Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Grand Rapids, M1 49506
From: JASA 37 (September 1985): 149-157.
Through the spectacles of scriptural exegesis and through the spectroscopes of natural science we obtain differing perceptions of the physical universe. These two views, we believe, are neither contradictory nor concordant, but they are categorically complementary; that is, each view provides answers to questions drawn from mutually exclusive categories. When the two views are properly integrated, we achieve the "creationomic perspective 11 -we perceive the cosmos as God's Creation, which is dependent on him not only for its inception, but also for its continuing existence and its lawfully governed behavior. From this perspective, the creation levolution debate may be recognized as a tragic blunder proceeding from a failure to distinguish among complementary categories of questions.
Through the spectacles of scriptural exegesis we perceive the cosmos as God's Creation. From the Bible we learn that the cosmos is neither a collection of deities (as ancient polytheism thought) nor an autonomous substitute for deity (as modern Western naturalism asserts). Contrary to the claims of both ancient and modern forms of paganism, the Bible proclaims that the entire universe is God's Creation. As Creation, the cosmos is wholly dependent upon divine action for its very existence-for its preservation no less than for its inception. As Creation, the cosmos is governed by the power of its Creator; it stands under God as his servant. Because the cosmos is Creation, it has value by virtue of its relationship to God. And because the cosmos is God's Creation, cosmic history exhibits purpose and direction.
Through the spectroscopes of natural science we see the cosmos differently. We observe a universe whose physical properties, material behavior, and temporal development are coherently interrelated. Though the cosmos is incomprehensibly vast in its dimensional scale, it appears to be constructed of just one kind of substance assembled in a hierarchy of structures-from miniscule atomic nuclei to gigantic spiral galaxies. Whether in terrestrial laboratories or in celestial luminaries, the behavior of matter and material systems is characterized by the same orderly patterns. Furthermore, this patterned material behavior is governed in such a way that it is related to material properties through proximate cause-effect relationships. Cosmic history-the cumulative consequence of material behavior-can be reliably inferred from the physical record left by past events and processes. From multiple sources of evidence, there results a remarkably coherent picture of cosmic history as a continuous sequence of causally related events and processes beginning billions of years ago with a constructive episode of rapid expansion known as the "big-bang."B. The Question of Relationship
Presented with these two views of the cosmos-that is, two perceptions, each drawn from a different source-the 20th-century Christian must inevitably ask the question concerning their relationship. A number of diverse opinions have been offered; we review here just a few of those which are contending for our attention.Contradictory?
Both of the major contenders in the contemporary
creation/evolution debate-modern Western naturalism and recent special
creationism-judge that these two views of the cosmos and its history are
contradictory. Because they provide conflicting answers to questions concerning
the character and chronology of natural history, an either/or choice is being
demanded. Hence the debate.
Modern Western naturalism claims that the biblical view is obsolete and must be replaced by the scientific perspective. According to naturalism, the ultimate reality is matter itself; the material world, it is claimed, is self-existent and self-governing. Any view, therefore, which speaks of a deity upon which the material world is dependent must be discarded. The claim is made that the view of the cosmos through the spectroscopes of natural science is not only valid, but also-complete. It is, according to the presuppositions of naturalism, the whole picture.
Contrary to the naturalistic perspective, recent special
creationism asserts that the results of mainstream natural science are not
binding and that they must yield to the literal, chronological interpretation of
the biblical creation narratives. Even those creationists who have gained an
appreciation for the integrity of the several chronometric procedures of natural
science can still adhere to a recent creation chronology by advancing the
apparent-age hypothesis.1 According to this view, God created the
cosmos just a few thousand years ago with the appearance of antiquity. Though it
may superficially appear to be 15 billion years old, the actual age of the
cosmos is only about 10,000 years. The perceived biblical chronology is given
precedence over the chronology derived from empirical data as it is interpreted
within the generally accepted framework of contemporary natural science.
