An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 6 January 2007

The book of nature

I have never really liked the metaphor of God's two books, ie, the book of scripture and the book of nature. Augustine was one of the first to formulate an early version of what could be construed as the two books metaphor:

"It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe. The pages of Scripture can only be read by those who know how to read and write, while everyone, even the illiterate, can read the book of the universe” . Enarrationes in Psalmos, XLV, 7 (PL 36,518).

Robert Crease also has some qualms about it. In an article in Decemebr 2006's Physics World he looks at 'The book of nature' and concludes:
...the image of the book of nature can haunt us today. One reason is that it implies the existence of an ultimate coherent truth – a complete text or "final theory". While many scientists may believe this, it is ultimately only a belief, and it is far likelier that we will endlessly find more in nature as our concepts and technology continue to evolve. Furthermore, the image suggests that the "text" of the book of nature has a divine origin. The idea that the world was the oeuvre of a superhuman author was the precursor of the idea that it was the engineering project of an intelligent designer. This implication has led some contemporary sociologists of science to succumb to the temptation of characterizing scientists as behaving, and seeking to behave, in a priest-like manner.

The most important lesson to be found in Galileo's image is the need to keep developing and revising the metaphors with which we speak about science.

My problem with the metaphor is it seems to sugest that science is a neutral activity and that it is independent of any religious belief. Frank Manuel in his The Religion of Isaac Newton (OUP, 1974) pp. 27-8, sums it up well:
Those who inclined towards developing the idea of neutrality, or separateness, or autonomy, of science took a position that became epitomized in the metaphor of the two books, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, both created by God as manifestations of His omnipotence and omniscience, but books different in character that had to be kept apart.
And why only two books? Isn't God active in history and other areas as well?

Newbigin also has some pertinent things to say about it:

Graf Reventlow's [Henning Graf Reventlow, The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, London: SCM Press,1984] study shows how, during the latter part of the seventeenth and through the eighteenth centuries, while ordinary churchgoers continued to live in the world of the Bible, intellectuals were more and more controlled by the humanist tradition, so that even those who sought to defend the Christian faith did so on the basis that it was "reasonable", that is to say, that it did not contradict the fundamental humanist assumption. Reviewing the story, one can see how the defence moved through successive tactical retreats. There was, to begin with, the view that God has provided two ways of making himself known to us: the book which we call the Bible, and the book of nature.

Truths which we cannot by the exercise of reason read from the book of nature, are provided for us as a sort of supplementary source, from the Bible. We are not, in this view, part of a story, a drama of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. We are in a timeless world where timeless truths, valid for all times and all peoples, are being communicated in two different ways. As the eighteenth century rolls on, we find that the really essential truths are available to us from the book of nature, from reason and conscience; the truths which we can only learn from the Bible are of minor importance, adiaphora about which we need not quarrel. But inexorably we move on to the point where the Bible is subjected to the scrutiny of reason and conscience and is found to be full of inconsistencies, absurdities, tall stories, and plain immorality.

"What is striking about the books which were written, especially during the eighteenth century, to defend Christianity against these attacks, is the degree to which they accept the assumptions of their assailants. Christianity is defended as being reasonable. It can be accommodated within these assumptions, which all reasonable people hold. There is little suggestion that the assumptions themselves are to be challenged. The defence is, in fact, a tactical retreat. But as later history has shown, these tactical retreats can - if repeated often enough - begin to look more like a rout."

(Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, London: SPCK, 1989, pages 2-3)


An historian working on this right now. said...

In fact the passage from Augustine is about interpreting "the world" in terms of sacred history, not natural history or natural philosophy. He is telling his listeners that the references in the psalm to mountains being moved refer to the coming of Christ and the rise of the Church. And he is telling them to look around themselves and see that the Church is indeed in the ascendant. So this does not illustrate the book of nature in the sense that the trope is usually intended.

But that leads to your question, "Why just two books?", everything in the Creation goes into the book of created things ("creaturae"), including the history of the Church.

an historian still working on this said...

Oh, another point: the Bible is also a creature (i.e., created thing). So the book of Scripture is actually a recursion of the Book of Nature.