Science in Christian Perspective



Chemistry, A Gift of God
Department of Chemistry
Dordt College
Sioux Center, IA 51250

From: JASA 38 (December 1986): 232-236.
Presented at the ASA-RSCF meeting in Oxford, England, July 26-29,1985; based on a book by the author,
Chemistry, a Gift of God, published by Dordt College Bookstore in 1985.

This paper suggests one possible Christian approach to chemistry, intended for students in the first year of college chemistry. The basic idea in the proposed approach is that coherence in natural science is the consequence of the way God created and upholds creation. The concepts discussed, all of which presuppose the validity of this basic idea, are the following: (1) The human response to the existence of orderly chemical phenomena in creation attempts to be orderly. (2) Chemists have always assumed that chemical phenomena are unifiable and rest on first principles. Examples are given. (3) Chemical diversity arises through chemical bonding, also explained by using first principles. (4) The union of chemical phenomena has important consequences concerning beauty, progress, and care for creation.

College chemistry instructors usually attempt to teach as if chemistry were not related to any philosophical ideas. As a result, chemists tend to look upon chemistry, a basic natural science, as being the same for Christians and non-Christians. My purpose in the present paper is to suggest one possible Christian approach to chemistry. In my approach, I claim that chemistry can be the same for Christians and non-Christians when they consider the day-to-day work of chemists in a superficial way, but that chemistry is not the same for Christians and non-Christians when they consider the foundations of their science, the foundations which make chemistry possible.

My argument flows from the philosophical position I take. Here are the elements of that position which are directly related to my argument: 1) God created the universe and upholds it. 2) Every person has a duty to recognize the creating and upholding hand of God. 3) God is to be recognized in every aspect of life. 4) Each human act and attitude either recognizes or rejects God. Thus, there is no part of life which is ultimately neutral-neutral, that is, in the sense that it has no relation to God. Thus, no part of scientific investigation can be said to be neutral with respect to the creating and upholding hand of God. A scientific investigator either recognizes that he carries out his work in God's creation and is responsible to God for what he does, or be does not recognize these things; but there is no neutral stance. So much for my basic position.

Modern chemical conclusions rest on the idea that chemical phenomena constitute a coherent whole. This coherence lies in relating chemical phenomena to fundamental laws. Modern chemists think they know some of these laws, among which are the first principles of quantum mechanics. According to many Christian chemists, this coherence, resting as it does on fundamental laws, is the consequence of the way God created and upholds his creation. There is always the possibility of scientific error and incompleteness; after all, human descriptive law is not divine prescriptive law, the word of the Lord for creation. But the coherence found in creation seems quite consistent with the biblical teaching that God is f aithf ul and his f aithf ulness can be seen in his creation. What modern chemists and other scientists see is that the various parts of creation fit together. The fitting-together of the parts of creation is no less than the coherence expected of a faithful God who created and who is sovereign.

It is possible for Christians to understand that the power of God is responsible for the coherence in the phenomena of the natural sciences. But according to Romans 1:18-20, non-Christians suppress the knowledge of a unifying, coherent power. Even so, non-Christians act as if such a power exists when they assume the natural sciences to be orderly.

Order in Chemistry

First of all, chemists have-at least since the beginning of the modern period, around 1800-assumed that chemical phenomena are unifiable. The atomic theory, advanced early in the nineteenth century, was an attempt to unify and bring order into chemistry. Using the concept of an indivisible atom, certain problems could be solved. The atomic theory was therefore a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense.1 That understanding, or model, of the atom was a "first level" understanding.

What Kuhn does not point out, but which nevertheless seems to be true, is that the Lord created us so that we can carry out scientific activity by means of the paradigmatic methodology of modern science. God has made it possible for us to carry out "normal science," defined by Kuhn to be scientific activity carried out under the "roof " of a reigning paradigm.2 Classical mechanics discoveries, made by assuming the validity of Newton's laws of motion, which constituted the reigning paradigm, provide an example. The normal science consequences of paradigm utilization can be (but, obviously, are not necessarily) a blessing.

