Journal of Creation Theology and Science, Series C: Earth Sciences
Medieval theologians spoke of the potentia Dei ordinata (the power of God expressed in the orderly working of nature) and the potentia Dei absoluta (the absolute power of God to intervene miraculously) (Kaiser 1997). Scientific creationists accept this understanding – we believe that God has ordained natural laws that result in a comprehensible natural world. But we recognize God is not bound by natural laws but can act miraculously, as when He spoke the world into existence. This understanding was also foundational not just for the development of science itself. It first appeared outside of the Bible in the Hexameron, a series of lectures on the six days of creation by Basil of Caesarea. Unlike most church fathers, Basil focused on what God communicated through creation itself (Bouteneff 2008). He read Genesis literally and argued for the study of nature to see God’s glory. Basil taught that the Lord had created natural laws to govern the normal operation of nature so we could see his greatness in it (Kaiser 1997). This is possibly the first extra-biblical articulation of the potentia Dei ordinata.
This concept was fundamental in the establishment of the sciences, including chemistry. Chemistry has its roots in alchemy, which rested on the assumption matter was composed of Aristotle’s four elements (fire, earth, air, and water) and supernatural intervention was necessary to alter those elements for transmutation. A key figure in beginning to emphasize the potentia Dei ordinata instead was the Christian physician and alchemist Paracelsus. Paracelsus rejected the four elements of Aristotle because he did not find any mention in Genesis of God creating fire. He suggested three principles instead: sulfur, mercury, and salt (Salzeberg 1991). Furthermore, because Jesus had said the sick needed a physician, he concluded that it was unacceptable that physicians of his day were so ineffective. The Lord surely provided the information needed to treat the sick. This set him on a series of experiments that revolutionized medicine and chemistry (Kaiser 1997). Paracelsus did not make a full break from alchemy, he still believed that every organ of the body was empowered by a different spiritual force (Salzeberg 1991) but he was clearly moving the emphasis from the potentia Dei absoluta to the potentia Dei ordinata.
Probably the best known of Paracelsus’ followers was Johan Van Helmont, famous in chemistry for discovering gases. While still believing that there was a separate spirit to every chemical compound, he further developed Paracelsus’s emphasis on invoking the potentia Dei ordinata to understand chemistry through experiments. Van Helmont rejected Aristotle’s 4 elements based on scripture (Genesis simply didn’t describe God creating the world from fire, earth, air, and water) but also rejected Paracelsus’s 3 principles based on experimental results (Salzeberg 1991). He wrote “I believe nature is the command of God, whereby a thing is that which it is, and doth that which it is commanded to do or act.” (Kaiser 1997).
The transition from alchemy to chemistry culminated in Robert Boyle. He greatly respected Van Helmont and so expected to find spiritual forces in the movement of gases. But experiments led him to conclude it was not necessary to invoke potentia Dei absoluta to explain chemical behavior. Gas molecules behaved as they did due to natural laws God had ordained to govern them. He did not see this as detracting from God’s glory but rather emphasized His role as Creator and sustainer of an orderly world (Kaiser 1997). God was capable of intervening miraculously but generally He is glorified in creation through the potentia Dei ordinata. This was the understanding of Basil and is that of creationists today. Rather than being a modern aberration, the creationist view was foundational for the development of science, as illustrated by the history of chemistry.
Hutchison, Aaron R., "The Biblical Concepts of Potentia Dei Ordinata and Potentia Dei Absoluta in the Development of Chemistry" (2019). Science and Mathematics Faculty Publications. 374.