The debate about the relationship between science and religion has been ongoing for centuries. It can be traced through scholars such as Thomas Aquinas, to the emergence of ‘Modern Theology’ in the 19th Century, and the teachings of 20th Century scholars such as Rudolph Bultmann. However, before considering whether theology can be effectively ‘reconciled’ with science regarding the question of miracles, it is important to firstly define what is meant by ‘theology’ and ‘science’. ‘Theology’ is ‘the systematic study of Christian revelation concerning God’s nature and purpose’1.
It derives from the two Greek words ‘theos’ and ‘logos’. ‘Theos’ is a title for God, it describes the trinity of God and ‘logos’ means words. This means that theology is ‘words about God’. Theology deals with why things happen, for example God’s love, and the purpose for mankind. God is the author of life and ‘the cause’ of all things. At its narrowest, Theology bases its belief on God’s word – the Bible. This is the absolute, and what is written in the Bible is taken literally.
Science is ‘the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement’2. It is something that depends upon observation, hypothesising, and definite proof. Science deals with how things happen, for example, how a foetus is formed, and how natural, observed processes work. At its narrowest, science is based on concrete proof in accordance with natural laws. If theology and science are viewed in their strictest forms, they are poles apart, and cannot easily be reconciled.
This is because science is about ‘how’, based on physical proof, whereas theology is about ‘why’, and based on blind faith. For us to try to reconcile science and theology, we need to broaden our view of one – or both, and thus become more ‘liberal’ with our ideals. Thomas Kuhn is a scientist who seems prepared to do this when he argues in the book, The Structure of scientific Revolutions that ‘Science is in a constant state of change’3. Scientists are constantly making new discoveries, which cause the old way of thinking to be discarded in favour of the newer ideas.
This shows that even though things that we believe are right today, we may find out that that was wrong in a few years when a new discovery has been made. So generally, can science and theology be reconciled? They can, if theological and scientific views are broadened. If scientists and/or theologians can be more liberal with their views, then the two can be reconciled. However, if Laura Howe the views stay narrow, and aren’t broadened at all; science and theology cannot be reconciled.
Before studying the relationship between theology and science within a context of Jesus’ miracles, we need to define what a miracle is. A miracle is ‘a marvellous event attributed to a supernatural cause’ or ‘any amazing or wonderful event’4. Miracles can be traced back to the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, ‘God had done mighty works in his transcendent power and revealed them to His servants or used His servants as the occasional agents of such deeds’5. God performs miracles in the Old Testament at key moments, such as choosing a leader, delivering His own people, or punishing his enemies.
This is portrayed in Exodus, where God uses miracles to call Moses through the burning bush, and to punish Egypt, in the form of the Ten Plagues and to help the people escape through the red Sea. In the New Testament, miracles take place in and through Jesus, who is God incarnate, and who shows us the power, authority and character of a God who is immanent and not transcendent. Richard Swinbourne argued this by writing ‘If there is a God, one might well expect Him to make His presence known to man, not merely through the overall pattern of the universe in which He placed them, but by dealing more intimately and personally with them’6.
In John’s Gospel particularly, miracles are referred to as ‘signs’ or semia, instead of dunamis or ‘mighty word’ – they were used to prove to the people watching that Jesus was the Son of God. Miracles have a strong theological purpose, but in the New Testament they are not portrayed as simply ‘made up’ stories, but to accomplish a theological purpose. They are clearly portrayed as ‘true’ events, which really did happen.