Design in Nature, Part 3

| By Oliver R. Barclay

This is part three in a four-part series adapted from a 2006 Science & Christian Beliefarticle 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.

Biblical approaches to design

The biblical idea of creation and providence as fulfilling God’s good purposes implies, as we have said, that the world is designed by him. But we have to ask: Designed for what? The answer must be to play its part in God’s overall beneficent purposes of creation and providence. God’s purposes could, in principle, be achieved as much through an evolutionary process as in any other scientifically defined process. It is important to remember that there is no clear demarcation line in the Bible between God’s ‘works’ in nature and his ‘works’ in history: He is seen as sovereign in both. Within this overall theme of Creation and Providence there are, however, particular elements that clarify the biblical emphasis and could be described as pointing more clearly to the idea of God’s design, even though that is not their main purpose.

The wisdom of God in the natural world

This is epitomized in the phrase: ‘in wisdom you made them all’. That is the apex of the great Psalm 104 (Ps. 104:24), where the writer has spent time remarking on the way in which the whole natural order fits together and functions in a harmony.

The biblical concept of wisdom is very different from the modern one. If we use the term almost entirely of intellectual analysis and problem solving, the Bible thinks of it more as a practical ability to see what needs to be done after understanding the real inwardness of a situation. Derek Kidner describes it as discerning ‘the bottom line of life’. The book of Proverbs is of course where it is best developed. There human wisdom is the ability to see what really matters in life and how to live accordingly. The term ‘understanding’ is almost equivalent to wisdom. It is not just common sense, it is understanding of what life is all about and what is of value and what is not. Sometimes wisdom is personified as the agent of creation: ‘By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place’ (Prov. 3: 19; Ps. 136: 5). It therefore follows naturally to state repeatedly that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov. 9: 10; Ps. 111: 10). One might say: ‘If you want to know what life is all about: then you must start here. You need to know that God is the one who invented it all and in the end calls all the shots.’ The beginning of wisdom is to understand that this is the case.

The world is incredibly ingenious: the hummingbird makes the helicopter look like a child’s toy – all in a body that weighs two or three ounces, which can also reproduce itself! The fact that birds can navigate thousands of miles of sea and land on a migration to the best feeding grounds, which they have never visited before, without refueling, and then return at the right time to breed in a more suitable climate is truly astonishing. They are seen as expressing some part of the wisdom by which they were created: ‘Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread his wings towards the south?’ asks God of Job as one example of the wisdom of God and the relative ignorance of humankind (Job 39: 26). He is not asking us to think that we can never discover the means whereby birds migrate, but simply to look at the world as a whole and see how astonishing it is, an astonishment much enhanced as our scientific knowledge increases.

As God sketches some of the remarkable features of the created order in Job 38-41, he asks not ‘could you explain that?’, but rather: ‘Did you do that?’ Hence his basic challenge: ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?’ So the question it poses to us today is not: ‘Could you imitate the created order or can you think out how it may have come to be as it is, given our present knowledge of the world?’ It is rather: Did you bring into being the immense variety of things on the earth and in the heavens that confront you when you stop to think? Oliver O’Donovan comments on these chapters:

[Job] is to be humbled by a pageant of natural phenomena, glorious in its sheer observational detail: oceanology, geology, meteorology, astronomy and, of course, lots of animal ethology...this proud specimen of our race...has no claim to a stable and well-balanced ecosystem... God speaks with nature’s voice, because nature excites a palpable sense of our human contingency and teaches us to worship. Our problem today, which is also the cause of our problems in the more specific sense, is that our awe has given way to an exploitative and managerial approach to nature.

Does this, however, indicate the idea of design in the natural world? I think we must say again that it implies it. If God has made the world so that it has these features and is a unified whole that serves the purpose of supporting life, then it is incredibly ingenious, and the inference of ‘design’ appears entirely reasonable. But the biblical writers themselves do not seem to stress such an idea at all, perhaps because it suggests too small a concept of God.

Awe before the natural world

This is well epitomized in the phrase: ‘l am fearfully and wonderfully made’, which comes from the well known Psalm 139, where the writer is humbled and indeed awestruck by the wonder of a God who both rules our personal histories and is at the same time the creator of all:

You created my inmost being: You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place... your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Ps. 139:13-16)

The biblical writers are rightly awestruck at the wonder of the way the world works. To return to Psalm 104, the writer is excited by the fittedness of the whole world for life. Streams run from the mountains and into the valleys and so provide for the animals and plants, which in turn provide food and nesting places for the birds. Even the high mountains provide refuge for the wild goats and conies, and the regularities of the seasons and the predictability of day and night make possible a rhythm of life and huge varieties of life forms. It is awesome. There is something very deficient in our thinking if we do not marvel at the world that our scientific practice enables us to study. The biblical writers want us to stand in awe of God’s creation. We are only digging out things that he has put there and pride in our discoveries is totally inappropriate. Admiration of the creator’s work is what is due, and scientists who are Christians should always be at the forefront in highlighting those aspects of the created order that arouse our wonder.


About the Author

Oliver R. Barclay

Dr. Oliver Barclay is a retired zoologist, who was the founding secretary of Christians in Science and the first editor ofScience & Christian Belief.