This article is the third in a series by Paul Arnold on the relationship between Science and Christianity. Paul received his Masters of Science in Physiology before recently completing his Masters of Christian Studies at Regent College where he focused on Christianity & Culture. Paul’s final comprehensive paper was on modern science and divine providence, which forms the basis for this series. He is currently living with his wife, Krista, in rural Uganda where they are working with a community development organization. Paul also works as a writer and editor for Converge Magazine.
If divine action in the material world cannot be disproved from the observations of science (as we have seen in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series) how, then, has divine action so often been excluded from the world on the basis of science? In this article I will explore the question of how modern science has served to remove God from creation. The thrust of the development can be stated simply: the overwhelming success of science has encouraged an uncritical acceptance of an interpretive framework that makes no reference to God. Therefore, in hope of understanding this modern movement toward naturalism, I will seek to answer two major questions: (1) How did modern science become so successful? And, (2) How did this success encourage the establishment of a naturalistic worldview that would effectively remove God from creation? Later in the series, having answered these questions, we will return to examine why this naturalistic worldview has been accepted so uncritically.
The Metaphysical Presuppositions of Science
The answer to the first question of how modern science became so successful is, at least in part, science’s unprecedented ability to explain how nature functions. Unlike any time in history, modern science gives humanity the ability to explain, understand, and predict natural phenomena. However, regardless of this fact, we should not forget that any scientific explanation—as distinct from a scientific observation—still remains a metaphysical assertion or presupposition that cannot be supported within scientific terms alone, regardless of whether it is in some sense true to reality. To explain something is to give that thing purpose or meaning beyond the thing itself; it is to infer what John Polkinghorne called a “teleological insight,” which is simply a metaphysical presupposition that science cannot provide.
In the case of modern science, it is necessary to understand the metaphysical presuppositions upon which scientific explanations are built. The great irony of modern science, however, is that its metaphysical presuppositions about nature are built on Christian beliefs about creation. The beliefs that affirmed God are the same beliefs that seem to have encouraged the acceptance of a naturalistic interpretive framework and thus the removal of God from creation through the rise of modern science.
The Christian Presuppositions of Science
It is necessary, then, to understand the Christian presuppositions that allowed modern science to become successful, although I will limit my discussion to two basic presuppositions that influence the Christian doctrine of creation. The first presupposition was discussed in Part 1: The material world is not inferior to the immaterial heavens. As John Duns Scotus argued, there is a “this-ness” to God’s created order where God and creatures, heaven and earth share one meaning or “being.” This first supposition should not give the impression that God is necessarily part of his creation in that according to the second presupposition, God must be distinct from his creation. As Colin Gunton notes, “Any doctrine of creation involves some measure of transcendence of God and the world; that is, some understanding of a distinction and ‘space’ between creator and creation... the heartbeat of the doctrine of creation is that God and the world are ontologically distinct.”
These two basic Christian presuppositions—that creation is of one nature, and that God is distinct from creation—influence the Christian doctrine of creation in two significant ways. The first is that creation was created ex nihilo—out of nothing. Since God is distinct from his creation, creatio ex nihilo means that creation was an act of will, not an act of necessity. Gunton sees God’s willful creation out of nothing as one of the most important ideas in the history of human thought:
The teaching that the creation is the outcome of God’s willing is one of the most momentous developments in all the history of thought, affecting as it does the way in which the relation of God and the world is understood and, in the longer term, the development of science.
The second significant implication is that creation is contingent, or not necessary. Since God created out of an act of will, creation is not bound to any pre-existent or necessary order. Unlike the Greeks, who believed that nature is bound to a necessary order that can be discovered only through thought, modern science understands that a created world can only be understood through empirical investigation. Therefore, as Michael Foster remarks, “only a created nature is proper object of an empirical science.”