Around 1900 physical scientists became convinced that the atom contains charged particles. The new paradigm made possible many more discoveries. But was it not good that the Lord made human beings so that they could take only one step at a time? The early nineteenth-century belief that the atom is indivisible was sufficient for the normal science carried out at that time. Eventually, a third-level understanding, the quantum-mechanical understanding, was needed. But once again, third-level knowledge, such as knowledge of the wave properties of matter, would not have fit into an earlier era. In retrospect, we can see that it is good that the Lord created chemistry so that chemists have only limited fundamental knowledge at various stages of the development of chemistry. Naturally, we must make the same conclusions concerning present knowledge; after all, we can never assume that we have "final science."3

Scientists who formulate physical laws assume that the phenomena of physical science, including chemistry, are orderly. They have discovered an ordered hierarchy of physical laws. Thus, it seems at first that the laws of thermodynamics are quite separate from the first principles of quantum mechanics, But one can show that the laws of thermodynamics, which are extremely important in chemical work, are actually summaries of other laws. The laws of thermodynamics provide many short-cuts in working out chemical problems; they do not, however, destroy the unity of chemistry.

Belief in the orderliness of chemistry is also the cause of other human responses to chemical phenomena. For example, chemists name compounds in an orderly way. Systematic names replaced trivial names because chemists realize that (a) it is possible to name large groups of compounds-perhaps, all compounds~using one set of nomenclature rules; (b) the use of systematic names facilitates chemical communication and therefore chemical research; and (c) the structure and properties of a compound can be communicated by use of a systematic name. Perhaps learning nomenclature rules will always be drudgery; but even beginning students can be taught that one takes a certain philosophical stance once it is assumed that (a) a set of nomenclature rules can be constructed and (b) a name can communicate structure and property.'

Russell Maatman is Professor of Chemistry at Dordt College. Previously he taught at DePauw University and the University of Mississippi, and was a research chemist at the Mobil Oil Company. Heterogeneous catalysis is his principal research area. He has published about 50 technical articles. He also has a strong interest in integrating faith and natural science. Many of his articles in that area have appeared in this journal, He has also written The Bible, Natural Science, and Evolution and The Unity in Creation.

The history of attempts to formulate a periodic classification of the elements illustrates the human belief that all chemical phenomena are orderly. Perhaps one could show that the premature "discovery" and naming of elements 43, 85, and 87-none of which occur in nature in amounts large enough to be detectable in the ores which supposedly contained them indicates that belief in order can tempt investigators to accept poor experimental results. Thus, although belief in order can guide investigators, such belief may never be the reason for a diminished respect for investigation of that which the Lord created.

The attitude toward order held by the later deists provides an example of how modern chemists and physicists can have an incorrect understanding of the relation between the systems they study and God, that is, an incorrect understanding of the relation between the creature and the creator. Those deists, encouraged by the successes of Newtonian mechanics in predicting the positions of the planets, were children of the Enlightenment. For them, God created the world and then allowed it to operate like a machine; perhaps the universe could be compared to an unwinding clock. There is a parallel situation in physics and chemistry. Including Newtonian mechanics in kinetic-molecular theory, one can make many correct predictions concerning the behavior of gas molecules. For those who wanted to keep God out of scientific matters, their attitude toward the early kinetic-molecular theory provided a stepping-stone to the unbelief associated with

In both the Old and New Testaments the word for "know" carries with it the concept of "care for."

modern theory. Beginning chemistry students can be shown what is wrong with the ideas some scientists have about the relation between the creature and the creator.

Diversity and Coherence in Chemistry

It would not be right to emphasize order but neglect diversity. After all, chemists as well as non-chemists become aware of a fantastic variety of chemical phenomena before they see order. In other words, a fascinating aspect of chemistry is its amazing diversity, observed not only in pure solids, liquids, and gases, but also in solutions and colloidal substances. Such diversity emerges from order by one means more than any other: bonding between atoms and/or molecules. God uses the many ways which atoms and molecules bond to produce the large number of different kinds of materials which exist. Thus, there are extremely weak bonds in non-ideal gases, as well as in some liquids and solutions; slightly stronger bonds, such as the hydrogen bond, in some liquids and crystals; still stronger bonds, such as ionic and covalent bonds in crystals and molecules; and a variety of other bonds, such as the metallic bond and three-center bonds. But they all rest on first principles; even the very weak bonds between gas molecules are now being explained quantum-mechanically. Diversity exists; but there is no chaos.

