Science and Christianity are complementary

Alister McGrath, 2016. Enriching our vision of reality: Theology and the natural sciences in dialogue. London: SPCK.

McGrath’s intention in this book is to demonstrate a different relationship between Christianity and science from the one presupposed by the ‘Science vs Religion’ standoff. Christian belief and science are complementary, and, as his title says, together enrich our vision of reality. At the end of the book, McGrath says he has written it because he believes that the people best qualified to carry forward this enriched vision of the world are scientists who have a Christian faith. But it is not enough for individuals to enjoy this enriched vision. It is important to demonstrate that science and faith can be held together by practising scientists, in order to counter the myth that science and faith are at war.

There are more similarities, McGrath holds, between the methods of science and Christian theology than is commonly supposed. An important similarity is that they both construct theoretical models of the way the universe is. Both are inevitably incomplete, as there is always more to be learned, and each provides an account of relationships among things we think we know about. Doctrines do not come ready made in the Bible, and McGrath argues that Christian doctrines are akin to scientific theories, as they are models that have been hammered out over time by thinkers who have attempted to make sense of what they have learned from the Bible and from their own and others’ experiences. Scientific theories similarly are the outcomes of a variety of cognitive processes. They don’t emerge from empirical observation alone.

The complementarity of Christian belief and science lies in the fact that both seek to understand the world. The scientistic view of the world, which claims that the only form of knowledge about the universe is that which science can ascertain, is unnecessarily restrictive. It offers no account, for example, of the sense of awe at seeing a clear night sky in the desert. ‘Science dismantles the world so that we can see how things work;’ McGrath writes, ‘the Christian faith reassembles them so we can see what they mean.’

Important to this complementarity is the field of intellectual activity known as natural theology, about which McGrath writes,
Traditionally, natural theology has been understood as ‘the enterprise of providing support for religious beliefs by starting from premises that neither are nor presuppose any religious beliefs’ [Alston 1991:289] or the ‘branch of philosophy which investigates what human reason unaided by revelation can tell us concerning God’. [Joyce 1922:1]
A major theme of the book is to turn this picture on its head. Instead of giving independent support to Christian belief, McGrath's natural theology is based on Christian belief and on revelation. Its function is to contribute to a more satisfactory view of nature than science can provide alone.

McGrath has organised his book into three parts. The first is introductory, and refers among other things to the poverty of scientism. The second has three chapters, each devoted to the thinking of a practitioner who has crossed the science/faith divide. They are Charles Coulson, Thomas F. Torrance and John Polkinghorne. The third part has six chapters, each of which discusses an aspect of the relationship between science and Christianity. I must admit that I didn’t really warm to the book until I got into the chapters on Torrance (ch 3) and Polkinghorne (ch 4), but this is a reflection on my interests rather than on McGrath’s writing.

