God Revealed in the World?

What has Peter Enns to say to Karl Barth? Or what has the Biology faculty to say to the Divinity School?

One of the tensions that underlies debates about Adam, evolution, and the Bible in contemporary Christian worlds is that we often operate with a fairly restricted view of revelation: God reveals in scripture.

Barth wants to stick with this, and decries natural theology.

But, to bring the question up I posed a week or two ago, what if general revelation is, truly, revelation?

In other words, can we say this: “The God who does not lie in revelation of Godself in scripture also does not lie in revelation of Godself in the natural order”?

This would turn many of the questions raised against evolution by more conservative folks back around: did God lie, deceive, or mislead us in the creation of a world that seems, from many different natural vantage points, to be well over 4 billion years old?


26 thoughts on “God Revealed in the World?”

  1. I’m open to correction, but my sense of the section on “The Knowability of God” was that God reveals Himself (period) Even Scripture becomes a medium for God to reveal Himself.

    In the extreme example of nature, Barth uses the case of God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind (CD II/1, pp.115-116). It isn’t the whirlwind that reveals God, but the Word that speaks to Job. I don’t see Barth as undercutting the context of nature as much as its ability to create an independent witness. There is one revelation of God in Himself, and not separate “general” and “specific” revelations. We may have a general awareness of God *in* the world, but He is not revealed *by* the world.

    As someone who studied physics/astronomy in college, I do not see God lying in the Bible, nor in the cosmos. There is one worldview being communicated through two vastly different world pictures. Scripture is normative for knowing God through the story of Israel and Jesus, but that in no way diminishes the truths learned in science. Science is our best tool for learning about the cosmos, but that in no way elevates it to the status of personal revelation concerning God.

  2. One perspective I’ve held for a long time on this question is that there is some major equivocation going on in discussions of science and history. If you start studying modern scientific methodologies and theories you see talk of hypotheses never being provable, about testing through prediction, about how only negative hypotheses can be disproven, etc. But when it comes to questions like “what does science say about cosmology” suddenly all of this gets thrown out the window. Hypotheses about the past can NEVER be established by the scientific method. Just as a random example, I read yesterday about some fossils found in a cave in Australia. It was theorized that the animals fell down in this cave and died there. Well, we can NEVER know if that was what happened, or if some people dumped the bones down that hole 1500 years ago.

    If we believe in an omnipotent God, then one corollary is that we believe in a God capable of creating a world which appeared as a going concern from its earliest moments. It’s difficult for me to even conceive of creation in any other way. For that reason I don’t really understand the whole question about the “deceptive” problem of creation. There’s nothing about a creationist point of view that would rule out, say, ten million year old fossils (even assuming we took Ussher’s chronology as gospel).

    To me the question has always been, what is the fairest reading of the biblical texts about creation and ancient chronology.

  3. Jesus’ gospel was the kingdom of God being at hand (near, or within our grasp). He then went on to teach about many earthly events or situations. He never taught or revealed God as an “Absolute” Being in Himself, but always in relation to His creation. The incarnation is a clear statement that God is not to be known apart from Man and vice-versa. The world’s paradigm of knowing in the subject-object way goes against the very revelation of Christ. Most people however attempt to understand God and heaven as clear objects apart from their own lives. This cannot be done. No man can see God’s face. To try and study God directly is vain. This is why the Jews observe the lunar calendar and not the solar. Man is missing out on the value and meaning of their own lives by their objective study of God.

  4. This sentence from Paul Baxter’s comment above stood out to me:

    “Hypotheses about the past can NEVER be established by the scientific method.”

    I wonder if any scientist would disagree with it. If so, I wonder what percentage of scientists would disagree with it.

    1. Mike, I think this is a good question. Scientists don’t generally think in terms of absolute certainty for or against anything. (That’s more how philosophers approach the discussion.) The scientific community operates on consensus. Can the scientific community generate consensus around a theory about the past? Sure…Big Bang Theory…Evolution…I could go on.

      1. Michael,

        As a non-scientist, this is a bit puzzling to hear. I would have expected to hear that scientists were much more wed to the scientific method that this. That is, given the commitment and fervor they show toward their discovery of knowledge through the scientific method, that they would either eschew theorizing about things they cannot test, or if they did theorize, hold their theories with a much looser grasp than the tight grasp on facts that their signature methodology gives them.

