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.

Theistic Evolution and the Creation of “Human Beings”

Back in late 2009, some ministerial colleagues and I were discussing with concern the apparently growing influence of evolutionary thinking in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  What could we do about it?  Five of us decided to collaborate on an article, “Ten Reasons Why Evolution is Dangerous and Evil.”  Authored by Walter Geurts, George van Popta, John van Popta, Jim Witteveen and yours truly, this was published in the January 1, 2010 issue of ClarionYou can find it online here.

At the beginning of March 2010, an 11-part series of responses began to be published on the Reformed Academic blog.  It’s not my intent to interact with those responses as such.  Rather, I want to point out one particular point of response.  It relates to something I’ve read more recently.

One of the “ten reasons” was that “Evolution must regard Genesis 2:8 as mythical.”  Rev. John van Popta argued that the creation of Adam was a special act of God.  Adam was created from literal dust as the first human being.  Genesis 2:8 gives us history, not myth or allegory.

In their response, Reformed Academic (RA) insisted they agree:  “We fully affirm the main point of this paragraph, namely that man is a special creation.”  They pointed that there are those who “lend credence” to the theory of common ancestry who also affirm “the clear Biblical teaching of the soul, and that the human person is made uniquely and specially in the image of God.”  RA maintained that they do not join with those who regard Adam as a-historical.  At first glace, all of this may seem quite palatable and encouraging.

What was sometimes not recognized in the early stages of this debate was that some words were being used equivocally.  What we meant by “Adam as the first human being created specially by God from the dust in history,” did not necessarily mean the same thing as what they meant by that.  People can say that and yet lend credence to the theory of common ancestry.  One way is by positing the existence of pre-Adamite hominids.  These are human-like creatures supposed to have existed before and with Adam.  There could have been hundreds of generations of these hominids which had evolved over millions of years.  But no human beings!  No, Adam is still the first human being.  God selects a pair of hominids, pulls them out of their lowly origins (“dust”), and bestows on them his image.  At that point, they become human beings with souls.  It’s important to realize:  in this view, this really happens at some point in history.  So everything is preserved intact:  the possibility of biological macro-evolution (common ancestry), Adam as the first human being specially created by God in his image, and Genesis as an actual historical record.

In the thick tome Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical and Theological Critique, Wayne Grudem has a 54-page essay entitled, “Theistic Evolution Undermines Twelve Creation Events and Several Crucial Christian Doctrines.”  Grudem makes many valid points.  However, I can imagine some theistic evolutionists reading it and offering a similar critique to what RA offered on some of our ten reasons.  Let me mention a few examples.

Grudem states that, according to theistic evolution, “Adam and Eve were not the first human beings (and perhaps they never even existed).”  But a theistic evolutionist could put his hand up and say, “Wait a moment, Dr. Grudem.  With you, I do believe that Adam and Eve were the first human beings.  There were no human beings before this historical couple.  Your critique doesn’t apply to me, even though it’s true that I lend credence to the theory of common ancestry.”

For another example, Grudem writes that proponents of theistic evolution state that “Adam and Eve were born from human parents.”  Again, we could imagine an evolutionist protesting:  “No, I don’t believe Adam and Eve came from human parents.”  Hominid parents, perhaps, but definitely not humans.  After all, Adam and Eve are the first human beings.  We all agree on that!

One more example:  “Human death did not begin as a result of Adam’s sin, for human beings existed long before Adam and Eve and they were always subject to death.”  “No, Dr. Grudem, with you I believe that human death came from the fall into sin in Genesis 3.  There was no human death before Adam and Eve, because there were no human beings before them.”  If we talk about hominid death, that’s a different topic, but not relevant in the theistic evolutionist’s mind.  With us they can insist there was no human death before Adam and Eve.

