Academics are fond of saying they stand on the shoulders of giants, meaning they build on the work of those who preceded them.
On February 18, 2022, my beloved mentor Dr. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen joined the Church Triumphant. With Christ as our cornerstone, Science for the Church is also perched on the shoulders of giants like Wentzel.
I attended Princeton Theological Seminary for two reasons: the generous financial aid package and the opportunity to study under the McCord Professor of Theology and Science. I loved science, especially physics, and sought a theological education to help me make sense of my adolescent faith.
In my second year at Princeton—after I had completed an introductory sequence on theology—I was finally able to take an elective class on faith and physics. I got to know Wentzel in the basement of Stuart Hall and my call narrative was forever changed.
By graduation, I had taken every course Wentzel taught, produced a senior thesis with him, and even taught some science in that same faith and physics course which I sat in on a second time.
I will always remember the joy in his expression when he informed me that he had been invited to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was validation of what his students knew—that his stature as a scholar was of the highest order in his field. Among his colleagues and Ph.D. students, there are dozens more qualified than I to elucidate his scholarship.
Here I want to offer a few anecdotes that shed light on Wentzel, how he formed me, and how he is in the DNA of Science for the Church.
Relationships Before All Else
He used up a quarter of one class period telling the story of a prominent physicist—one of many scientists he befriended—who had asked him to provide a blurb for a new book. Wentzel recounted their encounters at various conferences and workshops. He graciously detailed this physicist’s accomplishments and the ambitious book he would soon publish with Doubleday Books. He concluded with a pained expression that he could not endorse the book because, theologically, its central argument was flawed.
Wentzel was fluent in Bible, theology, and philosophy as well as several areas of science; it was not difficult for him to find faults in what, to us, seemed like a compelling argument. But he was also able to separate arguments from the people who make them (many of whom he called friends). He genuinely appreciated this physicist and struggled to disentangle a regard for the man from a dispute with his ideas.
The final monograph of Wentzel’s career dealt with human uniqueness and the imago Dei. Long before he began to draft it, he had modeled the way our value as image-bearers (even among scholars) eclipses the rigor of our ideas.
Reading Both of God’s Books
I loved the science texts assigned in Wentzel’s syllabi. We read Hawking and Darwin, Davies and Tattersall. Not only did he introduce me to the idea that God is revealed in two volumes—the book of Scripture and the Book of Nature—but he also made sure we read key texts from both.
Wentzel even went to bat for me repeatedly with the seminary registrar. I was increasingly pulled to the intersection of physics and theology and wanted to learn from the world-class philosophy of physics resources at Princeton University. The registrar ultimately won and not a single audited course made it to my transcript, but Wentzel’s effort impressed upon me of the value of learning from the Book of Nature in our efforts to make sense of our Christian faith.
- The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa remembers Wentzel. (This resource requires translation from Afrikaans.)
- His primary scholarly contributions are The Shaping of Rationality and Alone in the World?
- Some scholars are honored with a Festschrift (a volume of essays engaging that scholars contributions). Wentzel was celebrated with two.
- Learn more about Wentzel’s contributions to understanding science and theology and the ways they intersect around human uniqueness. This video is a good place to start.
- In the second of our Standard Model video conversations, lead pastor of One Family Church Brent Roam explains the importance of understanding God as author of the two books.
- Like Wentzel, we stand on the shoulders of John Polkinghorne who entered the Church Triumphant last year.
Encoded in Our Genes
As I neared graduation, I was undecided about pursuing pastoral ministry, academic theology, or something in between to bring science to the church. Wentzel stepped in. He knew my passion for science and the church and connected me to Paul Wason at the John Templeton Foundation (who became another beloved mentor). This introduction set me on a course that nearly 20 years later led to Science for the Church.
Wentzel will always be known first and foremost for his scholarship, especially his efforts to articulate the rationality of theology and science in a post-modern age and then to apply that “postfoundational rationality” to the topic of human uniqueness. He often spoke of a “problematical” intersection of religion and science. His solution was to get beyond generic ideas about “religion and science” to attend to instances where specific areas of science intersected with specific areas of theology. This, he believed, would help to reveal not just points of tension but also points of convergence.
Yet, the most important lesson he taught his students was the importance of how we treat the persons whose ideas we are engaging and how our specific theologies are better done in conversation with the specific sciences and technologies that saturate contemporary culture.
Wentzel is forever in the DNA of Science for the Church. We give primacy to relationships, especially with those who are called to read the Book of Nature. We seek to befriend people and welcome their ideas, which is why our work begins by gathering two or three to ensure that Christ is among us in our pursuit of ideas (or what Wentzel would call “critical reasoning strategies”).
I had hoped to visit Wentzel in South Africa this summer, where he and his wife had retired. I had hoped, face-to-face, to again say thank you. Instead, our reunion will have to wait.
Please join me in praying for his wife, children, grandchildren (he was a very proud oupa), and many others who mourn his passing. For those so inclined, an apropos salute might include a dram of single malt or a three-olive gin martini.
Our standing on the shoulders of our mentors is one way the saints of the church keep advancing the gospel. They get into our DNA and nudge us towards God’s kingdom. For me, thanks to Wentzel, that means we will always place a premium on relationships, especially between church leaders and scientists, and, in doing so, pursue a stronger church through the faithful reading of both of God’s books.