The Heavens Declare the Glory of God and So Do We

The modern world for the most part accepts John Locke’s idea, now three centuries old, that the human mind at birth as a blank slate that can contain nothing until sense impressions fill it with data. The Christian version of this assumes that the mind, which has now grown up and is full of enormous data banks, lacks any comprehension of spiritual realities, being "natural," and has nothing to contribute to Christians.

I can recall wondering as a student and new convert many years ago, how Beethoven, not being a follower of Christ, could make such beautiful music. How could a mind in spiritual darkness, not steeped in spiritual matters do something that lifts the spirit and makes us think we’ve seen something of God’s glory? (Why I assumed the composer was not a believer without knowing anything about him is another story.) Is it possible for the natural man to write beautiful music, perform acts of compassion, stand up for truth in many different ways, often at great cost? The psalmist gives us a clue about that:

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1-4).

The psalmist is saying that without words being expressed the creation gives us a kind of knowledge of God, the kind that can be understood just by looking at what he has made. There is a relationship between the maker and the thing made that enables us to learn something about the maker even without the kind of intelligibility that comes with words. It is real knowledge, although of its own order. It’s not the kind of knowledge that comes from hearing the Word of God preached, nor is it the kind we could learn in school, but it is real nevertheless. In some mysterious way God’s creation also gives to us a certain vision of what human creations should be like. There is something in almost all kinds of human creation that has the capacity to elevate the human spirit or to twist it. In the third novel of his space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis described the ways in which the evil organization bent on world domination predisposed new recruits to join it. One of its methods was to put the subjects in a room with such poor proportions that it had a disorienting effect on them, making them more open to departing from the moral norms that ordinarily would inhibit them. There is a connection between the physical thing and its maker, and therefore also with others who experience it. This was plainer when parents taught their children to follow the family trade. A shoemaker shows his son how to make a shoe correctly, and then says, "See, that’s what a good shoe looks like." He is imparting to him not only a physical skill, but as he almost invariably realizes also is training him in the moral life. Joseph shows Jesus how to build a table and then says, "See, that’s what a proper table looks like when you’ve made it right." Johann Sebastian Bach composes a cantata and says to Johann Christian Bach, "See, that’s what a proper cantata sounds like."

Psalm 19 says the creation shows God’s handiwork. God says to all people, "See, that’s what a proper creation looks like, and this is the effect it is to have on people." When people react to something a man has made in the way they react to something God had made, they sense that that thing is made in a way that is pleasing to God. I take that to mean that if a Beethoven or a Bach produced a piece of work that evokes a response in us similar to what a piece of God’s work evokes in us he is fulfilling God’s purposes for him, no matter what his own spiritual state is. All of us are God’s servants in spite of ourselves, and he is able to use all aspects of creation for his purposes. But if their work evokes in us feelings of rage, revenge, personal pride, greed or lust, then they have perverted God’s gift and purpose for them. I’m not talking about taste, the fact that you like one type of music and I like another, but rather what kind of response the music or the furniture or the shoes evokes in us. We can admire a piece of human creation while preferring another type. The test is whether it produces in us something worthy of being called God’s handiwork or the devil’s handiwork.

"The heavens declare the glory of God/and the firmament shows his handiwork" God is showing us his handiwork all the time. It cannot be escaped. "Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world." Someone who denies God is still bombarded day and night with the evidence of God’s existence and power. It may be obscured by darkness, but it’s always there. It can be appealed to. It’s there in the pervert, the criminal, the torturer, however hidden it is. I think pre-evangelism is fundamentally a way to help the person recognize the sermon that God is preaching to him in the creation. It helps him come to some self-knowledge so he can recognize God’s handwork. It’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it’s God’s sermon to him before that gospel.

When Paul was trying to explain to the Romans the relationship between the physical world and the moral and spiritual life, he used the same images as the psalmist. He said that God’s "invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead so that they are without excuse, because although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened." That’s what the Psalmist was saying: God is preaching a sermon to us day and night. And what we do with our lives will be judged by how we heed that sermon. When we make the shoes, or compose the cantata, or advise the patient, or work the spreadsheet, or whatever it is we do, we should be creating health and beauty just as our heavenly father does in his creation, as we can tell when we listen to his sermon in the creation. God’s power and wisdom are preached all around us, every day and every night, every beautiful sun-filled day showing the beauty of God and every fearful stormy night with pounding seas, forest fires and avalanches showing his awesome power.

Our preaching is feeble compared with that and our works also are feeble but what we say and do had better be faithful to that revelation of God. If we try to speak the truth but produce trash in our music or our furniture or the cheese we make or the shop we manage, we are setting up a terrible contradiction between the preaching that God is doing through the creation and the preaching we are doing through what we create. One of the great insights of the Reformation is that of calling. This word applied not only to the minister of the gospel but the doctor, the farmer, the clerk or, as Luther liked to say, the executioner. That is now secularized into something like careerism, but for the Christian believer it is a calling to which God has appointed us. We make something that in its own way is comparable to what God does, like an echo is comparable to the original sound. But it has to be true echo, not a distortion that reveals something other than God’s goodness.

Herb Schlossberh is an historian and author who has written frequently on religion and culture. His books include: Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society; Christianity and Economics in the Post-Cold War Era: The Oxford Conference and Beyond; and The Silent Revolution and the Making of Victorian England Herb has served as a trustee of CityGate

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