Thomas F. Torrance (1913–2007) was a theologian who believed that the mind could not be split into hermetically sealed compartments.[1]  He was concerned that both scientists and theologians should have ‘a belief in the ultimate consistency of things as they are in themselves’. Science may uncover order in the universe, but it cannot explain it:
Science only informs us what light is thrown upon reality by the empirical observation of the facts of external nature. When science claims that this is all that can be said, it is no longer science but the species of philosophical theory called naturalism.
Torrance was a disciple of Karl Barth, but regretted the latter’s disregard for the natural sciences. This and his friendship with the astronomer Bernard Lovell caused him to extend his development of Barth’s theology to examine the relationship between theology and science. Indeed, Torrance used the term ‘theological science’, intending ‘science’ in its older and broader usage (rather than its modern English denotation, natural science). McGrath describes Torrance’s position:
Torrance’s basic approach to theology as a science can be summed up in two basic principles. First, theology is to be understood as a human discipline that aims to use human reason to produce, to the extent that this is possible, an ordered account of what can be known of its object. It shares this desire to yield an ordered account of things with other sciences, including the natural sciences. Second, theology alone recognizes the self-revelation of God in Christ as its object and hence as the sole foundation and criterion of its basic statements.
Torrance insisted that each science had to let the object of investigation speak for itself. As McGrath writes,
Physics, biology and psychology – to mention just a few examples – each have their own vocabularies and research methods, and engage with nature at their own distinctive levels.
And a little later:
Torrance’s vision of theology thus rests on a fundamental conviction that there exists a real world outside the human mind, which is grasped – not constructed – by human reason, which engages with each aspect of that real world according to its distinct identity and property.
The relationship between science and theology inevitably raises the question of the role of natural theology, ‘the manner and extent to which the natural world is able to disclose anything about the nature of God.’ But Torrance sees natural theology as a (in McGrath’s words)
consequence of a properly Christian knowledge of God, rather than a necessary – though not sufficient – condition for our knowledge of God in the first place.
McGrath continues,
If all theology proceeds from God’s self-revelation in Christ, as Barth insists is the case, then there seems to be no valid place for natural theology. . . . According to Torrance, Barth’s objection to natural theology lies in his concern that such a natural theology will be seen as an independent and equally valid route to human knowledge of God, which may be had under conditions of our choosing. Yet this danger can be avoided if natural theology is itself seen as a subordinate aspect of revealed theology.
John Polkinghorne (born 1930) is a mathematician and quantum physicist whose personal faith took him into the Anglican priesthood. Polkinghorne’s approach to natural theology, like Torrance’s, rejects the idea that nature alone offers any proof of God’s existence, but claims that Christian faith, in McGrath’s words, ‘offers a more satisfying account of nature than its atheist alternatives.. . . While science itself does not appear to need any theological supplementation within its own distinctive domain, it nevertheless raises questions it cannot answer on the basis of its own working methods…’ These ‘metaquestions’ are the subject matter of Polkinghorne’s natural theology. Why is science possible? That is, why can we apprehend the physical universe (e.g. quantum mechanics) when it is so far from our everyday experience? Why is the universe apparently so well adjusted for life?

In answering these questions, the historical continuity of Christian theology is important. As scientific understanding changes, so theological revision may be appropriate. Polkinghorne regards theology as ‘a continuously unfolding exploration’, dynamic rather than static, but maintaining continuity with the past, in somewhat the same way as scientific disciplines. For Polkinghorne this search for understanding is the search for God.

Chapter 5, the first in Part 3, centres on the similarities between theology and the sciences. McGrath begins by remarking that our mindset, the framework through which we look at the world, is clearly referenced by Jesus when he said, ‘the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15). He points out that the meaning of the word ‘repentance’, Greek metanoia, has become restricted in our vocabulary. In Greek metanoia meant ‘a radical change of mind’ or ‘a fundamental intellectual reorientation’. Jesus invited us to
turn away from older habits of thought and action and embrace a new way of thinking and living. Christ is asking his audience for a radical reorientation of their minds and hearts. Repentance is certainly part of this transformation – but there is more to it than this. Repentance does not mean primarily ‘a sense of regret’ but renouncing and abandoning ways of thinking ‘which are not large enough for God’s mystery’. [Norris 2001:197]
McGrath recalls his own conversion from atheism to Christianity, which he sees as a change of mindset, a metanoia that brought a new ‘way of conceiving the world’.

McGrath comments on the role of the imagination in the sciences:
Yet the paradox of empiricism is that while we must begin all our reflections with the data of experience, the task of making sense of this data requires us to posit some things that lie beyond our experience – such as gravity, dark matter and so on. Why? Because the theories we develop to help us make sense of the world often show us that we need to hypothesize hidden or unobservable entities if the things we can see are to fit together in a coherent way. Or to put this more simply: we sometimes need to infer the existence of things we can’t see to help us explain what we can see.
McGrath later comments that when he was studying physics, he lived in a world of quantum mechanics that had its own counterintuitive rationality (he recommends Polkinghorne 2002 as an introduction to the latter). Sir Peter Medawar remarked that public presentations of science disturbingly fail to acknowledge the critical role of imagination. In Surprised by joy C.S. Lewis writes of the opposite pulls of reason and imagination:
On the one side, a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other, a glib and shallow rationalism. Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
His return to faith was founded on a sense that he was missing something that would help him make sense of his life and the world.

When McGrath first studied theology, he assumed that the core of Christianity was a set of doctrines like those set out in the Creeds. With time, he recognised that Christian doctrines represent an ‘intellectual formalization of something deeper and more fundamental – the narrative of faith, developed and unfolded in the Christian Bible, with a capacity to capture the imagination as well as engaging the reason.’ This thought, that theology has an imaginative dimension that defies capture in words, has found expression at various times and places. In Dante’s Divine Comedy we read,
From that moment onwards my power of sight exceeded
That of speech, which fails at such a vision.
The poet George Herbert (1593–1633) writes about the role of theology in his poem The elixir. It begins
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things thee to see.
and in the next stanza,
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
C.S. Lewis makes a similar admission In Surprised by joy.

