Faith and Fossils

The Bible, Creation, and Evolution

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Lester L. Grabbe
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , May
     2018.
     176 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802869104.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

According to author Lester L. Grabbe, many books have been written on the Bible and evolution by scientists, but few have been penned by biblical specialists. In Faith & Fossils: The Bible, Creation & Evolution, Grabbe attempts to fill this supposed lacuna.

Grabbe begins by providing some brief biographical anecdotes in which he traces his history from the “Bible-believing fundamentalist” he was in his youth, to his acceptance of the “gap theory” of creation, and finally to his studies as a graduate student at the theologically progressive Claremont School of Theology in California where, Grabbe would conclude, his knowledge of the various civilizations in the Ancient Near East and the ability to read the Bible in the original languages changed his perspective (7). The next few chapters address certain “tensions” between his newfound knowledge and “several cherished beliefs” of his upbringing. 

Grabbe starts by comparing the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis to other Ancient Near East traditions. He argues that the creation account in Genesis is not logical and scientific. Rather, it is “evocative and meaningful, almost poetic” (9) and that, despite its singular beauty, Genesis does not “describe reality” (12). Grabbe insists that nothing in the Genesis creation narrative suggests any advanced knowledge of the natural world, and yet claims that Genesis provides evidence for the “Hebrew encounter with God that occurs within that thought world,” which appears contradictory (13). Grabbe also argues that Genesis is stolen fiction. He compares the Babylonian creation epic of Enuma Elish to the Hebrew account and concludes that it greatly influenced the text of Genesis. Indeed, he claims there is an “astonishing parallel” (15). 

Next, Grabbe turns from the creation narrative to comparing flood stories. Once again, he finds parallels between Mesopotamian accounts and the Noahic flood narrative. He considers the flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh (26), the Babylonian priest Berossus (28), Sumerian flood stories (29), the Akkadian Atrahasis (31), and concludes that “Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures profoundly influenced various authors of the Bible” (34). 

Grabbe then anachronistically questions the scientific merits of Hebrew cosmology by comparing it to the work of Greek philosophers such as Thales and Aristotle—which he claims were our “earliest genuine scientists”–and asserts that ancient Hebrew cosmology “does not square with modern scientific knowledge” (38). Well, of course not. But neither does the work of Thales and Aristotle for that matter. Grabbe concludes that most biblical scholars accept that the creation narrative in Genesis is derivative, that it has taken over “a Mesopotamian story but has rewritten and adapted it to fit a Jewish theological framework” (43). Unfortunately, he offers no references to those biblical scholars who would support his claim.

Grabbe gradually shifts his focus away from biblical scholarship to science, and thus contradicts his stated intentions. He argues that the phrase “kind” found in Genesis is too vague and indeterminate to serve as a scientific category, thereby discounting “barminology”—a creationist theory that maintains that animals exist according to “kinds” that cannot crossbreed or evolve. He then turns to developments in genetics to support, once again, his anachronistic contention that the writers of Genesis, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were ignorant of “contemporary genetic science” (52).

Yet, according to Grabbe, such scientific revelations should not deter one from believing in God. Rather, he suggests, it is possible that God created such laws of nature and “allowed living things to unfold by the inherent potential of the DNA” (54). But this view is no different than those promoted by 17th and 18th century deists; nor is it any different from 19th century scientific naturalists and agnostics Thomas H. Huxley, John Tyndall, and Hebert Spencer, who made similar claims against their religious opponents in an attempt to muster scientific respectability in the Victorian era. 

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Grabbe supports NOMA, the late Stephen J. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” scheme for reconciling the relationship between science and religion. Grabbe lists several other authorities in support of his view that even “nonbelieving” scientists and philosophers deny there is a conflict between religion and science (74-79). But of course, if one demands that science and religion remain in their respective domains—that is, as long as they have absolutely nothing to say to each other—then clearly there can be no conflict. But separation is neither harmony nor dialogue, which most thoughtful evangelicals want to see. Perhaps sensing the tension here, Grabbe follows with a discussion of what “believing” scientists and philosophers have concluded. He offers another list of writers who all claim there is no conflict between evolution and Christianity (80-93) and then, quite remarkably, concludes by praising those scientists and theologians who have found ways to “accommodate religion to science.” 

The last few chapters of Grabbe’s book are the most disappointing. In his attempt to survey the “deep ancestry” of human history, Grabbe’s narrative becomes muddled and confused. To this point he has barely sketched out the biblical scholarship; now he spends a mere 13 pages surveying the complicated field of paleoanthropology and principle findings of evolutionary scientists. Nowhere in these final chapters does Grabbe indicate the degree to which the field of evolutionary science is contested. Indeed, as historian of science Peter Harrison puts it, science is not “consistently truth-tracking.” Rather, experts in their respective scientific fields consistently disagree with one another. Historically speaking, scientific claims made at one time have often conflicted with those made at another. What Grabbe has failed to do, in short, is scrutinize every element of scientific theory, its variant forms and their implications, and consider whether all or some or none are compatible with orthodox Christian belief.

Thoughtful evangelical readers will no doubt find most troubling Grabbe’s rejection of the historical Adam and Eve and the doctrine of the Fall. But as Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith recently put it, theology is not a Jenga game, a mere “assemblage of propositional claims of which we try to see which can be removed without affecting the tower.” These doctrines are deeply woven into the very fabric of the Christian narrative. Rather than bringing together a range of theological, biblical, philosophical, and scientific perspectives, Grabbe has simply allowed new findings in the natural sciences to topple fundamental Christian beliefs. He has assumed, in other words, that science is a neutral “describer” of the “way things are.” Grabbe’s proposal therefore lacks the kind of “theological imagination” necessary for the debate.

Indeed, in his closing remarks, Grabbe argues that “our theology must grow and develop in the light of this [i.e., natural and historical] new knowledge,” that “theological understanding cannot remain static,” and that “theological and biblical interpretation must change to accommodate new knowledge of the world” (144-45). 

Grabbe claims that his book will demonstrate there is no conflict between “faith and fossils,” or science and religion. In my opinion, however, his argument suggests quite the opposite: that science and religion are separate things that should not interfere with one another, and that, in the final analysis, religion must conform to the facts of science.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Date of Review: 
January 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lester L. Grabbe is Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at the University of Hull. His other books include Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (second edition).

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