|I had heard of
you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.
The depiction of David is from the 1890 Holman Bible. As David composes this Psalm, he contemplates his 12-string harp and sees in its stretched and tuned strings the lines of God's Silent Voice going out through all the earth. The Silent Voice is there, latent in the tuned lines, ready to sound out and proclaim God's glory and handiwork when plucked with skill and perception.
Verse 1: The Heavenly Expanse. The Hebrew word is רָקִיעַ—"Raqiya" = "Spread out". The Greek Septuagint translation is στερέωμα—"Stereoma" = "Something firm". The Latin Vulgate's word "Firmamentum" reflects the Septuagint. All of these early translations took place after the Greek school had become well-established, and amount to reading back into the text something that wasn't there in the first place01. This has led to an assumed "Hebrew Cosmology" of a solid dome. Personally, I think this is fanciful nonsense. The fact is that until the Greeks' fascination with geometry02, around 500 BC, there is (to date) no hard evidence for a developed cosmological model of the universe recorded anywhere. There are fanciful depictions in tomb paintings (such as Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky) but it is not clear that these represent an assumed reality—they are just fanciful, that is all, or artistic, if you prefer—comparable perhaps to Kipling's tale of How the Elephant got its Trunk. In particular, St. Augustine (ca. 400 AD), one of the great Church Fathers did not assume that the "firmament" was solid, so that view was not universally accepted by the early Church, at least at that time03.
Thus, a translation such as "dome" or "firmament" (King James, Revised Standard Version, etc.) injects an assumed meaning that is not warranted by the text. To the non-speculative Hebrew shepherd or farmer, the sky was simply that blue stuff up there, the place where birds fly, where the sun, moon and stars appear, where clouds waft by and drop rain. For this reason a number of modern translations use the word "expanse" to indicate its ephemeral nature. To me, that makes sense, and any translation that smells of anything more definite is gratuitous, and projects our current-day fascination with such matters (and perhaps our condescension of "primitive peoples") onto these ancient cultures. Expressions that occasionally appear in the Bible, such as the sky appearing as brass, God opening the windows of heaven, etc. are nothing more than picturesque language, with no intended concrete meaning—any more than our use of "raining cats and dogs" or referring to a "sunrise" intends to convey anything more than an intense figure04.
On a similiar line, the Hebrew and other ancient cultural references to heavenly constellations do not mean that they credited these constellations with a god-like reality—unless there is positive evidence of such. The division of the sky into images is a natural mnemonic device for pattern recognition and navigation around the starry sky, quite separate from development of a cosmological model—also separate from attributing magical or god-like powers to these images, as astrology claims. These images are useful to mark "signs and seasons" and "days and years" (Genesis 1:14). It is likely that this division into mnemonic images was done very early in man's existence. The recognition of these patterns does not demand that one subscribe to the mythological notions, much less astrological meanings, that have been attached to them by some pagan sources. See further remarks at Astronomy and the Zodiac.
Verse 3: Its voice is not heard. This (cf. New Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Version, New Century Version) is the direct meaning of the Hebrew. Some translations attempt to make "sense" of the verse by "correcting it", for example, by changing it to "where their voice is not heard" (King James Version) or the ambiguous "whose voice is not heard" (English Standard Version), or something similar. Some commentaries imply that willful deafness is implied. In my view, this is incorrect; the psalmist intended to mean silent speech—a non-verbal message. See remarks below on The Silent Speech.
Verse 4: Their line goes out. The Hebrew root is קו—Qav = "stretched line". Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar interprets it here as a musical term: "the string of a harp, hence sound."05 That is how I see the meaning in this verse. In my mind's eye I see David look down at the tuned strings on his harp. The stretched harp strings pour forth music and meaning when they are plucked by a skillful musician. In analogy, the "silent voice" proclaims the glory and handiwork of God to a skillful inquirer.
The reason that modern science has flourished over the past few centuries is that nature can be described quite accurately using mathematics, a highly regimented language of logic and deduction. Many obscure features of nature have been revealed by the rigorous application of mathematics. The puzzle is why this should be the case, and that is the reason for Einstein's remark. The universe is exceedingly complex—hopelessly complex, and mathematics is such a weak tool: why should such a weak tool be able to give such powerful insight into nature? Einstein's research took him beyond the normal mathematics of the college physics classroom, to "non-Euclidean" geometries, four-space and tensors. The marvel is that these mathematical procedures are effective in describing the cosmos, since they were originally developed as mathematical exercises with no intended application to the real world.
