Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach

Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach

by Vern S. Poythress


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We live in God's world, and today this world is continually experiencing the impact of science, scientific ideas, and technological fruits of science. So if this is God's world, then how does God relate to science?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581347319
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 10/28/2006
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, University of Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science.

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Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law

All scientists — including agnostics and atheists — believe in God. They have to in order to do their work.

It may seem outrageous to include agnostics and atheists in this broad statement. But by their actions people sometimes show that in a sense they believe in things that they profess not to believe in. Bakht, a Vedantic Hindu philosopher, may say that the world is an illusion. But he does not casually walk into the street in front of an oncoming bus. Sue, a radical relativist, may say that there is no truth. But she travels calmly at 30,000 feet on a plane whose safe flight depends on the unchangeable truths of aerodynamics and structural mechanics.

But what about scientists? Do they believe in God? Must they? Popular modern culture often transmits the contrary idea, namely that science is antagonistic to orthodox Christian belief. Recitations of Galileo's conflict and of the Scopes Trial have gained mythic status and receive reinforcement through vocal promotions of materialistic evolution.

Historians of science point out that modern science arose in the context of a Christian worldview, and was nourished and sustained by that view. But even if that was once so, twentieth-century and twenty-first-century science seems to sustain itself without the help of explicit theistic underpinnings. In fact, many consider God to be merely the "God of the gaps," the God whom people invoke only to account for gaps in modern scientific explanation. As science advances and more gaps become subject to explanation, the role of God diminishes. The natural drives out the need for the supernatural.


The situation looks different if we refuse to confine God to "the gaps." According to the Bible, he is involved in those areas where science does best, namely areas involving regular and predictable events, repeating patterns, and sometimes exact mathematical descriptions. In Genesis 8:22 God promises,

While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

This general promise concerning earthly regularities is supplemented by many particular examples:

You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about (Ps. 104:20).

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth (Ps. 104:14).

He sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly.

He gives snow like wool; he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.

He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs; who can stand before his cold?

He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow and the waters flow (Ps. 147:1518).

The regularities that scientists describe are the regularities of God's commitments and actions. By his word to Noah, he commits himself commitments and actions. By his word to Noah, he commits himself to govern the seasons. By his word he governs snow, frost, and hail. Scientists describe the regularities in God's word governing the world. So-called natural law is really the law of God or word of God, imperfectly and approximately described by human investigators.

Now, the work of science depends constantly on the fact that there are regularities in the world. Without the regularities, there would ultimately be nothing to study. Scientists depend not only on regularities with which they are already familiar, such as the regular behavior of measuring apparatus, but also on the postulate that still more regularities are to be found in the areas they will investigate. Scientists must maintain hope of finding further or they would give up their newest explorations.

(I should say here that I am concentrating on the natural or "hard" sciences such as physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy. To some extent similar observations hold for "human sciences" such as psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology. But the study of human beings brings in additional challenges, because of the way in which one's overall understanding of the nature of humanity vitally influences the investigation. In concentrating of the nature of humanity vitally influences the investigation. On regularities, I am also putting into the background studies, such as the study of the past history of the large-scale universe [cosmology], the past history of life [paleobiology], the past history of the earth [historical geology], and so on. These studies rely on the assumption of regularities, but they also wrestle with understanding many unrepeatable events, such as the origin of the first cell, or the origin of the first humans. We will focus on the issue of uniqueness versus repeatability later [chapter 13]. And we will consider issues of origins in chapters 18 and 19.)


