Science, Faith, and Vern Poythress

I received a copy of a book that I could not review intelligently. It is by Vern Poythress and it is on science and faith, so I asked my friend, RJS (a science professor at a research institution), if she’d like to review it. Here is her first installment. She’s got some good questions at the end.
1. Premise of the book and introduction of basic ideas:
Vern S. Poythress, Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has come out with a new book entitled Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. With doctoral degrees in New Testament (University of Stellenbosch, 1981) and Mathematics (Harvard 1970), and a life-long interest in and appreciation for science, he is well qualified to discuss this topic. In fact it is apparent in this book that he has a solid understanding and enthusiasm for the scientific exploration and understanding of God’s creation.

He has written a clear book that is a good resource for all Christians interested in the coherence between science and faith. This book is not an apologetic for Christianity, but a route to rethink the meaning of science, the relationship between science and the Bible, and the action of God in the world, from a point of view that is thoroughly Christian, and consistent with the protestant, reformed understanding of scripture.
Poythress starts with the statement “All scientists – including agnostics and atheists – believe in God. They have to in order to do their work (13).” This statement may surprise some, but arises from his foundational hypothesis that God is not to be confined to the gaps. Speaking of God, Poythress asserts that “According to the Bible he is involved in those areas where science does best, namely areas involving regular and predictable events, repeating patterns, and sometimes exact mathematical descriptions (14).” Belief in the reproducibility of nature, the universality of scientific laws, is either belief in the personal God responsible for those laws or idolatry – the substitution of devotion to the idol of impersonal naturalism in the place of God.
The next three chapters deal with the role of the Bible, the source and authority of knowledge, and the nature of creation. The word of God comes to us in special revelation (scripture) and in general revelation (providence and nature). In fact the Bible teaches us that both are valid forms of the Word. “The word of God in providence and his word in Scripture are both completely true and trustworthy. But we misunderstand the one word unless we have the other. (47)” But make no mistake, Poythress holds to a high view of scripture claiming (pp. 56-58): (1) that the Bible is fully the word of God, although the Holy Spirit must interpret the Bible to us, (2) that as fallen and sinful human beings we are in no position to make accurate and independent judgment about the character of the Bible and its truthfulness, (3) that we desperately need the Bible as part of the remedy for our mental and spiritual corruption, and (4) that the Bible must reform the life of science along with every other area of life.
The Biblical teaching of creation (pp. 75-77) affirms that there is one and only one God. He is all powerful, the creator and originator of everything of his own free will – there is no uncreated “prime matter,” there is no law, there is no knowledge, there is no reality apart from God. The world is wholly created and not to be worshipped. Although the acts of creation took place long ago and are now finished, God continues to be actively involved in the governance of the world.
So some questions to consider here: What role or priority do we assign to special versus general revelation? Is it appropriate to assert that evolving understanding of general revelation (science) can guide our interpretation of the special revelation contained within scripture? Are the laws of nature, the laws of physics, a manifestation of the Word of God (John 1: 3) and thus reliable and authoritative?

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  • “What role or priority do we assign to special versus general revelation?”
    The distinction between special & general is necessary in probing greater depths of understanding how we as man-kind think and know but ultimately the catergories should dissolve into one another within a thorough Biblical or Theocentric worldview or framework of thought. General revelation is special revelation as well. As the term “miracle” is and really should apply to all things. All of creation ~ life~ is spectacular and thereofore miraculous. Unexplainable ultimately and left to the work of God. All things eventually fall on Duet. 29:29.
    I am not sure either special or general revelation can “guide” one another. If anything they are dialogical partners. You cannot have one without the other. I speak in terms of employing even the most of rudimentary forms of knowledge (sceintia) through sense apprehension. Similar to the idea of John Frame’s Tri-Perspectivalism: A normative perspective; a situational perspective and an existential perspective. “None can be achieved adequately without the others.” -Frame. See “Doctrine of the Knowledge of God” by Frame.
    As Vern or Johnny would say, you gotta begin somewhere. So if you presuppose the God of scripture than you begin with it’s documented accounts or narrative as a norm (we all rely on testimony right? Everyone.)
    Therefore if we do presuppose this than the locus of authority becomes much more expansive in an anthropological sense. The Tri-Perspectivalism.
    Looking forward to the next review of this book.

