The Nature of NatureThe concept of nature is multi-dimensional. From a Christian perspective we can ask, What is our theology of nature?
Human beings in Canada seem to be sharing a resurgence of interest in nature. They are concerned with global warming and melting ice caps. Fossil-fuel consumption may not be a major issue for some, but the price of gas has many people thinking about global resources. Debates continue about how best to curb air and water pollution. In short, people are thinking about Nature. Yet, in conversation, it is clear that the word "nature" is often used with slightly different meanings. Some examples include:
Mt. Rundel, British Columbia
A) forces that are not yet controlled by human beings, such as lightning or hurricanes;
B) habitats that are roughly untouched by humans, such as rainforests and ocean depths;
C) the "natural resources," defined as whatever on earth humans find useful for supporting life or lifestyles;
D) places for hiking, camping, and fishing—getting "back to nature;"
E) everything that is not manufactured by humans, such as carrots, not cookies;
F) a poetic force; for example, one may speak of "Mother Nature" as being kind, cruel, wise, wasteful, caring, and/or indifferent.
As a result, the concept of nature is multi-dimensional. Inquisitive people want to know what the fundamental nature of "nature," is. (In this instance, the word "nature" is given yet another meaning.) Or, to borrow the title of a popular TV nature show, the question follows: What is The Nature of Things? We observe things all around us, but what are they? What is this universe that exists? What is the earth and all that we find in it? What exactly are we? These questions, of course, should be answered very differently by Christians than they are by non-believers. Expressing the question in terms of a Christian worldview, we ask: What is our theology of nature? Before addressing this question directly, a brief examination of how atheists see nature through the lenses of their worldview may set up a helpful contrast and may also clarify some of the relevant issues for investigating this question.
Atheists, as well as many secular humanists, completely deny the existence of any spiritual reality. They deny the "supernatural." (At this point the reader may identify yet another concept of nature embedded in the distinction between "natural" and "super-natural.") Atheists believe that the universe is simply composed of matter, nothing more, and nothing less.
Cat’s Eye Nebula
One atheistic understanding of the universe runs along the following lines: Thirteen billion years ago, give or take a few weeks, all of the matter of our universe was compacted into an infinitesimally small singularity point. Where, precisely, this matter came from is unknown, although currently it seems to have come into existence from nothing. This point of ultra-dense matter that happened to exist, also happened to blow up, and the force of the explosion sent the matter into motion with incredible velocity. For 13 billion years this matter has been moving farther and farther apart, and the universe over time formed stars, planets, and life (accidentally and randomly) as matter interacted with matter, and chemicals with chemicals.
Needless to say, this leaves the ultimate origin of matter unexplained, and the cause of the explosion unexplained (not to mention wildly improbable—the consideration of the odds against an explosion 13 billion years ago resulting in your reading this article today furnishes the mind-boggling statistics employed by apologists in the teleological or anthropological arguments for God's existence). At the risk of an oversimplification, nature for the atheist is pure matter and chance ("chance" here being reified).
In an atheistic universe, where the preceding paragraphs represent the creation – myth of origins, the sheer amorality of the universe raises a host of shattering implications for ethics. Since matter is clearly not moral, why are systems of matter considered to be moral? If a comet hurtles toward the earth, nobody blames the comet for being immoral; after all, the comet is a lump of matter. What exactly, in an atheistic universe, are human beings? We also are nothing but lumps of matter, just as random and purposeless as the comet. This line of thought, rigorously laid out, has caused many atheists to argue for moral relativism. Furthermore, it has caused many first-rate philosophers to argue that morality is actually just a mistaken notion in the first place. Morals are not even real in a universe like this. Some atheists merely confuse their preferences and feelings for actual morals. In the atheist's universe, where nature is pure matter and randomness, it is impossible to affirm morality without being completely arbitrary.
In contrast to the atheist, the Christian believes that a personal, wise Creator God made the universe. The ultimate origin of matter is God's purposeful design, incredible power, and breath-taking imagination. We who live in the universe sometimes fail to appreciate how new and unique is this creation that we often take for granted. Let me explain.
