How to read the book of natureWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Saint Augustine was among the first to describe nature as a book alongside Scripture, part of a two-volume set written by God. He knew, of course, that Scripture was the pre-eminent volume, in which God has revealed himself and his purposes in clear human language. But Augustine recognized that nature also speaks about God, without words and in general ways everyone can understand.
At times, philosophers and theologians have run with this idea in directions Augustine would not have envisioned, much less approved. Some have sought to elevate nature as a source of revelation on par with Scripture or even above it, while others have denied that nature has anything tangible to say about God at all.
Yet despite all this, the book of nature remains a compelling metaphor for general revelation that also happens to be true. God is in fact the author of creation and has designed it to reveal certain things about himself.
The question then becomes, what sorts of things? And how are we to read nature in proper relation to the written Word of God?
How not to read the book of nature
There’s a fine line in the human heart between appreciation and idolatry. Cultures ancient and modern have managed to turn every imaginable aspect of nature into an object of worship: celestial bodies, weather patterns, animals, the earth itself, even the entire universe as a substitute for God.
The last of these has become especially popular of late, no less among atheists who thank the universe for their good fortune or believe the universe is teaching them lessons. And those who identify as spiritual but not religious will often say things like, “I don’t need the Church or the Bible; nature is my bible and my church.”
At the other end of the spectrum, hard-line materialists will argue that impersonal nature is all that exists; it neither rewards nor teaches, and it certainly has nothing to say about God. They go on to insist – contrary to reason and experience, it must be said – that the study of nature has somehow disproved the existence of God.
Even within some corners of the church, there’s a tendency to discount nature as a source of any truth about God. Since the creation is fallen and passing away, the argument goes, it can offer no lasting, trustworthy insights about its Creator. But this attitude is in fact a retreat toward Platonism, if not outright Gnosticism, wherein only words and ideas have value and the physical world of the senses has none.
Behold, it was (and still is) very good
When God had finished creating the cosmos, he stepped back and admired his handiwork, declaring it to be very good. How could it be otherwise? It reflected God’s own goodness and beauty, his wisdom and his power. And the fall of humanity hasn’t erased that, any more than it has erased the value of human beings made in God’s image.
To be sure, nature has been tainted by the fall. In the Apostle Paul’s words, the creation is groaning as it anticipates being redeemed, much like a woman groans during childbirth. But this only shows that God remains invested in his creation and is at work redeeming it.
In the meantime, nature continues to reflect God’s goodness, beauty, wisdom and power. Its bounty of food and drink, rain and sunshine, and every other good thing demonstrates God’s kindness and care, not just for humanity but for his whole created order. In the poetry of the Old Testament, even animals rejoice at God’s provision and trees clap their hands because of his grace toward his people.
Nature in the book of Psalms
The book of Psalms has a lot to say about the wisdom and authority of Scripture. Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, is a sustained ode to the treasures of God’s Word.
But the Psalms are just as effusive about God’s creation, if not more so. Psalm 104 recounts God’s cosmic work in poetic language and celebrates how nature itself rejoices and thrives under God’s care. The psalm meditates on the natural cycles of night and day, work and rest, as well as the interplay between humanity and various parts of the created order.
Psalm 19, however, is the classic text in which David sets the books of nature and Scripture side by side, much as Augustine and others would do, centuries later. And David reads both books with unabashed awe and wonder:
The heavens declare the glory of God and proclaim his handiwork, without speech, to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.
And God’s Word is perfect and true, offering wisdom and enduring forever, more valuable than gold and sweeter than honey.
It appears that David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had no trouble discussing Scripture and nature as complementary sources of revelation, practically in the same poetic breath, and delighting in them both.
The Incarnation, where Word and nature meet
At the Incarnation, the Son of God, the second person of the everlasting Trinity, entered his creation and took on human nature in order to represent humanity and save his people from their sins.
But this unique act of divine grace has implications beyond the salvation of fallen human beings. As the living Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us, Christ showed his ongoing care for his entire creation, that it is valuable in his sight and worth redeeming.
While Jesus walked the earth, he was grounded and connected to the natural world. He was born as a human baby to a human mother, and he learned to walk, talk, socialize and work with his hands. He made friends, attended weddings and dinner parties. His parables used metaphors from nature to illustrate spiritual truths. And at the Last Supper, he promised his friends that he’d eat and drink with them once again in his Father’s Kingdom.
In short, at the Incarnation of Jesus, the Word of God and the world of nature met and embraced, never to be separated again.
Reading nature to the glory of God
Jesus declared that heaven and earth would pass away, but that his Word would never pass away. The Word is God’s eternal revelation of his own character, his will and his plans for creation. It ultimately reveals Jesus and the message of the Gospel, which must be heard and believed for a person to be saved.
By contrast, nature is temporary, with a beginning and an end. It speaks about God indirectly, without words and in generalities. One can intuit God’s power and majesty by observing nature, but one cannot come to a saving knowledge of Christ by doing so.
As C.S. Lewis remarked, “You find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built.”
But Jesus also said he was making all things new. He is in the process of redeeming his cosmos and will in the end recreate it, in the form of a New Heaven and a New Earth.
The book of nature is not a supplement, but rather a complement, to the book of Scripture. Nature is the companion volume, the pictures that go along with the text. As such, the heavens still declare the glory of God, no less than they did in David’s day.
More so, in fact. The more we study nature with modern tools and techniques, the more we see of its wonders and mysteries. The pictures become higher definition than ever before, and they drive us back to the text with a greater sense of awe at the God they both reveal. It’s our pleasure to be able to study both books in greater detail, to the glory of our Creator.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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