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Comments on Science and the Spirit by J. K. A. Smith and Amos Yong[1]

by Dr. William K. Kay


There are many interesting and valuable things in these pages, but because this is a live discussion and other people will also be commenting on the book, I will not do more than provide a general overview of its contents. Moreover, if I raise a number of questions, this is only because I wish to help the scholarly process forward by stimulating fresh thought or clarification.


First, though, for the benefit of those who are here who have not had opportunity to read the book we may say that it is made up of 10 chapters of roughly equal length grouped into three roughly equal sections. The first deals with big overarching or context-setting questions; the second deals with questions and possibilities in the natural sciences; and the final section deals with what it calls the ‘human spirit’ or questions and possibilities in the social and technological sciences. The book is preceded by a brief introduction that makes it clear that this is a specifically Pentecostal engagement with science. Moreover, as the campus-based genesis of the composing process partially implies, the book as a whole shows signs of being written with the next generation of Pentecostal students in mind: in some respects they are its primary audience.


1. Wolgang Vondey’s chapter addresses foundational issues germane to our understanding of the cosmos.[2] Vondey implies compatibility between science and religion, as many of the chapters in this book do. The chapter centres on understandings of ‘spirit’ in a material world, understandings held by two of the greatest physicists ever to have been born. Both Newton and Einstein entertained an idea of God and rejected atheism. The chapter deals with their concept of spirit, a topic that is basic to any Pentecostal theology. For Newton the spirit is within the (now discredited) invisible aether[3] that permeates the universe allowing force to be transmitted within a vacuum; it therefore has a basis within the constitution of the created order. For Einstein spirit is the ‘rational order of the universe’ but has no material reality. It is at this point that the contemporary scientific and theological perspectives collide. The positing of non-material forces within a material universe, even if this universe partakes of forces like magnetism or gravitation that are only related to material origins at one remove, is open to popular scepticism. It reminds one of the surgeon who cut open the human body looking for the soul or the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin who, after orbiting the Earth claimed that he had not found God in the sky.[4]


The chapter offers a wealth of supportive suggestions to the highly educated young Pentecostal physicist hesitating at the start of a voyage of intellectual exploration. While fully acknowledging the unanswered questions about the relationship of the non-material spirit with the material substratum of the universe, I wish to suggest that the scientific theorisations of Newton and Einstein may be of indirect theological benefit to the next generation.[5]


Newton’s understanding of spirit is connected with his understanding of the absoluteness of space and time. God, like gravity, acts across the infinite reaches of space in a law-like way to ensure the universe is rational and consistent. In this respect Newton presumes the uniformity of the cosmos that enables science to reach out to the furthest bounds of what exists. Einstein begins by imagining a universe where Newtonian laws do not apply. Space and time may not be uniform. Time may pass at different speeds in different parts of the universe or as different parts of the universe move in relationship with one another. The person who blasts off from Earth in a spaceship approaching the speed of light and then returns a little later will discover that longer amounts of time have passed on earth than the journey time of the space voyage. The passing of time is relative to motion, and motion is relative to space. Time and space are interrelated and form a continuum.[6]


These arresting and counterintuitive intellectualisations become the building blocks of the theory of relativity. They are also surprisingly compatible with the speculations of St Augustine. Augustine in his reflections upon the relationship between time and eternity noted that the world was created ‘with time’ and that God, as it were, straddles the period before time existed and after time comes into being.[7] Within the eternal realm there is no passing of time since God is in neither changing according to the dictates of time nor moving in space.[8] The eternal realm does not simply have to be thought about as a kind of magical place where no one grows old but rather a dimension that, by its nature, does not partake of the laws that determine the spatio-temporal structure that informs our current consciousness. This too explains how we can think of time as spread out before God so that he knows past, present and future simultaneously at a single glance;[9] he stands at the hilltop and can see all the travellers on the road as it winds around the hill.[10] In addition, and with satisfying coherence, prophecy and the future judgment of the world are all of a piece with the knowledge of a God who is free from time-bound consciousness.


