God, science and evolution Part 4 December 8, 2011
GOD, SCIENCE AND EVOLUTION PART 4
This article is Part 4 of a series covering the content of my out-of-print book “God. science and evolution” first published in 1980. Although inevitably out of date in some respects, its message is, I believe, just as important today as it was 31 years ago. In this chapter (chapter three of the original book) I examined the importance and feasibility of constructing a biblical ‘theology of science’, a theme that continues in the following chapter which I will post here in due course as Part 5. Added comments and updates are enclosed in [square brackets] in the text. References to my book Who made God? are abbreviated to ‘WMG’.
Is it possible for an ancient book such as the Bible to provide the Christian of today with a philosophy of modern science? The answer given to this question in the two chapters that follow is a resounding ‘Yes’. A biblical view of science is not only possible but essential if the church is to refute effectively the largely materialistic outlook of our present age — an outlook that falsely claims the support of scientific evidence and knowledge. Without such a ‘theology of science’ we are unable to relate spiritual truth to the scientific view of nature and thus by default we allow atheism to claim science as its own. To the ordinary man, science represents the objective truth about the real world in which he lives. Layman though he be, he therefore tends to accept whatever world-view appears to command scientific respectability.
Chapters 3 and 4 [of the original book] set out the guidelines for a ‘theology of science’ which permits a biblical interpretation of science and all it reveals to us about the universe of which we are part. Originally given at the 1979 Annual Conference of the British Evangelical Council at Westminster Chapel, London, these lectures deal, firstly, with the idea of God as the universal Creator and Sustainer and, secondly, (in chapter 4) with the questions of miracle and divine providence in the physical world.
GOD IN CREATION
The middle ground
I want you to imagine two mountains with a plain or valley between them. The first mountain represents biblical theology and world-view, while the second represents agnostic, atheistic or materialistic philosophy. What I shall term the ‘middle ground’ between them represents the physical universe in which we live out our daily existence. This middle ground is disputed territory. There is a battle for its possession. Why should this be? Because a world-view which fails to encompass and account for the ‘real’ world around us is unlikely to capture the attention and allegiance of the minds of men. Whichever philosophy seems best to explain the physical context of human life is most likely to command man’s sympathies, for it is in the natural world that he perceives himself to ‘live and move and have his being’. Of course, the Christian understands that it is in God that we ‘live and move and have our being’ but the one who does not believe does not yet possess this insight. Yet it is to such people that the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and it is vital therefore that a biblical philosophy of nature should form an integral part of that gospel. The apostle John recognized this clearly in introducing his account of the life and work of Christ with a prologue which announces Christ as the ‘Logos’, the Creator of all things (John 1:1-3). We must therefore possess the middle ground in the sense that we offer a full and satisfying account of the physical universe (and of the science which so successfully describes it) in terms which are consistent with the biblical revelation. Otherwise that ground will be so overrun by materialistic philosophies, such as the evolutionary world-view, that men’s minds will be wholly closed to the importance of spiritual things.
We face a situation, I fear, in which Christianity has largely yielded the middle ground to its opponents in the battle for the minds of men. We have allowed currency to the belief that the physical universe and science are no concern of religion. We have implied that what is material is not spiritual and is therefore quite irrelevant to the Christian message of personal salvation. I want to say, with all the emphasis I can, that this is a very dangerous and unbiblical attitude to adopt. For if we are to reach men and women with the gospel, we must do so in the context of their real-life experience. Among other things, this means that we must take account of our present scientific culture if we are effectively to evangelize.
In yielding this middle ground to the atheistic and agnostic philosophies of our day, we have failed to develop a true biblical theology of science and nature. Instead we have espoused a simplistic ‘complementarity’ in which we have said, ‘The scientific description of the universe is valid and complete and self-contained, but, of course, you must also have a complementary theological description.’ We have hidden, if you like, behind this concept of complementarity, whether consciously or not, to avoid the necessity of forging a truly biblical account of science and nature. It has been a position of strategic withdrawal by which we escaped involvement in the conflicts between science and religion.
