Can science be a source of divine revelation?
I’ve been thinking about that question this week, and here’s my preliminary conclusion: it’s complicated.
To begin with, much depends on what we mean when we say “revelation.” I’ll be the first to affirm that science can teach us something about God. Psalm 19 and Romans 1, among other biblical passages, make clear that nature points to the Creator God. So if that is the meaning of revelation—a means of learning about God—then sure, revelation can come through science. But theologians often distinguish between “natural theology” and “revealed theology,” that is, between what we can know about God through reason and observation of nature and what can only know about God because God shows it to us in a special way. Some things we can know about God by observing nature. For example, we can infer the existence of a Creator by finding our world to be well-ordered and intelligible. We can deduce that God must be immensely powerful by considering the energy of stars or the vastness of the observable universe. Other things, however, can only come via special instances of God’s self-disclosure. We can only know the loving character of God, for example, or that God wishes to make a covenant with a chosen people, because it has been revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.
If we allow this distinction between natural theology and revealed theology, then what we mean by divine revelation is the latter. In other words, “revelation” is a narrower concept than “what we can know about God.” Revelation refers to that which we know about God because God has revealed it to us—the initiative is with God who makes himself known to us.
Science can be a source of natural theology, but it is not in itself a source of divine revelation in this narrower sense of the term. Science is a human endeavor, and its initiative lies with the human scientist—the observer, the measurer, the quantifier, the hypothesis-maker, the theorist. Science can teach us about God, but it cannot in itself teach us the things that we can only know through God’s self-disclosure.
However, I wonder if revelation in that strict sense can take place through science. Is it possible for science to be an avenue through which God can make himself known in a special way? Or does science pertain strictly to furthering our understanding of nature (and therefore of God only in an indirect way)?
The relationship between writing and Scripture is a useful analogy. Writing is also a very human endeavor. Most writing (at least good writing) has the ability to teach us something about God. Great novels, plays, and movies give us insight into our place in the world and what it means to be human. They resonate with some of our most primal emotions and instincts, yet also elevate our understanding of them by holding them up to the light. We get goosebumps when we read or watch those scenes, recognizing almost instinctively that they have delivered to us some truth about ourselves and the world around us. Good writing has the ability to rouse our emotions and enrich our minds in a way that opens up nature in a new way. Such writing teaches us about God in the same way that watching a sunset or looking at the night sky teaches us about God.
Yet some writing has become Scripture. Some writing has been inspired by the Holy Spirit and has the capacity to teach us those things that only God can reveal to us. This writing took place through a human process, using ink and papyrus and scribes who had imaginations and training and also got tired sometimes. I think it’s likely that these writers didn’t think at the time that they were writing Scripture. But as it turns out, they were. Not all writing contains divine revelation, and in the same way not all prophecy—not even all ancient Israelite prophecy—contains divine revelation. And yet some of these things do contain God’s revelation because they have been inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Which brings us back to the original question and a better way to ask it:
Can science be a source of divine revelation?
The better question is, can science be inspired by the Holy Spirit?
In other words, all science can teach us something about God. But might it be possible that some scientific results are inspired, that within them we can see evidence of God taking initiative to show us something we could never have reasoned or inferred on our own?
I’ve probably angered both scientists and theologians by even raising the question. It’s preferable to regard science and theology, where divine revelation is at home, as separate realms of study with different methods and objects of study. And that may turn out to be accurate. It may well be that the role of science in theology is to push our understanding of nature as far as it can go, and thereby advance our understanding of the Creator God. Perhaps the very nature of science precludes it from being an avenue of divine revelation in that stricter, divine-initiative sense of the term.
We must take such boundaries seriously. Science is not a field of study, after all, but a method of inquiry based on careful observation and testing and interpretation of results. A critical part of the scientific method is to prioritize experiment and observation. The final arbiter of scientific inquiry is always experiment—if experimental results disagree with a particular theory, the theory must be reworked or discarded in favor of something that better fits the results. In this method, no theory is safe, and even the most hallowed theories are subject to the possibility of finally being proven false. The scientific method is abandoned if the scientist or the theologian ever says “this is revelation” and closes the book, refusing to hold the results up to further scrutiny or testing. The scientific method and the authority that comes with recognizing something as divine revelation seem to be utterly at odds.
And yet, to say that the scientific method or the powerful instruments at our disposal when we do scientific research are forever closed to God’s self-disclosure is to place drastic limits on God, and probably on science too. Writing and speaking are, like science, human tools for making meaning and interpreting our world. If God can use them to become known in a special way, I hesitate to say that God cannot use science too.
Can science be a source of divine revelation? As I said, it’s complicated.