Two Books Redux: A Response by David Opderbeck

In a recent post on the Cosmos website, Pastor Kerry Bender expressed his misgivings about the “two books” metaphor often used in faith and science discussions.  I appreciate Pastor Bender’s comments because I, too, think the limits of this metaphor should be explored.  I think some of Pastor Bender’s  concerns, however, are somewhat misplaced.

For Pastor Bender, the primary issues are “authority … unity … and equality.”  He argues that “[s]cripture and creation do not always speak with a unified voice, and when necessary, the Church needs to choose the authoritative voice of Scripture over the voice of creation.”  Further, citing Karl Barth, he notes that the Church’s primary task is to proclaim the revelation it has received of Jesus Christ in scripture, and argues that the Church goes astray if it instead proclaims a revelation supposedly derived from creation.

There is much to unpack and untangle in the midst of Pastor Bender’s helpful observations.

It seems to me a serious mistake to pit the authority of scripture against the authority of creation.  Both the integrity of scripture and the integrity of creation derive from the integrity of God Himself.  Neither scripture nor creation possesses inherent authority in themselves; they both possess authority derived from God, the only and final source of all true authority – of all Truth.

If “creation” is the gift of the Triune God, and if “scripture” testifies to the same God, then it is impossible for creation and scripture to speak against each other.  Can the Son speak against the Father, or the Spirit against the Son?  Christian theology has traditionally spoken of God as “simple” – not meaning “simplistic,” but meaning undivided in being and will, without parts and without contradictions.  Both creation and scripture are gifts that flow from the loving, gracious life of God.  If God always acts as He is, then His acts both in creating the universe and in providing the scriptures are each parts of one seamless and beautiful gift.  “All Truth is God’s Truth,” to quote a clichéd but true phrase.

Indeed, it is problematic even to speak of “authority” without linking authority to “Truth.”  There is a kind of “authority” that is grounded only in will and power.  Chairman Mao once said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  He meant that the Communist Party possessed authority simply because it had the power to exert its will.  This sort of “authority” is the way of nihilism.  For Christian theology, authentic “authority” derives from the being of God.  For proper Christian theology, the being of God precedes the will of God.  God does not impose authority arbitrarily.  God proposes, discloses, and disposes always as He is.  For this reason, we can speak of “Truth” that is transcendent, of love and justice and wisdom and mercy that are real.  To suggest that creation and the scriptures could both have been given as gifts from God and yet could somehow exist over against one another is ultimately to deny that God is the Truth.

It is nevertheless true, of course, that creation and scripture do not speak in the same way.  Pastor Bender rightly notes that “[i]t is a mistake to read Scripture like a science text book.”  Scripture speaks to us in narratives, prophetic oracles, proverbs, parables, and various other ancient near eastern genres of human speech-acts; creation “speaks” primarily through physical phenomena that can be observed through human senses and modeled through empirical-mathematical tools, most of which have been developed only in the past centuries or decades.  Scripture witnesses directly to the crucified and risen Christ, and this is its primary message; creation witnesses obliquely to the majesty and power of God.  Creation and scripture each require different hermeneutical skills and toolkits in order to be “read” well.

Because creation and scripture do not speak in the same way, Pastor Bender is right to express concerns about blithely equating their theological content.  Creation witnesses to the power of some sort of creative intelligence, but we cannot learn from creation alone that this intelligence is the Triune God who called all things into being from nothing through the power of His Word.  Reading creation alone, we are likely to end up with,  say, the static Platonic “Ideal” or the emergent world-consciousness of the process theologians.  Likewise, creation witnesses to the Logos, but we cannot learn from creation alone about the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Without the incarnation of Christ and the scriptures that witness to Christ, the Logos remains hidden and “unknown” (cf. Acts 17:16-34).  Indeed, in our sin we “naturally” suppress the truth of Christ (see Romans 1).

This is why it is only when we encounter the risen Christ to whom scripture bears witness that we really can begin to “read” creation well.  The scriptures testify that Christ is the central principle of creation:  everything was made by him, is held together in him, and finds its true ends in him (cf. Col. 1:17).  Christ is the hermeneutical principle both of creation and of scripture because Christ is the Truth (cf. John 14:6).  Scientific materialism offers an impoverished epistemology because it cannot comment on “why” the universe exists.  Religions and philosophies that attempt to read creation apart from Christ will always go astray.  In this sense, I agree with Pastor Bender’s discomfort with the “two books” metaphor.  Creation and scripture are not so much “two” free-standing “books” as complementary redactional lines in one grand story.

