The Uniformity of Nature and Biblical Authority
“So oddly, Biblical miracles (as opposed to pagan magic) and science are twin brothers with the same patrimony, and they came from the same household. Originally they were not enemies or rivals of one another, but actually implied each other.”
I recently listened to three lectures by the great philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi (“Science, Faith and Society”). A point stuck out at me that was NOT a point he had set out to make, but that struck me as most interesting and compelling.
Polanyi, a chemist himself, while making the point about the necessary hallmark of “tradition” and remaining within the tradition, in science itself (showing that science itself is as dependent upon a “tradition,” just as much as say, Talmudic studies), was discussing what experimental evidence ought to be accepted and what ought not be accepted. It is simply not the case that all experimental evidence is found to be “acceptable.” A good deal of it is too far outside of the parameters of “the tradition” and is therefore simply ignored, or “put on hold” or re-interpreted, or regarded as being the result of faulty experimental technique and therefore, simply mistaken. Occasionally and very significantly, data that is apparently contradictory leads to a new, larger way of interpreting data that brings a reconciliation from larger parameters. But, it is impossible to accept all experimental data at face value. If all the data were accepted, science would end. (1)
Some of the data (and he gives fascinating examples) demonstrate startling things, and if simply believed and taken into the corpus, would lead us to no longer believe in the uniformity of nature, or that it is possible to give a rational account of how the universe functions. Face acceptance would lead us back to a pagan belief that “magic” and irrationality are supreme. It would lead us to believe that in fact as Ovid believed and wrote about in his METAMORPHOSIS: anything can turn into anything else.
But these conclusions are banished from the outset, because the uniformity of nature and the idea that the universe is rationally penetrable are axioms that are a-priorily believed and whatever violates those axioms is automatically thrown out. Nature’s uniformity and universal rationality are not provable dogmas, but are assumptions that all of science depends upon.
Where did these axioms come from?
Polanyi is himself Hungarian, and to understand where these axioms came from, one can turn to one of the other great Hungarian minds of the 20th century, Stanley Jaki. (The three great Hungarian thinkers of the 20th century were Polanyi, Jaki, and Aurthur Koestler. All three knew and influenced each other, and all three dealt extensively with the philosophy and history of science.) Jaki is the great historian of science in our time. Jaki demonstrates that science is the step child of Christian Church and the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
In something I had written elsewhere, I offer a very short synopsis of what I have learned from the great Jaki (and also notably, from Cornelius Van Til, the great Reformed thinker). Here it is:
“Greek metaphysics by themselves, could not support the modern scientific enterprise. The Greeks did not believe in the pervasive rationality of the universe. Ultimately form could not encapsulate matter, and there was always an excrescence of the irrational.
“Modernity would never have happened had it not been for Christianity and the church in the western world. The old ancient world was ruled by various forms of pantheism (the idea that the cosmos itself is in some sense divine) and the many gods that emerged out of the forms and chaos of the cosmos. It was a world of polytheism, and a world in which anything could in some mysterious sense become a concentration point for the demonic powers that the world was filled with. So rocks, trees, animals, men, could rise up and become divine powers themselves. Then, Christianity declared that the world and the cosmos were the creation of the One Triune God who was exhaustively in control of all that there was, even in spite of the Fall into sin and the consequent rebellion that now characterized all things. Christ, through whom all things were created, came to redeem all things from the rebellion that now marked us, and his church was the center point of his presence and of his work in the world in the new era inaugurated by his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven where He sat down at the right hand of the Father. One of the names of Christ is the Logos, which has many shades of meaning, which include both word or speech, and logic (logos is the root of our English word logic). If the world was created through the one who was both the reality of language and logic, it meant that the cosmos itself was reasonable , and could be spoken of. It was not ineffable. In other words, the world could be studied and understood. This great theological reality was what swept away the old pagan cosmos that was irrational, unpredictable, and controlled by demonic and magical powers. The one true God was Himself a God of both reason and speech, and His creation mirrored that. Hence, while the existence of God is what makes miracles possible, it is also the foundation of what came to be termed the uniformity of nature which means that the world is a place of constant causality and stable and rational construction. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity and of creation were in fact, the foundation of modern science. So oddly, Biblical miracles (as opposed to pagan magic) and science are twin brothers with the same patrimony, and they came from the same household. Originally they were not enemies or rivals of one another, but actually implied each other.”
