“O come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orders all things mightily…” This line is from the second verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” What most people don’t know is that it is a quote from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom, which reads, “Indeed, she [God’s Wisdom] reaches from end to end mightily and governs all things well” (Wisdom 8:1). What even fewer people know is that this verse and a few other passages from the Old Testament Deuterocanon supplied several necessary components for the birth of modern science.
Before science could get off the ground as a self-sustaining enterprise, it needed to be grounded in a correct understanding of reality. This grounding occurred between 250 B.C. and 50 B.C., when the Greeks were forcing the Jews to accept various elements of Greek culture. This clash of civilizations resulted in both an armed uprising (chronicled in 1st and 2nd Maccabees) and theological exposition (especially in the Book of Wisdom). It is against this Hellenizing backdrop that these inspired authors reasserted Jewish theology in light of the onslaught of Greek ideas. The result was a correct understanding of reality that later became the fertile soil in which science could grow.
One important correction was made in the area of understanding time. The Greeks, and many other ancient cultures, believed time was an eternally repeating cycle. What we do today will be done again eons from now, and so on. The mother of the Maccabean martyrs corrects this mistaken notion when she said, “I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things…” (2 Maccabees 7:28). If God created everything from nothing, then it has a beginning that cannot be repeated.
The Book of Wisdom supplies a second and more important idea. Centuries earlier, Greek philosophers had noticed a rather strange correlation between notions that can be “seen” with our minds that do not exist in nature (i.e., numbers, proportions, etc.) and nature itself. These notions (or abstractions) had an uncanny application to things around us. So uncanny, in fact, that the Greek philosopher Pythagoras and others believed that numbers were the most basic or fundamental element of all things. Nature can be known and understood (at least to some degree) through reason.
The book of Wisdom confirms this relationship and goes one step further when it says, “…But you [God] have disposed all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20). The reason why these abstracts can be applied to nature is because the Creator has disposed all things to reflect His wisdom. God’s Wisdom orders and governs all things mightily (Wisdom 8:1).
But if the Greeks were the first to make this connection, how can the Deuterocanon be said to have provided the foundation for science as a self-sustaining enterprise? The reason is because the Book of Wisdom supplied two things that philosophy could not: First, the philosophy of Pythagoras was just that, a philosophy. People were free to accept it or reject it for some other human philosophy, and many did. The Book of Wisdom is different. It is the inspired word of God. Therefore, whatever it says must be so. Nature doesn’t just seem to be able to be understood by numbers and proportions; it must be able to be understood because God has made it so. The Deuterocanon, in other words, supplies an imperative that human philosophy or speculation could not. Second, the Deuterocanon supplies the motivation to do science in the first place. The wise God created and disposed all things to reflect His wisdom. Since Christ is the “Power and Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24) who orders all things mightily (Wisdom 8:1), investigating nature is just another way of seeing and adoring God’s Wisdom as exhibited and reflected in nature.
It was no accident that Wisdom 11:20 was the most quoted Scripture by natural scientists throughout the Middle Ages. It was their marching orders. Remember this the next time you sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.