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Conflict in the Newtonian Worldview

In the first article of this series I gave a history of the Conflict Thesis and described its origin. In the second I have shown how Galileo’s role in the Copernican controversy is not a good example of conflict between science and religion, any such attempt being an overly simplistic and therefore a wholly inadequate description. This article will briefly sketch – very briefly – the period from Galileo in the seventeenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century in terms of the supposed conflict between science and region.

Stephen Hawking lauds Galileo as the person responsible, perhaps more than any other single person, for the birth of modern science.[1] Galileo’s influence on science was more than a beleaguered theory. Gonzalez explains;

“…Galileo proposed . . . a strictly empirical and mathematical method for the observation of the universe. This was probably his greatest contribution to the development of modern science.”[2]

It was Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who went further than Galileo by applying the same empirical and mathematical method. He managed to show that a broad range of observational data conformed to certain principles. Like the cogs of a clock the universe was a grand machine[3] running according to “laws of nature.” The theological entailments of the “mechanistic” worldview that came to be attributed to Newton were two sided.

First, it cleared the path for Deism, for it was seen that the direct and miraculous intervention of God was no longer needed to explain the universe.[4] Rationalism and skepticism were already a part of the milieu of the age, and Deism was the application of these to religion. There were Deists present before Newton, such as John Locke (1632-1704), but their thought gained in influence when this Newtonian ethos was also imbibed in the culture. The result was thinkers like and David Hume (1711-1776) in Britain, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778) in France, and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in America – all famous Desist. Philosophies that were anti-Christian in flavor, such as Scientism and Empiricism found in this new age of scientific discovery a modicum of credibility, which led to an increasing disengagement with ecclesial authority and Christian doctrine; especially on revelation, miracles and the divinity of Jesus. Brook notes;

“In an age when unprecendented confidence was placed in the power of human reason, the methods and achievements of the sciences were a powerful resource for those who, with a variety of motives, launched their assault on established Christianity. But to reduce the relations between science and religion to a polarity between reason and superstition is inadmissible, even for that period when it had such rhetorical force. It was often not the natural philosophers themselves, but thinkers with a social or political ax to grind, who transformed the sciences into a secularizing force.”[5]

Second, it immediately suggested design, and provided a philosophical foundation for the Natural Theology that would blossom in the nineteenth century.[6] William Paley (1743-1805) was one among many who was impressed with Newton’s work and the idea of the universe working as a clock works unaided. Set against the background of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and people’s interest in machines, Paley rescued the Newtonian clockwork metaphor that was hijacked by Deists and argued that watches require watchmakers. Rather than implying Deism, Paley saw that mechanism implies contrivance: watches require watchmakers: laws need lawgivers. His Natural theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1805) is widely regarded as the most significant contribution to the teleological argument.[7] It had a profound effect on English culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was required reading for Cambridge University applicants until the twentieth century.[8] Paley’s arguments and other publications were direct responses to David Hume’s (1711-1776) critiques. These employed observations of the world as demonstrations of divine agency.

There was a mixed response, therefore, to the “mechanistic” worldview. Science was being used by Christians to help prove – or at least demonstrate the plausibility of – the theological thesis of God’s nature and existence. Science was also used being used in conjunction with anti-Christian philosophies accompanying the Enlightenment to disprove theological theses – or at least demonstrate their implausibility. The conflict between science and religion then (if it ever existed) historically was only because science combined with philosophies that were surplus and separate to it.[9] For Newton the notion of a conflict between science and religion was alien, for he viewed both as complimentary interests. The mechanistic worldview that was given the name the “Newtonian” worldview because it was produced by his achievements, was not one held by him.

This is evident in that Newton distinguished himself with more than scientific and mathematical genius; he was also a dedicated theologian who hoped his work in natural philosophy (or scientific studies for the modern ear) would encourage people to believe in a deity. The motivation for his work, it is argued, was to show God’s activity in the world[10] rather than an absentee architect. He was like Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who famously said;

“I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”[11]

Moreover, Newton had a profound impact on the philosopher, America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who was no small enthusiast of observing and investigating nature and saw no conflict there. Many Puritans in the New World like Edwards were impacted by Newton, and went on to make significant contributions to science, their Christian faith providing the motivation, conceptual framework, and ethical values required for the scientific endeavor to succeed. This was also true for the culture as a whole, for Christians built the first universities providing higher learning and education for a broad range of people to whom it was previously unavailable.

