Design in Nature, Part 1
Note: This is the first of a four-part series adapted from a 2006 Science & Christian Belief article by Oliver Barclay, in which Barclay compares and contrasts the biblical view of design in nature with modern design arguments that draw on contemporary science. In this first entry, Barclay considers the biblical claim that “all people in all cultures and at all times have some awareness of the fact that God is behind the universe” and reminds us not to overlook the fact that God is also in continual control of the world. Please see the full paper for references and complete text.
The Bible begins with a resounding declaration that the universe is the creation of the one almighty God, who had only to say so and it came into being: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... And God said... and it was so.’ Ignoring the question of the timescale and possible mechanisms of creation, we find that this theme runs through the whole Bible and is developed in various ways so as to fill out its significance. Perhaps it is most famously exemplified in the New Testament by the prologue of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.’
The biblical writers are united in their insistence that the cosmos reveals the reality and power of the Creator God. Romans 1:19-23 sets this out as clearly as any biblical passage. Here it is stated that all people are under God’s wrath when they have turned away from: ‘what may be known about God (and) is plain to them... For 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.’ This surely means that people can perceive, however vaguely, that there must be an all-powerful divine being behind the material world. This knowledge is accessible to all people irrespective of their cultural or educational background, and no knowledge of science is required to make such knowledge available; it comes by simple observation and personal experience of the wonders of the world around us.
Most of the sermons in the New Testament are addressed to Jews, or to those more generally who accepted Old Testament teachings, so that the truth that this is a world created by God is taken almost for granted in this context. Strikingly, in the only two recorded sermons to audiences that did not have this background, at Lystra and Athens (Acts 14:14-18; 17:22-31), Paul does stress the fact that this is a world created by God and that his listeners should respond to that fact, acknowledging that the creator God is not to be compared with lesser ‘deities’, and therefore they should seek to find him.
The Old Testament repeatedly states as fact that this universe is created by God, but is at pains to stress that it is the God, Jahweh, and not any of the other so-called gods, who is responsible both for its creation and its continuing functioning. In the Old Testament there is no real attempt to argue for the fact that this is a created world, rather it is treated as almost self-evident: certainly a truth that everyone is made aware of from observation. Psalm 19 expresses it like this:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Ps. 19:1-3)
The biblical claim is that all people in all cultures and at all times have some awareness of the fact that God is behind the universe, based on their own personal observation.
Creation and Providence
It is important to realize that the idea of creation and the continual control of the world – what we often call providence – merge into one another in biblical thought. So Paul, in his speech at Lystra, says that: ‘The living God who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them... has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons’(Acts 14:15,17). This title ‘the living God’ is often used by the biblical writers to stress that God is active in the world. Similarly, when Paul was speaking at Athens, he said that: ‘The God who made the world and every- thing in it...gives all men life and breath and everything else’ (Acts 17:24,25).
When we are called to acknowledge God as ‘our Creator’ we are being called not only to acknowledge that without him we and the universe would not exist, but also that he has brought us into being as we now are, even though (as we now know) it is the result of a long series of genetic and environmental processes. To the biblical writers the processes of ‘nature’ that science is exploring today are as much the work of God as the existence of the world itself. It is he who sends the seasons, as he has promised, so that when he is thanked for the harvest it is not just for the fact that there is the cycle of life that gives a crop, but that in his goodness this has happened once more. God is the Great Provider; hence the word providence.
There is a huge difference between the concept of God as merely the great designer and the biblical idea of the living God. As Calvin expressed the point: ‘without proceeding to his Providence we cannot understand the full force of what is meant by God being the Creator’. God creatively maintains the world so as to provide for living things. ‘He sustains all things’; as Hebrews 1:3 expresses it. If he did not, it would all dissolve into chaos and disappear. As Jesus himself said: ‘He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matt. 5:45, note the present tense).
So the fact that the land can be fruitful and that it is in fact so are two aspects of the same care of God for his world that make it a place fit for life. ‘For this is what the Lord says – he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited’(Isa. 45:18). God is presented as the One who has deliberately brought into being and maintains a world that can support life. So the state of the world is evidence not only for the existence and power of God but also for his kindness and care for his creation.
Does this include an argument for design? Clearly if it is God who has created and rules ‘nature’, deliberately for the good of living things, including humanity, then his design is implied in the way that things are organized. But this is a very different stance from those arguments for design which seek to show that some of the particular findings of science point to a Great Designer. Instead the biblical writers see the existence, and the generosity of God to humanity, in the whole panoply of the created order and its ongoing processes.
Dr. Oliver Barclay is a retired zoologist, who was the founding secretary of Christians in Science and the first editor of Science & Christian Belief.