Here I would circle back to Pastor Bender’s reference to Karl Barth’s theology of revelation.  Barth correctly observed that “revelation” is not a static concept.  This is in contrast to some of the scholastic Reformed theologies of revelation that have so influenced American Evangelicalism, particularly over the past century in the wake of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy.   “Revelation,” for Barth, was not just words on a page.  Barth insisted that the event of revelation is the personal self-disclosure of Christ in and through the texts of scripture as they are read and received in the Church.  His Christo-centric theology of revelation surely is much closer to the Church Fathers than the 20th Century Reformed and Evangelical theologies of scripture that led to the Scopes trial and that underwrite the so-called “Creation Museum.”  We do well to take many of Barth’s observations about revelation to heart.

Nevertheless, we should ask whether Barth’s famous “nein” to “natural theology” really reflects the great Christian tradition of faith seeking understanding.  Is there a point at which Barth’s existentialism verges on a sort of entirely immanent fideism that is foreign both to the Church Fathers and to scripture?  Many interpreters of Barth’s legacy who have written about the natural sciences, such as Thomas Torrance and Alister McGrath, have said so, and I tend to agree.

To be fair, Barth’s nein to natural theology was not designed to oppose theological truth to the empirical truths of the natural sciences.  It was, rather, an effort to steer around the rationalistic scholastic Reformed thought of the periods following Luther and Calvin, the rationalistic Thomism of much of 19th and 20th Century Catholicism, and the equally rationalistic anti-supernaturalism of 19th and 20th Century Protestant Liberal theology.  Perhaps it is unfortunate that Barth didn’t learn more about nature and grace from his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Catholic theologian, and from others involved in the Catholic nouvelle théologie.  One can hardly do better on the relation between faith and reason – which after all is the root of this conversation – than Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Fides et Ratio, a document underwritten by Vatican II’s nouvelle théologie-informed sensibilities.  As John Paul II notes, just as “faith” and “reason” are not properly opposed, neither are “nature” and “grace.”  “Creation” is already given as a gift – “nature” is already “grace.”  The corruption of authentic created human nature resulting from sin is not really “natural” at all.  If we misunderstand creation, or scripture, or any other truth, that is a kind of anti-creation, a false “nature.”

So perhaps Pastor Bender is right that we should speak less of “two books.”  Let’s speak instead of one story.  It’s the True Story of all stories:  the story of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one essence, who out of sheer love called the fecund and beautiful world forth from nothing; who out of the gift of grace entered into the world in the person of the Son and who in the humanity of the Son offered his own life and suffered along with the human creatures who had scorned creation and separated themselves from His life; and who in the power of his resurrection is uniting and will unite all creation to Himself until God in the fellowship of His person is all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12-34).  There are no divisions here, no need to impose one “book” over against another.  There is only Truth, only Love, hazily understood in Faith, pursued in Hope, received as Gift.

Monday, May 7th, 2012 Articles

2 Comments to Two Books Redux: A Response by David Opderbeck

  • kbender2011 says:

    Dear Professor Opderbeck,

    Thank you for your post in response to mine. I have read it several times and appreciate the clarity with which you write and the critique of Barth’s criticism of natural theology. I must admit, however, that I am a bit confused concerning the differences that you see in what we believe concerning the “two book” metaphor.