Now just what are these regularities? For five years in a row a robin appears and builds a nest in the same bush. But in the sixth year no robin appears. Does this show a "regularity" of the appropriate type? It might be a matter of coincidence. Scientists are concerned to observe robins and their nest-building. But in the long run they do not rest with observations of mere coincidence. They want to know whether the recurrence is somehow constrained, whether it occurs according to a general explanatory principle. The principles go by various names: "natural law," "scientific law," "theory." Some of these regularities can be exactly, quantitatively described for each case (within small limits of error), while others are statistical regularities that come to light only when a large number of cases are examined together. All scientists believe in the existence of such regularities. And in all cases, whatever their professed beliefs, scientists in practice know that the regularities are "out there." Scientists in the end are all "realists" with respect to scientific laws. Scientists discover these laws and do not merely invent them. Otherwise, why go to the trouble, tedium, and frustration of experiment? Just make a guess, invent a new idea, and become famous!

These regularities are, well, regular. And to be regular means to be regulated. It involves a regula, a rule. Webster's Dictionary captures the point by defining "regular" as "formed, built, arranged, or ordered according to some established rule, law, principle, or type." The idea of a law or rule is built into the concept of "regularity." Thus it is natural to use the word "law" in describing well-established scientific theories and principles. Scientists speak of Newton's laws, Boyle's law, Dalton's law, Mendel's laws, Kirchhoff's laws.

All scientists believe in and rely on the existence of scientific laws.


What characteristics must a scientific law have in order even to be a law? Again, we concentrate on the practice of scientists rather than their metaphysical musings. We ask, "Whatever their professed philosophy, what do scientists expect in practice?" Just as the relativist expects the plane to fly, the scientist expects the laws to hold.

Scientists think of laws as universal in time and space. Kirchhoff's laws concerning electrical circuits apply only to electrical circuits, not to other kinds of situations. But they apply in principle to electrical circuits at any time and in any place. Sometimes, of course, scientists uncover limitations in earlier formulations. Some laws, like Newton's laws, are not really universal, but apply accurately only to a restricted situation such as low velocity motion of large, massive objects. In the light of later knowledge, we would say that Newton's laws were always only an approximation to the real pattern of regularity or lawfulness in the world. We modify Newton's laws, or we include the specific restriction to low velocity within our formulation of the laws. Then we say that they apply to all times and places where these restrictions hold.

Thus, within the very concept of law lies the expectation that we include all times and all places. That is to say, the law, if it really is a law and is correctly formulated and qualified, holds for all times and all places. The classic terms are omnipresence (all places) and eternity (all times). Law has these two attributes that are classically attributed to God. Technically, God's eternity is usually conceived of as being "above" or "beyond" time. But words like "above" and "beyond" are metaphorical and point to mysteries. There is, in fact, an analogous mystery with respect to law. If "law" is universal, is it not in some sense "beyond" the particularities of any one place or time? Moreover, within a biblical worldview, God is not only "above" time in the sense of not being subject to the limitations of finite creaturely experience of time, but he is "in" time in the sense of acting in time and interacting with his creatures. Similarly, law is "above" time in its universality, but "in" time through its applicability to each particular situation.


The attributes of omnipresence and eternity are only the beginning. On close examination, other divine attributes seem to belong to scientific laws. Consider. If a law holds for all times, we presuppose that it is the same law through all times. The law does not change with time. It is immutable. A supposed "law" that did change with time would not really be "the law," but one temporal phase in a higher or broader regularity that would account for the lower-level change. The higher, universal regularity is the law. The very concept of scientific law presupposes immutability.

Next, laws are at bottom ideational in character. We do not literally see a law, but only the effects of the law on the material world. The law is essentially immaterial and invisible, but is known through effects. Likewise, God is essentially immaterial and invisible, but is known through his acts in the world.

Real laws, as opposed to scientists' approximations of them, are also absolutely, infallibly true. Truthfulness is also an attribute of God.

The Power of Law

Next, consider the attribute of power. Scientists formulate laws as descriptions of regularities that they observe. The regularities are there in the world first, before the scientists make their formulations. The human scientific formulation follows the facts, and is dependent on them. But the facts must conform to a regularity even before the scientist formulates a description. A law or regularity must hold for a whole series of cases. The scientist cannot force the issue by inventing a law and then forcing the universe to conform to the law. The universe rather conforms to laws already there, laws that are discovered rather than invented. The laws must already be there. They must actually hold. They must "have teeth." If they are truly universal, they are not violated. No event escapes their "hold" or dominion. The power of these real laws is absolute, in fact, infinite. In classical language, the law is omnipotent ("all powerful").

