Science in Christian Perspective



From: JASA 19 (September 1967): 111-114.

By the "Bible of Nature" we mean all that God has revealed to us outside the Scripture. We often hear that Gods revelation in nature is darkly seen and that we need Scripture as "spectacles" for its interpretation, but both the Bible of Nature and the Holy Bible were written by the almighty hand of God, and each must be infallible in its own way.

We as Christians rejoice most when we place all our knowledge ultimately in the light Of the Scriptures. The Holy Bible does not only give us the message of salvation, but tells us about the origin, meaning, and purpose of all that exists. This we cannot find out through pure science. Nevertheless, let us be bold to explore the Bible of Nature, and let us accept what is true. Where facts speak, let words be silent.

Some Christians will be startled when we speak of the Bible of Nature. They will say immediately that we have only one Bible, the Holy Bible. In a moment we will explain why we use this terminology. It is necessary first to define our terms. By the Bible of nature we mean all that God has revealed to us outside of Scripture. Some may ask why we do not speak simply of God's general revelation. in a certain sense we would not mind; but there are people who understand by general revelation only that which God has

*Dr. Peter G. Berkhout, 71, died instantly on 19 July 1966 in the Colorado Rockies when his car plunged off the road and was dashed against a boulder 30 feet below.

Dr. Berkhout had practiced medicine in Paterson, New Jersey, for 33 years and was an outstanding leader in community affairs and in the Christian Reformed church. He was a trustee of Calvin College and active in the affairs of the New York section of the ASA.

revealed of His being. We mean much more by it. It includes all that God reveals to us in nature, in the pursuits of man, and in the mind of man. It includes particularly all that is good and true and beautiful; although even so-called evil and catastrophies should not be excluded, through which God may punish or chastise man. The Bible of Nature is for all mankind; the Holy Bible, or special revelation, is revealed to "sinners" to whom God would make known His salvation. (Warfield).1

We wish to state in unmistakable terms that our faith in Scripture is not shaken. Scripture is unique in that it is the way to eternal salvation. And if we wish to place everything in subjection to the creative, providential and redemptive work of God, Scripture is absolutely necessary. And the true Christian is not content until he has made everything subject to the work of the Triune God and the Redeemer. We do not minimize Scripture.

Why then do we speak of the Bible of Nature?

In the first place, we were inspired to use that term when we viewed the Biblia Naturae of Jan Swammerdam. This classic in biology was published in 1738 by the illustrious and profoundly Christian Dr. Herman Boerhaave of Leyden, 58 years after the demise of Swammerdam. Of course, Swammerdarn confines himself to the microscopic anatomy of insects; but it gave us our cue.

Secondly, we were emboldened in our choice by the beautiful words of the Belgic Confession, where it is stated in Article H that we know God, "First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book (italics ours), wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God." Notice that the Confession uses the words "see" and "clearly" and places them in italics for emphasis. The Confession then refers to Romans 1:20 where it is also stated that the invisible things of God are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made.

Note particularly that both Article II of the Confession and Romans 1, upon which it is based, emphasize that the invisible things of God are not merely shown in the Bible of Nature. In that case we could say that the unbeliever cannot see them. To the contrary, it says that they are clearly seen.

We talk too glibly that God's revelation in nature is darkly seen and that we always need Scripture as a pair of spectacles. We do not think that Calvin means this, nor the Confession, nor Scripture itself. That is true in certain fields. We have stated this in the second paragraph of this article. However, there are ever so many truths that are more clearly revealed in the Bible of Nature. Galileo in his "Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina", avers, "God is not less excellently revealed in Nature's actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible", and, I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended to forego their use and by some other means give us knowledge".2 Of course, Galileo does not mean here knowledge in regard to our salvation.

