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]

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  • I wrote a paper on this in my Worldviews class in seminary. The text we used was “Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview” by W. Gary Phillips, William E. Brown, and John Stonestreet.

    There are certainly some aspects of each worldview that can be reconciled with the Biblical worldview, including Naturalism. But at its core, Naturalism and the Biblical worldview are diametrically opposed. Why?

    Naturalism has a limited perspective in all aspects of life. First, it does not have a proper foundation for the basis of its conclusions, most of which is from human assumptions and presumptions. Science will only confirm or deny these human assumptions. Science in of itself is only limited to observable and repeatable events in the physical realm. Science is only one avenue of truth and does not form the basis for human reason, morals, and religion and cannot explain human thought and meaning. It cannot explain how the human mind can comprehend objects outside of the physical world in which we live and concludes that there is no purpose or meaning to be found. What has the physical limitations of the material world expressed by naturalism done for the good of mankind in its various forms of philosophy, belief, and ideologies? Naturalism has wrought such devastating philosophies as Nazism, communism, and other forms of fascism that were responsible for millions of deaths in the twentieth century. As a means of understanding the world around us, naturalism provides tools necessary to explore and discover truth. As a full-blown worldview, however, naturalism fails to explain far too many aspects of the world and life as we see them.

    Unlike Naturalism where people are taught to look within themselves for purpose and meaning, the Biblical worldview offers an external source to look to. This source is none other than God. The focus is not on self, but upon God. We must understand our Creator in order to better understand His creation. In order to understand God, we must strive to know Him and worship Him. In our pursuit to know God we will see that He values all people. When we understand that, we then will be inclined to value all people too. God has a purpose for all people. Nothing is in vain or blind chance.

  • DanS

    RJS. I find a lot of baggage in the statement: “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.”

    Who exactly is this directed toward? Does anyone who takes issue with naturalism see nature as unruly and unpredictable? Does anyone claim that turning water to wine involves “magic tricks”? If the resurrection demonstrates Christ divinity can it not still be part of the story?

    The issue I have with naturalism, (including the form of naturalism that seems to be the default position of the folks at Biologos) is not that it suggests an orderly universe but that it imprisons the activity of the creator in the confines of natural law. The virgin birth cannot be explained by the normal cause-effect scenario we see and observe in the rest of nature. By the same token, events described in Genesis need not be viewed as needing a normal cause-effect relationship to what we observe today.

    I believe in natural law because I believe the creator is a rational orderly being. It does not follow that every event in the entire history of the cosmos must follow natural law.

  • RJS,

    I certainly agree that God is revealed in nature. In fact, everything He created points back to its Author. However, the term “naturalism” is loaded with all manner of disagreeable philosophical baggage. It’s a term that is used to co-opt science against the God (ID) who put all the laws of science into play and maintains them.

    I think that the religious assumption that science and the laws of science are natural (non-ID) needs to be challenged.

  • rjs

    Dan S,

    I don’t speak for those at BioLogos, although I know most of the people who are involved. However, I think that you are misinterpreting the position taken by them, and by extension perhaps the position that I take here.

    It isn’t a matter of confining God to natural law, it is a position that the natural law and order that we observe is God’s way, the language of God. So when all of the evidence points to an old earth and evolutionary creation this isn’t misleading (because we have Genesis 1-3 to tell us better) it is an insight into how God ordered his creation.

    The paragraph you highlight is trying explicitly to put forth a position that God interacts with his creation and that as a result there are events (virgin birth, water to wine, and resurrection among them) that are not explicable by “ordinary” natural regularity. But they are not so explicable precisely because the involve a relationship interaction of God with his creation and his creatures.

  • rjs

    Daniel Mann,

    The term naturalism is loaded, and in phrasing the question and post the way I have I am trying to think about this concept in detail – pull it apart and analyze it.

    I am not a naturalist in the usual sense of the term for some of the reasons that Five Dills notes, and because I do believe that God designed the world intelligently and for a purpose – but no Christian is a naturalist in the usual sense of the term (unless Christian is taken to mean something terribly different from historical orthodox belief).

    Lightman in his essay gives naturalism as the central doctrine of science. Taking this as central however, is a philosophical commitment, not a provable fact. I would say that God exists (central postulate), he created a rational and “predictable” world and he interacts with that world in relationship according to his purposes and plans.

  • Amos Paul

    I think that, apart from a theistic context, there is literally no good reason at all to presume that we *can* interpret nature. But if a transcendent, perfect, and rational God has ordered Creation and established a proper role for His children within it–then denying our relationship to a rationally ordered Creation is tantatmount to denying our relationship with God.

  • Robin

    Can anyone explain why we would expect unpredictability and irrationality in the absence of God? The example I have always heard regarding naturalism and Christianity was that some of the early developers of the scientific classification of animals felt confident in their work because they believed God has created an ordered and predictable creation…(I’m sure it might be apocryphal)…but I don’t see the WHY behind that statement.

