Patristic Theology and Modern Science Pt 1

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While I was in hospital having a medical procedure, recovering from the anesthetic, I picked up the book The Christian Frame of Mind by T F Torrance.  Once I started to read it, I could not put it down, even in my post-operative drugged state.  I find anesthetics make me a little hyper and making it hard to settle to sleep for the next few days following.  It was not until 4 o’clock in the morning when I finally finished the book.  What a breathtaking journey that was!

I feel the implications of what Torrance is trying to convey in this book is enormously helpful to us as we begin to navigate our way through life as a Trinitarian Christian.  Our way of knowing and seeing in the West is often in conflict with patristic theology.  The mistake many of us make is to press onto patristic understanding of reality our own modern understanding of reality.  The Western premise and presuppositions will distort the fundamental truths of the ancient church leading us to conclusions that are often not consistent with their overall framework of thought.  When we begin to understand their method of scientific investigation to uncover “truth,” we find the greatest advances in modern times have undertaken the very same method as the patristics.  People like James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Albert Einstein and Michael Polanyi have all employed these patristic methods and have broken free from the method of the day to produce compelling information that has resulted in a huge transformation towards our understanding of reality and the universe.

Torrance draws on a sample of three great Patristics, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom to give us an overall understanding of how their understanding of reality contrasted to the world view at that time.

St Basil in his work the Hexaemeron give definitive expression of the cosmological emphasis of Creation out of nothing.  The whole form and being of the universe came out of nothing.  What he meant was the whole of creation, visible and invisible, humanity in mind, soul and body originated from the free created will of God.  In contrast to classical Greek philosophy, Christian cosmology held that the whole of creation including its rationale and its intelligibility was contingent upon God.  To Greek philosophy this was absolutely ludicrous.  They thought the universe was necessary and explained itself as it existed ‘alongside’ God.  The beauty of geometric design and order showed signals of the divine making creation out of nothing a ridiculous concept expressing a form of atheism.

What we have here is a story put forward by the Greeks that has to be believed so that their cosmology could be understood.  The Christian drew on the Reality of the whole created order becoming flesh and dwelling among us as having primacy in understanding all the ways and works of God.  He is the one in whom all things were created from nothing and the One in whom all things consist and are held together.  Therefore He is the Author for understanding all the ways and works of His creation.  Athanasius highlighted the difference between Uncreated rationality with created rationality.  However, the rationality to understand redemption and the universe has its ground in the all important controlling factor in the Word of God.  Basil was able to draw together a critical scientific analysis of contemporary science through the lens of the relationship between creation and the transcendence of God.

He brought to prominence the contingent nature of the universe as having absolute dependence on the free sovereign act of God.  It is not self explanatory nor sufficient in itself.  If we are to understand God as Creator, His act in Creation then it is to Him we understand its order and structure and to Him who gives nature its laws.  If creation or nature has anything to say of itself in any intelligible way, then the ground of their intelligibility rests and is upheld in the intelligibility in God.  The mind of the human being is created out of the very being of God and it is the mind of the human being that graciously has its ground and contingency upon the Word of God.

Now we turn to St Gregory Nazianzen.  The main point Torrance wants to draw out from Gregory is the complete reconciliation of the mind to the mind of God in Jesus Christ.  A controversy arose in the fifth century through Apollinaris that in the Incarnation, God did not assume the fallen human mind.  Instead, the human mind was replaced with the divine mind.  This was in direct contrast to what Irenaeus first declared, ‘The Unassumed is the Unhealed.”  Following on from Irenaeus’ theme, Gregory was at lengths to stress it was in the mind that humanity was at enmity with God and distorted from his truth.  Above all Gregory said, is was in the mind that humanity needed to be redeemed and put right with God.

Much of Western theology and its understanding of science has suffered from the effects of Apollinarianism in regarding the human mind as being “neutral” from God.  What we understand is the reality of the human mind being twisted and estranged from God needing internal healing.  Instead of understanding a gracious union and interaction between the mind and rationale of God with the mind and rationale of the human mind, the West has adopted the rationale of Pre-Christian Greeks that have bogged down theology and science for centuries.

