"What is science, really?"

The word of God, according to Hebrews 1, is the means by which God upholds all things.  While recalling the word of God spoken by the prophets and proclaiming the Word in whom God “has spoken to us by His Son”, the prologue to Hebrews is completed by a reference to God’s word of power.  And this threefold conception of God’s word is vital for our understanding of what scientific work really is and how we should pursue it for God’s glory.

We’re familiar with the Genesis passages where God creates by speaking, with the way God commands signs and wonders as celebrated in the Psalms, and with Jesus performing miraculous deeds with a word.  But, as scientists, are we familiar with the way that God’s word of power structures the created order?  Have we celebrated His covenant “with the day and night, and with the fixed ordinances of heaven and earth” of which God reminds Jeremiah (Jer 33)?  Do we meditate on how God sets fixed boundaries for the sea (Job 38)?  Do we thank God that he gives all creatures their food in due season (Ps 145)?  Perhaps if we saw more clearly the connection between the upholding and the astounding functions of God’s word, we could more effectively rebuff the aspersions cast by atheists on the notion of miracles.

Are the Bible writers merely using enthusiastic poetry to talk about God’s word being so active throughout the cosmos?  The Bible, not least the Old Testament, is renowned for poetic language, which scientists are trained to avoid, or to decode when we find it.  But let’s think about the foundations of science, and its predecessor natural philosophy [see Tom McLeish’s piece for more about this].  Perhaps the most important distinguishing feature of scientific work is its focus on order: laws of nature, structures of things, classifications.  Laws are especially prominent in sciences like physics; structures are essential to the biological sciences, and classifications feature in most sciences - whether we classify particles, chemicals, minerals, taxa, mating systems, personalities, languages, societies, or whatever else.  But what kind of things are these laws, structures and classes that we scientists seem so well attuned to?  Such ordering principles obviously aren’t objects, yet they seem to be real (natural philosophers disagree about just how real they are, and you don’t have to endorse Plato!).  We don’t completely grasp them, but we try to describe them using maths, analogies and metaphors.  Does God tell us anything about them?

Here’s a radical suggestion: our Creator doesn’t talk about these principles: He speaks them!  That is, the ordering principles sought by the sciences are actually manifestations of the word of God.  Could it be that when we make a scientific discovery in any field, we are describing, albeit provisionally and imperfectly, some facet of God’s word of power as it orders His creation?  That would make scientific work a sacred calling indeed!

It’s important to be clear what is and isn’t meant by this.  God’s word of power provides the foundations for scientific theories - the principles that our laws, structures and categories describe mathematically and metaphorically.  But scientific work is not a way to discover God directly.  While “the heavens declare the glory of God”, they don’t bring us to an encounter of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.  That takes God’s special revelation in Scripture and supremely in Jesus - revelation that is undergirded, still, by the constancy of God’s word of power.  Next, we should also be wary of the traditional saying that scientists read the book of God’s works, alongside the book of God’s word.  But the heavens don’t declare laws of physics - even to geniuses - and in any case, scientific discoveries and conclusions are not infallible - as you’ll know if you’ve engaged in research or studied any history of the sciences.  So God’s word of power gives rise to our scientific discoveries, but it doesn’t dictate them, nor guarantee them, nor directly lead us to Him.

This view has many implications and ramifications.  Here we can only look very briefly at one question: how does a Christian understanding of science allow for miracles?

What is God’s word of power like, that it can both underpin the most utterly reliable laws of physics and also bring about amazing, science-defying signs and wonders such as we see throughout the Bible?  The key is to recognise how complex laws interact - let’s start with an analogy to national laws.  There can be cases where a good person would break a law - perhaps saving someone’s life by speeding in a vehicle or grabbing something without permission - and we also have Jesus’ endorsement of David eating the showbread from the Temple (Matt 12:4).  What’s going on here is that a higher principle of goodness can override a lower one.  And we can see how the same thing may happen with scientific laws just by noticing the conditions inherent in them.  Scientific laws refer to ideal conditions and (implicitly or explicitly) include “unless” clauses.  “A body will continue in its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by a force” - the classic formulation of Newton’s First Law.  So, it might be that even miracles would appear lawful (and sometimes, but not always, scientifically tractable), if only we knew more about the higher-level laws that govern God’s creatures.  Lots more needs to be said about this, but that’s a start.

What does all this mean for the ways we do scientific research?  This is a much bigger topic that hasn’t yet been adequately addressed within the perspective outlined above.  An important strand of biblically-guided work goes under the name of “the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea”, also known as Reformational philosophy.  A few helpful links are given in the notes below.

Richard Gunton

Resources:

  1. Clouser, RA (2005) The Myth of Religious Neutrality: an essay on the hidden role of religious belief in theories
  2. Ouweneel (2014) Wisdom for Thinkers: an introduction to Christian philosophy
  3. Stafleu, MD (2016) Theory and Experiment: Philosophy of Science in a Historical Context; available  here 
  4. www.churchscientific.org.uk for videos of talks, and a longer reading list

Church Scientific is a project to help Christians in the sciences explore how a Christian worldview can produce better science.  Informed by insights from historians and philosophers of science, it brings a biblical worldview to bear on questions like: "How does the Bible relate to scientific knowledge?" "What is scientific progress?" "How do scientists actually make discoveries?" "How much do different sciences (e.g. astronomy, ecology, sociology) have in common?" and "What norms and values are hidden in scientific work?"