Does The Analogy Hold Or How Does Science Work?

I am in the throes of trying to finish the third draft of the commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude), so I have not been listening to a lot of my podcasts. Mostly these days I hear myself say, “Where did I put that copy of the Institutes?” Yesterday evening, however, as I was catching up on my podcasts before bed, I heard someone make the analogy between those who listen principally to the critics of Scripture and the historic Christian faith and those who listen chiefly to the critics of the mRNA Covid vaccines.

His argument was partly psychological and partly logical. To the latter, he argued that just as the critics of scripture and the Christian faith seem plausible and perhaps even correct until we take into account the orthodox responses to the critics, so it is with the Covid vaccines (or any new scientific breakthrough. The Covid vaccines are just the presenting issue but the real question here is the underlying issue of the analogy). Yes, there are criticisms of the mRNA vaccines that seem plausible but there are, in the analogy, “orthodox” responses to those criticisms.

The psychological aspect of his argument seems stronger. He argues that when we immerse ourselves entirely critical voices the other side will come to seem entirely implausible. That is doubtless correct. We are influenced by what we choose to hear, see, and read. It is necessary to hear both sides of a question fairly to come to a reasoned conclusion.

As a matter of logic, however, does the analogy hold? Are science and the Christian religion analogous as suggested? I doubt it. First, on historic Christian terms, we distinguish between general revelation, which is the domain of science, and special revelation, which is the domain of Christian theology (e.g., biblical theology, exegesis, systematic theology etc). Traditionally, theology was regarded as the queen of the sciences (regina scientiarum). Thomas Aquinas (c. AD 1224–74) may not have always been consistent with his own stated principles but he articulated the relationship very well. He argued:

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of the intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science, because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.), 1a.1.resp.

Thomas was correct. This is the historic Christian view. Theology is a science (scientia) but there is a hierarchy of sciences. It is not exactly like the physical sciences, which “proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence…”. Theology proceeds from a higher principle, the first principle (God). Christian theology (contra some definitions) is revealed by God. Scripture is inherently theological, i.e., it is not raw material out of which theology is done.

The podcaster to whom I was listening missed this distinction even as he appealed to the very example to which I will appeal. He observed that the various gospels tell the same stories somewhat differently. To the critics that is evidence of inconsistency and thus grounds to declare the gospels untrustworthy. The orthodox defenders of Scripture have long responded, as Ned Stonehouse did decades ago, that the variety of the gospels is due to the fact that they are both historical documents and theological documents. Luke was a historian but he was also a theologian. There is an problem here, however, that the podcaster missed: authority. The gospels are true, reliable, and authoritative because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. When Christians face a problem in Scripture we submit to Scripture because of its authority. We have implicit faith (fides implicatas) in Holy Scripture because it is Holy Scripture. The writers of Scripture wrote as they did because they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 21:21). It would be unscientific to have implicit faith in any scientific claim.

It is reasonable to believe Scripture and the Christian faith generally but we do not believe it because it is reasonable. Christians are not sovereign autonomous entities who, as sovereign lords, evaluate Scripture on the basis of our autonomous, independent reason. After all, the Scriptures teach and the ancient, ecumenical creeds confess that God is one in three persons and Jesus of Nazareth is one person with two natures. These are mysterious truths. No one arrives at them by natural revelation. These are known by special revelation.

Science is the provision interpretation of natural revelation. It is constantly being revised. Here I think our Modern educational systems have failed us. As Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) observed, the history of science that most scientists are taught is severely deficient. One of the most fascinating parts of Personal Knowledge (1958) is his revision of the story told about a series of modern, foundational experiments. What he revealed is that there was necessarily a subjective element in every experiment. Someone had to make unavoidably subjective judgments all along the process. In other words, scientists are not carried along by the Holy Spirit. The prophets and apostles spoke, when they wrote Holy Scripture, infallibly. No scientist speaks infallibly.

This is the great problem with the rhetoric of “believing science.” We believe Jesus because he was raised from the dead. We believe the apostles because they were eyewitnesses of Jesus whose accounts and teaching were inspired by the Holy Spirit. That is true of no scientist. Put in theological terms, science belongs to nature and Scripture (and theology) belongs to grace. Our host made a categorical mistake. Put another way, science is a covenant of works and theology is, broadly, a covenant of grace.

We are entitled to say to the scientist, “prove it.” When push comes to shove, we accept Holy Scripture as divine revelation on the basis of authority. After all, our own theologians tell us no one believes in Jesus or trusts Scripture apart from the work of grace in their hearts. Science requires no such work of grace. Science is not an object of faith and anyone who knows the history of science knows why it is not and cannot be an object of faith. I can demonstrate this claim with two examples but one could fill an encyclopedia with examples and I suppose that someone has: geocentrism and phrenology. Prior to the early sixteenth century it was a datum, a given that the sun revolves around the earth. That was believed by pagans and Christians to be a fact for millennia. In the early sixteenth century astronomers began to question that conviction and it turns out that they were correct. The earth revolves around the sun. We now know with a high degree of confidence that geocentrism was incorrect. Phrenology was the theory, developed in the late 18th century and held in some quarters into the 20th century, that there is a correlation between the shape of the human skull and moral characteristics. This is bunk but it was science once upon a time. For more on this see the resources below.

The history of science tells us that science gets things wrong regularly. What we were told about diet, that was presented authoritatively by the government as science, fifty years ago has been shown to be mostly wrong. It was not that long ago that we were told to eat margarine (essentially oil) instead of butter. Bacon was said to be fatal and we needed to eat a lot of carbohydrates. Today, that diet would make most people candidates for the fat farm or the operating table.