  • Matthew

    Are the laws of nature, the laws of physics, a manifestation of the Word of God (John 1: 3) and thus reliable and authoritative?
    I think not. What we read in the “book of nature” is not complete without the Word that became flesh, and the Word that is written down.

  • “Are the laws of nature, the laws of physics, a manifestation of the Word of God (John 1: 3) and thus reliable and authoritative?”
    The Word of God says that they are!
    Romans 1:19-20 says,
    19. “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
    20. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”

  • T

    Obviously, what we gather from one source affects what we gather from the other, and this is not necessarily a bad thing–especially since we are flawed in our perceptions of both kinds of revelation. Nor can we say, a priori, that what we perceive in one should always trump what we perceive in another, in the rare event they seem to conflict. For example, it was once heresy to teach that the earth revolved around the sun. It’s obvious now that there was never a conflict between the two sources of revelation, and that the ‘special revelation camp’ was over-reaching. We should get better at knowing what each kind of revelation doesn’t tell us, as well as what it does. But having a general rule about what trumps what can stifle necessary work in specific cases with both kinds of revelation, and not because of the scripture’s or nature’s ‘flaws’, but because of the limitations inherent to us and to both forms of revelation. In Galileo’s case, the whole process (eventually) changed how the Church approached special revelation, and thankfully so. In the same way, there are some in the both camps today who try to go further than their preferred source will take them (eg., the God Delusion), which will hopefully sharpen our understanding of the how best to use both sources of revelation.

  • ChrisB

    General vs special revelation: Rom 1 tells us that general revelation teaches men enough to point them to God and to convict them of their sin, but Rom 10:14-15 makes it clear that special revelation is paramount (how can they believe unless they hear…). Also, general revelation may tell us a little about the nature of God, but special revelation alone tells us about His character. So I’d say special gets priority.
    Interpreting the special by the general: I’ve always heard “the main things are the plain things” in scripture, and I think that’s largely true. There may be a place for re-examining some passages in light of a new understanding of nature, but if we let the current scientific theories interpret the “main things” we end up, like some, throwing the Fall out of Christian theology because it’s “unscientific.”
    Are the laws of nature, the laws of physics, a manifestation of the Word of God (John 1:3) and thus reliable and authoritative?
    I think we want to be careful not to deify the laws of physics. To leave a sufficiently wide margin of safety, let’s say that the laws of nature are a manifestation of the will of God and thus reliable.

  • RJS

    As I see it, the question is not whether general revelation supersedes or replaces special, written revelation – it doesn’t.
    The question is whether the Word of God understood through scientific investigation can inform our interpretation of parts of scripture.
    This may be so, since all the laws of nature in general revelation are of God and all scripture is interpreted in some form as we read and wrestle with it.

  • Hmm. I don’t know if you can say GR “guides” SR. I think, like the so-called “hermeneutical spiral” each informs the other at certain points (Scot did I get that right?). GR would be revelation if it didn’t.

  • Brian

    The role of presuppositionalism in this discussion is pivotal. It appears that Poythress is a presuppositionalist.
    The pivotal nature of presuppositionalism becomes apparent if we ask how we know that we have special revelation?

  • ron

    How’s this — What we think of as “Special Revelation” is really the record of how people at various times have interpreted “General Revelation”. Even if there is a “Special Revelation” people who believe in it disagree on its content, or the meaning, priority and emphasis of the content. A reasonable point of view would be that even if it (SR) exists, all who would understand it are possessed with limited comprehension, and therefore should be tentative in any assertions about its details.

  • bruce madeiros

    I don’t think that I would consider that Vern Poythress a presuppositionalist. Having read some of the chapters of “Redeeming Science” and I’m still ploughing through it ,but it would appear that Vern Poythress has simply made a faith statement regarding his position on creation of being a “mature creation view”. He clearly feels that every detail of creation gives the appearance of being old but wasn’t. That to me is simple a faith statement and can’t be based on facts because no human was there at the time at the very beginning to record the facts.
    As for general revelation and the special revelation, the church in the 16th & 17th century clearly thought that they had the interpretation of the special revelation when they considered that the sun orbitted the earth and that likes of Galileo et al had general revelation which the Church considered at best inadequate and at worst heresy!
    Vern clearly feel that in this 21st century his “mature creation view” is special revelation and any other understanding such as ID is general revelation.