The point McGrath is making here is that, in order to make sense of empirical data, both science and theology make imaginative use of things unseen. From here he develops the idea that a doctrine is simply a theological theory, parallel intellectually to a scientific theory. An important aspect of theory-construction and elaboration is the recognition of anomalies, things that don’t fit in. An anomaly sometimes leads to replacement of the old theory by a new one, and McGrath gives a number of excellently explained historical examples of an anomaly leading to theoretical change, not the least being the expansion of Newtonian mechanics by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He suggests that an obvious anomaly in Christian theorising is what C.S. Lewis called ‘the problem of pain’, i.e. the existence of suffering. In Richard Dawkins’ ‘metaphysically expanded version of Darwinism’ pain is unproblematic, yet, says McGrath, suffering clearly is a problem for people. In the light of its vision of a renewed creation, Christianity admits to a sense that this is not the way things are supposed to be, but has an intellectual difficulty in accounting for it: pain is anomalous. The Book of Job, of course, addresses this fact: when Job’s comforters can come up with no adequate explanation of his situation, God invites Job to see the big picture of the universe, transcending everything that Job could see from his earthly perspective (on this, see the post on McLeish here). Job still receives no explanation for his suffering, but is left with a sense that there is an answer, even if he cannot fully discern it.

In Chapter 6 McGrath addresses the role of evidence in science. He comments that the criteria scientists use to evaluate evidence are no more than conventions that have been found to work adequately. He quotes the philosopher of science Joseph Rouse, who writes that there are ‘no generally applicable standards of rational acceptability in science’, but a ‘roughly shared understanding’ of certain procedures reflecting ‘the judgments of a community concerning what is credible and reliable in the context of their ongoing work.’ (Rouse 1996:124). The current
dominant theory of how we decide which theory is best is known as ‘inference to the best explanation’.[2]  Basically, this theory lines up the observational evidence and asks how this stacks up in the light of the various ways of explaining it. A number of criteria are generally used to assess these rival theories, including simplicity, degree of fit, fruitfulness and comprehensiveness. Often scientists are forced to make probability judgements – this theory is ‘probably’ the best.
Thus there is never a ‘proven’ answer in science. In this respect theology is no different from science.

McGrath writes that one can assess a theory in two ways, asking what reasons there are for suggesting it is true, and how successful it is in interpreting its subject. The first question concerns the evidence that has led to the theory. The second concerns how well it makes sense of reality ‘in effect, inviting us to imagine what the world would look like if the theory was right, and comparing this with what we actually see. Ideally, a theory is both evidenced and evidencing – that is, combining both approaches.’ String theory, for example, is widely regarded as failing on the first criterion.

An issue that has given rise to recent debate between atheists and Christians is whether it is rational to believe in something that lies beyond our experience.
For Christians, God is the best explanation of the world we see around us and what we experience within us. We don’t believe in God because we have abandoned rationality but because we see God as both the source and the ultimate goal of human reason. Most of the great writers of the early church – including Athanasius of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo – made this point.
But Christianity goes beyond this. It argues on the basis of evidence given by the New Testament writers that ‘this God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ; that God became observable in history.’

In the last section of Chapter 6, entitled ‘The rationality of faith’, McGrath cites a number of recent Christian thinkers who have found that their Christianity offers, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ words ‘the only explanation of the universe that is intellectually satisfactory’. These writers also include Michael Polanyi, Simone Weil (1909–1943), C.S Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936), who wrote, ‘The phenomenon does not prove religion, but religion explains the phenomenon’ (Chesterton 1903).

McGrath continues,
The whole issue of making sense of reality is deeply embedded within both the natural sciences and the Christian faith. Indeed, if I might offer a personal perspective, one factor that led me decisively away from my youthful atheism to Christianity was my growing realization that the Christian faith made far more sense of what I saw around me and experienced within me than its atheist alternatives.
The psychologist William James (1842–1910) argues in his 1897 essay ‘The will to believe’ that we all need ‘working hypotheses’ to make sense of our experience of the world, hypotheses that are unproven but which we act on because we have found them reliable. Faith is a set of such hypotheses. Everyone, whether or not they are of a faith, has to make judgments that go beyond the evidence available.

