Evolution as a gravedigger

gravedigger

Theistic evolution undermines God’s Truth, but it’s only continuing what Old Earth Creationism began

by John Byl

Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland has recently published an excellent article, “Theistic evolution, Christian Knowledge and Culture’s Plausibility Structure“, in the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies (Volume 2, Issue 1:1-18, 2017). In it he reflects on the broader cultural implications of adopting theistic evolution as a means to integrate Christianity and science.

Knowledge and plausibility structures

Dr. Moreland notes that our Western society is highly empirical. Our culture presumes that valid knowledge can be acquired only through science (scientism), whereas non-empirical claims concerning values, ethics, spirits, and the like, are merely personal opinions (cultural relativism).

Today, the central issue is not whether Christianity is true, but whether it can be known to be true: Does Christianity have a valid source of knowledge? Knowledge is defined by Dr. Moreland as “true belief based on adequate grounds“.  He contends:

The deepest issue facing the church today is this: Are its main creeds and central teachings items of knowledge or mere matters of blind faith–privatized personal beliefs or issues of feeling to be accepted or set aside according to the whim of individual or cultural pressures? Do these teachings have cognitive and behavioral authority that set a worldview framework for approaching science, art, ethics–indeed, all of life? Or are cognitive and behavioral authority set by what scientists, evolutionary biologists, or the members of BioLogos say? Are the church’s doctrines determined by what Gallup polls tell us is embraced by cultural and intellectual elites? Do we turn to these sources and set aside or revise two thousand years of Christian thinking and doctrinal/creedal expressions in order to make Christian teaching acceptable to the neuroscience department at UCLA or the paleontologists at Cambridge?

The question of whether or not Christianity provides its followers with a range of knowledge is no small matter. It is a question of authority for life and death, and lay brothers and sisters are watching Christian thinkers and leaders to see how we approach this matter. And, in my view, as theistic evolutionists continue to revise the Bible over and over again, they inexorably give off a message about knowledge: science gives us hard knowledge based on evidence and with which we can be confident, and while theology and biblical teaching do not give us knowledge, they provide personal meaning and values for those with the faith to embrace them.

Every culture, Dr. Moreland writes, has a plausibility structure – a set of background assumptions that determines what ideas people are willing to entertain as possibly true. Our current Western cultural plausibility structure elevates science, and bans Christianity from serious consideration. Such cultural bias makes effective evangelization difficult.

Theistic evolution as a gravedigger

Dr. Moreland contends that the acceptance of theistic evolution by many Christians has greatly contributed to the undermining of Christianity as a source of knowledge:

In my view, there are certain contemporary currents of thought that risk undercutting Christianity as a source of knowledge, and I shall argue that by its very nature, theistic evolution is the prime culprit. It is one of the church’s leading gravediggers…

The term “gravedigger” (from Os Guinness’s 1983 book The Gravedigger File) refers to Christians who, though well-intended, adopt views that eventually undermine the church.

Dr. Moreland raises three concerns:

  1. Theistic evolution reinforces scientism. It exemplifies the notion that, when science and the Bible clash, we revise the Bible, not science, since scientific truth claims exhibit solid knowledge based on facts.
  2. Such willingness to revise Biblical interpretations held for 2000 years implies that Biblical teaching is tentative.
  3. The most pervasive form of theistic evolution holds that God’s involvement in evolution is undetectable, so that it is in practice indistinguishable from naturalistic evolution. Most theistic evolutionists are opposed to Intelligent Design, the notion that God’s hand can readily be discerned in nature.

According to Dr. Moreland:

Theistic evolution is intellectual pacifism that lulls people to sleep while the barbarians are at the gates. In my experience, theistic evolutionists are usually trying to create a safe truce with science so Christians can be left alone to practice their privatized religion while retaining the respect of the dominant intellectual culture.

…Sometimes theistic evolutionists claim that by embracing evolution, they are actually contributing to the plausibility of Christianity by removing an unnecessary stumbling block – the rejection of evolution – before one can be a well-informed Christian. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. While there are exceptions, my experience with theistic evolutionists is that they have a weak faith, do not see many answers to prayer, and lack a vibrant, attractive Christian life. Ideas have consequences, and if one knows he had to revise the early chapters of Genesis, it will weaken his confidence in the rest of the Bible…After all, if we have to provide naturalistic revisions of the Bible over and over again, why take the yet-to-be-revised portions of scripture seriously? This approach significantly weakens the cognitive authority of the Bible as a source of knowledge of reality…

Given scientism, theistic evolution greases the skids towards placing non-scientific claims in a privatized upper story in which their factual, cognitive status is undermined…

Dr. Moreland expresses particular concern about the readiness of some Christian scholars to abandon belief in the historical reality of Adam and Eve. Given our culture’s current plausibility structure, this contributes to the marginalization of Christian teaching. He comments:

If I am right about the broader issues, then the rejection of an historical Adam and Eve has far more troubling implications than those that surface in trying to reinterpret certain biblical texts. The very status of biblical, theological and ethical teachings as knowledge is at stake in the current cultural milieu as is the church’s cognitive marginalization to a place outside the culture’s plausibility structure. Those who reject a historical Adam and Eve inadvertently harm the church by becoming its gravedigger.