  • RJS

    Actually I don’t think Poythress favors the mature creation view – he favors the analogical day view, but won’t rule out mature creation as a possible explanation. But this whole discussion of specific interpretations of Genesis and such will be the subject of the next post on the book.
    We shouldn’t deify creation anymore than we should deify scripture. Both are of God and the word of God and receive all authority and veracity from God. So is it appropriate for one to inform the interpretation of the other as a two way street – or is it strictly a one-way street, with absolute priority to the scripture as we have received it?

  • RJS,
    I side with you on this: Word is informed by world; world is informed by Word. What we “think” is Word is sometimes not and therefore somtimes “world” reshapes how we see Word. That is, scientific facts are as true as we humans know how to make things … right?

  • Brian

    Getting back to Bruce, do you think Poythress is a presuppositionalist?
    Setting up the discussion about how general and special revelation are related assumes a distinction that is already rooted in certain hermenutical conclusions about what the Bible says. A scientific approach would be to initially treat all observations from general and special revelation as simply data, without categorizing it in ways that preassign significance to the sources of the data.
    I am not a presuppositionalist in the sense of Van Til, but presuppositions come into play in how the discussion proceeds.

  • Brian,
    Isn’t it rather difficult to “treat all observations from general and special revelation as simply data, without categorizing it in ways that preassign significance to the sources of the data”?
    The reason I say this is because the data we are observing (specifically, special revelation) says that we can only come to God with certain conclusions / presoppositions. And those conclusions / presuppositions are based on the data we are observing. This is based partially on Hebrews 11:6, “For he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”
    Where is the source of that data. Well, that same data tells us that the data originates with God and comes to us initially through human agents specifically chosen by God to record this data for our benefit. We are commanded to act pursuant to this evidence (Heb 11:1), thus the various presuppositions.
    Yes presuppositions are inherent in any approach to knowledge, yet the scientific appraoch in this case is the examination of a series of conclusions / presoppositions imbedded within the data.
    I think the problem with many is that they have a hard time accepting certain conclusions / presuppositions in the data and look for ways to minimize those or rationalize them into nothingness. That is done by creating our own conclusions / presuppositions not supported by the data, yet are used to interpret the data. This is then presented as verifiable fact, a new doctrine not integrally supported by the data.

  • Matthew

    RJS #8,
    I guess my catch with the original question (“Are the laws of nature…”) was the word “authoritative.” But I think I agree with what you say in #8.
    Even though nature reveals aspects of God our perception of nature is flawed. Our perceptions of nature, then, must still be examined by the Word (of which our perception will also be flawed, unfortunately).
    Not trying to be disagreeable. You answered my main concern by saying that general does not supercede special revelation.

  • Matthew

    Benjamin #5,
    Do you think nature alone is sufficient to reveal Jesus to someone? Some people think that nature is enough to condemn but not enough to save. I believe you would say that the only way to God is through Jesus. However, if that is true, then for nature to be sufficient it must reveal Jesus. Yet if nature reveals Jesus, then why preaching and the written Word?

  • Matthew,
    I was referring to special revelation in my comment above.
    Romans 1 tells us that natural revelation is enough for a person to be “without excuse.” Your point about preaching and the written Word are correct, based on that.
    If our perceptions of special revelaton are flawed, how do we overcome this? Has God somehow removed Himself from the process of our inspection of His Word, or are we left to battle and overcome our flaws with our own ingenuity?

  • Brian

    Benjamin (#16),
    You raise an interesting point in that the Biblical data is saying something about how other data is to be regarded. But even this fact is one more piece of data to be assessed.
    One of the problems I have with so called Biblical Presuppositionalism (BP) shows up when we ask about its logical status. If BP is itself a presupposition then it is a priori with respect to the Bible. But if BP is a conclusion from the evidence in the Bible, then the whole process of investigating the evidence is a priori with respect to BP.

  • Brian,
    Is there a scientific law which prevents a body of data from putting forth truth about itself, including conclusions and/or presupposition? Is there a law which prevents a body of data from limiting conclusions / presuppoositions about data outside itself?
    On your last paragraph, would you mind elaborating a bit more. I want to make sure I understand you before responding. Thanks!

