God’s Interaction with the World

“We believe that the same good God, after He had created all things, did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will, so that nothing happens in this world without His appointment” (Belgic Confession, Article XIII). Although origination is usually the first thing we think of when we speak of God as Creator, the Scriptures have a much richer notion of “creator” that includes the notions of sustenance, governance, and providence. In Reformed systematic theologies, these concepts are often treated under the heading of Divine Providence.

To call God Creator is to call Him the Sustainer. God not only originated the world, but he sustains it moment by moment. The existence of the world continues to be radically dependent on Him. Scripture verses in support of this relationship between God and his Creation are the following: “for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28); “He (Christ)…sustains all things by his power” (Heb. 1:3); “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). Were God to remove this sustenance, the creation would cease to exist. This is no pantheistic doctrine that makes the creation out to be God. Nor is it a doctrine of continuous creation whereby God re-creates the universe moment by moment.

To call God Creator is to call Him the Governor. God not only governs by law and ordinances as described earlier, but He is intimately involved in its moment by moment workings. “He sends forth springs…He causes the grass to grow…Thou dost give them (animals) their food…Thou dost open Thy hand” (Ps. 104 passim.). “He causes the vapors to ascend…makes lightnings for the rain…brings forth the wind” (Ps. 135:5-7). “He gives snow like wool; He scatters the frost like ashes. He casts forth His ice as fragments” (Ps. 147:16,17).

“Who gives the sun for light by day…who stirs up the sea” (Jer. 31:35). See also Job 38, 39 passim. God’s rule in the Creation is attested to by all the Reformed creeds. The Belgic Confession (Article XIII) says that he “did not forsake them or give them up to fortune or chance, but that He rules and governs them according to His holy will.” The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter V, Section 1) says that he “doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least”. This governance extends to chance events (Prov. 16:33). The Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter V, Section 2) while acknowledging God as the “first Cause” affirms that “he ordereth them (all things) to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently. It also recognizes that “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means” (Chapter V, Section 3).

To call God Creator is to call Him the Provider. Often in Scripture and in the Confessions, this Divine Governance is set in the context of God Providence. “They all wait for Thee, to give them their food in due season. Thou dost give to them, they gather it up; Thou dost open Thy hand, they are satisfied with good” (Ps. 104:27, 28). “Who covers the heavens with clouds, who provides rain for the earth, who makes grass to grow on the mountains. He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens which cry” (Ps. 147:8, 9). “But if God so arrays the grass of the field…will he not much more do so for you?” (Matt. 6:30). The Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 27 says: “What do you understand by the providence of God? Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty– all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

These doctrines of sustenance, governance, and providence are foundational for understanding the relationship between God’s role in creation and providence and the fruit of an investigation of the world using the tools of science. Order and regularity in the operation of the world, features of the world presupposed by practioners of science, result from God’s lawful creation and his regular governance. The Scriptures go one step further and recognize that regularity in the functioning of the universe is a manifestation of the faithfulness of God. God has made a covenant and governs in a manner consistent with that covenant (Jer. 31:35,36; 33:20-26).

God’s governance structures the created world, and God is free to govern how He pleases. This provides the underpinning for the empirical nature of modern science. We may not presuppose how the world is or how God has chosen to govern it. We have to investigate the world to discern patterns and regularities that exist as a result of God’s governance. It may be the case that there are certain boundaries that we simply accept as givens. These boundaries, however, are conditions that we run into as we explore the creation and are empirically derived not imposed on our study of creation by some philosophical system. Examples of such boundaries may be life/non-life, sensory/non-sensory, human/non-human, etc. Of course, if scripture reveals such a boundary, then we must accept it. In my reading scripture emphasizes only one such distinction, human/non-human, i.e. only human beings were created in the image of God.

