Does the Bible support discovery of God’s creation through scientific method/inquiry? (STEAM Grant Series April Question, Post 2)

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Question: Does the Bible support discovery of God’s creation through scientific method and inquiry, directly and/or indirectly? 


This academic year, ESN is creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’re partnering with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and then commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy to explore those questions in a series at the ESN blog. We will publish these posts as a  booklet curriculum for campus groups. You can find previous posts in the series and related posts here

This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.

In April, we’re publishing two posts due to the nature of the question, one by a scientist and one by a theologian. We shared the post by theologian Greg Cootsona here, and now we’re proud to share a piece by scientist Garrett League. 


Christ, in the Sermon on the Mount, encourages his disciples to “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow […]” (Matthew 6:28b, ESV). In doing so, Jesus calls us into a deep contemplation of the created order, not as an end in itself, but as a means of knowing God. Jesus continues (Matthew 6:28b-30, ESV):

“[…] they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

Here, we find the keen observations of a naturalist par excellence. Royal garments, though intricately woven with fine materials, are relatively simple by comparison to even the most common flower, which are infinitely more complex and, therefore, revelatory. The lilies simply have more to say about the glory of God than do man-made garments, though they too are derived from creation and bespeak God’s glory. It is in this revelatory attribute of nature where we find its real value; for to Christ, and the writers of scripture, the true value of a created thing lies in its capacity to point us beyond itself and reveal to us the very nature of God. This has led some to describe creation itself as nothing less than the very glory of God “going public.” [1] As all things are the handiwork of God and therefore bear his fingerprints, so it is that all things must point us back ultimately to him, and in doing so fulfill their very purpose for having been created in the first place.

Though it would probably be interpreting scripture eisegetically to claim that Jesus’ words here, as well as other similar biblical injunctions, constitute a sort of pre-scientific formulation of the scientific method, nevertheless the main thrust of the biblical witness is certainly consistent with and supportive of such a method. First, although the bible is not primarily concerned with scientific discovery as such, it is profoundly concerned with the discovery of God via science, or knowledge, broadly defined. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) the natural sciences, and the bible is replete with examples of the study of nature being linked to the ultimate purpose of God in nature, namely, the revelation of his glory. Second, beyond these specific biblical examples, and at a more foundational level, the coherent account of creation presented in the bible provides an understanding of God and the created order that can serve as a fertile soil for something like the modern scientific method to not only emerge but also to flourish.

First, it should be noted that, while not explicitly laying out the modern scientific method of hypothesis formulation, testing, and refinement, per se, the bible brims with acclamations of the Creator that arise directly from a focused study of the created order. Psalm 8:3–4 serves as the locus classicus of such texts:

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you visit him?” (NKJV)

Perhaps on the rooftop of his palace in Jerusalem, or even earlier in his life out at pasture with the flocks by night, David, absent a telescope, but free of modern light pollution, couldn’t help but lose himself in the contemplation of the starry multitudes of Abraham. Soon, he found his heart, like that of countless before and after him, swept away into an experience of the transcendent. And rightly so, as this cause and effect relationship between observation and adoration is very intentional on God’s part, and indeed reflects his deepest heart motive in creating “things” in the first place. It was this understanding of nature that served as a major impetus behind the discipline of “natural theology,” [2] the precursor to the natural sciences as we know them today. In this sense, the study of the creation as a means of studying the Creator is not merely encouraged by scripture, but represents the very telos of God in creation. As Calvin famously put it, “There is not one little blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make men rejoice.” [3]

As a brief excursus, we need to pause here to note that such experiences of the transcendent in nature are not unique to Christians, or even theists, but, to borrow a phrase from John Stott, are the common heritage of Homo divinus, [4] or every image-bearing man and woman alike. Though some of a more naturalistic persuasion may couch these experiences in purely materialist terms, none can deny the common reality of such experiences. This fact may in part explain the existence of a rather counterintuitive breed of scientists that the sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund refers to as “spiritual atheists.” [5] All creation, as Calvin noted and as scripture claims, is “intended” for worship, a fact that we all admit to, either implicitly or explicitly. We simply cannot not know God through creation, and those that deny this with their mouths often show it with their actions. The Apostle Paul, in the theological tour de force that is his letter to the Christians at Rome, drives this point home convincingly:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them [that is, mankind], because God has shown it to them. 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. So they are without excuse.”

Indeed, again quoting King David, this time in Psalm 19:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Like lady wisdom of Proverbs 1, the creation itself cries aloud to us in the public square of scientific inquiry, beckoning us to heed her words, which would lead us to “the knowledge of the Holy One” (Proverbs 9:10). In this sense, and for this purpose, the bible would exhort us all to study the creation.