    In a world without God, you would still have gradual evolution from form to form, and a very predictable and rational development of interrelated species. By contrast, God could have easily created a world where Lions and Tigers share no genetic code whatsoever, or have vastly different biological systems. God isn’t bound by order, whereas a naturalistic world would have to be.

    It seems to me that the link isn’t between naturalism and Christianity (itself) but between naturalism and the specific doctrinal beliefs that some persons held about God (namely that he is orderly and predictable).

  • AHH

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

    First I would say that (much like “Darwinism”) the word “naturalism” is used in such wildly different ways in this conversation that it should not be used at all without a lot of qualification. In the very first comment, you had somebody going on about “naturalism” with a very different meaning than yours in this question.

    I don’t have time to look it up, but I believe in the informative recent book Galileo Goes to Jail one of the essays said that the orderliness of nature and our ability to understand it was consistent with Christian theology, but that the degree to which Christianity specifically produced that view (and therefore led to modern science) was often exaggerated.

  • rjs


    Ted Davis is one of the contributors to that volume – Myth 13. That Isaac Newton’s Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God.

    I haven’t read the book – but I should definitely get it and read it (it could even lead to some posts here).

  • DRT

    I agree with Robin that my expectation would be that an orderly world would be attributable to a lack of god than a manifestation of god. The central limit theorem comes to mind as a good reason why this would be true.

  • Joe Canner

    rjs #9: I have read some of the chapters in Galileo Goes to Jail and I agree that it would generate good topics for future discussion. One of the things that’s interesting about the book is that it deals with a wide variety of myths, including those propagated by anti-religion folks, as well as those propagated by anti-science folks.

  • rjs

    DRT and Robin,

    I think one of the reasons we have this “natural” impression that God was the answer for the unknown and cannot see the perspective Davis brings up here is because of all the baggage that has been connected with naturalism. When Dawkins says that the theory of evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist some then turn to attack evolution. This is an oversimplification – but it is part of the picture. On the other hand what would we expect in God’s creation – incomprehensible chaos?

  • Robin

    I’m not saying we should expect incomprehensible chaos, just that I don’t see any reason to expect perfect order either. The theological importance behind the naming sequence in the garden is that God created the animals, gave man dominion over them, etc. It wasn’t important, as far as I can tell, that they be so interrelated that they share genetic code, be descended from common ancestors, etc.

    If you were God, starting out from scratch, couldn’t you create tigers and lions in such a way that while bearing some physical resemblance, one had 6 hearts and 3 stomachs while the other had just one of each. Or in which, even at the cellular level they were vastly different.

    I don’t see why such variations would be outside the character of God, just like I don’t see why ruminoids having extra stomachs violates some principle. Certainly we don’t hold that everything else in the known universe is as patterned and orderly as the biological classification of animals.

    In short, I don’t see why God would have to hold to such an ordered and well-maintained creation, but I certainly see how an evolutionary perspective absolutely requires it. Indeed I would say that aberrations or deviations from the general order are better proofs for the existence of God if their existence is difficult to explain solely through evolutionary means.

  • rjs


    Then would you say that the order we see in the world around us – including the similarity between animals – tells us something about the nature of God? After all, we don’t see lions and tigers differing in the number of stomachs or hearts. We see similarities at much deeper and not immediately apparent ways. Perhaps it is more correct than I allowed in my last paragraph to see nature as a revelation of the nature of God.

  • Amos Paul


    You’re misunderstanding my assertion. I did not conclude that, without God, existence would necessarily be chaos (though I do think, according to other non-relevant arguments that there wouldn’t *be* existence to talk about then anyway)–but I did say that, without a theistic view, there is literally NO reason to suppose that the Universe is rationally ordered.

    For it is nothing more than that. A pure supposition. Your mind thinks in a certain way that desires and looks for a certain kind of order. But what justification do you have to think that reality is actually ordered that way? And if you conclude (based upon assumptions of order) that it’s because you’re the product of an orderly process such as evolution–then how do you know that evolution has equipped you with the ability to correctly pereceive the order in the universe? What if it’s simply suitable to your survival that things appear orderly to you? Evolution does not produce perfect creatures. We would necessarily be products of utility and have no good reason to suppose that we must, then, understand things correctly.

    However, if you instead assert that the necessary foundation of the universe is a transcendant and perfect being known as God–then all his choices will be right and perfect. Moreover, if you think we have relationship with that God because he made a ‘good’ Creation–then we have good reason to suppose that Creation itself is a perfectly good thing to have proceeded from God. Indeed! Our conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘perfect’ go hand in hand and are, in a very real sense, the foundation of what we call ‘right’ and ‘rational’ reasoning in our minds.