An additional consequence of these doctrines is that there is no natural/supernatural distinction. In one sense all of creation is “supernatural”, i.e. God is always actively involved. At times I think that we ought to dispense with this natural/supernatural language because it gives the impression that normally things occur according to their “natures” apart from the Divine governance. The distinction ought to be between ordinary/extraordinary or regular/irregular. Ordinary events are no less acts of God than miracles. In the miracle God does not act contrary to natural laws (for there are no such things), but contrary to his normal manner of governance. “Miracles” everyday would conflict with God’s covenant faithfulness described above. It seems that the miraculous is to shock us into listening to God and His spokesman at key events in redemptive history. This is due in part to the fact that in our sinful state we no longer see God at work in the ordinary events of life.

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The Role of the Bible in the Scientist’s Work

The Bible is authoritative in the life and work of the scientist as it is in all of life. The authority of the Bible depends not on the testimony of any man, or church, but wholly upon God, its author (Westminster Confession of Faith, I, 4). The Bible reveals all things necessary for God’s own glory, our salvation, faith and life (WCF, I, 6 and Belgic Confession, Article 2). Because it is the Word of God, and God can neither err nor lie, the Bible is infallible and inerrant in all that it teaches. Christian doctrine and the key elements of the Christian worldview are derived from the Bible. Scripture is our fundamental starting point as we think about God, humanity, the material world, sin, and how all these things interrelate. This view of reality derived from Scripture is the interpretative framework in which Christian scientists and other Christian scholars do their work.

The “all things necessary” (WCF) or “as much as we need in this life” (Belgic Confession) clearly is somewhat limited in scope. To say this is not to limit the authority of Scripture in any way, but simply to recognize that the purpose of God’s special revelation to us in the Bible is not to provide a textbook for biology, geology, history, or any technical discipline. All knowledge is not revealed to us in Scripture; our calling to subdue the earth includes the mandate to discover truth about God’s world that is not revealed to us in Scripture (see “The Scientist’s Mandate”); however, we do not need such knowledge for our salvation, faith and life. Without necessarily denying that the Bible may speak in other areas of life, it must be emphasized that the essential nature of Scripture is to reveal in a historically progressive manner God’s work of redemption. Because God’s redemptive work recorded for us in the Scripture takes place in space and time, it will intersect with the world as studied by scientists, historians, and other scholars. Where the Bible speaks in these areas, either in general principle or in a specific text, the Christian scholar must receive its teaching as coming from God himself and allow it to govern his or her thinking. This is not to follow some blind Biblical literalism, because proper rules of interpretation must be followed, rules that recognize differences in literary form, redemptive-historical context, and revelatory purpose.

Because of sin it is impossible for fallen humanity to rightly perceive the world except by the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. Even reason is affected by the Fall. Hence, God’s special revelation in redemptive history and in the Bible gives us glasses through which we can now see the world aright. This implies that we must submit our fallen reasoning to the Scripture and doing so enables us to interpret the world aright. This does not guarantee error-free scholarship nor does it imply that our reasoning or the reasoning of unbelievers is automatically erroneous (see “The Similarity of the Christian’s and the Non-Christian’s Science”). Rather it means that we must constantly examine our thinking to see that it accords with Scripture. In our modern context where there is great animosity toward the Christian faith among scientists and other scholars, Christian scientists must be on their guard to prevent non-Christian modes of thinking about the world from entering their own thinking.

Even with the above outlined principles it is still possible to have a conflict between science and the Christian faith. At the outset the Christian scholar must maintain that such a conflict is due to the human interpretation of the revelatory Word and works of God. There can be no ultimate conflict between Creation and Scripture. God is the author of both. Conflict comes as a result of our interpretation of Creation (the human endeavor called science) or in our interpretation of Scripture (the human endeavor called hermeneutics, exegesis and theology) or both. We ought to strive to eliminate such conflicts whenever they appear, however, we should recognize that in our limitations and fallibility we may not succeed. (See “Creationism, Evangelism, and Apologetics” in Christianity and the Age of the Earth by Davis A. Young.) In dealing with such conflicts the authority of the Biblical text must be preserved, however, I think that it is perfectly acceptable to allow the findings of science that are in conflict with a received interpretation of a particular passage of scripture to occasion the revisiting of the text to look for another possible interpretation that eliminates the conflict. This is simply to say that our interpretation of Scripture may be in error. Such a re-examination of the text must be done with great caution since the temptation is always present to twist scripture to make it conform to the latest scientific theory.

