The Scientific Method: A Christian Idea
“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Madman (1882)
In Nietzsche’s classic parable (one which every Christian should be familiar), he portrays a kind of prophetic madman (arguably Nietzsche himself) running into the midst of a crowd and declaring that God is dead and that they have killed him. The “they” refers to the people of his day, of his culture, and of the formal church which had become ensconced in liturgical monotony and not genuine religion. By their disbelief, by the idolatry of tradition, and by the people’s lack of commitment to genuine faith combined with their commitment to science and rationalism, Nietzsche believed that they had effectively removed God from the society (something that Nietzsche believed was a good thing).
Christians, of course, have been quick to point out during the years that followed, that the notion of God being “dead” or his being “killed” is an irrational concept. By definition, God is eternal and thus cannot cease to exist by any means — he simply is. Further, God’s existence is not predicated on the belief of his people — whether people believe that God exists or not, whether people worship him or not, does not change his state of being. He nevertheless always and eternally is. He is a self-existent being and all things that exist derive their existent from him.
Nietzsche’s commentary is nonetheless instructive for us for 19th century Germany is not the only place or point in history where those who claimed the name of God’s people had fallen into idolatry and unbelief. One need only read the book of Judges to see this cycle taking place over and over or to read the prophet Hosea to see God’s judgment upon his people because they have simply gone through the motions, doing the right thing in form but not being committed to it. Isaiah, Chapter 1, is another prime example, illustrating for us God’s dissatisfaction with his people as they are distant from him.
In any time and in any place where people substitute the form of religion for the practice of religion, you find an era where this takes place. Read the letters of Jesus to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) — five of the seven were under the criticism of Jesus and two of those five were pronounced to be under judgment. This was a good deal of the reason that a Reformation of the church was needed in the 16th Century and it is the reason that the American and European churches largely need to repent, for very few care at all about obedience to the Word of God , only about maintaining their status quo.
But what has this to do with the scientific method? Nietzsche’s observation was that with the death of God the world would be turned upside down. Now, it can be argued that Nietzsche is using this more as a rhetorical device than as an observation, but let’s run with this statement (quoted above) for a minute. If God is not then there is no authority higher to man to which one can appeal. If God is not, definition becomes entirely human in its manufacture and not eternal. If God is not, then laws really have no meaning other than the meaning which we give to them; and if God is not, there is no reason to assume that the laws of the universe are consistent between one place and another.
The Scientific Method is the process of establishing a hypothesis, making predictions about the nature of cause and effect based on this hypothesis, and then testing the hypothesis to confirm that the actual results match the predictions made. The entirety of this method is prefaced on the principle that the universe is orderly and predictable. Yet, the assumption of an orderly and predictable universe is a Christian assumption based on the fact that we have a God who is orderly and who has created in a way consistent with his orderly character.
Does that mean that no one but Christians can use the Scientific method — or at least that no one but theists? Of course not. The scientific method properly applied is an essential aspect of doing research and science. But without a commitment to the notion that the universe is rationally structured by a rational God, why bother with the scientific method in the first place? Why be committed to the notion that the laws of physics are set and consistent? It is worth pondering the implication of a universe created by an orderly being and a universe that just randomly generated itself without anything to guide it or to order it. In Nietzsche’s atheistic model, we might as well be plunging in every which direction without any basic points of reference like up or down.
A Living Parable
It has disturbed me to see the attitude taken by many toward the creation account as rendered by Genesis One. Even within my own denomination, one which finds its theological moorings in the Westminster Confession of Faith, there are many who have accepted “alternate explanations” of the account. Some have gone as far as to say that those who hold to a literal, six 24-hour day reading of Genesis One are “trouble-makers” in the grand scheme of the theological conversation. Ultimately, people are choosing to interpret their Bibles on the basis of their science and not to interpret their science in light of the plain teaching of the Bible.
