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Christian dogma changed by science?

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The summary of a program screened on the ABC’s Compass program on July 25, 2010 reads:

“For more than 1500 years Christians saw the Bible as the primary source of knowledge, but in the 17th Century a scientific revolution challenged the Christian view of the world. Eminent scientist Colin Blakemore interviews scholars and churchmen in order to understand how science transformed Christianity over the last four centuries. He shows how scientists born of the Enlightenment realised that the laws of the universe were there to be discovered, not read about in the Bible. He argues that science is the biggest challenge Christianity has ever had to face, and that it will eventually make religion unnecessary.”

The problem with the above statement is that it projects a modern view of the world onto a pre-modern. The world of the Bible is not our world, its central motive is the telling of stories that shed a moral light onto human existence. By this I do not mean only moral prescriptions, although they do appear for example in the Ten Commandments, but a way of understanding the truth of us being in the world.


It was the habit of writers and readers, right up until about the 18th century to value historical accounts for their moral depth rather than the accuracy of their account. This is why you read history - to become informed of the human condition. History as an account of what actually happened was an invention more to do with positivism that arose only in the 19th century with the advent of Aguste Comte’s positivism.

To say that before the Enlightenment men thought that the Bible was the only source of knowledge is to mistake the kind of knowledge that it represents. Of course biblical writers did not know about the heliocentric structure of the solar system, such knowledge would not have occurred to them. They lived in a world that was defined by narrative, was given a narrative structure, not a physical one. Israel understood itself from the narratives of the nation, from the exodus from Egypt to the conquest of Canaan the building of the temple through its destruction and exile.

Before God gives Moses the list of Ten Commandments he identifies himself with this narrative: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The church continues the story with the life and death of Christ. The point of these stories is not a positivist account of what actually happened but the construction of a moral world.

Of course the stories were anchored in the experience of men and women, they were not mythological (or not mostly) but read as real historical experience. So to compare these stories with the information about the physical world is ludicrous.

An insight given to us by Iris Murdoch is that the reason we have such a fascination with 19th century English novels is that the characters that are portrayed are set against a moral background that was a residue of Christian faith. This makes the narrative interesting to us because we see what virtue and vice are like.

By contrast, novels in the 20th century are mostly written without this background and easily revert to mere journalism. The background is absent because of the liberal view that it has been surpassed by the rational self-posited person. Stories are in danger of becoming mere entertainment and to have no other function than distraction. This is also true of the other arts to their detriment. Colin Blakemore makes a common mistake among those trained in natural science, they assume that the only reliable truth is that that can be tested in the laboratory. The danger that they run is that they are cut off from traditions that humanise.


Colin Blakemore tells us that the scientific revolution challenged the Christian view of the world. But the Christian view of the world did not include a scientific view. This is why I can say that there is not one point of Christian dogma that is challenged by natural science. These are two different epistemologies here that do not compete for the same knowledge.

Now it must be said in explanation that there is a difference between popular belief and the dogma of the church. It was popular belief that led the Vatican to prosecute Galileo. There is nothing in dogma that specifies that the sun circles the earth. There is an account of the sun standing still in Joshua10 but to read that in a literalist way is to impose a positivist reading onto the text. Miraculous events are often described in scripture as an embellishment of the story, as a sign that something momentous has happened. Not having a view of the world bound by physical causality, this produced no conflict in the minds of the writers or readers. Only a fundamentalist reading brings us into trouble and fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon.

Similarly, many Christians believe that events in the world are controlled by God, that divine providence reigns. Inexplicable and dreadful events are really a part of a wider plan by God to act beneficently towards us. There is nothing in Christian dogma that would support such a view; it is a late idea that arose in the 17th century. The absurdity of such a view cannot be used against Christianity, it is a theological mistake.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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