God As Creator: The Starting Point for the Christian Scientist

John Calvin opens the Institutes of the Christian Religion with an excellent discussion on whether the knowledge of God is prior to knowledge of self or vice versa. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying and perhaps even missing Calvin’s point, I will say at the outset of this essay that recognition of God as our Creator and ourselves as His creatures is the fundamental starting point for a right understanding of God, ourselves, and the world that
we study. The Scriptures themselves speak of a General Revelation which points even unregenerate men and women to this truth. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech. And night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world.” (Ps. 19:1-4) “Because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:19,20)

However, sinful humans suppress this truth deny God and worship idols. “They did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations…Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.” (Rom. 1:21-25) Thus, the knowledge of God as Creator comes to us by God’s special grace whereby he convinces us that what the Scriptures teach is true.

Belief that the world was created by God is a faith confession. “It is by faith that we know that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen.” (Heb. 11:3) See also Gen.1:1; Neh.9:6; Job 9:7-10; Ps.33:6-9; 148:3-6; Is.40:26; 45:12,18,19; Jn.1:3; Col.1:15-17. We confess this doctrine in our creeds and confessions: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” See also Belgic Confession, Article XII, Heidelberg Catechism, Question 26, and Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter IV.

A primary meaning of Creator is Originator. All that we see around us has been called into being by His Word and is structured by His Word. All things are “created by the Word of the Lord” (Heb. 11:3). “And God said, let there be…” (Gen. 1). “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Ps.33:6). “For he commanded and they were created” (Ps. 148:5). “He (Christ) is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). The scriptures sometimes speak of God as calling things into existence together with the rules or laws by which they operate: ordinance; dominion (Job 38:33; Jer. 33:35), fixed order (Jer. 31), command (Job 37:15; Ps. 148:5; Ps. 147:15), decree (Job 28:26), mete, measure (Job 28:25), set bounds (Ps. 104:9; Ps. 148:6), appointment (Ps. 119:91).

In its origination, creation is ultimately ex nihilo (Heb. 11:3). That is to say, before God’s original act of creation there was nothing. However, an ex nihilo creation does not rule out the notion of God’s creating some things using pre-existing material (e.g. Gen. 1:11,12,24).

An implication of the Creator/creature distinction is that Creation cannot be exhaustively fathomed by us who are part of that creation. Arie Leegwater in an unpublished outline entitled “Christian Perspectives in Physics and Chemistry” writes: “For the Christian scientist no creaturely event or thing can be reduced to its scientific explanation. No scientific account can grasp or encompass the radical character of the creature’s dependence on the Creator. There is always a sense in which the very structures themselves defy analysis and explanation. Their individuality and uniqueness harbor the mystery of creation: the divine origin and continued sustenance of all things.”

The Creator/creature distinction also points us to the human dimension of the scientific enterprise. Even the best of our theories are tentative; new data or new insights into old data may upset the most established of the scientific status quo. We would be naive historically to think that our theories and models are the last word. It might be helpful to think of the Creator/creature distinction in terms of law. From God’s perspective His law is prescriptive; from our perspective scientific laws are descriptive. It may be the case that our descriptions begin to approximate the divine prescription in the course of the history of science, but due to the incomprehensibility of the Creator, His Creation also bears that same ultimate mystery. This is the message of Job 38 and 39.

It is the doctrine of Creation that is most abused by unbelieving science. Philosophical Materialism, Evolutionary Naturalism, and Pantheism, as worldviews, deny the existence of a transcendent Creator God. There is nothing beyond the universe and its inherent properties. Such perspectives are exactly what Paul spoke of in Romans 1:25. “For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”