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Chapter 10

SCHOLARSHIP AND SCIENCE

            The distinction between the natural sciences and the “wisdom of the Greeks” against which the apostle inveighs in his letters, is embedded in our languages and terminology.  The French use the term “les sciences exactes” to refer to that branch of scholarship that concerns itself strictly with the study of nature.  In English, these sciences may variously be referred to as the “exact sciences,” “natural sciences” or “physical sciences” in distinction from the “social sciences.”

            This distinction is not meant to belittle the great importance of the historical or social sciences, but it is intended to emphasize the fact that these are different from the exact sciences that depend on strict research into nature.  The unique value of the results of natural science is that they are universally valid and cannot be called into question.

            Of course, it has happened more than once that people announce premature conclusions that may be accepted for years, but which eventually are rejected, because they are found to be based on either inadequate facts or false generalizations.  Examples of such corrections can be pointed out in many areas, especially within the medical sciences.  There we have seen more than once how a cure or method that was recognized as valid for years is suddenly declared inadequate or even false.  Thus, there are good reasons for being careful.

            With the above stricture in mind, we have to gratefully acknowledge that, by careful observation, the natural sciences have discovered facts along with the forces behind these facts.  The regularity of natural laws has been observed.  This has given us a sure base of knowledge and increased our control over the forces of nature.  Because of this development, these exact sciences must be attributed a high degree of validity.

            The research connected with these exact sciences restricts itself to the empirical.  It does not concern itself with the spiritual and other areas beyond the empirical.  The subjective element that can play such a large role in the historical and spiritual sciences hardly appears in these exact sciences.  For this reason, the latter make a greater impression on those who possess an atrophied spirit than do those sciences that are more closely concerned with faith.  The type of difficulties and disagreements that prevent unity and consensus in the spiritual area hardly occur in the natural sciences.  In the physical sciences, as long as the observations have been reached via accepted methods, everyone accepts the conclusions.  There is hardly room for any doubt here.  Everyone accepts the new findings and takes them into account in their own work.  The scientific method of strict and careful observation, the drawing of strictly logical conclusions from these observations and the subsequent verification that is part of the method provide us with a certainty and stability that erases all doubts from our minds.

            We are not suggesting that faith provides less certainty than do the exact sciences, but it is certainty of a totally different nature.  This certainty is based on the spiritual attitude of the researcher that may not be present in others.  Those who possess this kind of spiritual certainty may be immovable in their conviction, but neither its base nor content can be demonstrated or proven to others, except to those who share the same basic faith.  Thus, on the one hand, there are the absolute and demonstrable exact sciences; on the other, the spiritual sciences, the results of which can be claimed only by those who have the required spiritual aptitude.  A researcher who lacks the spiritual wherewithal can no more judge or accept the result of spiritual research than a blind person can judge colours or a dead person, sounds.  This situation has brought it about that the exact sciences recommended themselves more and more as the only valid science or only valid scholarship and as the only avenue by which we can achieve truth.  Science and faith have come to be thought of as mutually exclusive opposites.

            Now, as long as scientists concerned themselves only with the empirical, and only with truth related to the empirical, that approach was acceptable.  But this condition was not met. Scientists continually went beyond their own territory to trespass on areas not amenable to the exact sciences.  They spent their energies on the construction of systems that lacked all certainty.  At the same time, those who devoted themselves to the historical, psychological and spiritual sciences falsely demanded equal recognition of the kind of certainty that is valid in the exact sciences.  Thus great confusion arose.  The distinctions between the two types of science were ignored.  Both sides insisted on the right to the term “science.” Theologians and other practitioners of the non-exact sciences began to insist proudly that even in their disciplines, scholarship had the right to place itself above or over against faith.  They also arrogated to themselves the right to determine on the same basis as the physical sciences the nature of truth and error.

            Among the greatest of the scholars this problem was not so serious, for they tended to be reserved in their judgements.  However, among scientists of lower rank this boasting soon went beyond all bounds.  This was especially the case with those who did not engage in original research of their own, but who reached their conclusions on basis of the findings of others.  Examples were unbelievers of the second rank among the teaching and journalistic professions.  There especially this annoying idolatry of pseudo-science and their glorification of the sciences was set in opposition to the faith.  It was a matter of course that under these circumstances, those who, because of an inner aptitude in their subjective existence, developed a higher appreciation for the organ of faith, became critical of all attempts to oppose anything spiritual in the name of the honourable, high-sounding, but misapplied name of science.

            The situation in the pagan world of Greece and Rome was exactly the same at the time the Christian religion made its debut.  Not one of the apostles has ever with a single word denigrated the results already achieved by the exact sciences of their day.  It never occurred to them to do so.  There is not the slightest trace of such an attitude found in any apostolic writing.

