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God and Creation. God’s Speech in Nature: Truth, Wisdom and Knowledge. © 2011 David W. Opderbeck Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution / Share-Alike. Wisdom, reason, and faith.

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god and creation

God and Creation

God’s Speech in Nature: Truth, Wisdom and Knowledge

© 2011 David W. Opderbeck

Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution / Share-Alike

wisdom reason and faith
Wisdom, reason, and faith

Prov. 1:20-22Out in the open wisdom calls aloud,    she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wallshe cries out,    at the city gate she makes her speech:  “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?    How long will mockers delight in mockery    and fools hate knowledge?”

wisdom reason and faith3
Wisdom, reason, and faith


“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27)

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Heb. 11:1

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

The early Church wrestles with the philosophy and science of its day: Plato, Aristotle, and the Greeks….

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Wisdom, Reason and Faith

Origen (c. A.D. 186-254) (described by Gregory Thaumaturgus):

“He required us to study philosophy by reading all the existing writings of the ancients, both philosophers and religious poets, taking every care not to put aside or reject any…. For us there was nothing forbidden, nothing hidden, nothing inaccessible.”

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Tertullian (160-220 A.D.)

“Credo quia absurdum est”

“I believe because it is absurd”

wisdom reason and faith8
Wisdom, reason, and faith

Clement of Alexandria (150-215)

“Credo utintelligam”

I believe in order that I may know

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Augustine masterfully incorporates authority, faith, and reason in works that remain foundational for all Western Christian thought…

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Augustine (354-430 A.D.)

“Authority demands belief and prepares man for reason. Reason leads to understanding and knowledge. But reason is not entirely absent from authority, for we have got to consider whom we have to believe, and the highest authority belongs to truth when it is clearly known.”

“It is yet necessary that everything which is believed should be believed after thought has led the way.”

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Medieval theology reaches a grand synthesis of theology, Greek philosophy and sciences, and politics…

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Anselm (1033-1109 A.D.):

“Fides quaerensintellectum”

“Faith Seeks Understanding”

In other words: Someone who loves God actively seeks out deeper and deeper knowledge of God.

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.):

Two sources of knowledge: faith and reason

Reason produces reliable knowledge of things that can be observed

Faith produces knowledge of mysteries that cannot be observed (e.g. the Trinity)

The two sources of knowledge are always ultimately in harmony

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

Political crises, wars, the Black Plague, corruption in the Papacy and Bishoprics, the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy and the “anti-Popes,” the intractability of Islam, the abuse of “indulgences,” and new humanistic and individualistic philosophical ideas (start of the Renaissance) rock Christendom…

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

The Reformation (16th Century)

Emphasized human corruption and fallibility and the final authority of scripture as part of separation from the Catholic Church

Most branches of Protestantism continued to emphasize the value of reason, but in varying forms and degrees (as we will see in relation to the early natural sciences….)

Where do “we” fall on Protestantism’s fissiparous family tree?

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Wisdom, reason, and faith

The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy

  • Roots in American Presbyterian splits in the 18th and 19th Centuries
  • Reaction to “higher criticism” and theological liberalism in the 19th Century
    • 19th C. theological liberalism influenced by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers who separated “faith” and “reason”
  • Overbroad generalizations but still generally accurate:
    • Fundamentalists retreated from public and intellectual life and exalted faith over reason
    • Modernists relegated faith to individual preference and exalted reason over faith
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Wisdom, reason, and faith
  • The relationship between faith and reason is an age-old question
  • There is a spectrum of approaches for thinking about the relationship between faith and reason
  • The mainstream of historic Christian thought is that faith and reason are not at odds
  • The mainstream of historic Christian thought – including Magisterial and Scholastic Protestant thought – is that Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience each are important and complementary sources of knowledge
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Wisdom, reason, and faith
  • Protestant thought and culture, particularly in North America, is only slowly recovering from the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Deep and intractable divides remain.
  • Recovering the deep historical Christian tradition about the relation of faith and reason is a key aspect of this process of recovery.
  • Developing careful perspectives on faith and the natural sciences is a key element of this recovery in our scientific culture and is vital to the future health and mission of the Church.
god s speech in nature
God’s speech in nature

Psalm 19:1-4The heavens declare the glory of God;    the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech;    night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words;    no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,    their words to the ends of the world.

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God’s Speech in Nature

Platonic and Aristotelian Greek thought recognize that nature is orderly and coherent because if reflects higher orders of causation…

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God’s speech in nature


“But of a truth every realm of nature is marvelous. It is told that strangers, visiting Heraclitus and finding him by the kitchen fire, hesitated to enter. ‘Come in, come in,’ he cried, ‘the gods are here too.’ So should we venture on a study of every kind of creature, without horror, for each and all will reveal something that is natural and therefore beautiful”

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God’s Speech in Nature

The great early Christian minds recognize the God speaks in creation…

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God’s speech in nature

St. Paul:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20)

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God’s speech in nature

Augustine (354-430):

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience.

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God’s speech in nature

Augustine (354-430):

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

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God’s Speech in Nature

On the authority of Greek science and of scripture, Christians believed the earth was the center of the universe

“Tremble before him, all the earth! The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.”

(1 Chron. 16:30)

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God’s Speech in Nature

The Copernican Revolution, confirmed by Galileo’s observations through his telescopes, threatens to undermine not only specific Biblical interpretations, but the entire Aristotelian synthesis….

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God’s speech in nature

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

“Our Creator has added mind to our senses not simply so that man might earn his daily keep – many kinds of creatures possessing unreasoning souls can do this much more skillfully – but also so that from the existence of the things which we behold with our eyes, we might delve into the causes of their being and becoming, even if this might serve no further useful purpose.”

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God’s speech in nature

Galileo (1564 -1642)

“For the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands. A hundred passages of holy Scripture … teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all his works and divinely read in the open book of heaven.”

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God’s speech in nature

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

A disputed Table Talk….

“Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does [Copernicus?] who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.”

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God’s speech in nature

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

“[In biblical studies] one must accustom oneself to the Holy Spirit’s way of expression. With the other sciences, too, no one is successful unless he has first duly learned their technical language…. Now no science should stand in the way of another science, but each should continue to have its own mode of procedure and its own terms.”

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God’s speech in nature

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

“An astronomer, therefore, does right when he uses the terms ‘spheres,’ ‘apsides,’ and ‘epicycles’; they belong to his profession and enable him to teach others with greater ease. By way of contrast, the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture know nothing about those designations and call the entire area above us ‘heaven.’ Nor should an astronomer find fault with this; let each of the two speak in his own terminology.”

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God’s speech in nature

John Calvin (1483-1546)

“For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Therefore, clever men who expend their labor upon it are to be praised and those who have ability and leisure ought not to neglect work of this kind.”


“If we hold the Spirit of God to be the only source of Truth, we will neither reject, nor despise this Truth wherever it may reveal itself.”

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God’s speech in nature

John Calvin (1483-1546)

“The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and, in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated persons, he made use by Moses and the other prophets of popular language… the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned.”


“He who would learn astronomy and the other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.”

god s speech and human limits
God’s Speech and Human Limits

1 Cor. 13:12:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

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God’s Speech and Human Limits
  • We are not God.
  • We can speak of God only using human concepts and language.
  • We can never know creation as exhaustively as God knows it.
  • Yet we trust that God created us and enables us to learn real truth, even if slowly and provisionally
  • Therefore we have a “proper confidence” (L. Newbigin) in historical, theological, and scientific knowledge
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God’s Speech and Human Limits
  • We have a “proper confidence” (L. Newbigin) in historical, theological, and scientific knowledge
    • Circumstantial evidence about the past is not illusory and cannot be interpreted without restraints
    • The assumption that nature operates in accordance with uniform law-like parameters is necessary for any sort of reliable knowledge and is a deeply Christian concept
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God’s Speech and Human Limits
  • We have a “proper confidence” (L. Newbigin) in historical, theological, and scientific knowledge
    • It is never adequate or responsible – in fact, it is impossible from a Christian framework – to ignore God’s revelation to us in Christ, Scripture, and the Church
    • The starting point for Christian epistemology (“how we know things”) is giftand faith:
      • The gift of creation with contingent order;
      • The gift of our creation in God’s image with the capacity to know God;
      • The gift of faith in the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.
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God’s Speech and Human Limits
  • We have a “proper confidence” (L. Newbigin) in historical, theological, and scientific knowledge
    • So: true understanding is embedded in creation but always proceeds from faith
    • Because all knowledge is a gift from God, it is never adequate or responsible simply to oppose scripture against apparently reasonable inferences from historical circumstantial evidence
      • To deny history is to deny creation and to deny God Himself
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God’s speech in nature

Psalm 19: Nature and TorahThe heavens declare the glory of God;    the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech;    night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words;    no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,    their words to the ends of the world.

god s speech in nature42
God’s speech in nature

Psalm 19: Nature and TorahYet their voice goes out into all the earth,    their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun. It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,    like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens    and makes its circuit to the other;    nothing is deprived of its warmth.

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God’s speech in nature

Psalm 19: Nature and Torah

The law of the LORD is perfect,    refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,    making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right,    giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant,    giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure,    enduring forever. The decrees of the LORD are firm,    and all of them are righteous.

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God’s speech in nature

Psalm 19: Nature and Torah

They are more precious than gold,    than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey,    than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned;    in keeping them there is great reward.

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God’s speech in nature

Psalm 19: Nature and Torah

But who can discern their own errors?    Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins;    may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless,    innocent of great transgression.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart    be pleasing in your sight,    LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Image Sources:

All images Wikimedia Commons.