    You can argue with me about this… but, IMO, if you don’t argue within a theistic context (include something like ‘God’), I don’t see any possibility of a well-justified argument that can conclude that we ought to expect the Universe to be rationally ordered for us to perceive.

    Sidenote: I think there is also something to be said about the fact that most of our modern field of science were founded and defined by people explicitly claiming to seek understanding about God’s good Creation.

  • Robin


    I would agree that since I am a Christian, the order I perceive in God’s creation provides insights into the creator.

    I just don’t think that the order in creation is a good apologetic against unbelievers. I think if I told Dawkins that we can know that God exists because of the order in nature, he would just laugh it off and say it is due entirely to evolution.

  • Robin

    Amos Paul…or should I say Amos Van Til Bahnsen Paul.

  • DanS

    RJS #4. Not sure I get your point.

    “It isn’t a matter of confining God to natural law, it is a position that the natural law and order that we observe is God’s way, the language of God.”

    On the one hand, every creationist would agree that the order in the universe “speaks” of God. But again, on what basis does one operate under the assumption that nothing God does can occur beyond natural cause and effect? If this is a “position” one takes, why is it necessarily true? If not true, then it is an assumption, and if an assumption, then it is no more or less scientific than the assumption of the creationist.

    “So when all of the evidence points to an old earth and evolutionary creation this isn’t misleading (because we have Genesis 1-3 to tell us better) it is an insight into how God ordered his creation.”

    But ID advocates and creationists would both argue that not “all” of the evidence points in one direction. If there are gaps in the fossil record or a sudden explosion of new life-forms around the cambrian era, was God intentionally misleading the opponents of the “truth” of Evolution?

    Or worse, and I’ve asked this before, was God misleading us when Paul wrote that death came through Adam? You are extremely selective in which bits of “evidence” you want to assert as being “misleading”. I find the plain text of the New Testament a bit more specific and obvious than the radiometric age of rocks or the genetic similarities between humans and chimps. Why do you insist that one collection of evidence is misleading if false, but find no issue with the other that is far more likely to lead to a specific conclusion?

    “The paragraph you highlight is trying explicitly to put forth a position that God interacts with his creation and that as a result there are events (virgin birth, water to wine, and resurrection among them) that are not explicable by “ordinary” natural regularity.

    Aren’t you making my point? WHY do you allow that these events are not explicable by ordinary regularity, but then accept a definition of science that insists that regularity must be assumed to be absolute, even with respect to one off events at the very creation of all things?

    “But they are not so explicable precisely because the involve a relationship interaction of God with his creation and his creatures.”

    I’m really not even sure what that means. Do normal events not involve a “relationship interaction” of God as well? Are you saying the are not explicable because they are miracles? Then what happened to natural law? If science cannot verify that the virgin birth occured due to a “relationship interaction” of God, then did the virgin birth really occur?

    I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse. I understand why Richard Dawkins believes all natural phenomena require a natural cause. I simply do not understand why someone who believes in the resurrection cannot allow for the real possibility that God speaking the universe into existence might not be explainable in terms that are limited to what we observe today. How can we possibly gather enough data about events that happened millions or billions of years ago to think that we know what happened? And if God is not bound by natural law, what would that evidence even tell us?

  • rjs

    Dan S,

    You’ve brought up a number of points. I’d like to start with the last, because this is the biggest one.

    Certainly I can allow for the possibility that God could have spoken the Universe into being, in fact I think he did speak it into being. The evidence observation of the world and universe around us suggests that he did not speak the universe and the earth into being as an abrupt finished object however, but through a process.

    With respect to miracles and relationship – well I think that God is a person, not a force or a “presence” (I don’t know exactly what word I want here). As a person God interacts with his creation. The incarnation is God becoming man. It isn’t just a miracle, it is a profound and central act. The whole thing is supernatural. God with us! Virgin birth then isn’t a scientific question and science has no bearing at all on the question – unless you think God became man and dwelt among us is an everyday event.

    Every other miracle in scripture has the same kind of central theme of God interacting with people in his creation.

    On the two first – less significant (I think) questions:

    Creationists from ICR to Answers in Genesis and everyone between are either looking to make the observation of nature fit their interpretation of scripture or are making the claim that whether the evidence agrees or not their interpretation of Genesis is the determination of truth. The order in the universe then does not speak God’s way – this interpretation of scripture tells us how we must read nature.

    Gaps in the fossil record and explosions of life at points in time are the evidence we are reading. They don’t disprove evolution – because evolution doesn’t require steady progress, nor does the process of fossilization require that everything is preserved. It is from this evidence that we learn how the process works – the history and hopefully the mechanism. The fact that Darwin thought evolution would be steady (monotonically progressing) is irrelevant. Science follows the evidence, the data.