Howard Van Till is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College, where he has taught since1967. Dr. Van Till completed his undergraduate work at Calvin College in 1960, and received his doctorate from Michigan State University in 1965, followed by post-doctoral study at the University of California (Riverside). His particular area of research is millimeter-wave astronomy; two Of his papers in this field were published in the Astrophysical journal (1974,1975). More recently, he was sponsored by Calvin College to conduct a speaking tour addressing the subject of "The Cosmos: Nature or Creation?" Professor Van Till is a member of the American Astronomical Society and of the American Scientific Affiliation.
Christtian community are seeking to demonstrate that the 11 true biblical view" and the "true scientific view" of the cosmos and its history are concordant-that they are fundamentally in agreement with one another, that they tell the same story in different languages, that they answer common questions in a consistent way.
But how can one achieve agreement between two views which
many persons judge to be irreconciliably disparate? Let me identify two rather
different concordistic approaches. Each seeks to accomplish a unification of the
biblical and the scientific views of the cosmos, particularly in regard to the
character and chronology of its temporal development. In essence, one approach
shapes the interpretation of Scripture to fit the prevailing scientific view,
while the other seeks to reinterpret empirical data to fit the perceived
The first approach may be illustrated by the "dayage" interpetation of Genesis One.2 This concept is based on the postulate that each of the days in the creation week narrative may be understood as a lengthy period of time. In this way, the biblical description of cosmic history can be assigned a temporal duration concordant with the results of mainstream natural science. Those who propose such an interpretation are generally in agreement with the multibillion year scenario for the temporal development of the universe and they earnestly desire to demonstrate that the Bible can be interpreted in such a way that it supports, or at least does not directly contradict, that scenario.
What its proponents call "scientific creationism" seeks to establish a concord between the biblical and scientific views of cosmic history in an entirely different manner. This brand of concordism postulates that Genesis One is a straightforward chronicle of events. Its chronology is to be taken literally; a day is a day, and a week is a week. But mainstream natural science, claim the "scientific creationists," has trapped itself by unwarranted presuppositions and circular argumentation into the construction of the "billion year myth. " Rejecting both the assumptions and the interpretive framework which lead to the conclusion that cosmic history is evolutionary in character and billions of years in duration, "scientific creationism" claims that it is possible to reinterpret the empirical data in such a way as to prove that the earth, along with the rest of the Creation, is only about 10,000 years old.3
In both of the examples cited above, an agreement, or concord, between biblical exegesis and natural science is asserted. In one case, the day-age interpretation of Genesis One is held to be in agreement with the results of mainstream natural science. In the other, the results of "creation-science 11 are proclaimed to be in agreement with a particular chronological interpretation of the biblical creation narratives. In each case, the goal of concord is reached; but, for obvious reasons, it is not possible for both the day-age interpretation and the young universe hypothesis to be correct. It is possible, however, that both are wrong.
is not possible for both the day-age interpretation and the young universe
hypothesis to be correct. It is possible, however, that both are wrong.
Thus far in our brief overview, two very different judgments concerning the relationship of the biblical and the empirical views of the cosmos have been presented. In spite of their differences, however, those who claim contradiction and those who claim concord do adopt a similar attitude concerning the scope of the two views. Each group judges that both biblical exegesis and natural science offer answers to questions concerning the specific events and chronology of cosmic history prior to the appearance of human observers. The two views, as perceived by both concordists and confrontationists, provide answers to many of the same questions. If one were to make lists of all questions to which each view provided answers, one would find, it is claimed, a large area of overlap; a large number of questions would appear on both lists.
In my judgment, however, that is not the case. I am convinced that the list of questions about the material world which may legitimately be addressed to Scripture is very different from the list of questions which natural science may rightfully address to the cosmos itself. Like Donald MacKay, I believe that the two views that we are here considering are views from different standpoints. From two vastly differing vantage points we see entirely different aspects or dimensions of the same reality-the cosmos, which is God's Creation. MacKay has argued that the two views are hierarchically complementary, dealing with questions at different logical levels.4 I prefer to call the two views 11 categorically complementary" because they differ in the categories of questions which they address. Each view is blind to those dimensions of the material world that are visible in the other. Either view must be complemented by the other in order to obtain the unified and all-encompassing understanding of the cosmos that we seek.
