Beauty and Purpose in Separation

Dr. Looyenga teaches in the Science Department at Calvin College and is a member of Faith Protestant Reformed Church, Jenison, Michigan.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.

The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. Psalm 19:1-2, 9

Among the many passages of Scripture that speak to the topic of revelation, Psalm 19 is perhaps the most explicit in its demonstration of how we are to know God. Situated side-by-side in this text are obvious references to the twofold revelation we receive in the creation and in God’s inspired Word. As faithful summaries of Scripture, the confessions of the Reformed faith are similarly rich in reference to how the believer may know God. The Belgic Confession (Art. 2) very nearly begins with this question, to which it provides the simple answer: by creation, and by “His holy and divine Word.” Though perhaps less direct in its treatment, the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 47, Q&A 122) also points to the importance of God’s works as a means of knowing His attributes by relating the concept of knowing God to the first petition of the Lord’s prayer. In short, we can learn to know—and thus better love—our heavenly Father not only from His Word, but also from His works in creation.

In thinking about the scriptural and confessional evidence that the creation reveals important knowledge about the Creator, the question should be asked: “How does the natural world reveal God?” The traditional answer to this question is that the creation reveals specific attributes of our Creator, including His power, sovereign authority, majesty, and infinite creativity (Gen. 1-2; Rom. 1:20). Though the Intelligent Design movement is neither inherently Christian nor interested in revealing the sovereign Jehovah of Scripture, we can appreciate its central tenant, that the natural world displays order and design, rather than randomness. This principle, which can be derived by simple observation of the physical laws that govern the creation, is a clear demonstration of God’s love for law and order. This same attribute underlies the moral law and providential institution of government in the church and society (Is. 33:22; I Cor. 14:33; Rom. 13:1-7; I Pet. 2:13-14). All of these aspects of the creation and its various institutions reveal truths concerning God’s being.

But I think we can say more on this issue of how the creation serves as revelation. It is to this point that I would especially draw the reader’s attention, since it is perhaps a less-appreciated concept than the traditional understanding briefly explained above. Note that the patterns we see in the natural world can be observed by humans regardless of their religious beliefs. A true faith in God is not required to derive Einstein’s laws of relativity, nor does one have to believe in God to see and understand the patterns of order that are visible at every level—from cells to galaxies—in the creation.1 While the reprobate mind may reject the implications of these patterns, the inspired apostle Paul leaves no doubt that every human being can see them (Rom. 1:18-23). Since both believers and unbelievers alike can discern the truths that God sets forth in the creation, this is sometimes called “general revelation.”

In another sense, however, the term “general revelation” fails to capture the importance that true faith plays in the revelatory power of creation. To fully grasp the beauty, elegance and, most importantly, purpose of the creation, the observer must be viewing the creation through eyes of faith. Scientific facts may be accessible to the agnostic; but truth is never attainable independent of faith.2 In this context, we find another way in which the creation reveals truths about God and His Word. When seen though the informed eyes of faith, patterns in the physical creation often appear as metaphors for the spiritual truths of Scripture. In this sense, the revelation of creation is clearly not “general.” A belief in and desire to search out the parallels of the natural world with God’s inspired Word are both necessary.

This desire to know God better through His creation comes in many forms, and is not strictly limited to the disciplines of science. The arts, humanities, math, and sciences are all legitimate ways to view God’s creative work, in as much as they involve both the aesthetic and functional qualities of the natural world (I Cor. 12:6). Though qualitatively different, each of these disciplines allows the redeemed believer to seek out the vastness of God’s wisdom in his or her field of study, and to contemplate how the marvels of the creation reflect the truths revealed in Scripture. This is the true blessing of learning and education—growing in our appreciation for the Creator!