This is a significant weak spot in Grudem’s essay.  Perhaps he hasn’t encountered these kinds of counter-arguments.  It’s but one more demonstration that we need to be carefully dissecting these matters and not always taking everything at face value.  Just because someone says they believe Adam and Eve to be real historical figures doesn’t mean they mean what you mean.  You have to ask; you have to dig deeper.  Just because someone says they believe Adam and Eve to be the first human beings doesn’t mean common ancestry/evolution is out of the question.  You have to ask probing questions like:  as a biological creature, was the individual later called Adam brought into physical existence by the meeting of a sperm with an egg?  Or:  as a biological creature, was the individual later called Eve ever nourished at the breasts of a creature which had given birth to her?  Then you might find out what you’re really up against and be able to formulate arguments which will better get to the heart of the matter.

I Believe in Theistic Evolution

I recently realized I believe in/affirm theistic evolution.  Depending on your perspective, have I sold out or have I finally come to my senses?  Neither.  Let me explain.

It has long perturbed me that those who affirm or allow for Darwinian macroevolution to be compatible with a biblical worldview will sometimes call themselves “creationists” or will claim to believe in/affirm biblical creation.  They do this knowing that biblical creation is usually understood to refer to a view that holds to God having created in six ordinary days on a timescale of some thousands (rather than millions or billions) of years ago.  By claiming to believe in creation they lay concerns to rest, whereas all they have really done is disguise their true position.

Stephen C. Meyer has helped me to see I could do the same thing with theistic evolution.  Meyer wrote the “Scientific and Philosophical Introduction” to Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, a massive volume published in 2017 by Crossway.  He notes that theistic evolution can mean different things to different people, as can “evolution” without the modifier “theistic.”  For example, it can refer to common or universal common descent or to the creative power of the natural selection/random variation (or mutation) mechanism.  But evolution can also just simply mean “change over time.”  And if one believes that God causes “change over time,” then that can be understood as a form of theistic evolution.  With that, Meyer contends, no biblical theist could object (p.40).  He concludes, “Understanding theistic evolution this way seems unobjectionable, perhaps even trivial” (p.41).   So, in the sense of believing or affirming that there is change over time directed by God, I am a theistic evolutionist — and I suspect you are too!

But what’s the problem with this?  Let’s say I were to (miraculously) get myself invited to a BioLogos conference as a speaker who affirms theistic evolution.  It appears I’m on board with the BioLogos agenda.  The conference organizers are a little doubtful, but I insist that I affirm theistic evolution and they take me at my word and welcome me in their midst.  Then I give a talk where I evidence that I’m actually a six-day creationist who believes Darwinian macroevolution to be a fraud.  “But you said you hold to theistic evolution!”  “Oh, but you didn’t ask me what I meant by that.  I believe that God causes change over time — that’s how I’m a theistic evolutionist.”  Would anyone blame the conference organizers for thinking me to be lacking in some basic honesty?

Integrity is really the heart of the matter.  If I say, “I read a book and I realized I’m a theistic evolutionist,” most people will hear that and conclude that I still believe in God, but I also affirm Darwinian evolution.  And that is not an unreasonable conclusion.  Furthermore, what would be my purpose for making such a claim?  Would it be to tell something designed to mislead so as to advance my cause?  Does the end justify the means?

If you affirm Darwinian macroevolution as the best explanation for how life developed on earth and you believe God superintended it, then man up and say so.  Honestly say, “I am a theistic evolutionist.”   As for me, believing that God created everything in six ordinary days on the order of some thousands of years ago, I will say directly, “I am a biblical creationist” or “six-day creationist,” or “young earth creationist.”  But let’s all be honest with one another.

Biblical creationists also have to stop being naive.  Just because someone says they believe in biblical creation doesn’t mean they actually believe the biblical account as given in Genesis.  They can fill out those terms with their own meaning.  So we have to learn to ask good questions to ferret out impostors.  Questions like:

  • Do you believe God created everything in six ordinary days some thousands of years ago?
  • Was the individual designated as Adam in Genesis ever a baby creature nestled at his mother’s breast?
  • Was the individual designated in Genesis as Eve a toddler at some point in her life?
  • Do you believe it biblically permissible to say that, as creatures, the figures designated in Genesis as Adam and Eve at any point had biological forebears (like parents/grandparents)?
  • What does it mean that God created man from the dust of the earth?

