Monday, June 11, 2012

The “Books” of Scripture and Nature

The metaphor of the “two books” is well known among Reformed people, especially through the work of John Calvin. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession also makes use of it. True, it does not speak of “two books” but of “two means” by which we know God. But it goes on to describe the first of these means, namely what we observe about God in nature, “as a most beautiful book,” much as Calvin did.

The fact that Scripture and nature have a common author has often led to the conclusion that there must be factual agreement between what Scripture and science tell us about the physical world, and it therefore goes a long way in explaining the efforts that have been made over the centuries to harmonize the two books. This was done in the past and is still being done today, both by young-earth creationists and by various Christians who hold to an older earth and cosmos. In her article “What General Revelation Does (and Does Not) Tell Us” [Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (March 2010), v. 62, n. 1, pp. 16-24], Mary L. Vandenberg, who teaches Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, evaluates this understanding of the two-books metaphor and finds it wanting.

She focuses on two questions in connection with the tradition, namely: “(1) How much concordance is there between what the Bible and science tell us about the nature of the physical world? and (2) how much concordance is there is between what the Bible and science tell us about God?” and answers that the two-books metaphor offers an answer only to the second question, not to the first. Rather than informing us about the structure, properties, and operations of nature, Scripture reveals (like nature) the existence, wisdom, and power of God. This is in accordance with the teaching of John Calvin, who, when speaking of the knowledge we can gain from the two books, “is especially addressing the knowledge of God available in nature and in the Bible, not knowledge in general.” Calvin was following the apostle Paul who wrote that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1: 20).

Calvin adds that because of the fall humanity is blinded and no longer able to see the evidence of God in creation, and that therefore God has graciously provided us with “spectacles,” namely his special revelation. If we use these spectacles, we will clearly see that the author of the book of creation is indeed God. It is not so, Vandenberg warns, that we need the lenses of Scripture for a proper interpretation of scientific data. “When we read the book of nature apart from the corrective lenses of Scripture,” she writes, “it is not that our scientific findings will necessarily go awry. Rather, the knowledge of God that can be obtained from the physical world will be corrupted.” In the words of geologist Davis Young, whom she quotes, “Christians have typically understood ‘general revelation’ as having to do with science. Again, however, the idea is not that data are divinely revealed but that God is revealed through the created order.”

Where do we go from here?

If Vandenberg’s analysis is accurate — and there seems to be little reason to doubt it — Christian scientists will be wise to dispense with the metaphor as a justification for concordist attempts. Scripture, which contains God’s revelation to people of all historical periods and all cultures, does not reveal to us the findings of modern science. To assume that it does is, to borrow an expression from C.S. Lewis, a blatant case of chronological snobbery — the belief that our period and culture and achievements are ultimate. If we want to find the properties of science, we have to turn to nature, not to Scripture. This is indeed common sense. It does not, however, answer the question which inspired the concordist use of the two-books metaphor in the first place — namely that concerning the relationship between the written Word and the discoveries of to-day’s science. That continues to be an urgent question. Vandenberg admits this when in her conclusion she writes that “some level of reconciliation between the findings of science and Scripture would, at the very least, be existentially helpful.”

I hope that this question will receive the attention it deserves also in our own Reformed community. When we are considering it, we will do well to keep in mind that throughout church history believers have, in the end, assumed the priority of science. To quote Peter J. Wallace, “In all of the historical debates regarding the relationship between science and theology, science has taken the lead in provoking theologians to reconsider their exegesis. The quest for harmonization with science has led theologians and pastors to reject the theories of a lucid moon and a solid raqi’a [firmament], and adopt theories of the four elements*, a spherical earth, heliocentrism, and Day-Age and Gap theories of the creation days. In none of these cases did the transformation begin with exegetical work. Exegetical arguments have invariably followed from philosophical and scientific arguments that caused the church to reconsider the traditional exegesis.” [Peter J. Wallace, “The Doctrine of Creation in the History of the Church” direct link; Wallace’s pieces are listed in our “Collected Papers”]

The question is urgent and difficult, not least in view of recent scientific findings in paleontology and genomics, yet the quest must continue. Whatever the outcome, we are well served by following Vandenberg’s twofold concluding advice. The first one is that theologians “should neither be too eager to reinterpret the Bible in order to make sense of the latest scientific data, nor too eager to disregard the findings of science in order to make sense of certain biblical texts. Rather, they should read with excitement the latest results of scientific inquiry. As Scott Hoezee writes, ‘Christians, of all people, can take proper, holy joy in such things, giving glory to God for a universe so wondrous and endlessly surprising.’” And scientists, she writes, “should not be overly anxious to reinterpret various biblical texts, the purpose of which is to offer humans saving knowledge of God, in an effort to harmonize the Bible with the findings of science…. The result of all our endeavours should be that we join with the ancient psalmist…who gazed at the starry skies and with wonder declared, ‘O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (Psalm 8: 1, 9). In that way, the work of the scientist, the work of the theologian, and the work of any other vocation is identical: to bring glory to God.”

*This expression refers to the ancient Greek scientific understanding of the universe as consisting of four elements, namely earth, water, air, and fire. That understanding, Wallace says in this same piece, “was nearly universal among Christian commentators from the early church through the reformation, and remained the dominant paradigm throughout the seventeenth century among Reformed theologians.” He adds that one means of harmonizing this description with Scripture was to distinguish between the first three days which narrate the creation of the four elements: fire (light), air (firmament), water (seas), and earth (land); and the second three days which speak of the creation of things out of those elements.