God, the Cosmos and the Bible >>back home
The Bible gives us clear ideas about God. His attributes within Personhood, relevant to the present issue of creation, are holiness, righteousness, wisdom and power. Moreover, He speaks to men about things they need to know. As Eternal Spirit, He is both transcendent (sovereign over all and in no way confined within the world); and immanent (present and active in every place and on every occasion). Space and time are part of His created order. The biblical witness to the Creator establishes the validity of the scientific enterprise. Science can thus enunciate laws which are descriptive of Nature's ways, but it is God's holy and self‑consistent Will which is prescriptive ofthem.
"IN THE BEGINNING, GOD . . " With these majestic words the Bible introduces us to a truth (as I believe it to be) of prodigious significance: the Ultimate Reality, behind all lesser realities, is Personal. For that is what these opening words mean. Man is not "alone in the unfeeling immensity of the Universe"1, the product and plaything of titanic physical forces which neither care nor know what they are doing. His existence instead is set before a Presence – august, tremendous, all‑seeing 2. This is the teaching we have to consider, first in its more abstract concerns, then in later chapters as it touches His creature man as seeker, hearer and fellow‑worker.
Clearly, before we can think about the Bible's doctrine of Creation intelligently we must know something of its doctrine of God, sadly no longer a matter of common knowledge. What is God the Creator like? Is it possible to know anything about Him? That we have definite but scarcely‑acknowledged images in the backs of our minds may well be brought to our attention by looking at the woodcuts in Fig. 1. How many, unreflectingly perhaps, entertain such pictures as these as illustrating not merely mediaeval conceptions of the Creation, but biblical ones? Of course they do nothing of the sort. Even the magnificent paintings of Michael Angelo (see fig.2) might be seriously misleading so far as the biblical teaching is concerned, unless we are on our guard. It was not for nothing that Moses warned Israel that they 'saw no form' on the day when they received the law at Sinai, lest they attempt to make an image of God 3. Any such representation would inevitably, he implied, be a misrepresentation. We need to clear our minds at the outset, therefore, of any ideas which may come into this category.
What are the essential characteristics of God the Creator then, as the Bible portrays Him? To repeat, He is personal, profoundly so 4. 'God said', 'God saw', 'God called', 'God blessed', are some of its recurring themes: and God created man in his own image puts it in a nutshell. The rest of the Bible amplifies this to the limit with its descriptions of God as Shepherd, Husband, Friend. Lover, and finally Heavenly Father. It is strongly implied in the Bible's constant emphasis on the thanksgiving due to God for His faithfulness to His covenanted love. Then God is Spirit, essentially invisible to human eyes 5. He may appear in some impressive way, the Bible records, in what is called a 'theophany'; but to experience this is not to 'see God' in the accepted sense 6. He is never, again, to be thought of as just one agent among others, even as the greatest; God as Spirit has an order of being transcendent and ultimate. In fact all that we regard as 'agents' have their own being itself only in and through Him 7. Space and time are integral parts of His Creation too; God is localized in neither 8,9. For biblical expression is concrete and not abstract 10 like that of science; space and time are not distinguished from the objects and events which occupy them. Such a passage as Isaiah 44.24, I am the LORD... Who stretched out the heavens alone... Who spread out the earth is an assertion about the origin of space itself as well as its contents, and the same sort of thing can be said of time 11. This has long been recognised by some of the greatest Christian thinkers, such as Augustine of Hippo (AD 354‑430); we shall meet him again.
Fig. 1 God's creation of the world in six days, as described in the book of Genesis. From a Latin Bible of 1511, printed in Venice.
Fig. 2 Creation of Adam. detail of the ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican, by Michelangelo, 1508-12 (Copyright not consented yet )
Two attributes of God often emphasised in the Bible are His holiness and His righteousness12. They are not the same. The word 'holy' in the Hebrew Scriptures probably comes from a root meaning 'separate'. 'distinct' 13. Most often 'holiness' has an ethical sense, but it is also connected with the act of creation. When so used it indicates the never‑to‑be‑forgotten distinction between God and all that He has made, between Creator and creature 14. It is thus an explicit denial of pantheism, the idea that God is simply the sum‑total of all things.
