Review of Tim Morris and Don Petcher’s Science & Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences

by Vern Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 69/1 (2007) 213-215. Used by permission.]

Tim Morris and Don Petcher, Science & Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006. Pp. xvi + 352. $14.99, paper.

 

Dr. Tim Morris and Dr. Don Petcher, both science professors at Covenant College, have given us an outstanding book about how to bring a Christian worldview to bear on understanding and doing science. They have profited from the tradition of specifically Reformed as well as general evangelical reflection on science and on the Christian worldview, and have written engagingly and intelligently for a broad audience.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, “Science and Christian Belief in the Postmodern Context,” provides some historical background for understanding modernism and postmodernism, and enables the book to position itself as distinctly Christian in contrast to the anti-Christian errors that typify both modernism and postmodernism.

The book uses broad strokes in its description. Modernism, rooted in the Enlightenment, is characterized by hope that autonomous reason can master the understanding of everything. Science has grown up primarily in a modernist atmosphere, and so is too often influenced by trust in reason as if it were a substitute for God and for faith. (But the book also makes it plain that science originated in a European situation that was deeply affected by Christian ideas.) Postmodernism, reacting to modernist excesses, falls into scepticism and relativism that result in deep suspicion of science, and in a kind of reduction of science to community opinion. The book exposes the problems of both modernism and postmodernism, and alerts Christians to their calling to be distinctly Christian in the midst of these cultural forces.

The second section, “Jesus Christ, the Lord of Creation,” reviews biblical teaching in order to put in place a Trinitarian doctrine of creation. It also develops a view of God’s sovereignty that does not polarize between the supernatural and the natural, but affirms the unity of God’s plan of redemption that is at work in both. The book positions Christians historically in the midst of the grand biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. It takes care to reckon not only with what God has already done, but our hope for future full realization of God’s purpose in Christ. It is familiar with the already and yet-to-come themes of biblical theology.

The third section, “Investigating His Dominion,” explores what differences a Christian approach will make in the practice of science. It looks at our relation to God, at our relation to the realms that science investigates, and at our relation to fellow human beings. The relation to human beings is explored with attention to the blessing that the fruits of science can have on humanity of general, the Christian scientist’s responsibilities as a member of the body of Christ, and Christian scientists’ responsibilities to live graciously in their relations within the scientific community. The responsibilities are particularly challenging when there are disagreements and tensions, some of which may arise directly from differences in faith.

It may be a disappointment to some readers that the book does not address more directly current hot-button issues like the days of creation and biological evolution. The authors know that such discussions have their place. But they are trying to do something much more basic, namely to set in place an authentically Christian, deeply thought-through framework, a Christian worldview. Using the framework, we can approach not only the obvious controversial issues, but the issues of how we serve the Lord day by day in scientific vocations and in the community of the church, which at present experiences various tensions in its relation to science. The book rightly perceives the importance of the church, and heads readers away from the individualism and pride in “autonomous” science that could easily infect them.

The book has been strengthened by mining the riches of past theological and philosophical reflection about science, particularly within the Reformed tradition. Abraham Kuyper and his ideas occur with commendable frequency and centrality within the book. Cornelius Van Til is known and appreciated. The book has also paid attention to Herman Dooyeweerd and others within the cosmonomic school. It has learned from them, but has not succumbed to jargon or to some of the problematic directions of the school. Notably, the book affirms that no mediator of creation is needed except the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity. Law is not allowed to become an ontological third entity in between God and creation (331n11). One may still raise the question as to the precise status of law, which is “mediating activity” (331n11). But the mediating activity is activity of the Son and Spirit, who are divine.

The book likens scientific law to God’s covenants: law is “covenantal” (98-104). The basis for this idea is found both in the covenant with Noah, where God promises regularity (Gen 8:21-9:17), and in God’s covenant with day and night mentioned in Jer 33:20-22. In my judgment this view of law is sound and useful as one perspective. But I can see potential for abuse. One can see difficulties when one asks who is the respondent in a particular covenant. In God’s covenant with a human being or a group of humans, the human beings are the second party responding to God. In God’s covenant with Noah, he makes a promise concerning the created order to Noah, and so Noah is the covenantal respondent. But that means that the key Noachic passage in Gen 8:21-9:17 is not yet describing directly God’s relation to creation as a whole, but rather focuses on his relation to mankind.

Now consider Jer 33:20-22. When it describes God’s “covenant with the day … and with the night,” who are the respondents? Are they the day and the night? But they are not personal creatures, and so in that case Jer 33:20-22 is using the word “covenant” in an extended sense. Subhuman creatures cannot be participants in a covenant in the same way as if they were persons. And so one must be cautious about how far one presses the analogy.

Potential difficulty also arises when one focuses on the doctrine of creation. God not only rules over creatures that already exist, but brings them into being in the first place. Is the initial act of creating “covenantal”? Covenant making in the Ancient Near East typically presupposes the previous existence of the parties to the covenant (as with the covenant between Jacob and Laban in Gen 31:44). Thus it must be stretched to cover the fact that God brings into existence the creatures that will afterwards be called on to obey his word. God’s speech covers both the original acts of creation (“Let there be light,” Gen 1:3) and the subsequent ruling over creation (“Be fruitful and multiply,” Gen 1:22).

 

Vern Sheridan Poythress

Westminster Theological Seminary

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania