The Weightier Matters

On approaching nature with an open, but not an empty, mind.

R.M. Ritland, Director,GeoScience Research Institute

THE scene was on a mountainside. Jesus was seated and He was teaching the people the principles of His kingdom. As recorded in Matthew 5 to 7 He was get­ting at the heart of the law, of what it really means to be a Christian. He had given those gems of truth—the Beatitudes —gems we often commit to memory but less frequently fully grasp or at least fully absorb into our lives. Then Jesus took an even more direct approach, stating, "You are the salt of the earth" and again, "You are the light of the world."

As He expanded further upon the re­quirements of God, Jesus uttered what to the listeners must have seemed like a very hard saying: "I tell you, unless your right­eousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20, R.S.V.). This would have been much easier to un­derstand had He pointed to the publicans, the despised collectors of revenue for their Roman oppressors, they were worse than heathen; or even if He had spoken of the Gentiles, the heathen. Indeed, if He had cited the Sadducees, that class or party within the Jewish community, the "church" of those times, which might in certain respects be compared to the secu­lar element or skeptics within the church, it would have been easier to understand. Many of the Sadducees were aristocrats. They rejected a part of the Scriptures, ac­cepting only the books of Moses. They were doubtful of life beyond the grave, they were willing to make alliances with foreign nations. If Jesus had said, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Sad­ducees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," many in the crowds that lis­tened would certainly have uttered a fer­vent Amen.

Better Than the Best

But He did not say this. He did not even select someone known to be a sinner, Mary Magdalene for instance. Instead, He chose the ones everyone looked up to as the most righteous of the Jewish community, the most careful, the most circumspect, the most zealous—the scribes and Pharisees. Sometimes this fact escapes us now, but as Jesus on another occasion pointed out, "the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat" (Matt. 23:2). It is well known that they interpreted the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms to the people; that they were the spiritual counselors, the custodians of sacred tradition, the ministers of the Word. And they were often very zealous in their way of life, probably much more careful in certain respects than most of us are to­day. Many of them fasted regularly; they guarded carefully the holy Sabbath. It was they who were troubled when the hungry disciples of Jesus plucked a few ears of grain on the Sabbath or when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath instead of waiting until the sun had set. Jesus pointed to them, these spiritual leaders, and said, "Un­less your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never en­ter the kingdom of heaven." To the peo­ple it must have seemed that Jesus was saying, "You must be better than the best or there is no hope."

Failure to Discern Relative Values

What was the problem with their way of life? Where had they failed? Jesus went to the heart of the matter, pointing out with­out mincing words a number of ways in which they had failed. In one of the an­swers that the Lord gave we may see illus­trated a principle that is absolutely basic as we consider contemporary issues in sci­ence and religion. This answer is re­corded in Matthew 23:23, 24, R.S.V.: "'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!' " To illustrate the principle let us paraphrase, "Woe to you scribes and Phar­isees, you have utterly failed to discern relative values, you lack balance and per­spective."

Missing the Forest

Sometimes we say today, "He missed the forest for looking at the trees." In focusing on a colorful flower, a striking tree, or per­haps a bird, we sometimes fail to register the total picture, the pattern of life, the mosaic—the forest. Because of lack of per­spective we at times experience in our own life events where the picture appears dis­torted. A relatively minor event, when we are close to it, may loom so large that we are unable to discern its true dimension. But in the perspective of time such experi­ences fall into their proper place more clearly.

The thesis which I submit to you is that in the area of science and religion, as we search out the harmony between the book of nature and the Written Word, there is danger that we permit individual ques­tions, for which immediate answers are not available, to loom so large that we fail to discern the weightier matters—fail to see the forest for the trees. Not that such points are unimportant (in science every detail may be basic to a sound resolution of a phenomenon, and in religion we must take care to follow explicitly the counsels we have been given), but by focusing too long and too closely on a particular detail or phenomenon we may lose the perspec­tive, the balance necessary for discerning the broader dimensions, the interrelations, and perhaps the true solution.

