Christianity, Reformed, Issues in Science and Religion

E David Willis. Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Editor: J Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen. Volume 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.

The term Reformed theology, though sometimes used synonymously with Calvinism, refers more broadly to doctrines traceable to a group of sixteenth-century reformers that included Guillaume Farel (1489-1565), John Calvin (1509-1564), Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), Heynrich Bullinger (1504-1575), John Knox (1505-1572), and, arguably, Johannes Bucer (1491-1551) and Peter Vermigli (1500-1562). Nonetheless, it was Calvin in the various editions of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536-1560) who more than anyone set the main trajectories of Reformed theology.

Early Reformed Senses of Nature

Calvin likens Scripture to spectacles by which one can read the benevolent purpose of creation, which includes both the delight and the utility of nature. There is no suggestion that Calvin thought Scripture was a substitute for physical inquiry regarding matters of what are today called the natural sciences. At the same time, there is no evidence that he closely followed the latest scientific discoveries; his relative indifference to the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) is itself, in retrospect, a glaring omission. The necessities of international diplomacy for the Reformed movement, its political theory and practice, demanded more of his attention than did the astronomy of the time. Calvin still worked within a framework that resisted the notion that the Earth moved. He never reached the point of Thomas Digges (d. 1595), who argued that such a movement within a huge expanse of extremely distant stars redounded to God’s glory. Digges belongs to that significant group of people active in the transition from a modified Aristotelian natural philosophy to a Newtonian physics. Gisbert Voetius (1589-1676), who sought to hone his particular version of Aristotelianism and who argued for proscribing the writings of René Descartes (1596-1650), was a kind of throwback. That exception, however, is far outweighed by the works of one of the great forerunners of modern science, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and of Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

The senses in which the word nature and its several translations are used by Reformed theologians are even more numerous than those inherited from classical antiquity and the early church. The best way, drawing on Ronald Hepburn in “Philosophical Ideas of Nature” (1967), of getting at this usage is to note the analogies the Reformed theologians chose to deal with the perennial questions about fundamental reality comprising the world and its structure. Those questions are regarded as perennial largely because of the opulence of analogies used by different streams of classical philosophy: geometrical and mathematical analogies in the case of Anaximander and Pythagoras, archetypal and intellective analogies in the case of Plato, organic and motional in the case of Aristotle, cosmic and cyclical in the case of the Stoic philosophers. In these discussions, the terminology was richly varied, especially when translated from one language to another. The word natura sometimes translated physis (“nature”), sometimes ousia (“being”); sometimes substantia (“substance”) translated them both. When used in Christian doctrine, a workable agreement about several major terms was achieved by the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451), whereby in the West persona (“person”) translated hypostasis (“way of being”), substantia translated the unique ousia of the Trinity, and naturae translated the two physeis united in the incarnation. Even so, the socalled monophysite controversy (over whether the one person Jesus Christ had only one nature) showed that this usage was not universally accepted. Each of the main terms had its own history during the course of medieval philosophy.

Nature and Grace In Reformed Orthodocy

Following one medieval tradition, Reformed theologians sometimes used the term nature in contrast to grace, sometimes as a synonym for the whole of creation including human life, and sometimes as a synonym for the whole of creation excepting human life. What seems best to characterize their view of nature is that they could draw on any of a number of analogies, so long as the analogies served a view of the universe as that which is created by God out of nothing and is providentially sustained for an ultimately good end. Or, to put it another way, benevolent teleology governed their cosmology in such a way that critical inquiry into the basic structure of reality was encouraged. In their history of interpretation, they read 2 Corinthians 4:6 as making the connection between the human nature united to the eternal word in the incarnation and nature as the whole cosmos brought into being by God’s efficacious word: “It is God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the face of Christ.” According to Johann Heinrich Heidegger (1633-1698), the reason God created was to share his love with another. In this way God can be called natura naturans (nature which brings about nature), the uncaused cause who created ex nihilo (out of nothing) the natura naturata (nature thus brought about), including the secondary causes through which God’s providentially sustaining word works. The intricacy, order, and beauty of the universe thus benevolently created and sustained (as “creation continued”) provided motivation for the study of nature in which the Reformed theologians were convinced that the hand of God could be discerned; that is, the wondrous correlation between the microcosm and the macrocosm helped provide the kind of validation in which physical experimentation, done with a variety of analogical worldviews, would flourish.