It is important to remember that God is Spirit. He is incorporeal, which means that He does not have a physical body. God is not composed of matter. In His mind, God thought up something categorically new when He thought up matter. We cannot think up anything categorically new. Yes, we can recombine things so that we can create space aliens or comic book superheroes, but we cannot imagine anything that does not depend on the basic building blocks of our universe's material. God, however, has a mind so rich and unfathomable that He designed a universe composed of something completely brand new — matter.
Beyond this, God as a spirit is presumably not coloured. He has no pigmentation. When God created matter He also created colour. We cannot imagine a new primary colour. Again, we can recombine colours to create new shades and hues, but God is a colourless being who invented colour in his imagination—and then by the sheer force of His will actualized it! Amazing!
Thinking along these lines leads us to the Christian understanding of the nature of nature. In the end, we are to think of nature as creation. The universe and everything in it are the products of the creative work of God. Nature has been created, and this truth is supposed to draw us in praise and adoration to the maker. Nature understood as creation leads us to pursue the Creator. People who study nature intensely should be able to marvel at the Creator of nature in special ways. Learning about the facts of the universe should drive us to our knees, lost in wonder, love and praise. The universe is amazing: how much more so its Creator?
We have identified the nature of nature as creation. Beyond this, it is important to identify the nature of creation. Creation is revelation. Nature is creation, and creation is revelation. Carefully read Psalm 19. Notice also how Psalm 19 themes are picked up in Romans 1. Consider God's answer to Job. Part, although not all, of God's answer to Job hinges on the fact that God has designed a physical universe that is beyond Job's comprehension; how, then, can Job expect to know best how God should govern the moral universe? The implication seems to be that Job should have gleaned from creation certain inescapable facts about the greatness of God. Creation testifies to God by pointing beyond itself.
God's creation reveals Him to us in some very interesting ways. One such way is by providing us with raw materials from which God can disclose Himself to us through metaphors and similes For example, God is our rock. This is obviously a metaphor. We have missed the point entirely if we go on to ask whether He is more like igneous or sedimentary. The physical composition of a rock connotes firmness, stability, and strength. God, then, is to be perceived in these ways by us. In a similar way to which He invested His own image into human beings, He has invested some of His characteristics into all of creation, so that when creation is studied, it serves as revelation about God.
Those who have read systematic theology are familiar with the concept of anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms (although the latter are the subject of hotter debates). Anthropomorphism is the ascription of a physical body part to God to help us understand Him better. The Scriptures talk about God's hand, arm, eyes, nose, ears, etc. The point is not that He has these parts, but that He has the capabilities associated with each part. In this vein, Psalm 94:9 asks the trenchantly rhetorical question: "Does He who implanted the ear not hear? Does He who formed the eye not see?" (NIV). Such a question has an obvious answer. If God formed the ear and the eye, then of course He has access to the knowledge that we gain from our physical senses. Of course He knows what is going on. Like our physical bodies, the physical universe reveals some of the attributes of God.
At this juncture we are led to another very important insight into the nature of nature. Nature is to be viewed by the Christian as creation, and this creation is to be viewed as revelation. Are we able to go even one step further and identify some of the attributes that are found in God's revelation? I believe that we are.
We are likely most familiar with the attributes of revelation as applied to God's Word, the Bible. It is quite common to hear talk about the authority of the Word of God. Why is the Bible authoritative? Well, because it claims to have authority. I might claim to have perfect authority, but clearly I do not. God, however, does have perfect authority, and whatever he says is therefore authoritative. So, we are comfortable with talking about the authority of the Bible because it is God's Word. To this central attribute is generally added clarity or perspicuity. (Now, if you have ever wondered why a concept like "clearness" should be expressed using a difficult word like "perspicuous" you are not alone!)