Both the close and distant views are nec­essary. Individual details take on meaning only within the broader picture, and the broad picture gains in sharpness only as the details come into focus.

Hazy Areas Always

And yet as we search to know God through the two great books, we must also recognize that in this life we shall never be able to see clearly all the details, to find all of the answers. "Now we see through a glass darkly," or as another ver­sion puts it, "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13: 12, R.S.V.). There are glimmers of light that come through but not the full bril­liance. Some areas remain hazy. There are aspects of reality that cannot now be fully grasped. There are always some things that must be accepted by faith regardless of one's philosophical persuasion. As R. F. Cottrell pointed out in a Review editorial recently (Jan. 19, 1967), "Only an imma­ture mind supposes that it is either neces­sary or possible to obtain a complete and final answer to every question at once."

Distinguish Between Gnats and Camels

Now if we wish to apply the basic prin­ciple of balance and perspective that Jesus taught—or as He put it, the ability to dis­tinguish between gnats and camels—to the interpretation of phenomena in the nat­ural world, we must attempt to evaluate what the fundamental issues are. In ap­proaching truth it is essential that we rec­ognize our own assumptions and presup­positions and that we consider carefully their validity.

Open or Empty?

Although I believe we should attempt to approach nature with an open mind—and by this I mean a mind open to truth from any source—I would hasten to point out that this is not to say we should ap­proach nature with an empty mind We have found truth and life in Christianity, and it is completely valid that this truth may shed light upon, and give perspective to, the phenomena of nature, thus provid­ing an essential basis for understanding.

The following four basic assumptions I believe are both relevant and valid.

1.       Many facts may be learned about nature by the scientific method: observa­tion, experimentation, and interpretation of data. Beyond these facts a body of much less certain knowledge and theory may be obtained by the same method—observa­tion, interpretation, and inference. This assumption is not stated first because the scientific method is the most reliable source of truth, for any scientist knows that such information is subject to contin­ual refinement and, at times, modification. It is listed first because for all practical purposes it is the only source of informa­tion about many natural phenomena. The method of science is often quite successful in description of phenomena and in ap­plication of basic principles as is evident from modern science, technology, and al­lied fields, but it is singularly inadequate in discovery of ultimate causes and con­cerns. While certain truths learned by such means may be expected to be enduring, other information and theories, because of human limitations in time, space, and in­terpretation, may be expected to be transi­tory—amplified, revised, even discarded, as science progresses as new relevant facts and observations come to light.

2.       There are aspects of nature and knowledge of the world which cannot be discovered or measured by science. Fur­ther, God has at times chosen to communi­cate truth through prophets and seers. The apostle Paul writes: "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:11, 12, R.S.V.). Quite_ in contrast to scientific knowledge such truth is often, but not al­ways, more concerned with ultimate causes and concerns than with methods.

Knowledge of initial origins, of Crea­tion, of salvation, can hardly be learned from observation or experiment, but it can be given by revelation. It is "by faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not ap­pear" (Heb. 11:3, R.S.V.). This is not to say that scientific phenomena viewed through the eyes of faith may not give ad­ditional affirmation to the same truth. Nor is it to say it could not happen that apart from revelation some persons might arrive at the conclusion that creation by a being of incomparable ability, a personal God, is perhaps the most rational explanation of the world as we know it. But it is to say that the certainty of Christ's work both as a Creator and Saviour is a truth given by revelation and accepted by faith. On any other basis—that is, if one does not recog­nize revelation as a source of truth—more than one view is possible.

There are many things that cannot be measured or proved scientifically about which, however, there can be reasonable certainty. You may not be able to prove that you exist, that you are not an illusion with illusory memory, body, et cetera (at least, according to certain philosophers this is said to be the case), nevertheless, you can be certain that you are here. Al­though one can recognize and define ele­ments of beauty, you cannot measure or weigh precisely the magnificence of a sym­phony, but you can hear and feel it. You cannot measure a mother's love for her in­fant, but it may be clearly evident. You cannot measure the beauty of a sunset or even scientifically prove that it is beauti­ful, but you can see and appreciate it. In­dividually you can be certain. You may not be able to prove the existence of God, but the man of faith can feel and hear and see; he can know for certain that God exists.

