We study the world that we may understand Scripture, and Scripture teaches us to truly read the world. Is this a conflict of principle or a vicious circle? No, it is the ordinary course of human learning elevated to a glorious pitch.
God is pleased to use the things of His creation as a tutor unto Him, that knowing Him, we may come to truly know the creation and how we are to live in it.
The problem is that if Scripture is the rule and measure of Christian practice, it becomes a matter of first importance to interpret and understand it correctly. But how are we to do this? We need human knowledge, including knowledge of grammar, history, literature, and everyday life in order to understand Scripture.
When we read the Bible, how else do we know what is a man or a woman, a father or a mother, a town, a desert, a law, etc., unless we have previously encountered or learned about these things.
And how can we read of such things unless we have learned the alphabet, the grammar, the syntax, and literary style of which we study.
The Bible is not a set of golden tablets that fell from heaven. It speaks not in some magical or divine language which bypasses human forms of learning and knowing. Nor does it present to us other-worldly realities, if by other worlds we mean something alien to the creation.
Rather, the Bible is a book in this world, even if it speaks with the voice of the Author of this world.
For the Medieval, God is the Author of two great books. First, the creation which by his Word he spoke into being. Second, the Scriptures which are his Word and which teaches us not only of the world, but of the Author Himself. Yet unique as they are, teach us of the Author by means of nothing but the creation (even if the power by which we come to know knowledge is the Spirit of God).
The bible uses human words to speak of divine things, and uses ordinary human experience, such as love, fatherhood, and redemption, to prepare readers to learn about their nature and source, that is about divine Love and Fatherhood.
This makes sense because what God redeems is not merely a spirit, but man; he renews not merely our minds, but the whole world, a world which He himself created. And so it follows that it is not only possible, but logical that God would communicate to us not in some alien or divine language, or merely about spiritual things strange to us, but through and concerning the world we live in.
Indeed, the bible is a literary object in this world, just as are the works of Shakespeare, the Iliad, and all the works of all the other authors. Just as rocks and trees and people exist and are objects in our world, so to is the Bible.
The Bible indeed exists as one thing among many, until the power of God discloses to us that it is uniquely real, uniquely true, uniquely authoritative, and that it does not merely speak to us about the world, or exist in the world, but does so perfectly and redemptive. It not only speaks through created things, but in doing so and in teaching us of their Author, it teaches about them in a new and more perfect manner.
From likenesses to the Thing Itself
We may learn about love from our family and from those around us, from literature and the impulses of our hearts, but we learn definitively about love in the Scriptures.
The same love which structures our hearts, which forms the structures of human relation, is the Love which created the whole word. It is this love that speaks to us in the Bible.
By the Spirit of God, we can recognize that Scripture speaks with the very voice which spoke all creation into being.
And God created with the very intention that the creation would have the structure of word!
That is, creation is made to speak about the creator (Psalm 19; Romans 1).
Therefore, knowledge of the creation has been made by God materially necessary to understand His Word. What we know about and by the world and in the ordinary course of human education serves as a tutor unto Scripture and makes the reading of Scripture possible, even while it is not ultimately the principle by which we understand the Word of God.
Such knowledge is indispensable because God has ordained and ordered the creation that it should speak of Him, point to Him, and prepare us by way of analogy for what we are to know of Him.
Human knowledge does not make spiritual knowledge impure. It points us to God, even as it proclaims it is not God. It shows us that which is like the Spiritual, and it does this by being like God, while simultaneously being that which falls infinitely short of Him.
Creation is the letters and language through which God speaks to us. In it and through it, He communicates His love to us.
How is it possible to move with purity from the creation to the Creator? If we remember that we never arrive at comprehension of God through such knowledge, we might at least arrive at an image of such by considering the analogy of learning to count.
We Count by Nothing but Number
We learn to count by numbering things. We see a bunch of trees and with the help of words we are taught, we begin to number. We begin by becoming familiar with the fact that there is a plurality of things (trees, people, goats, pencils) and we begin to number.
At first, we make mistakes in our reckoning, but as we practice, we eventually come to a full knowledge of number. Eventually, the principle by which we count aright comes to be known to us.
When this principle of number is established, we begin to count in a new and authoritative manner.
Such a person no longer needs to use the trees to count, but can begin to consider number in itself. She may forever have recourse to trees, or pencils, or any number of numbered objects, but no longer looks at those objects as the principle of numbering.
This is in fact the manner of all learning. Children do not begin life with a perfect science of number, or with any perfect science. Counting is provoked by the diversity of the creation. It is in the practice of counting, often guided by teachers, that one comes to possess a science of numbers–a knowledge of the principle.
But Number was First
But notice, even the first rudimentary attempts to count, the first distinctions, verbal or pre-verbal, are possible only because we possess some share in the principle of number and differentiation. We are made in the image of God and so can attain to such knowledge, already having the seed and likeness of this power in us.
For this reason, though science of number is not first to any one human being, the principle of number is prior to any act or attempt at numbering, such that we can say that man always and everywhere counts by nothing but number.
We do not count by trees, or sheep, or people (though we may count them), but are provoked to count by the plurality of such beings, even while the true principle of counting remains pure.
So though we arrive at clarity about the principle and knowledge of numbering through an interaction with the world, we come to know the principle itself, and we never could have come to know it unless it were already in some sense guiding the whole educative process.
Word is Primary
It is in this manner that we come to know God. We encounter the world in all its distinct and various modes: the natural, cultural, logical, personal, abstract, moral, etc. Each of these aspects of our experience gives us material by which we can come to know God and self.
Yet none of these modes or aspects of existence perfectly reveals God to us, (or reveals us to our selves). They provide analogic clues, signs, images and language, but do so with imperfect clarity. It is by these clues that we gain the tools to read scripture and in reading scripture, by the power of God’s Spirit, we come to know the meaning and truth about what we have seen.
We do not know such things perfectly, or as we ought, but we come to know them with increasing clarity through the world and the Scriptures, until the Scriptures begin to correct and perfect our knowledge of them.
Just as we began to count until we came to know the principle of numbering with clarity, so too are we students of the world and do we know the things of the world, albeit imperfectly.
But in our study, guided and informed by Scripture, we can become more and more familiar with the principle and meaning of the world.
This is possible because the Bible presents us with a story about the world and about its Author–an Author who then entered into the world to redeem it by His death and resurrection..
In Scripture, we come to know God, and in knowing Him, in hearing his voice, we hear the same voice that speaks in our hearts, and brought the creation into being by His Word–a Word which continually upholds all things visible and invisible alike.
Therefore, God speaks both by means of his creation and by Scripture, but with particular clarity and power in Scripture. The words by which he speaks in creation are things created, but in Scripture the words he uses are human words which speak about things created and things divine.
Divine things are spoken of by means of created things, that is Scripture uses figurative language or natural concepts and realities to stand for divine. Therefore Scripture speaks both negatively and positively. When we hear God is love, we know something of what is meant, for we have experienced natural love and because the love of God has been poured into our hearts. But simultaneously, God in Himself, that divine nature in itself, is so infinitely far above what we have yet tasted, that Scripture speaks simultaneously in a negative sense–He is like this, and yet utterly beyond this. He is the source and yet distinct. What we shall one day know of Him is over and abundantly more than we can imagine, quite literary.