The eternal nature of God helps our understanding of the co-relations between the Persons of the Trinity and begins to offer a ground for assertions about the relation between the Father and the Son. Whereas in a world of time a father must live before a son, in eternity Father and Son may be coeternal and we may speak, without nonsense, of the ‘eternal generation’ of the Son and of the love between Father and Son that is hypostasised by the Holy Spirit.[11]


I only wish to make the point that the universe of Einstein can assist us in providing a way of beginning to understand more of the Trinity without appearing to require special pleading or for words to be used in a theological sense unrelated to normal logic. ‘How can God know everything?’ asks the enquiring child or the sceptic. ‘How can Christ be coeternal with the Father?’ We no long have to say ‘God can know everything because he just does’ or ‘If he did not know everything, he would not be God’. There are the beginnings within the physicist’s description of the universe of a rationale for proposing a more complicated reality that can accommodate long-held theological truths. Our partial knowledge is dependent on our place in space and time but a God who is outside time and space, and therefore not bounded by them, can have a knowledge that spectacularly transcends human limitations. The biblical metaphor is that God ‘sees’ us, and seeing, of course, is characterized by knowledge-at-a-distance, by an apprehension of a situation without an intervention in that situation.


And, to conclude this section, we note the current discussion about the amazing fit between requirements for human life and the conditions within our universe, conditions that are so minutely balanced that they raise the credibility once again of the arguments from natural theology that were put in their strongest form by Paley. Those who wish to sidestep these arguments and to deny Providence must resort to the speculative hypothesis of multiple universes, of which ours is the only one in which human life has emerged. Rather than facing the possibility of Providence, those who posit a multiplicity of universes do so as a way of increasing the chances for the precise conditions favourable to human life to occur randomly.[12] Such a discussion of possible universes is, however, also covered by Augustine and is nothing new to the speculative theologian.[13] Indeed, those who love C S Lewis will recall his story of an unfallen race on the planet Perelandra.


2. The chapter by Steve Badger and Mike Tenneson addresses the important issue of evolution.[14] It is the only chapter in the book to present empirical data and, in doing this, it gives the results of surveys of the beliefs of staff in Assemblies of God colleges and universities in 2004 and 2008. Although we are grateful for this data, the response rate for the 2008 survey is rather low and the size of the 2008 sample is about a third of the size of the 2004 sample. The comparisons are presented in terms of percentages and there is little or no attempt to verify the representativeness of the two samples by, for instance, comparing them with known age distributions or other confirmatory information. Nevertheless, the second sample shows a rapid increase in the number of staff who shift from the young earth creationist position and an increase in the percentage who hold the old earth creationist position. There is also a doubling in the number of evolutionary creationists. The message given by the figures is that the trend within Pentecostal colleges and universities is towards an acceptance of a form of creationism that is much more compatible with the findings of evolutionary biology that circulate within American culture.


There are only two points I wish to make about this chapter, and the first has already been implied. A new and bigger sample needs to be drawn from Pentecostal institutions in order to work out more exactly what is going on. It may be, as some British data indicate, that the move against creationism is found most particularly among better educated and younger Pentecostals.[15] It may be that there are other dynamics at work and that these come from revisions to the standard hermeneutical approaches for the opening chapters of Genesis. It is still possible to uphold the compatibility of science and biblical theology since the order of creation in Genesis 1 follows the scientific order: vegetation appears before animal life, life in the sea begins before life on land and human beings appear last rather than first.


Second, the neo-atheism of the most vocal critics of Christianity makes use of DNA evidence to support evolutionary theory.[16] Older evolutionists relied largely on fossil evidence but DNA provides an altogether higher quality of information and makes the interrelationship between different forms of life easier to discern. While the critics argue against God’s providence on the grounds that the evolutionary process is cruel and wasteful, it is possible for Christians to reply that the providential action of God within evolution offers an explanation for human and animal suffering: it is for a progressive purpose.[17] In addition, the DNA evidence suggest that all human beings come from a single pair or group of human beings who contained within themselves the genetic material that was later dispersed into different ethnicities.[18] In this sense the DNA evidence supports the biblical account of the human race stemming from a single pair rather than from multiple pairs situated in different parts of the world and having different racial characteristics.


3. The distinction between the worldview of naturalism upon which science depends and science itself as a collection of methods or laws is well made by James Smith, and I know he elaborates and ground-breakingly teases out this matter elsewhere.[19] The argument that science itself depends upon a uniform and reliable reality for the operation of its methods is logically coherent. The nature of reality has to be open to investigation by methods, and methods have to be formulated as procedures that can be applied to different parts of reality repeatedly and systematically. Or to put this another way, the methods themselves demand a particular kind of environment where they may be exercised. Methods are implicitly reliant on the reality they explore. It is for this reason that the earliest scientists in the post-Renaissance era were almost invariably theists or deists, people who expected a rational God to have made a rational world – though they never insisted that the world should be conceived of as any kind of ‘closed system’. Their basic stance is one of the main reasons for their success, and the emergence of contemporary science within 17th century Europe (rather than at another time or place) is no accident.[20]


So science came into being through the application of interrogative methods designed to demonstrate how Nature worked. Science was called ‘natural philosophy’ and methods were seen as involving experimentation. Here the contrast was between the authority of the treasure trove of texts by the likes of Aristotle and Plato and the new authority of observation and experiment. The paradigmatic example is the unfolding story of the behaviour of planets and stars. A popular geo-centric system gives way to a system centred upon a stationary sun with a moving earth. The story is of theories and evidence which gradually coalesce.


