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Faith and Reason: A Review Article

Stephen A. Migotsky

Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach, by Vern S. Poythress. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006, 381 pages, $20.00.

The relationship between science and Christianity is often oversimplified by Christians with the result that special revelation (Bible) and natural revelation (science) are deemed incompatible, or one undervalued. Meditating on scripture and meditating on creation are both means of grace from the two important revelations from God—special and general revelation. The Christian’s life is strengthened by both. Specifically, Christian books about science can help us appreciate the glory of God, the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28), and the brokenness of this world—“vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2). On the other hand, misleading books on science can also do much damage to the Christian.

Strengths of the Book

Poythress, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Westminster Theological Seminary), is concerned that people have misunderstood science and biblical theology. He argues that most believers are influenced by the false idea that being a believer is somehow incompatible with being a scientist. This causes believers to conclude that scientific work is not really biblical. In Adam’s role as ruler over the world, Poythress appropriately calls Adam the first scientist. Adam was to accomplish the cultural mandate by scientific work. Useful examples of wrong thinking about creation are given with Poythress’s correctives. God is described as the source of the goodness of creation and the regularity of creation (Gen. 8:22). Excellent biblical support is given for these concerns.

All human knowledge and reasoning are suspect.

Spectacular as modern science may be, it is still subject to limitations because humans do the work. We are finite and fallible, and after the fall we are sinful. The Christian view of the world provides clear space for science, but also indicates some limits. . . . Scientists’ constructions of scientific laws are not the real laws, but an approximation or the best guess about the laws. [italics his] (160)

When Poythress discusses the apparent discrepancies between special and general revelation, he is very helpful. God’s twin revelations are not and cannot be in conflict.

The key to an insightful resolution of discrepancies may crop up anywhere. It could be in the details of evidence. It could lie in a subtle or radical revision of some unexamined assumption. It could lie in some new theory superseding the old. It could lie in a worldview that distorts one’s understanding. It could lie in the joint effects of more than one area. (43)

In the case of apparent discrepancies between the Bible and science, we must therefore be ready to reexamine both our thinking about the Bible and our thinking about science. We must not assume too quickly that the error lies in one particular direction. In the modern world, we find people who are always ready to assume that science is right and the Bible is wrong. Or, contrariwise, others assume that the Bible is always right and modern science is always wrong. (43)

But the Bible is always right, and should be trusted on that account. Likewise, God’s word concerning providence is always right and trustworthy. But modern science, as a human interpretation of God’s providence, may make mistakes. Our interpretation of providence may need revision. And our interpretation of the Bible may need revision. [italics his] (43)

Galileo’s opponents claimed that he must be wrong about the movement of the sun and the earth, because, they alleged the Bible clearly taught the earth was immovable. (44)

Poythress identifies special problems with interpreting providence and general revelation. “Modern science, as typically practiced, is idolatry” (56). Poythress describes that idolatry in clear terms related to the human desire for independence from God and the desire to be powerful.

Poythress is a deep thinker in biblical theology, mathematics, and science. He carefully and biblically takes on the controversial subjects of creation, length of days of creation, the age of the earth, and evolution, as well as topics in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. This is deep waters for most readers, but Poythress is careful to help the non-scientist and non‑mathematician. The book could be subtitled “A Christian Philosophy of Science,” since much of what is discussed is what was called natural philosophy in the Middle Ages and philosophy of science today. For example, one chapter is “Debates About What Is Real.” Any reader willing to put on his “thinking cap” will benefit from reading and re-reading several of these chapters. They are outstanding.

General Weaknesses of the Book

The Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9) indicates the idolatrous nature of fallen humanity’s creative work, including modern science. The Babelites wanted fame and had developed a technology and architecture that was impressive (Gen. 11:6). God frustrated the Babelites in order to restrain their “science.” God deliberately frustrated the “scientists,” “engineers,” and builders of Babel. Why did God do this? Does God continue to do so in similar or other ways? Poythress doesn’t ask these questions. Unfortunately, Poythress doesn’t discuss Babel, and doesn’t see God still deliberately frustrating human understanding and achievement.