Now, just as the world is the “book” of the scientist, so the Bible is the “world” of the Christian. The uniformity of nature, and the rationality of cosmos are axioms (ultimately derived from the Bible) that cannot be ultimately empirically established, or contradicted. Rather, they are assumptions that make science possible in the first place.
Likewise, inerrancy and infallibility are axioms that are also derived from the Bible (I can only refer the reader to B. B. Warfield’s INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY OF THE BIBLE for the biblical data demonstrating this) and it is also the case that inerrancy can neither be empirically demonstrated or contradicted. It is an axiom, a doctrine, that makes the very doing of theology possible in the first place. (2)
Scientific progress is almost always a result of dealing with “evidence” that appears to undo science, evidence that if taken at face value, would in fact undo the rationality of the universe, or the uniformity of nature. Science, in other words, progresses, as a result of finding a coherent and consistent explanation of a “problem.”
Likewise, theology is only possible if revelation is a coherent and consistent whole. I.e. the inerrancy and infallibility of the whole of the Bible is the basis of knowing what we know about God and His dealing with His world. Problems, or elements or facts that appear to contradict the coherence and consistency of the Bible are, if taken in the proper spirit, the very foundation of progress and the forward movement of theology and of our knowledge of God and His action in His world. But oddly, theologians over the last two hundred years, often in the name of science, have surrendered the integrity of the Bible because of “problems.” In fact, especially with “higher textual critics,” the default position is almost always to claim a contradiction. Multiple editors, conflation of texts and anachronistic “reading back into” earlier texts by later editors are almost automatically assumed at the first hint of any apparent difficulty. This is the practice, even when the results are obviously silly and very easy and less contorted explanations are immediately obvious. There is almost a compulsive addiction to declaring contradiction.
This is the end of theology, just as a similar loss of courage in the face of strange and difficult data for the scientist would be the end of science. The scientists would immediately release us back to a world of myth, superstition and magic. The theologians have certainly done so.
“Fun” is a strange reality and perhaps difficult to define. But, whatever it is, it is wonderful. The “fun” of science is when a “contradiction” is given larger and better coherent explanation. It is the outcome when that which contradicts Newtonian mechanics, and the contradictory results of Michelson-Morley experiments lead to the Theory of Relativity. The sense of crystalline beauty, aesthetic pleasure felt in the coherence of Relativity has been expressed by many as the theory gave a new and deeper coherence to what appeared previously to be a tatters. At the very least, Einstein’s insight was immense fun.
Theologians have often been kill-joys. They need to learn something new about “fun,” and have the courage to experience it.
My interest here is less apologetical, in the sense of trying to make the Bible and its doctrines somehow palatable to modern rationality, and is more along the lines of giving a check on our unbounded, and stifling egotism, which also destroys all creativity.
The scientist is able to be truly “creative” in large measure because he is disciplined by the cosmos that is really “out there.” He might have all kinds of opinions that he would like to be true, that he would even like to impose on the world and the cosmos. If he were a magician, he could do exactly that. He could say the magic words, and the cosmos would obey him and do his bidding. But reality is intransigent, and will not just bend to our wishes. It is also true that reality, since it is the creation of the Real and Living God, is far more interesting than anything we could make up. So, reality opposes my petty little wishes with real experimental data that opposes my petty little wishes. It is frustrating at first, but if I allow myself to be disciplined, what is discovered in the end is far more interesting than my small and petty imagination could have possibly invented. So, Newtonian mechanics appear to be violated again and again with Michelson-Morley so I become increasingly sure that I am not dealing with flawed data, and the final outcome in a great new coherence is The General Theory of Relativity. Relativity is far more interesting than what my petty, magic desiring imagination could have conceived of in the first place. I have been disciplined by reality.
