Let Us Behold

In his monograph Called to the Life of the Mind, Richard Mouw recalls teaching his first philosophy class, which included the thought of the philosopher Anaxagoras of Klazomenai. He mentions (via Josef Pieper) that Anaxagoras, “while engaging in catechetical exercise, answered the question, ‘Why are you here on earth?’ with the stark reply ‘To behold.’” In Only the Lover Sings, Pieper applied the comment to artistic endeavors, while Mouw expands the context to “all that we encounter in our scholarship.” If we embrace this idea of beholding, to what end do we behold? What is the consequence or even the purpose in beholding?

What we discover in the study of his creation is that which he placed there for us to discover that we might know him.

The Belgic Confession in Article II provides a direction when it identifies the means by which we know God. The confession says there are two means by which we gain knowledge of God: First, we come to know God by beholding his work in “the creation, preservation, and government of the universe which is before us as a most elegant book.” By observing this first book, we are led “to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity.” The confession also identifies a second means and a second book, “his holy and divine Word,” through which we see “his glory and our salvation.” Thus the confession agrees with Xnaxagoras that our purpose is “to behold,” specifically to behold the revelation of God. In a sense, these two sources present complementary pictures by which we may know God.

WE ARE BEHOLDERS

As Xnaxagoras, Pieper and Mouw assert, we are beholders, as were those who came before us and those who will come after us. As we behold, we try to make sense of what it is that we are beholding and what it means. This is how the ancient writer of Genesis contemplated the surrounding natural world. Using his power of observation and his understanding that there is a creator (and being “moved by the Holy Spirit” (Belgic Confession Article III), he fashioned an explanation to make sense of what he observed. This explanation is included in the second book and is given to us as the inspired Word of God so that we may know his glory and our salvation.

The writer of Genesis presented the creation of the world as occurring in seven punctuated periods of time, using the most common measure of time available to him, days. Still, the purpose of the passage is clear, and that is to convey as powerfully as possible two themes: that what we behold is a creation from the hands of a creator and that this creation as such is (not just was) very good.

Modern study of the first book presents a different but not incompatible picture of creation, namely, a creation revealed as a formative history of continual development. This picture of formation is consistent whether one considers cosmology, geology, biology or even anthropology. In and of itself, the first book is leery about making judgment concerning the value or goodness of creation or about the purpose of creation. Yet any person who studies it comes away with a sense of awe at what is being beheld, whether it is awe because of the expanse of time evident in the universe or the physical processes at work in shaping our own planet or the biologic mechanisms clearly displayed, whether in organisms or in molecules.

CONSTANTS AMID DEVELOPMENT

If the history of the universe, of the earth or of the creatures which inhabit the earth is a continuum with a distant past and an indeterminate future, what factors might span as constants across that history? To be more precise, what might have been true, scientifically speaking, for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that also is true for us today? I would argue that the constants are the natural laws by which we today see the universe governed. For example, if ice melts at 0 degrees Centigrade in my laboratory today and melted at 0 degrees Centigrade in the laboratory yesterday, I have a degree of confidence that it will melt at 0 degrees tomorrow. I also have a confidence that when Moses observed ice melting, it also occurred at 0 degrees – same for Abraham, for Jesus, for Paul and for the writer of Genesis. Thus what I might examine in the laboratory today would be identical to what I would discover at times past if I had Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine or in times future if I had Dr. Brown’s De Lorean. Obviously, the writer of Genesis did not have access to the scientific tools of today nor to the accumulated understanding of the behavior of the universe that we possess, but the object of his beholding was the same as the object of our beholding. Being confident that the witness of nature is constant across formative history is what one might call having faith in science.

But why can one have faith in science? For me as a Christian, the simplest explanation is that I can have faith in science because I have faith in God – specifically, the attribute of God that he is faithful. This is a dominant message of the second book: God is faithful. Because he is faithful to his covenant promises, we are assured of our salvation. Also, because he is faithful, he will not deceive. What we discover in the study of his creation is that which he placed there for us to discover that we might know him. Our beholding is something to build our faith, not something to test our faith. So if we are faithful to our task of scientific inquiry, we do not need to be afraid of what is revealed.

TO KNOW OURSELVES

The author of Genesis not only beheld his universe and tried to make sense of it; he also tried to make sense of his relationship to his Creator and his alienation from his Creator. He expressed that investigation as events that we refer to as the Fall and which, from inquiry into the second book, we expand to a creation-fall-redemption paradigm. Now, if I accept the continuum of creation as revealed to me scientifically, what happens to the creation-fall-redemption paradigm presented in Scripture and confessed in our writings (Heidelberg Catechism Question 2)? I would argue that it still applies us as it did to the author of Genesis, although perhaps not as history. The paradigm becomes a personal theological paradigm: I know that I am a creature, not a creator; I know that I am sinful, fallen and in need of redemption, and I know that there is a pathway to redemption through Jesus Christ. I know this primarily not because I have read it in an ancient text but because of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which reveals my fallen state to me. The Spirit also reveals to me the story of redemption through that ancient text. As the Heidelberg Catechism affirms, to live in the comfort of knowing that I belong to Jesus Christ, I must first know how great my sin and misery are and how I am set free from all my sins and misery. I know this salvation only through the witness of the Holy Spirit as a free gift of God revealed to me in the second book.

Though I may embrace creation as a continuum, I also acknowledge that it is not event-free and that there are three marvelous events in its formative history. There was a start to what we observe scientifically – maybe not in seven days of punctuated time, but there was a start: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made. Without him nothing was made which has been made” (John 1:1-3). Second, there was an event, miraculous on so many levels, that we call the incarnation: “He was in the world and though the world was made by him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). This event and the purpose of God taking on the flesh of humankind and dwelling among us are revealed to us only in the book of Scripture. If there is a belief that separates Christians from non-Christians, it is the incarnation. Third, there is the return of Christ, which will be accompanied by a new heaven and a new earth, an event which could end the continuum of creation history as we know it.

Beholding leads to inquiry, a search for making sense of what we see around us. Beholding the universe and scientific inquiry allows us to make sense about the nature of the universe and our physical relationship to it. Beholding of Scripture allows us to make sense of our relationship to our Creator. Ultimately by beholding both, we are led to confess that God is creator and sustainer and the source of our salvation.

Byron Noordewier teaches biology at Northwestern College, Orange City, Iowa.

Image byEnamur Reza /Flickr, under CC BY 2.0 license.