Peter M J Hess. Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Editor: J Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen. Volume 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.
Permeating the Western Christian tradition of natural theology is a metaphor expressing the belief that God is revealed in a complementary pair of sources: the book of scripture and the book of nature. The idea of nature as a book was used by early modern writers as shorthand for the design argument for God’s existence. Thomas Browne (1605-1682), for example, wrote, “There are two books from whence I collect my divinity: besides that written one of God, another of his servant, nature, that universal and public manuscript that lies expansed unto the eyes of all” (Religio Medici I.16).
Origins of the Metaphor
The metaphor was born at the confluence of a number of streams: the common human experience of the transcendent, the conviction of the reality of divine-human communication, and the Western fascination for books as repositories of knowledge. The conviction that God is made known through divine works is celebrated in Psalm 19, and Wisdom 11: 6-9 articulates the idea that even gentiles who have not enjoyed the benefit of revelation are without excuse for their unbelief, a tradition persisting at least until the time of John Calvin (1509-1564). The New Testament locus classicus for the natural knowledge of God is the Pauline declaration, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20).
The elements of what would become the “book of nature” metaphor are scattered throughout Patristic literature. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) built his second-century apologetic upon the Stoic idea of the logos spermatikos, arguing that the world is permeated by seeds of the divine word (Second Apology VIII), and Irenaeus (c. 130-200) provided the two essential ingredients of the theme in the works and the word of God (Adversus haereses, Book I, ch. 20). Tertullian (c. 160-225) regarded the works of God as an important revelatory counterpart to the Bible (Adversus Marcionem, Book II, ch. 3). For Augustine of Hippo (354-430) the book of the heavens provided milk for the spiritually immature (Confessions, Book XIII, ch. 18.23, 26). The closest thing to a formal Patristic statement of the metaphor of “the book of nature” may be found in John Chrysostom’s (c. 347-407) Homilies to the people of Antioch, in which he declared that nature serves the function of a book of revelation: “Upon this volume the unlearned, as well as the wise man, shall be able to look, and wherever any one may chance to come, there looking upwards towards the heavens, he will receive a sufficient lesson from the view of them …” (Homily IX. 5).
The metaphor became firmly established in the Middle Ages, expressing a mature binary epistemology of revelation. Alain of Lille (c. 1128-1203) held every created thing to be like a book; Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1142) regarded both the creation and the incarnation as “books” of God, comparing Christ—as primary revelation—to a book. Bonaventure (c. 1217-1274) suggested that there are three volumes: sensible creatures are “a book with writing front and back,” spiritual creatures are “a scroll written from within,” and scripture is “a scroll written within and without” (Collations on the Hexaemeron 12.14-17). For Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) the first element of the threefold knowledge of divine things is “an ascent through creatures to the knowledge of God by the natural light of reason” (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV.1.3). For the poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the godhead is the book in which all the loose pages scattered throughout the universe will eschatologically be bound in one volume (Paradiso XXXIII). Raymond of Sabunde (d. 1436) gave the metaphor its fullest medieval articulation in his Theologia Naturalis sive Liber Creaturarum. He regarded every created thing as a letter written by the finger of God, and human beings as the first letters of this book. His work attracted the attention of the censors, however, because of his incautious opinion that the book of nature is more accurate than the Bible, and his assertion of the preeminent importance of natural knowledge; it was placed on the Index (the official list of books prohibited by the Roman Catholic church) in 1595.
Early Modern Variations on the Theme
The “book of nature” enjoyed its greatest currency in the early modern period. The emphasis of the Reformers on the literal sense of scripture cut through the profusion of “meanings” and “signatures” found by medieval scholars in nature and reinforced the idea of there being two books. However, the book of nature was clearly subordinate to biblical revelation in Calvin’s theology, which held scripture to be a necessary corrective to the deficiencies of nature (Institutes I.6.1). The Reformed tradition retained this Calvinist interpretation of the two books in the Belgic Confession adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church. In contrast, Paracelsus (1493-1541) suggested an empirical approach: Whereas scripture was to be explored through its letters, the book of nature had to be read by going from land to land, since every country was a different page.
The metaphor was affected in the seventeenth century by both the elaboration of natural theology and the development of the sciences in novel empirical and theoretical directions. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) saw purpose in all of nature and suggested that if René Descartes (1596-1650) wanted to prove the existence of God, he ought to abandon reason and look around him, and that the two books were not to be kept on separate shelves. Although Francis Bacon (1561-1626) seems in practice to have kept the two books distinct, he articulated their essential complementarity:
The scriptures reveal to us the will of God; and the book of the creatures expresses the divine power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the scriptures, by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon his works. (The Advancement of Learning VI, 16)
Bacon set the tone for the seventeenth-century scientific enterprise in his redirection of the “two books” metaphor toward the improvement of the human estate.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) argued that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, not only implying that mathematics is the sublimest expression of the divine word, but de facto restricting its full comprehension to those who are appropriately educated:
And to prohibit the whole science [of astronomy] would be but to censure a hundred passages of holy Scripture which 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 … Within its pages are couched mysteries so profound and concepts so sublime that the vigils, labors, and studies of hundreds upon hundreds of the most acute minds have still not pierced them, even after continual investigations for thousands of years. (Letter to Grand Duchess Christina)
Galileo’s famous dictum that scripture teaches “how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” should be interpreted in light of his conviction of the complementarity of the two books.