I am sometimes accused of being too hard on the principle of complementarity and those who espouse it. I want to say that there is a measure of validity in the concept, but I think its dangers greatly outweigh its benefits. For what it does, at least in the eyes of the world around us, is to concede a materialistic view of the universe and of nature. We protest that men must also embrace the complementary theological view but they say, ‘No, thank you very much, we are quite satisfied with the materialistic view. You are free to superimpose your theologies but we are satisfied with the self-contained naturalistic view of the universe which excludes God.’ Thus I say that the middle ground is vital. We shall not reach men’s minds unless we can offer an interpretation of the real world in which they find themselves. This is why I say we cannot evangelize effectively in our modern culture
without a biblical theology of science. We must have something to say about the nature of science and its interpretation of the natural world in which we live that demonstrates the necessity of a higher theological level of understanding.
Creatio ex nihilo
‘But’, you say, ‘where do we start? What is the starting-point in developing this theology of science?’ Well, the starting-point is really self-evident. We must start at the beginning and I want to suggest that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is the key to this whole subject. There is a tendency, I think, to take this familiar doctrine for granted and to consider it so self-evident that having defined it there is really nothing more to say. If someone attempted to preach a sermon on the doctrine of creation ex nihilo we might well fear that after five minutes he would have said all that could be said. To think in this way is seriously to underrate and underestimate the power of this particular doctrine, as I hope to show.
This is a neglected doctrine. I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon or an address or even reading a book about the subject; which is rather strange, because this doctrine is absolutely basic to any attempt to provide a biblical view of science and the world around us. It is a neglected doctrine, and like the key that lay in Pilgrim’s pocket all the time he languished in the dungeons of Doubting Castle, I believe we have here a key which will allow Christians to come off the defensive and take the offensive in this battle for the middle ground. It is a neglected doctrine and yet it underwrites the whole relationship between God and creation. This concept of the origin of the physical universe is the basis of all subsequent events and all subsequent relationships between God and His creation, including ourselves as human beings. To particularize this a little more, let me say that negatively the doctrine emphasizes the limitations of science, and positively it underlies a biblical concept of science. These are the two things that we shall look at in this essay. Furthermore, this doctrine legitimizes the miraculous, undergirds the idea of providence and even implies human responsibility, thus anticipating the gospel. These other things we shall take up in the following chapter.
Let us first of all see the doctrine of creation from nothing, creatio ex nihilo, stated in the Scriptures. These references do not in any sense constitute an exhaustive list, nor am I concerned here to expound these texts but rather to cite them. We must start, of course, on the threshold of the book of Genesis. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. Here is the clearest possible statement that there was a beginning. This was obviously a beginning of the physical universe, not the beginning of God, since He was the pre-existent One who effected this beginning. He originated the entirety of what we know as the universe, ‘the heavens and the earth’, not from some prior substance but in a pure creative act.
There are some who would take this verse and water it down. They do not do so in order to avoid the implications of an ex nihilo creation, but rather to substantiate the ‘gap theory’ in which an attempt is made to introduce into the Genesis story a sufficiently long time-span to allow for the processes of evolution. In so doing they attempt to translate this verse as a conditional clause, making it read something like this: ‘In the beginning of the creation of the heavens and the earth the earth became without form and void.’ The primary statement becomes that relating to the condition of the earth rather than the creation. This, of course, robs the verse of its primary impact and empties it of the creative content which I am ascribing to it. I am not a Hebrew scholar and do not pretend to understand in full the arguments against this [but see Hebrew scholar E. J. Young’s interpretation at http://www.christianbeliefs.org/books/genesis/gen-1.html.] I believe, however, that it can be demonstrated very clearly both from a theological argument and from the very form of the language that the traditional rendering is the correct one. Furthermore, to render this verse as a conditional clause is to introduce a circumlocution which is totally foreign to the crisp, straightforward style of the remainder of the chapter.
However, of course, we are not limited to Genesis 1. We come to Hebrews 11 and the third verse: ‘By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible’ (NASV). Here is as clear a statement as we could wish of the doctrine of creation from nothing. [To suggest that this anticipates atomic theory is a special plea too far; in any case atoms are visible en masse and the NT commonly equates ‘invisible’ with ‘spiritual’ as in 2 Cor. 4:18].
