Murphy’s The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross (Review Article)

By James Gruetzner

George L. Murphy is at home in two worlds: the world of science (Ph.D. in theoretical physics, Johns Hopkins, 1972) and the world of Lutheran theology (M.Div., Wartburg, 1983). As a physicist, he is authoritative; as a Lutheran theologian he is informed.

It is more than merely having “one foot in each world.” Following Martin Luther, he perceives the cross—Christ Jesus’ suffering and death for all mankind—to best reveal the essence of God. “God is willing to be condemned in the name of the law, to be rejected and abandoned by humanity, to be abandoned somehow even by God (Mark 15:34)” [p. 4]. A theology1 which fails to see God on the cross cannot be a true theology of God. As a result, true theological reflection on the sciences (and other topics) must also reflect the nature of God shown on the cross. This is Murphy’s quest.

Murphy started out as a scientist, and the analytical approach is evident in his writing, as is his place in the “high church” Western tradition. Scientific analysis breaks a topic into parts, evaluates them and then forms a model based upon the evaluation. A typical example of this approach is the second chapter. It begins with a review of four possible relationships which may exist between Natural Theology (what, if anything, may be known about God from the natural world) and Christian Theology (knowledge of God as revealed in Christ Jesus). These four are:

the Classic view: nature teaches that Man can know that God exists as omnipotent creator;

the Enlightenment view: a natural knowledge of God is not only sufficient but the maximum knowledge Man can have about God;

the Barthian view: there is no natural knowledge of God, only revelation; and

the dependent view: natural theology is a “part of a distinctly Christian theology” and “depend[s] upon revelation for its validity, though it might be able to give further insight into the significance of the revealed knowledge of God” [p. 13].

Murphy finds the dependent view to be the strongest and proceeds using Christ crucified as the touchstone of the Biblical witness to Natural Theology.

The ensuing chapters continue in this mode, remaining centered on the cross. “The Gospels do not end with the death of Jesus but with his resurrection. This does not make the cross simply an event of the past that can now be forgotten.… The cross and the resurrection must be seen together” [pp. 28–29]. The meaning of the cross is illuminated with scripture and history but most of all with Martin Luther’s emphasis on the cross as the cornerstone for understanding Christian doctrine. Using Luther’s theses from the Heidelberg Disputation as a take-off point, he distinguishes the theology of the cross from all false theologies of glory. Murphy’s main critique with many discussions of science and theology is that even Christian theology is often a theology of glory with no recognition—much less need—of the cross. The dialogue is therefore flawed from the start. A theology of the cross is necessary to understand God. Theologians in dialog with science must participate as “theologians of the cross” [p. 38]—theologians of a God who became man and was nailed to the cross and died.

The fourth chapter provides “The Scientific Picture of the World” and quickly brings readers up to speed on the main scientific understandings of physics, biology, geology and ecology. This provides a common background for the remainder of the book, especially the ensuing four chapters.

These chapters are the core of the book. Aptly titled “What Can We Know about the World?” the fifth chapter finds that a theology of the cross implies “that God’s activity is hidden” [p. 61]. That does not mean that theology can make no contribution to science: “Science can, without reference to God, discover the patterns of natural phenomena, but it cannot explain why some patterns rather than others are found. It cannot answer the fundamental question of why anything exists at all, nor can it tell us the ultimate meaning or purpose of life” [p. 62]. A countering danger must also be avoided: science and philosophy should not control Christian thought and “by imposing their presuppositions distort the basic themes of Christian thought” [p. 62].

Chapter six examines “God’s Action in the World.” Following Martin Luther, Murphy sees God’s creative actions as both the origination and the preservation of the universe. The cross indicates the personality of God—He purposefully limits Himself. Therefore, in His preservation of the universe, He similarly limits Himself. God does not exercise arbitrary control but has instead set things up so that rational laws of nature can be discovered by mankind. A theology of glory would expect God to rule creation arbitrarily with no discernible pattern. A theology of the cross is not surprised to find that God has created a universe with a discoverable internal consistency.

