Revelation and Nature

In studying the relationship between revelation and nature, we will see here the attempt, the deification and the failure of natural sciences to provide a comprehensive worldview to explain all existence. After exposing the failure of the science of nature, Herman Bavinck shows us the way to reconciliation by way of revelation.

Here are the sub-topics described in this chapter:

  • An Unnecessary Chasm Created by the Natural Sciences
  • No Universal Formula
  • Reliance of Natural Sciences on Metaphysics
  • The Difficulty in Adopting Scientific Monism
  • Deification of Nature
  • The Necessity of the Doctrine of Creation
  • Problem of Misery and Human Suffering

An Unnecessary Chasm Created by the Natural Sciences

Basic to the character of natural sciences due to the influence of empirico-scientific worldview is the denial of the role of God in its sphere. As a result, this attitude created a twofold gap, which Bavinck categorizes as both objective and subjective. Objectively, this gap manifests “in the sphere of reality, between God and man, and, subjectively, in man, between his intellect and heart, between his faith and knowledge. . . .” (p. 83). Hence, this explains the dominance of the modern dualistic worldview.

This dualistic point of view is an inevitable outcome of a faulty conception about the relationship of three basic realities: God, the world, and man. “The conception which we form of them, and the relation in which we place them to one another, determine the character of our view of the world and of life, the content of our religion, science, and morality”, says Bavinck (ibid.). In this kind of worlview, it is generally believed that natural sciences lose their scientific character if they will take God into their consideration. The study of God is only proper in the sphere of theology, but not in the natural sciences.

This dualistic perspective is impossible, says Bavinck. This is because “God does not stand apart from the world, much less from man, and therefore the” natural sciences are not completely disconnected from the knowledge of God (ibid.). The task of theology is to provide a scientific explanation of God’s revelation. In this sense, it occupies a unique place in the study of the knowledge of God, but this does not mean that other sciences are totally free from the revelation of God. Bavinck explains:

“But this revelation addresses itself to all men; the religion which is founded on it is the concern of every man, even of the man of science and the investigator of nature; for all men, without exception, the knowledge of God is the way to eternal life”, (pp. 83-84).

To persist in such dichotomy is detrimental to humanity. It creates an unnecessary tension in man by dividing “himself into halves” and separating “his faith from his knowledge. . . .” (p. 84).

No Universal Formula

The reason for such rejection of God and his revelation in the natural sciences is due to the ambition of man to provide a universal explanation of all things apart from God. It has been accepted that the concept of evolution has accomplished this goal.

Bavinck denies the possibility of such universal explanation without reference to the revelation of God. For Bavinck, the obvious characteristic of life is “not uniformity, but differentiation and totality” (p. 85). It is wrong therefore for natural sciences to claim that evolution provides “a formula of world-expalnation” and “a system of world-conception” (ibid.). By doing this, natural sciences have abandoned their sphere and have crossed into the realm of philosophy. Revelation is not within their scope of expertise, and natural sciences therefore have no credibility to provide such universal formula.

Natural science is “perfectly free in its own sphere” (p. 86). However, it has to acknowledge “its limitations and that it shall not form a conception, out of the narrow sphere in which it works, in which no room is left for the soul and immortality, for intelligence and design in the world, for the existence and providence of God, for religion and Christianity” (ibid.). Furthermore, it has to “maintain its ethical character, and shall not put itself at the service of the evil inclination of the human heart in its endeavor to explain the world without God and to erect itself into a self-supporting and self-sufficient divinity” (ibid.).

The attitude of Haeckel exemplifies the refusal of natural science to accept this limitation. Haeckel claims “that every one who still believes in a soul, or a principle of life, deserts the domain of science, and seeks refuge in miracles and supernaturalism” (p. 87). Bavinck quotes a contrary opinion from both von Hartmann and Ostwald. For von Hartmann, a scientist that accepts the limitation of the mechanical explanation of the world, and finds another way of explanation still retains its scientific character. “Ostwald has even called the mechanical view of the world ‘a mere delusion'” (ibid.). And then Bavinck made this observation:

“In fact, the conception that the world as a whole and in all its parts is one vast machine is so absurd and self-contradictory that it is difficult to understand how it could even for one moment have satisfied and dominated the human mind. For aside from the fact that even a machine would postulate an intelligent maker, the other fact remains that a machine which is eternally self-moving, and never has ceased to work and never will cease to do so, is in conflict with all our experiences and all our thinking” (ibid.).

Reliance of Natural Sciences on Metaphysics

The attempt of natural science to provide a universal formula to explain the phenomena in the world is beyond its sphere. Its idea of the world as an eternally self-moving machine requires an explanation beyond itself. Its very existence is a mystery, “a riddle”, and necessitates the need for metaphysics (pp. 87-88). In fact, natural science has been using terms and ideas that are not taken from itself, but from metaphysics. Bavinck explains:

“Ideas like ‘thing’ and ‘property,’ ‘matter’ and ‘force,’ ‘aether’ and ‘movement,’ ‘space’ and ‘time,’ ’cause’ and ‘design,’ are indispensable to natural science; but they are derived from metaphysics” (p. 88).