3.      Truth is a unity, is in harmony; therefore truth from different sources should be complementary and mutually reinforcing. From the pen of inspiration we read: 'All truth, whether in nature or in revelation, is consistent with itself in all its manifestations."—Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 114. According to this state­ment I would assume that apparent dis­crepancies reflect inadequate understand­ing on the investigator's part. Ellen G. White repeatedly affirms: "The book of nature and the written word shed light upon each other."—Education, p. 128, Notice that a two-way process is described. As R. F. Cottrell points out, faith and rea­son are complementary, not contradictory.

Men sometimes ask, "Which do you place first, the Bible or the book of na­ture?" Perhaps the best answer is that if truth is a unity, truth must come first. If there appears to be a discrepancy, may it not be in our inadequate understanding of either one or both? This is not to say that the Bible does not provide an essential foundation for an approach to nature for the Christian; it does. Nor is it to say that the Bible should be tested by men's ideas of science, but it is to witness that God is truth, and truth is one. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Christ is the ultimate source of truth. He is first. Apparent discrepancies or conflicts are liable to result from an in­adequate understanding of either nature or revelation. Because of our limitations in space and time and our inability to search out or discern all of the facts, it may at times be difficult or impossible to see within the perspective which allows for harmony. Ellen G. White comments: "Skeptics who read the Bible for the sake of caviling, may, through an imperfect comprehension of either science or revela­tion, claim to find contradictions between them; but rightly understood, they are in perfect harmony. Moses wrote under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and a cor­rect theory of geology will never claim dis­coveries that cannot be reconciled with his statements."—Ibid.

Irrational Faith Taboo

Furthermore, the servant of the Lord, points out that Christianity does not call for an irrational faith. "God never asks us to believe, without giving sufficient evi­dence upon which to base our faith. His existence, His character, the truthfulness of His Word, are all established by testi­mony that appeals to our reason; and this testimony is abundant. Yet God has never removed the possibility of doubt. Our faith must rest upon evidence, not demon­stration."—Steps to Christ, p. 105. (Italics supplied.) To repeat, faith and reason are complementary, not contradictory.

4. God is consistent, is orderly, and al­though not a servant of His laws He com­monly works according to law, and deals in a rational way with His creation. Ellen White states: "Nature is the servant of her Creator. God does not annul His laws or work contrary to them, but He is continu­ally using them as His instruments. Na­ture testifies to an intelligence, a presence, an active energy, that works in and through her laws."—Patriarchs and Proph­ets, p. 114. This does not say that uniform­ity always prevails (nature testifies that it does not), but rather that God works in and through His laws.

(To be concluded next month)

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

R.M. Ritland, Director,GeoScience Research Institute

September 1967

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Jerusalem and the Jews

A look at the meaning of the Jewish recapture of old Jerusalem.

The Preacher and Prayers

A must reading for every busy minister.

A News Commentary in Evangelism

Using assorted news media as a tool for evangelism.

Evangelism and Organization

Coordinating the various aspects of evangelistic meetings.

Ministerial Task Triangle

Communication with God, organization, and communication with men.

The Minister--a Leader of Worship

The four-fold role of the minister.

Preacher's Progress

A new monthly column by Ron Runyon.

Is it Possible to Live on a Minister's Salary?

The thrilling story of a minister's wife with four children who refused to divide her life.

How do You Study? (Concluded)

The conclusion of this two-part series.

The Challenge of a Finished Work

Conclusion of keynote address, Ministerial Council on Field School Evangelism, Andrews University, March 7, 1967.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - SermonView - WideSkyscraper (160x600)