In the prologue of John’s Gospel we read that ‘All things were made by [Christ] and without him was not anything made that was made.’ By definition I think that must be a statement of this same doctrine, for if there had been anything material that pre-dated the physical universe as we know it, then it would have to be something that He had previously made and the argument only pushes the beginning back a little further in time. Revelation 4:11 declares, ‘You are worthy, 0 Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for you created all things and by your will they exist and were created.’ Psalm 104, though highly poetic, is in many respects also appeals to this doctrine. One particular statement is that God has ‘stretched out the heavens like a curtain’. Poetic indeed, but nevertheless it embraces a significant truth and one compatible with modern cosmology. Finally, Nehemiah 9:6 states, ‘You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens with all their host, the earth, and all things that are in them . . . and you preserve them all.’
So we have many Scriptures on which to base our exposition of this doctrine and I would like to see this done more vigorously than is usually the case. My purpose here, however, is not to expound Scripture, but to provide the philosophical framework in which that can properly and logically be done.
Let me put into modem parlance, into scientific terminology, just what this doctrine of creatio ex nihilo means. It means that by an act (or fiat) of pure spiritual power God brought into being both matter and energy, which together I will call the substance of the universe. He also brought into being space and time which, in scientific thinking, combine to form what is called the space-time metric, a four-dimensional continuum, to which all events and all existence in the universe are referred. Finally, in addition to these things, God brought into operation the laws and rules of the natural world which control both the substance of the universe and the space-time metric. It is an oversimplification to think of the ex nihilo creation simply as the creation of matter, as perhaps many of us do. We have to realize that the creation of all these other things was vitally and essentially involved: matter, energy, the space-time metric and natural law. It is inconceivable that matter and energy, space and time, could have been brought into being without those rules and laws by which these entities both exist and interact.
A little earlier I used a tautology, namely the expression ‘pure spirit’. It would have been sufficient to say that God is spirit, but I added the word ‘pure’ to emphasize that it was spirit and spirit alone that gave birth to the material universe. This then is a statement in modern terms of the doctrine we discover in the Scriptures quoted earlier, and this doctrine is a powerful weapon in our battle for the ‘middle ground’. I want to spend the remainder of this chapter justifying this statement in some detail.
The limitations of science
I said at the beginning of this chapter that the ex nihilo creation leads us, firstly, to an understanding of the limitations of science and, secondly, to a biblical concept of the nature of science. These are the two things we are going to look at now. I am going to present the limitations of science in a negative way (science cannot do this or that), but in doing so I am not really making negative statements. In pointing out the limitations of science I am emphasizing positively the essential role that the ex nihilo creation has to assume in our total scheme. When I say, therefore, that firstly science cannot explain origins, I imply the positive assertion that theology can explain them by means of the doctrine of creation.
The inability of science to explain origins is a direct consequence of the very nature of science, for it is the study of what ‘is’, namely, the physical universe as we find and observe it around us. Science cannot speculate about that which ‘was’. I am not, of course, saying here that science cannot describe past events. It can indeed do so, but only in so far as those past events were controlled by the laws that are now known to operate — only as long as they took place in a world such as the one we observe today. It is perfectly proper for us to extrapolate our scientific knowledge backwards in time, as long as the rules do not change or undergo a discontinuity at some past moment. It is quite impossible, however, to extrapolate backwards to a time when those laws did not exist.
The unbelieving world has been quick to recognize the implications of this problem. They have recognized the impossibility of explaining the origin of the basic stuff of the universe (matter, energy, space, time and law) in terms of present scientific processes. Attempts have been made, therefore, to avoid altogether the embarrassment of a beginning, and the best known of these attempts is probably the theory of continuous creation. This idea was advanced some thirty-five years ago by Bondi and Gold, and later developed by Hoyle and Narliker. The attraction of the idea lay clearly in its philosophical rather than its scientific content. Indeed the scientific content of this theory actually violated one of the most fundamental laws of science, namely the conservation of matter and energy. But the proponents of the theory, and those who still support it (although it is largely out of favour today [that is, in 1980]), were willing to sacrifice the most cherished principles of science in order to gain their philosophical objectives, namely, to do away with the necessity for origins, to banish the idea of a beginning. Instead they would substitute a ‘steady state’ model in which there was no beginning and to which there is no ending of the universe. I say that this theory has been discredited, as indeed it has on purely scientific grounds. But I would warn you that the philosophical ambitions which promoted it are still alive. For example, in the context of the currently accepted ‘big bang’ theory of the origin of the universe, there is a variation of the steady state theory, namely, the idea that the universe may oscillate unendingly between explosion, expansion, collapse and rebirth in a fresh explosion. [this idea runs into a serious problem concerning entropy; see WMG p.119] Let us not imagine, then, just because scientific evidence has ruled out the former theory of continuous creation, that our materialistic philosophers have abandoned their attempts to banish the idea of an ultimate origin of the universe.