The reason, I firmly believe, is because God deliberately imbedded the Silent Speech of Psalm 19 into his creation, a speech that proclaims his glory and handiwork. Mathematics is only one of the many languages of the Silent Speech—a language that particularly speaks to the modern scientific age.
As a person who had a career in science, I praise God for the Silent Speech declared in Psalm 19. Without that silent speech proclaiming God's glory and handiwork in creation, modern science could never have developed, and my own voice would be stilled.
I don't want to imply that the silent speech is limited to scientific investigations, or that it is limited to mathematical expression. The silent speech lives in a myriad of languages, and it has spoken to every human generation from the very first. It pervades all areas of human experience. A person who marvels at the glory of the world about us, at its beauty and majesty, and at the handiwork of God displayed in the splendor of the starry heavens savors that silent speech. The drab and shabby nature of man-made atheistic societies that Communism brought upon wide swaths of the earth contrasts in my mind with the glories of God and his handiwork.
But here I want to pay special regard to the silent speech of nature as it concerns science. I believe that God has a special interest in ministering to the modern world and that he has planned since the beginning of time to bring specific, carefully honed witness to his power and his eternal purpose to that modern world, the "modern" world of every age and time.
The silent speech reveals through the language of mathematical reasoning, the very beginnings of the universe and how it unfolded from a minute fraction of a second after the creation of light-energy in the Big Bang. It is through his silent speech that humans, largely constrained to live within the solar system, a minute speck relative to the whole universe, nevertheless can determine in detail how the inaccessible stars create the elements, and determine this using only the medium of starlight. Through his silent speech we can find out the age of the universe, of the solar system, and learn the details of how the early earth formed. Through his silent speech recorded in the rocks, we can follow the creation of life in the fossil record, and even discover the timeline of this creation, which can be measured in multiple overlapping ways.
In the creation of the universe and of life, God constrained his own limitless creative powers so that the Silent Speech is a faithful and true record of his glory and handiwork. God did not have to do this—a point that St. Augustine (ca. 400 AD) marvelled at 06: he could have created the natural world in a way that blotted out the records of his activity. Indeed, in pre-scientific times and even in the earlier scientific times, the discovery of new details in those records often came as a complete and unexpected surprise—as will be described in the later chapters. That is one sense of Einstein's remark.
This brings us to the question of limitations that God placed on himself in his Creative activity. I base these remarks on my own empirical observations, not any particular revelation of which I am aware. However the above remark in Philippians 2:6 does imply that God is willing, when needed, to set aside his divine capabilities.
The Silent Speech limits God in that it is a built-in self-revelation of God's glory and handiwork. He did not have to subject himself to this limitation: as Bertrand Russell said once, "We may all have come into existence five minutes ago, with holes in our socks."18 But in an act of self-limitation, God did not do that. The record of the silent speech that God has woven into creation is an accurate and truthful record. This is so that the natural world reveals how God actually worked in space and time, and that revelation is not in any way a false or deceptive record. In my view this answers the dilemma that St. Augustine posed: Why did God create over time when he could have done it instantaneously? (See note 6).
On the other hand, God's revelation in nature is subtle (as Einstein remarked): to search out his activity takes persistence, integrity and systematic effort. Yet it has revealed depth of insight at all times to men in all the ages of human existence.
In 1868 Albert Barnes delivered a series of Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity in which he expressed the principle that God does not make special revelations about matters that humans can determine by themselves:
Special Revelation Principle: "It can not be supposed that God would give by miracle a special revelation when he had already furnished, in another mode, all that is needful for man, or that there would be two methods of communicating the divine will on the same subject. God does not give special revelations on those subjects which are quite within the range of the human powers. [emphasis added - dcb]."
The principle expressed by Barnes is that God does not reveal by inspiration what humans can find out by themselves—so that, for example, we should not look to the Bible for the revelation of scientific facts that we can learn from science—although the Bible's mention of scientific matters, does not contradict science if both are correctly understood. This principle removes a lot of "pious speculation" about things that touch on science, a matter that St. Augustine vigorously opposed in his day as being a potential embarassment to the Church. He gave a number of examples of this unfortunate tendency of theologians, such as pronouncements about the relative size of the Sun, Moon and stars based on the scriptural remark about "greater" and "lesser" lights (Genesis 1:16)19.
