This review, written by Gerrit Bos, is one of our series of reviews of chapters of David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (P&R, 2010). We welcome your engagement and responses.
Don Petcher, professor of physics at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and co-author with Tim Morris of Science & Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences (Crossway, 2006), makes the case that science is a wonderful enterprise for a scientist in the Calvinist tradition. Calvin’s worldview gives a high or special place to the Scriptures, but leaves much freedom for science. Petcher rejects the warfare hypothesis (science and religion are at war) and advocates a return to Calvin, setting the stage for a common sense approach to and a rich understanding of science. Petcher rightly points out the centrality in Calvin’s theology of God’s sovereignty over all creation. He figures God’s providence fits within His sovereignty and within that yet again, God’s “radical sustenance,” which includes all creation, not just supernatural events. This helps us to understand how to view laws of nature. Petcher then works with writings of Davis A. Young, William J. Bouwsma, R. Hooykaas, James Orr and others to describe Calvin’s principle of accommodation. God accommodates limited human understanding by using everyday understandable language. E.g. Calvin explains that Moses referred to ‘greater’ and ‘lesser lights’ on the basis of their appearance to us, and does not address the fact that Saturn is larger than the moon. Petcher and the other authors consider the accommodation principle a doctrine, and build approvingly on it to include the Big Bang theory, long age of the earth and non-literal six days of creation. After mentioning some recent scientific discoveries, and a short critique of the Intelligent Design movement, as well as Young Earth Creationism, Petcher concludes by saying: “Thank God for the wonderful grace of the scientific enterprise.”
This chapter presents quite a few things which can be readily agreed to such as Calvin’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty, his worldview which sets the stage for a rich understanding of science, and God’s occasional accommodation of our limited understanding by using everyday language. But as Petcher extends the occasional accommodation into a principle, and then a doctrine, it seems to acquire an overriding role in his understanding. Instead of God accommodating our limited understanding, the doctrine increasingly takes on a meaning of God’s Word accommodating changing scientific understanding. Thus Petcher’s final position of a long-age of the earth contradicts Calvin’s explicit writing that the earth is no more than 6000 years old (e.g. Institutes 1.14.1). And while Calvin nowhere explicitly denies the possibility of extended-length creation days, it is beyond doubt that he understood the creation days to be normal days. I base this conclusion on his discussions of whether the first day began with evening or morning (Commentary on Gen. 1:5), creation accomplished in six days, not in one moment (e.g. Institutes 1.14.2), God creating the world in six days, resting on the seventh, manifests His works and creates a model for us to imitate (Commentary on Fourth commandment – Ex. 20:8) and even his discussion on whether the seventh month might have been the first month, the month of creation (Commentary on Fourth commandment – Lev. 23:24). Calvin likewise criticizes those who “reconcile the doctrine of Scriptures with the dogmas of philosophy” to “avoid teaching anything which the majority of mankind might deem absurd.” (Institutes 2.2.4) These contradictions seem irreconcilable.
What to do with these things as a reformed academic? Well, take heart; science is indeed a wonderful vocation, and a Calvinist, reformed world-view allows it to flourish, rather than be still-born as in many other world-views. God’s creation has infinite areas to research, use, steward, and understand. Follow these with all your hearth, thought, and mind. Avoid thinking more highly of yourself than you ought, and eschew human precepts which would lead to pride. Live the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation, and use scriptural understanding to determine the object of your scientific enterprise, as well as the methods employed in it. Rejoice and give thanks for it, but continue to see its place subordinate to God’s and Scripture’s authority. Read literature like what is reviewed here with discernment; retain that which is good, discard that which is not.
Gerrit Bos graduated from the University of Guelph with a BSc in Engineering in 1987, and is currently the Information Technology Security Officer there, member of Emmanuel CanRC in Guelph, and chairman of the board of Covenant Canadian Reformed Teachers College.