The Divine Attributes of Scientific Laws

July 27, 2016

by Vern Poythress

All scientists—including agnostics and atheists—believe in God. They have to in order to do their work.

It seems outrageous to include the agnostics and atheists. But by their actions people sometimes show that in a sense they believe in things that they profess not to believe. Bakht, a Vedantic Hindu philosopher, may say that the world is an illusion. But he does not casually walk into the street in front of an oncoming bus. Sue, a radical relativist, may say that there is no truth. But she travels calmly at 30,000 feet on a plane whose safe flight depends on the unchangeable truths of aerodynamics and structural mechanics.

But what about scientists? Do they believe in God? Must they? Popular American culture often transmits the contrary idea, namely that science is antagonistic to orthodox Christian belief. Recitations of Galileo’s conflict and of the Scopes Trial have gained mythic status, and receive reinforcement through vocal promotions of materialistic evolution. Historians of science point out that modern science arose in the context of a Christian worldview, and was nourished and sustained by that view.

But even if that was once so, modern science seems to sustain itself without the help of explicit theistic underpinnings. In fact, many consider God to be the God of the gaps, the God whom people invoke only to account for gaps in modern scientific explanation. As science advances and more gaps become subject to explanation, the role of God diminishes. The natural drives out the need for the supernatural.

Is Modern Science Incompatible with God?

Is it in fact the case that modern science drives out God? Or is it true that what we say we believe is belied by the reality of this world in which we live? In light of the distinction between what sinful humans say they believe and what this world reveals suggests that God can’t be ruled out of the equation so quickly. Let’s consider a few illuminating observations:

1. Do they really believe? 

But do scientists really believe all this? They do and they do not. The situation has already been described in the Bible:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom 1:19–20)

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. (Ps 19:1–2)

Scientists already know God as an aspect of their human experience in the scientific enterprise.

They know God. They rely on him. But because this knowledge is morally and spiritually painful, they also suppress and distort it:

. . . for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Rom 1:21–23)

Modern people may no longer make idols in the form of physical images, but their very idea of “scientific law” is an idolatrous twisting of their knowledge of God. They conceal from themselves the fact that this “law” is personal and that they are responsible to him. Or they substitute the word “nature,” personifying her as they talk glowingly of the works of “mother nature.” But they evade what they know of the transcendence of God over nature. Even in their rebellion, people continue to depend on God being there. They show that in action they continue to believe in God. Cornelius Van Til compares it to an incident he saw on a train, where a small girl sitting on her grandfather’s lap slapped him in the face. The rebel must depend on God, “sitting on his lap,” even to be able to engage in rebellion.

2. Do we Christians believe?

The fault, I suspect, is not entirely on the side of unbelievers. The fault is also ours. Christians have sometimes adopted an unbiblical concept of God that moves him one step out of the way of our ordinary affairs. We ourselves may think of “scientific law” or “natural law” as a kind of cosmic mechanism or impersonal clockwork that runs the world most of the time, while God is on vacation. God comes and acts only rarely through miracle. But this is not biblical. “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock” (Ps 104:14). “He gives snow like wool” (Ps 147:16). Let us not forget it. If we ourselves recovered a robust doctrine of God’s involvement in daily caring for his world in detail, we would find ourselves in a much better position to dialogue with atheistic scientists who rely on that same care.

3. Principles for witness

In order to use this situation as a starting point for witness, we need to bear in mind several principles:

First, the observation that God underlies the concept of scientific law does not have the same shape as the traditional theistic proofs. In this case we are not showing that one must deduce or infer the existence of God as the final conclusion of an argument starting from various other kinds of premises. Rather, we show that scientists already know God as an aspect of their human experience in the scientific enterprise. This places the focus not on intellectual debate, but on being a full human being within the context of scientific research.

Second, scientists deny God within the very same context in which they depend on him. The denial of God springs ultimately not from intellectual flaws or from failure to see all the way to the conclusion of a chain of syllogistic reasoning, but from spiritual failure. We are rebels against God, and we will not serve him. Consequently, we suffer under his wrath (Rom 1:18), which has intellectual as well as spiritual and moral effects. Rebels are “fools,” according to Rom 1:22.

Third, it is humiliating to intellectuals to be exposed as fools, and it is further humiliating, even psychologically unbearable, to be exposed as guilty of rebellion against the goodness of God. We can expect our hearers to fight with a tremendous outpouring of intellectual and spiritual energy against so unbearable an outcome.