Applied to the Bible, we believe that God's Word is not only authoritative, it is also clear in its message. Furthermore, we believe that the Bible is sufficient, meaning that we do not need more than the Scriptures to understand how we are to live and think. Obviously we could explore and clarify these attributes of revelation at much greater length (not to mention look at some others, like necessity).
Taking an in-depth look at these attributes, however, is not the main focus of the present article. The point of emphasis in this article is that these attributes of God's revelation in the Bible are also found in his revelation in creation. Thus, His revelation in creation is also authoritative, clear and sufficient. This could be argued theologically or philosophically, but one short passage from Paul will demonstrate its truth.
Romans 1:18-20 (NAS) says, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
Sometimes establishing a point from a passage in the Bible requires really technical exegesis, but here it does not. First, note how emphatically Paul stresses God's clarity in revealing himself to people. It is "evident," "clearly seen" and "understood." They are left "without excuse." Why? People have :to excuse—even those without the special revelation of the Bible—because the general revelation of creation is clear and sufficient for people to know him and his invisible attributes.
The problem that Paul identifies is not that creation is insufficient as revelation, but rather that people hate and suppress the revelation that they have. Moving one step further, wicked human beings are judged as being without excuse because the clear and sufficient revelation is also authoritative. It is a clear and sufficient revelation of God's eternal power and divine nature. He is sovereign, and He is the ultimate authority. Human beings have no excuse for suppressing God's truth, because He has every right to establish and enforce His expectations. Creation as revelation is authoritative, clear and sufficient for its purpose. Unlike the Bible, the God-ordained purpose of nature is not to reveal to people the Gospel. Nonetheless, creation functions in its own sphere as a revelation of God's character and our responsibility to Him.
We must understand the boundaries of general revelation. Although creation is sufficient for its God-ordained purpose, this purpose is limited to the disclosure of God's existence and some of his characteristics. Creation does not provide a revelation that is sufficient as a message of salvation. This requires the special revelation of the gospel. Now, if we had never fallen into sin, being born as a human being into this world would naturally cause us to "clearly see" God, and, instead of suppressing this revelation, it would delight us.
Not only is this the case, but God would still be "walking in the Garden" so to speak, and our parents and ancestors would be telling us about God. Note that Paul's argument in this text is not that creation should cause us to know God, or that we should construct a system of natural theology which deductively concludes with the existence of God (although there can be great benefit in natural theology). His argument is that through creation we do know God. This knowledge is inescapable; it is "forced" upon us simply because we exist; yet we suppress it and hate it.
When we seek to share this information with unbelievers, whatever apologetic argument we offer (and there is a great deal of data to work with, from the universe to DNA, from teleological analogies to specified complexity and informational data theory), we offer it to someone who has a suppressed knowledge of God. Our job is to share the special revelation of the Gospel, and to dismantle the unbeliever's ostensibly "intellectual" objections to it. We need to help people see that their worldview is in deep conflict with both logic and facts, but more importantly we need to bring people to the place where they "see clearly" that Paul is right when he says that they already "see clearly" that God exists.
What shall we say in response to this? Let us review the major run of the argument so far. The nature of nature is creation, and the nature of creation is revelation, and God's revelation is authoritative, clear and sufficient for its purpose.
In conclusion, it should be noted that, for the Christian, revelation is designed to lead us to praise and worship the creator. It humbles us and exalts God. For a Christian, it also provides a grid through which we can understand the tragedy of creation (God's work contaminated with sin), as well as its glory (even with the curse, life and the world are still beautiful). Above everything else, it focuses us on the gift of eternal life that has come through Jesus Christ, the one "without whom nothing was made," and the one without whom "nothing that was made could be redeemed."
Steve West is the pastor of Madoc, Ontario, Baptist Church. He says, "I would like to acknowledge indebtedness for portions of this article to the thinking of Richard Lints, Alister McGrath, Alvin Plantinga and Cornelius Van Til. Stan Fowler's editorial direction improved the balance and focus of this article."
Originally published in The Evangelical Baptist, Fall 2007.
Used with permission. Copyright © 2008 Christianity.ca.