'Righteousness' is an idea whose main thrust is again ethical. In man it means conformity to God's moral and spiritual law which, designed for his good, is the standard, objectively confronting him, by which his conduct is to be judged 15. As applied to God, its meaning must necessarily be a little different, for there is no such standard external to Himself to which He should conform: He is His own standard. It is therefore rightly understood as self‑consistency, and is a highly significant emphasis of both Old and New Testaments. God is never arbitrary or changeable: He abides by His declared principles and stands by His covenant 16. His righteousness means faithfulness to both warnings as well as promises; He cannot deny Himself (2Tim.2.13). All this has profound implications for the physical aspects of the creation. Righteousness clearly implies self‑consistent ethical principles, and faithfulness, predictability, and it would be strange indeed if these characteristics of the moral order were not reflected also in the physical if God is the author of both. In fact the Bible often links the two closely, as in this passage from the book of Job discussing wisdom (Job 28. 25‑28, RSV: and 17):
When He gave to the wind its weight,
and meted out the waters by measure;
When He made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning of the thunder;
Then He saw it and declared it;
He established it, and searched it out.
And He said to man,
"Behold, the fear of the LORD, that. is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding."
This is very apparent too in the even more familiar passages of Gen.8.22 and 9.8‑17, where the God whose Will it is which upholds the moral law by judgement and mercy (as the story of the Flood indicates), upholds also the laws of physical nature, actually giving nature's regular phenomena as signs of His covenant faithfulness 18. This is surely a remarkable outcome of Biblical theology; it accounts at one stroke both for the validity of the scientific enterprise 19, and (in spite of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the most famous of all scientific laws and which, as commonly understood, predicts an ultimate 'heat death' for the universe) fills the cosmic horizon with hope 20.
Two other things on which the Bible lays stress are the wisdom of God displayed in all He does, and also the sovereignty of His acts (e.g. 1Tim.1.17; 2Kings 19.21‑31). Discussion of the latter will be dealt with towards the end of this chapter, but the former is of immediate concern; it is often invoked in support of the 'design argument'. Some important findings in physics and cosmology (such as the famous wave‑particle duality of the electron and other particles, and the effect of gravity on light) have been of exceptionally teasing character; they have seemed to run counter to the age‑old intuitions of even the most eminent thinkers. Nevertheless several have succumbed in time to handling by abstruse mathematics ‑ to developments in the latter which have had to wait idly by till their time came. Einstein's use of tensor calculus in his General Theory of Relativity is a case in point, but it is by no means the only example of this historical wonder. Order is still being sought and found in the crowded world of particle physics by looking for such abstract things as 'mathematical symmetry' and 'abstract beauty'; but (to anticipate a bit), it is difficult to trace any connection between this amazing power of the human mind and the 'selfish gene's' use of natural selection! Two and a half thousand years ago at the birth of Greek science, the best human brains could have been little less acute than Einstein's; even five thousand years ago this might still be true. How could the 'selfish gene' and 'natural selection' have generated such genius? No doubt the brain of five thousand years ago was a useful thing; but it would seem that it had powers vastly beyond what was needed for breeding success, the 'selfish gene's' speciality. As John Polkinghorne (himself an eminent physicist) suggests, the ability of the human mind to probe the ultimates of time, space and energy can hardly be attributed to the self‑promoting efforts of this little assemblage of atoms, the gene 21. Surely it makes better sense to believe that a wise and sovereign Creator inbreathed His Spirit into a created being to convey His own image, and so "to think His thoughts after Him" as Johann Kepler, the great astronomer, exclaimed. "What is the chief end of man?" was the first question in the famous Shorter Catechism of 1647. It answered. "to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever". What would neo‑Darwinism's answer be? Hardly anything so happy, and so consistent with almost universal human intuitions.