Each of these words in itself is a mystery that requires an explanation. Therefore, the science of nature cannot escape the question of origin, which is beyond its scope. To think that the eternality of matter answers this question is no longer a scientific answer, but a dogma that comes from faith. This is simply because it accepts that the ultimate causes of things is beyond human knowledge. It requires faith, the very thing that science ridicules, but ascribes to itself. Quoting Lodge, the scientific explanation of the origin of all things is nothing but a “guess-work”, says Bavinck (p.89). And again, taking Kant’s ideas, Bavinck states, “The affirmation that the world has had no beginning and has no limits, involves us in the self-contradictions of an infinite time and an infinite space, for the sum total of finite parts, however many they may be, can never equal infinitude” (p. 90).

And so in answering this question about the origin of things, the science of nature cannot find answer within itself. Its view of eternal matter to provide an explanation for all things is not only an “unjustified assumption”, but also a scientific monistic abstraction that cannot be confirmed by reality characterized by diversity. Only metaphysics, the realm of faith can provide answer to this question.

True unity that does not destroy diversity “but rather includes and enfolds it, may come, and can come, only when the entire world is conceived as the product of the wisdom and power which reveal God’s eternal plan” (p. 94). Only the God of the Bible who is both one and many can create man after his own image and a world characterized by unity and diversity.

The Difficulty in Adopting Scientific Monism

The science of nature in adopting a monistic worldview finds itself facing several interrelated difficulties:

The monistic conclusion of natural science simplifies itself, but the mystery of diversity remains unsolved. Bavinck claims that this is ” possible only if the one world substance is elevated to deity and invested with the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, which, according to theism, belong to the personal God alone” (p. 96). This means that “without metaphysics, without faith, without God, physics does not reach its mark” (ibid.).

Scientific monism fails to resolve the tension between being and becoming. This is an age-old question found among the Greeks. “With Zeno, ‘becoming’ is sacrificed to ‘being,’ or with Heraclitus, ‘being’ to ‘becoming'”, (p. 97). For Bavinck, monism cannot accept both, and putting it in a different way, it “endeavors to reduce motion to rest or rest to motion, and thus once again sacrifices the facts of reality to a play of ideas” (ibid.).

Monistic acceptance of eternal motion is only good in paper, but when it comes to satisfy the mind, Bavinck considers it “an intolerable antinomy. . . . For a machine which keeps on working forever, without ever coming to a stop, is an inconceivable and impossible perpetuum mobile. If the world is eternal, it is no machine; if it is a machine, it cannot be eternal” (pp. 97-98).

Other difficulties include “the nature of motion” and “the law of causality” (pp. 98-100), “natural laws” (pp. 100-102), and meaning and design of the world (pp. 102-103).

Deification of Nature

In its final stage, such scientific monism leads to “superstition” (p. 103). This means that the final destination of such act of separating nature from its Creator and the rejection of nature as God’s revelation has no intellectual basis. Without God and his revelation, human mind and life go nowhere. At the same time, such denial elevates creation and aims to replace its Creator.

This deification of nature is evident in scientific books, literature, and art. Investigators of nature use concepts borrowed from human personality to describe the world. In literature and arts, we see a revival of mysticism where man is shown “as powerless over aginst nature” (p. 105). This trend is the exact opposite of previous accomplishment. Paganism is replacing the Christian view of the world. And so we hear the growing influence of popular “movements of theosophy and spiritism, of telepathy and astrology” (ibid.). All of them help for mankind to bow before the earth, and exchange “the royal liberty of man into fatalistic subjection” (ibid.).

So man in abandoning his relationship with God has also lost his true relationship with the world. Compared to other religions, Christianity is unique in granting man freedom from the world. “In the polytheistic religions of India and China, Babylon and Egypt, Greece and Rome, man cannot obtain his freedom over against nature, because all creatures, plants and animals, woods and trees, mountains and brooks, stars and suns, are conceived as inhabited by gods or spirits” (p. 106). This creates fear and anxiety. But in Christianity, man is delivered from such fear for his relationship with God tells him that he is above nature, and in fact the apex of nature. And so the deification of nature has no place in Christianity. On the other hand, the other tendency, “contempt of nature” (ibid.) is also inconsistent to the tenets of Christianity. Man as ruler of the world under God takes his assignment with “highest responsibility” (ibid.), which is contrary to the destruction and abuse of nature.

