Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins

Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective

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Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funck, Raymond L. Lewis, Stephen O. Moshier, John H. Walton
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , December
     2018.
     650 pages.
     $75.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780830852918.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins brings together a team of four scientists and one biblical scholar with the stated goal of demonstrating that science and Christianity are compatible. Designed as a textbook for undergraduate students, the volume offers “detailed presentations of the best contemporary scientific theories of the creation of the universe, Earth, life, diversity of life, and humankind” (2). The authors maintain that “perceived tensions between scientific and biblical accounts of origins are defused when (1) the cultural-historical contexts of biblical text are understood, (2) a comprehensive trinitarian doctrine of creation is explored and applied, and (3) the powers and limits of science and theology are properly defined and their historical engagement is discussed” (ibid.). Its fundamental assumption “is that when interpreted well, the Scriptures and the creation are not in conflict” (ibid.).

The volume is truly massive in scope, and as such will serve as a real source of education, not just for evangelical readers but for anyone interested in the most recent scientific discoveries in origins research. Like any good textbook, it begins by addressing methodological issues. Indeed, the first one hundred pages or so deal mostly with interpretation and exegesis. In summary, chapter 1 focuses on methods of biblical interpretation, emphasizing that information from outside scripture often prompts us to reevaluate “our interpretation of Scripture” (12). Chapter 2 calls for a “ministerial nature of creation”—a trinitarian view that grants “nature with the capacities to bring about creation in participation with the Son and Spirit” (27). In chapter 3 they turn to issues of epistemology, in regard to nature and revelation. Here they address the presuppositions of science and the similarities between religious and scientific faith (52). Chapter 4 concludes the methodological introduction by surveying various models for harmonizing science and theology. The authors highlight the classic “Two Books” metaphor, with the added nuance of either a “concordist” or “nonconcordist” reading (82).

The rest of the book then shifts its focus to what one would typically find in an introductory science class, with detailed discussions of cosmology, the geologic history of the earth, life on earth, and human origins. Each of these chapters is beautifully illustrated with numerous graphs, charts, and pictures. These chapters also weave theological assessment of the scientific data, helping students navigate such thorny questions as “where is God?” in the evolutionary process. There is also a helpful glossary of approximately 250 terms, a subject index, and a scriptural index. What I personally found helpful is the concluding postscript, which offers students an approach to “creation care” that seeks to avoid “starting the conservation off on a topic of fear or controversy” (627).

Occasionally, however, the authors do make some questionable claims that will, no doubt, startle their evangelical audience, and leave other careful readers puzzled. At the very outset, the authors affirm the authority of the Bible: “We believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God for faith and practice as believers” (1). Yet they go on to criticize what they call a “Bible- first” approach to the relation between science and religion. “In a Bible-first approach” they write, “Scripture is privileged over scientific inquiry, so scientific views must be derived from biblical texts to be relevant” (86). No references are supplied to back up this assertion, and it requires much qualification.

Also problematic is how the authors envision the “Two Books” approach. Science and theology “can learn about and from each other, contributing to each other’s growth” (91). Different insights come from each of these disciplines and they complement one another. Thus, while the authors maintain that “biblical claims will receive priority” (13), in reality they seem to argue that the Bible and science are equal partners in the pursuit of truth regarding cosmological, geological, and biological origins. Moreover, the authors also maintain that “creation revelation,” which they describe as a subcategory of general revelation, is “knowledge discovered by scientists” (65). The authors seem to claim that this knowledge is a necessary complement to scripture. In other words, scripture needs scientific knowledge. So which has the greater authority?

The authors do carefully point out that when it comes to each form of revelation, there is rarely a “singularly correct, complete interpretation” (69). The Bible holds authority, but Christian interpretations of the Bible do not (66). Similarly, when it comes to nature, “creation revelation” is authoritative, but scientific interpretations are not. Thus, both interpretations can be mistaken.

But with such a large volume, other inconsistencies or incongruities do appear. Perhaps the trickiest section is chapter 5. According to the authors, understanding the Bible on origins requires an understanding of the broader Ancient Near East (ANE) context. This method has been championed at length by one of the contributors, John Walton. Walton and his colleagues argue that although the Bible is the word of God, “our only access to the message is through the human author” (10). Thus, the opening chapters of Genesis are treated as if they are like any other ANE text. By implication, Christians need background in ANE studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis. But it was not until the 19th and early 20th centuries that archaeologists began to recover the lost societies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, Persia, and the Levant. Have Christians been misreading the story of Genesis for over two millennia?

Despite the seemingly innocuous claim that “Israelite thinking resembled that of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians” (99), the relationship between these cultures is a difficult, complicated, and much-debated topic. In fact, there is little consensus regarding exactly how they all relate to one other. Since we have no comparable Palestinian sources, it is almost impossible to say whether the mental world of Mesopotamia was similar to that of Palestine. On what basis, then, can we assert that “everyone in the ANE world believed” this or that? Can we really say that ANE literature reflect a uniform ancient mind?

Moreover, ANE studies often interpret texts or phenomena in terms of what is already known. In many instances the known, which forms the precondition for interpretation of the unknown, is biblical. That means we constantly have to ask whether we are seeing a real “parallel” in something outside the Bible or a product of interpretation. The tendency to read the non-biblical text in terms of the Bible is particularly strong when we are sure, for whatever reason, that there must be comparable evidence outside of the biblical text. Unfortunately, none of these difficulties are raised in Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins. The reader is led to believe, somewhat disingenuously, that our extant ANE literature represents a uniform mind and that it is easily comparable to the biblical text.

This criticism aside, this volume takes on the admirable task of demonstrating the compatibility of recent scientific theories with the Christian faith. Ultimately, this book will serve as a resource for challenging what one believes, provoking deeper thought regarding scripture, creation, and science from a Christian perspective.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is Historian in Residence in the George L. Mosse Program in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Date of Review: 
February 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert C. Bishop is Associate Professor of Physics and Philosophy and the John and Madeleine McIntyre Endowed Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at Wheaton College.

Larry L. Funck is Emeritus Professor at Wheaton College where he taught Inorganic Chemistry for over forty years.

Raymond J. Lewis is Associate Professor of Biology at Wheaton College.

Stephen O. Moshier is Professor of Geology and Chair of the Geology and Environmental Science Department at Wheaton College, where he also serves as the Director of the Black Hills Science Station.

John H. Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School.

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