Science and the Old Testament

William P. Brown

To conclude an introductory course on the OT, I took my class to the Georgia Aquarium. No, this was not an end-of-class celebration, although some consider it so. My students were actually on assignment as they gazed in awe at the graceful belugas and the bizarre sea nettles. I know what you’re asking: What in God’s name do stingrays and whale sharks have to do with the ancient scriptures of the OT? A lot, we discovered.

The course began, as most introductory courses do, with a discussion of the first several chapters of Genesis, wherein it was discovered for the first time by many students that the Bible begins not with one but with two very different creation accounts (Gen 1:1-2:4a; 2:4b-3:24). Moreover, we later discovered other creation accounts dispersed throughout the OT as well, such as Ps104, Job 38-41, and Prov 8:22-31, to name a few. Each one distinctive, each one compelling in its own right, they together form a multifaceted tableau of creation. Genesis 1, for example, reads like a systematic report covering the vast expanse of the cosmos, from stars to seeds, while the enthused poetry of Ps 104 revels in the wonders of biodiversity, from lions to Leviathan. All this leads me to marvel over, and thank God for, the sheer variety of scriptural testimonies to creation. They acknowledge the natural world’s glorious complexity. (For a study of the various creation accounts in the OT read through the lens science, see my book The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder [Oxford University Press, 2010].)

God’s Two Books

BrownPillarsBut in our study of the OT creation traditions, we also added science to the mix. While studying, for example, Gen 1 in its theological and historical context, we also heard from scientists sharing their rich discoveries of the universe, from the cosmological to the biological. Why do so? Not to pick a fight or to argue over differences between the so-called biblical perspective and the scientific. Far from it. We did so in order to fulfill the biblical mandate to seek wisdom (Prov 2:1-5), including the wisdom of God evidenced in creation (3:19-20). Throughout our course we brought into constructive dialogue the unfolding drama of the Bible and the epic story of creation, sometimes described as God’s “two books,” a conceptual framework that has deep roots in Christian tradition, beginning at least with John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) and Augustine (354-430), and extending to Galileo (1564-1642) (for a concise historical survey, see Peter J. Hess, “‘God’s Two Books’: Revelation, Theology, and Natural Science in the Christian West,” in Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cosmology and Biological Evolution, Australian Theological Forum Science and Theology 2 [Australian Theological Forum, 2002], 19-51). Augustine, for example, refers to creation as God’s “great big book, the book of created nature” (“Sermon 68,” in The Works of Saint Augustine: Sermons Part III (51-84), trans. Edmund Hill, Augustinian Heritage Institute [New York City Press, 1991], 225). He goes on to say, “Look carefully at it from top to bottom, observe it, read it…. Observe heaven and earth in a religious spirit” (p. 226). That “religious spirit,” however, does not mean rejecting the findings of science in favor of the three-tiered model of the universe presupposed in Genesis. To the contrary, Augustine finds it utterly shameful for Christians to make empirical claims about the nature of creation by spouting Scripture (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim [The Literal Meaning of Genesis], I, xix, 39). It is, thus, a matter of duty that God’s “two books” be read together, for God is the author of both. It is no coincidence that a certain psalm begins with these words: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork”; and concludes with reflections on the efficacy of God’s Torah: “The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes” (Ps 19:1, 7-8). This single psalm binds together God’s creation and God’s Torah, God’s world and Word, into an inseparable whole.

Science and Searching

To disregard what science reveals about the intricate order and unfathomable age of the natural world as we know it is tantamount to tearing out the first pages of the Bible. The unfolding drama of God’s redemptive work in the world need not have begun with creation; it could have begun just as easily with the exodus account or with the family history of Abraham and Sarah (beginning with Gen 12). But it didn’t. It is a canonical fact that the Bible begins with the cosmos. Moreover, it ends with the cosmos. Is it merely coincidental that creation serves as the Bible’s bookends? Is it accidental that in between these bookends the psalmists, sages, and prophets often inquire of the natural world in their testimonies to God’s providence? “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers…” (Ps 8:3; cf. 19:1). “I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things…” (Eccl 7:25). “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov 25:2; cf. Jer 31:37). The first sentence of the first chapter of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species begins with the words, “When we look to…” (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, ed. E. O. Wilson [: Norton, 2006], 453).

Looking and searching, observing and studying — psalmists, sages, and scientists are the cohorts of wonder, the practitioners of “inquisitive awe” (see my Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World [Eerdmans, 2015], 1-14). Together they validate the human desire to explore the world, “to search things out,” to observe and study the world that God in wisdom has created (Prov 3:19-20). Job implores his friends to “ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you” (12:7-8). “The self-revelation of creation,” as the great biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad once described biblical wisdom (Wisdom in Israel, trans. James D. Martin [Abingdon, 1988 (1972)], 144-76), is an integral part of divine revelation. To construe biblical faith as anti-scientific is truly anti-biblical. If theology is “faith seeking understanding” (à la Anselm), and science is a form of understanding seeking further understanding, then theology has nothing to fear and everything to gain by engaging science.

Faith “versus” Science?