But the idea that God created the world out of an act of will does not mean that our knowledge of creation is impenetrable or in some way irrational in the same way that God is unknowable. Rather, as Alister McGrath notes, “Since the created order is contingent, not necessary, it is able to bear at least something of the imprint and characteristics of its creator.” As we noted earlier, the shared nature of heaven and earth allows creation to be known by those in the created world in that there is a correlation between what is true in creation and what is true in heaven. Therefore, even though the created order is devoid of necessary order, it is not devoid of rational order. As such, Thomas F. Torrance refers to creation as embodying a “contingent rationality,” meaning creation is both rational and not necessary:
Thus in creating the universe out of nothing God has conferred on it a created or contingent rationality of its own, as distinct from his divine rationality as creaturely being is from his divine being, yet as dependent on his uncreated rationality as creaturely being is upon his own being.
The Relative Autonomy of Creation
The idea that creation is created out of nothing, and yet embodies a contingent rationality means that creation has a relative autonomy apart from God. The implication of this idea is that creation can also be investigated in and of itself—theoretically apart from God. Whether we actually investigate the world apart from God is another question that we will discuss later, but it is important to affirm here that since the world carries inherent value and a degree of independence, it is appropriate to investigate the world on its own terms. This means that science’s use of methodological naturalism is an appropriate method to discover truths about God’s creation. As Torrance argues, “divine creation requires us to investigate the contingent world out of its own natural processes alone, without including God in the given.”
If the Christian idea of creation’s relative autonomy means it is appropriate to investigate creation in natural terms, why has the rise of natural science through the establishment of methodological naturalism led to a “disenchantment” of God from creation? Interestingly, in the Middle Ages the relative autonomy of creation was often understated, which almost led to a dangerously pantheistic understanding of God’s relationship to creation. But in contrast to the Middle Ages, the autonomy of creation is today often overstated, thus the slide into deism or even atheism.
There are many reasons for this change in understanding over the autonomous status of creation from the middle ages to the modern period. John Hedley Brooke helpfully shows that any change in understanding has been the result of changing social, political, and religious agendas—not just scientific inquiry. Brooke is keen to point out that “scientific innovations have facilitated the growth of secular attitudes, but they have by no means forced them.” It is therefore unhelpful to oversimplify or isolate these changes from their social and political context. For our purposes, however, it is necessary to point out two ideas that have helped establish a naturalistic worldview.
The Absolute Autonomy of Creation
The first of these two ideas is the search for objectivity that became so important in the modern period. René Descartes is often held responsible for this development. As Jürgen Moltmann argues, “[Descartes] translates the old body-soul dualism into the modern subject-object dichotomy.” In his search for an objective perspective that he first saw present in mathematics, Descartes established the “critical principle” whereby every truth must be open to criticism in order to find an objective perspective that cannot be criticized. Descartes claimed to have found this objective perspective in his famous saying, “I think, therefore I am.” According to him, the existence of a thinking person cannot be open to criticism or doubt.
Descartes’s assent to objectivity greatly influenced the second idea that encouraged the establishment of methodological naturalism: the introduction of inertia into the material world. Inertia is the notion that there is something inherent in matter that is responsible for its motion. Before Descartes, matter was understood to be inert and devoid of any active element that would contribute to its motion. In the Middle Ages, motion was generally understood to be the result of an Aristotelian first cause or primary mover that initiated or acted upon inert matter to bring about change. However, Descartes’s establishment of the modern subject-object dichotomy meant that the world was no longer ontologically homogeneous. The subject—the thinking self—could now be considered distinct from its object, the body.
This dichotomy was taken to the extreme when applied to the relationship between God and his creation. The subject, God, was not only distinct from his object, creation, he was now ontologically disconnected because the divine was objectively perfect and therefore immutable. Descartes, along with many influential philosophers following him including Leibniz and Spinoza, held that God, or the first cause, was wholly immutable and therefore unable to act, even initially, in the material world. This meant that if motion was to occur in the natural world, it must come from within the natural world, separated from the input of God. As Wolfhart Pannenberg notes,
If all forces would proceed from bodies or masses, then the understanding of nature would be so thoroughly separated from the idea of God—who is not a body—that theological language about a divine activity in the processes of the natural world would be simply unintelligible and absurd.
