Design in Nature, Part 4
This is the final post in a four-part series adapted from a 2006 Science & Christian Belief article by Oliver Barclay. Part one can be found here. Having compared the biblical understanding of God’s providence with the view he feels is implied by the Intelligent Design movement, Barclay now returns to describe the “biblical approach” to design. Please see the full paper for references and complete text.
The Glory and Beauty of Creation
The idea of the beauty of creation at first sight appears to be intrinsic to the idea that it expresses the glory of God. For many people it is the extraordinary beauty of the world that strikes them as evidence that God has designed it. However, I cannot find this stated in the Bible either explicitly or even indirectly, although Jesus told his disciples that even the lilies of the field, although temporary, outshone ‘Solomon in all his splendor’ (Matt. 6:28,29).
One reason for this lack of emphasis is that beauty is temporary and another may be that it is largely a matter of what seems beautiful to us. Tastes change and beauty has a large subjective element. Not long ago, for instance, the magnificent snow capped mountains of the world that to us seem so beautiful were regarded with almost universal horror, while the spider in the bath is only beautiful to those who have had the opportunity to study it in detail. In fact the Bible often refers to the passing nature and the seductiveness of beauty: ‘Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting’ says the book of Proverbs (Prov. 30:31).
Nevertheless there is certainly the recognition that beauty is something to give thanks for as a gift from God and beautiful things are valued. The temple and the Old Testament tabernacle had to be made to be beautiful, as less than that would not be to honor God. God ‘has made everything beautiful in its time’ says the preacher (Eccles. 3:11) but goes on to say how he cannot find in that the secret of life.
Therefore while we are encouraged to admire beauty and to appreciate it, the Bible does not emphasize it, nor use beauty as evidence that the universe is made by God or shows his design. The data that come to our senses are in any case ambiguous, as the world also contains things that are ugly, although overall it is difficult not to believe that such a beautiful world does point to a wonderful creator and move us to acknowledge that such beauty is at times awe-inspiring as well as cause for heartfelt thanksgiving. Paul reminds us that ‘God... richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (1 Tim. 6:17) and the beauty of the world is something that we should enjoy as an important aspect of God’s generosity.
Certainly the Bible encourages us to enjoy the wonders of the world. As the famous verse in Psalm 111: 2 has it, ‘the works of the Lord are great, sought out by all those who take pleasure in them’. This has always been a favorite text for scientists who take pleasure in discovering the wonders of his works. There is enormous pleasure in science, even when we are not discovering anything new, but just enjoying its descriptions of the hidden intricacies of the natural world. The pleasures and joys of life are therefore seen as aspects of God’s creation which he has planned for us. In that sense they bear indirect witness to his design, but the biblical writers are more concerned to lead us to acknowledge him, and worship and thank him as our generous creator. The beauty of the world is just one part of God’s generosity, which is one part of his ‘glory’, which is ‘above the earth and the heavens’. Isaiah in his soaring poetry has it like this:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has... instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?... He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth and its people are like grasshoppers... Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name... Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. (Isa. 40:12-14, 22, 26, 28-29)
The creator God of the Bible is no remote deity. Indeed this passage from Isaiah is also immediately preceded by saying that this God ‘tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms’. Christians are astonishingly told to call him ‘Father’. While we should rejoice to call him Creator and enjoy the benefits of his creation and providence we should not stop there.
The concept of design is only a very small part of the biblical picture of the world and is best put in its place by asking the question: ‘design for what?’ The biblical answer is that all things on earth are created, maintained and planned for the possibility of a life as we know it and in particular for people to live and be in relationship with God. That broader view reminds us of the glory and power of God in creation, but in the Bible the concept of design is really incidental to this larger theme.
What are the practical consequences for scientists? Firstly it reminds us to stop more often to marvel at the amazing universe that we have been given. When we do so our lives and our scientific work are enriched. It is a great stimulus to pursue our work with the excitement that we are finding out more of God’s works.
Secondly, the biblical insights should give us a new humility about our discoveries and the whole scientific enterprise. When we give the highest honors to those who have made scientific discoveries, we should more often remind ourselves of Isaiah’s challenge: ‘Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him?’(Isa. 40:14). Who in fact invented the genetic code, which you are so proud to have discovered after centuries of scientific effort? These are the kind of reminders that God gave to Job.
Thirdly, when we talk about design in nature we should be careful to point out that this is at best only a tiny aspect of the biblical idea of creation, and even then implicit rather than explicit. Far from being a remote draughtsman who designs things without later involvement, we should always present the biblical creator God as he is, the one who cares for and is intimately involved in every aspect of the created order.
Fourthly, the biblical emphasis should make us more bold when writing or teaching to say more often than we do, how awesomely astonishing and ingenious the created world is. It is not always appropriate to talk about God as Creator in the context of teaching or practicing science, but people can still get the message. Professor R.J. Hooykaas, one of the founders and mentors of Christians in Science, used to say that one of his happiest moments was, when teaching on Crystallography in a Communist country, and having made no mention of God or creation at all, he was approached afterwards, privately, by a Russian scientist who said ‘I think you must be a Christian.’ The sense of wonder and humility before creation displayed by the lecturer in this case had clearly displayed something of the glory of God’s created order – in this case in the order displayed by crystals.
The larger picture of God’s creative actions is well expressed in Psalm 8, where the writer puts alongside each other the magnificence of the creation and the fact that God does care for people:
0 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!... When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?... 0 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:1, 3-4, 9)
Dr. Oliver Barclay is a retired zoologist, who was the founding secretary of Christians in Science and the first editor of Science & Christian Belief.