Book Preview: NT Wright on Science, Jesus, and Natural Theology

buttercup field IMG_2553 crop
© Ruth M. Bancewicz

Few today would argue that we can straightforwardly begin with the natural world and argue our way up to a view of God that corresponds more or less to the Christian one. … Natural theology as popularly conceived, that is, the attempt to reason up to God without the use of revelation, was always a strange and culturally conditioned thought experiment. Most humans do not work like that most of the time. I think—although a forceful presentation of this argument would take many more words than I have space for here—that this contrast of two types of knowledge, that which we have by revelation and that which we have by unaided observation and reason, makes two mistakes.

First, it flattens out what actually happens in revelation, and for that matter what actually happens in observation and the use of reason. For a start, the Bible is not, as it were, naked revelation. Precisely because of the sort of book it is, it invites and indeed demands reflective reading. It means what it means because it is the book a community reads to give direction and order to its common life, hope to its common sorrow. The Bible demands that people live within its teasing and troubling narrative and try to make sense of it, or perhaps to let it make sense of them. The Bible should not be treated as, so to speak, a list of naked truths given on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. That is a rationalist parody—a trap into which many would-be orthodox Christians have fallen. In the same way, observation and reasoning never take place in a vacuum (unless you artificially create such an epistemological vacuum and demand that everyone live inside it). When we observe the natural world, we are involved observers, trying to make sense at the same time of what that involvement might mean, including the question of what “observation” consists in and how it affects the observers, in this case ourselves. This will then naturally involve a critical awareness of our own context, cultural encyclopedia, and so forth. So the idea of natural theology, as often imagined, creates an artificial disjunction. It colludes with the trivial idea that scientific knowledge is somehow objective and faith-knowledge is somehow subjective. Things are more complex, and interesting, than that. This is where the theme of an epistemology of love would help, though there is no space here to develop that important notion.

Second, this false antithesis then gets bundled up with the regular antithesis between induction and deduction. Scientific knowledge is thought to be inductive, starting with raw data and working up without a big overarching narrative, whereas theological knowledge is supposed to be deductive, starting with divine revelation and working downwards. The Western world has privileged the former since Descartes. Many theologians are currently hurrying back to the latter, looking for a “perfect” vision of God from which everything else might be deduced. Both models are oversimplifications. They have bedevilled the debate between exegesis and theology as well as between science and faith. It’s time to think more clearly about how all knowledge actually happens and to see the larger integration, held as I believe it must be within a Trinitarian (that is, Jesus-shaped and Spirit-animated) ontology and expressed in an epistemology of love.

At the heart of all this stands the story of Jesus. That has been the problem as well as the promise. How “scientific” is history, not least the history of Jesus? But without knowing for sure about Jesus, how can any of this be anchored? What use might it be to say that looking at Jesus will give us the clue as to how creation, as well as new creation, came about or comes about, if “looking at Jesus” turns out to be a complex series of “ifs” and “buts” in which all chance of historical knowledge seems to recede like a rainbow’s end?

There are many problems, of course, about making any claim about past events. The practice of history is not like the practice of the so-called hard sciences; the experiment cannot be repeated. But there are nevertheless rules of procedure which correspond to scientific enquiry, namely the method of hypothesis and verification with the aim of getting in the data (in the historian’s case the source material of whatever kind), doing so with appropriate simplicity or elegance, and shedding light on other areas. History is, in other words a form of knowledge, not merely of opinion. Disputes continue both at the level of method and at the level of specific application to Jesus, as they would to the detailed interpretation of any figure of the past; some theologians may well worry about whether this leaves their Christology, and with it their whole construction of the faith, and in our present case their whole view of creation and new creation, without proper anchorage. It is incumbent on those who study Jesus as Christian historians both to present the history as what it is, a publicly available argument and narrative, and to insist that, despite the questions which attend all historical accounts, this is more than sufficient for Christian faith.

One could say much more here, but that is for another occasion. I conclude with the following reflection.