Culturally, however, we confront a different situation. In their fight against “soulless science,” creationists champion a view of creation so narrow that it is decidedly unbiblical. At the other extreme, certain scientists construe faith in God as the enemy of scientific progress and human well-being. (For a survey of the conflict between Christian fundamentalists and the modern champions of atheism, see Tina Beattie, The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion [Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007]. John F. Haught argues that critics of religion such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens succumb to a fundamentalism comparable to that which afflicts the creationists [God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens (Westminster John Knox, 2008)].) As one might expect, misunderstandings and distortions abound as each side reduces the other to laughable caricatures. Illiteracy, both scientific and biblical, reigns. The problem lies in the vain attempt to treat the biblical account(s) of creation as scientific. This is like forcing a round peg into a square hole. The scientific method and its resulting discoveries are products of the Enlightenment, thousands of years after the Bible was written. Moreover, it was never the intent of the biblical authors to provide a scientific report on the nature of the world and how it developed, but instead to claim the world as God’s world.

Underappreciated by both the “new atheists” and today’s fundamentalists is the fact that many scientific discoveries of the past were actually made by persons of faith driven by the desire to know the secrets of nature and, no less, the mind of God. Even Charles Darwin was considering the ministry as he boarded the H.M.S. Beagle to begin the fateful journey that would point him in another vocational direction.

Is science really hell-bent on eroding humanity’s nobility and eliminating all sense of mystery? Not the science I know. Is faith a lazy excuse to wallow in human pretension? Not the faith I know. What if faith in God entailed, among other things, acknowledging the remarkable intelligibility of creation as well as its mystery? What if science informed and enabled persons of faith to become more trustworthy “stewards of God’s mysteries” (1 Cor 4:1-2)? What if faith fostered a “radical openness to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be” (Barbara Brown Taylor, in The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion [Cowley, 2000], 63)? The faith I know does not keep believers on a leash, preventing them from extending their knowledge of the world. The science I know is not about eliminating mystery but about enhancing it. The experience of mystery “stands at the cradle of true art and true science,” as Albert Einstein intoned. “Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead” (“The World as I See It” [originally published in 1931] in Ideas and Opinions, Based on Mein Weltbild, trans. Sonja Bargmann, ed. Carl Seelig [Crown, 1954], 11).

Faith with Science

Christian faith demands familiarity with and appreciation of science. The evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobhzansky, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, famously observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (“Nothing in Biology Makes Any Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” American Biology Teacher 35 [1973]: 125-29). Christians can say something parallel about faith: “Nothing in the Christian faith makes sense except in the light of the Incarnation.” Here, in fact, is common ground: Faith in God incarnate “will not allow us to ignore the physical world, nor any of its nuances” (Taylor, Luminous Web, 15). Faith in the incarnate God calls us to know and honor the physical, fleshy world, whose “nuances” are its delicate balances and indomitable dynamics, its life-sustaining regularities and surprising anomalies, its remarkable intelligibility and bewildering complexity, its order and its chaos. Such is the World made flesh, and faith in the Word made flesh acknowledges that the very forces that produced me also produced microbes, bees, and manatees. As much as we cannot ignore the incarnate God, we cannot dismiss the discoveries of science. Theologically, there is no other option. Faith in such a God calls people of faith to understand and honor creation, the world that God has not only deemed “very good” (Gen 1:31) but saw fit to inhabit (John 1:14). In Christ the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) has all to do with the world in which we live and move and have our being.

Through the lens of science, we find ourselves more connected to creation than we could ever imagine, countering once and for all the human egoistic tendency to see ourselves apart from, rather than as a part of, creation. We are connected to a creation that is incomprehensibly large and marvelously complex, strangely diverse and constantly in flux. We are part of a creation that at its most fundamental (i.e., quantum) level is fuzzy and indeterminate, assuming different states at the same time. At creation’s macro-cosmic level, things we once thought were stable and steady turn out to be dramatically dynamic, both catastrophically (e.g., supernovas and black holes) and generatively (the birth of new stars and planets), with every bit of it interconnected, including time and space itself. As the universe is fearfully and wonderfully made, so also the human self (Ps 139:14). The saga of science can only but enhance the greatest story ever told. All truth is God’s truth.

When we finished our tour of the Georgia Aquarium, I invited students to reflect on their experience. Here’s what two of them said:

What amazed me most? The sheer volume of different types of creatures. If we ever for a moment doubt that we need to embrace diversity, all we have to do is look at nature. This experience changed my perception of God into a Creator who delights in diversity and expects us to take care of what is around us…. It was enlightening to learn that when debris is brought from the ocean, 60 percent of it contains recyclable materials. I was also disheartened to learn that surgeries have to be performed on sea creatures that ingest plastic that has been put into the ocean from human products. (Rebekah Carpenter)

What a great way to end our deep (no pun intended!) involvement with the Old Testament! This trip combined with the three science lectures helped me enormously with my wisdom of creation. This really enhances my pastoral care with those asking at the end of life, “Why are we all here? and “What was it all about, anyway?” No answers to those questions, but definitely an expansion of my small knowledge of cosmology and our beginnings. It was not frightening at all that I am such a small speck in the scheme of things, as when I was young, but faith and some scientific knowledge have made me feel not apart from the world but a part of God’s universe. (Jeane Torrence)

To which I can only say, “Amen!”

Posted Oct 28, 2015