We know now how right Galileo was. But in his day both the Catholic Church and Protestantism said he was wrong, and they tried to use Scripture to prove it. The books of Copernicus and Galileo were kept on the Index of the Catholic Church till 1820. And more than a hundred years after Copernicus, when the proof for his view of the solar system had been practically clinched by the work of Newton and Kepler, the otherwise famous successor of Calvin, Francois Turretin at the College of Geneva still opposed it. With a multitude of texts from Scripture he tried to prove that the sun, moon, and stars revolve around the earth which stands still at the center.3 Have we learned anything from this sad experience? The Catholic Church has become much more cautious.

For these and other reasons we selected the term Bible of Nature. Too long have we downgraded it. Both the Bible of Nature and the Holy Bible have been written by the almighty band of God. Each is infallible in its own way; otherwise, speaking with all due reverence, we could not rely upon their combined Author.

We are frequently cautioned not to put natural revelation on par with Scripture. In many respects we agree. When it concerns our salvation, or if we wish to put everything sub specie aeternitatis, in the light of eternity, Scripture far surpasses; but there are many other instances where the Bible of Nature excels, simply because the Holy Bible is not for these purposes. Thus, for example, theologians will tell us that no one knows what the age of the earth is because Scripture has not revealed it to us. And we are even chided at times because we are considered to be too inquisitive. However, we believe that God has placed various time-clocks in the earth, particularly the radio-active isotopes, which make it possible for us to figure out the age of the earth quite closely. So let us not downgrade the Bible of Nature too readily. To belittle one revelation at the expense of the other may be sinful.

Scripture itself in many instances points to the value of the Bible of Nature. Thus, in the Chokmatic, or Wisdom literature of Scripture, we are constantly referred to nature to praise God through it and learn from it. The nature psalms are most beautiful. The well-known Psalm 19 tells us that "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows God's handiwork." There may not be voice or language in the usual sense; but their line, or rule, is gone out through all the earth. We have an excellent illustration of what we are trying to say in Isaiah 28:23-29. There the prophet tells us that the farmer does not have to go to the Bible to find out how he has to run his farm. The farmer plows, harrows, plants seed in his soil; but he is very particular. He has learned exactly where to plant everything, and then it grows. Then the prophet emphasizes that his God teaches him in nature and that this is wonderful to behold and be concludes, "This also cometh from Jehovah of hosts, who is wonderful in wisdom, and excellent in counsel."

This leads me to speak a word of caution about the expression which we use so freely that the Bible is the only infallible guide in faith and practice. When we read that first years ago, it did not sound right to us. We believe that it is true in regard to faith; but we doubt whether it is the only infallible guide in morals and practice. Scripture at least is not complete. We can point only to examples like the cities of refuge in the Old Testament and the list of forbidden consanguineous marriages in Leviticus 18. No confession states that Scripture is the only infallible rule in practice. To the contrary, the Westminster Confession states that there are, "circumstances concerning the Worship of God and government of the Church. . . . which should be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence." Chapter I, sec. vi. In other words, we are advised here to use the dictate of right reason. But if this holds for such a sacred sphere as the church in which, if anywhere, the Bible should he our guide, how about the more secular spheres, particularly science?

When the statement that "the Bible is the only infallible guide in faith and practice" became current among us, we investigated and discovered that it was devised by the divines of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1787-89. There is no history as to how they arrived at it. Its origin is thus in the form of ordination for ministers of the Presbyterian Church. We have an interesting letter from the late Dr. Robert Nicholson Hastings, historian of that church. The last paragraph of this letter says, "A fair interpretation of the question is that it means that the Scriptures infallibly lead to saving faith and right practice. The word infallible does not refer to matters of history and science but to religious and moral guidance."