Some of you may have read a book by this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Steven Weinberg, entitled The First Three Minutes. In it he describes the ‘standard model’ of the universe, in which the beginning is conceived to have consisted in an explosion of unimaginable magnitude. The book then traces, by way of theoretical speculation, the development of that universe in terms of its content of matter and energy, its temperature and the processes which may have occurred, during the first three minutes of its existence. In actual fact, these ideas are pressed back to speculate on what happened within the first one-hundredth second of the existence of the universe. It may well be that some version of the ‘big bang’ theory is compatible with the biblical account of creation. I certainly do not rule that possibility out of court. But no matter how close to the instant of origin one may be able to press the scientific model of the cosmos, it remains impossible for such an explanation to be applied at or before the zero time point. Thus it follows that science, even at its most speculative, must of necessity stop short of offering any explanation or even description of the actual event of origin. It is at this point then that theology must enter the picture, not as an admission of defeat but rather on account of the very nature of science.
The second inherent limitation in science is its inability to explain scientific [i.e. natural] law. I have already suggested that the rules which govern and control the physical world are an implicit and inseparable part of the creation fiat. If this is so, it follows that scientific law can no more be explained by science than can the ex nihilo origin itself. Let me explain this in more detail. There is a certain arbitrariness about scientific law. For example, the law of gravity states that the gravitational force between two masses is proportional to the product of those masses divided by the square of the distance between them. It is quite conceivable that a universe could exist in which the gravitational force was proportional to the inverse cube of the distance, rather than the inverse square. Or, rather than the square or cube, it might even be the power 2.5 or 2.7, or some other non-integral figure. There is no reason that science can offer to explain why the law of gravity should be exactly what it is. There are an infinity of alternative laws that might have been. [the inverse square law actually follows from the 3-dimensional nature of space but this doesn’t change the basic argument. Why are there only three dimensions? Indeed modern string theory needs ten or more dimensions of space most of them ‘hidden’].
If, walking along a beach, I pick up a single pebble, I automatically reject in that very act a myriad other pebbles that might have been chosen instead. This is what God has, in effect, done in setting forth the laws of science. Each law, whether expressed in words or mathematical symbols, represents a choice from among an infinity of possibilities. Of course, if the laws were different, the universe in which we lived would itself be different, but provided the laws were not mutually exclusive or contradictory, that universe could exist.
If we ask science why the laws are such as they are, and not otherwise science can do nothing but shrug its mathematical shoulders and reply; ‘That question lies outside my terms of reference.’ Science must take the universe as it finds it, and this is one of its most profound limitations. The ex nihilo creation answers the question that science cannot. Why is the universe as it is? Simply because God chose that it should be so. His choice of one law over against the possible alternatives was a deliberate act which automatically excluded those other alternatives. Lest some should think that what I have just said is childishly simple, let me point out where lies the profundity of these statements. It lies in the fact that choice is an attribute or action of intelligence. Without intelligence there is no true choosing but only a response to the rules of chance. But before even those rules existed, a choice or distinction was made as to what they should be! The unavoidable conclusion is, therefore, that intelligence pre-existed the natural universe and the laws by which it functions. The only escape from this argument
lies in a total agnosticism concerning the fundamental nature of scientific law.
There is one other important thing that needs to be said here, and which leads to the subject that will be dealt with in the following chapter of this book. If it is true that the whole physical universe derived from pure spirit, it follows that we have in our present age a coexistence of the material and the spiritual realms. It is inconceivable that the prime mover, the pure spirit, should in some way vanish or disappear from the scene once the material universe had been created. So it is a logical necessity of the ex nihilo creation that we have in our present time a coexistence of the material and spiritual.