Fourth, the gospel itself, with its message of forgiveness and reconciliation through Christ, offers the only remedy that can truly end this fight against God. But it brings with it the ultimate humiliation: that my restoration comes entirely from God, from outside me—in spite of, rather than because of, my vaunted abilities. To climax it all, so wicked was I that it took the price of the death of the Son of God to accomplish my rescue.

Fifth, approaching scientists in this way constitutes spiritual warfare. Idolaters are captives to Satanic deceit (1 Cor 10:20; 2 Thess 2:9–12; 2 Tim 2:25–26; Eph 4:17–24; Rev 12:9). They do not get free from Satan’s captivity unless God gives them release (2 Tim 2:25–26). We must pray to God and rely on God’s power rather than the ingenuity of human argument and eloquence of persuasion (1 Cor 2:1–5; 2 Cor 10:3–5).

Sixth, we come into this encounter as fellow sinners. Christians, too, have become massively guilty by being captivated to the idolatry in which scientific law is regarded as impersonal. Within this captivity we take for granted the benefits and beauties of science for which we should be filled with gratitude and praise to God. Does an approach based on these principles work itself out differently from many that address intellectuals? To me it appears so.

Scientists necessarily work daily with the eternality and omnipotence of scientific law right before their eyes.

4. Broadening our audience

So far we have focused on scientists as potential recipients of Christian witness. But what implications might we draw for dealing with the broader public? In a technologized world, every inhabitant depends on the products of science and technology. And people trust some of the tools of technology enough to rely on them. They trust them not only for their information about the world at large, but also for the very preservation of their lives. Not everyone travels on airplanes, but most people do travel from time to time in high-speed automobiles, and most buy food from supermarkets that represent the end point of a long chain of technicized steps in food production and distribution.

What then protects us from disaster? The biblical witness is clear: God. We behold day by day God’s providential rule. God does “good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). The marvels of growing plants manifest the faithfulness of God as he speaks his word to plants. These long-standing marvels are now supplemented by the marvels of chemistry in making fertilizer and pesticides; the marvels of soil science informing and advising the farmers; the marvels of biology in genetically modifying plants; the marvels of technological complexity in harvesters, processing plants, shippers, and packagers.

Scientists necessarily work daily with the eternality and omnipotence of scientific law right before their eyes. But the rest of us see the faithfulness of God manifested more prosaically in the dependability of the technological apparatus that spins off from science. We assume the reliability of our food sources, believing that our food will nourish rather than poison us.

5. Returning to the attributes of God

To some extent, then, the attributes of scientific law are visible even to ordinary people who enjoy the benefits of technology. Ordinary people believe that technological products will work in the same way at any time and in any place. Thus, in principle they believe in the constancy of technology. And they believe by implication that the laws in back of technology are constant. Of course, an average person may or may not be informed about the details of the scientific laws in back of a particular technological product. But even if he does not know the laws in details, he believes that even in detail they remain constant. This constancy guarantees the constancy of the functioning of the technological product governed by the laws. The constancy of law in both time and space points to the eternality and omnipresence of the laws.

Of course, the common person may be less aware of the implication of eternality and omnipresence. He is not a theoretician testing the outer limits, theorizing about gamma ray bursts in distant galaxies or about nuclear reactions in the sun. He is much more down to earth. He cares for and believes in the constancy of laws within the practical scope of his personal world.

But in fact a similar observation can be made about the traditional idea of the eternality and omnipresence of God. The teachings of the Bible focus primarily on the common person’s world within his limited vision of time and space. The Bible asks people not primarily to believe in eternality and omnipresence as theoretical abstractions, but to trust God in practice in the conduct of their daily lives. The attributes of eternality and omnipresence are theoretical generalizations from this practical experience. Hence, the common person in the biblical world corresponds to the common person today who believes in constancy; the theoretical theologian who speaks of eternality and omnipresence corresponds to the theoretical scientist who speaks of laws in their perfect generality. God’s providence affects us in both spheres. Thus the divine attributes of scientific law offer a platform for witness to both ordinary people and scientists.

This piece is adapted from Vern Poythress, “Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46/1 (March 2003), 111–23. Used with permission of the publisher.

Vern Poythress

Dr. Poythress (PhD, Harvard; DTh, Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at WTS.

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