We consider this discussion relevant because Christians often use this declaration when they think they find something in Scripture that is not really there but must be found in the other aspect of God's revelation, the Bible of Nature. And that pertains not merely to facts. The serene classic sisters of the good, the true, and the beautiful, do not dwell in sweet isolation, but enjoy mutual interdependence. Dr. A. D. R. Polman has given us a four volume work on the Belgic Confession. And when he discusses Art. II and indirectly Romans 1:20 he emphasizes that these do not have to do simply with theological and moral implications; but that all problems are included. And he concludes, "Here [in Article 11] we have a profound task for the future:-the problems of the ordinances of nature, the place of common grace, natural law [which is the dictate of right reason], etc."4

It would be worthwhile to consider just what is meant by the statement that the Bible is the only infallible guide in practice. Similar to the statement of Galileo that "God is not less excellently revealed in Nature's actions" is that of one of the foremost Calvinistic theologians of the Netherlands, the late Dr. Herman Bavinck, "Facts are words of God just as well as the contents of Holy Scripture". Gerefortneerde Dogmatiek, Kampen, 1914, Vol. II, p. 535.

This means that those who devote their lives to the study of fields like those of the sciences should be

If Copernicus and Galileo had looked at nature through the Bible as a pair of spectacles, they never would have come to the conclusion that the earth goes round the sun. Of course, we as Christians rejoice most when we place all our knowledge ultimately in the light of Scripture. The Holy Bible does not only give us the message of salvation; but it also tells us about the origin, meaning and purpose of all that exists. This we cannot find out through pure science. Nevertheless, let us be bold to explore the Bible of Nature. And let us accept what is true. Where facts speak, let words be silent.

It frequently happens today that what we find in the Bible of Nature does not harmonize with what we find in the Holy Bible. The tendency then is to throw aside what we find in the Bible of Nature. This is not necessarily right. Often our interpretation of Scripture is wrong, or we think we find something in Scripture that is not there at all. But even when there appears a definite conflict, we should not be too ready to discard the evidence found. There are ever so many at least apparent contradictions in Scripture which we accept in faith. For example, speaking with due reverence, there is the fact that God is Holy, just and omnipotent and yet willed to permit evil; or the sovereignty of God and human responsibility, etc. These are, humanly speaking, mutually exclusive and insoluble; yet we accept them. So too with the two revelations, or, if you wish, the two aspects of one revelation; if there are "conflicts", let us accept them. The theologian ordinarily should not tell the scientist that he is wrong unless he has a better knowledge of the subject than the scientist has, and vice versa. Let each one speak for himself. Of course, it is a wonderful thing for competent scientists and theologians to counsel together, something the Catholic Church was advised to do by the Pope at least as early as 1950.

Not to accept fearlessly what the Bible of Nature teaches may have disastrous effects. As John Calvin says, we may thus be punished for our negligence. For one thing it is the reason why many are still floundering around in a biology that is at least two-hundred years behind the times, from the days before Hutton and Lyell.

Serious theologians are giving considerable thought to the first chapters of Genesis in the light of what the Bible of Nature teaches us today. Some people believe in a glamorized Bible. We may not glamorize either the Holy Bible or the Bible of Nature; but let the one shed light upon the other. Thus there are Christians who have too exalted a view of Adam before the fall of man. They view paradise in the idyllic language with which Isaiah describes the future world. But Adam was not yet in the state of glory. He was in the state of integrity. He still had to reach the higher state. That was the essence of the Covenant of Works. We have beard the statement that Adam was such a genius that compared with him Einstein was a piker.

However, we agree with the great Calvinist Theologian James Orr when he says, "The picture given us of the first man in the Bible is primitive in every way. The Adam of the Book of Genesis is not a being of advanced intellectual attainment, or endowed with an intuitive knowledge of the arts and sciences. If his estate is far from the savage it is equally far removed from that of a civilized man. The earliest steps of what we call civilization are of a later date."

These are Orr's words. Whenever we go back far enough in the history of any old civilization we always land in the Stone Age. We can picture Adam there too. Scripture itself gives us an inkling. It was not till much later, in the days of Tubal-Cain, that man began to use iron and copper. This agrees with what anthropology teaches us; the Iron Age began about 3000 years B.C.

Let us be realistic. The Bible of Nature presents us with so many facts that we should bring them to bear upon the early part of the Bible. Scripture in Genesis uses the language of adoration. It emphasizes that God is the Creator and also the Sustainer of everything in the universe. But it often expresses itself in picture-language which the people to whom it was addressed could understand.

