Monday, June 1, 2015

Two Beautiful Books: Science... err... correction: Nature and Scripture (Part 2)

In my last post, I began a series on science and Scripture to teach a biblical view of science that will hopefully be helpful to Christians and non who read this blog. My goal in this series (and in the RUF seminar that gave birth to it) is not to tell you what to think on sub-topics of science and Christianity like the age of the earth, big bang cosmology, etc. My goal is to teach you how to think biblically and consistently about science and Scripture. In the first post, I used the analogy of building a house in which a Christian can "live" in a culture that puts a great deal of weight on science. I hope to help you build that metaphorical house. It is not going to be a perfect house--the walls may have few drafts and the roof a few leaks--but it will be, I pray, sufficient for you to live as a Christian in science or engineering vocations or just in our culture in general.

In the previous post, I started to talk about God's revelation because we need to start there to think biblically about science, and I argued that all truth is God's truth. This is the concrete for the foundation of our metaphorical house. And, I ended that post with the question: How does God reveal--communicate--His truth or how do we discover His truth? And, answering this question will help us to think biblically about science and the "conflict" we hear about between science and Christianity. So, we will pick back up there today.

Here, we get some help from a Reformed document that is not from the PCA tradition, of which I and RUF (the original setting of these talks) are a part, but one that is still used in the Dutch Reformed tradition: the Belgic Confession. Article 2 of this confession answers the question of the means by which we know God and His truth:
First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.… Second, he makes himself known to us more openly [i.e. that is in much more detail] by his holy and divine Word [i.e. the Bible], as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.
So, as you might have guessed, this is where the title of this series originated. Here, the Belgic Confession tells us that there are two primary ways that God reveals His truth to us, and those two ways can both be thought of as beautiful books: nature and Scripture. Now, Scripture is a literal book, and insofar as our study of it is faithful to its actual teaching--what God is actually revealing through it--we learn God's truth from it. Yet, I really love how this confession tells us that nature--and by that I mean the universe in which we live that's made up of energy and matter--is like a book (in a figurative sense) whose author is also God and in which He has written His truth. And, like with Scripture, insofar as our study of it--our scientific research--is faithful to nature's actual reality, we learn God's truth from it. These two categories of nature and Scripture as books through which God reveals His truth are very helpful for thinking biblically about science.

Now, in theological terms, what we are talking about here is God's general revelation through nature and His special revelation through Scripture (for more information on these topics than what I give below, see Berkhof's Systematic Theology on this subject).
Those are theological names for these books that the Belgic Confession describes:
  • General revelation is the book of nature, and it is God's revelation--His communication--of His general truth about Himself and this universe to all mankind. This is, again, where Ro. 1:20 comes in, "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." That verse is why the Belgic Confession says "that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God." And, of course, this teaching is all over Scripture. Ps. 19:1-4, for example, says:
1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
   and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
   and night to night reveals knowledge [i.e. His truth].
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
   whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world.
God speaks generally His truth to all mankind through the book of nature.
  • Special revelation is the book of Scripture--the Bible--and it is God's revelation--His communication--of His special and detailed truth about Himself and His plan of redemption for mankind. This is, again, why the Belgic Confession says that in the book of Scripture God "makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own."
The WCF, which is the statement of faith for my and RUF's denomination (the PCA), balances both these books in its very first statement:
Although the light of nature [or we might say, "book of nature"], and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord… to reveal Himself… in the Holy Scripture.
So, God gives us truth through the two beautiful books of special and general revelation--Scripture and nature, respectively. General revelation reveals Him and His truth broadly, and special revelation gives us the detailed truth necessary for becoming a Christian and living the Christian life.

Now, so far, I have said a lot about God's revelation of truth without specifically referencing the sciences, and you might be thinking, "What does this have to do with science and faith?" Well, now we have enough data to make a biblical, foundational assertion, which is absolutely crucial for thinking biblically about science and Scripture: If God is the author of the book of Scripture--special revelation--and if God is the author of the book of nature--general revelation--then when it comes to the truth revealed in each and their relationship to each other, there is no inherent contradiction ever. Let me say that again because this is incredibly important for thinking biblically about science: Since God is the author of both books--nature and Scripture--there is never an inherent contradiction between the truths that come from Scripture and the truths that come from nature because God is the source of both. There cannot be inherent contradictions because God wrote both books, and God cannot contradict Himself. That is a fundamental truth about God that is laid out in Scripture in places like He. 6:18 that says, "It is impossible for God to lie" and Nu. 23:19 that says, "God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind." You and I are fallible, sinful beings, so we can lie and contradict ourselves. We do so on a regular basis. But, as Moses says in Nu. 23:19, God is not like us: He does not lie; He cannot contradict Himself.

