I am delighted to be here to preach on Bible Sunday. I must admit, though, that Bible Sunday isn’t necessarily the easiest when it comes to preaching. After all, a sermon along the lines of ‘the Bible is important’ or ‘read your Bible, it’s good for you’ (both of which are sermons I’ve heard in the past), is, let’s face it, pretty much an exercise in stating the obvious. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been invited to preach today – since my stock in trade, as it were, is to preach about science and how Christians can and should embrace science and what it offers us. You have to admit, that’s not the usual Bible Sunday message.
The Bible, of course, is not a science text. It makes no claim to be a scientific account of the world. What it is, is a record of God’s ongoing revelation of godself to humanity, and humanity’s response to God. Nevertheless, just as the Bible has inspired people down the ages to strive for a life of holiness, it has also inspired people to do science. This isn’t so surprising, really, if you think about it. Science, at its heart, is the investigation of the natural world and, in the applied sciences, using what is discovered to some (hopefully good) effect. There are, in fact, biblical texts that refer to the created world not just as God’s handiwork, but as revealing the glory and nature of God. The opening of Psalm 19, for example: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” Psalm 104 points to the close connection between God and his creation. Here, God’s providence and care for creation is emphasised. As we look around and see how well and thoroughly God cares and provides for all creatures, we learn something about God’s loving nature and the concern that God has for the wellbeing of his creatures. The creation narratives of Genesis highlight the orderliness of the world, and suggest that this order is part of the divine will. All of these examples put forward the idea that by examining the things of the created world one can come to know about God. Paul, too, in the first chapter of the letter to the Romans suggests that, even those who don’t have access to the scriptures still have access to the world around them and, from that, should be able to discern something about God: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”
With all of that – and more – in the Bible, it’s no wonder that the earliest ‘scientists’ of the western world were devout believers.
Men like Copernicus, Galileo, Sir Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and others, all engaged in exploration of the natural world because their faith compelled them to do so. They desired to learn about the creation so that they might learn more about the Creator. Sir Francis Bacon described science as being, “for the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate.” In other words, science helps us to learn more about God and the more we know about God the more we can praise him appropriately; but it doesn’t stop there. Science is also for improving people’s lives.
Improving the lives of others is in itself a Christian vocation, an expression of God’s kingdom. If we are in any doubt of this, we need only look at the words of Isaiah that Jesus reads to announce his own ministry and with it the arrival of the kingdom:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Science at its best helps us to do just that – providing us with the means to relieve suffering, to cure disease, to advance the cause of justice and set people free from the things that bind them; things such as mental illness, isolation or prejudice. Of course, science has come a long way from the early days of the Enlightenment, and we now know and understand a great deal more about our planet, its environment and habitats, and the other creatures with whom we share this world. Science has also shown us that it is no longer enough for Christians to use it for the relief of man’s estate, but that we should be using our scientific knowledge to enable the flourishing of other creatures and the earth itself. Some might say that sounds like a departure from biblical teaching but, in fact, the theme of humanity’s responsibility to use its knowledge and skill to tend the earth and care for non-human creatures is present in the Genesis creation narratives and reinforced in Romans 8, in which Paul describes the whole creation as groaning as it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” In other words, when we live our lives in accordance with the values of the Kingdom of God, when our salvation is evident in our choices and actions and the image of God within us shows through, creation itself will be released from suffering.
Down the centuries, theologians have thought about and written about and almost certainly argued about what it means to be made in the image of God. I would suggest that at some level, being made in the image of God includes our ability to gain knowledge and to cultivate wisdom, and to use that knowledge and wisdom in accordance with God’s will. Today, there is in some quarters a popular perception that Christians are anti-science, and that we choose to believe the truths of the Bible and reject the facts discovered by science. There is also a perception among some that Christians just accept the texts of the Bible without thought or interpretation. We might consider this to be a modern instance of “an insult that has fallen” upon us and, by extension, upon Christ. I don’t believe that those caricatures are true of most Christians. This past Tuesday was St Luke’s Day. Tradition has it that the Luke who wrote the Gospel from which our reading today was taken was the same Luke who was a companion of Paul and who is described in the letter to the Colossians as a physician. Luke begins his gospel by explaining that he has done his own investigations to ascertain the truth of the teachings of the Christian community. The Church made certain claims about Jesus, and Luke believed them, but that belief wasn’t uncritical. He applied his physician’s way of looking at things – examining, enquiring – to the claims made by the Christian community, and has presented the evidence that he’s uncovered in his gospel. Both in the words of the scriptures themselves and in the example of the disciples and evangelists, people like Luke, we are encouraged to explore the world, and to explore the Bible with a questioning and investigative mind. What we discover when we do that is that we are to delight in the beauty and wonder of creation and to marvel at the Creator, and we are called to use our knowledge for the good, not only of ourselves but others, to be co-creators with God in the renewal of the earth and the growth of his kingdom.
Through study of the Bible, we can come to learn something of God’s will for us and for his creation. Science gives us tools that, when used in accordance with God’s will, enable us to make the world a better place for us, for our neighbours and for the wider creation. If we are able to bring together the Bible and science in this way, both together can help us to fulfil our Christian vocation.