Science and Wesleyan Theology

Science and Wesleyan Theology

In my last post on Science and Religion, I left off just as I introduced the idea of interpreting Scripture from a perspective of Wesleyan theology. That’s where I want to begin today—looking at this issue through three specific lenses: tradition, reason, and experience.


We listen to the ancient church and what Christians have believed from the past. We give dead people a vote by paying attention to their understanding and theology.

In the current science-religion debate, we should go back in history beyond the past one hundred years to hear the close symmetry between science and religion. Most science was done by scholars rooted in the church. And where the church was wrong about science (a flat earth, the earth rotating around the sun, etc.), the church corrected itself. This is our tradition.

Saint Augustine, writing centuries before Darwin was a gleam in his parent’s eyes, wrote concerning in The Literal Meaning of Genesis:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in search for truth justly undermines this position, we too will fall with it.”

The current suspicion of science is new to the church. The foremothers and forefathers of our faith traditions were much more open to scientific discovery than we are. We should listen to them. This is our tradition.


God has given us the capacity to think, communicate, articulate, postulate, and examine. The basic components of scientific work are the gift of God. Some would even say that these capacities are what it means to be made in the image of God.

For us to close our mind to scientific reasoning without using our best critical thinking is to refuse to use our God-given capacity for understanding. We already know how to do this with Scripture.

We know that Jesus does not intend for us to pluck out an eye or cut off an arm or tie a millstone around someone’s neck and throw him or her in the sea. We interpret these texts through our use of reason. We allow what we know and understand to inform how we read the Bible.

Science helps us understand that the three-tiered universe of the Psalms is not spatially correct. A Psalm does not lose its meaning because the earth is not floating on the primeval sea but rather hanging in space by force fields that the Old Testament could not fathom.

Let us use our reason to converse about the creation of our world, the age of it, our own creation, and the means by which our world works. In matters so mysterious, we could be wrong. Science itself has often been wrong.


John Wesley developed much of his doctrine of entire sanctification and Christian perfection by listening to the testimonies of the early Methodists. He believed that God could be understood through the collective experiences of people.

When different people testify again and again to a certain experience of God, it suggests that the experience is true, reliable, and genuine. It is similar to the Proverbs of our Old Testament. These are the observations of those who have watched human behavior and the consequences of those behaviors. The Proverbs are probabilities based on observations of the wise and the foolish.

This, in essence, is how science works. It observes repeated experiences and draws conclusions. If the same thing happens over and over, it postulates a law or pattern.

As people who give strong credence to experience, we should be the last to close our minds to the propositions put forward by scientific experiment.

As I have listened to the current debate, I have noted the presence of a fear of surrendering a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. The reasoning goes, “If we give in here and say it is a poem or a story or a myth, what’s to say the virgin birth or resurrection won’t be next? And if this part of the Bible is fiction, how do we know that other parts aren’t as well? We must defend the Bible.”

From here the fear spreads to the creation of humans. “If we descend from apes, how are we made in the image of God?” And next it moves to theologies of the planet that are self-centered. “God gave it to us to use and dominate. When it is used up, God will come and take us all away to heaven and we’ll leave this messed up place behind.” Then it moves toward a fixed pre-known universe and historical determinism (which are necessary in a Calvinist theology). And our eschatology (belief in last things) mirrors the popular Left Behind novels, rapture theologies, Antichrist namings, and end-time predictions. Strands of fundamentalism + Calvinism + folk theology + fear + TV preachers + best-selling novels are woven into a popular belief that is as different from Wesleyan theology as soap is from turnips.

All this is rooted in one narrow way of interpreting the Bible.

John H. Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His take on the creation narrative is carefully articulated in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

The major contribution of Walton is his insistence that Gen 1-2 is not primarily about the creation of the material universe but rather about God making the world function for his purposes for humankind.

The text is in keeping with the dominant strain of theology throughout Scripture—God has come to dwell among us. Walton suggests that the people to whom Genesis was addressed already believed God to be Creator. They needed no coaxing to believe in God as Creator. What they needed was to understand creation as a move of God to dwell among them as his people.

When we force scientific creation theories on Gen. 1, we are asking the text to answer a question that is not being asked.

Today’s post is an excerpt from A Charitable Discourse: Talking About the Things That Divide Us. It’s a follow-up to “Can We Have a Civil Talk About Science and Religion.”



  1. Rodney Shanner says

    I agree with most of what is here. My University education is primarily from a secular/state University, not a Christian University (though I did some graduate studies at Trevecca which I enjoyed immenseley) so I am very familiar with critical thinking, the scientific method, and the Religion-Science discussions/debates/controversies. I agree that Genesis is not a science book, although my Harvard PhD. educated Professor who led my Physical Sciences Seminar class in the New College at the University of Alabama said that the order of creation listed in Genesis is in fact the order accepted by Science. The Bible is what I call a History of Salvation primarily. That said, there are a couple of issues that need response here. 1) I think it is somewhat of a stretch to compare the testimonies of people to a certain religious experience to the observations of the laws of the physical world. But I do understand that personal experience is important, though not always reliable as a valid explanation of reality. 2) My understanding of the sudden appearance of man in the historical archaeological record creates problems for the man is descended from apes theory. In fact, scientifically speaking, there are a lot of unexplained matters in the Darwin approach. The most serious being the notion that the simple evolved into the complex. Cells were never simple. But it is amazing how brilliant Augustine was, given his thinking pre-dates the scientific method.

  2. Well spoken, Dan.

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