Cross-currents: Interactions between Science and Faith

Written by Colin A. Russell Reviewed By Peter Forster

So many poor books on the relation between science and theology have been published that it is a particular pleasure to commend this wide-ranging, historical survey. Although engaging issues in the doctrine of creation that are complex and profound, Russell avoids unnecessary technical jargon, and his book makes pleasantly easy and interesting reading. The difficulty with interdisciplinary study is normally that the practitioner has a less than adequate grasp of the separate disciplines concerned. Russell, a Professor of History of Science and Technology, and an evangelical Christian, is more confident when handling science, and its history, than theology, but it is to his credit that he is not tempted to speculate in areas of theology where he could not claim expertise.

The best chapters are those dealing with the rise of modern science, and the interaction between Christianity and science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Russell defends the now well-established thesis that the Christian doctrine of creation played a decisive role in providing the climate which allowed modern science to develop. On the one hand, it implied that the physical world should be rational, and intelligible by man, the crown of creation. On the other hand, it suggested that the rationality of creation was not a pale and necessary reflection of the rationality of God (the common view of the ancient world), but would have its own created rationality, contingent upon the freedom of the creator who decided to create ex nihilo.The ‘contingent rationality’ of such a world could only be discovered by experimental investigation, the clear distinction between the rationality of God and that of creation dispelling the thought common in the fathers, who took too much Greek philosophy into their theology (a point Russell does not develop, but which explains the lack of interest in science in the early centuries of the Christian era), that it might be impious to put nature to the test.

From these religious origins, Russell charts the rise in the eighteenth century of various forms of natural theology, as theologians attempted to synthesize science and theology. The complexity of the pattern that developed, with the predominant tendency to deism fighting an underlying battle with atheism and pantheism, formed the important background to the nineteenth-century conflicts over geology and evolution. Russell draws attention to recent writers who have maintained that The Origin of Species was as much a product of contemporary natural theology as a threat to it, thus providing a massive stimulus to that alarming idolization of science which has been so characteristic of the twentieth century.

What has provided the mainspring for this persistent tendency towards a mythological confusion between God and culture? It is here that Russell’s account would seem to require some development. Is the culprit not precisely the Newtonian science whose emergence is so well described in this book? Infinitude and absoluteness are attributes of God, yet Newtonian science ascribed them to space and time: it is little wonder that the ‘theology’ which related itself to this emerging world-view oscillated between deism, pantheism and atheism.

Thus, this scientist-turned-theologian is apt to see rather more inherent conflict between Newtonian science—including the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution—and theology than Russell admits. Yet, this serves to emphasize the vast significance of the changes in science associated with the advent of relativity, with its rejection of the ideas of space and time as infinite and absolute. Russell devotes but four pages of discussion to ‘some theological impacts’ of ‘the crisis in Newtonian physics’, in what is perhaps the weakest chapter of the book. Nevertheless, in pointing to further areas of questioning and discovery, Russell’s book itself bears the hallmark of good science, and will play an important part in the elucidation of the interaction between science, theology, and wider spheres of culture. It deserves careful study.

Peter Forster

St. John’s College, Durham