There is a difference between Adam’s prelapsarian world and today’s world. God cursed the earth and creation is now “futile” (Gen. 3:17, Eccl. 1:2, Rom. 8:20–22). Paul describes creation as being subject to ματαιότης (mataiotēs) futility, purposelessness, transitoriness[1] (Rom. 8:20–22). In Ecclesiastes, the scientific study of fallen creation is described as an impossible job. “Scientists” try to find the solution to puzzling observations of God’s creation and plan, but they will not succeed because God has made creation crooked and things are missing (Eccl. 1:14–15). All things that happen in this fallen world are really unpredictable and uncontrollable (“shepherding the wind” Eccl. 1:14).

Poythress does not discuss God’s curse on creation as making today’s science ultimately “futile, or vain.” Because of man’s idolatrous rebellion, God has not only frustrated the Babelites, but any scientific attempt toward perfect knowledge and control. Additionally, the redemption of Christ has not changed the brokenness of creation. Poythress writes: “Science is intended to be a task pursued and carried out in a spirit of praise. In science, we think God’s thoughts after him, and praise rises in our hearts as we see more of his wisdom” (339). Pre-fall Adam’s science would have seen God’s “very good” purposes and thoughts in the original “very good” creation. Praise would have attended Adam’s science; it was very good. Praise can still attend a believer’s scientific study of creation, but the world now is very, very corrupt and broken. God’s creation today is not the world that God declared was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), nor is man’s perception of it. Ecclesiastes 7:29 describes mankind’s sinful interpretation of God’s world: “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” It seems appropriate to temper Poythress’s conclusions about science, to include God’s curse on creation. The scientist in heaven will not see a broken, futile, dying world, but a world in its consummated, glorious, and perfect state. That world will perfectly reflect God’s glory. In this one we only see “dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We wait for a new science of the new heavens and new earth. We wait for a completed redemption.

Meantime, Poythress is correct: in God’s creation we can see something of the glory of God, but it is not the glory as God created it, or of the consummation.

Apologetic Weaknesses of the Book

Poythress’s solid Van Tilian apologetics is evident in this book. However, there is a distinction between the belief required in scientific inquiry (a common grace) and saving faith (a redeeming grace). A casual reader might think non-Christian faith and saving faith were on a continuum. Atheist and agnostic scientists believe in God (13). The following quotes illustrate what is meant by a non-Christian’s faith.

He [Christ] gives blessings even to those who are still in rebellion against him. Because of our rebellion, we do not deserve to retain functioning minds.... If we nevertheless get benefits when we deserve the opposite, we are receiving a redemptive blessing. It does not mean that we ourselves as individuals have received personal salvation from Christ through faith. But if we are non-Christians, we have a kind of shadow of this faith in the confidence that we can receive and use what we do not deserve—although our confidence is distorted by ingratitude and pride. [italics mine] (174)

For physics and chemistry, Poythress sees a trinitarian nature in Newton’s Laws of Motion. Poythress finds the Trinity in the Third Law of Motion—“To every action there is always opposed an equal and opposite reaction” (295).

Harmonious knowledge exists within the Trinity in three “perspectives.” This unity in diversity reflects itself in human experience, in that we can take a diversity of perspectives and imagine what things look like from someone else’s point of view. This capacity for perspectives gets used in the understanding of Newton’s Third Law. (296)

Poythress goes on to describe how the proportionality of mathematics relates to the mathematical proportions of both the tabernacle and God himself.

