The proper distinction between science and theology

Several years back, a friend shared a thought with me that I found very helpful. In Evolving Certainties I had argued that scriptural descriptions of the natural realm are pre-scientific, not anti-scientific. He said: “Theology is not ignorant of science, but recognizes that the scriptures speak in the scientific language and models of the time and culture in which the text was written. For example, the Torah of Moses reflects the science of the ancient Near East and the New Testament reflects the philosophical science of the first century Greco-Roman Empire. For theology, science is part of the cultural worldview and context out of which God has spoken and into which God speaks. But theology is not an interpreter of science.”


I was wondering what you meant by that until the example.

Yes, it’s fair to consider the culture of the time.

These thoughts come from Pastor William Cwirla, emeritus, a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Pastor. These thoughts were sent back to me back in 2019 and I share them with his permission. The document is titled "TWENTY FOUR THESES ON SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY.” I have found them very insightful. I would appreciate your thoughts on this critical and controversial relationship.

THESIS ONE – “Science is the modern way of explaining how the natural world works in terms of its mechanisms and laws through the observation and analysis of observed phenomena, natural causes, and effects.”

THESIS TWO – “Theology is the study and interpretation of texts about God, (God-words), the revelation of God’s Word in the words of Man, given in many and various ways, at various times and places, in various cultural contexts, handed down to us in a collection of writings we call the Bible or the Holy Writings, (Scriptures).”


Can you expand on how this is controversial? I can see where some might thinks these [theses] are incomplete.

Thesis two would seem to reject the entire concept of natural theology. Was that on purpose?

Hi, Dan. What I’m thinking of with the use of the word “controversial” is the whole area of science versus religion and the conflict that sometimes arises between certain Christians and their understanding of science. I’m not speaking so much of the theses themselves that I’m presenting, but of the whole area where the two main areas, science and faith, interact. It’s interesting to me that I’ve seen a breakdown where evangelicals have what they consider contested science, which is evolutionary science, biological science, and so on, and uncontested science, which is just the basic science we live by every day. The reason it’s contested among some Christians is because it seems to contradict what they read in the scriptures. And I think as you see these other theses come forward, you’ll see that Pastor Cwirla attempts to clarify these issues quite a bit. So he starts off quite general and get more specific as he goes along.

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I don’t think so. I think it relates to the concept of sola scriptura, emphasizing sola. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is a very conservative denomination which has a very high regard, as many other denominations do, for the authority of Scripture. Natural theology brings to mind Scriptures like Psalm 19, where we hear about the heavens declaring the glory of God, and the Book of Romans, chapter 1, verse 20, where the Apostle Paul says that God’s … “eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” I think the issue is that natural theology only takes us so far as in terms of understanding the Creator. There are certainly amazing positive things that we can see in the natural world around us and in the cosmos as well. But on the other side of the coin, creation includes parasites and wasps that lay eggs in caterpillars – nature red in tooth and claw. Which leads to the problem of theodicy – folks asking how a loving God could allow such things.

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You don’t think it was on purpose or you don’t think it rejects the concept of natural theology?

John, I, like you, am reading these thoughts without the benefit of being able to ask the author about the reasons why certain material was included in these theses and other material was omitted. My response to your first question is the general consensus in the Missouri Synod and in my own denomination, Lutheran Church Canada, which is a sister synod to the LCMS.

My only point is that the definition of theology given in thesis two would require, if interpreted in any sensible way, that natural theology is not theology.

From the unpublished document titled Twenty-Four Theses on Science and Theology shared in September 2019 with Pastor Terry Defoe by Pastor Bill Cwirla, now retired.

Thesis 3 – Science and Theology are distinct interpretive vocations that have their own distinct methods, data, language, and tasks of service to humankind.

Thesis 4 – The proper work of science is to discern how the natural world works in terms of its natural laws and mechanisms. Science eliminates false mechanisms through observation and reason. Science cannot arrive at absolute truth, but only the relative degree of certainty based on the preponderance of available evidence.