Second, the account of creation laid out in Genesis and elsewhere in the bible provides the sort of worldview in which the scientific method can both emerge and be right at home. This is because the bible provides a description of a coherent creation made by a trustworthy, eternal God, thus providing a way of approaching the natural world in a manner that is conducive to the scientific method.

The Christian doctrine of creation establishes a world that not only has its origin, but also its continued existence in a faithful, unchanging, immaterial being who governs all things by his good providence. In contrast to the popular ancient Babylonian creation story the Enuma elish, for example, the biblical account of creation presents a vision of God and the created order that is intelligible and reliable, rather than obscure and capricious. [6] Since the created order reflects God’s nature, and would therefore also be intelligible and reliable, creation is granted both stability and coherence in the biblical worldview. These attributes play right into the hands of the scientific method, as it also assumes the stability and coherence of nature, qualities that enable scientists to make predictions about future phenomena based upon their past behavior as well as posit explanations for their data that ultimately place them into a coherent explanatory whole. The biblical understanding of a coherent creation, whereby God both creates and continually sustains order out chaos, then, is well-suited to the modern scientific method. Indeed, historians such as Peter Harrison and Ted Davis, among others, have argued that a biblically-influenced understanding of a rational and lawful cosmos provided such scientific luminaries as Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton with strong personal motivations for conducting scientific research using both reason (because man is created in God’s image) and observation (because man is fallen and finite). [7] [8]

Thus, in addition to furnishing us with a motivation for investigating the natural world via something like the scientific method, the belief in a coherent creation established by a reliable God also provides us with a firm rationale for such a method, including both an explanation for why it works, and why we can expect it to work tomorrow. The coherence of the natural world, its knowability and predictability, all essential to the modern scientific method, find their ultimate justification in the steadfast, eternal nature of God, who is more than capable of furnishing us with firm ontological and epistemological groundings for such phenomena. To put it another way (à la Stephen Jay Gould), because of the Rock of Ages, we may examine the ages of rocks. [9] We can name (that is, classify and systematize), and tame (that is, understand and repurpose for the good of humanity) the fallen, yet good creation as stewards of God, and have good reasons for doing so. We can, as it were, both “Consider the lilies” and, by extension, consider the Christ, who both makes and sustains them (Colossians 1:16-17). In the words of Reverend Maclean from A River Runs Through It: “Long ago rain fell on mud and it became rock. But even before that, beneath the rocks are God’s words. They came first. Listen.” [10] If we listen carefully, we too might hear them. They are telling of the glory of God.

Summary:

How the bible supports discovery of God’s creation through scientific method and inquiry:

  1. Through repeated injunctions and examples in the bible of meditation upon the created order so as to know and glorify God.
    1. This reflects the very purpose of God in creation.
    2. This experience is not unique to Christians, but is the common experience of all mankind.
  2. Through providing a coherent creation account of a trustworthy God creating an ordered cosmos.
    1. Provides a strong rationale for the scientific method and its reliability and encourages scientific inquiry.

Group discussion questions:

  1. How has studying created order led you to worship its Creator? Can you discuss an instance in which this occurred for you?
  2. What are some other reasons why a biblical understanding of God and his relationship to creation might foster scientific inquiry?

References:

[1] Piper, J. S. “What is God’s Glory?” Desiring God. Desiring God Foundation, 6 July 2009. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

[2] McGrath, A. E. The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, 2008.

[3] Sermon Number 10 on 1 Corinthians, 698. As quoted in Bouwsma, W. J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. Oxford University Press. New York, 1988, pp. 134–135.

[4] Stott, J. R. W. Understanding the Bible: Expanded Edition. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1999, p. 55.

[5] Ecklund, E. H. Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. Oxford University Press, New York, 2010.

[6] Dickson, J. P. (2008). The Genesis of Everything: An historical account of the Bible’s opening chapter. ISCAST Online Journal, 4, 1-18.

[7] Harrison, P. “How has Religion Been a Positive Influence on Science?” Test of Faith. The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

[8] Davis, E. B. “Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective.” Test of Faith. The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.

[9] Gould, S. J. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Ballantine Books, New York, 1999.

[10] Maclean, N. A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1976.


Image courtesy of Pexels at Pixabay.com

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Garrett League

Garrett League recently earned a Ph.D. in biology from Vanderbilt University, where he was actively involved in Graduate Christian Fellowship, a graduate and faculty ministry of InterVarsity. This summer, he will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. He has written on matters of faith and science at his blog The Face of the Deep: http://faceofdeep.blogspot.com/

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