Because diversity is a fact, chemical phenomena which can be explained by atom-to-atom bonding are often not explained but treated as isolated phenomena. The situation was deplorable a few decades ago: most chemistry textbooks taught chemical phenomena in catalogue-like fashion. Students were required to memorize large numbers of facts which seemed to be unrelated. It seems to me that a Christian approach to chemistry must include an insistence that chemical phenomena are not actually isolated. In this way, a chemical approach will not contradict a conventional textbook as much as it would say to the student, "There is more. These phenomena are linked together; and there is an underlying reason for their being linked together." The problem is not that chemists and other scientists are unaware of the relations between scientific phenomena. Rather, the problem seems to lie in a lack of urgency in demonstrating the coherence among chemical phenomena. One factor (but only one factor) contributing to this attitude is the existence of a division between physics and chemistry: students tend to think, because they are usually not instructed otherwise, that anything which belongs to the discipline called "physics" does not belong to "chemistry." But physicalchemical reasoning which links atomic structure, atom to-atom bonding, and practical application can be carried out for a large number of chemical phenomena. A few examples, all of which can be explained in detail to beginning chemistry students, are the following: the properties of ordinary glass; the lubrication properties of graphite; the osmosis phenomenon; the lowering of the freezing point of a liquid by a dissolved solute; the existence and properties of molten salts; the existence of semi-conductivity, the transistor, and the computer chip; the action of soaps and other detergents; the driving forces in solution processes; and the unusual liquid range, dissolving power, and density-temperature relation of water.

The ideal way to explain chemical phenomena is to start with fundamental laws, including quantum mechanics. But a simpler and more practical approach is to use the following three-part working hypothesis: (a) Every bond is a consequence of electrical attraction between electrons and nearby nuclei. (b) Chemical reactions are the breaking and/or forming of one or more bonds; the driving force is either the attraction of at least one electron of one atom for the nucleus of another atom, or the input of enough energy to break a bond. (c) The tendency of a system to go toward a state of greater disorder, according to the second law of thermodynamics, qualifies (b).

But the coherence found in creation seems quite consistent with the biblical teaching that God is faithful and his faithfulness can be seen in his creation.

Using this working hypothesis, one can describe almost all chemical reactions in terms of the movement of positive or negative species. That is, although acid-base systems (such as the Arrhenius, Bronsted-Lowry, and Lewis systems) are usually rather restricted, some chemists emphasize the positive- negative aspect of all acid-base systems. They come close to claiming that every reaction is either an acid-base reaction or the reverse of such a reaction. Even oxidation-reduction reactions are included; thev are reactions in which there is negative species transfer-in this case, one or more electrons-and some oxidation numbers (arbitrarily defined) change.

Reaction rates can also be shown to be related to chemical first principles or, for the purpose of a first college course in chemistry, to the working hypothesis given above. Naturally, it is never necessary in a first course to tell students a very large fraction of what is known; but students can be shown that reactions, even the individual steps of a reaction mechanism, can be brought under the same logical roof. It is not dif f icult to use easy-to-understand fundamental ideas to show why some reaction steps are slow and others rapid, or to describe enzymes, which are amazing tailor-made catalysts whose existence is evidence of the handiwork of God.

A college course in general chemistry usually cannot be comprehensive enough to include much detail concerning nuclear chemistry. But it is important to show students that nuclear chemistry is not in principle different from extra-nuclear chemistry. There is no natural dividing line between the two. However, the simple working hypothesis given above cannot be used in nuclear chemistry. To take up anything beyond the most simple nuclear chemistry, one would need to introduce weak and strong nuclear forces. Discussion of such forces in a general chemistry course is not essential. What is essential is that students come to realize that physical science is unifiable and that nuclear chemistry is a part of physical science.

Three Additional Principles

No matter what part of chemistry is examined, certain additional principles require emphasis in a Christian approach. The following are three of those principles, all consequences of the unifiability of chemistry:

(1) Consider first the meaning of "beauty" as it is often used in relation to chemical phenomena. Usually its use-as in "a beautiful chemical law," "a beautifully elegant chemical synthesis," and "a beautiful crystal"-is for the purpose of indicating that something is aesthetically pleasing. ("Beauty" possesses other dimensions which are not taken up here.) What kinds of things are aesthetically pleasing? In fact, what is the aesthetic dimension of life? Calvin Seerveld states that

(T)he "aesthetic" side of God-made and man-made things (is) ... a matter of  "allusiveriess" or "nuancefulness."6

Thus, a painting may be beautiful-aesthetically pleasing-not because it is a faitbf ul or photographic reproduction but because of its allusive or nuanceful character. One who looks at such a painting sees something which the artist intended to be seen, even though that 11 something" is not actually present in the painting.