So it is more the case that science was grown and nurtured by Christians rather than pitted against religious thinkers. Newton and Edwards, among many others intellectuals the Enlightenment, understood that seeking scientific truth was a Christian enterprise that showed not only the beauty and wonder of God’s creation but, by extension, God Himself.[12] Dissenting voices were not entirely absent – there were those who thought science disproved religious claims, but theirs was a science wedded to dispositions and ideologies that were anti-Christian to begin with.

The next installment in this series will be on the great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1822) and on the response to evolutionary theory.


[1] Stephen Hawking “Galileo and the Birth of Modern Science.” American Heritage’s Invention & Technology, Spring 2009, Vol. 24, No. 1, p. 36

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[3] “Newton was able to demonstrate that a cast range of observational data could be explained on the basis of a set of universal principles. Newton’s success in explaining terrestrial and celestial mechanics led to the rapid development of the idea that the universe could be thought of as a great machine, acting according to fixed laws.” Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 17

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[5] John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 13

[6] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 18

[7] Ibid. p. 99.

[8] Willaim Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics, Third edition. (Grand Rapids, Ill.; Crossway 2007) p. 256.

[9] Religion, specifically Christianity, also combined with philosophies that were separate and surplus to is as well. For example, in “Conflict for Copernican Controversy” it is explained that the Catholicism made itself the guardian of Aristotelian philosophy and Ptolemaic geocentricism.

[10] Richard L. Gorsuch, Integrating psychology and spirituality? (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002) p. 16.

[11] Alan L. Gillen, The Genesis of Germs: The Origin of Diseases and the Coming Plagues, (New Leaf Publishing Group, 2007)

[12] To work in the sciences, for the Christian, imbibes a spiritual dimension that could be seen as worship. Nature reveals God in a sort-of third testament.

General and Special Revelation

Last time we looked at different sources and norms for Christian belief, and found there were at least four legs that makes the stool a theologian sits on. These legs were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. We also suggested there is another source and norm, and as we begin our overview on the Doctrine of Revelation we will be exploring this fifth leg – creation.

Romans 1:20

For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Psalms 19:1-4

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

From these verses we find that it is possible to gain knowledge of God through nature. It does not say how much knowledge, but it does say that it is clearly evident. In church history there has generally been acknowledged that God is revealed in some way through that which he created. [1] We call this knowledge of God that is derived from nature general revelation. General revelation is contrasted with special revelation.

What is meant most often meant by special revelation is Scripture, but knowledge of God – and of other theological truth – can also be gained directly from the Holy Spirit, through miracles, through preaching, or perhaps through a personal word of prophecy. As noted last time in Sources and Norms all of these should conform to the norming norm of Scripture, which testifies of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible.[2]

There are at least five features of General revelation that set its apart from Special revelation:

(1) General revelation is continuous whereas Special revelation is not continuous. It is continuous because there has never and will never be a time when it has not been available. Special revelation is given at certain times, but general revelation is there at all times.

(2) General revelation is natural whereas Special revelation is supernatural. To be natural is to be in accordance with the order and design of the universe. To be supernatural is to transcend (be beyond) that order and design.

(3) General revelation is available to all people whereas Special revelation is available to only certain people. Special revelation is distributed through the personal agents God chooses to use, including missionaries, evangelists and preachers. He may also use angels to spread the good news of the gospel. Jesus Christ, the greatest evangelist of all, witnessed to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Because God chooses to use personal agents restrictions of time and place are involved. General revelation however is accessible to all people to clearly see.

(4) General revelation is non-specific whereas Special revelation is specific. That is Special revelation has the same content as General revelation, but it has more details and is far more clearly defined. In Romans 3:1-5 Paul explains that Jews, who were entrusted with the very words of God, saw more clearly their unrighteousness and God’s righteousness than did the Gentiles, who were not the recipients of the written law.