Unsurprisingly, this led to a naturalistic framework in which deism accounted for the demonstrable absence of God in the world. Thus, “deism must be seen as the consequence of the introduction of the principle of inertia into modern physics.”
Not everyone, of course, accepted deism. One of the most notable opponents to deism was Isaac Newton who, despite his influence in establishing a mechanical conception of the world, held a strong voluntarist understanding of God acting in the world. Newton believed that the world could not be understood as a mechanical system in and of itself. The world, however mechanical it was, still required voluntary input from an intelligent agent beyond itself. Unfortunately for Newton’s opposition to deism, his voluntarist theology was dependent on a “God of the gaps” model of divine action in creation. It is here, as Torrance describes, where there “lay a contradiction in Newton’s theology, between his concept of God as an inertial power, detached in his absoluteness, and his concept of God’s role within the mechanistic or causal system of the world.” Since Newton ascribed to God any unknowns in his contingent mechanical conception of the world, whenever these unknowns were scientifically explained away, God was no longer needed.
As a result, when one believes that God is no longer necessary in the natural world, it is not a large step for one to completely accept a naturalistic explanation of the world that effectively removes God from creation altogether. Sadly, many people have taken this step without realizing it. They have uncritically accepted a naturalistic worldview that essentially ignores God in creation. The reasons for this uncritical acceptance will be the focus of the next article in this series, Part 4, “The Entrenchment of Natural Science: Ignoring God in Creation.”
- John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989), 40.
- As Michael Foster notes, “The method of natural science depends upon the presuppositions which are held about nature, and the presuppositions about nature in turn upon the doctrine of God.” M. B. Foster, "The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science," Mind 43, no. 172 (1934)465.
- This is commonly known as the “gravedigger hypothesis” because Christianity, by establishing its own beliefs about the nature of the world, has essentially dug its own grave—a hypothesis which will be challenged in the next article in this series.
- Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 117-121.
- Ibid. , 36.
- Ibid. , 65.
- Foster, 465.
- Interestingly, Darwin, like the Greeks, understood creation to be irrational—but with an important difference. The Greeks thought that creation was irrational because matter was an imperfect artifact of a perfect form. Darwin though, thought that creation was irrational because it lacked a discernible purpose (i.e. because God’s will was unknowable), particularly with the problem of evil. In this respect it may be appropriate to think of creation as irrational. T.F. Torrance describes evil as irrational because it simply does not make sense. (Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1981)88-91.) Evil, therefore, is a direct affront on the rational order that God created, and why Colin Gunton says, “evil remains the chief objection to the Christian doctrine of creation.” Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 39.
- Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)218.
- Torrance, 3.
- Ibid. , 26.
- Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 1993), xi.
- John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991)340.
- Moltmann, 250.
- Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)23.
- Leibniz, for example, believed that a perfect God could not create, let alone act in, an imperfect creation: “One of the consequences of God’s perfection, for Leibniz, is the inconceivability of His having made an imperfect Creation – that is, one which required restoration from time to time.” Herbert H. Odom, "The Estrangement of Celestial Mechanics and Religion," Journal of the History of Ideas 27, no. 4 (1966), 539. Similarly, Spinoza argued for a wholly mechanical explanation of nature in order to save the perfect nature of the divine author. See Brooke, 264.
- Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science," Zygon 23, no. 1 (1988), 12.
- Ibid., 9.
- Torrance, 10.
- Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991
- Foster, M. B. "The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science." Mind 43, no. 172 (1934): 446-468
- Gunton, Colin E. The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993
- ________. The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998
- McGrath, Alister E. Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
- Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God. Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 1993
- Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995
- Odom, Herbert H. "The Estrangement of Celestial Mechanics and Religion." Journal of the History of Ideas 27, no. 4 (1966): 533-548
- Pannenberg, Wolfhart. "The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science." Zygon 23, no. 1 (1988): 3-21
- Polkinghorne, John. Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989
- Torrance, Thomas F. Divine and Contingent Order. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1981
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