When You can’t just ‘Trust the Science’

Ross Douthat wrote an opinion column for the Dec. 19, 2020 edition of the New York Times. He attacked the notion that science and bureaucracy can be folded into one entity. He is right. People’s idea of science (really it is a rational vantage point, method, and procedure) does not match the reality. Science is not a god or supreme authority, but an evolving body of knowledge and way of acquiring what is hopefully factual. Science distrusts everything, especially past scientific findings. It does not rely on authorities, but purposely diminishes them, for scientific observation.
But “trust” is a religious word. It denotes more than facts and objective ideas. The appearance and trappings of science have been used to do horrible things, but it does not have inherent, built-in morals. Margret Sanger’s and Hitler’s eugenics ideas can be presented in a scientific way. Death can be legitimized in neutral medical words (as with abortion), if not all people are viewed with the same creative value. But the presentation of something in a neutrally scientific way does not mean that it is really is neutral or correct. Moderns fall for this all the time. God claims authority over all man’s facts and truth. Divine truth, revealed in Scripture, is the only truth that should be believed without qaulm.
Douthat writes of the “fatuous slogan” “trust the science”:
I have in mind, in particular, the claim that has echoed through the liberal side of coronavirus-era debates — that the key to sound leadership in a pandemic is just to follow the science, to trust science and scientists, to do what experts suggest instead of letting mere grubby politics determine your response.
… what the slogan implied was often much more dubious: a deference to the science bureaucracy during a crisis when bureaucratic norms needed to give way; an attempt by para-scientific enterprises to trade on (or trade away) science’s credibility for the sake of political agendas; and an abdication by elected officials of responsibility for decisions that are fundamentally political in nature.
Science has no authority from God, like the Scriptures do (directly and without limit), nor government (which is indirect authority and often abused).
One of the greatest take-aways from 2020 is the increased conflict of government and church authority. “Church” can be defined broadly—as anything that happens in a church building (including face coverings, the number of people, building and fire codes, etc). But those are things the state regulates since they are external and physical. Not everything in church is spiritual or demanded by God the Father. In fact, most things in a church building are not. How do we decide what is non-negotiate in church settings? The issue comes down to Scripture. God commands very little for worship, mainly that it is accepted by the Father in the Spirit and truth of Christ (Jn. 4.). But sinners cling to external things that are not part of the worship of faith: worship styles, musical selections, decorations, vestments, etc. But none of these are the Gospel. Wearing a mask does not stop Christ from entering the heart through the Word of the Gospel.
While many government leaders have felt the necessity to be saviors of a sort, even taking draconian measures that harm people’s spiritual and emotional well-being, some church leaders have taken the exact opposite view: submission to government authority is optional, if it is undesirable or in some vague “church” realm. But Scripture is the authority for the Christian, not the conscience or the open-ended (second) constitution of the United States, which is not inspired. While the pandemic has revealed those who see all religion as non-essential, it has also revealed weaknesses in churches, especially among pastors, who are unable to think clearly about the divine authority given to government. Many Lutheran pastors, who are not used to relying on individual Scripture verses, have been unable to clearly think about the dividing line between divine and civil authorities. Making health pronouncements or constitutional arguments are for doctors and lawyers. They are not a part of the calling of ministers, nor do they carry religious authority.
This verse should cause us to fear: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2). The authority of government is divine if it is legitimate. We do not have to agree that its rule is the best course of action or think it makes sense for the public good. Authority demands submission, not agreement. There is no sacred church rope around the building that exempts Christians from valid laws.
Now Scripture does speak about assembling around the Word and sacraments, but does not say it has to be in a certain location. The Christian is not bound to certain times and places, like the Jews in the Old Testament were. God in Scripture does institute the congregation as a public gathering around the Word. That does not mean we may treat Holy communion with the reverence of a video game—thinking technology is a substitute for the actual communion of saints of God in a place. But the response of “trust the science” or “disobey the government if you disagree with the science” is beside the point. We must obey God at all times. Since He says to obey the government and its legitimate authority, we have no authority to go against it, even when it has bad laws and ordinances in our opinion. The church’s authority is not pastors playing doctor or scientist. It is the written Word of God. Logical reasoning not from Scripture has no authority in the church. Without the words and authority of Scripture, it must be a political, man-centered argument.
Many pastors have tried to be governors in place of their God-given governors. While a sincere pastor might do a better job than a power-hungry political operative, that is not the job God has expressly given to them. The Word is to guide pastors and churches, not the supposed freedoms of the U.S. constitution or whatever leaders think should happen within the walls of a church building. An appeal to a government’s constitution may have political weight, but it has no theological weight because it did not come from God.
Good motivations are beside the point—everyone thinks that he has them. The “lockdown” people think death by virus is the only problem. The “anti-lockdown” people think it is ridiculous and perhaps there is no threat of real sickness at all. Both are opinions, while the Word of God directs people to stop trusting in man—his science and opinions. The Gospel is the only thing that can save us from the death of sin. Christ’s death is always the solution to man’s problems. We need to be firm and certain of our convictions. But science is never certain. Every scientific finding is open to revision and criticism. Political moves are always up for debate. But God’s Word is sure. The pandemic has revealed shaky hearts across the spectrum that are not resting on the Word above all created things.
These are the kind of questions, in other words, that our elected leaders should be willing to answer without recourse to a self-protective “just following the science” default. But that default is deeply inscribed into our political culture, and especially the culture of liberalism, where even something as obviously moral-political as the decision to let Black Lives Matter protests go forward amid a pandemic was justified by redescribing their motor, antiracism, as a push for better public health.
But it is never too late to repent, to stop trusting in man and his knowledge. Jesus is our God, who submitted to government authority—seeing no contradiction between giving what Caesar and the Father in heaven are owed. It is a fine line, a times, but so many have been caught unprepared. An overreaction to false “love” is not any more spiritual than claiming we must stop living to save lives.
[The] Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices produced a working document that’s a masterpiece of para-scientific effort, in which questions that are legitimately medical and scientific (who will the vaccine help the most), questions that are more logistical and sociological (which pattern of distribution will be easier to put in place) and moral questions about who deserves a vaccine are all jumbled up, assessed with a form of pseudo-rigor that resembles someone bluffing the way through a McKinsey job interview and then used to justify the conclusion that we should vaccinate essential workers before seniors … because seniors are more likely to be privileged and white.
Oddly, the most vulnerable unde this scheme would receive the vaccine last, after health care and essential workers.
The Christian lives above this world and its problems, even death. Although a grotesque enemy, death is defeated and not of ultimate concern to the believer in Christ. God reminds us that we have two good options, so do not fear death above all things: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil. 1:22-24).
While governments struggle with its very difficult and burdensome responsibilities, in the church we cannot just say: “trust your government leaders,” or “trust our church leaders,” or “trust the pastor,” or “trust your own conscience and convictions.” None of those are God. Neither an abstract religious authority, nor “pretending that a certain kind of scientific knowledge, ideally backed by impeccable credentials, can be substitute for prudential and moral judgments that we are all qualified to argue over, and that our elected leaders, not our scientists, have the final responsibility to make.” We must be sure of the basis on which we speak and stand. Let us be woken up to Christ and His Word anew. His judgments are righteous and true and His has spoken the truth through Christ. Amen. —ed.