(5) General revelation is non-redemptive whereas Special revelation is redemptive. Though the revelation from nature is not sufficient for salvation, God can use it to prepare peoples hearts to accept the Special revelation that is sufficient. The lesser light of general revelation can draw people to accept the greater light of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On this last point we want to be careful, for there is nothing to tell us that there was not once a time when general revelation alone was efficacious to salvation. Some suggest that the point at which general revelation ceases to be efficacious for salvation is the point at which special revelation becomes available. This could be, for instance, when the gospel enters into a culture for the first time. It remains the case however that for most people general revelation is not enough to save, and that special revelation is also needed.

Two questions immediately arise here concerning general revelation. The first is, “Are people who are born blind and deaf able to receive general revelation? The answer is Yes!

Romans 2:14-15

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

Here we see that human conscience is a part of God’s creation. A ‘moral law’ is written on the heart of every person and testifies of God in some manner. So even a person whose experience of the world is impaired by blindness and deafness, they are still able to receive general revelation from their own conscience. Thus it is the case that no one is without excuse.

The second question is more difficult. If there is ample proof of God’s existence in the world so that all people are without an excuse, why are there so many people who do not believe in God?

In the previous verse Paul clearly states that people ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness.’[3] That is not to say that atheists are intentionally lying when they say there is no God. That is to say that human nature is so depraved we can deceive even ourselves. Because people refused to acknowledge God, even though his existence was made plain to them, they were coming under judgment. The following gives us clue on how they found themselves in this tremulous predicament. Paul writes:

Romans 2:21-22

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, . . . [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

What was the result of this? “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (v.21) This was the first step in a downward progression of depravity and wickedness. So pernicious is this trend that Paul, after carefully expounding the gospel, implores his readers to worship God (unlike those who refused to acknowledge him) and be transformed by renewing the mind (countering the effects of not acknowledging him).[4]

Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–74), the Dominican monk from the scholastic tradition, is referred to as the father of Natural Theology. Natural Theology is the task of discovering what we can know about God and his truth wholly apart from special revelation. Aquinas is famous for his five arguments for God’s existence, which all find something in the world that, together with reason confirm that the book of scripture and the book of nature both agree with each other. We will explore in greater depth what Natural Theology can tell us when we cover the Doctrine of God, but for now it is enough to note that general revelation is the field in which Natural Theology is grown, and that Aquinas’ views on how nature and reason together speak of God’s existence became the official view of the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), the great German reformer, though suspicious of philosophy and the scholastic tradition, nonetheless affirms that there is general revelation. Still, he wanted to stress that without Christ the picture was only ever limited and incomplete.

There is a twofold knowledge of God, genaral and particular. All people have the general knowledge, namely that God exists, that he has created heaven and earth, that he is righteous, that he punishes the wicked, etc. But people do not know what God proposes concerning us, what he wants to give and to do, so that he might deliver us from sin and death, and to save us – which is the proper and the true knowledge of God. Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know his intentions. So it is that people know natually that there is a God, but they do not know what he wants and does not want.[5]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer, is sometimes accused of having views that are anti general revelation. If we allowed him to speak for himself, we would see that this is not the case.

In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in out minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place then in our view in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him […] To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advanced prods which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them.[6]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), widely considered to be America’s greatest theologian, also recognizes that something of God’s person and character is communicated to us through the natural realm.

It is very fit and becoming of God, who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His works, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and shewing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to Himself and His spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to Himself. And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct by His works in this way as well as in others, viz., by presenting divine things by His works and so painting them forth, especially since we know that God hath so much delighted in this way of instruction.[7]

For Edwards the magnificence of the visible world was a helpful way to describe God’s own greatness.[8] In this he took his cue from the pages of scripture.

Psalms 103:11

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;

Psalm 36:5-6

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.

Next time we will be looking at the doctrine of Inspiration.


[1] Roger E. Olson. Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 74.

[2] Paul’s experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road was special revelation.

[3] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. see Romans 1:18-19

[4] Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. see Romans 12:1-2

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galations; in Martin Luther Werke: Kritsche Gesamtausgabe, vol. 40 (Weimar: Bohlaus, 1911), 602.18-603.13, 607.19-609.14

[6] John Calvin, Institutes I.iii.1, 2; in Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 3 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1928), 37.16-46.11.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, The Images of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (New Heaven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 61.

[8] Ibid., p. 134.