Chapters seven (“The Origin of the Universe”) and eight (“Evolution as Creation”) examine two topics which are “hot buttons” to many Christians and non-Christians. Often the atheist and the fundamentalist both base their arguments on a God of glory, and not the God of the cross. But the God of the Bible is the God of the cross. Murphy examines many subtopics; the following selections are merely indicative.

* Murphy notes that just as God uses means to work conversion—people preaching the word and administering the sacraments—so He also works through means to bring creation to its present state. This means, in part, that “we do not expect to observe astronomical phenomena that science cannot explain” [p.102].2

* The concept is extended to biology. The Bible says that the earth “puts forth” vegetation and the waters “bring forth” animals (Gen. 1): the scriptures are consistent in showing that God uses means in physical as well as spiritual creation. This is not something new in Christian thought, as citations of Ephrem of Edessa and Gregory of Nyssa show.

* The theology of the cross does not rule out “Intelligent Design” theories, but it does indicate that each discovered instance of Intelligent Design would be an unexpected exception to God’s normal use of means to do His will.

* “In the Bible, the casting of lots to make decisions (e.g., Acts 1:21-26) and the use of Urim and Thummim (e.g., 1 Sam. 14:41) show that God’s will was supposed to be made known through chance phenomena. … [D]ivine action is voluntarily limited for the sake of creation” [pp.119–20]. This is echoed in areas as separate as quantum mechanics and DNA mutations, which also have a chance (statistical) nature.

In these and many other topics, Murphy uses God’s revelation in the cross to critique the scientific examination of creation.

Murphy next devotes three chapters to a wide range of topics in “Technology and Ethics,” “Medicine and Bioethics” and “The Natural Environment.” The God of the cross as revealed in scripture helps us in our approach to many different fields. While worth discussion, the shotgun pattern of such disparate topics as waste disposal and “Dog Heaven” give the impression that these are filler pieced together from separate essays rather than highly relevant to the book’s topic. Even so, they provide an appreciated service in bringing such topics into discussion, highlighting the grey areas between the extremes which many seek or promote. Again, a representative selection follows.

* In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is called “the carpenter” by the people (Mark 6:3). “The Greek ho tekton can mean a worker in wood, metal or stone,” someone who uses tools to fabricate things and change the environment. “Work in which knowledge is applied in order to effect change in the world is part of the human vocation to care for creation in Genesis and is given God’s blessing in the incarnation” [pp.134–35]. This is not without restriction, but it is consistent with God turning over responsibility for His creation to mankind in His creation.

* The topic of abortion receives its due. “[I]f God identifies the divine life with the unborn, we have no business treating fetal life as something that can simply be disposed of if it is inconvenient for us” [p.154].

* Man’s dominion over nature is to rule “in the way that God rules.” “The way in which Scripture speaks of God’s care for creatures is significant. It should not be sentimentalized: God provides both for the wild asses and the young lions (Ps 104:10–11, 21) and sometimes the provision for the young lions is a wild ass” [p.167]. This extends to care for the environment but with a proper scientific skepticism; e.g., anthropogenic global warning hypotheses warrant a hearing but in a context which recognizes both the tentative nature of the hypotheses and the harmful effects of some proposed solutions. A theology of the cross helps avoid both the errors of the pagan Gaea and the Gnostic Logos.

The twelfth chapter leaves these behind and delves into metaphysics: “The Goal of Creation.” Again, a selection:

* Anthropic principles are postulated by philosophers of science to indicate ways in which the physical world appears to be specifically designed for intelligent life. Murphy suggests the possibility of a theanthropic principle: that the God-Man Jesus Christ is the purpose of the universe (Eph. 1:8b–10). Murphy recognizes that this is metaphysics and not science: “This is not proposed as a scientific principle, for its basis is … God’s self-revelation” [p.183].

* A number of speculations from science metaphysics are examined as possible analogies with resurrection. These are not so much examples as analogies which help explain the mystery of the resurrection—both Christ’s and ours—to human beings. Some of these are quite fanciful, but all are interesting.

Murphy closes with a chapter on how the universe worships God. Only “high-church” worship is discussed; the worship of other Christian traditions is not mentioned. Murphy sees worship rites as extremely important: “Lex adorandi, lex credendi: we believe according as we worship.”3 Within his tradition “[h]ymns, prayers, and other liturgical elements can be developed in ways that bring out the relevance of the Christian message for a scientific age while maintaining continuity with the traditions of the church” [p.198].