Both Jesus and the first Christians used Psalm 8 as one of their key texts. The psalmist praises God for his wonderful name in all the world; then, looking at the moon and the stars, doesn’t ask “so who is God?” but instead “so what is a ‘human being,’ what is ‘man,’ or the ‘son of man’?” That is the challenge and the clue. The answer, reflecting Genesis, is that God has made humans in his image, a little lower than the angels, and has crowned them with glory and honour, putting all things under their feet. The gospels and Paul link this with Psalms 2 and 110, and particularly with Daniel 7, and insist that this has come true in a new way in Jesus, in his humiliation and exaltation.

In other words, if you want to know the meaning of creation, look at humans, but if you want to know the meaning of being human, look at Jesus. From Genesis 1 onwards, the story of humans is told as the focal point of the story of creation, just as from Genesis 12 onwards the story of Israel is told as the focal point of the story of humans; then, in the Gospels, the story of Jesus is told as the focal point of the story of Israel, and then also of humanity and therefore also of creation. In other words, we learn about creation by reflecting on the claim that God made humans to stand at the metaphysical bridge, the dangerous interface between heaven and earth, and we learn what that human role itself meant when we reflect on Jesus himself, what he was, what he did, and what he accomplished. When we look at new creation, we look back and reflect on the meaning of creation itself. When the New Testament says that “all things were made through him,” we don’t start with a view of “how God made the world” and insert Jesus into that. We start with Jesus himself, as I have tried to do in this essay, and we therefore reflect on creation itself not as a mechanistic or rationalistic event, process, or “fact,” and not as the blind operation of impersonal forces, but as the wise, generous outpouring of the same creative love that we see throughout Jesus’s kingdom-work, and supremely on the cross. This, I think, is part of what Paul meant when he wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.” This is why historical-Jesus work is so difficult but also so necessary. It is necessary for understanding Christian origins, of course, but necessary too if we are to understand creation and new creation and indeed our own place and vocation within that narrative. There is more to the theme of “Christ and the Cosmos” than normally meets the eye.


book_coverTaken from Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Scienceby Andrew B. Torrance & Thomas H. McCall, editors. Copyright © by Andrew B. Torrance & Thomas H. McCall. Used by permission of Zondervan.

A Reflection for Lent

John 19:19-22 – The King of the Jews. Image source:

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means ‘the place of the skull’). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him:

this is jesus, the king of the jews.

Matthew 27:32-37

Some of the most beautiful things in the world have an ugly side. I was recently Continue reading

Advent post: Human yet Divine

Adoration of the shepherds (1622) by Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,

and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

Luke 2:1-14

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Guest Post: Poured Out Like Water

Waterfall in Spokane by Ben McFarland
Waterfall in Spokane © Ben McFarland

My calling as a scientist is to produce and analyse protein structures, which are complex arrangements of atoms. These structures are beautiful, messy things. Because atoms have no colour, we protein scientists can paint our structures any colour we want. Most of us, myself included, choose bright, bold, primary colours, the colours of children’s toys. In our computer-generated models, the atoms are polished and shiny, reflecting virtual spotlights as if placed in a tiny photography studio.

When I think of life, I think first of proteins and their atoms, stacked up and shiny like baubles in a store window. This image of life is accurate in its details, but incomplete. Just like an old yearbook photo is Continue reading

Finding our Place in the World: Belonging, Limits, and Abundance

Picture2 by Lauren Stark Adams of Spokane, Washington
© Lauren Stark Adams of Spokane, Washington

What is our place in the world? In his seminar at the Faraday Institute last month, Dr Jonathan Moo described the current movement towards ecomodernism, which involves a separation from nature. If you want to understand this trend in more depth you can listen to the recording of Jonathan’s talk. In this post I will focus on the last part of the seminar, where Jonathan presented his own ideas about how limits can help us to flourish. Continue reading

Exploring the Grey Areas: Why zoology sometimes hovers on the border of metaphysics – Or, when science and religion is at its best

Meerkat Babies by Jon Pinder. Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

We’ve probably all experienced the scenario of the irritatingly good teacher. You ask a perfectly straightforward question, but instead of a straightforward answer you receive a much harder question in return. This is good teaching, but it’s Continue reading

Professor Russell Cowburn: Why I am a Christian

Sheldon, the main character in the US sitcom The Big Bang Theory, is funny because he’s an extreme version of the stereotypical physicist. He’s ultra-geeky, as demonstrated by his approach to a popular game: “Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitate lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and as it always has, Continue reading