And this idea of proportionality, as we have seen, reflects the proportions in the tabernacle, and these reflect the imaging process that has its origin in God himself. God has left a witness to himself inside the mathematics that Newton used to describe force and motion! (304)

The simple proportionalities in physical laws are a form of “imaging,” like proportionalities in the tabernacle of Moses. God impressed these symmetries and proportionalities on the world as a reflection of himself and his own beauty and symmetry. (312)

While the proportionality of the tabernacle tells us about God, the proportionality in the human endeavors of physics and math do not necessarily reflect God’s nature. This interpretation of mathematics and physical laws seems to go beyond what “by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6). Additionally, Newton’s Laws of Motion have been found to be inaccurate and wrong. They are useful, but wrong. Did God “impress” Newton’s erroneous physical laws on the world to reveal “his beauty and symmetry”? There is some beauty and mathematical harmony and symmetry in science, but scientific observations are, at times, chaotic. For example, experiments may have undermined a fundamental assumption of physics: nothing can go faster than the speed of light (Nature, Sept. 23, 2011). Experimental data keep messing up tidy, pretty scientific theories. There is symmetry, logic, and beauty in a chess game, but the chess game was not part of God’s original creation and it does not reflect God’s glory directly. In God’s creation there is also ugliness, death, decay, destruction, and disorder.

Man’s desire to force the world into a mathematical system may reflect a sinful desire. To use science, engineering, and mathematics to accomplish the cultural mandate is part of God’s common grace for all men. But, man’s desire for complete control and understanding will never be realized. Poythress presents the mathematical descriptions of creation as only reflective of the goodness of God’s creation. Poythress discusses the fallenness of man’s thinking extensively, but only once mentions the fallenness of the world as it now is. (121) The frustration encountered by scientists in attempting to solve the puzzle of “nature,” should lead them to repent.

Poythress over-emphasizes the goodness and harmony of this world without acknowledging its brokenness and temporariness. Scripture describes creation’s destruction as judgment on “the Day of the Lord” (i.e., 2 Pet. 3:10–13). Poythress sees mostly goodness and order in this present earth (23). This is most evident in his speculations about the Trinity being revealed in physics, chemistry, and mathematics.

For Poythress, almost anything a mathematician can create reflects God’s character, unity and diversity and the Trinity. “Mathematics offers a wonderful display of God’s wisdom for those who are awake to its beauties and to God who ordained those beauties” (326). Math is beautiful and orderly. It also gives descriptions of natural phenomenon! However, what if mathematics is a man‑made Tower of Babel seeking to reach heaven by human effort, not by God’s grace and faith?

For the thoughtful reader there are additional authors who address related issues of faith and science. Two are worthy of note—Bacon and Bayle. Francis Bacon reacted against the Aristotelian scholasticism of the sixteenth-century church. Bacon found scholasticism to be sterile, useless, and enslaved to five or six Greeks. He described the crucial need for observation in The New Organon. This is a book which few study today. Bacon writes that reason is limited by various Idols of the Mind—Idols of the Tribe, Cave, Marketplace, and Theatre. These correspond to the limits due to fallen human nature, to prejudices of individuals, to inaccuracies of words, and to acceptance of received authority, respectively.

The relationship between reason and Christian faith was addressed by Pierre Bayle (1647–1706, French Calvinist) in his Historical and Critical Dictionary. Similar to Bacon, Bayle both valued and was skeptical of human reasoning. Bacon’s solution was to have men gather experimental data, lots of it, and formulate and test their theories and repeat the process. Bayle’s solution was to emphasize the necessity of Christian faith which trusts special revelation alone and remains skeptical of human reason, or observation.

Reading Poythress, Bayle, and Bacon will be fruitful for anyone with a very long attention span. None of these men are “sound bite” compatible. Study science and faith with them. While this review has spent more words on perceived weaknesses, don’t think the book is unworthy of your attention. Perhaps, it is because the book is so strong in general that its weaknesses “popped out” to this reviewer. To a lover of music, the few notes that are played out of tune stick out in an extraordinary symphony. In summary Redeeming Science is an extraordinary symphony for the lover of God’s Truth.

Endnote

[1] W. Arndt, Danker, & W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 621.

Stephen A. Migotsky is an Orthodox Presbyterian minister serving as the pastor of Jaffrey Presbyterian Church in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, April, 2012.

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