            But the Scripture does attack and expose as wisdom gone astray and as pseudo-science the false pretences of “science” advanced by pagan thinkers who based their systems of guesses, suspicions and assumptions that were based on a rationalistic approach.  The legitimate object of the exact sciences is the empirical world.  At that level, the sciences are strong and, as long as they restrict themselves to that realm and base their findings on careful research, they deserve our support, trust, praise and gratitude.  But those sciences know nothing about the origin of things, nothing about the spirit, nothing about the spiritual world that exists beyond our earth.  Neither can they know anything about the way the spiritual can affect the material.  The entire spiritual realm, so much higher and more complicated than the empirical, escapes the exact sciences and lies beyond the reach of their research.  They have nothing to tell us about the unity of the design of the course of the history of this world.  The destination of mankind after death and eternity are hidden from them by an impenetrable veil. Similarly, the moral struggle between the holy and the unholy, the origin of that struggle, or what the end of that struggle will be are all issues that completely escape the exact sciences.  These sciences can tell you nothing about divine providence by which God governs all.  When it comes to the highest of all, the religious and the holy Object of our worship, these sciences are totally mute.  There it behooves their practitioners to confess complete ignorance, if they want to be honest.

            This point was difficult for the men of science to concede.  They did sense clearly that all these spiritual concerns were of much greater importance for the inner life of people than those concerning the empirical world about which they had so much certain knowledge.  For this reason they could not get themselves to confess their ignorance of this most important realm.  As a result, they asserted their right to make high sounding declarations also in the spiritual realm.  Using fantasy and incredible mental gymnastics, they advanced all kinds of fanciful notions concerning various spiritual issues and based it all on guesses and assumptions.  Then they would offer the results of their system as the real truth, the real wisdom, the real science and the real philosophy, even though it lacked any kind of foundation.

            The fragile nature of these constructions and their lack of trustworthiness was demonstrated by the sober fact that philosopher after philosopher would demolish the approaches of all his predecessors and seek to replace them with his own.  Thus arose one school of though after another, each always opposing all the others.  Each approach was based on a different world and life view.  Through these false constructions they smothered the true thirst after God in the human heart and encouraged the spirit of haughtiness, sensuality and eternal doubt.  The end result of it all was that, with all this puffed-up type of “wisdom,” the finest impulses of the human heart withered away and the soul could find no peace in its unceasing search.

            Then the Christian faith arrived on the scene.  It aimed at the renewal of the impulses of the human heart unto a new life and to offer the heart, tired by the endless swings of the pendulum of the soul, a new peace from above that surpasses all understanding.  The Christian faith by its very nature could not but sharply and principally resist all this imaginary “wisdom” that led people away from God, in order to disrupt it, expose its empty claims and expel it from the human spirit to make room for a Christian disposition.

            It would be wrong to conclude from all this that the Christian faith adopted a hostile attitude towards true scholarship.  In order to sweep away the barriers to the human heart, the Christian faith sought to demolish false scholarship that was promoted on a completely erroneous foundation.  The situation of that time was similar to that of ours.  We, too, enthusiastically embrace genuine scholarship and science, but we also insist that proper lines be drawn and limits be observed.  Anytime we meet systems that are based on mere hunches and weak assumptions and that pretend to explain or even explain away spiritual phenomena about which nothing can be known apart from faith, we will deny them the right to the title of “scholarship” or “science.”  Over against them, we will proclaim that Christian world and life view that is based solidly on God’s revelation.

            You really cannot know anything about Australia, unless either you yourself visit the country or someone who has lived there tells you about it.  So it is with respect to the invisible world.  We will not know what that world is like until either we get there or someone who has been there comes down to us to tell us about it.  Until that happens, we know nothing about it.  It is almost impossible to know anything about what goes on in the inner life of the spiritual world.  The apostle Paul was correct in his observation that no one knows a person’s thoughts, except the spirit within that person (I Cor. 2:11).  Every personality is such a wonderful mystery to us that even a lifetime is too short to get to know just one other person well. 

            Gladstone was a great British statesman.  Outside, at his front door, this great man hung a cage with a bird in it.  Though that bird saw Gladstone come and go many times a day, it could never fathom or understand what went on in its master’s head.  Left to our own devices, we are a little like that bird when it comes to our knowledge of God.

            Thank God that it is not quite like that.  Humanity, created after God’s image, has been equipped with a religious sensitivity and with the capability to serve God.  It is entirely fitting, therefore, that God has not left us to wander about in darkness, but has radiated us with the light of revelation and thus allows people to know Him.  That revelation is Christ, He who was in heaven but then came down to us.  He attained to the highest perfection possible in this sinful world.  He has been able to provide us with knowledge of the spiritual realm, about God’s greatness, the origin of things, the government of this world, our inner soul life, our calling, our destination and our own future.  Wherever this revelation of Christ entered the world and the Christian faith penetrated paganism, the latter collapsed and its imaginative but rationalistic wisdom with which contemporary scholars entertained themselves, along with it.  It was the little people of the world, the simple and the weak who first took hold of this glorious revelation.  However, subsequently the higher classes followed and, after a fearful and hard struggle, the power of this revelation and the Christian faith triumphed over the highly developed wisdom of the Greeks.

