Clinton Ohlers: Two Parables on Divine Action

Bacon’s parable on science and divine action appeared in his utopian novel, New Atlantis, written in 1623, shortly before his death and left unfinished. In it Bacon laid out in this story a vision of the work of the natural philosopher that would become emblematic of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the model of the British Royal Society founded between 1660-1662.

Bacon’s chaplain, William Rawley, whom Bacon personally selected as the executor of his literary estate, introduced the tale to the public with the following words:

“This fable my Lord devised, to the end that he might exhibit therein a model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvelous work for the benefit of men, under the name of Salomon’s House, or the College of the Six Days’ Works.”
(Brian Vickers, Francis Bacon: The Major Works, 2008, p. 785)

In 1660, the founders of the Royal Society consciously modeled their new Society after Bacon’s vision of the College of the Six Day’s Works in his New Atlantis.

In this work, Bacon also laid out his understanding of the relationship between scientific inquiry and divine action, in discerning a genuine miracle from an unusual work of nature or human artifice. His view was also the common understanding of the relationship between scientific inquiry and contemplation of divine action for the members of the Royal Society at its founding and for quite some time to come.

The Parable of New Atlantis

As the story of New Atlantis unfolds, five-months after disembarking from Peru, bound for China, a crew of European sailors finds themselves first becalmed and then driven persistently northward by a railing tempest. When the storm ends, they find themselves depleted of food and in unknown waters off the coast of an undiscovered island. It is then that the inhabitants of this island, called Bensalem, come their rescue.

Bensalem stands apart from any existing civilization by two remarkable features. First, the inhabitants were converted to Christianity within about twenty years of the ascension of Christ and had achieved an ideal Christian society, unblemished by the failings of European Christendom. Second, the most renowned individuals of Bensalem’s populace were the members of a society of natural philosophers known as the House of Salomon or the College of the Six Day’s Works.

Also unique to Bensalem’s history was its early conversion to Christianity the combination of spectacular miracle and the ability of a leading member from the House of Salomon whose knowledge as a natural philosopher, fifteen hundred years before the arrival of the European sailors, equipped him to accurately discern a miracle from natural causes.

Bacon narrates the story of the miracle that brought this event about in careful detail. At that time, a column of light appeared about a mile off the eastern coast of Bensalem. It was so extraordinary that the inhabitants launched a flotilla to investigate. Stationed in one of the lead vessels was “one of the wise men of the House of Salomon, which house or college . . . is the very eye of the kingdom.” Thoughtfully investigating, he discerned the miraculous nature of the event they were witnessing and followed with a prayer to heaven,

“Lord God of heaven and earth, thou has vouchsafed of thy grace to those of our order, to know they works of creation, and the secrets of them; and to discern . . . between divine miracles, works of nature, works of art, and impostures and illusions of all sorts. I do here acknowledge and testify before this people, that the thing we see before our eyes is thy Finger and a true Miracle⁠ . . .” (Vickers, 2008, 464)

In response to his prayer the boat is invisibly led forward. The column disperses in a burst of starlight where in its place he discovers a small floating ark containing a Bible comprised of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments and a letter.⁠ The parchment letter is a letter of introduction and evangelization from the Apostle Bartholomew. In this way, Christianity was brought to the island through the cooperation of miracles, providence, revelation, and an enhanced authority in discerning miracles that scientific inquiry provided.

What Does The Scientist Think?

Bacon wrote this about 400 years ago. @swamidass, there is a lot in Bacon’s view that is relevant to human enquiry into divine action today and controversial in terms how science as currently understood. Josh, what are your thoughts as both a scientist and a Christian?

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