By its nature the physical sciences are provisional. They are constantly being revised. Moses came down Mt Sinai with tablets on which God himself had written the moral law (Ex 31;18). That is true of no scientific experiment or conclusion. A scientist hypothesizes that something might be true. She tests the hypothesis. If the hypothesis is supported by the data, she writes up the results of the experiment and publishes it for other scientists to review and to replicate. If others cannot replicate the results they experiment is not validated. Even, however, when the results are validated they carry a provisional quality since the variables (test subjects, methods, perception of the outcome) always remain somewhat subjective.

The Apostles’ Creed is not up for continual revision. The Christian doctrine of creation, the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, sin, salvation, the church, and last things are not subject to continual revision. They have not changed in two millennia. Physics has undergone multiple revolutions. We lived in a pre-Newtonian world, then we lived in Einstein’s world, and now we live in a world described by particle physics and string theory (and whatever has come after that) yet and most of those revolutions have happened in just the last century. For the sake of discussion, let us assume that Covid-19 is the product of gain-of-function research in a sub-standard lab in Wuhan. Is Covid-19 itself not also then the product of science?

To demand, therefore, immediate and utter surrender to the science of mRNA vaccines, the result of research that began just  30 years ago, the findings of which were first published in 2005, and which has never been approved for use until the Covid vaccines, is unreasonable. The staunchest defender of the mRNA vaccine technology admits that the ordinary scientific process was short-circuited by a huge financial commitment by the American government. One advocate of the new technology writes,

Ordinarily, manufacturers wait for proof of efficacy before building the expensive, custom infrastructure and systems needed to produce millions of doses of a new treatment. Why make that investment if the test candidate may fail? But for the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, the U.S. government pledged to purchase millions of doses and provided upfront money, even before the vaccine’s efficacy was determined.

In other words, we are in the midst of a huge, scientific experiment involving millions of voluntary (for now) test subjects the outcome of which is still in doubt. What is the efficacy of the vaccines? Is it three weeks or three months? What do the relatively small (but numerically large) number of breakthrough infections mean? What does it mean that the vaccinated can carry large, communicable viral loads? More to the point: what are the long-term consequences of this unprecedented application of mRNA technology? Some defenders of the mRNA vaccines have compared them to the smallpox vaccine. The mRNA is not like earlier vaccines, in which healthy people are inoculated with a mitigated version of the virus. The mRNA vaccines are another thing altogether. We hope that this new technology is successful and safe over the long term. The noises being made by the pharmaceutical companies about booster shots suggests suggests that their research is telling them that this new technology has a relatively short shelf life.

scientific approach to these questions would be to say: we have to wait and see. A scientific approach to these questions would be provisional, tentative, and cautious. In the nature of things we cannot know the long-term effects of the mRNA technology because not enough time has passed. A religious approach, one is tempted to say fundamentalist approach, to the widespread (and potentially mandatory) application of this new technology demands unequivocal and immediate surrender on the basis of authority. That is not science.

RESOURCES

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


9 comments

  1. I was listening to a recorded debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox yesterday, and it struck me when Dr. Lennox noted that only his professional discipline, mathematics, can offer “proof” of anything; biology, physics, and chemistry cannot hope to do anything other than make suggestions guided by evidential claims. I would say that your well-written essay is in full congruence with Dr. Lennox’s stated remarks, and that you have astutely identified the issue at hand–science writes checks that it can never afford to pay.

  2. Thomas Kuhn’s classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), is a related to this. I don’t recall who in the Reformed world recommended it online some years ago, but Kuhn is very helpful in showing the uncertainty and mutability of scientific knowledge.

  3. Dumb question here, but somebody has to ask it: When is the vaccine against the Big Govt. Gain of Function virus gonna come out and will it be free?

    Next dumb question: Have we reached herd immunity to critical thinking yet?

    Amos 3:6  Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?

    Isaiah 66:4  I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not.

    pax

  4. I think a large part of the problem is people working in the media do not understand science so present it as absolutely certain and irrefutable.

    There is also the problem of the internet and politics amplifying the extremes and causing polarisation. Amongst Christian circles there is sometimes a mindset that all science is bad. In addition to that, social media has increased the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation and outright lies and distortions, this has been at the expense of sensible discussion about legitimate concerns about safety (from either virus or vaccine) and freedoms.

    At both extremes are those who blindly believe everything they read, see or hear without question and both extremes are in fear, fear of the virus on one side and fear of a huge, global Satanic conspiracy on the other. Both extremes appear to have forgotten God’s sovereignty….

  5. mRNA vaccines are not something that just appeared at the time of the pandemic, but are rather the first application of the technology among humans. mRNA is “injected” into your cells by many pathogenic viruses…it’s how they replicate by taking over the cell’s “machinery” to make the structures for new viruses. The only difference is that RNA contained in viruses is covered by the viral protein capsule, whereas the ones produced by biotechnological means are encapsulated within a lipid capsule, otherwise it would be degraded immediately by the body’s defenses. This is the technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. As a biologist in the medical field I just want people to be informed so that they can make appropriate choices…what you do is on your conscience.

    And BTW…you have mRNA in every cell in your body…you would die without it. I actually had a Christian friend tell me that mRNA was a result of Adam’s fall. It isn’t…it’s a marvelous evidence of a Creator!!!

  6. The inventor of the mRNA technology employed in these vaccines co-authored an article yesterday which argued that efforts towards universal vaccination (instead of a strategy of targeted vaccination of the most vulnerable) is likely to prolong and worsen this pandemic.

    https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2021/aug/5/biden-teams-misguided-and-deadly-covid-19-vaccine-/

    Perhaps he is wrong. Perhaps the politicians and public health officials have it right after all. The question that confronts us is whether we have reasonable grounds to trust what they say.

Comments are closed.