If law is omnipotent and universal, there are truly no exceptions. Do we, then, conclude that miracles are impossible because they are violations of law? In fact, miracles are in harmony with God's character. They take place in accordance with his predictive and decretive word. Through Moses, God verbally predicted the plagues that came to Egypt, and then brought them about. Through God's word spoken by the prophet Elisha, a spring of water was made healthy:

"Thus says the LORD, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it." So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke (2 Kings 2:21-22).

The real law, the word of God, brings forth miracles. Miracles may be unusual and striking, but they do not violate God's law. They violate only some human expectations and guesses. But that is our problem, not God's. Just as Newton's laws are limited to low velocity approximations, so the principle that axe heads do not float is limited by the qualification, "except when God in response to a special need and a prophet's word does otherwise" (e.g., 2 Kings 6:5-6).

The law is both transcendent and immanent. It transcends the creatures of the world by exercising power over them, conforming them to its dictates. It is immanent in that it touches and holds in its dominion even the smallest bits of this world. Law transcends the galactic clusters and is immanently present in the chromodynamic dance of quarks and gluons in the bosom of a single proton. Transcendence and immanence are characteristics of God.

The Personal Character of Law

Many agnostic and atheistic scientists by this time will be looking for a way of escape. It seems that the key concept of scientific law is beginning to look suspiciously like the biblical idea of God. The most obvious escape, and the one that has rescued many from spiritual discomfort, is to deny that scientific law is personal. It is just there as an impersonal something.

Throughout the ages people have tried such routes. They have constructed idols, substitutes for God. In ancient times, the idols often had the form of statues representing a god — Poseidon, the god of the sea, or Mars, the god of war. Nowadays in the Western world we are more sophisticated. Idols now take the form of mental constructions of a god or a God-substitute. Money and pleasure can become idols. So can "humanity" or "nature" when it receives a person's ultimate allegiance. "Scientific law," when it is viewed as impersonal, becomes another Godsubstitute. But in both ancient times and today, idols conform to the imagination of the one who makes them. Idols have enough similarities to the true God to be plausible, but differ so as to allow us comfort and the satisfaction of manipulating the substitutes that we construct.

In fact, a close look at scientific law shows that this escape route is not really plausible. Law implies a lawgiver. Someone must think the law and enforce it, if it is to be effective. But if some people resist this direct move to personality, we may move more indirectly.

Scientists in practice believe passionately in the rationality of scientific law. We are not dealing with an irrational, totally unaccountable and unanalyzable surd, but with lawfulness that in some sense is accessible to human understanding. Rationality is a sine qua non for scientific law. But, as we know, rationality belongs to persons, not to rocks, trees, and subpersonal creatures. If the law is rational, which scientists assume it is, then it is also personal.

Scientists also assume that laws can be articulated, expressed, communicated, and understood through human language. Scientific work includes not only rational thought, but symbolic communication. Now, the original, the law "out there," is not known to be written or uttered in a human language. But it must be expressible in language in our secondary description. It must be translatable into not only one but many human languages. We may represent restrictions, qualifications, definitions, and contexts for a law through clauses, phrases, explanatory paragraphs, and contextual explanations in human language.

Scientific law is clearly like a human utterance in its ability to be grammatically articulated, paraphrased, translated, and illustrated. Law is utterance-like, language-like. And the complexity of utterances that we find among scientists, as well as among human beings in general, is not duplicated in the animal world. Language is one of the defining characteristics that separates man from animals. Language, like rationality, belongs to persons. It follows that scientific law is in essence personal.

