In the first of his three volume A Scientific Theology entitled Nature, Alister McGrath sets out the groundwork for exploring the complex relationship between science and theology, in hopes that an investigation of this relationship might allow for the development of a theological methodology. Lest his title confuse and alienate faithful adherents to Christian Orthodoxy, McGrath reassuringly affirms that “the classical Christian formulations of the faith are perfectly adequate to function as the basis of a scientific theology” (p. 42). Fully aware of the problems that have plagued past efforts in this regard, McGrath builds on the foundation set forth by Augustine’s ‘critical appropriation’ model, acknowledging that the admission of natural science methodologies into the ‘operative logic’ of Christian theology can indeed be a dangerous exercise, given the provisional nature of both theological and scientific judgments. McGrath is no more satisfied with a vacuous theology capitulating to the rigorous methods of science than he is of a rigid, archaic theology which would dare not ‘stoop’ to the realms of scientific inquiry. He asserts that a constructive working relationship between science and theology is not just an option, but is demanded by the way Christian theology understands the nature of reality itself. However, McGrath asserts that there’s no privileged philosophy by which one need gain access to this complex interface in that both theology and science are viewed as disciplines which seek to give an account of this external reality.
In Part Two of Nature, McGrath turns directly to the title of this volume, arguing that any constructive discussion between science and theology will first need to come to grips with this term. He goes to great lengths to display the slipperyness of the term ‘nature’ by examining historical conceptions and understandings from Plato, to the Enlightenment to post-modernism, effectively demonstrating that nature is at least in part a socially constructed and mediated concept, desperately in need of ontological grounding which can be provided with the Christian understanding (or, doctrine) of creation. Again, McGrath expends several pages uncovering the biblical doctrine of creation, with particular emphasis on the development of creation ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) within the Christian faith. This doctrine is founded primarily on New Testament texts (John 1, Colossians 1), demonstrating creation’s highly christological content. But McGrath also gives close attention to the historical settings out of which this doctrine arose, investigating the various construals from key figures in the Christian faith, including Irenaeus, Aquinas, Calvin, Karl Barth, and T. F. Torrance. Drawing particularly on insights from Barth, McGrath concludes that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo underscores creation’s complete and utter dependence upon the Creator, demonstrating God’s freedom to create has He wills, unlimited by the constraints that would have been imposed by creating with matter already in existence (a Gnostic doctrine). Moreover, given creation’s christological component, McGrath asserts with Torrance that the divine rationality present in Christ is also present in creation.
The implications of the Christian doctrine of creation have particular bearing on natural theology, or, what may be discerned of God from observing nature. McGrath is particularly concerned with how humans are able to grasp a sense of the rationality of the created order. This enablement comes from the fact that we are created in the image of God (imago Dei), even though both creation and humanity’s grasping of reality have been damaged by sin. McGrath argues that though we are ‘damaged,’ we nevertheless can discern order in creation, as evidenced in part by the remarkable accuracy with which mathematics can describe and predict natural phenomena. Moreover, these laws of nature do not exist independently of God (though secular science operates with a methodology that precludes any such idea of a sustaining being outside of nature), but come from God. In other words, God did not create the universe by appealing to a particular higher order of the laws of nature, but establishes these laws Himself. Yet, McGrath shares many of Barth’s concerns of natural theology, not so much the legitimacy, but the use to which natural theology is put. McGrath finds resonance with T. F. Torrance’s critique of Barth, agreeing that natural theology need not, and indeed should not serve as a ‘proof’ of God apart from revelation, but becomes useful only when it operates within the scope divine revelation itself, and not as a separate or independent means of pointing to God. Thus, nature itself receives its fullest explanation only in light of specific revelation, and cannot therefore exist, or at least be successful, as an autonomous discipline. Yet, natural theology is an integral part of the public sphere, as nature itself-even with its numerous construals-has an undeniably public character. So much so that McGrath asserts “natural theology offers a comprehensive means by which theology may address the world, and engage in productive dialogue concerning the legitimation and consequences of belief systems” (p. 303). Therefore, McGrath concludes that the theologian has freedom to fully engage nature and its various interpretations-including those presuppositions of the hard and social sciences.
One area in which McGrath might have said more concerns the effect(s) of sin on natural theology: specifically, the effect of sin on the created order itself. McGrath appears to dismiss T. F. Torrance’s identification of creation’s fallenness with entropy, suggesting that this ‘disorder’ or ‘chaos’ in creation is more likely a function of imprecise mathematic equations inhibiting the predictability of complex phenomena or systems (p. 290), even though it would be unwise to assert that creation is perfect. But one would hope that the fallenness of creation ought to depend on more than our ability to predict or describe an observable phenomena with acceptable mathematical precision, be it chaos theory or some other mathematic theory. Certainly, we can understand and predict the behaviour of hurricanes with a reasonable, thought not an entirely sufficient, amount of accuracy. Even should science one day describe and predict such phenomena ‘completely,’ it would in no way satisfactorily answer the question as to why this ‘natural’ disaster would be allowed to wipe out an entire town. McGrath would likely concede this point. This is to say that it would have been nice for McGrath to say a little more about how creation may have been damaged on a theological, metaphysical level, rather than moving the discussion to the mathematical level.
McGrath’s book is well worth reading, especially for those with Christian convictions working in the sciences, as well as those who have tended to view scientific discoveries as antithetical to a Christian worldview. The studies on ‘nature’ and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo alone make this book worth reading. Despite a somewhat difficult subject matter, McGrath’s book is highly readable-despite the occasional untranslated Latin, German, and French phrase. He may be forgiven however, given the ample number of French and German sources with which he interacts. As evidenced by the ample footnoting, the reader clearly benefits from his interaction with sources which to many would simply be inaccessible.
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