Anatomy of a conflict

January 31, 2024

Anatomy of a conflict

My undergraduate alma mater is Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina.  It's a small place, but I learned some big ideas there.  One of the biggest ideas seeped in by osmosis as I studied science in that Christian environment.  We could start the morning in physics, calculating the relative gravitational pull of the Earth versus the Sun on the Moon, and then troop off to chapel, where we might hear a talk from the Bible describing the ascension of Jesus to be with his Father in heaven, and never think that Jesus must be waiting patiently on the dark side of the Moon until his return on judgement day. From this I picked up that the Bible is good, and science is good, but they speak different languages, and their benefits apply largely to different aspects of our humanity.

My physics professor was Dr. Junkin and he taught me a much more specific point.  Human beings are made to do science.  It's right there in Genesis 1:26

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

God made human beings with a purpose, to rule over creation under him.  One of the ways we fulfil that purpose is to physically harness the operating principles of the universe for the common good; hence, science is a tool for fulfilling our purpose.  It's not the only tool in the toolkit, but it is one of the tools.

An implication of this is that Christians ought to be open to, welcoming of, and even involved in new scientific discoveries about our universe.

Of course, while this sounds encouraging in broad principle, we are all aware of understandings of the Bible that conflict with the conclusions of modern, empirical research.  I'm thinking particularly of those moments when science and the Bible are thought to be giving competing explanations of the same event or concept.

For example, one way of reading the Bible leads to the conclusion that the Earth is 6000 years old while your local science department will tell you it is more like 4.5 billion years old.  Were human beings created in an instant from dust, or over billions of years through a gradual, meandering evolutionary process?  Was there a moment in our historical timeline at the curse of God on the sin of Adam and Eve when the physical nature of our universe changed?  Were there no volcanoes or earthquakes or floods or bushfires before the curse, or has the universe operated on the same physical principles since its creation, as the conclusions of mainstream geology and astronomy suggest?

These questions, and many others, stem from common readings of the Bible—often readings that do not rely on a single prooftext but on a strand of teaching woven through the entire Bible—and from conclusions of the scientific enterprise used to construct a framework for answering other questions presented by the world in which we live.  There is a genuine impasse on a variety of issues, the exact nature and number of which will depend mostly on your own interpretive approach to the Bible.

One response to such difficulties emerges from an analysis of their anatomy. My argument is that we can have peace in the midst of these presenting conflicts if we first pause to understand the origin and nature of the conflicts themselves.

Here it is.  The anatomy of a conflict.

It starts with the picture of the world we get from Genesis 1.  There is God and God has created everything.  He has created the physical universe, and he has created the Bible.

The Christian view of God maintains that whatever God has written in the Bible, it is not in conflict with anything that is true about his creation.  God is sovereign over all of his creation, hence no power can make it work against itself outside of God's intention.  God is both truthful and faithful, so his creation is internally consistent over all time.  As a result, it simply cannot be the case that there are conflicts between the way things work or in the history of the world and the Bible's view of the world and its history.

But that is not the end of the story and it only gets us as far as the top half of the diagram.

Human beings are part of this system as well, and human beings are finite.  We don't, and can't, know everything.  We never have the full picture when we are trying to make sense of what we see around us.  Also, we are sinful.  We have rejected the God who designed everything, which means we make mistakes when dealing with evidence or even wilfully ignore an entire range of possible conclusions.

So human beings don't have direct access to this simple world we have pictured.  We are always interpreting what we see and are constrained both by our limited nature as creatures and by the consequences of our rejection of God.  Let's call our interpretation of creation ‘science’, and our interpretation of the Bible ‘theology’.

It is below the line that we experience conflicts, and that is natural.  It is not surprising that our imperfect interpretations of creation and our imperfect interpretations of the Bible will conflict with each other from time to time. But the conflicts are not between things that God has made. They are between our understandings of what God has made.  The conflicts are never above the line, they are only ever below the line.

Let me draw out two implications of this anatomy of a conflict.

First, humility.  The most appropriate response to conflicts that either you discover or that others challenge you with is humility.  You could be wrong.  You are limited and broken.  Your ideas about the world might be wrong.  Your ideas about the Bible might be wrong.  We will do well, when faced with a conflict or challenge, to ask questions and make it our goal to understand both sides of the argument. Understand the data. Understand what is data and what is interpretation. Understand the worldview(s) behind the ideas.  Understand the implications of the ideas. If the conflict is with others, listen more than you speak. Humility is the first response.

Second, peace.  Because we know that the conflict is generated by our human limitations and failures and not by a fundamental disharmony between things God has made, we should allow ourselves to sit with the conflict and not react with fear. It is better to live with the problem than remove it at the cost of truth or humility.  We have nothing to fear.  Truth is what we're after, but it is hard won and requires a cool head.  We need to learn to be at peace in the midst of conflicts and hard questions, trusting that they are of our own making, so do not immediately constitute a threat to our beliefs.  We should have the peace to treat conflicts as new ideas that we can enjoy and play with and look at from different angles without getting defensive and shutting down investigation and conversation.


Dr Lewis Jones received his PhD in Astrophysics from the University of North Carolina, and moved to Australia to do postdoctoral research at the University of NSW. He subsequently completed the Bachelor of Divinity at Moore Theological College, and is now the Director of The Simeon Network, the postgraduate and academic arm of AFES. Lewis also serves on the Human Research Ethics Committee at UNSW, and attends Randwick Presbyterian Church.

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