From this we may move forward to another conclusion, namely, that the doctrine of ex nihilo creation leads naturally to what I will call the doctrine of ‘universal sustenance’. I use this expression to indicate that the material universe is sustained by, and has a derivative existence from, the spiritual realm. We must not simply think of a coexistence of the two, but see a dependent relationship of the physical upon the spiritual. The apostle Paul said, ‘We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Earlier this year I spent a few days in northern Italy, on the shores of Lake Garda. There, on that very beautiful mountain lake, there are many places where the cliffs rise sheer from the waters for a thousand feet or more. The massive rock plunges from snow-capped peaks and disappears below the surface of the lake, to re-emerge, of course, on the far side. One could argue from the superficial appearance that the land simply stops when it reaches the lake surface, but we know that this is not the case. The rock, although it plunges beneath the water, is still there. So important is its presence that if there were no rock beneath the surface, there would be no water in the lake! This is a faint picture of what I am trying to say about the coexistence of the material and the spiritual realms. It is not merely coexistence; it is a supportive and sustaining relationship between the invisible and the visible realms. As the hidden rock that forms the lake bottom supports and contains the visible waters, so the hidden realm of pure spirit upholds the material universe to which it earlier gave birth. The material world only exists because it is undergirded by the spiritual world.
Finally in this section, I would suggest that science cannot explain the phenomenon of mind.
What is mind? Either mind is self-existent, and therefore non-material in origin, or else it is the emanation or by-product of the physical brain. It seems to me that there is no alternative to these options. Either mind is a consequence of the electrical impulses and organization of an anatomical organ, or else it is a self-existent phenomenon which ‘rides upon’ brain function without deriving from it. A well-known philosophical argument points out that if thought is merely a by-product of brain function, then our thoughts and ideas have no validity, since they are simply the consequence of non-rational physiological and chemical processes which are not themselves endued with ‘meaning’. If this be the case, then these arguments are themselves meaningless and void of content and cannot be relied upon as true in any sense. We are thus forced either to accept that mind has a genuine existence apart from brain function or else we are locked into a circular argument that empties all philosophy of meaning.
The concept of self-existent mind is perfectly respectable, not only because it is the position we adopt intuitively, nor even because the alternative makes nonsense, as we have just seen. It is increasingly recognized, on the basis of what is called ‘information theory’, that information and concept may ‘ride’ upon matter, while at the same time being something other than matter. To give a simple illustration, I might take a number of symbols from our alphabet and set them down on paper. They may make sense or nonsense according to the way they are arranged. If I write down, say, three hundred such symbols, even if they are arranged in a pattern, they may still convey no meaning. I could, however, arrange the same symbols into words and sentences to spell out a communication full of significance for the reader. It is obvious that the message and the meaning are quite independent of the symbols. The same message written in a foreign language will require different symbols. I might even invent a new language to express my message and provided that you were taught the conventions of that language, you could read and understand what I was saying. Thus although the message has no manifest existence apart from the symbols (it ‘rides’ upon the symbols), it is clear that the symbols themselves do not equate with the meaning they convey. The symbols are arbitrary and may (by agreement between the writer and the reader) be varied without affecting the meaning.
So, by analogy, we may logically claim that mind has an existence independent of brain function, just as a message has an existence independent of the physical symbolism used to convey it. In physical terms you cannot separate the message from the symbols, of course, and, similarly, mind and brain cannot be separated. But our inability to effect physical separation in no way contradicts the claim that mind has an independent existence in the world of spiritual, non-physical reality.
Even from a scientific viewpoint, then, it is quite proper to assert the independent reality of mind, and this assertion is a logical requirement of the doctrine of ex nihilo creation. For pure spirit is mind, since it is impossible to conceive of spirit apart from the idea of mind. This is not to say that pure spirit is limited to mind but it must clearly possess a ‘mental’ dimension. Pure spirit is not form. It is not motion. It is not material. It must be perceived as intelligent or it must remain altogether incomprehensible to us. It should not surprise us therefore that, as creatures in the material universe, we can nevertheless identify a category of non-material existence that we call mind. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the ex nihilo creation and of the interaction between the material and spiritual realms inexorably associated with such an origin.
Going further, it follows naturally that the physical universe as we find it is capable of being codified and understood in terms of mental concepts, including such things as mathematics and scientific law, for this material world, like our own human minds, derives from the mind of God. The compatibility between our minds and the character of the created world (which alone permits that world to be described in rational scientific terms) is evidence that both human mind and nature flow from the same source, namely the eternal pre-existent mind that we call God.
The nature of science
So much for the limitations of science. Let us now turn to consider the nature of science. I want to suggest five propositions which are descriptive of science. I will set them down and then examine the impact upon them of the doctrine of ex nihilo creation.