In the remainder of this paper I shall outline what I call the "categorical complementarist" approach and give a brief sketch of the perspective on the material universe that results from adopting this approach. I call it the "creationomic perspective."
One cosmos; two views, we said. And if the two views result from looking at the cosmos from fundamentally differing standpoints, they are complementary views. The questions before us, then, are, 'Do the biblical and empirical views of the cosmos differ in standpoint?' and 'If so, what is the character of each standpoint?'
However, before we attempt to formulate answers to these questions, I believe we must make an inquiry into the kinds, or categories, of questions that arise in our search for a unified and comprehensive understanding of the cosmos. When we ask questions concerning the nature of the material world, into what categories do these questions fall?
Following is a list of categories which I believe will
accommodate all (or at least the vast majority) of our questions. The list has
eight categories organized under two principal headings. Under the heading of internal
affairs we list those categories of questions which pertain to the nature of
the material world irrespective of its relationship to any external,
non-material powers or persons which may exist. Under the heading of external
relationships we list those categories which pertain specifically to the
matter of the relationship of the cosmos to external forces or beings. (Note: it
is extremely important to keep in mind that these are categories of questions
about the material world as such-about things insofar as they can be
defined in material (physical) terms alone. Human behavior, human thought, and
human history clearly extend beyond the boundaries of the purely physical realm.
While questions concerning the wholly physical aspects of human beings lie
within the scope of our classification scheme, those questions which pertain to
uniquely human personal phenomena fall outside of its domain.)
2. Questions concerning behavior: What patterns of behavior do material systems exhibit? In what fashion does one material system dynamically interact with another? What physical process, for example, is responsible for energy generation in the sun?
3. Questions concerning cosmic history: What sequence of events and processes has preceded the present state of affairs in the material world? What is the character and chronology of the temporal development of the universe and of material systems within it?
Even these categories are not entirely independent of one another. Properties and behavior appear to be intimately related to one another by statements of immanent cause/effect relationship. Furthermore, history and temporal development may be seen as the cumulative product of the individual processes and events which constitute material behavior. Nonetheless, I find it helpful to distinguish among these three aspects of the internal af fairs of the material world.
Because we believe that the Bible is inspired by divine revelation, we are confident that it will provide trustworthy answers to appropriate questions about the cosmos.
Because the term 'origin' is used in so many different ways, let me clarify my use of that word in this context. Sometimes we use 'origin' in a temporal sense to indicate the beginning or inception of something. In the present context, however, I wish to identify questions concerning the cause for both the beginning and the continuation of existence. Sometimes we use'origin' to mean the giving of specific form to matter already existing. In this context, however, questions of formation would be placed into the categories of behavior and history, not origin. In summary, we are here using the term 'origin' in the ontic sense, not merely the temporal or the formal sense.
3. Questions concerning governance: We observe matter and material systems to behave in particular ways. What agent causes that action? What is the ultimate cause for the patterned material behavior that occurs in the cosmos? Is matter itself the governor of its own behavior? Or is material behavior governed by some external, non-material agent?
It is important here to note the profound difference between questions of behavior and questions of governance. Questions of behavior deal with the discernible actions exhibited by material systems. Questions of governance deal with the ultimate cause for those actions. The science of meteorology, for example, studies the behavior of matter in the processes of cloud formation, precipitation, and wind. Psalm 135:7, on the other hand, provides us with a perspective on the governance of those same phenomena.
He (God) makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth;
He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses. (NIV)
5. Questions concerning purpose: Does the cosmos exist for some purpose? If so, what purpose? Does cosmic history display purposeful development? If so, what is the source of that purpose? To what end or goal is cosmic history moving?
And because we believe the cosmos to be God's Creation, we are confident that our empirical study of it will provide us with reliable answers to numerous questions about its physical nature.
So far in our discussion, we have developed a list of the categories of our questions about the material world and have identified the two sources of answers. Now we must direct the questions to the sources. But how is that to be done? Must we direct all of the questions to both sources? Or should we divide the questions, directing some to one source, some to the other?