An important implication of this point is that individual Christians ought to cultivate and use their intellectual gifts for the purpose of searching out God’s ways in His creation. Cultivation of our gifts often—though not always—involves some form of higher education, from which we gain a fuller understanding of the discipline to which God has called us. This process of learning has value for the entire body of Christ, which is clearly expressed by Paul Griffiths in his essay “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning”:

That is why the church is interested in learning. It is not that every Christian, every member of Christ’s body should seek [higher] learning; neither is it that seeking [higher] learning is the church’s principal task (that is worship of the one who makes learning possible); but it is the case that in becoming learned, the Lord’s gesture of love in bringing what is knowable and thinkable into existence is returned in an intimate way.3

Simply put, we can corporately grow in our love and honor of God by knowing His work, and “thinking His thoughts after Him,” as the great German-Calvinist astronomer Johannes Kepler was fond of saying.4 We must do this with a mind of humility, however, realizing that God’s thoughts are far above ours (Is. 55:8, 9), and that the patterns of creation we see through our sinful eyes only faintly illustrate to us the greatness of our God.

With this caveat in mind, we need to exercise considerable care in drawing from the creation truths that are actually revelatory of the person of God. Whether the parallels between physical and spiritual truths that we may notice are the actual intent of God in His creative act is hard to discern without clear reference in Scripture. That all creation sings God’s praises in a general sense is clear from the Psalms and other texts. But whether the various intricacies of creation were intended to reveal other spiritual truths—without the clear indication of Scripture—remains speculative at best. As such, it may be better to represent the parallels between scientific observations and spiritual truths as metaphors rather than direct revelation from God.

To better illustrate the concept of drawing spiritual metaphors from the physical creation, I turn to my own discipline of science—biochemistry. Like the other disciplines of chemistry, the field of biochemistry is primarily interested in structure, function, and activity of the smallest components of the creation—atoms and molecules. But as its own discipline, biochemistry focuses specifically on the subset of molecules that function within living organisms, typically at the level of the cell. We might say that biochemistry is the investigation of biology from the perspective of individual molecules that make up a cell, tissue, or living organism.

Although there is remarkable variety in the different kinds of study done under the overarching term biochemistry, there are also a number of prominent themes that recur throughout the discipline. For instance, much of biochemistry is understood in the context of enzymes, which are the molecules that carry out chemical reactions in a cell. From a molecular perspective, enzymes are proteins, which makes them just one part of the complex mixture of molecules that make up a cell. In order to investigate their activity and purpose in a cell, they need to be separated from the other types of molecules found there—sugars, fats, and DNA—as well as from each other.

Many of the experimental methods associated with the practice of biochemistry research are aimed at separation of the complex mixture of molecules found in living organisms based upon their unique chemical and physical properties. The importance of these separation methods is especially obvious when we consider the importance of purity to researchers who work with proteins. High levels of purity are an absolute requirement for investigation of the structure and function of proteins, which are among the most unique molecules in all of creation. Like snowflakes and ice crystals, individual types of proteins have their own orderly shape, which is absolutely critical to their function.5 Very small changes in the shape of proteins can lead to dysfunction in their ability to carry out their role in the cell. For instance, a miniscule chemical alteration to the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin causes it to change shape and lose its capacity to carry oxygen effectively, leading to a disease called sickle-cell anemia.

It is quite likely that many readers are already seeing a theological metaphor in this scientific discussion. Recall that the individual function and beauty of a given protein is revealed by its separation from the complex mixture that makes up a living cell or organism. In the absence of separation and purity, there is nothing to distinguish what is unique about a given protein. The same thing can be said for believers, who are also members of the entire human race. From a purely physical point of view, there is nothing that separates believers from the rest of the human race. They are male and female; rich and poor; old and young; gathered from every possible racial and ethnic group of humanity. And yet from a spiritual point of view, elect believers are different, unique from the rest of humanity.