        Moreover, if they expect the rest of us (that is, the laymen from their specialist point of view) to accept that which they come to consensus about, even when they can’t prove it by their own chosen method, why then do they not reciprocate and accept the consensus of theologians (who are, conversely in this case, specialists to the scientists role as laymen)?

        1. Mike, I don’t think I am saying anything vastly different. They don’t take things as absolutely certain, because they do hold theories lightly. (That is what we were talking about.) This doesn’t send them into philosophical relativism. My point is more about the fact that even when measuring with extreme precision, they always calculate the level of uncertainty.

          To play Devil’s advocate to your second comment: which theologians? Reformed? Catholic? Muslim? Jewish? Besides, the revelation of God is not an exercise in consensus. God reveals Himself by grace without regard to consensus.

          1. Michael,

            When you say that scientists “don’t take things as absolutely certain,” and that “they do hold theories lightly,” and “they always calculate the level of uncertainty,” I wonder if you and I are living on the same planet.

            As for your second point, I was speaking of theologians in general (which would include all those sub-groups and more), among whom there is a consensus that we have a Creator.

            As to you statement that “the revelation of God is not an exercise in consensus,” I say “Amen!” For this reason it makes little sense to bend the revelation of God we have in the Scriptures to fit the current consensus of opinion about human origins, scientific or otherwise.

            1. Mike,

              We’re obviously disagreeing about something. Perhaps from these points below, we will delineate why:

              (1) There are good scientists and bad scientists. In general though, I find that scientists are better at holding their views lightly in the face of contradictory evidence than theologians are.

              (2) I interned under NASA scientists and studied at Cornell University. I am open to hearing what your references for scientific research are.

              (3) There are many scientists who believe in a Creator. Please reference the (relatively recent) book by Elaine Howard Ecklund and recent articles by Andy Crouch (Christianity Today). Both are married to scientists and are friends of mine.

              (4) I still say “What consensus?” The kind of “creator” represented in other religions and philosophies has no congruence with the God of the Bible. Also, consensus is not the same as a majority vote. It sounds to me like you are either trying to employ an apologetic here steeped in natural theology or trying to establish a particular scientific theory from the Biblical text. Either way I respectfully disagree.

              (5) The first theologian to suggest a very different cosmology out of Genesis (ie non-literal) was Augustine. The first Jew was a contemporary of Jesus. They were not responding to modern science (obviously), so there is perhaps more room in the text than you imagine.

              (6) The Bible is not a scientific text and science cannot envision a “creator” purely from science. God speaks (period)

              I trust this will be helpful in clarifying our discussion.

              Grace and Peace.

              1. Michael,

                Thanks for the gracious reply.

                (1) I agree with you first sentence. As for your second, I would ascribe parity to scientists and theologians in this regard. I cannot detect a difference between the two groups on this point. Perhaps the fact that you can owes to the fact that you are a scientist (I am neither a theologian or a scientist). Of course, even if it does this does not mean you are necessarily wrong.

                (2) I’m speaking of the apparent scientific consensus that Adam and Eve could not have been historical. I should add, however, that this consensus usually also says that the Bible is unreliable and takes its stand in atheism and agnosticism (64% according to Ecklund).

                (3) I’m aware of Ecklund and her research. It reinforced my perception of the scientific community with regard to their views on the subject of God. That is, a minority of scientists believe that we have a personal Creator.

                (4) I am not “trying to employ an apologetic here steeped in natural theology or trying to establish a particular scientific theory from the Biblical text.” Nor am I suggesting that there is a consensus among theologians regarding the nature and actions of God (and they certainly don’t all agree on the Bible or even all accept it as true). I just suggest that there is a consensus among them that there is a God and that He created us. I struggle to see how you could disagree with that.