    The question of the interpretation of Paul is a big question. It is not really the topic I am trying to wrestle with today, although I certainly will come back to it. I think that this is, or should be, the central question in the discussion.

  • DRT

    I have been watching some TV tonight about ancient engineering. I could not help but think that the Israel empire may have a bit of engineering envy. The Egyptians and the Romans clearly harnessed science and engineering in a way that the Jewish nation had not. Perhaps that has something to do with the subsequent prejudice toward not appreciating the success of others in this.

  • DanS

    RJS, I’ll leave it at this. “The whole thing is supernatural.” I think we all agree that if God is creator than even the regular ebb and flow of cause and effect has something bigger behind it. But…

    “Virgin birth then isn’t a scientific question and science has no bearing at all on the question” I think I have to disagree here. Certainly Joseph was a bit concerned that according to the regularity of natural law, Mary should not have been pregnant. In fact, if her pregnancy did follow the normal cause-effect pattern, she would defintively be an unfaithful woman and Joseph would have “put her away” quietly.

    No, we cannot do some sort of repeatable experiment to “prove” the virgin birth scientifically in a “laboratory” sense, but it is an example of an event in the Biblical narrative where God worked outside of the normal constraints of the same natural law that we observe every time a child is conceived today. And that is the whole point. Science, as defined by Judge Overton, Michael Ruse and as near as I can tell, most TEs, does not allow consideration of that kind of an option – that events in the distant past may have been one-off acts of sheer divine creative intervention that have no parallel to present observations.

  • Answering these issues well requires more than is possible or advisable on a website post. But I hope these few general statement point to some issues at the core of the discussion:

    The more existence is considered rational, predictable, and mechanistic (what Ted thinks of typical of modern science), the more comfortable those who prize the all-determining, primarily transcendent God are likely to feel.

    The more existence is considered to be organismic, possess mind-like qualities, have a degree of autonomy, and be indeterministic, the more comfortable those who prize a freedom-giving, immanent God are likely to feel.

    The mechanistic view works well in the physical sciences, especially chemistry. Mechanistic processes are much more likely to be mathematically predictable. And, not surprisingly, many more Christians who are chemists are attracted to views of divine sovereignty that emphasize mechanistic determination. (I also find many more Christian chemists attracted to ID than Christian psychologists, for instance.)

    The organismic view works better in biological and social sciences. Not surprisingly, many Christians in psychology or human sciences are attracted to views of divine love that emphasize the idea that God gives freedom.

    Again, these are generalizations. There are definitely exceptions.

    My observations, for whatever they’re worth!

    Thomas Jay Oord

  • I can’t help myself: I’ve got to add another item.

    So much depends on what we think is “natural.” For some, “naturalism” leaves no room for God. For others, “naturalism” allows room for God but not an all-determining God. For others, “naturalism” is an abstraction, because all things are internally related to God.

    More than a few scholars have argued that “supernaturalism” is a modern, not premodern, concept. And to the extent that supernaturalism is understood in terms of God intervening from the outside, I don’t find the concept congruent with what most Christians have wanted to say about divine omnipresence.

    More than anyone probably cared to hear…

    Thomas Jay Oord

  • Just in the last day I’ve been engaged with atheistic skeptics online (I’m a member of the group and consider myself to be a Christian skeptic) who think in typically fundamentalist dichotomist ways which assumes the eternal warfare model between faith and science. And oddly enough I’ve just started reading Rodney Stark’s “The Victory of Reason” which goes into a great deal of detail about the rationality of Christianity being foundational to Western development, both intellectually, economically, and of course scientifically.

    The very fact of the rationality of Christianity, and in particular Western Christianity, whether Roman or Protestant, made the systematic investigation of nature possible in a way that simply never took off in the other faith and philosophical traditions worldwide. In this way then Christianity is an inherently “naturalizing” force in intellectual discourse since reason has been elevated to a good gift of God which allows us to investigate all things, whether natural or divine, with the idea that we can actually know and increase in knowledge by that pursuit.

    Another aspect of this that is often overlooked is that since God is infinite and his imprint is on all of nature and on us in the imago dei, our reasoning/rational pursuits will always bear fruit throughout all of eternity, even in the eschaton. This combination of rationality with God’s eternality opens up the premise of “progress” which is a striking contrast to the other world systems of thought, whether Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, etc. In other words, an incarnational God who is also wholly other as unique creator allows for this epistemic pursuit in a way that no other belief system can.

  • rjs


    I think the break between a more or less mechanistic view and a more organic view is not exactly chemistry vs biology (most of biology is very mechanistic), but beginning with mind and brain, neuroscience, psychology, and the rest of the social sciences.

    Of course this is a matter of great discussion – with many committed to a fully “natural” thus mechanistic mind.

    But mechanistic isn’t really to be interpreted in the classical deterministic way.