Redeeming Physics


Redeeming Physics by Vern Poythress

Against the background of the general framework of creation, fall, and redemption, biblical theology provides some specific resources throwing light on the foundations of physics. Among these are the role of the word of God in creation and providence, the role of imaging in theophany, and the role of the tabernacle as not only a type of Christ but an image of God’s heavenly dwelling. The tabernacle suggests an analogical relation between microcosmic house and macrocosmic house. Its simple dimensional proportionalities and resonances invite human meditation to explore the possibilities of resonances and proportionalities in the macrocosm. And indeed these turn out to occur, not only in music, as the Greeks found, but in the fundamental structure of physics and the sciences. Thus proportionalities in the macrocosm receive a foundation in the theology of imaging, which in turn has its foundation in the Son who is the Image of the Father.

As a result, we can understand in more specific ways that physics, and by analogy other sciences, depend unconsciously upon the coherence in creation granted by the Son (Col. 1:17). That leads to reassessing the viability of the principle of alleged religious neutrality in science and in science education.

The doctrines of creation and providence, as well as the doctrine of man made in the image of God, have obvious relevance for Christian thinking about science, and a good number of resources have developed that explore the connection.1 Biblical theology in the tradition begun by Geerhardus Vos2 has further enriched the resources. By exploring thematic connections in a multitude of directions, biblical theology has opened up the possibility of supplementing traditional topics from systematic theology. This enrichment leads to deepening our understanding of the sciences, and of ways in which they explore manifestations of the glory of God. To make the analysis more concrete and more manageable, I here focus specifically on physics, rather than on all the sciences.

God’s word as foundation for scientific law

The first enrichment for thinking about science comes from the biblical theme of the word of God. We are familiar with the Bible’s teaching that the Bible itself is the word of God. But the Bible also contains a considerable number of passages that indicate that God speaks words in exercising control over the natural world:

He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word, and melts them; …
(Ps. 147:15-18 ESV).3

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?
(Lam. 3:37-38)

In addition, in the foundational passage in Genesis 1 God’s speech has a central role. “And God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). The principal acts of creation take place by God speaking.

God’s word is therefore the foundation for all of creation, and provides a foundation in particular for those regularities that are termed scientific law. Science in all its parts depends on the belief in regularities, and on confidence that laws exist. In so doing, it is depending on the word of God and on the regularities that God specifies in his speech.4 In particular, the real laws of physics are the word of God. Human physicists give us an approximation to that word.

This connection between science and the word of God has at least two fruits. First, by linking God to the question of scientific law, it raises the question as to whether differences in people’s views of God can result in differences in scientific opinion. The answer is yes, and that answer can be illustrated by many particular cases. It has been confirmed rather dramatically in the twentieth century, during the time when Big Bang cosmology was first being debated. On the average, the Big Bang tended to be resisted by people who did not want to have to deal with an absolute beginning that suggested a doctrine of creation and the possibility of a personal Creator behind the universe as a whole.

Second, the word of God links the doctrine of the Trinity to science, because in John 1 the Second Person of the Trinity is called the Word, and John 1 links this title to the language in Genesis 1 by affirming that the Word was active in creation (John 1:3). John implies that scientific laws are ultimately Trinitarian in character, and that they may have a particularly close relation to the Second Person of the Trinity and may somehow reflect his character. We could further explore these questions,5 but I would like to pass on to some further biblical theological themes.

Imaging in theophany

Another theme in biblical theology that impinges on physics is the theme of theophany.6 God at various times appears in physical displays of his glory, as at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19), in the fiery cloud that accompanied the Israelites in the exodus (Num. 9:15-23), and in the appearances to Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-8), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1), and John (Rev. 1:12-16; 5:1-14).7 Though the physical displays involve unique, unrepeatable experiences, they also link themselves analogically to ordinary displays in clouds, fire, thunder, lightning, and bright light. The relation to the ordinary suggests that physical aspects of this world reflect the glory of God.

According to Meredith G. Kline, theophanies have an imaging structure.8 As a whole, a theophany “images” God in a loose sense. In the complex theophany in Ezekiel 1, one may observe three circles of imaging. The innermost circle consists in the human figure on the throne (Ezek. 1:26-28). The second circle consists in the four living creatures and the wheels. The third, outermost circle consists in the cloud. Fire, gleaming metal, and a voice or loud noise characterize all three circles. The outer circles reflect the character of the inner circle, and the inner circle reflects (“images”) the character of God. One may continue to affirm that man is made in the image of God in a unique sense. But in a looser sense, imaging is a reality that is broader than the creation of man.

