doesn’t mean that there is no intrinsic guidance from God. God said that Ahab would die in battle at Ramoth-Gilead, the king decided to disguise himself so that he couldn’t be targeted, but an archer fired a arrow at RANDOM and it killed Ahab. The easy answer is that random means something to us, but to God there is intention (nothing truly random).

      [Your quote from the Catechism of Creation indicates that some of the theologians quoted likely have a less than theistic view of how nature works.]