If we combine the contributions of both Basil and Gregory Nazianzen we have an approach of understanding our universe that may be enormously helpful in our theological and scientific method.  Firstly, Basil gives us the groundwork for understanding the entire created order, everything in it visible and invisible, humanity including their mind and rationale are created out of nothing by God.  This makes the whole created order contingent upon God in Christ Jesus.  The laws, the permanent structures of the universe maintain their constancy upon the Word of God and it is from him we are to understand them.  We understand that in Christ the whole of the human nature has been healed and reconciled and brought back to God through the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Knowing this to be true, there has to be an endeavour to turn our minds to function in the light of this redemption and sanctification.

When we are acutely aware that the, “light shines in the darkness and darkness cannot comprehend it,” then we understand that even though there maybe an effort to pursue truth, the darkness within us may try to undo it, distort and even try to destroy it.  A high degree of honesty must be undertaken as we try to uncover the truth.  The weight of our research and the authority that we may have as we exercise this to share the truth must not resort to making up a story to make sense of the facts.  This does a disservice to the integrity of science when something is put forward that can in no way be verified.  We serve the truth and are not masters of it.  If one wants to declare a truth as a result of their investigation, then it must be verified on its own terms rather than on conditions set by the one who discovered it.

John Chrysostom’s contribution is one of the interpenetration of the divine and moral order in the universe where the nature and character of God’s eternal being is stamped throughout creation.  The eternal will of God for humanity is to commune with him where a determination to disclose His will to them is His ultimate meaning and true purpose.  Thus, what we find in the universe is “true meaning” and purpose which is tied to the very heart of God and not alongside it.  This is in contrast to classical Greek thinking, as well as modern thinking, where accident and blind chance without purpose are often interwoven into understanding the origins of life, evolution and natural selection.  There is supreme purpose and order ordained in creation by the Creator.  This inserted an understanding by the Patristics that God blesses what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is under His judgement.  This in turn brought about an understanding of the gracious and loving purpose of God is interwoven throughout the created order.  The providential care of the Creator is not only in His creation but also in the care and well-being of each person replaced the Greek tendency for a fatalistic outlook upon the world and human affairs.

What Chrysostom contributed to the church was a need for the Greek mind to be saturated with the Scriptures and to be inwardly transformed by the renewing of the mind and leaving the former way of thinking behind.  This results in a totally Christian frame of understanding that not only has the human mind, body and soul has undergone redemption in Jesus Christ but the entire created order.  This places Creation on the foundation of God’s grace.  We must not progress in our investigations with the idea that fields of science need to be separated from the field of theology.  The two can work together for the good of all.  Both require an enormous amount of integrity in how their information is to be interpreted and delivered to the world.

Much of modern Christendom has lost what George Florovsky calls the Scriptural mind.  This is the same sanctity of mind that was exercised by the Patristic saints.  He says in his Collected Works in the Chapter “The Lost Scriptural Mind” He points out as quoted by T F Torrance on pp. 14-15 in The Christian Frame of Mind

“Florovsky pointed out that our major difficulty today begins with the habit we have acquired of measuring the Word of God by our own stature, instead of checking our mind by the stature of Christ.  He claimed that we have lost the integrity of the Scriptural mind, and thus fail to sustain “the faith once delivered to the saints,” in the way in which we ought in fidelity to the truth of the Gospel.  Our modern mind needs to be brought under the judgment of the Word of God and to be transformed by the mind of Christ.”

This is all important if we are to engage honestly and effectively with each other and to the whole created order.  Understanding the sheer majesty of the contingency of the whole created order upon God makes us realise that there is so much to gain by what God in Jesus Christ has to offer and is determined to share with us His rationale behind all things.  God had a rationale as He created the cosmos.  He graciously gave humanity a rationale in freedom.  When the Word of God became flesh, the rationale of God was inserted into the rationale of humanity and the two became one.  There is unity between the mind of God and the mind of humanity.  In addition, the rationale of  God is interpenetrated throughout creation having its Source and supremacy in Jesus Christ.  This provides science with an astonishing opportunity to adopt a new way of seeing the universe.  Instead of pushing aside and explaining away contingency, some movers and shakers in science have adopted this possibility into their scientific process with astonishing results.  There is astonishing beauty and order in creation that is being disclosed by science.  The reality of Christ in all and through all shows us a new opportunity to engage with the scientific community with the idea that natural science is the revelation of the theatre of God’s revelation.