All Magisterium Overlap

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All Magisterium Overlap

The great evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould told us that we ought to keep science and religion completely separate. He called them Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA. His proposition is simply that the two represent two separate domains of “teaching authority” or magisteria. He says,


The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap…


Gould explains also that the reason why we are so often tempted to think they do overlap (sometimes with bitter conflict) is that, though they describe different aspects of truth, the object of that truth is often the same. Take creation and evolution, which both speak about man, for example. The argument is that evolution must be allowed to contemplate the origin of man, while religion is given equally free rein over his meaning and purpose on Earth.


Gould asserts that even Christianity recognizes this. Indeed he cites Pope Pius XII’s Humanis Generis, which says


The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.


In other words, as long as science restricts itself to explaining the body of the man, the church will content itself with his soul. Put differently, let God create the soul, and we will let you create the body.


Obviously, I cannot agree with either Pius or Gould. I appreciate the attempt: it is elegant. But my issue with NOMA is simply this: I do not think it is quite a question of whether we should keep these magisteria separate, as much as it is one of whether we can. The problem is neither scientific nor theological in its first principles. It is philosophical, specifically epistemological.


At the end of the day, all subjects are merely aspects of truth. We can call those subjects whatever we like: areas, domains, or magisteria. The fact is that they all seek objective truth about reality. They may have different focuses on that truth, but they still interact with each other. Imagine two people trying to imagine what a giraffe looks like. The one says I am going to deduce the giraffe by focusing on its legs. The other says I will stick to the nose. The first says each leg has one toe with a toenail. The other says it must have gated nostrils it can close to avoid smelling bad flowers.


Our two friends are in no conflict at all with each other, for sure, but I doubt that Gould would consider their magisteria to be overlapping. I mean, what of the rest of the massive body between the feet and nose? If the two friends agree that they will allow each other to be correct because they will never contradict each other (like Gould and the Pope have done), they will still stand in contradiction against the truth: the animal they have produced is actually a camel.


We may each speak about different areas of knowledge, but we all overlap on the ultimate question, “What is the truth?” All magisteria overlap!


In that vein, it becomes imperative to seek out a system that respects this interaction and allows it the freedom to unveil fuller truth on any given subject. It is hard, as a Christian, to imagine such a system based on solely naturalistic assumptions. The objective, after all, is to find out what is true in as complete a sense as possible. In terms of humankind, this would mean understanding not only the spiritual nature of his soul on the one hand and his biology on the other, as separate ideas, but also how these two components interact. It is in their interaction that we have the fullest picture of what it is to be a man.


The counter principle that all magisteria overlap gives further expression to the truth that the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts. The whole embodies not only the parts, but also their functional and relational interaction.


I believe that such a comprehensive system is neither too far-fetched nor too far off from us. “All truth” is already promised us through the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). There should be room, then, for revelation in the seeking out of truth, including scientific truth.


A More Truly Scientific Method


Science is carried out largely as a systematic approach to the establishment of facts. These facts, considered as constituents of a universal reality, lead to the knowledge of truth. In this way science reaches out from the level of the empirically factual to the philosophically true.


As a systematic approach, it relies on a well-known methodology, the scientific method. This methodology aims at confirming or refuting testable hypotheses. A hypothesis is testable in that it is falsifiable, meaning that it can be shown by observation or experimentation to be false if indeed it is. The specific approach of observation or experimentation must be replicable, such that there is a consistency of outcome under the same conditions across multiple experimental instances.


It goes without saying that this approach has led to decades of valuable scientific discovery. It also goes without saying that it has produced a scientific practice that seldom agrees with the religious thought world. Particularly as relates to the Bible, science and Scripture have become rather estranged from each other.


A Philosophical Impasse


It will not be disputed that the reason why science is set at variance with scripture from the outset lies in a difference in philosophy. Both make initial assumptions about the search for truth that are incompatible with each other.


Science assumes on the one hand that natural observation alone is sufficient to explain natural phenomena. Methodological naturalism, the idea that inferences and conclusions should always remain in keeping empirical observation in all steps of the scientific process, flows from that assumption. It maintains that the methods themselves should be naturally derived and driven; that all scientific work should be limited to the study of natural causes. The Bible, on the other hand, maintains that non-naturalistic or supernatural agents and factors are involved in the creation and sustaining of reality.


On the surface of things, the scientific position seems reasonable. Why appeal to factors that are not accountable or observable to explain facts that are fully observable and natural? Why assume there is a supernatural, when all that is ever empirically observed is the natural? Yet is it indeed scientific to exclude the possibility of the supernatural as an explanation for natural phenomena?


The idea that supernatural explanations are not necessary in the pursuit of science is not a naturalistic observation. Nothing in nature suggests that there is nothing beyond nature. Nature is, empirically speaking, silent on the matter. Therefore, we have to accept that science premises itself precariously on a non-naturalistic, even metaphysical assertion. In running away from the supernatural it unwittingly embraces it. It is a metaphysical duplicity for which science and religion certainly, if not equally, indictable.


It is instructive that in itself methodological naturalism does not claim that supernatural causes do not exist. It only claims that it will not bother itself about whether they do or be intellectually aided by them. Basically, they are not necessary, even if they exist. Of course, we are often hard-pressed to separate the methodological naturalist from the ontological or metaphysical one, who always insists they do not and dismisses them as fantastical, magical, and nonsensical.


A Harmonizing Step

Science opens new wonders to our view; she soars high and explores new depths; but she brings nothing from her research that conflicts with divine revelation. Ignorance may seek to support false views of God by appeals to science; but the book of nature and the written Word do not disagree; each sheds light on the other (Ellen White, Signs of the Times, March 20, 1884).