No Christian approach to chemistry may ignore the responsibility God gives men and women as he allows their potential to increase as a result of the possession of greater chemical knowledge.

What of the beautiful chemical law, the beautifully elegant chemical synthesis, and the beautiful crystal? Is this kind of beauty allusive? I think it is. To the extent that human analyses of these parts of chemistry are correct, all three examples-the law, the synthesis, and the crystal-point to, allude to, the ordering band of God. All three are allusive; their beauty resides in the way each alludes to the creating and upholding hand of God. This, then, is the first of the three principles: Chemical facts, to the extent that they are correctly known, are beautiful because they allude to the creating and upholding hand of God.

(2) A second consequence of the unifiability of chemistry relates to the way chemical investigation is carried out. Chemical investigation is easier than it would be if investigators did not understand that chemical phenomena are a part of a coherent whole. The practical consequences of this unity cannot be overestimated. Consider, for example, the large number of conceivable chemical reactions which need not be attempted (and therefore research resources are not wasted) because those reactions can be shown to be thermodynamically non-spontaneous. This is the second principle: The unifying laws of chemistry have made possible in only a few decades an immense amount of chemical progress. The divine command to subdue creation, implying as it does in modern times scientific activity, is being carried out. As Hooykaas has shown, the Reformers de-deif ied the world: the world is not the divine organism which the Greeks took it to be; rather, the world is creature, to be investigated and subdued.6 God not only commanded this investigation of the world but he led human beings to perceive unifying principles in at least the physical aspect of creation. As a result, human knowledge has increased. This knowledge can be used.

As this knowledge increases, so does human potential increase; the same is true for non- scientific areas of life. Christians have an understandable tendency to see in this increased potential the occasion for even more sin than human beings have been guilty of in the past. But the increased human potential in chemistry, other sciences, and other areas of life has a dimension which is not sinful. The existence of greater human potential in so many areas continually shows human beings more of what "human" actually means. By allowing chemistry to progress, God might thereby give human beings, created in his image, a tiny glimpse of what it will mean to be human when sin has finally been taken away.

(3) No Christian approach to chemistry may ignore the responsibility God gives men and women as he allows their potential to increase as a result of the possession of greater chemical knowledge. In both the Old and New Testaments the word for "know" carries with it the concept for "care for." Knowing accompanied with caring held not only for a man who knew his wife; it also held in other situations. A man who knew his beast of burden had a duty to care for it. Knowing and caring were not two separate ideas; rather, either one implied the other. But knowing chemistry in the modern sense is possible because chemistry is unifiable. As a consequence, this is the third of the three principles which arise because of the coherence of chemical phenomena: Knowledge of God's creation today also carries with it the responsibility of caring for it. The immense body of chemical knowledge, which has accumulated because human beings realize creation is orderly, is also knowledge which human beings may not ignore. For example, chemists know the chemical details of the harm done to the environment because tetraethyl lead has been added to gasoline. The chemistry of the deleterious ef f ects of lead can be easily explained in a first course in chemistry. Surely the point need not be belabored: chemical knowledge, so often associated with sin, is knowledge-according to God's commands-which is to be used to care for creation. Good stewards can do no less.

Thus, Christian chemists do know why chemistry and the rest of science is possible, that is, why physical phenomena hang together and are explainable. They can understand the meaning of beauty in chemistry, chemical progress, and human responsibility in chemical activity. Therefore, Christian chemists can understand how it is that chemistry is indeed related to philosophical ideas.


I deeply appreciate the helpful suggestions and analyses made by Professor Charles Adams.


1Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970, 2nd Ed.), p. 10,

2Kuhn, pp. 10-42.

3Bernard Bamm maintained that we could speak of "true science," if we mean by this phrase that it is the best science we have to date as developed by our best scientists. He then stated: "in this sense, 'true science' is not final nor infallible." For him, ultimate or final science cannot exist. (The Christian View of Science and Scripture [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 19541 p. 42.)

4For a detailed discussion of the historical origins of the relation between chemistry and the written word, see Oscar Hannaway, The Chemists and the Word: The Didactic Origins of Chemistry (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), pages 117-151. In pages 142-151 Hannaway describes and evaluates Libavius's critically important book, The Alchernia, published in 1597.

5Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto, ON: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), p. 105.

6R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972).