Friday, September 3, 2021

What is the Genuine Reformed View of Science?

Numerous writers claim to defend a “Reformed” view of science (for example, [1], [2], [3], [4]). Reformed theology is grounded in a high view of Scripture. Yet, allegedly Reformed scholars often embrace aspects of mainstream science (e.g., evolution, an ancient earth, etc.) that require a re-interpretation of the Biblical text (e.g. a non-literal reading of Gen. 1-11). This raises the question: What should characterize a genuinely Reformed view of science?  
Defining Science
First, what do we mean by "science."? I shall define “science” broadly as the systematic study of reality, particularly the natural and social worlds, and the application of the resultant knowledge. This includes physics, biology, psychology, sociology, cosmology, technology, and history, among others. Science is grounded in our observations of nature. The observed data are analyzed, using mathematics, for patterns, regularities, and laws.

Science also includes a more speculative, theoretical component. Scientists want to explain reality. Particular events are explained in terms of known physical laws, and these laws are in turn explained in terms of more fundamental concepts, principles, and theories. Thus, for example, our observations of planets suggest a law stating that all planets orbit their suns in elliptical orbits; these elliptical orbits are then explained in terms of a broader gravitational theory such as Newtonian mechanics or Einstein’s general relativity.

Scientists hope to extrapolate beyond their limited set of observational data to draw more general conclusions about the universe at large. This requires various assumptions about the nature of the universe, such as the presumed uniformity of nature (i.e., that the natural laws observed here and now apply everywhere and always).

I shall refer to the basic observations as science1, and the more theoretical explanation and extrapolation of these observations as science2. The Bible contains instances of both science1 (e.g., the description of the Flood in Gen.7:11-24) and science2 (e.g., weather prediction in Matt. 16:2-3).

Defining “Reformed”
Next, we ask, what should “Reformed” mean?

Often the essence of “Reformed” is taken to be some notion or slogan allegedly associated with the Reformed faith (e.g., “general revelation”, “common grace”, or “all truth is God’s truth”), which elevates human scientific theorizing (science2) to virtually the same level as Scripture. Or the label “Reformed” is based on some teaching (or presumed extension thereof) of a respected Reformed scholar, such as 
Calvin’s theory of accommodation or Warfield’s openness to evolution. Or the author is merely connected to a denomination or institution with “Reformed” in its name.

Traditionally, “Reformed” churches were those who adhered to the Reformed confessional standards (i.e., 
the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt). These standards, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, were adopted after deep deliberation by many Reformed theologians. They are still upheld by many Reformed denominations today. 

Thus, I maintain that a genuinely "Reformed" view of science should conform to the Reformed Confessions. 

The Reformed Confessions on Knowledge
The prime issue is one of epistemology, the study of knowledge. How do we know? In particular, how should Scriptural knowledge relate to scientific knowledge? 

The Belgic Confession, after asserting there is only one God (Art.1), continues with how we can know God and His will (Articles 2 to 7). These are worth stating in full: 

        Art. 2: How God Makes Himself Known to Us
We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly God’s invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are sufficient to convict men and leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

        Art. 3: The Word of God

We confess that this Word of God did not come by the will of man, but that men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Peter says (2 Pet 1:21). Thereafter, in his special care for us and our salvation, God commanded his servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit his revealed Word to writing and he himself wrote with his own finger the two tables of the law. Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.Article 4 lists all the canonical books of the Bible.
        Art.5: The Authority of Holy Scripture
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith. We believe without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they contain the evidence of this in themselves; for even the blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.
Article 6 discusses the Apocryphal books, which are secondary to the Bible. 

        Art. 7: The Sufficiency of Holy Scripture
We believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein. The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length. It is therefore unlawful for anyone, even for an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in Holy Scripture: yes, even if it be an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says (Gal 1:8). Since it is forbidden to add to or take away anything from the Word of God (Deut 12:32), it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.

We may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures; nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and are lighter than a breath (Ps 62:9). We therefore reject with all our heart whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us: Test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 Jn 4:1). Likewise: If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting (2 Jn 1:10).
Along the same lines, the Heidelberg Catechism asserts,
true faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word…This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.” (Q&A 21)
The teachings of the confessions regarding knowledge can be summarized as follows: 

1. The primacy of inerrant, authoritative Scripture
The Reformed confessions uphold a very high view of the Bible, as the revealed Word of God. The Belgic Confession affirms that the Bible is the written Word of God, revealed to holy men moved by the Holy Spirit (Art. 3) and, hence, is inerrant and fully authoritative (“believing without doubt all things contained in them,” Art. 5). It is forbidden to “add unto or take anything away from the word of God” (Art.7). Moreover, no human ideas or writings may be put at the same level as Scripture, by which all else is to be tested. Thus, since the Bible is the Word of God, who never errs or lies (e.g., John 17:17; 2 Tim.3:16; Titus 1:2), it must be accepted as inerrant and fully authoritative in all it says.

2. Certainty from the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit moved men to write Scripture (2 Peter 1:20-21), but also witnesses in our hearts that Scripture is from God (1 Thes.1:5-6). Hence, we can believe without doubt all things it contains (Art.5). Also, the Heidelberg Catechism affirms that the Holy Spirit works “true faith” ("a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word") in my heart by the gospel (Q&A 21).

3. The Importance of Observational Evidence
We are to believe that the Bible is God’s Word also on the objective ground of its fulfilled prophecies (Art.5), which confirm that what was predicted was in fact observed to happen.