1. Firstly, science is law. The laws that govern both the substance and the processes of nature can be comprehended in a single word, ‘interaction’. That is to say, the laws of science describe the manner in which matter and energy interact to produce the phenomenon we call the universe. ‘Science’ is, of course, something of a portmanteau word, but in essence science, both in its pursuit and as a body of knowledge, can be reduced to the study of these interactions. The corpus of scientific knowledge can therefore be expressed as a collection of laws, while the endless search of the scientist is for unity within the diversity of laws that describe the way nature behaves. The high object of science is to reduce our understanding of the universe to ever more fundamental principles, from which the great variety of interactions may be derived as so many special cases. This is illustrated by the 1979 Nobel Prize for physics awarded to two men who demonstrated that, at sufficiently high temperatures, two of the four known laws of force in nature merge into a single law. There is, then, a continual search for simplicity, a desire to reduce the plethora of different laws to a few basic general principles. The further this search is rewarded by success, the more truly can it be asserted that science is law.
2. Secondly, science is derivative from law. That is, what we know as science is a consequence of law, and not its cause. This is an important distinction because it is easy to fall into the error of thinking that science somehow creates the laws of nature. This is not the case. Science simply discovers and describes the rules by which the universe operates, and is thus derivative. It is not that the laws have somehow come into existence as a consequence of scientific endeavour. Rather, it is because the world is, in a physical sense, law-abiding that it becomes possible for us to pursue the activity we call science. If the rules of nature changed from day to day, or if the behaviour of matter and energy fluctuated in a random and unpredictable manner, it would be impossible for science to exist.
3. Thirdly, science is rational. We have already anticipated this point by recognising that the human mind, in its rationality, is alone equipped to practise science. The fact that we can express the laws that control the universe in terms that a rational mind can formulate, means that science and the underlying reality that it seeks to portray are both rational in character.
4. Fourthly, science is unified. We have already referred to the search for generality and basic principle, and this search is driven by the conviction among scientists that there exists an integrity in the universe, a harmony, a design. The world of nature is a single entity, controlled by mathematically expressible and interlocking processes. The universe is not, to the scientist, a rag-bag of fortuitous, meaningless and contradictory events. It is a system which exhibits a fundamental unity of structure and harmony of function. This alone justifies the pursuit of pure science.
5. Fifthly, science is universal in space and time. As far as we know, the laws of science are the same on earth, on the moon, in the sun and in the furthermost galaxies. The laws of yesterday are the same as the laws of today, and tomorrow’s laws will be the same as today’s. There is, in other words, a consistency in the structure and function of the universe, which is easy to take for granted, but which is not trivial in its implications.
The major point I want to make concerning the propositions is that science cannot find cause for these things within itself. These concepts, which describe the nature of science, do not arise from science itself and therefore must lie outside it. They are philosophical concepts for which science itself can offer no explanation and upon which science itself can throw no light. Far from ‘explaining’ the universe, science on its own begs all the essential questions about the nature of the physical world and, indeed, about its own nature. More generously, perhaps, we might say that science focuses attention on the necessity for a philosophical world-view, for, without such undergirding, science throws up more questions than it answers (specifically, why does science exhibit the characteristics outlined in my five propositions above?).
This leads us to the doctrine of ‘universal sustenance’ which, I maintain, provides just such a philosophical world-view and one which is derived wholly from the biblical record. The doctrine states that God not only created the universe at its origin, but that He actively, moment by moment, sustains the universe in all its manifestations, both in its substance and process. In particular, He does so in and through the scientific laws by which we choose to describe the world around us. (I realize that traditionally this idea would be considered part of the doctrine of providence, but I am deliberately separating this teaching from providence to bring it forward with greater clarity and force.)
This doctrine of universal sustenance is implied by the ex nihilo creation. This was the force of my illustration concerning the mountains of Lake Garda, namely that the coexistence of the spiritual and the material implies a dependence of the latter upon the former (‘The things that are seen are temporal but the things that are not seen are eternal’). This implication is greatly strengthened by a number of Scriptures. I like the Authorized Version translation of Revelation 4:11: ‘For thy pleasure they [that is, all things] are and were created.’ God has a purpose for this world and those who inhabit it, and just to state this is to grant that there must be a continual interaction between the material and spiritual realms. If God is to receive pleasure from His creation, He cannot be a remote and uninvolved figure. He must be active in the real world.
