Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Luther and the "God of the Gaps"

One of the great issues in Bible interpretation is how to deal with passages where the Bible, at least at first glance, seems to teach or imply things about the natural world that run contrary to our current understanding of it. Some believe that in these cases the Bible must govern our understanding of the natural world; adherents of this position will differ, however, in the degree to which they might allow "phenomenological language" in Biblical interpretation. That is, many, if not most, contend that language such as the "sun rises" or "four corners of the earth" need not be taken to imply a teaching of geocentricity or a flat, square earth, but simply the use of conventional language. Other believe, however, since the message of the Bible is salvation, that the Bible should not be taken as actually teaching doctrine on matters not connected with salvation; holders of this position differ too in how broadly they spread the net of "connected with salvation. Some for example might see the specific names of the genealogy of Christ back to Adam as connected with salvation (since they attest to His being the fulfillment of prophecy) while others might not make that connection.

A related set of issues is the question of what proponents call the "functional integrity of the universe", by which they mean the idea that all things regularly observed in the universe should be produced by secondary (i.e. natural) causes, as part of God's design of the universe. Miracles, when they occur, do not leave lasting "fingerprints" in the natural history of the universe. To argue anything else would impugn the perfection of God's craftsmanship, as if he had not the skill to create a world that could run without constant tinkering. Others, however, are willing to see direct divine intervention as playing a significant role in the specific operations of the natural world, thus implying that some currently observable natural phenomena might forever resist any natural explanation. This belief is the basis of the "intelligent design" issue now making headlines, but the opponents mock it as the "God of the gaps" theory, in which the "gaps" or scientifically unexplained aspects of the universe are explained by God's immediate intervention.

As a rule, the idea that the Bible should govern our understanding of natural science goes together with the idea that the limits of natural philosophy/science in explaining phenomena show specific divine interventions in the natural world (as opposed to His forethought and sustenance of creation as a whole) . Both mean that the Bible will always be necessary for a complete understanding of the operations of the natural world. By contrast, the other point of view asserts that while the Bible may have implications for the interpretation of the natural world, whether in whole or part, it is neither necessary, nor helpful for the specific explanation of contingent natural phenomena.

It is common to put these two views in chronological sequence. The usual way is to say the first idea (Bible is necessary for science) is old, and the second (the Bible is separate from science) came in with the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. A more esoteric way to do this is to say the second was the patristic, or scholastic, or spiritual interpretation, while the first is a eighteenth/nineteenth century innovation reflecting the prestige of science and the influence of Scottish common sense philosophy.

I don't think either such chronological placement works. In fact, throughout the history of Biblical interpretation the two ways of relating Scripture to natural science have both had strong advocates. Augustine in his Confessions famously supported the second idea, dissociating Scripture from specific explanations of natural events. Yet it is not often enough remembered that he specifically did so in response to Christians who taught that the Bible teaches about natural science in ways that prove the Greco-Roman science of the time wrong. I've touched on this theme earlier here and in line with my promise, I'd like to cite passages from Luther's Lectures on Genesis that place him firmly in the first ("fundamentalist," "Baptistic" etc.) camp.

In discussing the rainbow in Genesis 9:12-16, Luther wrote:

There is a further discussion at this point whether there are natural causes in the rainbow that convey this meaning [i.e. that a universal flooe will not occur in the future]. And the discussion of the philosophers [a word which in this context has a meaning identical to "scientist" today] is familiar, especially that of Aristotle in his Meteorologica, about the color of the rainbow, about the nature of the cloud in which it originates, and about its curvature. Rather appropriately, they include a comparison with mirrors, in which an image is reflected in the same way the rays of the sun are reflected, and produce a rainbow when they fall upon a moist and concave cloud. In such matters reason sees what is most likely to be the case, even though it is incapable of determining the truth in every instance; for this is the prerogative, not of the creature but of the Creator. Yet I for my part have never given less credence to any book that to the Meteorologica, because it is based on the principle that all things have their origin in natural causes (p. 146)

. . .

I do not despise human thoughts and surmises about such thing; but because the proofs are not substantial, I do not place too much confidence in them. Furthermore, the surmises of Aristotle about a moist and concave cloud are not reliable, because such clouds can exist even when no rainbow develops. Indeed, from either a denser or a more tenuous medium there can develop a rainbow that either is larger or forms a greater arc. Here in Wittenberg I personally observed a rainbow round like a circle and closed on all sides, not cut off on the surface of the earth. the way it ordinarily appears. Why, then, do rainbows develop sometimes in one way, sometimes in another? [Luther's objections here are, of course, valid as criticisms of Aristotle's totally erroneous theory. Roger Bacon had guessed at the formation of the rainbow by diffraction of sunlight in water droplets in the 13th century, but it was not until Newton's prism experiments of 1665 that the origin -- not, be it noted, the theological meaning -- of the rainbow was solved.] A philosopher, I am sure, will figure out something, for he will regard it as a disgrace not to be able to give reasons for everything. But he certainly will never persuade me to believe that he is speaking the truth.

