Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 2)

See here for Part 1.

Scriptural Perspicuity

According to USTO, understanding the Bible on origins requires an understanding of the broader Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought-context.  This method has been championed at length by one of the contributors, John Walton, in his other writings.  This method is related to his view of the authority in the Bible.  In USTO, Walton and his colleagues write that, in the Bible, God has vested authority in the human authors.  Consequently, “the message of the author carries the authority of God.”  But also:  “our only access to the message is through the human author” (10).

But where does the Bible teach this about itself?  Shouldn’t the Bible be our starting point for how we read and understand the Bible?  This misstep has massive implications.  The opening chapters of Genesis are treated as if they are any other ANE text.  They are treated as human writings bearing a divine message, rather than as writings inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the rest of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:21).  As a consequence, instead of going to the rest of Scripture for illumination on points requiring explanation, USTO goes to the ANE context.

This approach compromises on what we call the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture.  Scripture is a lamp for our feet – it sheds light (Ps. 119:105,130).  The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in ANE studies or the Hebrew language.  In referring to the Pentateuch, the apostle Paul wrote that the stories of Israel’s failings in the wilderness “were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).  Those Spirit-inspired words were written to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been Jews, but many of whom were not.  Paul expected that the Word would be clear and he understood that the book of Exodus, though written hundreds of years before, was intended by God to speak clearly also to the Corinthian Christians.

If we heed USTO, Christians today need background in ANE studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis 1.  In fact, with this approach, the church has been in the dark for centuries until these ANE studies were conducted and brought to light what had previously been dark.  To the contrary, there is a simple and clear message in Genesis 1 and we should not allow academics to propose darkness where God has given light.  Yes, there are difficult passages in Scripture and the doctrine of perspicuity does not deny that given what Scripture itself says in 2 Peter 3:16.  However, historically, Genesis 1 was not regarded as a difficult passage.  Taken in the context of the entire Bible (letting Scripture interpret Scripture), what it is saying is so clear that a child can understand it.  It only became a difficult passage because of the challenges posed by unbelieving scientists.

Creation Without Compromise has previously featured work done by the late Dr. Noel Weeks on John Walton’s views of biblical background:

The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background” (Noel Weeks)

Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks)

The work of Dr. Weeks goes into much more detail and I commend it to you for your further study.

USTO’s Interpretation of Genesis

This brings us into a more detailed consideration of the arguments for how to understand the Genesis account of origins.  USTO argues that Genesis 1 is speaking in terms of a functional ontology.  In the ANE thought-context, things comes into existence by reason of their function.  Genesis 1 is therefore not describing the creation of material, but the taking of that material and ordering it and putting it into use (102).

We should note the false dilemma presented between material and functional.  Genesis could be working with both categories.  In fact, if we maintain the approach of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, this might well be our conclusion.  Recognizing the functionality of what is described in Genesis 1 does not rule out its material nature or its historicity as an account of what really happened in those six days.  Interestingly, this “both…and” approach is what we find in article 12 of the Belgic Confession.  God created heaven and earth and all creatures out of nothing (non-material to material), and he also gave every creature not only its “being, shape, and form,” but also to each “its specific task and function to serve its Creator.”

Related to the foregoing false dilemma, USTO overstates its case in regard to the Hebrew verb bara’.  They argue that the verb is always used in Scripture to refer to things not material in nature:  “The verb bara’ does not intrinsically refer to materiality….” (106).  However, readers should know this is a disputed claim.  This comes from one of the leading Old Testament dictionaries:

Though br’ does not appear with mention of material out of which something is created, it is regularly collocated with verbs that do (e.g. Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7,19; Isa. 45:18; Amos 4:13).  More significantly, br’ is used of entities that come out of pre-existing material: e.g. a new generation of animals or humans, or a ‘pure heart.’ (Ps. 104:29-30; 102:18[19]; 51:10[12]; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6.).  (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1.731).

In fact, NIDOTTE states that John Walton’s view (which is what we encounter in USTO) is “somewhat misleading.”

Click here to continue to part 3.

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.

See here for Part 2.

Book Review: The Lie

The Lie: Evolution/Millions of Years (25th Anniversary Edition), Ken Ham.  Green Forest: Master Books, 2016.  Paperback, 236 pages.

When I was growing up in Edmonton, one of the biggest things that helped me stay convinced of the biblical view of creation was attendance at a number of presentations organized by the Creation Science Association of Alberta.  One in particular stands out in my memory:  Dr. Steven Austin at the Jubilee Auditorium in about 1985.   I remember because his name struck me:  I thought I was going to go and listen to the Six Million Dollar Man.  I also remember because, even though I was only 12 years old, his presentation on Mt. Saint Helens drove home how drastic geological changes can take place in a brief period of time.

Since coming here to Australia, our church has been invited to a couple of similar presentations.  One was from Answers in Genesis, an organization which has its roots here Down Under.  As they usually do, AiG had a table of books for sale and among them was the 25th anniversary edition of The Lie, by AiG founder Ken Ham.  The book was deeply discounted and I do have Dutch roots, so I couldn’t resist.

There are a few things that really stand out to me about The Lie.

One is that Ken Ham rightly construes the debate.  It’s not ultimately about creation versus evolution.  It’s about God’s Word versus man’s word.  It’s about revelation from God versus the pretension of autonomous human reasoning.  There are really two different religions at war with one another.

Because he gets the debate rightly framed, he also understands that our starting point as Christians has to be the Word of God.  In other words, he’s a presuppositionalist.  He demonstrates how it’s not enough to throw evidences and reasoning at evolutionists without challenging what’s at the core of their belief system:  a commitment to independence from God.  This illustration lays out the problem that often exists with regard to Christian efforts to defeat evolution:

We spend too much of our time taking potshots at the consequences of unbelief, when we should be barraging the foundations with concentrated fire.

That brings me to another stand-out feature of The Lie:  great illustrations.   Anyone who’s been to an AiG presentation would remember them.  Illustrations can really help to drive home unfamiliar abstract concepts.

Another important element of the book is its value for educators.  Earlier in his life, Ken Ham was a science teacher in Queensland, Australia.  He made some blunders in his early efforts to teach creation versus evolution.  His honesty about those and his elucidation of better ways deserve the attention of every Christian teacher, especially those who teach science and/or Bible.

Finally, I also really appreciated the way Ham argues that millions or billions of years is foundational to evolutionary thinking.  You can’t have one without the other.  At the same time, he points out that the key issue is not the age of the earth.  He writes, “Believing in a relatively young earth (i.e. only a few thousand years old) is a consequence of accepting the authority of the Word of God over fallible man’s word” (p.126).

Toward the end of the book, Ham notes that Answers in Genesis has heard from many people about how their ministry establishing the creation/fall foundation has been instrumental in opening doors for the gospel.  It’s true.  I have a colleague in New Zealand who became a Christian after listening to a talk by Ken Ham.  His unbelief, using evolution as an excuse, was challenged to the core and the Holy Spirit used that to bring him to faith in Christ.  Buy The Lie for someone like that – it may just be something God uses to bring them the invaluable gift of eternal life!

Creation/Evolution: Ideas Have Consequences

Dr. Geoff Downes is the director of Forest Quality Pty. Ltd., a private research company in Tasmania seeking to develop and apply technology for non-destructive evaluation of wood properties in trees.  His Ph.D. is from the University of Melbourne in Wood Science and Forest Nutrition.  He works on a voluntary basis for Creation Ministries International.  The Free Reformed Church of Launceston recently welcomed Dr. Downes to speak on the topic of “Creation/Evolution: Ideas Have Consequences.”