But we do not need to rely upon inference to uphold the concept of universal sustenance, for the doctrine is plainly stated in the Bible. Colossians 1:17 states that ‘He [Christ] is before all things, and by Him all things consist.’ The verb ‘is’ here signifies ‘exists’ and the clause that contains it therefore has a temporal meaning rather than denoting supremacy (although ‘before’ may well carry the additional meaning of pre-eminence, seeing that the whole passage is concerned with just that issue). Paul almost always uses the Greek word pro in its temporal sense, although Luke does use it in the sense of pre-eminence. Our Scripture therefore states that Christ pre-existed the material and, indeed, the angelic creation and ‘in Him’ all created things hold together. Everything derives its being and integrity from the presence and activity of the Second Person of the Trinity.
Earlier I said that all science can be reduced to law, and that law describes interaction. This interaction conveys just the same idea as the word ‘consists’, so that we may claim direct scriptural authority for the view that the entire physical world derives its being and behaviour from the present-tense activity of the triune God. The second reference I want to quote is Hebrews 1:3, where we read that Christ ‘upholds all things by the word of his power’. Just as the natural universe could be said to rest upon a framework of natural law, so equally it can be said to be upheld by the word of Christ’s power. Thus we may actually equate natural law (or rather the reality or principle that it imperfectly describes) with the word of divine power. We see again that the Bible explains something that science itself is not capable of explaining, namely the fundamental nature of scientific law. These laws of nature are none other than the direct commands of God, the instantaneous word of power that emanates from the creator Spirit, who alone is self-existent.
A third Scripture that is germane to our subject is Acts 17:28: ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being.’ Living and moving are redolent of process, the processes of the natural world which is the sphere of scientific investigation. These natural processes, then, operate ‘in Him’, echoing the same truth as we have already emphasized, namely that the existence of God and the spiritual realm is fundamental to the physical universe. In the clause that follows: ‘In Him we … have our being’, it is not so much process that is represented, as existence itself. The very substance of created things is here attributed to the sustenance of God. Thus, both in its substance and its process, the material universe is derivative from the being and intent of God.
What we are doing here is to re-enunciate the idea of the immanence of God, a belief that Christians have always held. God is present in nature, though not to be equated with nature as the pantheist would maintain. God is not nature; He transcends nature, and the physical world is not part of God but merely His handiwork. Nevertheless we must avoid the opposite error from pantheism, namely, the mistake of placing God completely outside of His creation so that the latter becomes no more than a machine, having an existence independent of God. God is transcendent, but He is also immanent, present, at hand in His creation, for ‘in Him we live, and move, and have our being’. But we have gone even further than to say that God is present in nature. We have claimed scriptural authority for the view that God’s presence is a sustaining presence. The physical universe in all its manifestations exists because God wills it to exist, moment by moment. It is not a self-existent creation, but is upheld at every instant of time by the immediate word of His power. Applying these concepts, then, to our five principles we come to the following conclusions. ;
Firstly, scientific law has an underlying character, for it is the word of God’s power. Secondly, the idea that science is derivative from law follows very naturally from the doctrine of universal sustenance. Science must be derivative because the creation that it studies is itself derivative from the spiritual realm. Thirdly, science is rational because the things it studies are the products of the mind of God and it is for this reason, and this reason only, that science is comprehensible to man and accessible to human reason at all. Fourthly, I said that science is unified, and we now see this as an inevitable consequence of the fact that the world is the product of a single purposive mind, the mind of God. It is not surprising, then, that we find, increasingly as our knowledge grows, that the laws and rules by which the universe operates are unified parts of a single grand design. Fifthly, we saw that within certain limits, science is universal. There is no a priori reason why this should be the case, but it is an immediate and natural deduction from our doctrine of the sustenance of God in nature. The universal and omnipresent Creator, sustaining the entire universe by the word of His power, bestows an intrinsic universality upon the processes of nature. His rule is uniform throughout His vast domain. Finally, the whole doctrine of the universal sustenance of God leads on to the more human, less philosophical concept of the immediacy of God. His immediacy in science has been the burden of this chapter; in the next we shall look at His immediacy in miracle and providence.