“If we perceive the spiritual principles of visible things we learn that the world has a Maker. But we do not ask what is the nature of that Maker, because we recognize that this is beyond our scope. Visible creation clearly enables us to grasp that there is a Maker, but it does not enable us to grasp His nature.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 17646-50)
Natural theology has its limits according to the Fathers of the Church. Creation tells us there is a Creator, but creation cannot reveal to us the nature of the God who created us. Our ability to read creation like a book of theology requires us to have more experience and knowledge than creation alone can give us. God the Holy Trinity reveals Himself and His nature to us, a revelation found in the Holy Scriptures as well as in the sacramental life of the Church and also in the spiritual lives of the saints. Even the Scriptures alone do not give us the full experience of God’s revelation and grace. St. Basil the Great notes about the book of Genesis:
In saying, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the sacred writer passed over many things in silence—e.g., water, air, fire, and their effects—which, all forming in reality the true complement of the world, were without doubt made at the same time as the universe. By this silence, the text plainly wishes to train the activity of our intelligence, giving it a weak point for starting, to impel it to the discovery of the truth.” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. Loc. 3593-96)
Scripture does not tell us everything there is to know about creation – it is silent about many things, but for St. Basil, this silence is exactly telling us there is much more to know. The fact that Scripture does not give us every detail about creation tells us we need to search and discover the truth which is in creation and which leads us beyond creation to the Creator. The Scriptures speak to us about the Creator, but they are not a scientific text book. Humans have pursued a study of God’s creation and uncovered a great many facts and truths about the material cosmos. What we commonly call science is really the result of human study into the truths of the natural world, the things about which the Scriptures are silent. God reveals to us the natural order and allows us to discover the truth about nature, as when in the beginning God allowed Adam to name all of the animals of creation and God waited to see what the human would name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). God rejoices in our scientific curiosity and our search into the nature of the universe. In allowing the human to name the animals God was giving us opportunity to understand the nature of each part of creation.
Of course some have decided the empirical world is the only reality we can know, but the godly realize just as there is more to know about nature than the Scriptures reveal, so too there is more to be known about creation than science can reveal. St. Gregory Nazianzus comments:
“For we should not neglect the heavens, earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them and honored God’s works instead of God; instead, we should reap whatever advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers, not raising creation as foolish people do in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker and, as the divine apostle says, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ” [2 Cor 10:5.)” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4004-8)
As St Gregory notes, just because some people might use scientific investigation to proclaim the empirical creation as the only thing that exists and so deny the Creator, that is no reason for us to completely reject science itself. Those denying the Creator’s existence are wrong about God but that doesn’t mean that science is therefore wrong about all of its claims. Science does know things about the physical creation not found in Scriptures, and we in the modern world live with the many advantages of science, technology, medicine and industry.
Scripture was not written to be science, but do reveal the truth to us.
“The creation stories are ancient and should be understood on that level. Rather than merge the two creation stories—the scientific and the biblical—we should respect that they each speak a different language. The fact that Paul considered Adam to be the progenitor of the human race does not mean that we need to find some way to maintain his view within an evolutionary scheme. Rather, we should gladly acknowledge his ancient view of cosmic and human origins and see in that very scenario the face of a God who seems far less reluctant to accommodate to ancient points of view than we are sometimes comfortable with.” (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3131-35)
God chose His own time and place to make His revelations known, and the people to whom He made those revelations recorded them with all the limits of their time and place. As Peter Enns points out, God was willing to accommodate Himself and His revelation to the point of view of the ancient world. God did not leave the ancients in the dark saying “no use to reveal myself until the people have a better understanding of creation through modern science.” God was comfortable with revealing Himself to a people whose “ancient” way of thinking caused them to understand the revelation and the creation in their own pre-modern terms. God did not wait until the modern times to make Himself known. It is we moderns who have trouble with pre-modern understanding, not God. Enns continues:
“In my view, reading the Adam story as it was intended to be understood by those who shaped the Bible—primarily as a story of Israel within the larger stage of universal world history—is the most fruitful approach. The Adam story is not an obligatory nod on the part of ancient Israelites to account for how humanity came to be. The primary question Israel was asking was not, ‘Where do people come from?’ (a scientific curiosity), but ‘Where do we come from?’ (a matter of national identity).” (The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3179-82)
Israel needed to discover its own identity to know its relationship to the rest of history, of the world, of the entire universe. Scripture gave them that identity which helped them understand themselves in the bigger picture of humanity as well as the entire cosmos. In understanding themselves, they could then understand creation, the empirical world. It is in this learning process that they came to know their Creator and the importance of the created world in realizing their place in it.
“Creation is the accuser of the ungodly. For through its inherent spiritual principles creation proclaims its Maker; and through the natural laws intrinsic to each individual species it instructs us in virtue. The spiritual principles may be recognized in the unremitting continuance of each individual species, the laws in the consistency of its natural activity. If we do not ponder on these things, we remain ignorant of the cause of created being and we cling to all the passions which are contrary to nature.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 17632-39)
The created order, the empirical world contextualize our place in the cosmos. Our task is to learn from both nature and the Scriptures about our role in God’s creation. The scientific study of the empirical world also helps us realize our relationship to the rest of creation including our moral responsibilities since we are creatures with free will whose choices have consequences for the rest of creation.
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.