Is Naturalism Christian? (RJS)

Is Naturalism Christian? (RJS) October 13, 2011

Dr. Edward B. (Ted) Davis, Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College has written a nice piece on Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective. The article can be found in a number of different places online. The link on the title is to a recent posting at Q ideas. The article was also posted and discussed in three parts at BioLogos earlier this year and was originally written (as near as I can tell) for the Test of Faith course and is available for download there. The whole piece is well worth reading.

The major theme of Dr. Davis’s article is that the view of perpetual warfare between science and the Church misunderstands the history and context. At times there was conflict and there was certainly debate, but not generally or solely over scientific questions. There is also a real sense in which the Christian worldview played an important role in the development of science. To elaborate on this latter point toward the end of the piece Dr. Davis discusses the relationship between the scientific and pre-scientific views of nature.

Another central feature of the Scientific Revolution was the mechanical philosophy, according to which the world is an impersonal machine rather than an organism that acts semi-consciously for purposes of its own. This is nothing other than the modern scientific worldview. Mechanical philosophers challenged prevailing Aristotelian and Galenic notions, according to which ‘Nature’ is a wise and benevolent being that does nothing in vain, abhors a vacuum, and functions as the wisest physician. Boyle was the most influential advocate of the new view, and he assumed this role substantially for theological reasons. The mechanical philosophy was so attractive to him precisely because it gave clearer, more coherent explanations of nature, enabling genuine progress in practical knowledge in accord with the Genesis mandate. It also did away with the idea of a semi-divine ‘Nature’ as an intermediary between God and the world, thus underscoring divine sovereignty: nature is a created object, and its created properties and powers are the proper subject of our study. Finally, by focusing attention on the astonishing complexity and intricacy of the created order, the mechanical philosophy underscored the wisdom, power, and goodness of the Creator himself.

The view of nature as having a mind of its own is contrasted with nature as a created object with created properties amenable to systematic study. The conflict is between these two views. The mechanical view is at the root of the modern scientific project and is consistent with Christian views of the world. Certainly the idea that there is a creator is not part of the picture for many scientists today, but the idea that the world is predictable is at the core. In fact, this is the Central Doctrine that Alan Lightman discussed in his essay Does God Exist?. Dr. Lightman reflects on the “problem” introduced by a God who interacts with the world, regularity is simply assumed – while Dr. Davis points out that the very idea of the regularity of nature is a consistently Christian concept.

Is naturalism, that is the idea that nature is regular and rational, a Christian concept?

The picture is of Robert Boyle (1627–1691), one of the founders of modern chemistry and pioneers of the scientific method. The image is from wikipedia and is a reproduction of a portrait by Johann Kerseboom, 1689. Boyle was one of the figures involved in the scientific revolution and in the interaction between science and the Christian faith.

A little bit later in his essay, after reflecting on the Medieval interest in divine will and divine reason, Dr. Davis continues:

As surprising as it may seem, this abstract question from medieval theology had a profound influence on debates about scientific knowledge during the Scientific Revolution. What kind of knowledge is science – is it completely certain or is it provisional? What method is best for understanding the created order – reason alone (including mathematics) or some combination of reason and experience? Leading figures took part on both sides of the argument; while Galileo and René Descartes stressed the power of human reason made in the image of God, Boyle and Newton believed that our created minds were not capable of limiting the freely exercised power of God. Ultimately, the modern scientific method of rational empiricism (a combination of reason and observation) matches the fact that nature is a contingent order, created by a free and rational God. As creatures made in God’s image, we can understand many of the patterns that God placed in the world, but those patterns must be discovered by observation, not dictated by human reason. God is free to create in ways that cannot be predicted, so we should not be astonished that nature sometimes does astonishing things.

Nature is not irrational, impenetrable, and arbitrary. Nor is nature a semi-divine entity. Nature is plain and simple creation. As creation it is rational and discernible. Christianity is, according to this view, an inherently naturalist religion. Of course it is not naturalist in the sense that the existence of God and the supernatural are denied, but in the sense that the creation is created and not autonomous. It is interesting that this meshes fairly well with the perspective that many have put on the interpretation of Genesis One as a creation narrative that de-divinizes nature. The sun, moon, and stars are created objects not gods in the sky or dwelling places of gods.

Nature as rational creation is also consistent with a God as creator who interacts with his creation. To claim that the regularity and predictability of nature removes the need or even the place for God is to take the discussion in an entirely different direction making a metaphysical and theological assumption. The interaction, though, of God with his creation is not irrational and arbitrary. It is not to control an otherwise unruly and unpredictable creation. God’s interventions are explicitly in relationship with his creatures and for his purpose and mission. The miracles of Jesus were not magic tricks to demonstrate divinity, they were enactments of the coming Messiah in fulfillment of God’s purposes. The resurrection is not a demonstration of divinity, it is an essential part of the story and of the purpose of the incarnation.

Dr. Davis concludes his essay:

The Christian encounter with science comes down to this: confidence in the reliability of the book of nature as an authentic divine revelation, tempered by genuine humility and augmented by reverence for the One who wrote the book.

This is the guiding principle for Christians in the sciences. I don’t know if it is quite right to describe the book of nature as an authentic divine revelation though. Nature, the book of Nature if you will, is an authentic divine creation and thus the truth revealed in the study of nature is God’s truth. As Dr. Collins affirms with the title of his book, the truth revealed in nature is the language of God.

Do you think it is possible for humans to understand and interpret nature reliably? Why or why not?

What role does scripture play in the process?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

Browse Our Archives