    We are in agreement that God’s voice can be heard echoing throughout creation; I had hoped that my post made this clear. In this regard, I would distance myself from the strong Nein of Barth that goes too far and agree with your critique of his opposition to natural theology. The question, however, is does the voice of creation carry the same weight as the voice of Scripture in regards to the proclamation of the Church. It seems that in your own post, you agree with the primacy of Scripture over creation in regards to Christian proclamation. “This is why it is only when we encounter the risen Christ to whom scripture bears witness that we really can begin to ‘read’ creation well. The scriptures testify that Christ is the central principle of creation: everything was made by him, is held together in him, and finds its true ends in him (cf. Col. 1:17). Christ is the hermeneutical principle both of creation and of scripture because Christ is the Truth (cf. John 14:6). Scientific materialism offers an impoverished epistemology because it cannot comment on ‘why’ the universe exists.” You also state that this impoverished epistemology will cause individuals to go astray if not read with the hermeneutical key of Jesus who, as you agree, can only be found in Scripture. Therefore, if this impoverished epistemology can and will lead us astray, isn’t it necessary to choose the voice of Scripture over the creation in theological matters? In the same way that it would behoove us to choose the voice of creation over the voice of Scripture in matters of science and medicine to which I allude throughout my post? Does this not demonstrate an authority of one over the other in theological matters and in the proclamation of the Church?

    I must admit that I do take umbrage with the accusation that this is pitting one book against the other as you imply in your post. The question is not whether one is authoritative and the other is not, the question is about what are they authoritative. It is good and right to choose the right book for the right job. My critique of the “Two Book” metaphor is in regards to the commission of the Church for proclamation as I stated in the opening paragraph of my post, and that using this metaphor implies that they are equal in terms of the commission and proclamation of the Church. In matters of theology and proclamation we do not have two equal books when considering Scripture and creation, we seem to agree on that. In the same way, when it comes to science and medicine, we do not have two equal books in regards to Scripture and creation which I also lay out in my post. Speaking of Two Books confuses this reality. My post does not deny that God speaks through both, or that the truth of one is in conflict with the truth of the other any more than recognizing that creation has, as you stated, an impoverished epistemology, but my position (and it seems that your position as well) recognizes that each has primary areas of authority.

    Finally, I would also agree with your final paragraph that we should speak of one grand story and forever get rid of talk about “two books.” This metaphor is unnecessary and muddies the waters. I believe your post argues well for the removal of this metaphor from the conversation between science and theology. I hope that a second reading of my post may reveal that we do not differ as much as you may have initially thought. In reading through our two posts again, I must admit that I regret that we were not in conversation before my post was published. Your insights could have brought greater clarity to my own thoughts, and hopefully would have helped me to avoid the impression that I want to pit Scripture against creation. If you would be interested, I would love to work in collaboration on a piece in the future if Cosmos would be interested.

    Blessings,
    Kerry

  • dopderbeck says:

    Hi Kerry, thanks for the response. Yes, we aren’t in massive disagreement — I didn’t mean to imply that.

    I think the key area of disagreement is when you say something like: “Does this not demonstrate an authority of one over the other in theological matters and in the proclamation of the Church?”

    I wouldn’t frame the issue this way. To me, it’s not primarily a question of contrasting spheres of “authority.” I think that puts the issue into the wrong frame of reference. It does seem to pit one source of truth against another, and thereby to divide “truth.”

    I appreciate where you later say that you are not “pitting one book against the other” but rather are asking “about what are they authoritative.” Yet, if “scripture” is authoritative over matters “theological,” and “science” is authoritative over matters “scientific,” aren’t they de facto if not de jure pitted against each other in their respective domains? I can’t see how this wouldn’t be so.

    Here’s what I’d rather say — and maybe it’s even more radical than what you would want to say: there is _no_ source of authentic “authority” for truth outside the Triune God revealed in Christ. There is really no sense in which “science” (or “reason”) occupies an autonomous sphere of authority. Ultimately the _only_ coherent explanation of all the phenomena of existence, including those of the empirical created world, is a _theological_ explanation that beings and ends with the Triune God.

    So to me, it’s not that “scripture” and “science” occupy essentially non-overlapping spheres of “authority.” It’s that, within God’s economy of salvation, “scripture” has a unique purpose: to reveal Christ and to teach the Church. So in this sense I actually _do_ agree with you: to use scripture to do “science” is a mistake, and it is also a mistake to use “science” to define theology (though “reason” and “experience” each are legitimate sources of theology).

    But I want to be very careful not to set this up as a contest of differing spheres of authority that somehow divide up God’s gifts and gracious self-disclosure. In all this, I’m trying to be particularly sensitive to the ways in which some theologies assert the “authority of scripture” as a conversation-ender, as well as the ways in which some in the scientific establishment do the same with “science.”

    Does that make sense?

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