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Review: 'Christianity and Science' by Herman Bavinck - The Gospel Coalition

Author: The Gospel Coalition

Source: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/christianity-science-bavinck/

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Science in the late-modern world faces an uncertain future.Despite a slight increase during the COVID pandemic, Americans’ confidence in scientists has fallen to prepandemic levels.Driving this, in part, is perhaps the way science and ideology are increasingly commingled.Gender theory informs care for gender dysphoria, setting up the current debate on evidence-based treatment.Scientific journals have urged researchers and editors to consider the social justice implications of their work.Indeed, these are strange times when atheist Richard Dawkins sides with Christians on notions of what’s real and true.Christianity and Science, written by Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck over a century ago, offers prescient wisdom. This volume has been made available in English for the first time through the cooperative work of three translators: N.Gray Sutanto is assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary; James Eglinton is a Keller Center fellow and a senior lecturer in Reformed theology at the University of Edinburgh; Cory Brock is a minister at St.Columba’s in Edinburgh.Bavinck argues that modern science has never been neutral.In fact, the longer science proceeds under the false assumption of neutrality, the further it departs from serving both science and religious belief.The way forward, he argues, is to pay attention to the relationship between knowledge and faith.Christianity and Science Herman Bavinck Christianity and Science Herman Bavinck Crossway. 240 pp.Christianity and Science explores the pros and cons of Christian science and features brief, informative sections on the natural sciences, the humanities, theological science and religious studies, the doctrine of revelation, the benefits of Christianity for scholarship, and what it means to develop a Christian university.Responding to the challenges of the modern age, Bavinck recognizes the significance of faith in education.Edited and translated in English for the first time by N.Gray Sutanto, James Eglinton, and Cory C. Brock, this fundamental work will inspire Christian teachers, practitioners, and seminarians in their pursuits.Crossway.240 pp.Limitations of ScienceWe most often define science as the pursuit of empirical knowledge about the world.The same was true in Bavinck’s day.We study things through our senses, confident we can arrive at truth by touching, measuring, or even thinking.There’s good reason for this. It’s hard to contest that the physical world around us is real and knowable.But Bavinck argues that on this very point, modern science is deluded.It assumes too much, and thus it cannot arrive at true knowledge of the world.Bavinck offers several reasons why science often oversteps its bounds.Identifying them can help us think better about science.1. Science is concerned with more than just the senses.According to Bavinck, science is the disciplined investigation to both know and understand what’s true and real.Because we encounter the world through our physical senses, science relies on the senses to examine the world.However, as the senses only provide information to our minds that we must then process and interpret, scientific knowledge involves more than just the senses.Modern science is deluded.It assumes too much.All perception involves thinking, so scientific knowledge is always arrived at by cognition.We come to understand what our senses provide us by integrating such perception into what we believe we already know. Therefore, our worldview assumptions about what is knowable (epistemology), what is real (metaphysics), and what is good (ethics) are always the foundation for scientific knowledge through the senses.This is exactly where positivist science, which posits that scientific knowledge is always objective and that empirical reality is the only thing that can be known, begins to show its inadequacy.2.Science can never justify itself.If science is defined from the start as only knowledge that comes through empirical investigation, then science cannot be the source of its purpose and goal.Science can help you see that others study the world to understand it.But it cannot tell you why you ought to do likewise.We assume that the world makes sense, that we should seek to understand it, and that doing so is good and useful.For Bavinck, each of these is essential to knowing, and they’re only ever problematic if we believe certain knowledge can only come through investigating the material world. But science can never set its own limits.It cannot determine what is and isn’t knowable.3.Science is always ‘faith seeking understanding.’Bavinck argues all science is ultimately “built on and must proceed from faith” (58).Contrary to modern thinking, this requires brave realism rather than naivete.“No science can be imagined,” says Bavinck, “without accepting beforehand, quietly and without criticism, the reliability of the senses, the objective existence of the world, the truth of the laws of thinking, and the logical, ideal content of perceptible phenomena” (131–32).Bavinck encourages us to think Christianly about science because of Christianity’s conviction that the world is real and knowable since the Creator has revealed himself within it. Because of the objective, historical convergence of God and creation in the person and work of Christ, only a Christian worldview can bring unity to perception and knowledge, being and thinking, faith and science.Accordingly, Bavinck concludes that while any science offers knowledge that particular things exist and how they relate to other things, only “Christian science is a science that investigates all things by the light of [God’s] revelation and, therefore, sees [things] as they truly are in their essence” (225).Our Context Is Similar to Bavinck’sBavinck’s argument presents a hopeful message for our own day.He urges us to see science as organically reliant on faith to realize that the Christian faith in particular holds the key to rescuing science from ideology.Modern science hasn’t rid society of religiosity.Rather, our society increasingly approaches science cloaked in alternative spiritualities.Our society seems open now, more than ever, to admitting science cannot be neutral and we should be honest about our presuppositions of what science is and what it’s for.On this, Bavinck says, “An era that manifests such signs is not unfavorable for the practice of science in a Christian spirit” (47).Christians should continue to investigate the world rigorously and honestly, all the while drawing attention to the worldview commitments about truth and cognition that make science possible.Christianity Is the Only Proper ScienceTo some, Bavinck’s claim that only Christian science is proper science may seem like any other ideology or fundamentalism. But within the framework he presents, it’s the only natural conclusion.Our society seems open now, more than ever, to admitting science cannot be neutral.It isn’t a claim that’s provable by empirical science.Bavinck rightly believes the most compelling evidence for the truth of a Christian worldview is that it’s an eminently livable worldview.Christianity alone offers the most intellectually and existentially compelling way to unite belief and reality, and by this to live consistently with our convictions.Christianity and Science is a helpful introduction to Herman Bavinck’s other works on worldview and knowledge.In all three, and especially in this book, Bavinck charts a needed escape from modernity’s anemic understanding of science.He helps us think better about knowledge and belief—for the sake both of better science and of a more compelling public witness.

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