There is one reliable and sure explanation, namely, that all these phenomena [Latin impressiones], as they are called, are works of God or of the demons. . . The heathen thought that the flames that appeared on their ships were Castor and Pollux, and sometimes a moon appears above the ears of horses It is certain that all theses phenomena are antics of the demons in the air, although Aristotle is of the opinion that they are air that has been set on fire, just as he also argues that a comet is vapor that has been set on fire. [Again Aristotle and Luther were both wrong; the glow on ship masts or other high objects is the phenomenon known as St. Elmo's fire, which was correctly identified by Benjamin Franklin in 1749 as connected with electricity].

To me it seems to be far safer and surer for us to explain these matters on the basis of a general law, namely that when god wills it, a comet glows as a sign of terror, just as when He wills it, the rainbow in the heaven flashes back His sign of grace. For who would be able to comprehend all the reasons why the rainbow appears in so beautiful a combination of colors and so perfectly semicircular in shape? The arrangement of the clouds surely does not produce this so accurately. Hence this bow stands there by divine pleasure, because of the will and promise of God, to give assurance to both man and beast that no flood will ever take place at any future time (pp. 147-48).

. . .

Here another discussion arises: whether the [rain]bow was in existence even before the Flood. And much effort is expended on the matter. Since it is written above that God created the heaven and the earth in six days and then rested from all His work, they reach conclusion that the rainbow was in existence from the beginning; otherwise it would follow that God created something new outside these six days. But what happened at the time of Noah [they argue,] was that God took the rainbow, which He had created in the beginning, and by means of a new Word appointed it as a special sign; it had indeed existed previously, but it had meant nothing. In support of this opinion they make use also of Solomon's statement (Eccl. 1:9) that there is nothing new under the sun. Consequently, they maintain that after the six days no creature was created anew. [Note that these theologians, not identified by the editors, are arguing on a Biblical basis for the functional intergrity of the post-Friday creation -- God by that day had everything he would need to fulfill his purposes and communicate with man.]

I am of the opposite opinion, namely, that the rainbow was never in existence before and was created now. Similarly, the garments of skins with which God clothed the first human beings certainly wre not created in those six days, but after the fall of the first human beings; therefore they were a new creature. The statement that God rested is not to be understood to mean that He created nothing thereafter. For Christ says (John 5:17): "My Father is working still, and I work."

As for Solomon's statement that there is nothing new under the sun, it has troubled theologicans in various ways [the editors here cited Augustine on Genesis]. Nevertheless, who does not see that it is speaking not of the works of God but of original sin, namely that the same reason that was in Adam after the fall and the same debates about morals, vices, virtues, the nourishment of the body, and the management of human affairs still go on among human beings (pp. 148-49). [Note how Luther characteristically identifies reason and prudence in civil affairs as the very substance of original sin.]

Finally Luther concludes this discussion with a (traditional) allegory:

There is also a discussion about the colors, which some consider to be four: fiery, yellow, green, and watery or blue. But I myself think there are only two, a fiery one and a watery one. . . . When the fiery and the watery color come together or are mixed, the result is a yellow color.

The nature of the colors was so decreed by God with the definite purpose not only that the watery color might be a reminder of the bygone wrath, but also that the fiery one might depict the future judgment for us. The inner surface, which has the color of water, is finite; but the outside, which has the color of fire, is infinite. Thus the first world perished by the Flood, but the wrath had limits. For some remnants were saved; and afterwards another world came into being, yet one that was still finite. But when God destroys the world with fire, this physical life will not be restored; but the wicked will bear the eternal judgment of death in fire, while the godly will be raised into a new and everlasting life -- not a physical one, even though it is in bodies, but a spiritual one (p. 149).

Those Lutherans wishing to preserve the Bible's value and authority in explaining scientific matters can draw comfort from the fact that Luther himself was unquestionably of their party in this age-old dispute. Yet the fact that on each particular case examined here, things he confidently proclaimed could never be explained by science in fact have been, should give them pause before too easily saying, "How can science explain . . .?" But in the meantime, both sides can agree to follow Luther's example in finding the meaning, allegory if you will, of the natural world in the word of God.