Overall this book receives very high marks. The first eight chapters are especially worthwhile. These have the dual advantage of being in areas of Murphy’s definite expertise and where the ground rules and discussion points in the science/Christianity dialogue are already fairly well established. I found it striking that, unlike the Reformed writer Howard van Till, who asks, “What is the character of the creation in which God acts?”4 Murphy begins by asking, “What is the character of the God Who acts?” Both reach similar conclusions about the universe, but the latter’s approach is a more theologically sound approach. Murphy provides a definite service to the church.

The final five chapters are weaker, although still with lots of good material. In part the weaknesses may be due to some shifts in meaning. At times the definition of “theology of the cross” shifts from a discussion of God’s hidden work in creation to God’s identity with (parts of) creation. The touchstone becomes not so much the cross as the incarnation. Whether or not this perspective is worth considering is moot: Murphy does not lay the groundwork for it, and the reader is left hanging.

Another weakness is that Murphy neglects insights from Luther on Two Kingdoms—insights which should be second nature to a Lutheran theologian. The church is often seen from a Roman Catholic (or at least Western rite high church) perspective—although at times a Radical Reformation view is substituted—but when “the church” appears, it seems to be thought of as a single undefined and somewhat monolithic “community” that is politically active in the world.5 His book would be improved by bringing this insight into the discussion.

One two-page section is quite problematic, involving a strange speculation of mankind evolving “into a single super-personal life” (p. 185) á là Teilhard de Chardin and Julian Huxley.6 It is unclear if Murphy is advocating this idea or just mentioning it, but the speculation is a mystical New Age theology with a Christian vocabulary—itself a theology of glory—which replaces the cross as being that which reveals the essence of God.7 It is difficult to see how a Christianity centered on the cross and resurrection can be compatible with this non-Christian theology. The book would have been stronger had this section either been omitted or better explained.

Stylistically, the book is quite well written. The numerically challenged will greatly appreciate the lack of mathematic formulas. Murphy is also very good at avoiding jargon. When jargon is unavoidable, he usually introduces terms gradually so that the reader is comfortable with the new vocabulary. For that reason, the few places he slips up (e.g., “prolepsis of the eschaton,” p.190) are very noticeable. A bit tighter editing here would have been helpful. The use of politically correct language extends at times to the point of awkwardness; circumlocutions to avoid personal pronouns for God lend a false impression that God (aside from Christ) is more of a force than a person. Also jarring is the inclusion of the Apocrypha as part of the Bible. It is not necessary to any of his discussion, and a clearer separation would have removed another barrier to understanding: it can be seized by those wishing to dismiss his arguments wholesale. But these latter are personal preferences and should not be allowed to detract from the overall message.

In closing, I would rate this book as highly recommended as for the congregational or Christian high school library, recommended for pastors and other church leaders and must have for Lutherans (and other Christians) with a significant interest in science and theology.

James K. Gruetzner has been a Lutheran Christian since childhood, and is on the Board of Lay Ministry in his congregation. He is a retired naval office, with a Ph.D. in physics and a B.A. in linguistics. He, his wife, and their three children live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he works at Sandia National Laboratories in the field of computational physics.


1For Murphy, “theology” is specifically Christian theology.

2That is, explain how things happened, not why.

3Citing Alan Richardson and John Bowden, ed., “Worship,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983).

4Howard van Till, “Is the Creation a ‘Right Stuff’ Universe,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 54(4), 232–39 (December 2002). See also his book, The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens Are Telling Us About Creation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1986).

5To be fair, in many places the discussion instead is on Christians (as individuals distinct from “the church”) being active in the world. This latter is more in line with the Two Kingdoms doctrine.

6Murphy cites two books by Pierre Telihard de Chardin: Christianity and Evolution, trans. Réne Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971) and Activation of Energy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970). Huxley’s similar concepts are not mentioned.

7This is one place where the shift in meaning from God’s hiddenness to God’s incarnation occurs.

Facebook Twitter Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *