Archive for May, 2012

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.

A Tale of Two Books: Choosing the Right Text by Kerry Bender

Over the course of the last year, I have struggled with the metaphor of the “Two Books.” It is a metaphor that has become quite popular in certain Christian circles to describe the relationship between Scripture and creation — a way of recognizing that we hear the voice of God speaking not only through Scripture but also through His creation. There is much in this metaphor that commends itself to the Church. It opens up desperately needed avenues of conversation between theology and the other sciences; as well as, reflecting the theology present in the Psalms, and elsewhere in scripture, that creation itself sings the praises of God. I am concerned, however, that the image conjured by the name of the metaphor is problematic – an image of authority, of unity, and of equality, and it is particularly problematic when considering the commission of the Church.

Early in his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth gave this sage advice to the Church, “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does” (CD 1.1, p. 55). Barth goes onto to explain, however, that there is a big difference between what God may do and what God has chosen to do. God has chosen to speak directly through His revelation of Jesus Christ in Scripture, and He has commissioned His Church to proclaim this Word. “…the question what God can do is a very different one from that of the commission laid on us by the promise given to the Church” (CD 1.1, p. 55). It is God’s promise and commission to the Church that allows it to speak authoritatively as it proclaims the Gospel witnessed in Scripture. God does not make this same promise concerning creation. The text of creation does not carry with it the authority of God’s promise or commission to the Church. This is important to recognize when the book of creation and the book of Scripture appear to contradict one another.

Scripture 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. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not arguing to ignore the physical sciences, or to deny evolutionary theory, or to hide under the hermeneutical rock of a previous decade, or century, or millennium. We need to recognize, however, that creation is fallen and groans as it waits for redemption. Because of this, the voice of creation will be muddled in a way that we do not believe Scripture is muddled. The voice of despair apparent within creation will at times contradict the voice of hope that permeates Scripture. Like John the Baptist in prison, there will be times that we look around at the falleness of creation – that we behold the irreconcilable differences between the way things ought to be and the way things are – and we will question is the Good News about Jesus true (Matthew 11:2-3). At these moments, we must choose the authoritative Word of hope found in scripture over the way things appear in the fallen book of creation around us.

The book of creation is invaluable. By studying it, humanity has discovered things that are on the very precipice of the miraculous. Its pages contain the healing powers of medicine, the beauty of galaxies, and the mysteries of things yet unseen. It is not, however, equal to Scripture when considering the promise and commission to the Church to proclaim Christ. God speaks with clarity in Scripture concerning who He is, who we are, and what He has planned for us in a way that outshines the brightest star, that is deeper than the deepest ocean, and that is more fragrant than most pungent rose. Can God speak through creation? Of course, He can, and when He does, we do well to listen to Him. It is not, however, an authoritative word on par with Scripture. In the same way, Scripture is not equal with the book of creation concerning how to stop the spread of mold or selectively breeding sheep for desired characteristics.

It is a mistake to read Scripture like a science text book. Many of us have been down that road, and it leads to frustration, confusion, and at times a conflict of faith so severe that it causes some to leave Christianity altogether. Why, then, do we want to make the same but inverse mistake with creation and try to read it like a theological text? This is the problem I believe with the name of the metaphor, “The Two Books.” Whether intentionally, or unintentionally, the name of this metaphor conjures up an image of two volumes in the same series, carrying the same authority, speaking in unity, and having equality concerning the same subjects. We have seen the damage that this has caused over the course of the last century and a half at the hands of fundamentalists who demanded that these two volumes be read as science, and I fear that in an attempt to correct this, we may inadvertently cause more damage by implying that they should be read as equal volumes in a series of theological texts.

Scripture does state that creation sings the praises of God. There is no doubt that the echoes of scripture are heard ringing off the mountains, whispering in the winds, and mirrored in the reflections of quiet waters. But they are echoes – powerful echoes, beautiful echoes, but echoes just the same. We must not mistake the beautiful echoes for the voice. They do not speak with the same clarity or authority, and when we find these echoes recorded in Scripture, they are primarily in the context of worship after the authoritative Word of God has already transformed the worshipper. The one possible exception to this is Romans 1:20 where creation seems to only stand in judgment against the unbeliever not to bring full knowledge of the Savior. Therefore, it is the Good News that allows the worshipper to hear the echoes of God through the voice of creation; as Paul states elsewhere in the same letter to the Romans, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15, NIV). This is the promise and the commission of the Church that God will go with us as we preach Christ crucified as revealed in the Scriptures.

The metaphor of a clear voice and an echo I believe is the metaphor that we find in Scripture – the metaphor of creation echoing the voice of God which is found in Scripture. Unfortunately, it is a metaphor that is difficult to capture in a three word name like “The Two Books.” So it is not as easy to remember, but I believe it is a more accurate metaphor, and one that would better serve honest dialogue between theology and the other sciences.

Read David Opderbeck’s Response: Two Books Redux