This use of the primary-secondary causes scheme, largely developed to claim simultaneously God’s all inclusive providence and a measure of creaturely initiative, came to be radically challenged. However, depending on who was using the scheme, it could function to encourage physical investigation. Heidegger, in his 1696 treatment of divine concurrence, pushed this idea to provide an intriguing argument for physical inquiry. To discover order in events necessarily predictable according to natural laws is, of course, commendable; ” … but God’s providence is manifested particularly in things contingent” (Heppe p. 248) God alone, says Heidegger, already understands these “uncertain and casual” events which are the subjects of investigation. The distinction between explicable (“natural or necessary”) events and events that are not yet explicable (“casual and fortuitous”) was proving, with more physical experimentation, to be merely formal. Rather than detracting from providence, the discoveries of greater complexity and diversity were thought especially to bear witness to divine teleological benevolence. For example, according to Reformed theologians like Heidegger, God’s glory is more manifest by creation developing over a period of time (creation continued after the singular creation out of nothing) than by a supposedly instantaneous completion. This argument resurfaced later against those who, unnerved by the discoveries of evolutionary biology and geology, insisted on a literal interpretation of the creation accounts in Genesis.

Reformed Responses to Nineteenth-Century Science

There was a considerable range of mutual influence between Reformed thinkers and the rise of modern geology, paleontology, and evolutionary zoology, and two contrasting reactions developed. The first was the reaction of two figures at Yale: James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), professor of geology, and Theodore Dwight Woolsey (1801-1889), the Yale president. Both stood in the broader Calvinist tradition tempered by the Reawakening at the hands of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) a century earlier. Dana found no fundamental incompatibility between the evidences for Christian doctrine and evidences for evolution, though he disagreed with Darwin’s theory of single-line evolution and corresponded with Darwin about it. Dana expressed these ideas on March 29, 1890, in a lecture entitled “The Genesis of the Heavens and the Earth.” Woolsey warned against the threat of positivism and secularization, rather than specifically against the work either of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) or Herbert Spencer (1820-1903).

By contrast, the second reaction was represented by the theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) of Princeton, whose particular belief in Biblical inerrancy, including the Genesis accounts of creation, led him finally to oppose Darwinism as he understood it. He expressed his ideas in What is Darwinism? (1874) However, Hodge’s apologetic counterargument, carried on with an irenic intent not always evident in his followers, was made with what he thought to be the tools of a more valid scientific method. That is, while he opposed Darwin’s findings, Hodge himself believed that scientific argument was not opposed to the brand of Calvinism that he represented and that was heavily shaped by the earlier work of Francis Turretin (1623-1687).

Reformed Theology and Post-Newtonian Physics

With the displacement of Newtonian physics came a new era in which the attention shifted from debates over evolution and Genesis to the implications of post-Newtonian physics for Reformed theology and of Reformed theology for honing questions of scientific method. One major development is represented by the recovery of the seriousness with which theology is to be taken as a science. Such an approach does not mean, as it did with nineteenth-century apologetic theology, an attempt to legitimate theology by arguing its similarity to natural science; rather, it means considering theology as a science in the sense that it has its own procedures congruent with the subject matter being studied. Although the tradition of defining theology as a science had never died out, now there was a recovery of the boundaries and the mutual respect necessary to fruitful dialogue. In this, and in many other aspects of theology and culture, Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a leader, though his influence in shaping the content of the dialogue between Reformed theology and the natural sciences was indirect. It was left to others, especially the Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance (1913-) whose study of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) led him to explore analogies between scientific knowledge and theological knowledge and between theories of relativity and dynamic redefinitions of being. Torrance called attention to Athanasius (c. 296-373) and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, c. 330-379; Gregory Nazianzus, 329-389; and Gregory Nyssa, c. 330-c. 395) whose relational understanding of God’s triune nature has provided material for discussions between theologians and contemporary physicists. Representative of the discussion is Torrance’s Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (1984). James Loder and James Neidhardt pursued this line further, as did Harold Nebelsick from the perspective of a historian of science.