Graduate Theological Union

Questioning Assumptions

Nancey MurphyNancey Murphy (Th.D. ’87) has made a career out of asking uncomfortable questions and forcing others to do the same. As professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest evangelical seminary in the United States, she is one of the scholars leading the effort to reconcile theology and science.

Murphy earned her B.A. in philosophy from Creighton University and her Ph.D. in philosophy of science from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1987, she earned her Th.D. in systematic and philosophical theology from the Graduate Theological Union. A member of the Fuller faculty since 1989, she is a well known speaker and popular teacher.

A Philosophy of the Physical
At her heart, Murphy is a philosopher. She has channeled her work in theology and science through three main areas of focus: rationality of Christian belief; modern versus post-modern Anglo-American philosophy; and her current interest, the nature of personhood.

Most people see human nature in terms of either trichotomism (humans are composed of body, mind, and spirit) or dualism (humans are composed of either body and mind or body and soul). Science sees human nature as purely physical, as does Murphy, and she expresses concern that science and religion will be made out to be opposites.

“I was studying theology because I didn’t want to talk about Christianity with no firsthand experience.”

Instead, she sees science and theology moving toward consensus on the question of personhood. Her work has implications for some of the most challenging ethical questions facing our society today: from stem-cell research and abortion to animal rights and ecology. It also has theological implications—for example, an emphasis on bodily resurrections and a religious imperative to work for peace and justice and care for individuals in this world.

To Speak with Firsthand Knowledge
Murphy has been involved with the GTU’s Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) since her days as a theology student. Dr. Robert J. Russell, the founder and director of CTNS, encouraged her to participate—an event that had a certain irony to it, she said. “I was trying to get away from science, because I was tired of talking about it second hand. I was studying theology because I didn’t want to talk about Christianity with no firsthand experience.”

In spite of this, the intersection of philosophy, science, and religion has remained an important focus through much of Nancey Murphy’s career. She is a member of the CTNS board of directors and serves on the science and religion conference planning committee of the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest scientific institutions in the world. She also serves as an editorial advisor for the journal Theology and Science. Her first book, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning, earned awards from the Templeton Foundation and the American Academy of Religion.

Advocating for Interconnection
Murphy sees her philosophy of personhood playing out in her own life as an ordained minister of the Church of the Brethren. Adhering to the denomination’s motto “continuing the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, together,” she distinguishes between this physicalist view of Christianity and the commonly held tenet of the forgiveness of one’s sins and the soul’s eternal life.

In the 20 years since she left the Graduate Theological Union, Nancey Murphy has encouraged countless students and colleagues, both in the theological and the scientific communities, to question their assumptions and to risk a bit of their own certainty in pursuit of greater wisdom, and in the end, greater faith.

She advocates for interconnection. “‘Many of my students will be teachers and pastors in conservative Protestant churches, so I think it is important for them to know that they gain nothing and lose much by putting faith and science in opposition,’” she said in a 2005 interview with The Christian Century. “‘I want them to appreciate the way scientific knowledge amplifies our understanding of creation, and thereby our wonder and reverence for God.’”