                (5) I don’t deny that there is room for variation in understanding of the Genesis account. However, this is by no means the only place in the Bible where Adam and Eve are referenced. It is the totality of those references to them that makes it hard to let go of the idea that they were two actual people. The corrollary issue this raises is how one is to regard the other issues that these other biblical passages raise when they mention Adam and Eve. Modern scientific theory offers no help in this regard. I don’t know enough about the two other views you reference to gauge how well they each address the totality of passages and issues about Adam and Eve.

                (6) I agree with you that the Bible is not a scientific text. We go astray when we regard it as if it were. But as for your claim that science cannot evision a Creator, please consider Paul’s argument to the contrary in Rom 1. Of course, if you think he was wrong in chapter five (and elsewhere) about Adam, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he was wrong in chapter one, too.

                Of course, my answers don’t resolve any of our differences. However, I think your intent was to better understand exactly where we differed. I hope this helps.

                1. Mike, Thank you for jumping in with some very constructive responses. I have a better idea about where you are coming from now.

                  You said, “I’m speaking of the apparent scientific consensus that Adam and Eve could not have been historical.” I hope you will take time to understand why scientists are making these claims. The genetics show that there are diverse populations at work in evolution and not simple chains. To play Devil’s Advocate again, if there is a historical Adam and Eve, then perhaps they were designated spiritually (God’s “breathing” into them) and not genetically.

                  As for Romans 1, here you do seem to be making an argument for natural theology. I agree with Barth, that this is not the thrust of the passage. Additionally, what knowledge we can discern as a general awareness of God speaking to us is not necessarily the same as “science”. But here I will stop and defer to the good professor whose blog we sully with our comments. :-)

                  1. Michael,

                    Your proposed solution of Adam and Eve having been “spiritually designated…and not genetically” might make for common ground. However, I don’t know enough about genetics or evolutionary theory to say. This puts a non-scientist in a place of having to trust what the scientists are saying. How ironic.

                    I wasn’t arguing for natural theology, or against Barth, in any formal sense. I lack the credentials and the knowledge to do so. I do, however, believe that the God who inspired the Scriptures is the same God who created what scientists study. Therefore, I do find it impossible to believe that ne’er the twain shall meet.

                    If you’re stopping now, I will, too.

  5. The problem is that we know that certain truths about creation are not self evident. We know that the world is self evidently flat, that the sun self evidently rises and sets, etc. In other words, what scientists are now discovering is that what seems obvious isn’t.

    Secondly, we continue to combine to separate scientific issues (The age and mode of creation and evolution). These two come with completely different research requirements, they have different levels of hypothetical (we cannot ever replicate the creation of a universe as far as I can tell), and they come with different complications/divergences to our reading of Scripture.

    1. Matthew, I agree that science has shown us that the truth about the cosmos is not always self-evident. To put it another way, it requires a level of abstract thought to get hints about the details. Also different types of science, in themselves, require different avenues of research. Repeatable experiments are only one approach. Historical sleuthing is another. When multiple lines of reasoning converge, that is when we are more likely to create consensus around a scientific theory.

  6. I think a lot of tension is projected onto the relationship between science and theology. Many assume, for example , that evolution and Christianity cannot be synthesized because the bible clearly articulates a creation account that appears to contradict evolutionary development. If, however, we do our best to read Genesis within its context, we may appreciate that it was not intended to be a scientific account of creation. John Walton argues that Genesis 1 is better understood as an ancient creation account, narrating the establishment of God’s temple and God taking “his” place as the high priest.

    It seems that God has created the cosmos with a variety of sources of information to help us learn about the world and about God. If we were constrained by the bible as our lone source we would have an overwhelming number of unanswerable questions. It seems that our ability to even understand the bible would be greatly handicapped by looking solely to the bible for answers without appreciating extrabiblical sources.

  7. Perhaps we could say that general revelation is indeed truthful revelation from the same God who does not lie in holy Scripture.

    However, if scientific evidence, analysis, and theorizing becomes the starting point for talking about theological revelation, the language describing God nearly always renders him as merely a causal force who functions as the basis of the scientific data or theory in question. Thus, the theological language describing this God departs from the semiotic categories of distinctly orthodox Christianity (i.e. removing Christology from it), and into something else entirely.

