My post on Revelation and Science has raised quite a lot of interest. Even before I finished it I thought of some further important things to say, and further conversations with friends have revealed (if that’s the word) other important points.
One basic point is that a Christian who isn’t a realist about scientific knowledge probably wouldn’t even start thinking of science as ‘revelation’. Scientific realism is the philosophical view that science discovers hidden things that really exist, and I do find a Christian worldview conducive to this view. The Bible speaks of invisible parts of creation – e.g. ‘heavenly’ things and powers, and especially laws and ‘the word of God’, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to hold that the creation includes laws of nature (like Newton’s laws of motion) and/or patterns for non-visible types of entity (like electrons). But we need nuanced approaches that don’t commit us to a ‘naive realism’ view that every time some ‘scientist’ claims to have discovered something, it must be real (a little history of science should be enough to disabuse us of that). And I find the concept of ‘revelation’ unhelpful for developing the nuance required here. But does a good biblical theology endorse this view?
One form of anti-realism focuses on the procedures of science instead of the supposed non-visible realities, and this evokes echoes of a key Bible passage. Isaiah 28:23-29 seems to say that general know-how can be revealed to people by God, within a domain that’s now informed by scientific research: that of agriculture. A prophecy of judgement on Ephraim and Jerusalem seems to be interrupted to portray the farmer’s basic know-how as deriving from God:
Listen and hear my voice;
pay attention and hear what I say.
When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually?
Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil?
When he has leveled the surface,
does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin?
Does he not plant wheat in its place,
barley in its plot,
and spelt in its field?
His God instructs him
and teaches him the right way.
Caraway is not threshed with a sledge,(ESV, from Bible Gateway)
nor is the wheel of a cart rolled over cumin;
caraway is beaten out with a rod,
and cumin with a stick.
Grain must be ground to make bread;
so one does not go on threshing it forever.
The wheels of a threshing cart may be rolled over it,
but one does not use horses to grind grain.
All this also comes from the Lord Almighty,
whose plan is wonderful,
whose wisdom is magnificent.
This seems to make a general claim that technical know-how “comes from God”. Now of course, the context is important. As I read it, the prophet is contrasting the easy ways that people learn from God’s creation in everyday life with the confusion sown by the deafness of the drunken priests and prophets of His own people. “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, ‘This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose’; yet they would not hear” (vv 11-12). Even when God commands such common-sense precepts as letting tired people rest, His people are disobedient, making the average farmer look like a rocket-scientist in comparison (if you’ll forgive the anachronism). If God’s people hear His law at all, they hear it as (I think the NIV translation gets the point here): “do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there” (vv 10, 13). That is, they are far from recognising the principles of wisdom that lie behind the detail of the law, principles that to some extent wise men like Solomon, and ultimately the Lord Jesus, perceived, taught and lived by.
So there is in this passage an exhortation for God’s people to discern wise ways of working because wisdom comes from God. That’s also a core theme of the Bible’s wisdom literature (e.g. Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs), and indeed these biblical writings are also those that come closest to setting out general truths about how the world works – principles that we might see as proto-scientific (a theme that Tom McLeish has developed very effectively). But I don’t think a worldview informed by this theme should see a farmer’s current best practice as coming from God so directly that it might be called revelation. After all, prophets also sharply criticise practices that arguably did work – and perhaps a good example is the charging of interest on loans to fellow-Israelites. If we shift from agriculture to economics, it seems that while interest-based finance can stand the test of time and be considered normal, it might be far from acceptable to God. Indeed, in this case Special Revelation explicitly condemned it. I believe the ban on interest embodies wisdom also for our own time – but that’s another topic.
Is there still a way of applying the ‘revelation’ concept to the sciences? I’d like to hear other Christian views.