So, if He reveals Himself and His truth in two different books, those two different books will be inherently, perfectly harmonized--without any contradiction. Have you heard the term "presupposition"? A presupposition is a belief that we assume before we begin any course of action. Well, this is a biblical presupposition that lies beneath everything we will say from here on out when it comes to science and Scripture. It is a presupposition that I would argue Christians must hold before we can approach science biblically.

Now, building off what I just said, when I was giving this talk to college students at RUF's Summer Conference, I asked a couple of questions for them to answer in the affirmative by raising their hands. The first question I asked was "How many of you believe that God's revelation in Scripture is infallible--the revelation itself makes no mistakes in how it presents God's truth?" And, most of them raised their hand (and as I said in the previous post, this is presupposition I hold but do not have the time to prove to you now). So, think about how you would answer that question.... Then, I asked them another question: "How many of you believe that God's revelation in nature is infallible?" And, this time, only a few raised their hands. So, again, think about how you would answer that question.... I then asked if anyone would tell me why they did not raise their hand for the second question. And, the answer I got was concern about granting infallibility to "things science says," and that is a legitimate concern, but that is not actually the question I asked. I did not ask if scientific theories about nature are infallible but if God's revelation is infallible. What I am talking about God's revelation of truth, not man's interpretation of that revelation. Since God is the one who is doing the revealing in both nature and Scripture, in both places, the revelation itself is infallible because God Himself is infallible. God cannot reveal Himself in a mistaken, fallacious way. So, if we were going to write this down in a chart form, it would look like this:

Special Revelation
General Revelation
God’s Word in Scripture
God’s Word in nature

Now, a good question was asked at this point by some of the students: "What about how nature is fallen now because of Adam and Eve's first sin (cf. Ge. 3:13-19)? Doesn't that make the revelation in nature fallible?" That is a very good question to ask because it shows that one is starting to think biblically about nature and Scripture, but I would argue that is not consistent with Scripture's witness or a biblical view of God’s oversight over His revelation for a couple of reasons:
  1. First, in Ro. 1:20 Paul says "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." Paul draws a line from the creation of the world (before the fall) to now and tells us that God's revelation of Himself is the same from then until now: infallible, so much so that man is without excuse before Him. 
  2. Second, God's special revelation was written down in the Bible inerrantly and infallibly by fallible men because the Holy Spirit protected them from error. This illustrates how God can still reveal Himself infallibly through a fallible agent. Thus, I would conclude that God's revelation of Himself in nature is infallible.
This is part of the foundational presupposition (mentioned above) we must have to approach the relationship between science and Scripture biblically, and we could update that foundational presupposition with what we've just said: God has revealed Himself infallibly in the books Scripture and nature, and since God is the author of both books there is no inherent contradiction between the two. When it comes to the house we are building, this is the foundation upon which we will build everything else. 

If you do not have this foundational truth driving your thinking about science and Scripture, when you come across what appears to be a contradiction between the two, you may never resolve the conflict but simply let one win over the other without pursuing the truth in either. And, in my experience, there are two extremes that can result from that: either people abandon Christianity because they continually let the opinions of popular scientists take priority over Scripture, or people proverbially circle the wagons around their interpretation of Scripture and do damage to God's glory by misusing both Scripture and data from the scientific research to try to prove their interpretation is the only one possible. But, I think there is a more humble way to approach both, and this biblical truth lays the foundation; yet, we still have a lot to say about thinking about science biblically.

At this point, some of you out there might be thinking, "Okay, you're saying there's no contradiction between the two, but I see contradictions in a number of areas." If you are thinking that, that is a good observation that points us in direction of the next biblical truth that we need to take into account: human fallibility. But, this post is long enough right now, so that will be the subject of the next post in this series. 

By His Grace,

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