Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 1)

Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective, Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funck, Raymond J. Lewis, Stephen O. Mosher, John H. Walton.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.  Hardcover, 659 pages.

This massive volume attempts to make a theological and scientific case for theistic evolution.  It might be appropriate to describe it as the theistic evolution “Bible.”  All the authors are Wheaton College faculty and the material in the book is drawn from a Wheaton general-education science course, SCI 311 Theories of Origins.  Of the five authors, only one (John Walton) is a theologian; the others are scientists.

I am not a scientist and therefore not really qualified to interact meaningfully with many of the scientific claims made in Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (USTO).  I am going to limit myself to evaluating and interacting with the biblical and theological claims.  While reading, I did occasionally research certain claims made by the authors – for example, that Intelligent Design (ID) is not a scientific theory, but a philosophical view of reality (625).  ID advocates have a different view worth considering.  Similarly, USTO makes numerous historical claims.  While I am better qualified to evaluate those, I’ll leave those claims to the side in my review as well.  Let me just say that the claims made are not always supported by the evidence.

My focus will be on the biblical and theological side of things.  There’s plenty here with which to be concerned.  I am going to argue that not only is USTO a repudiation of the Reformation view of Scripture, and not only is it a perversion of what Scripture teaches about creation, but it also has other serious theological problems.  Some of these problems approach the edges of heresy.

Sola Scriptura

From the beginning, USTO affirms the authority of the Bible:  “We believe that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God for faith and practice as believers” (1).  The medieval Catholic Church prior to the Reformation taught the same thing.  However, the Reformation was a return to what the Bible says about itself – namely that the Bible alone is to be our authority for what we believe and how we live.  The word “alone” is crucial.  That word is missing not merely from USTO’s opening affirmation, but also in the theologizing that follows.

USTO frequently disparages what the authors term a “Bible-first” approach to the relationship between science and Scripture.   They describe this approach thus:  “In a Bible-first approach, 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 – one which sounds like a straw man.  Instead of this approach, USTO posits a “partial-views model.”  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.  While USTO claims that “biblical claims will receive priority” (13), in reality, the Bible and science are equal partners in the pursuit of truth regarding cosmological, geological, and biological origins.

Confessional Reformed theology has always acknowledged the special revelation of God in Scripture and the general revelation of God in nature.  However, this is carefully qualified in three important ways.  First, the scope/content of general revelation is narrowly limited to God’s eternal power and divine nature.  Second, the proper interpretation of general revelation requires special revelation.  John Calvin famously wrote of Scripture as the spectacles through which we come to see the true God revealed in nature (Institutes 1.6.1).  Third, special revelation in Scripture not only reveals God’s person, but also his mighty deeds of creation, redemption, and renewal.  In short, confessional Reformed theology privileges special revelation.  Not only that, but we also believe that the Bible is sufficient for teaching us all we need to know about God’s person and deeds.

USTO speaks about special revelation and general revelation as well.  However, it differs from Reformed theology.   First, the scope/content of general revelation is vast.  Second, each form of revelation requires the other for proper interpretation – and especially the Bible needs general revelation in order to be understood properly.  Third, general revelation reveals a myriad of truths besides God’s eternal power and divine nature.  USTO speaks of “creation revelation” as a subcategory of general revelation:  “This is specific detailed knowledge about the creation through nature” (64).  In fact, according to USTO, scientific inquiry is a distinctive form of revelation:  “…creation revelation is the knowledge discovered by scientists” (65).  This knowledge is needed to complement that found in Scripture.  Scripture is not sufficient.  How is this knowledge attained from creation revelation?  Just like we need the Holy Spirit to understand the Bible, scientists need the Holy Spirit to understand the creation revelation.  The Holy Spirit “enables scientists to recognize and grasp knowledge about creation by coming under a form of provisional authority when conforming their thinking to nature” (67).  In USTO, scientific conclusions parallel Scripture and have the same authority.

It’s important to note that in both cases it’s a provisional authority.  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 don’t (66).  Similarly, when it comes nature, creation revelation is authoritative, but scientific interpretations aren’t.  They can be mistaken.  Therefore, USTO says, they only hold a provisional authority.

There are several problems tangled together here.  But let’s just take the issue of authority.  Is it true that Christian interpretations of the Bible have no authority?  Reformed theology has made a helpful distinction between magisterial and ministerial authority.  The Bible has magisterial authority – it is our master, our teacher.  As we’ll see shortly, the Bible is clear on its essential teachings.  Ministerial authority relates to the church.  The church makes creeds and confessions which serve by summarizing the teaching of Scripture.  So long as they’re faithful to the Bible, these creeds and confessions have an authoritative place amongst the churches holding them.  For Reformed churches, we regard the Three Forms of Unity as a faithful expression of biblical doctrine, and so they do carry authority among us.  To say that Christian interpretations of the Bible are not authoritative is, at best, imprecise.

To be continued…