            In the early stage of the Christian faith, a certain tendency arose to withdraw into the area of revelation and to underestimate the significance of the exact sciences.  That was to be expected. At the time, the exact sciences had not yet been designated their own territory.  In every way they were mixed up with and absorbed into what was popularly referred to as “wisdom,” as a system, as a world and life view.  Because of this, all that went by the name of science at the time adopted a sharply hostile attitude over against the Christian religion.  It was only natural that Christians would therefore first concentrate on defending their faith against this intellectualistic attack.  This struggle coincided with the tremendous convulsions that led to the collapse of that culture and that destroyed the high civilization of the Greco-Roman world.  The stream of the Christian religion flowed on into Middle and Western Europe, where primitive civilization still held forth. In this new and strange world everything had to be built anew.

            During the initial period of the re-birth of these newly converted tribes no one even gave any thought to the development of scholarship and science.  But the initial period was hardly over when scholarship was taken up again, so that before long universities began to appear.  The time was now ripe for renewed interest in study and the day that the exact sciences would take new roots was near.

            For example, it is significant that during the Reformation, the Dutch government, as one of its first acts, established the Academy of Leiden.  If you compare the accomplishments of European universities, beginning back in the 16th century, with the results of the pagan academies of Athens and Alexandria or with those of the Muslim universities of Cairo or Baghdad or Timbuktu, or with the Jewish schools at Tiberias and elsewhere, it cannot be denied that scholarship and science have come to their powerful bloom and development more among Christians than anywhere else.  Though the proof was no longer needed, the establishment of the Calvinistic university in Amsterdam, the Free Reformed University, demonstrated once again how especially Calvinism has such high appreciation for scholarship and science.  Those who are aware of the developments among Roman Catholics cannot deny that amongst them, also, scholarship has blossomed.

            Proof based on history alone is not sufficient.  We need to go back to Christ and the Scriptures.  You can ask, for example, what connection there could possibly be between the plant kingdom and Christ.  The answer to this and similar questions is that Christ is the eternal Word.  Through that eternal Word all things, including the kingdoms of plants and animals, have been created.  The eternal thoughts of God that have found their embodiment in all of creation--and thus also in the kingdoms of plants and animals--have come to their embodiment only through the eternal Word.  There is not a single flower or single chirping bird that does not represent something of this eternal Word that has its mark placed upon all creatures. The Scriptures do not lock Christ up in the kingdom of grace or even in the world of mankind.

            The Scriptures show that the entire creation, the visible as well as the invisible, depend directly on Christ.  Already in the Old Testament, wisdom is glorified as existing from eternity with God.  It is not the discovery of the human race.  In Proverbs 8:23-27, wisdom is shown to come from God:

I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began.  When there were no oceans, I was given birth; where there were no springs abounding with water; before He made the earth or its field or any of the dust of the world, I was there when He set the heavens in place, when He marked out the horizon on the face of the deep.

 

            The Son is not to be excluded from anything.  You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.  There is no force in nature, no laws that control those forces that do not have their origin in that eternal Word.  For this reason, it is totally false to restrict Christ to spiritual affairs and to assert that there is no point of contact between Him and the natural sciences.  Rather, every deeper penetration into nature must lead to the greater glory of the majesty of the eternal Word.

            This is not an unnatural, forced combination.  The apostle said it loud and clear when he explained that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).  Note well that Paul spoke not only of wisdom, but also of knowledge, and not merely some knowledge, but “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Him.  How could it be otherwise?  He it is through whom all things have been created.  He it is who gave embodiment to God’s thoughts as they are expressed in all creatures, both high and low.  He it is who embedded in all creatures the forces, laws and functions that have made them what they are.  That being the case, how can anyone possibly think of anything whether material or spiritual, as having no relationship to Him?  How could anything in all of creation exist without His having brought it into operation?  It is not only that He knows and fathoms all of nature, but He Himself has purposefully established all there is.  Compared to the knowledge of nature that Christ has by virtue of His having created it, what is the knowledge that Linnaeus2020Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a Swedish naturalist and botanist who established the modern scientific method of naming plants and animals. or any other scientist has about plants?  All science, whether it concerns nature, psychology, ethnology, or any other discipline, is a radiation, reflection of a new glory that was hidden, but that is now revealed in Christ.  The tremendous increase in knowledge gained during the last century is used by those whose spirituality is atrophied and who are proud of their own wisdom, to deprive believers of their faith.  But we, Christians, accept all new knowledge of nature with thanksgiving, because we recognize that through it shines the holy mark of its Source.  We know that what we now see is a mere shadow of “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” presently hidden in Him.


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