Augustine on Space, Time and Matter
Having raised the subject of the 'ultimates' of the universe it might be illuminating to recall the thoughts of one of the greatest minds in the Christian church, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354‑430). He was himself a firm believer in the God‑givenness of the Scriptures: "What Scripture says, God says"22. A millennium and a half before Darwin he made some profound observations on the subject of God as Creator 23. He imagines a "fickle‑minded" man wondering why God "should have allowed countless ages to elapse" before He undertook the work of creation. "What was God doing 'then' ", i.e. before He called the creation into existence? Augustine's answer is brief and to the point: there was no 'then', for time itself is part of the created order. God "made all time; He is before all time; and the 'time', if such we may call it, when there was no time is not time at all."
Augustine deals in the same way with space 24. "How did You make heaven and earth?" he muses. "Clearly it was not in heaven or on earth that You made them . . . Nor was it in the universe that You made the universe, because before the universe was made, there was no place where it could be made." So space too is part of the created order. So also, of course, is matter: "Nor did You have in Your hand any matter from which You could make heaven and earth, for where could You have obtained matter which You had not already created . . ? Does anything exist by any other cause than that You exist?" Augustine therefore firmly takes the view that space, time and matter are all alike elements of the creation, all alike given their existence by God the Creator.
This view calls for two comments. The more important is that it is thoroughly biblical; that in fact was Augustine's intention. It accepts that God the Creator is not confined to our space‑time continuum; He operates from His 'holy and glorious habitation', from a realm that is ineffably greater and more wonderful 25. That He is often spoken of in time‑space language ('enthroned in the heavens', 'Thy years have no end' 26) in no way invalidates this conclusion. Even the ineffable has sometimes to be put into words.
The second comment is less important but still interesting. Einstein's Theory of Relativity takes a view of things rather like Augustine's. To the physicist of today space and time are no longer what they were for Newton, together forming a continuum 27, otherwise empty but into which can be introduced (or from which withdrawn) material bodies and energy, leaving it unchanged in itself. According to the view of General Relativity, space‑time must be thought of as modified locally by the presence of bodies with mass; everything 'belongs together' and affects everything else (cf. Heb.1.10ff).Theism and Deism
One of the findings of science has been that physical nature when reduced to its simplest elements obeys mathematical laws with extreme precision: witness the movements of the planets or the focusing of light in optical instruments. What lies behind this precise behaviour? A very common (if usually unexpressed) view is that it is the evidence of a precise and faultless mechanism behind things, a matter touched on earlier. A change in one element of the mechanism causes a change in another. and ultimately the effect spreads through the whole scheme of things with (in simple cases) precisely calculable results. This is broadly the 'mechanistic' picture of nature, (though it would have to be qualified now in the light of the Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory). Those who believe in one God as Creator may for present purposes be divided roughly into two: deists and theists (from the Latin and Greek words respectively for 'God'). The term 'deists' is popularly used of those who believe that God has created nature as a mechanism which can run on its own; like a clock, it has only to be 'wound up' and then it can be left to look after itself. The way it works can be found out by careful examination, for it has been designed around mathematical and mechanical rules which govern its behaviour calculably. The famous Archdeacon Paley argued somewhat from this standpoint. The theist however believes that nature is held in being every moment by its Maker; the autonomous mechanism of the deist is replaced by the energetic, consistent, wise and purposeful Will of its Maker. Propositionalrevelation (such as that in Mark 13 or Romans 1) is a positive requirement therefore if we are to understand how nature and history move onward with meaning to a foreordained goal; with deism it is clearly otherwise. Both beliefs have problematical questions to answer: deism is ill‑at‑ease with what is commonly called 'miracle' 28 of course; theism on occasion insists on it. But what must here be made clear in the dispute with neo‑Darwinism is that the Bible's teaching is distinctly theistic; and to this matter we must now turn.