The Bible itself testifies to the importance of first-hand experience. For example, "many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing" (John 2:23). Belief in Jesus' resurrection is grounded in the disciples' actual experiences:
When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken (John 2:22).
Paul backs up his claim of Christ's resurrection by appealing to eye-witnesses of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:5-8); John, too, bases his teachings on what he has personally heard and seen (I John 1:1-5). Luke writes his gospel, based on eyewitness reports, so that the reader may have certainty concerning the things taught (Luke 1:1-4). Jesus rebukes Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John20:29). Now we see dimly, but then I shall know fully, “face to face” (1 Cor.13:12).

Our senses are reliable because they are of divine origin ("the hearing ear and the seeing eye, the Lord has made them both," Prov.20:12). We need these to hear the gospel ("so faith comes from hearing," Rom.10:17) and to read the Bible.

4. God Reveals Himself to Us Through Nature
God reveals Himself (his power and deity) also through nature, so that nobody is without excuse. However, he makes himself known more clearly and fully in Scripture (Art.2).

Note that nature is specifically said to lead man to clearly perceive only God's eternal power and deity. Unlike the Bible, the book of nature contains no propositional truth, but only pictures of creatures. As such, it concerns only our observations of nature (science1). Its message is so immediate and clear that nobody can plead ignorance of God. 

But how can pictures of visible creatures teach us of the invisible things of God? According to Reformed thinking, Adam's creation in the image of God included "true and wholesome knowledge of his Creator and of all spiritual things" (Canons of Dort 3-4, Art.1). After the Fall, man still retains sufficient ability to perceive God so as to render himself inexcusable (CD 3-4, Art.4; BC Art.14). This innate sense (the so-called sensus divinitatis) enables man to clearly discern God's hand in nature, even though he may want to suppress this knowledge (Rom.1: 18-25).

5. Man’s corrupted nature and limited knowledge
The Reformed Confessions are skeptical about fallen man’s knowledge claims. No human writings or decrees are of equal value as Scripture, “for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself” (Art.7). After the Fall, “man became wicked and perverse, corrupt in all his ways, he lost all the excellent gifts” (Art.14).

The Canons of Dordt (3-4, Art.4) describe man's fallen epistemic condition as follows:
To be sure, there is left in man after the fall, some light of nature, whereby he retains some notions about God, about natural things, and about the difference between what is honourable and shameful, and shows some regard for virtue and outward order. But so far is he from arriving at the saving knowledge of God and true conversion through this light of nature that he does not even use it properly in natural and civil matters. Rather, whatever this light may be, man wholly pollutes it in various ways and suppresses it by his wickedness. In doing so, he renders himself without excuse before God.
Fallen man does retain some knowledge of nature and morality, which some may call "common grace". But it is greatly distorted, so that he does not use the “light of nature” properly even in natural matters (e.g., science). 

A Reformed epistemology acknowledges the following:

1. Our observational experiences are basic, including observing nature (science1) and reading Scripture.

2. The Holy Spirit gives believers the certainty that the Bible is God’s Word; all men perceive
God’s hand in nature (via either their sensus divinitatis or the Holy Spirit). 

3. Scripture, being God's revealed Word, is inerrant and fully authoritative, having the status of divinely warranted eye-witness truth (reliable science1).

4. Scientific theories (science2) should be in accord with observations (science1), which include Scriptural facts. Since fallen man distorts the truth, we must reject scientific theories that contradict Scripture.

In short, a Reformed epistemology, like naturalist science, considers observational evidence as basic. Unlike naturalist science, it accords Scripture the status of divinely warranted eye-witness data. Hence, it judges scientific theories in the light of Scripture, rather than vice versa. 

Reformed epistemology stresses that, due to fallen man’s rejection of that divine truth, there exists an antithesis between worldly wisdom and God's revealed truth. Thus, although worldly science has led to many useful applications, we should be very discerning regarding its inherently anti-biblical assumptions and implications. 

Under the banner of "common grace" or "all truth is God's truth", too many Christian scholars have unduly embraced worldly wisdom, thereby undermining Biblical authority. All of the writers ([1], [2], [3], [4]), noted above, to some degree promote mainstream science above Scripture, and thus fall short of being genuinely Reformed.

[1] Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution by Deborah B. Haarsma & Loren D. Haarsma (2011).

[2] A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture, Dr. Keith Mathison (and R.C. Sproul) (2013 Ligonier).

[3] How do we do Science as Reformed Christians? John Zwart (Pro Rege, 2020). 
[4] Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory (2020 Eerdmans) by Gijsbert van den Brink.



Aye said...

Thank you Dr. Byl for continuing to fight the good fight with this excellent essay. I am particularly saddened by the stance of Ligonier. And they have many followers, which should not be the case on this issue.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Byl:
Thank you for your article about the Reformed way to understand science.

It is very beneficial to quote the relevant Belgic Confession articles. Science and Bible doctrine cannot disagree because both are supposed to be based on absolute fact. The facts do not, indeed cannot differ; men differ.

The problem, as you point out, is one of epistemology: Bible doctrine is founded on propositional absolute truths from God Himself, and therefore has a sound basis; while science, especially modern science, relies on propositions based on man’s limited knowledge, how he theorizes they all fit together in a world that does not need God to explain things. But man is an insufficient base for judging what is true if his “knowledge” ends up being only the consensus opinion and nothing more.

But that is where we stand today, in a church that confesses God’s Word facing a world that rejects it.