As Ellen White has suggested, however, the science and faith need not be mutually exclusive of each other. They certainly do not constitute Non-overlapping Magisteria. The responsible pursuit of truth requires openness to all reasonable possibilities. As much as any scientist, reasoning Christians are wary of overstretching the evidence. C.S. Lewis maintains, for example, “You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.”[1] We must all be responsible for handling and the evidence of nature, science, and Scripture.  Yet the reasoning Christian will seek out a way to see the light that each sheds on the other.


In order to more closely harmonize scientific practice with the Bible we must seriously question the place of both philosophical and methodological naturalism in the scientific method. We may want to approach the naturalistic evidence with a more open mind. This is not only sound, but it is indeed more reflective of nature, which—even when studied according to current scientific principles—never denies supernatural causes.


An Argument from Silence?


But are we not arguing from silence when we insist on the possibility of supernatural causes just because nature itself does not deny them? In other words, should science assume non-natural causes simply because natural evidence does not discount them? Is it fair to expect such a disclaimer from nature? Is it not more responsible to work with what nature does say, rather than with what it does not? Is the latter not mere speculation, the stuff of religion and superstition?


The first response to this objection is that natural evidence does often indeed testify to the supernatural. The problem of science is often on the level of interpretation of the evidence. Atheistic assumptions and frameworks in and of themselves are a huge source of interpretive bias.


The second response is that we are not suggesting that we believe supernatural explanations simply because there is no prescription of them in nature. The Christian has experiential sources for the evidence he or she adduces. There is a positive, constructive “because”. True, it may be highly subjective, but science cannot escape the subjective, and probably has not done all it can to properly understand and utilize it.


Believers do not merely walk down a silent avenue of metaphysical license into a hall of rancorous religious speculation. Rather, we come to the experimental table with a different set of tools. We come with the same kinds of stuff as any scientist: subjective notions and worldviews based in real experience. The difference is logical, not essential. “God is good” and “There is no God” might be different claims, but they are of the same kind. Epistemologically, then, there is no reason to prefer the latter at the table of science, especially since science can objectively disprove neither.

Open Now the Floodgates?


A toning down of the metaphysical dogmatism of unbelief then, can help the scientific method greatly. But are we to utterly tear down the walls of methodological naturalism? Most emphatically not.


I believe that any such modification of the scientific method must be carried out wisely. Methodological naturalism has kept out many a nonsensical fantasy from the pursuit and repository of scientific knowledge. Were we suddenly to allow that all causes, natural or supernatural, are as likely as one another, we would have a deluge of irresolvable conflict from various religious claims on every investigable subject. That would be chaos, and almost certainly the very suicide of science.


How are we to go about it then? I believe what is needed is a more flexible approach, a sort of soft methodological naturalism if you please. Science should explore non-natural causes when there is actual indication of them, at least. And I would agree that in most cases it should happen only after the possibility of natural ones have been objectively ruled out. Christians, as well, ought to be less obsessed with a default to mystical explanations for everything. Both sides owe each other, and the pursuit of knowledge itself, this humility and mutual respect.


This is a compromise position. It allows Christian faith to converse meaningfully with the open-minded naturalistic scientists. It allows Christian scientists to insist to their secular colleagues that dead-ends are not really dead ends if we would just try this other tool, the Bible. It allows theology, biology, cosmology, archaeology, and other disciplines to speak about the same things–to express their inherent overlaps–without endless turf wars. It does not guarantee that they will always agree on the answers provided, and nor is it necessary that they do. The conversation, for me, can be just as valuable.


We must accept, however, that the answers we will get from the Bible and the experience of faith as a whole, will be answers that more often than not satisfy the mind of faith. The natural and the supernatural are known differently; the epistemologies are not the same. We know that the Earth is round, and we know that “the worlds were framed by the word of God”[2], but we do not know them the same way. The Christian is right to, and should, maintain the Bible as the normative standard and final authority on what is true. Here, of course, an entire discussion on the need for responsible hermeneutics emerges, and we might have it someday.


A More Human Method

Our more truly scientific method, then, is simply a more holistic view of truth and what it means to seek, find and own it. One may object that there is no science to figure out the supernatural. This is to be expected, as we have spent centuries developing and perfecting a naturalistic science. It is true that substantial time has also been dedicated in the past to highly spiritualized science, especially sponsored by the church. I think both fail because they do not consult each other. Two heads are indeed better than one.


We do not discard the scientific categories of investigation and understanding; we enhance it, but by another paradigm. So while we as Christians insist vehemently that the magisteria of science and faith do overlap, we must clearly understand that they are different magisteria.


Of course, sometimes they will clash. At such times the scientist will often go with Galileo and prefer the naturalistic explanation. The thinking Christian, however, will always know better. She will remain humble and open-minded in her interpretation of Scripture. She will study the text open to the possibility of being wrong in her conclusions, open to learning. But She will always know that “every word of God proves true,” (Proverbs 30:5) and will always unashamedly say so.[3]



Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” The American Biology Teacher, March 1973.

Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22; Reprinted here with permission from Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, New York: Harmony Books, 1998, pp. 269-283.

John Perry. 10 Christians Everyone Should Know. Thomas Nelson Inc. 2012.

C.S. Lewis, Divine Omnipotence, In The Joyful Christian (Macmillan, 1997).



[1] C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1996)

[2] Hebrews 11:3, KJV

[3] Proverbs 30:5, ESV

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About the author

Agana Agana-Nsriire

Agana Agana-Nsiire is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day. He writes at