Claiming Complementarity: Twentieth-Century Evangelical Applications of an Idea

by Christopher M. Rios

Over the course of the twentieth century the concept of complementarity earned considerable support among evangelical scientists. Leading figures in both the USA and Britain argued that science and theology offered distinct perspectives of the natural world that were reconcilable, if recognized as complementary descriptions rather than mutually exclusive claims. Though not without critics, this logic was employed by the most conspicuous evangelical researchers who attempted to ease the tension between Christianity and modern science. The benefit of such a view, they argued, was the avoidance of reductionism: neither Christians nor scientists could claim that their view of the world invalidated the other perspective. Drawing on the history of the American Scientific Affiliation and the Research Scientists’ Christian Fellowship (now Christians in Science), this article examines the past use of complementarity in light of recent criticism and asks why it became so broadly espoused by leading members of these groups.

PSCF 63, no. 2 (2011):

7 comments to Claiming Complementarity: Twentieth-Century Evangelical Applications of an Idea

  • Randy Isaac

    Chris, thank you for an excellent discussion of the role of complementary in discussing science and faith. This is an important contribution to our understanding. Could you share some of your thoughts about who is a champion of complementarity today? Or is no one really an advocate? Or are most people tacitly assuming it without declaring it explicitly? Conversely, is anyone today arguing against it? Does the philosophical community shy away from it because it is nebulous and ill-defined and inconclusive or because they think it is wrong?


  • William Powers

    Complementarity imagines that there is a position by which natural knowledge and Scripture might not be in conflict, and this because they do not make mutually exclusive claims.  It is possible to imagine distinct systems of knowledge, wherein the aims, methods, and foundational precepts are distinct.  Since there is no means by which to resolve ultimate principles, the two systems would have to remain distinct and in some sense incommensurable.  The difficulty that arises is where the two systems intersect.
    It is, for example, one thing to claim that God healed a little girl, and quite another to claim that God caused a great flood or caused someone to raise from the dead.  In the first case there is mutual agreement that the girl exists and that she is healed.  The disagreement might be over whether there is a being God and whether it was He that caused the healing.  The disagreement might be seen as irresolvable because of a disparate and irreconcilable methodology.  But with regards to the flood or the person raised the dispute is not over whether God caused the putative event, but that the event occurred at all.  It is still possible that the two systems might be irreconcilable if they have disparate methods for ascertaining that an event occurred, and have disparate  classes of possible events.  But where they, in this instance, agree as to the class of event conflict arises.  Each can employ its own distinct methodology for the determination of whether the event occurred or not, and their own aims and methods in interpreting the event.  But with regards to the occurrence of the event direct conflict is possible.  Both agree that the flood or the raising of water across the Red Sea were physical events, and they mean the same thing by this.  As such, the event has a place and meaning in both systems of knowledge.  It is the possibility of such an intersection that engenders the possibility of conflict.
    Were Christianity and Scripture not an historical religion the possibility of this conflict might not be possible.  But we claim and Scripture confirms that God works in the world, and this work produces observable effects, like floods, axes floating on water, suns standing still, healing of the blind, and resurrections.  All of which produce not only immediate observational events, but subsequent observational effects.  Floods leave historical physical marks, the healed blind walk amongst us, and resurrections produce an inexplicable historical  response.  Relative to discussions in this journal this is most apparent with regard to claims associated with human origins.  Either there was an original human or there was not.  Either the human race is thousands of years old or it is not.  Where both systems of knowledge in this instance agree as to the meaning of the event, conflict is possible, independent of there distinct and non-overlapping methodologies for ascertaining whether that event occurred or not.
    The response of many Christians to find concordance between Scripture and the derivatives of man’s knowledge has been to reinterpret Scripture.  The pages of this journal well demonstrate the variety and zeal of this process.  One might imagine complementarity as one such strategy.  What I suggest here is that the aim of complementarity will always be  frustrated by the very nature of Christianity as long as it remains an historical religion.
    It is not the possibility of miracles that introduces the possibility of conflict.  Miracles, even if considered violations of natural law, must be considered possible in a contingent science.  The possibility of conflict arises where the putative miracle intersects with the components and raw material of an alternative knowledge system.  If the miracle has a “physical” component, it becomes, in part, a sensible feature in both systems of thought.  As such, the possibility of conflict arises.  This can be avoided by reinterpreting Scripture so that all such overlap in the two systems of thought are otiose and still born (e.g., there would be no way to make progress in the claim that Jesus had no earthly father) or by reinterpreting any such conflict that is alive (e.g., a Six Day Creation).
    Bill Powers

    • Randy Isaac

      Bill, I’m a little confused. I didn’t think complementarity had any relevance for the historicity or physical description of any events but perhaps I’ve misunderstood it. I always thought that complementarity dealt with a hierarchy of causal factors. The quintessential example given by MacKay and others was the teapot with boiling water. Why is water boiling? Because combustion of fuel underneath the pot is transferring sufficient heat to raise the temperature to the boiling point. Because I want some tea. Two very different causal factors but not mutually exclusive. Both are testable. (maybe I really don’t want tea or maybe I wanted to increase humidity in the room). But complementarity had nothing to add about the question of whether the water was actually boiling. That can be assessed independently.