Biblical theism and the activity of God
That the universe owes its continuing existence to God is made plain in Scripture in a number of comprehensive statements. For instance. Colossians 1.16,17 speaks of the Son of God . , that all things were created by Him . . . and in Him all things hold together (NIV); Heb.1.3, of the Son as upholding the universe by His word of power (RSV); Revelation 4.11, You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being (NIV); and the same truth is emphatic in the great creation Psalm, 104. The Bible does sometimes speak as if nature possessed a God‑given autonomy to act on its own, within limits (e.g. Genesis 1.22; Job 39.5ff; Mark 4.27f); but its language in such cases is hardly definitive. It is perhaps in some of the most intimate passages that God's personal involvement comes out most irresistibly. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks of God Himself feeding the birds and clothing the grass of the field (Matt 6.26,30), or making His sun rise . . . and sending His rain on the just and the unjust (5.45). In their context these statements are really pointless unless God is understood to be there‑and‑then personally the responsible Doer; how could they convey assurance to the troubled disciple (as they are clearly meant to) if that were not the case? Again, He is the One who forms the tiny growing foetus in the womb (Jer 1.5; Ps 139.13ff), and directs the course of history (Exod.9.13ff; Prov.21.1 NIV; Isa. 45).
But the Bible does not attribute only the pleasanter aspects of things to God. He feeds the carrion eaters and the carnivores (Luke 12.24; 1 Kings 17.4ff; Ps.104.21); He sends earthquakes (Num.16.30);. plague (Exod.15.26); storms at sea (Ps.107.25f, 29f, cf. Mark 4.39) and locust swarms (Amos 7.1f). In all these He is the Doer of the commonplace as much as of what men call the 'miraculous' (cf. Matt.10.29‑31; Prov.16.33). The biblical writers go further even than that; the large scale movements of nations are His ordering, in both judgement and mercy (Jer.5.15; Acts 17.26). He is thus the Creator of history as well as of the physical universe (von Rad 29). These biblical announcements can be astonishing and deeply perplexing to the modern reader (as they sometimes wore to the prophets themselves, see Hab.1.5ff). We have recalled them here because for most of us "our God is too small"; the Bible's vision of the Creator God is tremendous. They raise many difficult questions for thought (their denial does so equally), but these lie mostly outside the scope of this present essay. It is enough to say that the New Testament with the Old, answers them all in one way or another, as far as we now need to know.
This introduces another aspect of Biblical teaching, strikingly different from the picture presented by Darwinian fundamentalism. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, the psalmist says (Ps.139.14); our very ability to know anything at all is a gift from our Maker. It comes through the faculties He has given us ‑ sight, hearing, understanding (Exod.4.11; Job 35.10f; Luke 24.45; Acts 9.17f). These are obviously limited; our optical window on the world is confined to an mere octave of the vast electromagnetic spectrum, a limitation instrumental know‑how can lessen but never remove. The Bible in consequence insists that now we know in part (1 Cor 13.9), an oft‑repeated emphasis. The book of Ecclesiastes states it very poignantly:
God has made everything beautiful in its time: also He has put eternity into man's mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Eccles.3.11 RSV, cf. 8.17 REB)
a statement with which the Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory are in clear accord. Ecclesiastes, which takes its cues (as all science does) from evidence provided by the physical senses 30, (evidence which is in principle accessible at will to man as man 31), is very instructive. When confining himself to this category of evidence, its writer comes again and again to the same conclusion as that which apparently forces itself on Jacques Monod, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Peter Atkins and other scientifically‑gifted antitheists: Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless 32. For 'meaning' is a category that belongs to mind, and if we are convinced that there is no Mind ultimately behind things, how can there be at bottom any real meaning in them? The mind that is entrapped in this persuasion is like that of the unknowingly colour‑blind or musically deaf; all its protestations about being "right, gloriously right" seem to be only a whistling in the dark.Science and God
I will close this chapter with what may seem to be two bold claims. First, in the light of all that the Bible proclaims about God it would seem that a cosmos created and upheld by Him would be entirely congruous with the one which scientific research as well as common experience has disclosed. There is the fundamental law-abidingness in the physics of Nature, a universal reign of law, often exhibiting mathematical elegance and beauty; abundant causes for amazement and admiration; growing indications of purposiveness in the biological world; and finally the endowment of man with appreciation, understanding and a sense of moral obligation in life. Everything is consistent with the expectations the Bible raises. Has science uncovered any well‑established features which would deny this? I maintain that it hasn't. But if one were to substitute any one of the gods of the pantheons contemporary with Genesis ‑ Osiris, Marduk, Baal, Odin, Zeus ‑ this conclusion would be betrayed. Finally, science has come to acknowledge two important things already vital to man in the biblical picture: first, that everything material, stars and sparrows alike, grows old and perishes 33, and second, that there are inescapable limits to human curiosity about the future – the Principles of Uncertainty and of Chaos Theory are two such (Eccles.3.11).
