Complete vs. Limited or Real vs. Non-Real?

@dga471, I think realism vs. non-realism is not the right way to frame this. The question is, rather, the degree to which science and Scripture describe the physical world we all inhabit. Does Scripture legitimately describe the physical world or not? Does science legitimately describe the physical world or not?

The tendency among TE (exhibit @Jay313) is to take science as a nearly total description of the physical world, without careful attention to its limits. The tendency is to doubt and question any warrant for believing things about the physical world based on the testimony of Scripture. This, it seems, is hard to reconcile coherently with traditional or evangelical Christianity.

In contrast, we could take science and Scripture as legitimate but partial descriptions of the physical world. We do not expect them to be articulating them same things to us, nor do we limit Scripture to the realm of values (e.g. NOMA). Instead, we think that they each have legitimacy, even if we don’t know quite how to give an account of how they describe the same world.

This why, I think, the GAE is so valuable to evangelicals. It gives the account of how Scripture could be true and so could science. Neither is a total view of reality, but each is valid from its own perspective, and each is legitimately talking about the physical world we all inhabit. For Christians outside the evangelical tradition, I suspect it will be hard for them to understand why this is important.


I think the question of “partial” vs. “full” descriptions is correct. It is basically asking what are the domains that Scripture and science are allowed to speak about. Or, a question of which “data set” or “narrative” is given priority when we want to investigate reality: science, Scripture, or something in between? I think whether one calls it partial vs. full or realism vs. non-realism is a matter of semantics. I note that Hans Madueme calls his own position “Scriptural realism” (2014).

On one extreme are YECs who insist that legitimate science can only begin by starting from the narrative framework of Scripture. Some hard concordists would also lean towards this pole (e.g. OECs trying to identify modern scientific phenomena within Genesis 1). On the other extreme are TEs who assume that the scientific, rationalistic, non-supernatural narrative is the default, and that events in Scripture have to be reinterpreted until they fit it. Some might even hold to an absolute version of NOMA, such that Scripture can only speak about certain vague spiritual or moral realities, not anything physical.


Another issue is that my bringing up of realism vs. non-realism is also within the context of assuming the case where it seems that science is in tension with a point of theology (in this case, the Tasmanian question). Should we try to negotiate the science first, or reinterpret Scripture? How much scientific evidence against a theological claim would be enough before we should seriously consider discarding it? For example, YECs like Todd Wood, despite being aware of the evidence for evolution, choose to hope that some day, the evidential situation will change. I also see this attitude with regards to archaeological evidence for events in the OT, for example. Some people think that the lack of evidence means the “historical” narratives of the OT cannot be interpreted as straightforward history anymore, while others have a more tentative, agnostic stance.


I do think it is an important distinction. I think we can take both with full realism but also partial. Qualifying them as partial accounts does not diminish their realism. That is why I would resist saying I take a non-realism approach to science. That isn’t true. Rather, I think that science is not the whole story; it is a real account, but only partial.

Exactly, which is why GAE is important. It seemed liked evolutionary science threatened the realism of Genesis, but that wasn’t true. Both could be real at the same time.

This seems to be a case where the choice of words matter. All camps in the origins debate want to affirm that they take both Scripture and science seriously. So perhaps you’re right, realism vs. non-realism is a too polemical choice of words.


Well, perhaps not quite all camps. I’d suggest that most evolutionary biologists do not take scripture seriously.


The reason for taking scripture seriously is what it might lead those who believe it to do.

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That’s a different sense of “taking seriously”.

It boils down to how you think legitimacy is earned. In both cases, I think logic and reason take priority. If scripture can be interpreted as supporting both Heliocentrism and Geocentrism, then we would should use logic, reason, and facts to determine which is true. I think it would be a mistake to interpret scripture while ignoring empirical evidence, logic, and reason.

I have always viewed science as a game. The rules are that you start with what you can empirically measure and you see which conclusions you can reach with just that information. Science was never meant to give us ontological truths, just the best conclusions we can get if we start with agreed upon facts. Science is always going to be an incomplete and tentative description of reality, but where there is ample evidence science does seem to be a very reliable and and powerful tool.

Interpreting scripture is much more personal and subjective since you can also start with personal experiences and beliefs that are not agreed upon. However, where the two clash it seems prudent to give way to science. Where the two don’t clash due to lack of facts, then science and scripture can exist in their own domains. The legitimacy of religious beliefs is then left to each person as judged by how they choose to view the world.


As I presume that you know that’s an issue for philosophy of science/physics. A realist would say that science describes the world; an anti-realist that science models the world.

The non-realism I was referring to is slightly different from the non-realism of philosophy of science in the secular academy (even though there could be some overlap). There, the debate is whether the entities and structures we encounter in science (e.g. atoms, photons, cells, etc.) have a mind-independent, external existence, or are they just structures of the human mind that help to classify phenomena. An extreme non-realist position (sometimes called instrumentalism) might say that what objectively exists are just the values we read out on our scientific instruments. But here both sides agree on what the scientific conclusions are - they are just debating the philosophical significance of those findings.

In contrast, within the context of the Christian origins conversation, the question is more thorny: it is whether science, Scripture, or a combination of both is sufficient to provide a complete description of reality. There are a greater variety of options here:

  • Some YECs might argue that the conclusions of mainstream science are wrong even if assessed with completely neutral criteria (without reference to Scripture).
  • Some other YECs (like Todd Wood or Kurt Wise) might concede that there is lots of evidence for the mainstream viewpoint, but that is only because they start from a set of presuppositions which are different from YECs. Thus, they argue that one cannot investigate reality without first adopting YEC presuppositions.
  • Some other YECs might altogether concede that the world was created with the appearance of age, and that scientific investigation is useless to figure out what really happened.

I think it’s quite clear that both science and theology are limited. Reality is big, and there’s much we don’t know.

I also think that the Real/Non-real distinction is not particularly interesting outside of philosophy. Whether or not electrons are ‘real’ or ‘just a mental construct’, they’re about as real as “real” gets. Likewise, when we say that, for example, that humanity is fallen, we can debate what that means philosophically, or try to define it more precisely, but regardless of the discussion things don’t really get more “real” than that.

I also think that the analogs are scientific data to Scripture, and scientific theories to theology. The same rules for interpretation/inference underlie both systems. But the data/scripture part is VERY limited but VERY real, whereas the theory/theology part is much more expansive, but less real.