McGrath emphasises that the scientific positivism (’scientism’) that is basic to the New Atheism is ‘a severely inadequate account of the scientific method, which fails to do justice to the ambiguity of nature, the provisionality of scientific theories and the fallibility of human judgement.’ It fails to recognise that we make judgments about what we believe by assessing evidence. ‘Christianity, like science, is about motivated belief,’ he concludes.
I cannot prove that rape is wrong; that it is better to love than to hate; that democracy is better than fascism; that there is a God. Neither can anyone else. But I believe that I am right in taking these positions and can give good reasons for asserting that they are properly motivated and justified.
Chapter 7, ‘Analogies, models and mystery: representing a complex reality’, looks further at the use of analogies and models in both science and theology. McGrath examines the way an analogy may be pressed too far, taking as his example the term ‘ransom’ as an encapsulation of Jesus’ life given for sinners (Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6). A ransom entails a payment, a recipient and a liberation (and more). The New Testament talks of the cross as a payment and as a liberation. Some theologians of the patristic and mediaeval periods added a recipient—the devil—going beyond the New Testament and pushing the analogy to its limits.

Ian T. Ramsey (1915–1972), a British philosopher of religion, addressed the question of how far we can press a (biblical) analogy (see Evans 1971). He comments that for, say, the nature of God, the New Testament uses a range of analogies, such as king, father, shepherd, each denoting an aspect of God’s nature. None is exhaustive, and all are complementary. We would not regard the arbitrary behaviour of some human kings, for example, as an attribute of God, and the image of the shepherd ensures this. Models need to be allowed to interact with each other, Ramsey proposes.

Some models use analogies that are in apparent opposition, like the use of both particles and a wave as models of light, and the idea that Jesus is both truly human and truly divine. The latter arose out of a recognition by theologians like Athanasius that a model of Jesus as simply human (the Ebionite heresy) or as purely divine (the Docetic heresy) was inadequate. Since, Athanasius argued, only God can save humanity, Jesus was divine—God incarnate.

It is here that McGrath finds it legitimate to use the term ‘mystery’. The human capacity to penetrate below the surface of apparent reality is limited. If we insist that the rationality of the cosmos and indeed of God himself conform to human reason, we risk being unable to grasp the ‘counterintuitive patterns of the quantum world’ and the strange doctrine of the Trinity, which Emil Brunner (1889–1966) regarded as a security doctrine (Schutzlehre) to prevent Christians formulating deficient notions of God. As Augustine wrote, si comprehendis, non est Deus (‘if you can get your head round it, it isn’t God’).

Chapter 8 is devoted to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an example of how scientific theories actually function. Darwin made observations of the natural world, and set about finding a theory that would explain these observations, in McGrath’s words, ‘as simply, elegantly and persuasively as possible’. His theory is a textbook case of ‘inference to the best explanation’ (see above).[3] 

Popular versions of science emphasise the necessity of prediction, yet Darwin knew that this theory did not and could not predict (see Lloyd 2008), as he was offering an account of biological history. At one point the philosopher Karl Popper (1978) suggested that Darwin’s non-predictive theory was not really scientific, a criticism he later retracted. Hitchcock & Sober (2004) continue the discussion of accommodation to a theory vs prediction, and argue that prediction is not always superior.

As mentioned above (in regard to Ch 6) William James held that all human beings need working hypotheses that enable day-to-day operation. He defines faith (see Myers 1986) as ‘belief in something concerning which doubt is still theoretically possible.’

The positivist view of science is quite a long way from real scientific practice as exemplified by Darwin. McGrath writes,
Neither Darwin’s theory nor Christian theology can really be said to ‘predict’; they do, however, accommodate what is known about the world, even though both experience points of tension. . . .
In the end, some theories die because of their incapacity to deal with … anomalies. Darwin knew this; he also believed his theory would be shown capable of coping with them, even if the final vindication of it lay in the future. Surely the same is true for Christianity, which affirms that currently we see things through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13.12) but rejoices that we shall one day see them with the clarity found only within the New Jerusalem.
Chapters 9 and 10 are further meditations on the interface between science and theology, focussing on the proposition that theology is able to handle levels of reality that science cannot. McGrath writes:
The basic point I want to make clear is simple: we need both scientific and theological perspectives on human nature. Science can only fill in part of our understanding of ourselves; theology can take things to a new level, helping us with fundamental questions of meaning, identity and purpose. We need to bring both together if we are to enrich our vision of reality, even if that means we have to sort out some border disputes along the way.
The cognitive science of religion, a designation introduced by the psychologist Justin L, Barrett (b. 1971), treats religion (but not theology!) as a natural phenomenon, contradicting the Enlightenment view that religion reflects the suspension of human rationality.