All of this imaging structure can in turn be related to the Trinity. As a whole, OT theophanies anticipate the final appearance of God to man in Christ (John 1:14; 14:9). In addition, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, is “the image of the invisible God” according to Col. 1:15. It may be suggested, then, that the looser imaging seen in the outer circles of theophany is itself an expression, or an image, of the original imaging in God himself in his Trinitarian Being. The Son is the original Image. Images in creation reflect this original imaging. The Spirit is present in the imaging process, as is hinted at by the reference to the spirit of the living creatures (Ezek. 1:21) and the presence of the Spirit in theophany in Revelation (Rev. 5:6).

Genesis 1:2, in the context of creation, states that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The Spirit of God is introduced as an agent in the entire creation process. Whether or not we are being invited to think a specific theophanic appearance of the Spirit,9 the Spirit’s presence is to be associated with the later instances where God is the origin of physical displays in theophany. The association thus invites us to see the physical world as imaging the presence of God in theophany.10

The Tabernacle

Let us consider next the Tabernacle of Moses. The Tabernacle symbolizes the presence of God among his people (Ex. 25:8; see 1 Kings 8:27-30). In contrast to the temporary presence of God in theophany, it is permanent. According to Hebrews, it is a shadow or image of God’s dwelling in heaven (Heb. 8:5-6; 9:1-10, 23-24). Though heaven is the more intimate dwelling place for God, in a sense God fills all things, and the whole universe is therefore his dwelling (Jer. 23:24; 1 Kings 8:27; see Amos 9:6). The universe is his macrocosmic house, while the Tabernacle is his microcosmic house, imaging both God and the macrocosm.

The tabernacle shows within it some imaging structure. The outer room, the Holy Place, is analogous to the inner room, the Most Holy Place, and can be said to image it. The courtyard, with dimensions analogous to the Holy Place, is an attenuated image of it. The physical features and beauty in the tabernacle reflect both the glory of God, their originator, and the glory of the macrocosm.

The tabernacle as a dwelling place of God points forward to Christ, who is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). We are right to think first of all of Christ’s work in redemption. But Christ is also the mediator of creation, according to John 1:1-3. So the tabernacle may also be related to the macrocosm and its order.


One notable feature of the tabernacle is the use of simple spatial measurements. The Most Holy Place is 10 cubits long, 10 cubits wide, and 10 cubits high. The Holy Place is 20 cubits long, 10 cubits wide, and 10 cubits high, making it twice as long as the Most Holy Place, a simple 2:1 ratio. In the other dimensions it is the same as the Most Holy Place, a 1:1 ratio. The courtyard of the tabernacle is 100 cubits long and 50 cubits wide, and thus exhibits the 2:1 ratio found in the Holy Place. These simple ratios are related to the theme of imaging, since the courtyard, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place are related to one another by imaging. In addition, various items of furniture in the tabernacle exhibit simple proportionalities. The table for the bread of the presence has dimensions of 2 cubits by 1 cubit by 1 1/2 cubits, resulting in simple ratios of 4:2:3 between the dimensions.

The simple proportionalities in the tabernacle, as microcosm, invite Israelites to wonder whether the macrocosm, that is the universe as a whole, exhibits proportionalities. The Greeks already found that such proportionalities cropped up in music. The music interval of an octave represents a ratio of 2:1 either in the length of the vibrating strings or in the frequency of vibration.11 The Greeks also found proportionalities in geometry and in other aspects of the physical world, which led some to think that the world as a whole was mathematically constructed. In particular, astronomy found proportionalities that related time to the position of heavenly bodies.

Newton’s Second Law of Motion

It has remained for the further development of science to uncover proportionalities throughout the physical world. One thinks of the contributions of Galileo, Kepler, and especially Sir Isaac Newton. Rather than trace the development historically, let us go directly to a particular example, namely Newton’s Second Law of Motion:

The alteration of motion is ever proportional to the motive force impressed; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impressed.