The metaphor flourished in the natural theological climate of seventeenth-century England, particularly in the “physico-theology” of the Boyle Lectures. But its two terms were not always held in comfortable balance. The dissenting theologian Richard Baxter (1615-1691), for example, argued that “nature was a ‘hard book’ which few could understand, and that it was therefore safer to rely more heavily on Scripture” (The Reasons for the Christian Religion, 1667). In contrast, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) saw nature as perhaps more truly the source of divine revelation than the Bible, although he spent decades of his life investigating the prophetic books. Frank Manuel, in The Religion of Isaac Newton (1974), argues that in virtually abolishing the distinction between the two books, which Newton revered as separate expressions of the same divine meaning, Newton was attempting to keep science sacred and to reveal scientific rationality in what was once a purely sacral realm, namely, biblical prophecy. By the early eighteenth century there was a significant faction within the Royal Society opposed to any mention of scripture in a scientific context.
Decline and Survival
Although the metaphor of the book of nature persisted vigorously into the nineteenth century, various movements began to undermine its cogency. The Enlightenment critiques of David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) undermined the project of natural theology in broad strokes, and the Deist movement challenged the uniqueness of the Christian revelation. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) asked defiantly, “Do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture, called the creation” (The Age of Reason, 1794).
Other trends exercised equally damaging effects. The revolutions in geology and biology eroded longstanding traditions of a young Earth and an immutable creation, and wore away the bedrock beneath a coherent “book of nature” temporally coextensive with the “book of scripture.” Charles Babbage (1791-1871) advanced a view in his Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838) that seems to verge almost on asserting the superfluity of scriptural revelation in light of the book of nature. Parallel to the “historicization” of geology and biology, the development of an historical critical approach to study of the scripture affected the “two books” theme no less, challenging profoundly rooted tradition about the Bible constituting an integral and timeless record of the Word of God.
Despite the developments outlined above, the metaphor continued to thrive during the nineteenth century among both conservative anti-Darwinians and more liberal thinkers who enthusiastically adopted the principles and discoveries of contemporary science. A decade after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, Herbert Morris (1818-1897) argued that scripture and nature represent respectively the verbal and the pictorial aspects of divine wisdom, correlating the “inspired record of creation” with contemporary science (Science and the Bible, 1871). Paul Chadbourne (1823-1883) regarded nature as an unchangeable record, written in the language of the sciences of which geology comprised the most clearly comprehended volume (Nature and the Bible from the Same Author, 1870). Geologist Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901) declared that “the whole object of science is to construct the theology of the divine revelation in nature.” Although quite clear about the limits of science as a commentary on the book of scripture, he held that “of these two books, nature is the elder born, and in some sense, at least, may be considered the more comprehensive and perfect” (Religion and Science, 1902).
The innovations in hermeneutics and science pushed the more religiously conservative wings of society in a precritical direction of maintaining verbal inerrancy and defending the ancient understanding of Earth history. The metaphor of the “book of nature” would gain weight as one of the cornerstones of their position, thriving in evangelical and fundamentalist-creationist circles right through the end of the twentieth century.
However, in both liberal and neo-orthodox theology the metaphor of “God’s two books” entered into steady decline after 1900. Parallel to the development of historical geology and biblical criticism was the erosion of confidence that one can easily interpret natural processes teleologically, as William Paley (1743-1805) had once argued. The discovery of extinction in the fossil record challenged the ancient assumption of the immutability of species, rendering it increasingly difficult to read the “book of nature” as self-evidently revealing the divine plan, or at least a plan worthy of admiration. Additionally, the metamorphosis of “natural philosophy” and “natural history” into the variety of sciences as they are known today undercut both terms in the metaphor of “God’s two books.” As each new scientific discipline developed its own sphere of study, the “nature” underlying the “book of nature” lost its metaphorical coherence, and the replacement of science as commentary on authoritative texts by the empirical investigation of the natural world essentially removed the “book” from the “book of nature.” Finally, the gradual recognition over the last two centuries that the human community embraces a plurality of religious faiths has had the effect of relativizing the Bible as a source of revelation. The “two books” metaphor truly functions only if the claim can be defended that the Bible is the book of scripture.
The complex theme of the “book of nature” has enjoyed a long and convoluted history. For nearly two millennia the metaphor variously framed, constituted, negated, or otherwise reflected the relationship between the two human institutions now referred to as science and religion. If it appears to be a less convincing rhetorical device in postmodernity, understanding the lifecycle of the metaphor can reveal a great deal about the conversation between religion and science.