I have recently read with great interest a series of blogs on this site by Sujin Pak regarding “Pre-modern Readings of Genesis 1,” which demonstrate, among other things, the great variety of ways that Christians have read and interpreted Scripture over the ages. They are a reminder to all of us engaged in the great science-and-theology debates of our day that we should be careful to assert our own readings of Scripture with some humility. I think it also calls us not to be myopic—to realize that the great minds of the Church from past eras have the potential to inform our faith and our thinking about faith today as well. We are, as Hebrews 12:1 affirms, surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” to whom Christians today should listen with careful attention.
Claiming our inheritance from the historical Church is the purpose of this blog series as well: to mine the rich depths of the Christian tradition as a source of wisdom in engaging the contemporary theology and science discussion. But, rather than looking at the different ways Christians throughout history have understood God to speak in and through Scripture, I want to explore what many of the great Christian theologians (and saints!) of the Church have said about how God speaks in and through God’s other great book: Nature, or Creation.
Last winter I wrote a series of blogs on this forum making the claim that Christians make a serious mistake when they consider science to be a purely secular enterprise that Christians need to "integrate" with Christian faith. The end result of such thinking, unfortunately, is a kind of Gnosticism that pits science and faith against one another, leading many devout Christians to mistrust science; moreover, they may needlessly feel threatened by the claims of the contemporary scientific community regarding theories as wide-ranging as human evolution, global warming, and the Big Bang.
What I have proposed is recovery of the ancient Christian "two book" theory, which affirms that God's self-revelation is given to us, albeit in different ways, in both Scripture and Creation (the “two” books), and that Christians need to “read” Scripture and Creation together in order to understand the fullness of God's Word and truth for us today. For this reason I prefer to think of scientific methods as God-given tools for us to understand Creation and, therefore, the glory and majesty of its Creator.
Indeed, I want to affirm that the scientific enterprise is in many ways sacred work, for it is the attempt to understand more fully the handiwork of God, and is in this way not unlike disciplined reading and discerning the Word of God in Holy Scripture. This is not to say that all scientists understand their task to be sacred. As we know, many are atheists or agnostics, and with their hearts closed to God, they lack the capacity to see fully the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of that which they study. In this respect, they are similar to many secular scholars of religion who teach in universities today who view the Bible as nothing more than one more collection of ancient stories or wisdom literature. Even without faith, such scholars can make significant contributions to their fields and to our understanding of the historical context of the Scriptures and of the work of God in His Creation; in this way they may unwittingly be part of as well as witnesses to God’s Word and Truth. But that kind of dispassionate approach is not the way that Christians read the world, much less Scripture. Reading Scripture is a sacred task for us, for through Scripture and by the Holy Spirit, God's living Word, Jesus Christ, is made alive in our hearts. Likewise, by the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us through Creation, and science is a tool that helps us to understand what God has to say.
In this series I wish to build on these claims by looking at a number of important figures in the history of the Church as resources for addressing the same concerns. In particular, I wish to demonstrate that many of the great figures of the Church held views commensurate to my own, and therefore provide further substance to my claim that Christians do not need to fear science as a threat to the truth of Christian faith or the viability of the biblical witness. Indeed, as we will see, many of the great theologians and leaders of the Church—including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley—in various ways believed that Creation bears witness to the glory and truth of its Creator and that this witness is fully compatible with the witness of Scripture.
However, before we begin, I need to make several points. First, I have chosen these eight figures because they are all extremely important in the history and development of Christianity, but also because they are considered standards of orthodoxy for Christian faith. In other words, they are not marginal figures in Christian history regarding their fidelity to Scripture or the fundamental teachings of the Church. The only possible exception to this is Origen of Alexandria, as some of his views came under suspicion by the Church in subsequent centuries. However, the concerns raised about Origen reflect developments in creedal orthodoxy of later centuries and not his own time when, in fact, his work was so influential as to have served as a kind of standard of orthodoxy. Besides, Origen is simply too important a figure in the development of Christian theology to ignore. Indeed, any short list of the greatest teachers in Church history should include Origen, as well as Justin, Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.
Likewise, among these eight figures we have included a wide range of thinkers who, among their variety, are all considered important in the development of the various branches of the Christian Church today. So, we have three of the great Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin, and Wesley), the single most important Roman Catholic theologian (Aquinas), one theologian of particular importance for Eastern Orthodoxy (Irenaeus), and three who have each cast long shadows in all three great branches of the Christian Church (Justin, Origen, and Augustine). We also have some cultural and national breadth in this group. It includes two theologians originating from the Greco-Roman Middle East (Justin and Irenaeus), two Africans (Origen and Augustine), and one each from Italy (Aquinas), Germany (Luther), France (Calvin) and Great Britain (Wesley). In other words, these theologians as a group represent both the depth and breadth of the wisdom of the entire Church through its first eighteen centuries.
Secondly, we must recognize that all of these theologians were persons of their time and not of ours, and that their concerns were not exactly ours. So, we cannot expect them to be addressing science in the proper sense (except Wesley and, to a lesser extent, Calvin) because science as we think of it (that is, using the scientific method of developing and testing hypotheses) is a fairly recent development. Also, none of them was dealing with issues such the challenges brought to traditional Christian thinking about Creation by, for instance, Darwinism or Big Bang theory. In fact, it’s impossible for us to know what any of them would affirm were we somehow to extract them from their own era and then drop them into our own. But, in the thought of each, they do give us some clues as to how they might think of such matters today, and I am not afraid of providing a little conjecture, so long as it is understood as such.
So to put things plainly, I am not particularly interested in investigating whether any of our figures were Young Earth Creationists. In fact, we can dispel with that issue right away: they all WERE, in one form or another. But, then, so were ALL Christians in the pre-modern era. Likewise, Christians before the era of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Rather, in the essays that follow we will be concerned with the ways in which each of our theologians conceived of the relationship between God's revelation in Scripture and revelation in Creation, and therefore, what they have to say about how Christians today might consider science as a tool of faith rather than its enemy. This is not to say that they all will agree. Some are in greater agreement with me (Justin, Wesley, Aquinas) than others (Luther). But even such disagreement is important, for it shows that Christians throughout all ages have disagreed on many important matters, while maintaining unity regarding the MOST important matters.
Next week, we’ll begin the series with the most ancient of our figures (Justin), and begin to move through history to the most recent (Wesley) in subsequent weeks. I hope you enjoy learning about them all as much as I have in preparing for this series.