Finally, Dr. Moreland notes that evolution entails that we are purely physical beings, and that an immaterial soul is no longer considered plausible within our modern culture. He deplores the fact that a number of Christian philosophers have adopted a physicalist view of humans.

Responding to cultural challenges

How should Christians respond to our culture, with its anti-Christian plausibility structure?

Dr. Moreland urges that we should not cave in to the prevailing contemporary currents of ideas. Instead, Christians should hold their ground, “eventually winning the argument due to hard-hitting scholarship and confidence in the Bible“:

Accordingly, it is of crucial importance that we promote the central teachings of Christianity in general as a body of knowledge and not as a set of faith-practices to be accepted on the basis of mere belief or a shared narrative alone. To fail at this point is to risk being marginalized and disregarded as those promoting a privatized set of feelings or desires that fall short of knowledge…

I want to win people to Christ and to “bring down strongholds” that undermine knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5), to penetrate culture with a Christian worldview and to undermine its plausibility structure which, as things stand now, does not include objective theological claims.

He stresses the importance of apologetics, especially scientific apologetics, such as is done by the Intelligent Design movement (ID). The church should seek ways, such as a scientific critique of naturalist evolution, that may help to modify a person’s plausibility structure so as to create space in which Christianity can be seriously entertained.

How should conflicts with science be handled? Dr. Moreland advises that we should not be hasty to revise Scripture. Rather:

No, we should be patient, acknowledge the problem, and press into service Christian intellectuals who are highly qualified academically, have respect for the fact that scripture presents us with knowledge (not just truth to be accepted by blind faith), and who want to work to preserve the traditional interpretation of scripture and avoid revisionism. These intellectuals should be given the chance to develop rigorous models that preserve historical Christian teaching, unless, in those rare cases, our interpretation of scripture has been wrong. These intellectuals are heroes because they value loyalty to historic understandings of scripture over the desire to fit in with what scientists are currently claiming. The Intelligent Design movement is just such a set of intellectuals…

Rather than tucking their tails between their legs at the first sign of a conflict between the Bible and science, and standing ready (even eager) to let the scientists tell them what they must revise, the members of the ID movement have the intellectual courage and confidence in biblical teaching not to back down. Rather, ID advocates “deconstruct the pretentiousness” of truth-claims that go against biblical assertions that are properly interpreted (and they don’t grab for an interpretation that, all by itself, gives in to the other side of the conflict.) And they don’t make excuses for the Bible; they advance arguments in its support.

Digging deeper

There is much in this article that I can heartily endorse. I fully concur with Dr. Moreland that theistic evolutionists help dig the church’s grave by promoting modern culture’s plausibility structure, which has no place for Biblical knowledge. Allowing science to change our views on Adam and Eve is certainly a prime example of this danger. Further, it is commendable that the Intelligent Design movement exposes the weaknesses of naturalist evolution, and seeks to show that nature exhibits many marks of an Intelligent Designer.

Yet, in stressing scientific argumentation, and rarely referring to Scripture, the ID movement itself may be contributing to scientism. Moreover, many proponents of ID do not consistently exhibit great confidence in the Bible as a source of knowledge. For example, most of them – including Dr. Moreland – accept an ancient age for the earth, as given by mainstream geology. This obliges them to revise the traditional reading of Genesis 1-11, regarding such things as the creation days, the physical extent of Adam’s Fall, Noah’s Flood, the genealogies of Gen. 5 & 11, etc. For more discussion on this issue, see my article The Cost of an Old Earth: Is it Worth it?

Indeed, the plausibility structure reigning in most of Christian academia is such that it scorns those rare Christian academics who still promote traditional Biblical history.

Old Earth Creationism is subject to the same concerns that Dr. Moreland raises regarding theistic evolution, namely:

  1. It reinforces scientism. It exemplifies the notion that, when science and the Bible clash, we revise the Bible, not science, since scientific truth claims exhibit solid knowledge based on facts.
  2. Such willingness to revise Biblical interpretations held for 2000 years implies that Biblical teaching is tentative.

