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Two Books, The


TWO BOOKS, THE . The relationship between religion and science in the Christian West has often found expression in metaphors and models. Since the nineteenth century the strident "warfare model" has dominated interpretations of these different realms of human knowledge. However, a renaissance is occurring of a far more ancient metaphor, that of God's self-revelation through a pair of complementary books, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Pope John Paul II proclaimed, "From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator (Wisdom 13:5). This is to recognize as a first stage of divine Revelation the marvelous book of nature, which, when read with the proper tools of human reason, can lead to knowledge of the Creator" (John Paul II, 1998, p. 19).

Origins of the Metaphor

The origins of the "two books" metaphor are embedded in the conviction of the Abrahamic faiths that God is knowable through revelation. The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament were understood to be transmitting the very word of God, and thus the "book" became of paramount importance in their respective traditions. Psalms 19:1 majestically articulates the idea that "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork." The theme in the Book of Wisdom that God is known through the divine works even by Gentiles is echoed in the New Testament locus classicus for the natural knowledge of God, the Pauline declaration in Romans : "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Rom. 1:1920). Paul elsewhere describes the visible worlds as "images of the invisible" (Heb. 11:3).

In patristic literature one finds the first full expression of the metaphor. Elements may be found as early as the second century in Justin Martyr's adoption of the Stoic idea of the logos spermatikos (Second Apology, chap. 8) and in Irenaeus of Lyons (130202 ce) the idea of the works and the word of God (Adversus haereses IV.20). Tertullian prefigured it in his antiheretical argument that, because Marcion has eviscerated Scripture, he cannot provide a counterpart in revelation to the knowledge of God derived from nature (Adversus Marcionem, V.5). Athanasius (c. 296373 ce) offered a protostatement of the theme in his claim that nature and Scripture are the sole sources of knowledge of God (Vita S. Antoni, 78).

The clearest patristic statements of the metaphor of "the book of nature" were offered by John Chrysostom (c. 354407 ce) and Augustine of Hippo (c. 354407 ce). Chrysostom declared:

If God had given instruction by means of books, and of letters, he who knew letters would have learnt what was written, but the illiterate man would have gone away without receiving any benefit. This however cannot be said with respect to the heavens. Upon this volume the unlearned, as well as the wise man, shall be able to look, and wherever any one may chance to come, there looking upwards towards the heavens, he will receive a sufficient lesson from the view of them. (Homilies to the People of Antioch, IX.5, 162163).

Augustine proclaimed:

There is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: "God made me!" (City of God, 11:22).

But although these passages establish the complementarity of natural and revealed theology among the fathers, the metaphor only reached full articulation with the progressive rediscovery of Aristotelian natural philosophy, when the "two books" became a primary model for expressing a mature binary epistemology of revelation.

Establishment of the "Two Books" Metaphor

Medieval thinkers employed the model of a twofold revelation with great plasticity. Alain of Lille wrote, "Omnis mundi creatura / Quasi liber et pictura / Nobis est et speculum " (Every creature is to us like a book and a picture and a mirror). Hugh of Saint Victor regarded both the creation and the incarnation as "books" of God and compared Christ as primary revelation to a book. Saint Bonaventure's (12171274) model of revelation included three volumes: sensible creatures are "a book with writing front and back," spiritual creatures are "a scroll written from within," and Scripture is "a scroll written within and without" (Collations on the Hexaemeron, 12.1417). Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Contra Gentiles likewise speaks about a threefold knowledge that humanity may have of divine things: ascent through creation by the natural light of reason, descent of divine truth by revelation, and elevation of the human mind to a perfect insight into things revealed. For Dante, for whom the book in which everything is contained is the Godhead, perfect insight is eschatological in paradise, where everything that has been scattered throughout the entire universe like loose pages is now "bound in one volume" (Paradiso XXXIII, 82).