  • pam

    Another provocative question for the ‘Jesus Creed’ blog community. Next up: ‘string theory and ecclesiastical structure’.

  • RJS

    I don’t know if Poythress is a presuppositionalist or not. But this book is not intended as an apology or defense of Christianity. It is written to and for Christians and as such does start with some assumptions regarding the authority of scripture.

  • bruce madeiros

    Sorry I haven’t responded earlier but tonight was a big celebration for my family, son’s birthday ,wife birthday, my wedding anniversary and finally I was celebrating with my wife as she has been made MD of Oasis Project Group. Oasis is a charity in the UK that was started by Steve Chalke.
    Anyway, getting back to your response yes you are right Vern Poythress’s view is more analogically rather than the “mature view “- my only excuse is that I have only just started reading “Redeeming Science” and with 386 pages its quite a read! I don’t think that I would be able to respond any further tonight as I’m from the UK and its nearly 11pm and I’m likely to be bed soon!
    However I would still argue that one could still say that an analogically is a step of faith whereas I would understand a presuppositionalist’s view is where one is endeavouring to convince the sceptic that his/her presuppositions of chance occurrence in an impersonal universe does not account for any sort of order and rationality that actually exist in science. I don’t deny that Vern Poythress raises this issue in “Redeeming Science” but yet when it comes down to it ,I believe that his view is simply a position of faith which he is comfortable with based on his functional non-negotiables that probably would have a Calvinistic bias.

  • Brian

    Benjamin (#21),
    My time to respond today is very limited. For sure, a body of data can comment on itself. The U.S. Constitution does so. I’m just saying that such comments are also part of the data to be assessed.
    On my other paragraph, I think there are two possible choices for the logical status of BP. If it is itself a presupposition, then it is a priori with respect to the Bible, and hence, not Biblical in the sense of being drawn from the Bible. If BP is a conclusion from the evidence in the Bible, then the process of discovering it denies its own claim of being presuppositional. I don’t know if that adds any clarity or not.
    RJS (23),
    Thanks for the additional comment. All I am really pointing out is that there is a difference in the methods that Poythress would employ depending on whether he is operating as a theologian or as a scientist. At least that is how it strikes me at first look.

  • Brian,
    I agree with your statements about BP unless……
    Unless BP deals with presuppositions stated in the Bible as well as the evidence for such presuppositions also stated in the Bible. This does not mean that there is not additional external data supporting and/or further verifying such presuppositions and/or conclusions. It could simply mean that God has provided us far more within the Biblical data than we actually consider. This would be true especially if the system we choose to approach the data with contains its own presuppositions which create blind spots, thereby failing to consider certain significant presuppositions and conclusions already inherent in the Biblical data.

  • RJS

    Right – I think. One of the things I liked about this book is the underlying assumption that because God created the world and because God gave us scripture there must be a coherence and uniformity. The conflict is a consequence of our misunderstanding of one or the other or both. I think that science can inform the interpretation of scripture in its proper realm.

  • Thanks for the intial comments on Redeeming Science. Is it appropriate to assert that evolving understanding of general revelation (science) can guide our interpretation of the special revelation contained within scripture? In response to this question, it seems to me that this would be a hermeneutical obligation, so I would say “yes” it is appropriate, even essential. If Scripture and science are both considered Informers and hermeneutics is concerned with interpreting both texts and world, then the world is a hermeneutical factor that has to be given due consideration in interpreting the text and the text given due consideration in interpreting the world. Some may be interested in a book Poythress wrote, some years back (1988), Science and Hermeneutics, that is worth a read or an article: “Scripture, Science and Hermeneutics,”: Laughery and Diepstra, in the European Journal of Theology, 15.1, 2006, 35-49.

  • Having taken a class with Poythress, I would have to say he is very much a presuppositionalist. Isn’t everyone at WTS? Now, some there play the card more than others. His book, Symphonic Theology (short and sweet!) clearly leans on some Van Tilian perspectives. Those interetested in that book can find it here:

  • RJS, thanks for this. I’m curious if Poythress draws on some of the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition like Kuyper, Bavinck or Dooyeweerd (and to some extent Clouser and Ratzsch)? This sounds to me like something in agreement with that line of thought.
    Brandon Jones