Theology of Nature – the Language of God 1

In this meandering series working towards a theology of nature, this subject may be the most difficult to write about, because it might seem nebulous, or even mystical, but I suspect is the most crucial departure from previous models. Accordingly, it will spread over more than one post.

Let’s start with a well known thought from Galileo:

Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth. (Galileo, The Assayer (1623), as translated by Thomas Salusbury (1661), p. 178, as quoted in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (2003) by Edwin Arthur Burtt, p. 75)

This is often paraphrased (perhaps so as to include differential equations as well as Euclidean, or in Galileo’s case, Pythagorean, geometry!) as:

Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.

I’m going to suggest that this is fundamentally wrong, or at least shortsighted (God may well be multilingual, after all!), as also is the less seriously held thought of Francis Collins in calling the DNA code “the language of God” as the title for his book. Galileo wrote when mathematics was in its comparative youth in science and seemed invincible, and Collins when it looked as if unravelling the human genome would unlock biology. Ironically, both of them communicated their enthusiasm in natural language.

We can, I believe, only ever speak analogically of God. But some analogies are more correct, and more generally applicable, than others. For example, Jesus describes God as a mother hen brooding over Israel, her clutch, once. But the metaphor of God as Father is so important and ubiquitous in his teaching as to be said to be paradigmatic of all fatherhood (Eph 3:15), and so is God’s love (1 Jn 4:8).

One such key analogy is that of God’s speech, or word. In the Genesis creation account, “God said ‘Let there be…'” is repeatedly the means of creation, though interspersed with synonyms of “making” or “forming.” One could understand this purely as a royal metaphor – God as a great king commands, and it gets done. But that would be inadequate, because the whole of Scripture continues to develop a rich theme of God’s word as the expression of his creative and salvific wisdom and will, as something that actually achieves the reality of what it expresses, and even as something that links the world of creation with his relationship with Israel and mankind. Finally, of course, John in his Gospel prologue personifies the word of power in Genesis as Jesus, the Logos of God. Let me expand all that, somewhat too briefly.

Throughout the Old Testament, the word (dabar) of the Lord, given to the prophets, is seen not simply as telling what God is doing or will do, but achieving it. This is seen, for example, in God’s call to the prophet Jeremiah:

“Behold, I have put My words in your mouth.
“See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms,
To pluck up and to break down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.”

The meaning is that because Jeremiah is the mouthpiece for Yahweh’s effectual oracles, there is a sense in which the prophet himself brings about the changes of history. Similarly in Isaiah 55:10-11:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
And do not return there without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.

So we can see here a parallel between the prophetic word of God spoken through human lips and the word of creation in Genesis 1 spoken through the Logos. In fact, these two aspects of God’s speech are juxtaposed in Psalm 19. The first 6 verses tell of the heavens speaking forth the glory of God, the implication being that this is because he has first spoken them into being for that purpose:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;
And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their utterances to the end of the world.
In them He has placed a tent for the sun,
Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber;
It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.
Its rising is from one end of the heavens,
And its circuit to the other end of them;
And there is nothing hidden from its heat.

The psalm then immediately turns its attention to the word of Torah, just as God-breathed, just as revelatory of God, and just as effectual:

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them Your servant is warned;
In keeping them there is great reward.

In the New Testament, although Jesus as Logos is only clearly expounded in John 1, the same OT “dabar” understanding is applied to him both in John and elsewhere. And so John habitually uses the word “logos” for the message Jesus speaks, or that the disciples will pass on, in a way that often makes it seem that Jesus himself is that message – which of course, he is. The message (logos) brings life because it is, in some sense, the Logos in action.

Once we remember Jesus, as per John 1, as both the Logos through whom the Father spoke creation into being in Genesis 1, and the gospel message by which not only is mankind redeemed, but creation renewed, then we’re pretty close to that Old Testament prophetic concept of dabar, the word that achieves what it speaks – and notably, the word that creates reality. It is the spiritual power of the gospel proclaimed verbally that makes preaching still the powerful agent of conversion it has been through men like Billy Graham or Dick Lucas.

Minus the “logos” terminology, the same kind of fusion between the cosmic Christ, by, through and for whom all things in heaven and earth were created, and who is now the means of salvation, and the speaking of that truth though the gospel, is made by Paul:

…the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man complete in Christ. For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me. (Col 1:25-29)

Similarly, again, in the introduction to 1 John:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

What I’m trying to get across here is that at so many points, the Bible grounds the transcendent, or what we might call the metaphorical, picture of the creative Word of God’s power (which is Christ) within the physical creation itself, whether that be the wordless testimony of the heavens, the effectual Hebrew words of the prophets or the apostles or, supremely, the word made Jewish flesh in Jesus. Consider this event, from Mark 4:

And there arose a fierce gale of wind, and the waves were breaking over the boat so much that the boat was already filling up. Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. And He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They became very much afraid and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?”

Here we see the Logos of God commanding his own creation by the same dabar by which he confined the seas within their appointed limits in Gen 1. Well might the disciples wonder fearfully just what kind of man he was. But the point to note here is that the word of power he addressed to the wind and waves was a word in vernacular human speech, presumably Galilean Aramaic. I’m going to suggest in future posts that this connection between the divine word of power and human speech is neither irrelevant nor fortuitous, and neither is it insignificant that Jesus did not address the storm with one of Galileo’s Euclidian shapes or with a differential equation.

The old theologians helpfully saw the Father as the source of all being in its “vast array” of forms, the Son as the expression of the divine will and mind, and the Spirit as the executive power making it all actual. What interests me here is the close relationship Scripture allows to the dabar/logos as supernatural power – indeed as the second person of the Trinity – and actual human language executing that power, whether it be in the words of the prophets, the miracles of Jesus, or the preaching of the saints. There is something to learn from this, which I’ll explore a little in the next post.

Let me close with some food for thought from words of Werner Heisenberg I used in my recent post on him, and asked you to keep in mind:

…our attitude towards concepts like mind or the human soul or life or God will be different from that of the nineteenth century, because these concepts belong to the natural language and have therefore immediate connection with reality…

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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