Raymond of Sabunde offered the fullest late-medieval articulation of the metaphor in Theologia Naturalis (1436):

Hence there are two books given to us by God, the one being the book of the whole collection of creatures or the book of nature, and the other being the book of sacred scripture. The first book was given to human beings in the beginning, when the universe of creatures was created, since no creature exists that is not a certain letter, written by the finger of God, and from many creatures as from many letters is composed one book, which is called the book of the creatures. Within this book is included humanity itself, and human beings are the first letters of this book. But the second book, Scripture, was given to human beings secondarily to correct the deficiencies of the first book, which humanity could not read because it is blind. The first book is common everyone, but the second book is not common to all, because only clerics are able to read what is written in it. (Theologia Naturalis sive Liber Creaturarum, 3536)

Sabunde's incautious exaltation of the book of nature and his insistence that the book of Scripture is less accurate led to the condemnation of the work as heretical in 1595.

Early Modern Variations on the Theme

The "book of nature" enjoyed its greatest currency in the early modern period. The Reformers' emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture cut through the profusion of "meanings" and "signatures" found by medieval scholars in nature and reinforced the idea of two books. However, the book of nature was clearly subordinate to biblical revelation in the theology of John Calvin, who held Scripture to be a necessary corrective to the deficiencies of nature (Institutes, I.6.1). The Reformed tradition retained this Calvinist interpretation of the two books in the Belgic Confession adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church. In contrast, Paracelsus suggested an empirical approach: whereas Scripture was to be explored through its letters, the book of nature had to be read by going from land to land because every country was a different page.

The metaphor was affected in the seventeenth century by both the elaboration of natural theology and the development of the sciences in novel empirical and theoretical directions. Pierre Gassendi (15921655) saw purpose in all of nature and suggested that if René Descartes wanted to prove the existence of God he ought to abandon reason and look around him and that the two books were not to be kept on separate shelves. Although Francis Bacon seems in practice to have kept the two books distinct, he articulated their essential complementarity:

The scriptures reveal to us the will of God; and the book of the creatures expresses the divine power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the scriptures, by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon his works. (The Advancement of Learning, VI, 16)

Bacon set the tone for the seventeenth-century scientific enterprise in his redirection of the "two books" metaphor toward the improvement of the human estate.

Galileo Galilei argued that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, not only implying that mathematics is the sublimest expression of the divine word but de facto restricting its full comprehension to those who are appropriately educated:

And to prohibit the whole science [of astronomy] would be but to censure a hundred passages of holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all his works and divinely read in the open book of heaven. Within its pages are couched mysteries so profound and concepts so sublime that the vigils, labors, and studies of hundreds upon hundreds of the most acute minds have still not pierced them, even after continual investigations for thousands of years. (Letter to Grand Duchess Christina )

Galileo's famous dictum that Scripture teaches "how the heavens go and not how to go to heaven" should be interpreted in light of his conviction of the complementarity of the two books.

The metaphor flourished in the natural theological climate of seventeenth-century England, particularly in the "physico-theology" of the Boyle Lectures, where the idea was used by many divines as shorthand for the assumed validity of the design argument. But its two terms were not always held in comfortable balance. The dissenting theologian Richard Baxter, for example, argued that "nature was a 'hard book'; which few could understand, and that it was therefore safer to rely more heavily on Scripture" (The Reasons for the Christian Religion, 1667). In contrast, Sir Isaac Newton saw nature as perhaps more truly the source of divine revelation than the Bible, although he spent decades of his life investigating the prophetic books. It has been argued that in virtually abolishing the distinction between the two books, which he revered as separate expressions of the same divine meaning, Newton was attempting to keep science sacred and to reveal scientific rationality in what was once a purely sacral realm, namely biblical prophecy (Manuel, 1974, p. 49). By the early eighteenth century there was a significant faction within the Royal Society opposed to any mention of Scripture in a scientific context.

Decline and Survival of the "Two Books"

Although the metaphor of the book of nature persisted vigorously into the nineteenth century, various movements began to weaken its cogency. The Enlightenment critiques of David Hume and Immanuel Kant undermined the project of natural theology in broad strokes, and the deist movement challenged the uniqueness of the Christian revelation. Thomas Paine asked defiantly: "Do we want to know what God is? Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture, called the creation" (The Age of Reason, 1794).