What makes believers different is that they are literally “set apart,” which is one way to explain the meaning of the word holy. Holiness is the primary feature that separates the people of God from the rest of humanity. God establishes the reason for His peoples’ separation several times in the book of Exodus, which is quoted by the apostle Peter: “Be ye holy; for I am holy.” That is, the children of God must look different from the world because they are supposed to look like their Father, who is the Holy One (Is. 6:3). Or as Kevin DeYoung puts it, “the best-looking Christian is the one growing by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ.”6

The separation that is the holiness of a believer has two distinct effects on his or her life. First of all, it is painful because the rest of the world is not interested in separation from the pleasures of sin. As DeYoung notes, “the world stands for everything that opposes the will of God…[it] provides no cheerleaders on the pathway to godliness.”7 In all reality, it should come as no surprise that the world opposes those who stand apart with God in holiness; Christ told us to expect it (John 15:18-20)! But at the same time, separation from the world also means separation unto a new life with and in Christ. There is purpose in that separation because it brings us into closer communion with our Lord. That is the second, far more blessed effect of separation!

The ultimate value of separation for the believer is very much like the value of separation in biochemistry. Why separate? Why purify from the rest? Because it is the way to see the beauty and function of biological molecules, or in spiritual terms, the beauty and function of believers. Separation from the world reveals who believers are (or more properly, whose they are) and for what purpose they exist. That this is true is clear from the entire witness of Scripture in both testaments, but especially so in the following two texts.

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people,8 zealous of good works (Tit. 2:11-14).

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people;9 that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (I Pet. 2:9, 10).

Both of these passages combine the idea of being “peculiar” with the concept of holiness. Believers are beautiful—peculiarly so—because they are chosen and purified by the blood of Christ, and in Christ they become holy in their walk. This holiness has purpose that is the true function of all believers, which is to “show forth the praises of God” through being “zealous of good works.”

In the Reformed tradition, we use the term antithesis to describe separation of believers from the world. Emphasis on this doctrine is an altogether appropriate practice, so long as we never forget that the separation implied in this term isn’t just about church membership, ethnic heritage or distinct family names. First and foremost, this doctrine is about holiness. Chosen, elect, foreordained—all are inspired words to describe believers in contrast to the rest of humanity. But so also are the prepositions “to,” “unto,” “that,” and “for,” which very often follow these adjectives in Scripture (I Pet. 1:2; Col. 3:12; John 15:16; Eph. 1:4). Separation has purpose. And like all of creation, that purpose is revelation and glorification of the one true God for and unto whom we have been separated.


1 By “true faith,” I refer to the formal definitions given in the Heidelberg Catechism (including Lord’s Day 7, Q&A 21) and in the Belgic Confession (Art. 24), which encompass the entirety of the Christian faith and not a generic belief in the “divine” presence of an unspecified god.

2 The concept of truth is central to the gospel of John. The inspired apostle uses this word to demonstrate that God in Christ is the source of truth (John 14:6), and that truth is made accessible only to believers through the words of Christ (John 8:31-32) and the work of the Spirit (John 16:13). Other passages in Scripture also demonstrate that truth is specifically given through the Word of God in the context of the church institute (I Tim. 3:15).

3 David Smith & James Smith, ed., Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 107.

4 http://www.icr.org/article/science-man-god-johann-kepler.

5 For those interested in reading further or seeing images of protein structures, a multitude of resources on the remarkable beauty and diversity of proteins can be accessed online. Two reasonably non-technical resources to start with can be found at the sites linked below: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_structure; https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/factsheet_structuralbiology

6 Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 145.

7 DeYoung, 37-38.

8 James Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance with Greek and Hebrew Lexicon, online ed. (Crusade Bible Publishers, 1980). The word translated “peculiar” in Titus 2:14 (periousios) meaning “being beyond usual” expresses the idea of something of being unusually precious. It is a similar idea to the Hebrew word (cegullah) that is commonly translated “peculiar treasure” in the Old Testament (Ex. 19:5; Ps. 135:4). Notably, this same Hebrew word is also translated “peculiar people” elsewhere in the Old Testament (Deut. 14:2; 26:18), indicating the concept of a specific group of people being of great value to God.

9 The words translated “peculiar people” I Peter 2:9 (eis peripoiēsis) are distinct from those used in Timothy, instead referring to the concept of a group of people “worth possessing.” In the text, Peter provides a Greek translation of Isaiah 43:20-21, which emphasizes that the value of believers is that they are chosen to be possessed by God.