“Alteration of motion” means what we now call acceleration. According to the Second Law, acceleration is proportional to the force impressed. The constant of proportionality is the mass of the object. This leads to the simple mathematical formulation:

F = ma

F is the force; m is the mass; and a is the acceleration. The force F is mass times acceleration, making the force proportional both to the mass and to the acceleration.

Proportionality is built into this most basic law, which finds repeated use in analysis of many kinds of physical interaction: vibrating strings, vibrating membranes and solids, flow of liquids and gases, and the movements in the solar system. Simple proportionality is built in. And, when we relate our discoveries in the macrocosm to the tabernacle as microcosm, we can affirm that the beauty of the simple proportions in the tabernacle is related to the beauty of the simple proportions in the macrocosm. Both are the product of beautiful designing on the part of God.

The Trinity in physics

But we can say something more. In the tabernacle proportionality is an outcome of imaging. The Holy Place, the image, is proportional to the Most Holy Place, the object of which it is an image. Proportionality is a kind of imaging relation between the two features that are proportional. If so, proportionality is built on imaging, and can be traced back to the original imaging, namely the Son as the image of the Father. God has been pleased to place within creation analogical replicas of the imaging relation between the Father and the Son. And it turns out that these replicas are not rare, but are to be found throughout the tabernacle microcosm, and, more notably, throughout the universe as macrocosm. Newton’s Second Law of Motion contains an imaging relation, and so reflects the Trinity.

That does not mean that we could deduce the Trinity from Newton’s Second Law, without any further reflection. But in the light of biblical knowledge we can see relationships. We use the knowledge given to us by special revelation in Scripture, knowledge concerning the Trinity, knowledge concerning the Trinitarian activity in creation, and knowledge concerning the Tabernacle. These together contribute to our ability to see the glory of God–specifically the glory of some aspects of his Trinitarian character–reflected in Newton’s Second Law.

Acceleration as presupposing imaging

Other instance of imaging relations occur in the very concept of acceleration that Newton used. Acceleration means a change in “motion,” or as we would say in modern terminology, a change in velocity. Velocity in turn can be defined as change in position over time. Consider a simple example where a family is traveling to a city 250 miles away. In the first hour they travel 50 miles. In the second hour they travel a second 50 miles, for a total of 100 miles, and so on. We make a simple table:

distance 0 miles 50 miles 100 miles 150 miles 200 miles 250 miles
 time 0 hours 1 hour 2 hours 3 hours 4 hours 5 hours

The distance is proportional to the time. The proportionality is summed up by saying that the car is traveling at a speed of 50 miles per hour. The speed is a measure of the proportionality. We can say that it builds on an imaging relation between distance and time. Imaging is thus built into the very concept of speed or velocity.12

Now what about acceleration? Acceleration is defined as a change in velocity. Suppose that the family, instead of being in a car going at a constant speed, is in an airplane that is picking up speed as a travels down a runway in order to take off. The motors rev up, the brakes are released, and the airplane starts its acceleration. After one second it is traveling at a speed of 2 feet per second. After two seconds, it is traveling at a speed of 4 feet per second, and so on. We can then plot a relation between velocity and time in a simple table:

velocity 0 ft/sec 2 ft/sec 4 ft/sec 6 ft/sec 8 ft/sec 10 ft/sec
 time 0 second 1 second 2 seconds 3 seconds 4 seconds 5 seconds

There is a simple proportionality between velocity and time, and this proportionality defines acceleration. The plane is accelerating at a rate of 2 feet per second per second. Acceleration thus has built into it two distinct proportionalities, first the proportionality between distance and time that defines velocity, and then the proportionality between velocity and time that defines acceleration. Both are instances of imaging, in the broad sense in which we have developed it in connection with the tabernacle. Both, we may conclude, reflect the glory of the Son, the Image of God in relation to the Father.

Newton’s invention of the calculus

Students with knowledge of physics will know that I have oversimplified. Physical reality is more complicated, because the simple proportionalities are only approximations. The family car would be traveling at 50 miles per hour if the speed were constant. But there may be traffic lights and speed limit signs that create a situation where the actual speed goes up and down. The average speed of 50 miles per hour is only an approximation. The approximation is enough to entice us into studying the world, but shows us that our study is not complete.