The Incomprehensibility of Law

In addition, law is both knowable and incomprehensible in the theological sense. That is, we know scientific truths, but in the midst of this knowledge there remain unfathomed depths and unanswered questions about the very areas where we know the most.

The knowability of laws is closely related to their rationality and their immanence, displayed in the accessibility of effects. We experience incomprehensibility in the fact that the increase of scientific understanding only leads to ever deeper questions: "How can this be?" and "Why this law rather than many other ways that the human mind can imagine?" The profundity and mystery in scientific discoveries can only produce awe — yes, worship — if we have not blunted our perception with hubris (Isa. 6:9-10).

Are We Divinizing Nature?

But now we must consider an objection. By claiming that scientific laws have divine attributes, are we divinizing nature? That is, are we taking something out of the created world, and falsely claiming that it is divine? Are not scientific laws a part of the created world? Should we not classify them as creature rather than Creator?


Excerpted from "Redeeming Science"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Vern S. Poythress.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Science Mixing with People,
1 Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law,
2 The Role of the Bible,
3 Knowledge from Whose Authority?,
4 Creation,
5 Issues with Genesis 1 and Science,
6 The Teaching in Genesis 1,
7 Evaluvating Modern Science on the Age of the Earth,
8 Evaluvating Theories on the Age of the Earth,
9 The 24-Hour-Day and Mature Creation Views,
10 The Analogical Day Theory and the Framework View,
11 The Role of Mankind in Science,
12 The Role of Christ as Redeemer in Science,
13 The Word of God in Science,
14 Truth in Science and in Life,
15 Debates About What is Real: The Character of Scientific Knowledge,
16 Ordinary Experience of the World in Relation to Scientific Theory,
17 The Relation of Creation to Re-Creation,
18 The Mystery of Life,
19 Origin of New Kinds of Life: Intelligent Design,
20 God and Physical Displays,
21 A Christian Approach to Physics and Chemistry,
22 A Christian Approach to Mathematics,
23 Conclusion: Serving God,
Appendix 1: The Framework View of Genesis 1,
Appendix 2: More on Triangular Numbers,
Bibiliography on Theology of Science,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Poythress shows how a proper understanding of biblical theology makes possible not just one but many credible harmonizations of biblical and scientific truth. Along the way, he provides an insightful defense of the theory of intelligent design as a viable scientific research program. His examination of the mathematical beauty inherent in the universe gives yet another compelling reason to acknowledge the wisdom and design that lie behind physical reality."
—Stephen C. Meyer, Director, Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute; New York Times best-selling author, Darwin’s Doubt

"With doctorates in both New Testament and mathematics, and with a solid commitment to orthodox Reformed theology, Vern Poythress is uniquely qualified to write on the theology of science. This is by far the most important book you can read on this subject. I recommend it without reservation."
—John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary

"Poythress demonstrates just how natural the partnership is between science and Christianity. Using examples from a variety of scientific disciplines, he gives a prescription for how science and the Christian faith can interact in a way that mutually benefits both."
—Fazale Rana, Vice President of Science Apologetics, Reasons to Believe

"Not only does this book offer a theological perspective rooted in the historic Reformation, it also attends to strategies of interpretation of Bible texts concerning nature and history that underwrite doctrine but are often left out of the dialogue."
—Jitse van der Meer, Professor of Biology and History and Philosophy of Science, Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario

"Sound theology meets sound science in this book as Vern Poythress shows us how to see the beauty of God's character revealed in everything that scientists study in the created universe."
—Wayne Grudem, Distinguished Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies, Phoenix Seminary

"Poythress's analysis of the relationship between science and faith proceeds from an unapologetic, undisguised confession of belief in Christ, clear-minded evaluation of the nature of science, careful analysis of Scripture, and honest reflection on the present state of this debate."
—T. M. Moore, Pastor of Teaching Ministries, Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee; author, Consider the Lilies: A Plea for Creational Theology

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