  • William Powers

    I am by no means an expert, but here is my take.  The example you give is probably a good one.  Both can be true, and address different aspects of what we mean by causes.  The problem, as I see it, is that complementarity is meant to serve as a complete description of the relationship between Scripture and science, not only some aspects.  Insofar as Scripture makes historical claims that can be investigated by science and our natural knowledge, it possibly comes into conflict with science.  It would be as if we said that we boiled the water to make some tea, but our natural knowledge concluded that there was no boiling water.  Even if there were boiling water, the point is that we can employ our faculties and sciences to investigate whether there were boiling water.  In this way, our complementary claim that ” we wanted to have tea so we boiled water” intersects with our natural knowledge; and any intersection makes it possible that conflict can arise.  It seems to me that ideally complementary explanations have no possible intersections.  And this seems to me to be impossible for an historical religion.  For example, it would be complementary to say that “a hurricane crashed into New Orleans due to a low pressure system that had developed over the Gulf of Mexico” and that a “hurricane crashed into New Orleans as a punishment from God.”  (You understand, of course, that I’m not saying the latter is true.)  But it is not complementary to say that “axes cannot float on water because they are too dense” and “God made the axe float on water.”  The point is that Scripture makes both these kinds of assertions.  You can work to scrub Scripture clean of all non-complementary claims by whatever means you like, but if this is what someone is doing, it seems to me a strange thing to be claiming complementarity as a position regarding the relationship of Scripture and science.  Such a person is doing far more than simply adjusting some perspective or relationship of Scripture and science.  What they are doing is actively monkeying with Scripture in order to find a non-intersecting relationship.  They begin with the prescription that Scripture and science must make complementary claims.  They don’t discover complementarity.  Instead, they enforce it as a prescription for interpretation.  What this does en toto to the meaning of Scripture I’m not certain.  But I would be very surprised if it wasn’t significant.
    In re-reading what I just wrote, I can imagine someone claiming that the floating ax as a possible complementary claim, and this because it is a unique historical event, something our natural knowledge cannot investigate, unless we were there.  This may be so, but this is surely not true, as recent and less recent articles have indicated, in the case of the existence of a literal Adam and Eve or of a Six Day Creation, perhaps even of the sun standing still.  We may reject these interpretations of Scripture, but do we want to reject them for the sake of complementarity?  Perhaps an argument like the following might be made.  The two books have one author and so cannot be contradictory, or even incoherent.  Since we believe our natural knowledge is reliable (even if revisable), inconsistency must entail a problem with our interpretation of Scripture.  Fundamentalist scientists attempt to accord the two with unconventional explorations of science, others look for resolution in a complementary interpretation.    How am I doing?

  • Randy Isaac

    Interesting points, Bill. I’m puzzled by your view that “complementarity is meant to serve as a complete description of the relationship between Scripture and science, not only some aspects.” Can you point to some references that this is what Donald MacKay, for example, intended? I hadn’t understood it that way but maybe that’s what he thought. I had assumed that it was more of another possibility in the hierarchical set of explanations of events. So the Scriptures must be studied to see what level of explanation is being proferred. The explanation “I want some tea” can be a description of why the tea kettle is boiling but it can also be true that I want tea even if the kettle isn’t boiling. I’m not sure that helps!

  • William Powers

    Rios approvingly cites Bube as maintaining that there were only three paradigms for the relationship between science and the Bible: conflict, compartmentalization, and complementarity.  If complementarity is not intended to be exclusively employed, then it must be acceptable to adhere to any of the other two in some instances.  How does one go about deciding which of the three alternatives to choose?  Clearly, science and the Bible has overlap.  They both talk about humans, stones, water, sky, snakes, injury, and death.  What about axes floating on water?  In a conflicting context, we are speaking of a literal event, with plain water and axes.  In a complementary position, perhaps we could maintain that it is a singular event, sui generis, and no violation of natural law.  In compartmentalization, we maintain that somehow axes and water in Scripture have no intersection with the axes and water of the natural sciences.   Perhaps we might choose complementarity here.  That from Jesus side came water when thrust with a spear on the Cross.  This might be taken as an opportunity for conflict.  Yet, I have heard that this is to be expected under certain medical conditions.  As a result by entertaining possible conflict, in this case we potentially learn more than Scripture reveals, or so we think.  It is just this possibility, of course, that some fundamentalist creationists pursue and hope for.
    Is this the kind of approach that you believe MacKay and perhaps Rios recommend?  If so, I am somewhat surprised.  Surely some envision complementarity as an entire approach to Scripture.  But I am perfectly willing to entertain a diverse approach.

  • Christopher Rios

    I must say that I was surprised to look at this blog this morning and find anyone discussing my article.

    Randy, I think you’re right. Complementarity is like the different levels of causation. When Dennis Alexander was at Baylor last year, he described it just that way. The weakness of this analogy, though, is that it just sounds too simple. The different reasons that a pot boils never seem to be in conflict with one another.

    Bill, I think you’re right that one should guard against carelessly switching between complementarity, the conflict model, NOMA, and others when addressing a particular issue. But if I understand your larger argument correctly, you seem to be conflating the question of miracles and the concept of complementarity.  The question of miracles has many forms. I think you’re dealing with the challenge posed by people who deny that a particular event could have occurred because it somehow violates natural laws. This is an important issue, but is only tangentially related to complementarity.

    Complementarity, as I understand it, is a way of reconciling two competing interpretations of a thing or event, but it can’t prove the thing or event.  For example, complementarity is useful in helping reconcile the scientific and biblical views of human nature, but if someone wants to deny that people exist, complementarity is useless. Once a psychologist, a neuroscientist, and a theologian agree that there is such a thing as human nature, complementarity can help them appreciate the validity of each other’s claims and the relationship between them.

    I guess the problem I see in your view is that you want complementarity to do too much. Complementarity is unable to prove that any single view is valid or that any particular event occurred.  Perhaps this is the heart of the issue when it comes to floating axes and such. Complementarity can only resolve apparent conflict when people agree that the issue being debated is real or true.  It can’t prove anything expect that one needn’t seek refuge in reductionism. Thus, complementarity allows for a different kind of apologetics than what I was taught at a child. It helps those who accept both science and the Bible make sense of their beliefs.


May 2011
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