Students observing the heavenly bodies easily see that the sun travels along its course once per day, and that its movement across the sky is roughly proportional to the passage of time. Analogously, the moon goes through its phases with respect to the sun in a period of about 29 1/2 days, which represents another proportionality. These simple relationships encourage human beings to look for patterns of proportionality such as are found in the tabernacle. But there are complexities, particularly with respect to planets like Mars. From the point of view of the observer on earth, Mars appears sometimes to backtrack in its position relative to the sun.13 The complexities led to further sophistication in astronomy. The developments culminated in Newton, who was able to define mathematically the idea of instantaneous velocity. If the speed is changing over time, the speed measured over a period of hours represents only an approximate proportionality. Newton could obtain an exact proportionality, suitable for use in his Second Law of Motion, by considering a process in which the time interval for measurement was made indefinitely smaller. Newton’s invention of calculus codified this idea. (In modern terminology, it is the concept of derivative that is the fundamental key.) With the proper mathematical equipment, proportionality can then play a central role even in the case where velocity or acceleration was changing with time.

Developments building on Newton

Through calculus and the framework that Newton provided, scientists were able to produce equations analyzing physical motions and forces in a huge variety of situations. All of these equations built on the Second Law of Motion, which contains the fundamental proportionality between force, mass, and acceleration. They also used Newton’s calculus, which contained within it a systematic mathetical technique for codified proportions. The derivative, as a codification of proportionality, became an integral part of the tools of physics.

In these situations, we find a repeated and even pervasive use of proportionalities. Or, as we can say in the light of the tabernacle, we find imaging. This imaging is in turn a reflection or image of the Son, as true image. The glory of God is manifested in physics in any number of ways, in its beauties, in its harmonies, in its impressive exactitude and power. But it is also manifested specifically in reflections of the Trinitarian character of God.14

Einstein and beyond

The development of Einstein’s theory of relativity and of quantum mechanics has shown that Newtonian physics was only an approximation. We cannot pursue the full story here. But the developments have not diminished the role of proportionalities, but if anything have increased them. In addition, we meet in the fundamental physics of the twentieth century the repeated use of the idea of symmetry. Both relativity theory and quantum theory used symmetries in space and time in a fundamental way in development of the theories. Physicists expected reality to show symmetries in the basic physical laws.

Symmetry belongs to the tabernacle, in that the tabernacle as a tent is symmetric along its long axis. The Most Holy Place is symmetric in its three dimensions. Symmetry is in fact closely related to beauty, in that it is expressive of the beauty of the tabernacle, which in turn reflects the beauty of God. Human perception instinctively has an eye for symmetry, and symmetric arrangements in space are often seen as beautiful. Symmetry is also closely related to imaging. First, it images the beauty of God, the origin of imaging. And second, symmetry can be seen as a kind of imaging, in that the symmetric arrangement, when moved or changed in a specified way, remains unchanged, and so is an exact image of itself. The tabernacle, when reflected through its long axis, remains unchanged, and so is its own image in that respect.

Maxwell’s equations as an example

As an example of the use of proportionalities and symmetries, we may use Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism. Maxwell’s equations can be written in several forms that display symmetries in space. The equations “look the same” in all three spatial dimensions, and indeed symmetry was one of the guiding considerations in Maxwell’s original search for a correct formulation. Once Maxwell’s equations were known, physicists also became aware of an additional symmetry that involved time. That was a significant clue that led to Einstein’s formulation of the special theory of relativity.

To represent the symmetries directly, physicists can write the equations as four distinct equations, three in space and one in time, as follows:

The square box () represents a double-depth proportionality in space and time. It is symmetric in four dimensions. The symbol A represents electric and magnetic force. The subscript μ ranges through four different values to produce four distinct equations with exactly the same form, thus exhibiting another symmetry in space and time. The value 4π is a simple proportionality (and yes, π is as usual the ratio or proportionality between the circumference and the diameter of a circle). jμ represents electric charge. And the value c, in the denominator, is the speed of light, the constant proportionality between distance and time in the way that light travels.

Images of the Spirit

So far, we have focused mainly on ways in which the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the image of the invisible God, is reflected in the world of physics. But if there were time, we could also turn our attention to the Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Though Meredith Kline has endeavored to argue for a close relation between imaging and the Spirit,15 it still remains the more direct route to see imaging in relation to the Son.

