On Reading the Two Books of God By Daniel Wray, Pastor/Teacher

Introduction: There are Two Books—- Ps. 19, Rom. 1, Jer. 31

“Let no one think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s Word or in the book of God’s Works, divinity or philosophy…” [F. Bacon 1605 in Hummel 1986 p165].

The Bible and nature can be read and interpreted in analogous manners. 

I.  We must balance rationality and empiricism (observation). On the one hand we have something of the mind of God in our rationality, and on the other hand God’s thoughts (as Scripture often says) are high above ours. Thus we must listento the word of God as it comes to us in the two books. If we do not listen attentively (which includes asking questions) we will not hear what we need. We all know well the human tendency to talk rather than listen, and to jump to conclusions (Bacon’s ‘anticipations’).

Thought may get lost in itself without a world, but the world might answer: you must think me thus and thus, as to my what, and not otherwise, if you would know me.  Nature will open to the right password; but she has chosen it, not we. [Tennent. p82].

“For Reason knows that she cannot work without materials. When it becomes  clear that you cannot find out by reasoning whether the cat is in the linen cupboard, it is Reason herself who whispers, “Go and look. This is not my job: it is a matter for the senses.'” [C.S. Lewis 1947p93].

II.  Like Nature the Bible can be read at different levels. One can stroll through picking up the jewels to be found on the surface much like someone taking a stroll through the woods can enjoy what is plainly in view, and occasionally even see something extraordinary.

III.   Nature has a progressive character and so does the written Word. Both came to their present form after a long period of development. This development needs to be taken into account when interpreting the signs.

IV.   There are levels of knowledge in both. In nature physics is more basic than biology; in Scripture the doctrine of God is more basic than ecclesiology or even soteriology. In both the superstructure rests on the foundation of the more basic elements or truths. Chemistry and biology rest on the foundation of physics; ecclesiology and sotereiology rest on the foundation of theology proper.

V.   Both may be approached with a theory in mind to test, and both must be respected for the answers. In fact both reveal their best secrets to those who ask the right questions.  There is nothing that will enhance your Bible study like going to Scripture with specific and important questions for which you are seeking answers. When you do, don’t give up until you have the answers; Jesus’ promise is to seekers. Jesus gave some of his most important teachings in direct response to questions [see, for example John 3 &4].  It turns out that almost the exact same thing can be said of nature itself. Those who approach her with the best questions and a pressing desire to know her secrets get the best answers.

         “Plato argued that the task of solving a problem is logically absurd and therefore impossible. For if we already know the solution, there is no occasion to search for it; while if we do not know it, we cannot search for it either, since we do not know then what we are looking for. The task of solving a problem must indeed appear self-contradictory unless we admit that we can possess true intimations of the unknown. This is what Plato’s argument proves, namely, that every advance in understanding is moved and guided by our power for seeing the presence of some hidden comprehensive entity behind yet incomprehensible clues pointing increasingly toward this yet unknown entity.” [M. Polanyi 1974 p124].

VI. Both are sometimes misread requiring correction in the light of later or better constructed knowledge. In fact this history of changing interpretations is an area of importance for both.  Whenever we are confronted with questions of interpretation we must ask whether we have new knowledge that compels the reassessment of older, perhaps venerable, interpretations. In the case of astronomy this is what happened in the so-called Copernican revolution. There is no reason to assume that the interpretation of the Bible would be different in this regard. Certainly interpretations of Genesis 1 could be altered by scientific information. The application of texts on such issues as gender roles, slavery or the environment could all be affected by historic developments and the growth of human understanding. The important question to answer in such cases is, “Do we have new knowledge or insight which justifies a re-examination of such issues?”

         As knowledge accumulates in each case it becomes possible to build upon that knowledge as consequences are drawn precept upon precept. Thus some possible interpretations of texts or phenomena are ruled out because of prior well-established conclusions.

         The progress of knowledge has convinced scientists that we must be open to whatever nature reveals and thus respect her words to us knowing that we are far from her final words. The search for truth through the methods of science remains open ended even though some chapters are more or less finished. Interpreters of the Bible have too often taken the attitude that we have completed the work of interpretation and theological formulation. This attitude stifles that openness which we ought to maintain toward the ever-speaking God. This is not to suggest that the canon of Scripture is still open; but rather, that there is still much to learn and understand from a book that professes to be from the same God as made the heavens and the earth. It is simplistic to think that we have already fathomed the depths of that book any more than we have fathomed the depths of the book of God’s works.

VII. In the study of both we must be prepared to follow wherever the truth leads. “To hold knowledge is indeed always a commitment to indeterminate implications, for human knowledge is but an intimation of reality, and we can never quite tell in what new way reality may yet manifest itself. It is external to us; it is objective; and so its future manifestations can never be completely under our intellectual control.” [M. Polanyi “Faith and Reason” in1974 pp125f].  We are, as Francis Bacon said, both the servants and interpreters of God’s word and works. As interpreter we must seek, as servants we must obey what we find.

VIII. One of the reasons I insist upon the path of seeking and discovery is that we are prone to sink into a false contentment too easily. We think we understand more than we actually do. Only those who keep on seeking will find.  This reflects the exhortation of Solomon to pursue wisdom as though it were the most precious and prized of all attainments. “Yet the discoverer must labor night and day. For though no labor can make a discovery, no discovery can be made without intense, absorbing, devoted labor. Here we have a paradigm of the Pauline scheme of faith, works, and grace. The discoverer works in the belief that his labors will prepare his mind for receiving a truth from sources over which he has no control. I regard the Pauline scheme therefore as the only adequate conception of scientific discovery.”  [M. Polanyi “Faith and Reason” in1974 p129,130].

IX. We should adopt Augustine’s attitude to Scripture (Confessions XII.23,24), and apply it to nature as well, that it has meaning and is true in its message, even when the correct interpretation eludes the seeker.  The attitude of faith we adopt, will keep on believing while we do not yet understand, and will keep on seeking by faith so that we will understand.