As we look at the life of Jesus, we find that he often told parables to communicate spiritual truths. These parables are not simply “earthly stories with heavenly meanings,” as my old Sunday School teacher used to say, but these parables were used, according to Jesus, to blind the eyes of the unbeliever while enlightening the believer at the same time (Matthew 13:11-15). While the parables themselves were not actual accounts of events that happened, the events taking place within the parable were certainly realistic enough that they could have been either true events or based therein.
Yet, Jesus, being the best of teachers, also taught truth through the events that took place around him. One day Jesus and his disciples were in the temple observing the line of people giving their gifts to the temple treasury and amidst the wealthy people who were there to offer great wealth there was a poor widow who gave her last two copper coins and thus Jesus used that historical event to teach the truth about what it really meant to give to God (Mark 12:41-44). Similarly, when Jesus goes to visit two sisters in their home, one is busily working to prepare the meal while the other simply sits at Jesus’ feet to learn from him (Luke 10:38-42). Again, Jesus uses this historical event to teach us the truth about what it looks like when we truly love God with our entire being and submit ourselves to His priority for our life. The fact that these events are recorded to teach us a spiritual lesson does not make them any less historical. In fact, since God has ordered all history (Ephesians 1:11), we should not be surprised to see such illustrations popping up regularly all around us.
And such brings us back to the creation account. There are a variety of objections to the literal ordering of the creation account, but these objections seem to be able to be broken down into two categories: those who reject a literal reading of Genesis 1 due to its conflicts with science and those who reject the literal reading of Genesis 1 due to a belief that its purpose is to teach spiritual truths and not historical truth. Yet, as with these “lived out parables,” the very fact that spiritual truth can be drawn from the account does not take away from its historicity. By teaching that Genesis one tells us of the divine origin of all things (which it does) does not mean that Genesis one is not telling us the manner and the timetable in which all things were created. Just as we should expect that the widow in Mark 12:41-44 really was a widow and that the details around her giving of the last two coins she had were historically reliable and accurate, there is no reason not to expect the same of Genesis one.
To those who complain that it is scientifically possible for the widow to give of her last two coins but not scientifically possible for the creation event to take place in the order or timetable as recorded in Genesis one, I think that the problem lies not with their faith in science (an ever changing field) but with their lack of faith in the miraculous. God does not present the creation as a result of natural events taking place, but as a supernatural work of creation without respect to contemporary scientific explanations. And if the miraculous is going to be rejected at the creation event, on what basis would the person accept other miraculous works: the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of the widow of Zarephath’s son, the Incarnation, or the Resurrection of Christ? If you would deny a miraculous creation, why would you accept the possibility of a miraculous re-creation at the return of Christ? The Bible affirms both without compromise.
I suppose that to be fair, there is a third group that would seek to interpret Genesis one as a non-literal account, and that is a group that fears being mocked and scoffed at by the world’s scientific community. They find themselves frustrated that holding to a literal reading of Genesis one causes them to be catalogued with fundamentalists and fundamentalists carry with them a stigma of being anti-intellectual (and to be fair, sometimes this is true). Yet, in compromising the natural reading of the Genesis one text, they undermine the intellectual integrity of their own scholarship. More importantly, by their compromise they fail to understand Paul’s words:
“But God chose the foolishness of the world in order the disgrace the wise, and God chose the weak things of the world to disgrace the mighty. God chose what is ignoble in the world and despised, that which is not, in order to invalidate that which is, in order that all flesh might not boast before God. From him you are in Christ Jesus, who has become wisdom for us from God—and righteousness and holiness and deliverance—so that, just as it is written, ‘The one who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’”
(1 Corinthians 1:27-31)
In a very real sense, the creation of this world (and all things) is a lived out or historical parable told by God not to give us spiritual fiction, but to teach the believer spiritual reality within a historical event and at the same time, blinding the eyes of those who would seek to explain all things apart from God’s almighty hand. Thus, God has told us the historical reality, but has created in such a way to leave the eyes of the unbeliever perpetually closed largely as a judgment for their unbelief. It is not the praise of the world that we ought to be seeking, but the words, “Well done my good and faithful servant,” spoken by our God—remembering that a faithful servant believes and submits to the words of his master.