Moreover, the Biblical Adam, though an essential part of traditional Biblical history, becomes blatantly implausible when thrust into the setting of mainstream geology and paleontology, which traces modern humans back at least 300,000 years, with much earlier ancestors, exhibiting suffering and death from the beginning, etc.

Consequently, a plausibility structure that includes mainstream geology, and correspondingly downplays Biblical ancient history, paves the way for plausibility structures that exclude further Biblical teachings, such as the historical Adam.

I have a high regard for Dr. Moreland. He has written much worthwhile material, and made important contributions to Christian scholarship. Nevertheless, I believe that he has been inconsistent in upholding his own standards, thereby inadvertently contributing to grave-digging. Theistic evolutionists are merely deepening the grave already substantially dug by Old Earth creationists.

In his article Dr. Moreland cautions:

It should be clear that naturalism is not consistent with biblical Christianity. If that’s true, then the church should do all it can to undermine the worldview of naturalism and to promote, among other things, the cognitive, alethic nature of theology, biblical teaching and ethics. This means that when Christians consider adopting certain views widely accepted in the culture, they must factor into their consideration whether or not such adoption would enhance naturalism’s hegemony and help dig the church’s own grave by contributing to a hostile, undermining plausibility structure.

Wise advice! Perhaps Dr. Moreland should heed it by reconsidering his own plausibility structure.

This article first appeared in an Oct. 24, 2009 post on Dr. John Byl’s blog Bylogos.blogspot.com and is reprinted here with permission. Dr. John Byl is a Professor emeritus for Trinity Western University, and the author of “God and Cosmos: A Christian View of Time, Space, and the Universe” and “The Divine Challenge: On Matter, Mind, Math & Meaning.”

 

Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 5 — Final)

See here for Part 1, here for Part 2, here for Part 3, and here for Part 4.

The Extent of the Flood

As already mentioned, USTO disparages a “Bible-first” approach.  Instead, the Bible has to be understood, not only on its own terms, but also in terms of what God is revealing in the “second book” of scientific evidence.  Not surprisingly, this leads USTO to reject the notion of a global flood in the days of Noah.  They grant that the Bible describes some cataclysmic event of massive proportions; however USTO insists that it was not global.  Moreover, “the event is described with a specific theological and literary goal in mind” (241).  It is not meant to provide us with a “hydro-geological” explanation.

Once again we are presented with a false dilemma:  a global flood versus a “specific theological and literary goal.”  This dilemma is false because if we understand the text to be referring to a global flood, that certainly does not rule out a theological and literary goal.  Creationists understand that God reveals what he does in Genesis 6-9 for a theological purpose, but that by no means rules out the historical fact of what it describes.

In Genesis 6-9, one of the key issues is how we understand the Hebrew word kol (all).  USTO concludes that the Hebrew word kol in the Flood story is used rhetorically – it simply means that a large area was inundated and large numbers of people were affected.  Kol can be used rhetorically – no one questions that.  However, Scripture must interpret Scripture.  USTO ignores the key section in Genesis 6.  In Genesis 6:5-7, God observes the wickedness of human beings “in the earth.”  USTO would translate that as “in the land,” and yes, the Hebrew word for ‘earth’ can also be translated ‘land.’  But verse 6 militates against that, because it speaks of God’s creation of human beings “on the earth.”  God did not create human beings “in the land,” i.e. in some region now under his scrutiny.  This is universal language.  That becomes further evident when Genesis 6:7 refers to the animals.  God plans not only to destroy humanity, but also the “animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens” which he created at the beginning (cf. Gen. 7:4).  This too favours a global understanding.  Later in chapter 6, God speaks of “all flesh” having corrupted its way on the earth.  Are we to imagine that there were pockets of humanity which were immune to this trend?  Genesis 6:17 says, “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven.  Everything that is on the earth shall die.”  Notice the mention of “under heaven.”  All flesh “under heaven” is slated for destruction.  Again, that distinctly favours a global understanding of this event.

Moreover, the building of the ark itself witnesses to a global flood.  The ark was built by Noah, not only to save him and seven others of his family, but also to save the animals.  USTO has no explanation as to why the animals had to enter the ark if the Flood was something less than global.

In a sidebar, USTO interacts briefly with the New Testament mentions of the Flood.  They claim that none of the New Testament passages “make a statement about its geographical scope” (243).  Luke 17:26-27 is mentioned:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.  They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.