The best theoretical account of the rise of science is surely given by Karl Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery.[21] In its early phases, science made use of the inductive methods articulated by Francis Bacon. It required the collection of numerous instances from which it was thought laws could be abstracted: if we could find out what is common between everything that is cold, we might find a way to generalize from lots of instances to a general law about temperature. The great flaw within induction, as Popper saw it, is that thousands of instances can be undone by a single counter instance. The law that all crows must be black can be undone by a single albino crow. It is the numerical disproportion between the confirming instances and the dis-confirming instance that is the nub of the problem of inductive reasoning.[22] Popper proposed a deductive procedure. Imagination should be used to formulate theories to explain phenomena; deduction from theories should be used to derive testable hypotheses; it is then the task of the scientist to attempt to falsify these hypotheses and, to the extent that falsification fails, the hypothesis is accepted. This means that all scientific knowledge is provisional. Theories provide a context for the construction of hypotheses, and methods are confined to the falsification stage. The advantages of this conception of science are manifold. It provides a vital role for the imagination; it makes room for the growth of scientific knowledge; it avoids induction; and it provides a useful criterion for distinguishing between science and non-science.[23] Scientific theories are by definition testable. Moreover testability may specify the initial conditions under which the testing occurs. There is therefore no need to presume an entirely naturalistic worldview since initial conditions could postulate a non-naturalistic worldview. Furthermore, within the current discussion, it is worth pointing out that the theory of evolution which, in its strongest form seeks to account for the emergence of life itself as well as the diversity of life forms, is untestable since the initial conditions at the beginning of geological time cannot be replicated.[24]


Smith points out that the worldview of many of today’s teachers of science is naturalistic. He explains that this worldview is one which presumes that nature is all there is or, from another angle, closed and impervious to divine intervention. Yet this kind of assumption, common though it is, is quite unnecessary and has the effect of reducing the scope of the imaginative explanatory theories that are possible. Rather, the good science teacher needs to encourage bold and creative theories while maintaining the proviso that only testable hypotheses merit inclusion with the scientific canon. It is the bad science teacher who turns the adventure of scientific discovery into a mass of disconnected facts held dogmatically. The bad science teacher us a purveyor of ‘scientism’ rather than science. As the young Einstein dares to imagine a universe where Newton’s laws do not function, he takes the first steps towards a new horizon of scientific discoveries.


4. I salute the bravura chapter by Amos Yong, although it is notable that the seven theses he adduces at the end of his chapter are more tentative than might be expected. Yong concludes that God’s action is eschatological, and this is an important idea. It is, almost, a reconceptualisation of the notion of cause. Cause it is usually seen as ‘pushing’ events from the past whereas an eschatological perspective might regard cause as ‘pulling’ events from the future. The difference here is that we may hope to track down and isolate past events that are the causes of present states but, in the nature of the case, we cannot track down future events that bring present events into being. These ideas are exciting and deserve to be further explored.


I certainly think that it is wise for Pentecostal Christians and Pentecostal scientists to avoid getting themselves boxed into the position where they are defending a model of the universe that turns out to be incorrect. One only has to read about the mistakes of the papacy at the time of Galileo to appreciate that concordance between science and theology is double-edged. If science changes, theology finds itself looking foolish. This said, we would surely be wise to look more closely at the biblical data covering God’s interaction with the world. It is remarkably nuanced. God acts through dreams given Pharaoh, through natural events (Pharaoh’s daughter shows a maternal instinct and rescues Moses), through the coincidence of events, through the Holy Spirit speaking to the conscience, through angels and even through the decrees of ungodly politicians (and as when Caesar commands the whole world to be taxed). The action of God in the world is subtle and varied, personal and adapted to the recipient. It is action which comprehends natural forces like rain and earthquakes while including out-and-out spiritual visitations like those on the Day of Pentecost. The locus classicus is perhaps the reference by Christ to the Spirit as wind: it is felt, its effects can be see and yet it is itself invisible.


