God and Nature are not Competitors

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This is part two in a series taken from Louis' paper (downloadable here), which addresses common Christian misconceptions about the nature of science and its relationship to God's involvement in our world. The first part can be found here.

The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

-Hebrews 1:3

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

-Matthew 10:29-31

The Bible opens with a glorious account of the one almighty God who has only to speak and the world comes into being. These early chapters of Genesis lay down themes that are expanded and elaborated in the many other biblical creation passages.1 A message we moderns may not pick up on so easily is illustrated by literary devices such as using the words “greater lamp” and “lesser lamp” instead of the usual Hebrew words to refer to the sun and the moon and moreover relegating them (together with the stars almost as an “afterthought”) to the fourth day. Why was this done? Almost certainly because the people of Israel were tempted to worship the sun and moon. Declaring that these heavenly bodies were physical objects rather than beings who control our lives may seem unremarkable to our modern ears, but it would have sounded incredibly daft to the intelligentsia of the day, who were, after all, astrologers.

Today the dominant assumption among the intelligentsia is very different, namely an autonomous “mother nature” that runs on its own. If there is a God, then they feel he should show himself by intervening—“poking into”—that world. These same influences lead Christians down blind apologetic alleys like arguing for a “God of the gaps.” This modern Christian temptation has its roots in the same heresy as the one that plagued the ancients: a misunderstanding of the sovereignty of God over all creation.

Our modern concept of “Nature” as an entity independent of God cannot be found in the Bible. Instead, the creation passages emphasize a God who “sustain[s] all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). That is why, for example in Psalm 104, the point of view fluidly changes back and forth from direct action by God—“He makes springs pour water into ravines”—to water acting on its own—“[the water] flows down the mountains." Such dual descriptions are two different perspectives on the same thing. Within a robust biblical theism, if God were to stop sustaining all things, the world would not slowly grind to a halt or descend into chaos; it would simply stop existing.

So how should we think about science then? Certainly modern science was not present at the time that the Bible was written. It is a good hermeneutical principle that God inspired the biblical authors to write within the confines of their own culture. So to first order the Bible is not directly concerned with the practice of modern science. Nevertheless there are principles that can be brought to bear. Out of a rich theological tradition of refection on the difference between God’s miraculous acts and his regular sustenance of nature the following ideas emerged: If the regularities of nature are a manifestation of the faithful sustenance of an eternal and unchanging God then one would expect them to be trustworthy and consistent. The regular behavior of nature could be viewed as the “customs of the creator." Christians glorify God by studying these “laws of nature.” A strong case can be made that such theological realizations helped pave the way for the rise of modern science itself.2

By the time the Royal Society of London, the world’s first scientific society, was founded in 1660, Christian thinkers like the poet John Donne, then Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, could write:

the ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once... only the daily doing takes off the admiration. ("Eighty Sermons," #22, published in 1640)

These theological principles naturally explain why one might expect the universe to exhibit properties like uniformity, rationality and intelligibility that undergird science. It is less clear how to justify these metaphysical principles from a purely naturalistic framework.

What about miracles then? It is important to remember that they are not just “wonders” (teras) for us to marvel at, but signs (semion) or works of power (dunamis). They occur when, to achieve his divine purposes, God chooses to sustain the world in a manner that is different from the way he normally does.

We thus see that within the biblical framework of a God who faithfully sustains the world we have good reason to expect that:

  1. The scientific method will have success in describing the “customs of the creator,” that is, the regular ways that God interacts with and sustains the world.
  2. God can also interact in less customary ways and do miracles, but since we do not have full access to the divine mind, we can’t know or control all the conditions, nor repeat them. Thus by definition they fall outside of the remit of science. You could almost say that the Bible teaches that miracles are unscientific (although of course science could measure their consequences).

This brings us back to Leibniz’s two criticisms of Newton. Strictly speaking, the first one—that it demeans God’s craftsmanship if he has to intervene in nature—cannot be directly derived from the Bible. God is free, he can sustain the universe in whatever way he pleases. Nevertheless the sentiment behind this critique builds on a venerable theological tradition of the eternal and unchanging God faithfully sustaining the world in a regular way.

The second criticism—that God doesn’t do miracles to satisfy the wants of nature, but rather those of grace—builds on the more explicit Biblical theme that God performs miracles for his divine purposes. Fundamentally, the question of whether God did or did not use miracles in natural history is only accessible to us through revelation. Most commentators would say that the creation passages, rich though they are, are simply not concerned with this question.

Newton’s reply to Leibniz’ criticism was that if “From the beginning of creation, everything has happened without any regulation or intervention by God” then this would strengthen the hands of deistic or atheistic sceptics.

So does the argument that God mainly sustains the physical world in a regular way lead to deism? It is true that if we could find an unambiguous miracle in natural history, then this would weaken the case for deism. But on the other hand, it can be argued that in Newton’s phrase “intervention by God” we can spot the seeds—underlying assumptions of a quasi-independent nature in which God occasionally intervenes—that helped deism flourish in the centuries that followed him.

The Bible doesn’t leave any room for such deistic assumptions.3 Although it is silent on the exact mechanisms by which God acts in the world (as fascinating and important as this question is) it is loud and clear in its proclamation that God’s providence extends to all of creation. He is sovereign over the whole caboodle. We are called to trust in a God who cares for the sparrows and numbers the hairs on our head. We are warned against the ancient heresy of worshiping a magical and capricious creation, and also against the modern heresy of deism, be it metaphysical or practical, when even Christians live as if God won’t act in their lives:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

-Matthew 6:25-33


Notes

Citations

MLA

Louis, Ard. "God and Nature are not Competitors"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 24 Jan. 2011. Web. 17 February 2019.

APA

Louis, A. (2011, January 24). God and Nature are not Competitors
Retrieved February 17, 2019, from /blogs/archive/god-and-nature-are-not-competitors

References & Credits

1. See e.g. David Wilkingson, The Message of Creation (IVP, Leicester 2002).

2. See e.g. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1972); R. Numbers, Galileo Went to Jail and 25 Other Myths about Science and Religion (HUP 2009); P. Harrison, The Bible and the Rise of Modern Science CUP (1998).

3. Oliver R. Barclay, “Design in Nature,” Science & Christian Belief, 18, 49 (2006).

About the Author

Ard Louis

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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