When we first presented the list of categories, we divided that list into two major classes: internal affairs and external relationships. I am convinced that each of these two classes of questions may be appropriately directed to only one of the sources for answers. (There may be exceptions, but I have not yet uncovered any.)
To be specific, I am persuaded that only those questions which deal with the internal affairs of the material universe may legitimately be directed to the universe itself and investigated by the tools of natural science. Natural science is powerless to deal with any other categories of questions, and good, honest natural science is carried out in the awareness of that limitation. Theists and atheists alike must come to this same awareness. Therefore, when scientists make statements or conjectures concerning matters of the status, origin, governance, value, or purpose of the cosmos, they are necessarily drawing from their philosophical or religious perspectives, not from the results of scientific investigation. Any question which requires the consideration of extra-material realities will consequently require that the questioner go beyond the boundaries of the scientific domain in order to formulate answers. The failure to perceive or to admit this requirement forms one of the streams of confusion which feeds that sea of turmoil known as the creation/evolution debate.
Similarly, I am persuaded that only those questions which deal with the relationship of the cosmos to the Creator may legitimately be directed to the Scriptures for exegetically derived answers. The Bible as covenantal canon5 was never intended to provide answers to questions concerning the physical properties, the material behavior, or the temporal development of the corporeal world. In its emphasis on covenantal relationships, the Bible was written in such a way as to carefully avoid questions regarding the internal affairs of the universe, and good, honest exegesis is carried out within the awareness of that divinely guided restraint. Theists and atheists alike must come to that awareness. While it appears allowable to infer some features pertaining to the general character of the Creation (e.g., its orderliness, its coherence, and its intelligibility), it makes no sense whatsoever to address to Scripture questions about the physical properties of matter, or about the mathematical laws describing patterns of material behavior, or about the temporal measure of cosmic chronology. Therefore, when theologians or other persons claim to make statements concerning the specifics of cosmic structure or cosmic history on the basis of scriptural exegesis, they are displaying the results of a grossly unwise attempt to force the Bible to answer inappropriate questions. The failure to distinguish among distinct categories of questions and the refusal to select only appropriate questions to address to Scripture forms a second stream of confusion which flows into that fog-shrouded ocean of bewilderment known as the creation /evolution debate.
Table 1, "Treatment of Question Categories," following, provides a convenient summary of our list of question categories, their division into two major classes, and their direction to appropriate sources only.D. The Relationship of the Two Views
The view of the cosmos through the spectacles of scriptural exegesis provides us with answers to the fundamental questions of status and its consequence for origin, governance, value and purpose. From Scripture we learn that the cosmos is God's Creation, that it is dependent on him for its existence, that it is governed by his power, that it has value in its covenant relationship to the Creator, and that its purpose is to manife5t the love of God.
Through the spectroscopes of natural science, however, we obtain a very different view. The empirical study of the cosmos provides us with answers to a host of questions concerning the specific properties, behavior, and history of the material aspects of the CreationWe learn, for example, about the chemical composition of the sun, about the processes of stellar energy generation, and about the chronology of cosmic evolution.
Because these two views of the cosmos provide answers to questions drawn from entirely different categories, we fully expect the views to dif f er. But they need not be contradictory. In fact, I am convinced that they are not contradictory. I find nothing in either view that conflicts with an answer provided by the other. Each view, I believe, provides me with a valid, though incomplete, perspective on the created cosmos.
Furthermore, because the two views of the cosmos do not deal with the same questions, it would be inaccurate to speak of them as concordant. It is not the case that each view provides partial and concordant answers to a common set of questions. Rather, each provides potentially complete answers to questions drawn from different categories. Each view is incomplete not because it yields only partial answers to questions, but because it provides answers only to a partial list of questions.