The Spirit is revealed in the Bible in connection with many analogies, but one with which we might start is the analogy with wind. A single word in Hebrew, ruach, can mean either wind or breath or spirit, depending on the context. In most contexts it has only one of these meanings, but Ezekiel 37 provides a context in which all three meanings occur in relation to one another (37:5, 9, 14). We are invited to see an analogical relation between wind and Spirit both here and in John 3:8. More broadly, the Spirit is associated with motion (John 3:8) and with the animation of life (Ps. 104:30), which can be associated with its power to move. Thus we might suggest that the phenomenon of motion, even in the case of inanimate creatures, distantly reflects the Spirit, who as Creator is the source of motion for all things.

Science education

The progress of science, coupled with cultural motion in the direction of secularization, has been instrumental in inhibiting us from making connections of this kind between biblical teaching and the textures of physics. But developments in biblical theology have highlighted themes that do have a connection with physics, as well as with other sciences. We are invited to see physics, including its mathematical details, as manifestations reflecting the glory of God and the Trinity. These insights, I believe could be an integral part of Christians’ appreciation for physics. But will the present educational system, with its secularist atmosphere, allow it? If, as I believe, reflections of the glory of God are an integral aspect of reality, secularism is shown to be not neutral but biased in its tendency to strip down physics and other sciences by the elimination of meanings that does not fit into its worldview. It is not neutral, but religious, in its commitment to a particular anti-Trinitarian philosophy of meaning.

Summary of Scriupture Passages on the Word of God 

He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters hoarfrost like ashes.
He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs;
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word, and melts them; …
(Ps. 147:15-18 ESV).

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that good and bad come?
(Lam. 3:37-38)

And God said, “Let there by light,” and there was light.
(Gen. 1:3)

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
(Ps. 33:6)

 Summary of Illustrations

The Tabernacle

Newton’s Second Law of Motion

F = ma

Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism

1For a good exploration of this relevance, see Tim Morris and Don Petcher, Science & Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006). Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006) includes this dimension, but adds to it a number of strands of thinking coming from biblical theology.

2See Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology:Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1948).

3Scriptural quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

4See Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law,” JETS 46/1 (2003): 111-123; Poythress, Redeeming Science, especially chapter 1.

5They are further exploring in ibid.

6See Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980). Though I do not agree with Kline in every detail, I have been greatly helped by his understanding of the thematic connections among theophanies.

7On the pervasiveness of a broader theme of theophany in Revelation, see Vern Sheridan Poythress, The Returning King (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2000), 41-43.

8Kline, Images of the Spirit.

9Kline thinks so (Images of the Spirit, 13-20). I would say that there are multiple associations with later works of the Spirit. But theophany is certainly one such association. One need not follow Kline completely in order to affirm the validity of this one set of associations.

10I cannot further explore it here, but Ps. 104:1-4, though referring to God’s acts of creation, has definite affinities with the language of theophany, inviting us to see creation itself as theophany.

11Knowledge about the frequencies of vibration belongs to modern times, since the Greeks did not have instrumentation for measuring rapid vibrations. But the frequencies are detected by the human ear, and simple proportionalities in the frequencies result in harmonies. An octave chord represents a ratio of 2:1 in frequency, while a major fifth represents a ratio of 3:2. A major fourth represents a ration of 4:3, and so on (see Poythress, Redeeming Science, chapter 20, for further discussion.

12Velocity, the more technical concept used in modern physics, basically means speed in a particular direction.

13The phenomenon has a technical name, “retrograde motion.” It is an effect of the changes in the position of the earth around the sun, relative to the position of Mars.

14For further development, see Poythress, Redeeming Science, chapter 21.

15Kline, Images of the Spirit.
This article is reproduced by the kind persmission of Vern Poythress who has asked that we let you know that the matters discussed in the article are also taken up in a fuller context in his book, Redeeming Science, which is for sale from Crossway Books, and a copy of which is posted online at

Picture of Vern Poythress

Vern Poythress

Vern S. Poythress is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, in PA, USA. He is also Editor of The Westminster Theological Journal.
Picture of Vern Poythress

Vern Poythress

Vern S. Poythress is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, in PA, USA. He is also Editor of The Westminster Theological Journal.