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The Image of God and Science

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Agents and representatives
As we have seen in earlier articles, the image of God refers primarily to humanity’s call to be God’s regents and representatives on earth—to be His stewards. To equip us to carry out this task, God built a number of unique abilities into humanity, including creativity and reason. We have seen how these are used in our calling to physical labor as we “tend and take care of the garden” (Gen. 2:15); these same abilities also come into play as we engage in intellectual work, as Adam did when God called him to name the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). 

The task of naming the animals is much more involved than it sounds. In Hebrew, a being’s name is supposed to reflect its nature. In order to give the animals their proper names, Adam needed first to study them to understand their natures. Understanding the natural world is a vital part of our mandate to govern it as God’s stewards, of course, and not surprisingly, there are other examples of observation of nature in Scripture.

Many Psalms talk about the natural world and relate it back to divine wisdom and God as creator and sustainer of all things (e.g. Ps. 104); other Psalms and passages tell us that the creation speaks to us and teaches us about God (e.g. Ps. 19, Rom. 1:18-23). Many of Jesus’ parables are drawn from nature as well. Wisdom—the practical application of divine knowledge—includes knowledge of the natural world. Solomon’s wisdom included not only proverbs and judgments, but understanding trees and plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish (1 Kings 4:33). 

A mandate for science
To put it differently, just as the mandate to tend the garden implies economic and artistic production and the creation of culture, so the mandate to name the animals is a mandate for us to do science.

It is very common today for people to treat science and religion as if they were two completely separate, unconnected spheres. Science, it is argued, deals with the world of cold, hard facts; religion deals with “spiritual” things, morality, and areas of faith, not knowledge. Yet in fact, this is a false dichotomy. Science may focus on the physical world, but the entire enterprise is based on assumptions about the nature of the world and the nature of humanity that are anything but provable by scientific means. Any apparent conflict between science and religion comes from exactly how those assumptions are set up.

For a Christian, the critical assumptions that enable us to do science are simple. God is rational, and so the world He created is rational. Human beings are made in God’s image and thus we are also rational. As a result, even if we cannot understand everything God did exhaustively, we can to some extent “think God’s thoughts after Him” and discover the rational processes (“laws”) that govern the physical universe.

Cultural contrasts
This line of reasoning may seem obvious to us, but that is because our thinking has been firmly shaped by the Christian worldview. The reason modern science arose in the West is because Christianity provided the necessary intellectual framework for it to develop. Medieval theologians working in what was then known as natural philosophy or natural theology laid a foundation for the later scientific revolution, which itself was led by men such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, and Newton, all of whom were serious Christians firmly grounded in Biblical ideas about God and the creation.

Contrast this with other cultures. In many Asian systems of thought, the world is a kind of illusion or dream in the mind of God. In Islam, Allah has direct control of everything that happens, and the idea of natural law was seen as potential apostasy because such laws would limit Allah’s freedom. In pagan and animistic cultures, the world is largely sentient and is about as predictable as human behavior. None of these provides a solid enough foundation for the development of science (in the sense of empirically backed explanations of why the physical world works as it does).

And then there’s secularism, and particularly scientism—the idea that the natural sciences provide the only reliable route to knowledge.

Scientism
Scientism typically posits that the universe somehow came into existence, then by the laws of physics galaxies, stars, and solar systems formed; on at least one planet organic compounds came into existence by the same laws of physics; somehow these organic compound spontaneously generated life (a process which never happens again), and then by random mutation this earliest form of life turned into human beings with brains capable of understanding the universe.

Yet under these circumstances, it is a leap of faith to believe that the universe is understandable or that our minds can in fact make sense of it.[i] And as Alvin Plantinga points out, the most that undirected evolution would do is to give us minds that are geared for survival, not necessarily for discovering truth. While we might think that true ideas enhance survivability, this is not necessarily so. People may behave in a way that helps them survive even if the reasoning that led to the behavior is false.

Plantinga’s example is a man named Paul, who, upon encountering a tiger runs away. He may do this because he does not want to me eaten, but there are other possible reasons as well: he may want to be eaten, but doesn’t think this particular tiger will do it; or he may think the tiger’s a big pussy cat and want to pet it, but thinks the best way to get the cat to let him is to run from it; or he might think he is in a race and the tiger’s appearance is the signal for him to start. It doesn’t matter what he believes or why, just so long as he runs. In other words, his survival does not prove the truth of his belief system. And this means that if both evolution and naturalism (that is, the idea that the natural world of matter and energy are all that exists) are true, we cannot rely on our minds to come to true conclusions, thus rendering all of science irrational.[ii] 

So even though a purely secular worldview based on naturalism might seem to be the best basis for doing science, on closer examination it isn’t. Scientism is a logically self-defeating position. It only seems plausible because it is living off the borrowed capital of the biblical worldview, that rational human beings can make sense of the rational universe—because both were made by a rational God. 

The Biblical teachings about God, the physical world, and human nature thus provide the firmest foundation for science of any competing worldview. But even more, in the command to name the animals, God implicitly commands us to study and to come to understand the natural world as part of the work He has given us. This makes science an essential element of our stewardship of the world. It shows us something of God’s amazing understanding, wisdom and power, helps us understand Him and his ways better, and enables us to develop the resources He has given us in the world in the best ways we can to the glory of God.

For more insight to this topic, get the book, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach, by Vern Poythress, from our online store. Or read the article, “Science and Religion: Are They At Odds?” by Chuck Edwards.


[i] http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/999-is-christianity-the-enemy-of-science 

[ii] See http://www.hisdefense.org/OnlineLectures/tabid/136/ItemId/523/Default.aspx for Plantinga’s audio lecture, “Evolutionary Arguments against Naturalism,” and his Warrant and Proper Function (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

 

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