What, then, is the proper term to denote the relationship between the two views? Provided that each view respects its categorical boundaries, they cannot be contradictory. And because the two views deal with mutually exclusive categories of questions, the termI concordant' is not applicable. In my judgment, the term which most accurately denotes the relationship that we have described is the term "categorical complementarity "
The views of the cosmos through the spectacles of scriptural exegesis and the spectroscopes of natural science are categorically complementary views because they provide answers to categorically complementary
1. Treatment of Question Categories
Categories of Questions about the Material World Appropriate Sources Of Answers for the Christian
111. THE CREATIONOMIC PERSPECTIVE
Using the principles of categorical complementarity, we seek now to unite the two views of the cosmos into a single comprehensive perspective on the material world. That unified and all-encompassing perspective on the cosmos which is gained by doing natural science in the context of a commitment to biblical theism I call the " creationomic perspective."
peculiar name that I have chosen to denote this concept requires a brief
explanation. The word 'creation' appears in the name because I wish to draw
attention to the fact that the foundation of the creationomic perspective is the
biblical teaching that the cosmos
has the status of Creation. The suffix 'nomic' (from the Greek nornos, meaning
"law") is attached as a reminder that it is because God governs his
Creation in a rational, lawful manner that the empirical study of its
properties, behavior, and history is possible. (The term I
creationistic' was rejected for its association
with a particular concept of the character and duration of cosmic history which
is at odds with empirical evidence.)
principles of categorical complementarity provide the methodological framework
for achieving the creationomic perspective. Following these principles, we must:
(1) Categorize all of our questions concerning the material world under two
headings: external relationships and internal affairs. (2) Direct
all external relationship questions to the Bible, and seek answers by faithfully
and diligently applying the rules for biblical exegesis. (3) Direct all internal
affairs questions to the Creation, and search for answers by honestly and
carefully applying the methods of natural science. (4) Recognize the views of
the cosmos seen through the spectacles of biblical exegesis and through the
spectroscopes of natural science as being complementary, and integrate them to
form a unified and comprehensive perspective.
C. Taking the Bible Seriously
There are numerous biblical passages that provide a powerful polemic against the naturalistic polytheism commonly found in the Ancient Near East. Ancient polytheism viewed the cosmos as having the status of deity itself: the sun, moon, and stars were gods; the mountains were gods; the rivers were gods; the storms were gods. The cosmos was filled with material manifestations of deities to be feared, or placated, or worshiped. To these ancient pagan beliefs the Bible boldly declared 'No, the cosmos is not deity; the cosmos is God's Creation. it does not stand as an equal in a populous pantheon of deities; it stands under the one sovereign and loving God as his created servant.'
The Christian takes the Creation seriously by doing excellent natural science in the context of a commitment to God, who is revealed to be the Creator of the cosmos.
This same biblical teaching also provides an effective antidote to the world-view of modern Western naturalism. The naturalistic perspective is based on the premise that the material world is all there is, that there is no external, non-material power or person to whom the cosmos is related. The cosmos, according to naturalism, has the status of an independent, autonomous entity called Nature (with a capital N) which stands in place of deity.
To take the Bible seriously and to perceive the cosmos as Creation rather than Nature has profound consequences for one's concepts of its origin, governance, value, and purpose. As Creation, the cosmos is dependent upon God for both the inception and preservation of its existence; God is the Originator of Creation. Conceived as Nature, however, the cosmos is assumed to be self -existent; Nature is its own originator. As Creation, the cosmos is governed by divine power; God is the Governor of Creation. As Nature, the cosmos is conceived of as being autonomous; Nature is self-governed. As Creation, the cosmos has value by virtue of its covenant relationship to God the Creator. As Nature, the cosmos has no value beyond itself; if value is to be found in Nature, it must be inherent within material structure and behavior alone. As Creation, the cosmos follows a historical development that manifests the plans and purposes of its Creator. As Nature, however, the cosmos drifts aimlessly on an uncharted sea of eternity. The history of Nature is an undirected succession of accidental events, blindly going nowhere.
The history of the Creation, on the other hand, is divinely directed continuity of meaningful events proceeding toward the goal that the Creator has established for it.