My second claim is this: the Bible asserts that it is God Himself who teaches man the principles of what we now call 'scientific method', and its benefits. Isaiah does this in an unselfconscious passage at the close of his chapter 28. How does the farmer discover the way to grow his crops successfully? or how to separate the seed‑crop from the refuse? We would now say "By trial and error", or with a little more sophistication, "By observation and experiment". This is of course the foundation of the scientific method. Isaiah's significant comment is, his God teaches him, just as Hosea later remarks that (unrecognised, alas) it was God Who taught Ephraim to walk (Hos 11.3). All this is related to the charge originally given to man at creation: replenish the earth and subdue it (Gen 1.28). It is spoken of in a different sphere by Jesus Himself (John 5.19f): and we too, in our practical science learn by watching the Creator at work. This opportunity for man to learn arises from God's 'immanence' in His creation, though like Ephraim whom God taught, most never rise to this realisation. But scientists like Kepler, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and Lord Rayleigh, all great Christians, were by no means rara aves. If these realizations escape their thinking, thinkers themselves however brilliant, surely remain short of the intended enrichment of human life and understanding.
In the light of all that this chapter has discussed, it is not surprising that although other cultures have had their brilliant and profound thinkers, it was in the West, so deeply influenced by the faith of the Bible, that science really 'took off' 34.
Postscript: What of 'miracle'?
It was maintained above that science has no insuperable difficulties with any events plainly‑recorded in the biblical narratives. What about miracles then? It can be said in reply that some major events regarded as such, like the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod.14) or the drought in Elijah's day (1Kings 17), might perhaps be merely abnormal weather phenomena if we knew all the facts: but even so they would still satisfy the biblical requirements. There are many other events however which cannot be regarded in this way. The death of the firstborn on the passover night (Exod.12.29ff), the feedings of the five and four thousand by Jesus (Mark 8.13‑21), and the healing of the lame man by Peter and John (Acts 3) are examples from among very many. These are undeniably meant to be understood as special events, clear acts of God; how can they be reconciled with science? My answer is to stress the biblical insistence on the sovereignty of God over all events without exception: He is related to history as a human author is related to his story. This is an analogy I shall develop later; for the moment I will say no more. But men and women are but children to Him, and His concern for their creaturely needs means that in the ordinary course of events He acts in a way that they can count on, that is, take for granted. How long would they last if gravity, or the conservation of matter, or fire, couldn't be relied on to behave always in the same wavy? Life would be impossible! That is why God ordains nature's regular uniformity 35. However, where men and women ensnared through evil ways (Ps.107) need to be recalled to God‑consciousness, He may act outside this set pattern in the way commonly called 'miracle'. In other words, the Bible implies that nature's law‑like behaviour is not controlled rigidly by cast‑iron mechanistic laws, but by the faithful active providential willing of the God "Who holds the whole wide world in His hands". This biblical view is perfectly consistent with the scientific world picture, for truly miraculous happenings on this understanding are not subject to man's