Fathom Mag

The Theologian Scientist

A profile of Dr. Lanier Burns

Published on:
June 14, 2017
Read time:
40 min.
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When asked how brain science affects his theology, Dr. Lanier Burns musters only one word, “Immeasurably!”

The door reading “Dr. Lanier Burns” leads to a room that could uncomfortably fit four people shoulder to shoulder. Books, magazines, and framed family photos line every inch of available space, and sometimes spill onto the floor.

Dr. Burns has not always loved science. Instead his passion developed much later in life. After receiving his second doctorate—in the humanities from the University of Texas in 1993—he realized he possessed a great understanding of philosophy and the arts, but he had little exposure to the hard sciences. So, this highly learned man set out to learn some more.

The reason we have bad theology is because we don’t understand the intricacy of science.
Dr. Lanier Burns

“A passion of mine has been to understand the twentieth century,” the professor says with a grin. “It’s my century, and science was the theme of that century.” From 1993 to 1998 he immersed himself in chemistry, biology, the scientific method, and enough scientific discoveries to send a lesser brain spinning. His conclusion: “Science is too broad and too big.” 

So, in the latter half of the ’90s, Dr. Burns narrowed his scope to brain science. And in the process, he discovered that the brain “is the most remarkable instrument in the universe.” 

“I began to gather every source that I could find on brain science,” he said. The periodicals stacked and toppling over on the floor testify to this. “And I discovered that science is a tremendous alter ego to theology. The reason we have bad theology is because we don’t understand the intricacy of science.”

Dr. Burns said that two decades of learning about the brain and advancement in the scientific community has added to his devotion to God and increased his love and service to those around him in daily life. “Science is my window to the world,” he says, pointing out across the grass as the sun streamed in through the blinds. “It’s where I cross the bridge from theology to meaningful context outside.”

“This,” he said, flicking the hardcover of a five-hundred-page chronicle of scientific discovery in the twentieth century, “this is the healing of people. And we are supposed to be interested in that.”

Caring for people stands atop the list of priorities for Dr. Burns, whether that means always making time for his students, discipling and mentoring others on a consistent basis, or even helping to start a school and clinic in India.

This professor of theology and former military police officer said emphatically, “I believe in trying to help people who are truly hurting, not just people who are going to hell.” His voice rushes with excitement to the point of drowning out the instrumental version of “How Great Is Our God” flowing in from the reception desk.

“How am I going to sit here, look at a leper, and share the gospel blithely with him? You can’t do that! You have got to connect with a person’s immediate needs.” His hands clapping together for emphasis. “You’ve got to connect!” After taking a deep breath and relaxing back into his chair, he shared a mantra with me. “Heal the body then the soul.” The man who is never short on catch phrases then followed up with, “We should use ambulances for evangelism.”

Addressing the people that believe the worlds of science and religion are mutually exclusive, he says, “I wouldn’t say anything to them at all—except I think they are just robbing themselves of incredible exposure to the most important developments in the world today.” He adds that a robust doctrine and belief system makes for a wonderful part of life, but he believes those in the evangelical community limit their thinking.

“This is the healing of people. And we are supposed to be interested in that.”

“We get into ‘how to explain hermeneutics?’ How about ‘how do you explain the eye?’ I have known several doctors converted to Christianity because they cannot understand the wonders of the eye, yet we take it for granted. Under an electron microscope,” he says, his hands pantomiming the turning of dials, “a whole new world opens up.”

Dr. Burns pushes for more people in the religious, theological, and philosophical arenas to expand their horizons into other fields such as biology, chemistry, or even advanced mathematics. “It enriches your theology. I am extremely positive about the Bible and about what [seminary training] has given me, and I’m extremely positive because what the Bible teaches about life is validated by neuroscience.”

J. Lanier Burns, DTS Chapel

This professor of theology and lover of science once believed in the ’90s that a union between the two camps of science and religion could be achieved, but he now thinks differently. “After being real time and real life in that struggle . . . it’s impossible, because even if [the scientific community at large] entertain a very weak notion of theism it’s going to be so profoundly unbiblical.” Although he may love what he has learned from both sides, he knows these two distinct groups will never truly come together.

Yet, when Dr. Burns travels, he still seeks out the university laboratories, not to convert those in them, but to learn from them. “They let me in because I’m not a competitor,” he says while reorganizing his pictures of his family and his puppies. “There is no way I could write an article for any medical publication and steal their work, so they are very open and forthcoming with me. I’m not going in there to build bridges on creation, or to challenge their belief system in any way. I go to observe how they use nature to show the grandeur of God on orthodox biblical grounds. I tell them I love them, and I deeply appreciate what they do. And all I can say is, it’s been a great ride, and it’s been the best thing I ever did.”

Drew Crawford
Drew is currently finishing his Master’s degree in Christian Education at Dallas Theological Seminary. When he is not consumed with studies, he works as a high school football coach at Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, Texas.

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