I believe that an analogous principle applies to special creation and especially to the Silent Speech:
Creation Principle: "It can not be supposed that God would perform by fiat a creative act when he had already furnished, in the natural world, all that is needful to perform that act of creation. God does not create by fiat (special creation) those things which are within the range of natural processes."
This principle implies several things.
First, the main task of science is to discover those things that can be done by natural processes and to demonstrate the mechanisms. As a scientist and a christian I have no conflict between science and my faith as long as science can prove that its claims can be achieved by purely natural processes. That is the purpose and goal of scientific experimentation.
The creation of the elements is an example which we will discuss as part of the Creation Narrative. Within the past century, it has been demonstrated by detailed high-energy experiments that all of the elements can be created naturally in the interiors of stars and in supernova explosions. The birth and death of stars and galaxies and the consequent production of the elements require on the order of billions of years. Sufficient time passed prior to the formation of the solar system to create these elements by natural processes, and so this principle implies that the elements were created naturally, and not by fiat.
One should note that "demonstration" and "proof" mean more than imagining a causal connection. For example, if two widely different species of animals are shown to have identical or similar genes, that fact may indicate that the species are related in some way, but it is not prima facie evidence that they are descended from a common ancestor. Perhaps the Creator simply re-used the genetic code. To prove descent by natural processes it is necessary to exhibit the chemical or physical mechanisms by which such descent can be achieved. Absent such proof, science should remain silent on the claim, or else clearly identify the claim as a metaphysical view20. Again, the example of astrophysics is instructive. As we will discuss later, it is generally acknowledged that physical processes in the very early universe (before the Planck time, 10-43 seconds) cannot be addressed within the current known framework of experimental physics. Thus firm claims cannot be made about these early times, and a variety of physical theories are accepted as plausible but not authoritative statements (string theory, an infinitude of universes, etc.) of these early times. Possibly some future discoveries will provide experimental evidence that favors of one of these theories.
Second, God Created in time. God limited himself to creating in time so that the record of his creation that is built into nature, and expressed in the silent speech, would be a true and faithful account of creation. God did this so that scientists could determine the power of natural processes. He specifically did not create "with the appearance of age" because that would imply a false record.
Third, his creative actions are not limited by time, except that the creation of life is naturally limited by the the lifespan of its habitat. Thus, the time required to create advanced life from non-living matter must fall within the span of time that the earth remains in the solar system's habitable zone, a duration of a few billion years. Other than this general limit, the creation process may well take immense periods of time.
Fourth, God graciously designed his creative activities to leave a record that can be investigated and understood by scientists. This is the essence of the silent speech as it is directed to modern science. This fact relates to Einstein's remark cited above.
Fifth, God has self-limited his creative activities so that the silent speech gives an accurate account of his creation. I believe that God did not create by fiat things with the appearance of age, if there was a natural way to achieve the same end. This does not rule out "caretaking"—protecting his nascent creation so that it will succeed.
Sixth, I as a believer in a Creator God, have complete freedom to investigate the limits of natural processes and at the same time I have the freedom to accept the possibility that certain aspects of creation required direct action by God. It is not necessary for me to spell out what those aspects are, because I have freedom to investigate everything, with the only restriction that truth claims must be backed up by a scientific demonstration that doesn't simply beg the question.
• The Silent Voice is a truthful record of God's creative activity. A major "glory of God" is his truthfulness—"Thy Word is Truth." I cringe and consider it disrespectful of God's glory, when I hear some supposedly devout worshipers of God, assert that his creation gives a false appearance of history (Russell's remark would be just an extreme example of this, if true)—for example to insist that the light from distant stars was "created on the way" in order to avoid the difficulty that these stars are billions of light years away. I will certainly grant that God could create in an instant a universe that is billions of light years in diameter, and instantly populate it with stars that are at various stages in their life cycles. But to what end would he then create appropriately aged light along the way so that it would give an accurate record of the physics of these stars as it would have been if they had been created billions of years earlier? Even trying to parse that last sentence wears me out. The only purpose I can imagine is to deceive scientists who attempt to decipher the message of the heavens. It would be better to leave the history a total blank: to make it impossible to determine anything about the physics of stellar matter (that, after all, was the situation a mere 150 years ago—before the discovery of spectral analysis21).