McGrath says,
What moved me decisively away from atheism back in 1971 was a growing conviction that it wasn’t as good at explaining these observations and experiences as Christianity. C. S. Lewis came to a similar conclusion around 1930, reflected in his remark that he was an ‘empirical theist’ who came to believe in God as a result of inductive thinking.
It is not that the world’s beauty or order prove there is a God, but rather that Christian belief makes sense of our world. It is also worth recalling that theology does not appear prepackaged in the New Testament. It ‘emerged as a way of thinking about the nature of God and the significance of Jesus Christ.’ Furthermore, ‘at least some of the fundamental themes of the Christian faith lie beyond reason’s capacity to prove them – such as the existence of God. To use the language of Christian theology: these truths are revealed to us, not made up by us.’ But having been revealed, we check them and discover how well they work.
Is science the sole determiner of what we can know about nature? One of the most important functions of natural theology is to protest against the radically reduced visions of nature that arise from the movement sometimes known as ‘scientific imperialism’ but now generally as simply ‘scientism’
John Keats (1795–1821) in his 1820 poem ‘Lamia’ was already expressing this concern:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), an American theologian) reinforced this point in the late 1920s. He ‘believed that modern Western culture had suffered a radical imaginative failure in that it seemed to lack any sense of the role of the “poetic imagination” in the quest for truth, whether theological or scientific.’ (McGrath’s words). Niebuhr wrote (1929:141):
Fundamentalists have at least one characteristic in common with most scientists. Neither can understand that poetic and religious imagination has a way of arriving at truth by giving a clue to the total meaning of things without being in any sense an analytic description of detailed facts.
Niebuhr apparently devised the term ‘scientism’. It presented itself as presuppositionless, and thus did not acknowledge its own covert assumptions.

McGrath begins his conclusion by quoting a letter written to a friend by the novelist Evelyn Waugh after his conversion to Christianity in 1930:
Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.


Alston, William P., 1991. Perceiving God: The epistemology of religious experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Chesterton, G.K., 1903. Return of the angels. Daily News 14th March 1903.

Evans, Donald, 1971. Ian Ramsey on Talk about God. Religious Studies 7:125–40.

Hitchcock, Christopher & Elliott Sober, 2004. Prediction vs. accommodation and the risk of overfitting. British Journal for Philosophy of Science 55:1–34.

Joyce, George Hayward, 1922. Principles of natural theology. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Kaiser, Christopher B., 1996. Quantum complementarity and Christological dialectic. In W. Mark Richardson and Wesley J. Wildman eds., Religion and science: History, method, dialogue, 291–300. London: Routledge.

Lipton, Peter, 2004. Inference to the Best Explanation. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Lloyd, Elisabeth Anne, 2008. The nature of Darwin’s support for the theory of natural selection. In her Science, politics, and evolution, 1–19. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Myers, Gerald E., 1986. William James, his life and thought. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Niebuhr, Reinhold, 1929. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Chicago: Willett, Clark & Colby.

Norris, Kathleen, 2001. Dakota: A spiritual geography. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Polkinghorne, John, 2002. Quantum theory: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Popper , Karl R., 1978. Natural Selection and the emergence of mind. Dialectica 32:339–55.

Rouse, Joseph, 1996. Engaging science: How to understand its practices. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


  1. [^1]  McGrath’s material about Torrance is apparently drawn from his 1999 book T. F. Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark), which draws on the text of the unpublished lectures on ‘Science and Theology’ given by Torrance at Auburn Theological Seminary in 1938–39.
  2. [^2]  McGrath’s footnote: The best account of this approach is Peter Lipton, Inference to the Best Explanation. 2nd edn. London: Routledge, 2004.
  3. [^3]  McGrath’s footnote: For the best general statement of this method, see Lipton (2004).