Thesis 5 – The proper work of theology is to interpret the scriptures as the revelation of God to man, God’s word in man’s words. Theology eliminates false gods and false notions about God. Theology deals in the absolute truth revealed by the enscripturated and incarnate word, who is the way, the truth, and the life.

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Theology is the interpretation of scripture by fallible humans, most of whom disagree with one another. In what way is this the discovery of “absolute truth”?

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It’s an idiosyncratic definition of theology, one perhaps peculiar to a few very conservative Christian denominations. I don’t think many outside those would accept that definition.

That is true, John. But in cap. “C” Conservative denominations like the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod that difference is worn like a badge of honor.

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Inside the bubble, it’s seen that way. Outside the bubble it’s not. Personally, I would locate myself outside the bubble. I see truth in theology, no doubt, but absolute? Sufficient for a transformative change in one’s spiritual outlook on life and on Jesus of Nazareth, but absolute? That’s a leap I’m not prepared to take.


Continuing with Pastor Bill Cwirla’s unpublished Twenty-Four Theses on Science and Theology, theses 6, 8, and 9. Thesis 7 began this discussion, so it will be omitted here.

THESIS 6 - Science is blind to supernatural causes. That explanation, since scientific method is, by definition, methodological naturalism, limited to natural causes and effects. Therefore, the practice of science is agnostic towards the supernatural, regardless of what the practicing scientist may or may not believe.

THESIS 8 - Science and theology are both methods of interpreting their respective set of data. Science interprets observed phenomena. Theology interprets the text of scripture. Each has its own rules of interpretation, hermeneutics. The scientific theory stands or falls on the weight of scientific evidence alone. An interpretation of the scripture stands or falls on the text alone, following the ordinary rules of text interpretation, within the doctrinal bounds of the “analogy of the faith.” ** Scripture interprets scripture. Science interprets science.

THESIS 9 -The doctrine of creation is not the science of creation. The doctrine of creation confesses that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible, who creates, sustains, orders, and preserves all things by means of his word. This creative, divine working of the word is both cosmic and personal. God is the maker of heaven and earth, and he has made me and all creatures. The science of creation seeks to understand and describe how the creation happened phenomenologically, and how the creation works in terms of its natural causes and effects.

** The analogy of the faith asserts that all Scripture harmoniously agrees with itself and contains no essential contradictions. Therefore, when interpreting any passage, it must be compared with what other parts of the Bible teach. Essentially, Scripture should interpret Scripture. During the Reformation, the Reformers sought to curb speculative and fanciful interpretations of Scripture. They established the fundamental axiom that Holy Scripture is its own interpreter. This principle aimed to prevent unbridled interpretations by grounding them in the broader context of biblical revelation. The term “analogy of faith” appears in the New Testament, specifically in the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 12, verse 6. When studying a biblical passage adherence to the analogy of faith, consider how it aligns with the overall biblical message. They avoid isolated interpretations that might conflict with other biblical teachings. Instead, they seek harmony and coherence across Scripture.*


Well, I just have to say “good luck with that.”

How does one justify the claim that things about God can be known even with greater certainty than can things about the natural world, never mind with absolute certainty? Can you list some of the things we alll know for certain about God? Or at least with the degree of certainty with which we know the earth is not flat?

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If I may reintroduce a point @John_Harshman raised earlier – where does Natural Theology sit within the framework of these theses? Has it been assumed out of existence (ignored but not necessarily refuted)? Does it exist as an illegitimate Frankenstein’s Monster combining elements of these two “distinct interpretive vocations”? Or what?

Agreed. It’s one thing to find it and something entirely different to impose it. Exegesis is drawing the author’s intended meaning out of the text in question. Eisegesis, on the other hand, is reading something extraneous into the text. It’s all about hermeneutics at the end of the day.