USTO claims that this is just speaking about “how people were living their lives day by day and were caught by surprise when judgment came” (243).  But what is the nature of the judgment to come?  It’s universal.  Just as the Flood destroyed all the ungodly in the days of Noah, “so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.”  In case you miss the point, in the next three verses, Christ speaks about the days of Lot and the wholesale destruction of Sodom:  “fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all.”  No one escaped, except Lot.  Clearly, Christ understood the Flood to be an event which destroyed all human beings except Noah and his family.

According to USTO, 2 Peter 2:5 “references God sparing Noah” (243).  2 Peter 2:5 says, “…if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…”  It beggars belief to argue that Peter believed the flood to be anything less than global.  It was the “ancient world” which was not spared and the flood came upon “the world of the ungodly.”  The natural reading is to understand these terms globally and universally.

USTO also adopts an unnatural reading of 2 Peter 3:5-6.  They argue that it just speaks about the world being deluged and destroyed and the Greek word for ‘world’ (kosmos) is being used in its broadest sense, and therefore it’s not referring to the extent of the Flood.  However, when you look at these verses in context, beginning with verse 4, it becomes evident how implausible that interpretation is:

They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.  For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.

Notice how Peter writes about the creation of the earth – he is quite evidently not speaking about the creation of some portion of the planet.  The same entire planet that was created was deluged with water.

If God is revealing through the scientific evidence that a global flood never happened, then we need to revisit our interpretation of Genesis and somehow bring it into alignment with this newer divine revelation.  That is what USTO is doing.  However, it is a revisionist approach to the Bible.   It simply does not honour the Bible as God’s Word.  We honour God’s Word when we take it on its own terms and then evaluate what we observe in the world around us in the light of what God has said.  As the Psalmist says, “….in your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9).

Conclusion

There are a fair number of other concerns I could mention, but having covered the most important, I’ll bring this lengthy review to a close here.  I began by saying that USTO could be described as the theistic evolution “Bible.”  I said that intentionally because USTO not only contains content from the written Bible as we know it, but it also presents scientific evidence as a second “book” with additional revelation from God (albeit with a “provisional authority”).   Whether this is a legitimate method of approaching origins is really the key issue.  Because I am a Reformed Christian, I emphatically deny that it is.

I believe the Bible alone is our inspired, infallible, inerrant source for doctrine and life.  The Bible teaches that about itself.  Therefore, God’s Word always has to be our starting point.  It is not that the Bible is a “textbook” for science, as USTO and others allege creationists to believe.  Rather, science can only honour God when it takes its starting point from what God has said in the Bible.

I tried, but I could not read this book dispassionately.  In this book, I heard the whispers of Satan in the Garden of Eden:  did God really say?  If someone is questioning my Father or twisting his words, even if it’s done with the greatest sophistication, I cannot remain dispassionate.  I also think of the sad fact that this book comprises course material at Wheaton College.  Scores of impressionable youth have been and are being fed this content.  Because it is happening at a Christian institution, they could be led to believe that this is an acceptable Christian approach.  It is not.  It is unbelief.  I pray for students at Wheaton College that God will help them with his Spirit and Word to discern the truth regarding origins.

Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 3)

See here for Part 1, and see here for Part 2.

God, Evolution, and Death

Any model of origins which incorporates the idea of macro-evolutionary history over billions of years is going to have to involve death.  USTO discusses death in numerous places, oftentimes in a positive way.  One of these discussions is early in the second chapter.

USTO aims to maintain the sovereignty of God over creation.  However, it quickly turns out that, because of his love, God has actually relinquished control over his creation:

Parents practice freeing love toward their children when giving them relative freedom to develop and grow.  Similarly, God in freeing love gives creation relative freedom to develop and grow into what it is called in the Son and enabled by the Spirit to be.  God’s covenantal faithfulness to nature is what makes its relative freedom as a gift possible (20).

It ought to be noted that USTO provides no biblical support for these statements here.  The case is made on the basis of an analogy to parents – as if creation is like a child of God.

This personalizing of creation continues when USTO attempts to account for the processes necessary for the evolutionary scientific narrative:

Similar to how in freedom humans stumble and struggle as we grow and develop, the creation’s freedom in development is marked by its incompleteness.  Disease, earthquakes, pain, and death emerge in God’s good cosmos due to the relative freedom God gives an incomplete creation to become what it is called to be in the Son as finite, created, being (21).

In other words, creation was not finished at the beginning, but is an ongoing work.  Moreover, it is something creation is working out from itself, using the relative freedom given to it by God.

In the midst of this ongoing creation over billions of years, disease, pain and death emerge:

Plants, animals, and insects all participate in their own becoming.  In this relative freedom that God graciously gives to the creation to participate in its own becoming, disease, earthquakes, pain, and death emerge in an incomplete creation (21).