Scientific methods have been used to study phenomena attributed to the Holy Spirit. In this book Fredrick Ware makes reference to neurological studies of the brain while people speak in tongues. There is a long tradition of research into prayer going back at least as far as Galton.[25] (Galton reasoned that if the life and health of British Monarch was regularly prayed for by the Anglican church, some measurable effect should be discerned). There has been at least some attempt to calculate the probability of the correctness of ‘words of knowledge’ given by men like John Wimber in large meetings.[26] The results of the studies are interesting though they may not take as very far along the road. Even when we detect measurable correlates of spiritual activity, we still need to interpret our findings. Are we detecting the direct effect of the Holy Spirit or reactions to the Holy Spirit? Yong is wise to give theology a master role in the interpretation of events that may be attributed to God. He may also wish to suggest how Pentecostal theology may have an agenda-setting role with regard to scientific explorations.


This is a book which deserves to be read widely and assimilated within the global Pentecostal academy.


[1] James K. A. Smith and Amos Yong, eds., Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010).

[2] Chapter 4.

[3] We may now have consigned aether to the dustbin of historically outdated concepts but what should we do with other hypothetical substances? Why for instance is the universe expanding at an accelerating rate? Is it because of ‘dark matter’ which has an anti-gravitational force?

[4] http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/quote-g.htm.

[5] Such things are discussed periodically in the pages of the journal Science and Christian Belief. See, for instance, Lawrence Osborn, “Spacetime and Revelation,” Science and Christian Belief 8:2 (1996): 111-123.

[6] John Gribbin, Science: A History, 1543-2001 (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 438-41.

[7] ‘Certainly the world was not made in time but together with time’ (Augustine, City of God, XI, 6). And, ‘There was no time before the creation of the world’ (XI, 5).

[8] ‘Because it passes by in changeableness, time cannot be coeternal with unchangeable eternity’ (City of God, XII, 15, 2).

[9]The theory of the divine knowledge is summed up by Augustine in this grand conception: in one single, unchangeable glance God contemplates every being, every truth, every possible or real object. This knowledge is an eternal intuition before which the past and the future are as real as the present, but each for that period of time in which it really exists. God encompasses all time and therefore can know the future (whether produced freely or necessarily) as infallibly as He knows the present. Today no one any longer denies that August admitted the knowledge of conditioned futures (pure futuribles) in God, events which will take place but which have been taken place if certain conditions had been fulfilled. It would seem at first glance that these purely hypothetical objects can never be present to the divine mind, since they represent nothing in reality. Moreover, as we shall see, he made this knowledge serve as the wellspring of divine providence’; see Eugene Portalie, A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine (London: Burns & Oates, 1960), 128-29.

[10] Jeff Astley, Christian Doctrines (London: SCM, 2010), 190.

[11] The phrase is Origen’s though, not of course, formulated in English.

[12] See the discussion by Martin Rees, Our Cosmic Habitat (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001), 157-65.

[13] City of God, XII, 12.

[14] Chapter 5 of Science and the Spirit.

[15] W. K. Kay, “Pentecostals and the Bible,” Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association 24 (2004): 71-83.

[16] Richard Dawkins is the obvious example.

[17] This is not a new argument and was used in Victorian England when evolution first became a serious proposition. See Adrian Desmond and James R. Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, 1991), 479 and passim, and also James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), ch. 11.

[18] Alice Roberts, The Incredible Human Journey (London: Bloomsbury, 2009).

[19] Chapter 2. See also James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), ch. 4.

[20] Gribbin, Science, ch. 4.

[21] K. R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1965).

[22] There are a great deal more to say on this subject. See the section entitled ‘The problem of induction’ in Paul A. Schlipp, ed., The Philosophy of Karl Popper (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1974), 1013-48.

[23] Peter Medawar, the Nobel laureate, speaks warmly of Popper’s effect on his own understanding of the role of the imagination in science. I have not been able to locate the source, however.

[24] Popper’s comments on the theory of evolution are lengthy and detailed. Note he writes, ‘I do not think that Darwinism can explain the origin of life’ (p. 134), and ‘I think there is more to say for Darwinism than that it is just one metaphysical research programme among others’ (p. 135) – i.e. Darwinism is a ‘metaphysical research programme’ rather than a scientific theory. Quotations taken from Schlipp’s The Philosophy of Karl Popper, where Popper’s autobiography is reproduced.

[25] N. W. Gillham, A Life of Sir Francis Galton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[26] John Wimber and Kevin N. Springer, Power Healing (London: Hodder, 1986).


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