The Necessity of the Doctrine of Creation

At this point, we see the importance of a biblical doctrine called creation. Natural science must recognize this if it is not to end in superstition for only the doctrine of creation provides the needed unity and diversity in science. Bavinck explains their nature:

“There must be a unity, which lies at the bottom of all diversity. But this unity cannot be found within the world, for matter and force, spirit and matter, the physical and the psychical, the psychical and the ethical, personality and association cannot be reduced to one another; they do not exist after each other, but each with its own concept and valuation, side by side with each other. Whosoever, within the world, tries to reduce unity to multiformity, being to becoming, spirit to matter, man to nature, or the reverse, always plays false with the other half of the distinction. Thus physics calls for metaphysics; nature itself shows, in the core of its existence, that it does not exist of itself, has not been originated by evolution, but is grounded in revelation” (pp. 106-107).

Revelation teaches creation. Revelation alone can satisfy the human mind for providing the unity that both both scientific monism and polytheism failed to provide. “The revelation which comes to us in Christ . . . . joins itself to the revelation, which nature itself makes known to us. . . . and by its doctrine of creation cuts all polytheism and all dualism up by the roots. Not only mind but also matter, not only man but also nature, is of divine origin, and has lain in the thought of God before it came into being” (p. 107).

As already mentioned, the doctrine of creation places man in a twofold relationship with the world. As to the substance where man is taken, he is one with the world. And since such substance came from the hand of God, the world can be considered sacred and good. There is nothing in the world that is strange to man.

But on the other hand, man is also different from the world. “He is the son, the image, the similitude of God, his offspring. Thereby he is elevated above animal and angel, and destined and fitted for dominion over all the world. In this relation of man to God and to the world is the foundation laid and the origin given of all science and art” (pp. 107-108).

Problem of Misery and Human Suffering

Against this theistic monism, the only argument advanced is the reality of misery and human suffering. This argument is not easy to handle. Bavinck takes it seriously and considers it “a touching and heart-breaking fact” (p. 110). See how Bavinck describes the fact of human misery:

“The whole creation is in travail. Anguish is the fundamental trait of all living things. A great secret pain throbs through nature. Everywhere the lawless, the chaotic, lies at the base of the orderly; there is an inexplicable restlessness in all things. Vanity, change, death are written on all existing things. Humanity walks by the margin of an abyss of guilt. It perishes under the anger of God and is troubled by his wrath” (ibid.).

With such a serious argument, how should a Christian theist respond? Bavinck is aware that numerous answers have been given so far to explain the fact of human misery.

“Both philosophy and theology have made many attempts to solve this problem. It has been sought to find the explanation of misery, metaphysically, in the finite, or to give it, aesthetically, a part in the harmony of the world as a whole, or to interpret it, pedagogically, as a strengthening of man’s spiritual life. The infralapsarians have deduced it from the justice of God. Others, with Lotze, have despaired of finding any explanation, or have even taken refuge in a limitation of God’s omnipotence and wisdom, and have found in matter or in the laws of nature a limit to his working” (ibid.).

Bavinck acknowledges that such answers contain a kernel of truth, but “the misery of the world is too great and too diversified to be explained from any single cause, or to be subsumed under any single formula” (ibid.). And so man accepts the reality that this world is indeed full of misery, of chaos, and man can trust no one but himself to make this world good, orderly, and true.

Such autonomy ignores the real nature of misery and suffering. It cannot be found in the conflict between man and his world, but within himself. Bavinck describes the struggle as ethical in nature rather than perceiving it as primarily physical. And this is proven “by the fact that all the acquisitions of culture, however rich they may be, do not quiet the restlessness of the heart and are unable to silence the voice of conscience” (p. 111).

And here lies the testimony of our faith. It does not rationalize pain and suffering, and it does not rebel against them, but humbly and patiently accepts them, and by doing so, faith overcomes misery and pain.

“Moreover, according to the testimony of the heroes of our race, all the misery of the world can be overcome by faith. And that is the only way which revelation —that in nature already, but far more plainly that in the Scriptures— points out to us for the reconciliation of the discord. It makes no effort to explain all the suffering of the world. It allows it to remain where it is and accepts it: accepts it so fully that no pessimistic literature can surpass the pathos of its complaint. But revelation does not incite man to resistance and rebellion, but lays bare to his consciousness the guilt in his own life. It casts him down in his littleness, and says to him, Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God? But then, also, it immediately raises him from his humiliation; it preaches to him no stoical apathy or fatalistic acquiescence in things, but it makes him through the Word to know the will of God to save the world notwithstanding all its misery, and it fills his soul through the Spirit with the patience of faith, so that weak man can endure all his pain, can glory in tribulation, and, with God, can overcome the world. If God is for us, who can be against us? And this is the only victory which overcomes the world, even our faith” (pp. 111-112).

Reference: Bavinck, Herman. The Philosophy of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953.