So it is with the Bible as my infallable guide. I am naturally as a fallen creature, overwhelmingly egotistical, and I want to be a magician who “invents” all realities. But, in fact what my fallen and petty imagination constantly “invents” is boring, oppressive, stupid, and “uncreative.” I believe I will create a utopia. Instead, I create a “dystopia” like Orwell saw (1984) or like Huxley foresaw (Brave New World). The real Kingdom of God disciplines me. But apart from a text that I am subject to, I just constantly cave in on myself, and I am back to my own oppressive boredom.
So, as examples, both big and small.
Big: After the NT was completed, what we were left with were a mass of strange and seemingly contradictory texts about who God is. The real adventurers are the ones who submit themselves to the text and find the really big coherence (Athanasius, Augustine). Nicene Orthodoxy by the 4th or 5th century has hammered out the doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation. Really big, really interesting–like Relativity. The small and petty making myself the boundaries are Arianism and Tri-Theism or Modalism, all of which leave us with all of the unresolved dilemmas of the paganism that has gone before,
Here is a small example. Deuteronomy 21:18-21, the law of the rebellious son. The modern progressive or liberal looks at it and says: “See what a barbaric book the Bible is? And how wonderful that we now have the freedom and liberty to say that this ancient book , which in our own way, we of course revere– is WRONG and MISTAKEN. It is filled with culture bound patriarcal privilege, along with some interesting mythologies and some helpful things. But, the Old Testament is in favor of killing your own children. How evil. How terrible. How wonderful that we have arrived and are now superior to so much that went before us. How wonderful that we have risen above our forbearers and and have arrived!”
But what if there is a deeper coherence that is far more interesting than declaring our own superior progressive insight?
This passage is in fact, to my knowledge (I owe this to Dennis Prager, by the way) the first and only place in the ancient world that contradicts the doctrine of pater familias, the doctrine that the father “owns” his family and can carry out discipline all the way up to putting his family members to death with no legal consequence. In this law, the rebellious son is taken outside the family to the elders. Clan and family power is limited. This is to be done by the father AND THE MOTHER, and this is absolutely unique as well. She is as empowered as the father to take him to state courts. And finally, there is not a single known instance of a son being so put to death in all of Jewish history (Except oddly and interestingly, in the case of Jesus. The charge against him was that he was “a glutton and a wine bibber” and he WAS put to death as a rebellious son, Matthew 11:19. A most fascinating fulfillment.)
It is radically different from ancient law all the way up through Roman law, which upheld pater familias.
And here is the other irony, which I see happening again and again. The liberal, who assumes his / her moral superiority in assuming the superior moral insight of their own autonomous moral conscience (which “heroically” defies the Bible) is itself wholly dependent on what the Bible created in the first place. We live in a world where parents and fathers do not kill their own offspring. This did not pop into place the moment we declared our own Cartesian independence, but was created by the Old Testament Law in the first place.
Hence, so often what strikes us as odd, strange, incoherent, in the text of the Bible, is really, when more deeply understood, the very foundation of wonderful, new insight.
(1) “The process of explaining away deviations is in fact quite indispensable to the daily routine of research. In my laboratory I find the laws of nature formally contradicted at every hour, but I explain this away by the assumption of experimental error. I know that this may cause me one day to explain away a fundamentally new phenomenon and to miss a great discovery. Such things have often happened in the history of science, Yet I shall continue to explain away my odd results, for if every anomaly observed in my laboratory were taken at its face value, research would instantly degenerate into a wild-goose chase after imaginary fundamental novelties.” (lecture III of Science Faith and Society)
(2) What one observes in both science and theology is a non-vicious circle of demonstration. In science, uniformity of nature and the rationality of the cosmos, and in theology, inerrancy and infallibility are not empirically demonstrable. However, “subordinate” demonstration is possible. With every fresh triumph of science in giving a new rational explanation to what appears to be contradictory, greater confidence is gained in believing the a-priori axioms. The same is true with the Bible. The more one finds the Bible giving coherent explanation to what previously had appeared an irrational world, or as deeper coherence is demonstrated in what previously appeared odd and contradictory, the more ones confidence in the truth of the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility is strengthened. Some reconciliations are so wonderful and remarkable that they constitute veritable “ah haaa” moments. They are the very foundation of “fun.”
“Fun” is given up when one surrenders and loses ones courage. One is then thrown back to myth, superstition and magic.