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