The light of distant stars is a record of the past, because the light travelling over long distances carries a record of what the light source was like at the time that the light was first sent on its way. That light is far more than just a point of light; it carries with it a great amount of factual information about the light source. So as we develop telescopes that can see stars and galaxies that are further and further away, we are also reading ever more ancient records that speak about what the universe was like long ago. The light from these distant sources tells us about the physical conditions as they were when the light first started out. And one remarkable message that they tell is that the physical laws at those distant outposts of the universe are exactly the same as the physical laws that we can measure here on earth. That is a totally astounding and unexpected. Now there is a significance to the statement that the “line is gone throughout the earth” that you might be forgiven for overlooking! But how do we know that the laws are the same, and how surprising is it?
It certainly is possible to mis-interpret his creation by making incorrect assumptions or drawing incorrect conclusions, and the truth-seeker must always be wary of such errors. But that is because of God's subtlety and his ineffable majesty, not because of his deceit. And science, although it can occasionally error in this way, has always proved to be self-correcting over time, precisely because the Silent Speech gives science the materials to correct its misperceptions. That correction may take long amounts of time—indeed, thousands of years in the case of the false concepts of the Greek-inspired earth-centered cosmology.
• God's Creative Activity is not limited by time or space. In the neat world of man's imagining and in his naïve self-centered theology, the created universe would be relatively small—large compared with man, but not so large as to exceed his imaginings—and the time required to complete the creation of living beings would also be small—measured perhaps in thousands of years, certainly not in billions. But God exists apart from time and space. In fact, as Einstein demonstrated—the essence of general relativity—time and space are an integral part of creation. Before the creation of this universe some 15 billion years ago, there was no time or space as we know them. Because of this existence apart (the theological term is that God is "transcendent"), God's creative activities are not limited by considerations of time or space. The observation that a certain natural process may take billions of years to accomplish, or require inconceivable amounts of space, is not a limitation for God. The fact that God's supreme creation, human life, takes place in a miniscule part of a vast universe is of no account to God - and he does not consider the rest of the vast universe to be wasted, or man, for that matter, to be inconsequential because he takes up such a minute portion of the universe.
• God's Creative Activity is Purposeful. There is no wasted effort. If the universe is large it is for a reason. Humanity is not insignificant because it exists in a seemingly insignificant backwater in the universe! This is one of the astounding discoveries in the recent research into the Anthropic Principle. Natural evolution by purely random, purposeless changes, implies the expenditure of vast amounts of fruitless and pointless energy. This is the opposite of what we observe in the natural world. Things may appear at a superficial level to be random and pointless, but that appearance disappears as one probes closer and with more wisdom and perception. As our description of the Creation Narrative unfolds, it happens again and again that change occurs rapidly (in terms of cosmic time!). In some times, with astonishing rapidity; never does the process dawdle for no good reason. I consider this one of the strongest arguments against purely natural evolution.
Every creative act is deliberate, purposeful, and efficient in time and effort. One of the most amazing recognitions of the modern age is something called the Anthropic Principle: that the vastness of our universe was required in order to carry out that creation of the human creature. In my own mind I go even a bit further than the Anthropic Principle: I believe that God worked efficiently and with purpose, and that this is particularly evident in his creation of life. Every step in that creation was accomplished in an efficient and expeditious manner—given that God self-limited himself by the following final principle.
• God uses Natural Processes whenever they suffice. Given the choice between fiat creation and the use of natural processes, my empirical observation is that God uses natural processes whenever they are up to the task that is in view. God used natural processes whenever they would suffice to achieve the needed results—even if, in some instances, they take literally billions of years to complete. This is the essence of the Creation Principle.
For example, God used natural processes to create the elements, which were (and are still) prepared in the stars over the span of billions of years. This fact in itself indicates that the universe had to be on the order of 10 billion years old for life to exist. God could, of course, have directly created the ordinary elements that form the earth. Unlike the starlight, these elements do not (as far as is known) embed a record of how they were created—carbon-12 (C12) formed a year ago (by decomposition of C14, for example) is identical to C12 formed 10 billion years ago, so there is no issue of God creating the appearance of age. However that issue does arise in age of the universe and of starlight, and it is known that the age is large enought for there to be second or higher generation stars, in which abundant carbon and other elements are produced; furthermore the relative abundance of the elements is consistent with their production in the stars, so the natural conclusion is that the matter on earth was brewed in the furnace of stars.