I doubt whether today you can find more than one man in a thousand in the field of natural science who does not accept evolution. In fact, it was stated at the 1965 ASA Convention that it is impossible to obtain a Ph.D. in science if one flatly denies evolution. The great majority of our students and professors at even our Christian colleges accept it. The Catholic Church is take it in its stride. Pierre Tellhard de Chardin was not permitted to publish his books. Today I have a volume of a Catholic theologian of the Low Countries entitled, "The Creation of God." It has as its subtitle, "Creation, Sin and Redemption in the Evolutionistic World View." This book, by Dr. A. Hulsboscb, O.S.A., was practically dedicated to Chardin, and yet it has the imprimatur and the Nihil Obstat of the Catholic Church upon it.

In regard to evolution Pope Pius XI is reported to hav 6 said, "We must not close a door which perhaps we should have to open again. In the history of the Church, one Galileo case is enough".6

Our own ASA is a good example of what is happening. Originally it was organized to combat evolutionary views. But some have become so disillusioned on that score that they have organized the "Creation Research Society." I doubt whether they will be able to stem the tide. They are well-meaning Christians; but to me they appear as a remnant of a passing race.

Whether we like it or not, we will have to put the old wine, the truth of Scripture, into new skins. Our young people are clamoring for it. Unless theologians and scientists who have a Christian training help, a lot of young people may be lost for the church. The sorry episode between Galileo and the church did and still does a lot of harm. You cannot suppress truth forever.

"Truth crushed to, earth will rise again; The eternal years of God are hers: But error, wounded, writhes in pain, And dies among his worshippers."

One of our members, Dr. Aldert Van Der Ziel, has said it so well:

"Some well-meaning Christians are so eager to defend the integrity of the Bible that they are willing to misrepresent science. Up to a certain point their discussion is fully objective. But when it comes to problems like the age determinations of rock, man, and the earth, or the problem of evolution, they all of a sudden become overcritical. They try to create the impression that the age determinations are largely unreliable and that the arguments against evolution are much stronger than those in favor. By doing so, they misrepresent the truth and create a false security."7

It -seems to me that evolution is generally accepted as a fact and not as a mere hypothesis, as many wellmeaning Christians like to put it. Some of it may be, and the evolutionists are the first to admit it; but it appears to be largely true. It is the method whereby God operates in this universe. What is the difference whether man originated as a mud-doll or that he evolved through a long process of time, as long as God is in control of this universe and is present at every step of the process? We do not have to sacrifice any fundamental truth of Scripture.

It should be a tremendous inspiration to us when we realize that when we study the various fields of science and medicine, whatever truth we find there is just as much the word of God as Scripture itself: Of the Bible of Nature even a man like Einstein has said:

The religious feeling of the scientist is one of rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work . . . It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.8

Let us then enthusiastically, even though cautiously, accept the truths and facts the Bible of Nature offers us. Let us do it with thanksgiving to God. And let us not be satisfied until we have put all this knowledge and action in the framework of the Holy Bible. What has not been proven we should attempt to study further or disprove it.

We should apply here the sage words of Marcus Aurelius:

If anyone can convince me or bring home to me that I do not think or act aright, gladly will I change; for I search after truth, by which man never yet was harmed. But he is harmed who abides on still in his deception and ignorance.

1. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Article on Revelation.

2. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, New York, 1957.

3. According to Andrew D. White to be found in Turretin's "Compendium of Theology". Warfare between Science and Christianity. N.Y., 1955.

4. Onze Nederlandsche Geloofsbelijdenis, Franiker, Net., Vol. I, p. 173.

5. Christian View of God and the World, 1894, p. 217.

6. Symposium on Evolution, Pittsburgh, 1959, p. 117.

7. Genesis and Scientific Inquiry, Minneapolis, 1965, p. 104. 8. The World As I see It, New York. 1949, p. 29.