beck and call, as all evidence accessible to science essentially is. Two other points are important here. First, biblical miracles are never the outcome of human agents given powers to use at their own discretion. Every biblical miracle is an act of God at His own discretion (Heb.2.1‑4, cf. Mark 9.28.29; Acts 19.11); the human agent is called‑in as a "fellow‑worker". The second thing follows from all this: the miraculous happening is not susceptible to scientific investigation at all. In fact, science can have nothing to do with it, except to acknowledge what has been publicly observed. But whether this biblical teaching is accepted or not, it cannot be denied that it makes entirely consistent sense, which is the present issue. The subject will come up again.NOTES
17 See also Ps.136.5‑9; Matt.5.45,48. The important idea of 'covenant' applies to both; see Ps.89.34‑37; Jer.33.25,26
18 This teaching is integral to the Bible: compare Gen.8.21,22; 9.11‑17 with Pss.36.5,6; -119.89‑91; Matt.5.45
21 As Richard Dawkins implies; his 'selfish gene' can see no further than self interest. On the same and related points see also Steven Weinberg, DREAMS OF A FINAL THEORY (Hutchinson, London 1993); and John Polkinghorne. SCIENCE AND CREATION (SPCK, London 1988).
22 CONFESSIONS, xiii.29 Penguin Classics,1961. Augustine wrote c. AD400.
27 For Newton, of course, they were not a joint continuum.
28 Following the late Donald MacKay we may define the biblical use of the word 'miracle' as indicating an event in the visible world which comes to those present with the force of a special revelation from God. It is not implied that it is necessarily a 'violation of natural law' as Hume thought ‑ and as many still think. The miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea had probably a perfectly 'natural' cause (see Exod.10.13; 14.21); and the miracle of Mark 4.35ff may well have been similar. What made the events 'miracles' was that on these special occasions God chose to reveal himself as the Doer, normally unseen.. (Ps.77.19; 107.23ff; cf.Prov.25.2). This gave the 'natural' happening the significance of a 'special revelation' or 'miracle' in the Bible's sense.
29 von Rad, G. GENESIS (SCM, London 1961)
30 Eccles.1.8,14; 4.3; 5.13; 6.1; 9.11
31 M B Foster, MYSTERY AND PHILOSOPHY (SCM, London 1957) gives this as the true criterion for scientific evidence. Charles Singer writes in the same vein. "The demand for observation and for experience that can be repeated at will, had created science as we know it"; A SHORT HISTORY OF SCIENTIFIC IDEAS TO 1900 (Clarendon Press. Oxford, 1959) Of course what now seems to be a well established picture of world-structure extends far beyond and above the evidence as just defined; that is not in dispute. But this evidence remains its essential foundation.
32 Eccles.1.2; 1.14; 2.1: 2.21; 3.19; 4.4; 5.10; 6.9; 9.9; 11.8; 12.8; a selection of references is given. The translation 'meaningless' is from the NIV; 'futility, utter futility' is the REB; 'vanity of vanities' is AV, RV. RSV, JB and Isaac Leeser. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (on this level) reminds one of the same thing.
33 By most of the great thinkers of antiquity the stars were considered unchanging. The Psalmist saw things differently (Ps 102.7,11,25ff).
34 See Colin A Russell CROSS‑CURRENTS: Interactions Between Science and Faith (IVP Leicester, 1985); Brooke, J H SCIENCE AND RELIGION: some historical perspectives (Cambridge UP. 1991); and Jeeves, M A and Berry, R J SCIENCE, LIFE AND CHRISTIAN BELIEF: A survey and assessment (Apollos, Leicester, 1998); all strongly recommended.
35 This is the way the Bible regards things like the rainbow (Gen.9.16) and the moon (Ps.89.37); they are public reminders of God's faithfulness to His creatures' needs and expectations.