Mary Vanden Berg, Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Seminary, was a recent research grant recipient to the Creation Project, part of the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, IL. The Creation Project aims to “catalyze a field of study around the doctrine of creation that is faithful to Scripture and informed by contemporary scientific research.” Vanden Berg spent the 2018 Fall Semester at the Henry Center.
Recently, Vanden Berg spoke with Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary, about her time at the Creation Project. Below is a summary of their conversation:
Hoezee began by asking Vanden Berg about her interest in questions of faith and science. Vanden Berg noted that her love of science goes back to her childhood. As an adult, when she became interested in theology, she saw an opportunity to combine her love of science with her love of theology. She began exploring questions at the intersection of these two disciplines.
Hoezee pointed out that the 2019-20 theme of the Creation Project was theological anthropology. He wondered about Vanden Berg’s interest in that theme and how the work that she did at the Henry Center related to that theme.
Vanden Berg’s intent, as she described it, was to explore humans as the image of God from a Reformed perspective. As she began to read widely on the topic, she found herself drawn to Thomas Aquinas’s “Treatise on Man” in his magisterial work, the Summa Theologia. She realized that Aquinas has a really holistic understanding of what humans are. And while he does deal with the image of God, as do most theologians, he understands humans in terms of the big package rather than this one little piece. As a result, Vanden Berg shifted from looking rather narrowly at the image of God, to the broader question of what makes humans unique.
It was exactly at this point, as Vanden Berg notes, that science came more fully into the picture. In part, this is because some scientists suggest that humans aren’t really that unique at all. For example, some scientists suggest that humans are just another animal that walks on two legs instead of four; a tailless monkey or hairless ape. Working off of what she thinks is a basic instinct that humans are unique, Vanden Berg set out to see if and how humans actually are unique by looking at Scripture, theology, and modern science. Does Scripture teach that humans are unique? If so, how should that be understood in light of modern science, especially the fields of paleontology and evolution?
Hoezee then shifted to the more directly theological question concerning the two books of revelation. Vanden Berg expressed some frustration with ongoing misunderstanding of that particular teaching. She noted first of all her affirmation of the basic idea of the unity of knowledge, the notion that all truth is God’s truth. But she went on to explain the importance understanding exactly what we are talking about when we talk about the “two books” of revelation. The key word is “revelation.”
“The idea behind revelation,” stated Vanden Berg, “is that apart from God making himself known to us, we cannot know God”. Furthermore, God has made himself known to us in two ways: in creation and in Scripture. So when Calvin, in Book I of the Institutes of Christian Religion, or Guido de Bres, in the Belgic Confession, discuss the two books, they are not talking about how we come to know the structure of a cell or some other scientific knowledge. They are referring to how we come to know God as Article 2 of the Belgic Confession’s title makes clear. So the question with respect to the two books of revelation is not what can we know in general from these two sources, but what can we know about God, that is, about “his eternal power and his divinity.”
The overarching point in understanding God’s revelation in two ways or two books is to remind us that while we can come to know something about God from the creation, we will inevitably, because of sin, distort that knowledge and worship the creature in place of the Creator, as Paul makes clear in Romans 1. Thus the need for the second book which Calvin describes as “spectacles.” Through these spectacles, we can come to properly see and ponder “the invisible things of God” in creation. The proper response to that knowledge of God is worship. Through the spectacles of Scripture, you can look at creation, whether you are in the lab or on a hike, and say, “Look at this amazing world! Imagine the marvelous God who made this.”
As far as whether there is concordance between Scripture and various scientific findings, Vanden Berg was skeptical. She suggested that while there may be ultimate concordance, given that all truth is God’s truth, there is also a lot of mystery in this life between how we see what science is telling us – which is very good – and how we understand Scripture. This could be, she suggested, because they have different purposes. The job of science is not to teach us about God. It is to help us understand the natural world. Scripture’s sole purpose is to teach us about God and the relationship of God and humans in this world, questions that science is not equipped to address.
So what are Vanden Berg’s plans going forward? This fall, she will team-teach a course on science and theology with retired Calvin College Geology Professor, Dr. Ralph Stearley. She also hopes to complete her work on human uniqueness and publish a book on that topic.