The revolutions in geology and biology eroded long-standing traditions of a young earth and an immutable creation and wore away the bedrock beneath a coherent "book of nature" temporally coextensive with the "book of Scripture." Whereas John Mason Good argued that the Bible must be the word of God, "for it has the direct stamp and testimony of his works" (The Book of Nature, 1833), Charles Babbage advanced a view that seemed almost to verge on asserting the superfluity of scriptural revelation in light of the book of nature (Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, 1838). Parallel to the "historicization" of geology and biology, the development of a historical critical approach to study of the Scripture challenged the profoundly rooted tradition about the Bible as an integral and timeless record of the word of God.

Despite the developments outlined above, the "two books" metaphor continued to thrive during the nineteenth century among both conservative anti-Darwinians and more liberal thinkers who enthusiastically adopted the principles and discoveries of contemporary science. For the Scottish Freechurchman Hugh Miller, the "two books" became the "two theologies" (Testimony of the Rocks, 1857). A decade after Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), Herbert Morris argued that Scripture and nature represent respectively the verbal and the pictorial representations of divine wisdom, correlating the "inspired record of creation" with contemporary science (Science and the Bible, 1871). Paul Chadbourne regarded nature as an unchangeable record, written in the language of the sciences of which geology comprised the most clearly comprehended volume (Nature and the Bible from the Same Author, 1870). The geologist Joseph Le Conte declared that "the whole object of science is to construct the theology or the divine revelation in nature." Although quite clear about the limits of science as a commentary on the book of Scripture, he held that "of these two books, nature is the elder born, and in some sense, at least, may be considered the more comprehensive and perfect" (Religion and Science, 1902).

The innovations in hermeneutics and science pushed the more religiously conservative wings of society in a precritical direction of maintaining verbal inerrancy and defending the ancient understanding of earth history. The metaphor of the "book of nature" gained weight as one of the cornerstones of their position, thriving in evangelical and fundamentalist-creationist circles right through the end of the twentieth century.

However, in both liberal and neo-orthodox theology the metaphor of "God's two books" entered into steady decline after 1900. Parallel to the development of historical geology and biblical criticism was the erosion of confidence that one can easily interpret natural processes teleologically, as William Paley had once argued. The discovery of extinction in the fossil record disproved the ancient assumption of the immutability of species, rendering it increasingly difficult to read the "book of nature" as self-evidently revealing the divine plan or at least as a plan worthy of admiration. Additionally the metamorphosis of "natural philosophy" or "natural history" into the variety of sciences as understood in the early twenty-first century undercut both terms in the metaphor of "God's two books." As each new scientific discipline developed its own sphere of study, the "nature" underlying the "book of nature" lost its metaphorical coherence, and the replacement of science as commentary on authoritative texts by the empirical investigation of the natural world essentially removed the "book" from the "book of nature." Finally, the gradual recognition over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the human community embraces a plurality of religious faiths has had the effect of relativizing the Bible as a source of revelation. The "two books" metaphor truly functions only if the claim can be defended that the Bible is the book of Scripture.

The complex metaphor of the "two books" has enjoyed a long and convoluted life cycle. For nearly two millennia the idea variously framed, constituted, negated, or otherwise reflected the relationship between the two human institutions now referred to as science and religion. It is an open question whether as a rhetorical device it can be rehabilitated in a world of historical critical interpretation of all sacred Scriptures and in which evolutionary or developmental models hold sway in scientific disciplines ranging from cosmology and geology to biology and neuroscience. But the changing fashions of metaphor cannot mask the conviction of believers that God does speak to God's creatures in pluriform ways: through religious traditions, through immediate intuition, through personal relationships, and through the revelations found in sacred writing and in nature.


Blumenberg, Hans. Die Lesbarkeit der Welt. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1981.

Bono, James J. The Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine. Madison, Wis., 1995.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York, 1953.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Howell, Kenneth J. God's Two Books: Copernican Cosmology and Biblical Interpretation in Early Modern Science. Notre Dame, Ind., 2002.

John Paul II, Pope. Fides et Ratio. Casale Monferrato, Italy, 1998.

Manuel, Frank E. The Religion of Isaac Newton. Oxford, 1974.

Pedersen, Olaf. The Book of Nature. Vatican City State, 1992.

Raymond of Sabunde. Theologia Naturalis Seu Liber Creaturarum. Stuttgart, Germany, 1966.

Peter M. J. Hess (2005)

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