When we take the Bible seriously and accept its answers to
questions concerning the status, origin governance, value and purpose of the
material world we have the foundation on which the creationomic perspective is
D. Taking the Creation Seriously
The Bible was not written for the purpose of providing answers to questions concerning the details c,-* material properties, physical processes, or cosmic chronology. But it does, I believe, provide us with sounc' reasons to expect that empirical natural science will yield authentic answers to those questions. For example, because God is revealed to be the Governor of material behavior, I believe that I have a right to expect that matter and material systems will behave in ar. orderly and patterned manner. And I expect the behav ior of the cosmos to exhibit coherence and integrity. I expect the behavior of the universe to be rational and intelligible to the human mind. I expect the behavior and properties of matter to be correlated so that material behavior will exhibit proximate cause/effect relationships. And because the Bible teaches that cosmic history is divinely directed, I expect the cumulative effect of material phenomena to display evidence of purposeful, directed development.
But these expectations, drawn from the character of divine
governance, are the very aspects of material behavior which make natural science
possible. The empirical investigation of the material world is possible because
the cosmos is God's divinely governed Creation. The results of honest and
careful scientific investigation, therefore, may never be dismissed. The
Creation must be taken seriously. When performed within the boundaries of its
domain, natural science is a vital contributor to the creationomic perspective.
We seek no substitute or alternative to mainstream natural science. The
Christian takes the Creation seriously by doing excellent natural science in the
context of a commitment to God, who is revealed to be the Creator of the cosmos.
E. When Categorical Complementarity Is Violated
A Lesson from History
Early in the 17th century, Galileo became embroiled in a dispute with the Church hierarchy concerning the structure of the cosmos. The Church, following traditional belief, presumed that the Bible provided final answers to questions of cosmic structure. Furthermore, it was argued that the Bible clearly taught a geocentric cosmos, such as the one proposed by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Galileo, on the other hand, appealed to empirical evidence which he judged to support the Copernican heliocentric model. Galileo's argumentation failed to convince the powers of the day, and he was eventually forced to recant.
One of the chief issues in that dispute was the matter of
question categories and answer sources. To which source do we take questions
concerning cosmic structure? The Church held that Scripture, as traditionally
interpreted by the Church Fathers, provided the answer; Galileo urged that the
question be directed to the Creation itself. Galileo was advocating what I have
called the categorical complementarist approach. History vividly demonstrates
the soundness of his advice.
As I understand it, the biblical concept of creation provides a vivid picture of the relationship of the material world to God, but does not entail a particular specification concerning the patterns of material behavior or the duration of cosmic history. Creation is a theological concept regarding the relationship of the cosmos to God, not a scientific concept regarding cosmic chronology.
The scientific concept of evolution, on the other hand, provides a panoramic view of the patterns of material behavior that have contributed to the temporal development of the universe and material systems within it. Like all other concepts in natural science, it is blind to matters of status and its consequences for origin, governance, value and purpose.
The concepts of creation and evolution, therefore, are not contradictory or competing answers to the same question. Rather, they are complementary concepts which are concerned with entirely different and mutually exclusive categories of questions. The biblical doctrine of creation deals with questions of external relationship, while the scientific concept of evolution is concerned only with the internal affairs of the material world. When that distinction is recognized and when properly categorized questions are addressed only to appropriate sources, perhaps that tragic blunder known as the creation/evolution debate may be put to rest forever.
May the creationomic perspective prevail. May we see clearly through the spectacles of Scripture that the cosmos is God's Creation. And, without removing those spectacles, may we see through the spectroscopes of natural science that the dependably stable properties of matter, the coherent behavior of material systems, and the purposeful history of the cosmos are declaring daily the glory of their faithful Creator.
2See, for example, John L. Wiester, The Genesis Connection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983), p. 199, and Robert B. Fischer, God Did It, But How? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), pp. 43,44. See also Robert C. Newman and Herman J. Eckelmann, Jr., Genesis One and the Origin of the Earth (1977; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), pp. 83-88, for a summary of their "Modified Intermittent Day View" of the Genesis One chronology.
3For an illustration of this approach, see Thomas G. Barnes, "Earth's Magnetic Age: The Achilles Heel of Evolution," Iimpact No. 122, Institute for Creation Research, August 1983).
4D.M. MacKay, "'Complementarity' in Scientific and Theological Thinking," (Zygon, vol. 9, no. 3, September, 1974),
5For a development of the concept of the Bible as covenantal canon, see Meredith G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 2nd ed., (1972; rpt. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975).