On the other hand, there is no evidence available so far, that God used natural processes to create the first living species. Evidence for life appears at the very earliest possible time—shortly after the earth cooled sufficiently that the crust formed and the oceans condensed out. This is around 3.9 billion years ago. The earliest fossils of cyanobacteria-like fossils appear about 3.5 billion years ago. Given the vast complexity of any living cell, there is no conceivable natural mechanism to achieve this in the short time allowed. Consequently some scientists postulate that life arrived from outer space, a conclusion that only increases the time allowed by a modest factor, and pushes back the problem to some other locale.
• Natural Variation (Evolution) is one of the tools that God uses in natural creation. The disciplines of science exclusively concern the natural processes. So, my task as a scientist is to find out through my investigations of his creation and by experimental demonstration, what is the extent of that which can be done by natural processes. I see this as a guiding principle for my understanding of God's creation, and essential to understand the Silent Voice. It is part of God's self-imposed limitations, that the Silent Voice would say as much as possible about how he proceeded. And it would show the limits of natural processes, because (I believe) God always uses natural processes when they will suffice. Of course, some scientists assert that everything natural can be achieved by natural processes. But that is a metaphysical assumption, not a conclusion of science.
Don't get me wrong: I do not say that every activity needed to complete his creation could be done by natural processes. This is the working assumption of those who believe in purely natural evolution of the universe and of life. It is foundational to the views of atheists and naturalists. For myself, it is possible that the atheists are right—that is, that indeed every activity in nature can be done by natural processes. But I feel free to question it until the definitive scientific arguments are in hand.
I'm skeptical though, on two counts: First, because the Biblical evidence shows that God intervened regularly in the affairs of mankind to carry out his plan of salvation. If that establishes the pattern of God's activities, then why would he be completely hands-off when it comes to the crown jewels of his creative activity: the creation of life and the natural world? I'm also skeptical on a second count: I don't think the evidence shows that this is likely: there is simply too much evidence for careful design in nature and too little evidence that the known laws of physics and chemistry are up to the task.
Furthermore, I firmly believe that my position is more scientific than the atheist position because mine includes that opinion as a possibility, but insists on rigorous proof rather than just taking it as the default view. It is much more likely, in my view, that the demonstrable scope of natural processes will prove to be limited to something far less than purely natural evolution would require. I feel free to disbelieve in any view that cannot be backed up by objective scientific demonstration. To put it bluntly, the argument "it must be possible because here we are"—a common response after laboriously working through the implications of the Anthropic Principle—doesn't impress me.
Frankly, it is for theological reasons that I do not believe in a deistic God who is detached from his creation. On the contrary, I believe that the essential message of God's inspired Word which we know as the Bible, is that God did and does intervene with his creation when intervention is required. For one thing, Genesis would not be followed by Exodus without God's intervention; for another, the coming of the Messiah is the ultimate act of God's intervention so that humans could have hope and salvation. Since I believe on faith that my God is a God who does intervene in human affairs, I think that it is very likely that he also intervened in creation. It seems very unlikely to me that this God would have just let things develop by themselves: that seems to be about as unlike the nature of God as exhibited in the Bible as one could imagine. However, I am willing to accept any definitive proofs of natural development, and indeed as a scientist I consider it my task to always seek natural explanations as long as they can be backed up by objective proof.
I note in passing that "possible by natural processes" does impose some time limitations on creation. A life-supporting solar system has a useful lifespan of perhaps a few billion years. Therefore the sum of all of the natural processes that together create an earth-like environment and the full range of life on earth must be completed in these few billion years. The creation of life itself is limited by the 15 billion year span of time that the universe has existed. But other than this limitation, God is not constrained by considerations of time.
So-called Ancient Hebrew "Cosmology"
|Elements as known in 1808
Dalton, Vol. I, Plate IV, pg. 219
|Table from Dmitrii Mendeleev's
Principles of Chemistry, 2nd. Ed. (1901)
note that the non-reactive elements Helium, Neon, etc. are not included.
Second edition Part One (1901) Second edition Part Four (1901)
Solar Absorption Spectrum
Emission Spectra of Hydrogen, Helium, Mercury and Uranium
Note the Sun's absorption lines for H (Red, Blue) and He (Yellow)