Rethinking Natural Theology

Psalm 19 IS NOT About Natural Theology | At Least Not The Kind We’re Used To

My musings here might bother some folks. I’m okay with that.

As always, I reserve the right to be wrong. Would you like to join me?

says Clark, all of the time

Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.  2 Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.  3 There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard.  

Heavens (שָׁמַיִם shâmayim) = Expanse (רָקִיעַ râqîya)

  • [Gen 1:8a KJV] And God called the firmament Heaven. 
  • [Gen 1:8a CSB] God called the expanse “sky.”
  1. שָׁמַיִם shâmayim = the visible arch in which the clouds move, where the celestial bodies revolve
  2. רָקִיעַ râqîya = firmament, visible arch of the sky

The Hebrew language is unambiguous here in its declaration about the sky being a solid dome. All Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) people, including the Hebrews had the same cosmology: the Earth is flat and covered by a solid dome above which a boundless celestial ocean resides. The Sun, Moon, and stars transit on the surface of that solid metal dome called the firmament. Of course we know that there is no such thing as a flat Earth or solid metal dome above it, much less an infinite ocean surrounding it. Given that the language is figurative here, it is necessarily figurative in the first occurrence of Genesis 1.

Should we take the Bible literally? Yes, for everything that it actually intends to teach. If it actually intends to teach us that the Earth is flat and covered by a solid metal dome, then it is false. Moreover, if the Bible was inspired to declare this falsehood, then all of the ancient neighbors of the Israelites were also inspired by God to declare this cosmology. Truth is truth, right? It shouldn’t matter how ancient the truths are. This is the price of such rigid (and unwarranted) literalism: pagan creation myths are also inspired by God and all of them were inspired by God to declare an objective falsehood. Is this the God we want to worship? Of course not! The obvious answer is that the Bible IS NOT teaching a flat Earth with solid metal dome. The language is necessarily figurative for a host of reasons.

So, the $64,000 question is what knowledge is this passage directing our attention to? As always with Scripture, context is king, so we must consume the entire chapter before making a decision.

Psalm 19:4 Their message has gone out to the whole earth, and their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun.  5 It is like a bridegroom coming from his home; it rejoices like an athlete running a course.  6 It rises from one end of the heavens and circles to their other end; nothing is hidden from its heat.  

אֹהֶל ʼôhel = a tent, covering, dwelling, place, home, tabernacle.

Obviously, the Sun IS NOT contained by a tent, but that is literally what the word means. The tent metaphor is precisely what you’d expect an ANE person to use given the common knowledge that the Earth is flat with a solid metal dome above it separating the world from a cosmic ocean. Are you tired of hearing about the flat Earth with a dome? Too bad. That IS precisely what the audience of both Genesis and Psalms believed. Why the metaphor?

The imagery of “like a bridegroom” and “rejoices like an athlete” is the KEY shift in prose that alerts us to what kind of knowledge verse 2 was referring to. Indirect knowledge. The handiwork is of course now known to be entirely gaseous. The clouds and atmosphere and even the stars are all gas. Is that the glory we are supposed to be focused on? I think not. Yes, God did it somehow, but He has never explained how He did, only that He is Creator. I’m good with that, for now; but you know where I’ll be heading first when I get to heaven: the Library of Creator to watch the lecture series titled, “How He Done It”.

In my opinion, the KEY term here is “rejoice”. The Joy of the Lord to be specific. Joy in what? His Joy in creating a temple in which He dwells with mankind. By the way, that is the whole point of Genesis 1-2. Days and weeks and years were not the point except to establish a period of work and a day of rest. It had nothing to do with material origins, but rather function and purpose. The ANE Hebrews borrowed the creation myth template from their neighbors and simply flipped the script. One God instead of many gods. Man is God’s image bearer rather than being made out of god-poop. Things have divine purpose rather than being divine beings. Etc. Lots of books on this.

The intensity of God’s Joy in Creation is the knowledge we are supposed to be in touch with when we observe the heavens, whatever we think those heavens are. The vastness of space as we know it in the 21st century does nothing to secure my faith in God. There is no hope of salvation to defend in the knowledge that space is big, or that stars are hot. Knowing that God made it all to dwell with humanity in peace IS a great source of comfort and hope. That is why Natural Theology isn’t about any sort of Science directly. Yes, I marvel at the power He displays in Creation, but a scientific knowledge of what it might take to create those things only magnifies my appreciation of His Power. There is NO relational import in scientific wonder about created things. The relational import worthy of worship is His Temple plan that welcomes me. A Temple that leaves me awestruck. A Temple that purifies my imagination by His Beauty: the Beauty of His Holiness. Etc.

The rest of Psalm 19 seems like a hard shift from Natural Theology to Godly Wisdom. It is. However, NOT the Natural Theology that we are used to, whereby scientific concordism compels the reader to eisegete science into a text that has none and never intended to declare some.

Psalm 19:7 The instruction of the LORD is perfect, renewing one’s life; the testimony of the LORD is trustworthy, making the inexperienced wise.  8 The precepts of the LORD are right, making the heart glad; the command of the LORD is radiant, making the eyes light up.  

Radiant. Like the Sun making its transit across the sky. Nothing escapes its heat. The Truth Himself is perfect, trustworthy, wise, and a source of Joy. This is the knowledge I’m supposed to receive as a worshipper invited into God’s Temple. It was never about the speed of light, or the fine structure constant. The Hubble constant says nothing about the constancy of God’s Love and Majesty. The mental candy for a Physics Professor like me in doing celestial mechanics is just that: mental candy. Of course I blame God for the exquisite order and design even though there is NO scientific way to establish that as fact. And though I praise Him for it all, these facts of Science do nothing to secure my faith. There is NO rest in those brute facts. Worship conveys through truth, holiness, beauty, love and adoration rather than time, heat, boron, luminosity, and atoms.

Psalm 19:9 The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are reliable and altogether righteous.  10 They are more desirable than gold — than an abundance of pure gold; and sweeter than honey dripping from a honeycomb.  

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom says the write of Proverbs. Fear of the Lord is an awestruck respect that results in adoration, otherwise known as worship. THIS kind of knowledge hits the target that Jesus Himself painted when He wrote, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” No mention of Loving the Lord because the mental candy of Science said so. Science can’t do that for you. At least it shouldn’t be tried unless you think candy is nutritious enough to sustain you in life.

Psalm 19:11 In addition, your servant is warned by them, and in keeping them there is an abundant reward.  12 Who perceives his unintentional sins? Cleanse me from my hidden faults.  13 Moreover, keep your servant from willful sins; do not let them rule me. Then I will be blameless and cleansed from blatant rebellion.  14 May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, LORD, my rock and my Redeemer. 

There you have it. The wisdom of repentance leading to righteousness. THAT is the endgame for the knowledge that we are supposed to obtain from His handiwork in the heavens.

Consider the definition of worship as given by William Temple, a former Archbishop of many places, including Canterbury.

“Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by his holiness; the nourishment of mind with his truth; the purifying of imagination by his beauty; the opening of the heart to his love; the surrender of will to his purpose—all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”

William Temple wrote that definition of worship in his 1934 book, Nature, Man, and God. His ministry within the Church of England began in 1921, and included appointments as Bishop of Manchester and Archbishop of York. He died in 1944 while serving as Archbishop of Canterbury

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