This is a thematic thread through all of USTO.  Creation ministers to creation and so it participates in its own development.  Crucially, death is part of this process.  Life and death depend on one another in a sort of “ministerial dance,” troubling as that might be to us (340).  Because of its commitment to scientific “evidence” as revelation, they cannot escape the troubling notion that death is necessary for ongoing creation – including for the evolutionary development of human beings.

Behind all this is a quasi-deist understanding of how God relates to creation.  God created the raw material at the beginning, his child, and then let that child go and develop in relative freedom, on its own from out of its own resources – “creation ministering to creation.”  As already indicated, no direct biblical support is given for this notion.  An attempt is made to appeal to Psalm 104 as evidence of creation ministering to creation.  However, that Psalm speaks at length of what God is actively doing to uphold the creation he has already made – not a creation undergoing evolutionary development.  No, Scripture teaches that God, in his providence, is actively involved with every aspect of his creation.  The hairs of our head are all numbered, and even sparrows do not fall to the ground apart from our Father (Matt. 10:29-30).  He is directly in control.

Moreover, the idea of death becoming an intrinsic part of creation is reprehensible.  Death is an enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26).  Death has a sting (1 Cor. 15:55).  Death came into the world through sin (Romans 5:12).  Death is not a good thing.  Of course, some will say that all these passages just referenced are speaking about human death.  But if you take an evolutionary perspective, it makes no difference.  Death is then part of human evolutionary history and there is nothing disagreeable about that.  However, if death is (or has become) an intrinsic part of creation, then why not have it remain so?  Revelation 21:4 says “death will be no more.”  According to the Bible, death is not normal, not normal for humans, and not normal for the other creatures either.

Deep Time and the Future of Evolution

USTO says the scientific evidence points towards the existence of deep time – in other words, “the best contemporary value for the age of our universe is almost 13.8 billion years old” (158).  Furthermore, the evidence supposedly says that the origins of human beings (Homo sapiens) are out there in deep time as well.  The fossil evidence indicates that humans originated in Africa by 200,000 years ago, but with an evolutionary history going back millions of years and potentially involving Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo antecessor and others (594).  Ultimately, evolutionary theory argues that, because of their evolutionary history, “humans appear to share the most common ancestor with chimpanzees/bonobos, and next-most recent with gorillas…” (586).  So, according to the scientific evidence USTO presents as credible, human beings have a deep-time evolutionary history.

The theological implications of this are not insignificant.  If deep time exists, we must allow for the possibility that it exists into the future.  In other words, we have to allow for the possibility that this present creation could continue for millions or even billions of years.  When it comes to human beings, if human beings have a deep-time evolutionary history, we have to allow for the possibility that they have a deep-time evolutionary future.  In other words, if the evidence presented by USTO is correct, we must allow for the possibility that Homo sapiens will evolve further into other species.  Perhaps just as with Homo erectus and the common primate ancestors, Homo sapiens will not exist as the species we know them today two million years from now.  Human beings will have evolved into some other species.

For the non-Christian scientist who does not believe in the Bible in any way, this is not a problem.  An unbeliever can easily rest with the idea that humanity is not done evolving.  But, for a Bible-believing Christian, there is a major theological obstacle to continuing human evolution over deep time:  the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  The incarnation is foundational to biblical, Christian faith.  The same nature which has sinned is required to pay for sin.  Human beings have sinned and therefore the Son of God had to take on a human nature in order to pay for sin.  Fast forward two million years from now and there are still sinful creatures, but they are no longer human beings, having evolved from their primitive ancestors.  Must the Son of God re-do his redemptive work for these new beings?  Hebrews 9:28 tells us his sacrifice was a once-off.  The next time he appears it will not be to bear the curse of sinners.

Theologically, there is a knotty problem with USTO here.  The only way out would be to argue that human beings will not have a deep-time evolutionary future — that Christ will return before the human race has the opportunity to evolve further.  But how do we know that?  The Bible certainly does not say that.  The Bible says no one knows when the time of Christ’s return will be except God (Matt. 24:36).  From my perspective, it could be two million years from now and I have no problem with that because I do not believe the human race will evolve into other species.

USTO ends up in these theological quagmires because it does not take God’s Word seriously.  For example, they completely ignore Luke 3:38 which affirms Adam as “the son of God.”  Adam did not have any biological ancestry.  He came directly from God.  Similarly, USTO ignores Mark 10:6, “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.”  Male and female human beings were made by God at the beginning of creation – not several billion years into a fabled deep-time history.

Click here to continue to Part 4…

 

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.