    It seems to me that we must still grant primacy to the semiotic categories and symbolic world of the Scriptures so that they might transform our imaginations, forcing us to retain the Christological definition of God in our minds and hearts when we encounter scientific findings that may or may not seem at first commensurable with orthodox Christian theology. I think Peter Enns is doing this well, but I don’t know if we should go as far as to label scientific discoveries about evolution as general revelation. We have to interpret those bits of knowledge from the scientific community within the semiotic categories and symbolic world of Scripture first and foremost. That model retains the Scriptures as the primary magisterium but allows for freedom to dialogue with the scientific community.

    1. David, I think we are in general agreement. I would just add to your statement about evolution not being general revelation. No scientific theory can bear the “weight of God’s glory” in order to reveal Him. However, the theory may still have truth value aside from that.

  8. No. God did not lie. But that is not the question we should be asking. We should be asking if man is interpreting the data correctly. Young earth, old earth, it doesn’t matter to me (macro-evolution? Now THAT I would disagree with. Wrong interpretation of data). In light of centuries of needing to reshape scientific theory it is more than arrogant to think we have it 100% correct now.

  9. Causality is never provable, only inferred.–Nietzsche (not verbatim). Any scientist who doesn’t know this doesn’t understand the scientific method. This goes for past, present, or future. This goes for theology. The main difference for faith-claims is that causality is believed to be true, and not always inferred from repetition and/or empirical data.

  10. It strikes me (in regard to the original question) that if Christianity is claiming its revelation from the scriptures exists independent of the world around it then it is doing something new with the scriptures. By new I mean not what the authors intended to do or would’ve even thought of. I always thought scripture intends to speak about the world not apart from it. Or what’s the point?
    I would also think that if you are looking for a genuinely scriptural way to respond to conflicts with science it is worth pondering how antecedents of science are treated in the bible. Are there any? My memory only brings forward a couple that might fit. Never can I think of any desire for evidence being condemned. But I’m no biblical scholar.

    1. Tony, what you are saying about revelation is critical. Thank you for bringing it up. Most people speak of revelation (of God/Truth) in very metaphysical terms. They are satisfied with “inorganic” knowledge, and actually exalt in it. This is at the heart of 1st century gnosticism. When Isaiah saw the Lord “High and lifted up”, the angels who serve the Master of the universe were quick to direct Isaiah’s attention back to earth. “The whole earth is filled with His glory” was their cry. What I have learned over the years is that God doesn’t necessarily speak “about” the world, but “out from” the world. Men think of revelation as something coming from a completely other world. Jesus dispelled this by teaching in parables. The very dynamics of God’s Life are found in earthly happenings, if we are truly paying attention. At the same time, God hides himself from the wise and the prudent in the last place they would look for Him–in the very fabric of their own world! Men trifle over the “age” of the earth, instead of realizing the essential “nature” of the world of God we live in every day. What do you think?

  11. Daniel, the question has occurred to me, too. To my mind its not simply a question of ‘age.’ Rather there are multiple stories being told about events that never really happened. I’m thinking of the light we receive from space. We observe a portion of the sky for many centuries until one day a star changes into a Supernova. The Supernova is 125 million light years away. The images we are seeing are of an event, which happened 125 million years ago. Did the events we are actually seeing unfold, happen or not?

    When I’ve presented this to my more ‘conservative’ friends, the counter example is the wine at Cana. I think there is a difference between qualities being present that usually result from certain process, and the actual ‘watching’ of a process unfold, when it never really occurred.

    Does this happen anywhere else. Did I really see my neighbor drive away this morning; or better- did the fact that I saw my neighbor drive away, mean that they in fact did drive away?

  12. I guess I take an even simpler view of the matter. For me the limits of Gods speech is beyond what I can say nor would I try and explain Gods hiddeness for anyone else. It is merely that Judeo-Christian scripture is the record of our experiences. It is not the Quran… dictated to us… nor is it like The book of changes… supposedly written by the teacher. The New Testament is not Jesus word (he did not write it) but contains those words as recalled. Basically stuff happens, we respond, partly with scripture.
    Scripture is AFTER the understanding of GOD.This process of understanding God is a worldly process – can it be anything else? This doesn’t mean we don’t listen to the understandings we follow in time but to put them first? And have nothing else?

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