These are the types of questions churches need to be asking at ecclesiastical examinations for prospective ministers.  These are the types of questions Christians schools need to be asking prospective teachers at interviews.  True, even with these sorts of questions, there are no guarantees of integrity, but at least we will have done our due diligence.

Video Review: Is Creation A Secondary Issue?

The following review is by Walter Walraven.  It originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Faith in Focus, the official magazine of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand.  It is published here with the author’s permission. 

Is Creation a Secondary Issue?

by Dr Martin Williams and Creation Ministries International

Is creation a secondary issue? That is the question that Dr Martin Williams presents to the viewer in this excellent video produced by Creation Ministries International. Dr Williams has served as a pastor and missionary and is currently Head of Theology and Lecturer in New Testament and Greek at the Reformed Theological College in Melbourne, Australia.

As a pastor, missionary and lecturer, Williams has often heard the comment that “the doctrine of creation is only of secondary importance, and that Christianity is really about salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ”. Because of such sentiments, creation is often de-emphasized in the creation/evolution debate and relegated to the status of secondary importance. Some say “it is an issue that does not relate to how one is made right through faith in Jesus Christ, so why get all hung up on it?”

In this video, Williams contends that the creation account is the TRUE story of history which is proclaimed in the Scriptures. He gives a clear, systematic, logical and easy to understand explanation of the implications of holding to theistic evolution or long age thinking, and explains quite clearly what effect it has on the gospel. He comments further that not many people have thought of creation from the perspective of the cross. He then answers the question of why people die, progressing through to the explanation of why Jesus died, moving through to a logical conclusion.

Williams also brings into play the views of prominent evolutionists such as Darwin, Sagan and Alexander, who promote the view that death is a permanent part of this earth’s history over millions of years. Denis Alexander, who seems to hold to theistic evolution, states, “Nowhere in the Old Testament is there the slightest suggestion that the physical death of either animals or humans, after a reasonable span of years, is anything other than the normal pattern ordained by God for this earth.” Williams correctly asserts that such an idea is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture, which teaches that death is actually the result of sin. (Gen 3:17-19)

Maintaining our confidence in the historical narrative of the creation account as presented in Genesis, and understanding why Jesus died according to the Scriptures, is of first importance. It means rejecting evolution or long age thinking, which destroys the gospel.

In closing, I would like to point out, that this is a theological defence of the creation account as it presents itself in the early chapters of Genesis. Williams does not deal with the so-called science of evolution, but with the false view that God as the creator allowed or caused the creation to evolve. I do believe it would be a useful tool for members in our churches in the defence of the gospel when it is attacked at the foundations. The section containing questions and answers is most edifying and worthwhile to view. I wholeheartedly recommend and endorse this video to our readers.

This video can be obtained from Creation Ministries International as a DVD or MP4.

Words Can Be Slippery Things

It’s happened many times in church history.  The theologian says that he believes in the resurrection.  But eventually it comes out that he believes that Jesus truly rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples, but not actually in history.  Another theologian insists that he believes in election.  But eventually we discover that he believes that God chooses believers, not out of his sovereign good pleasure, but on the basis of foreseen faith.

In his book Revival and Revivalism Iain Murray discusses Charles Finney at length because of his role in the Second Great Awakening.  Murray notes on page 262 that Charles Finney spoke of a “vicarious atonement,” which is usually another way of speaking about penal substitutionary atonement, i.e. that Christ took our place on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in our place.  But Finney believed nothing of the sort.  His language was deceptive.  He used the right words, but he meant something completely different.

This strategy gets employed in the debates over origins too.  People will insist that they believe that Adam and Eve were real historical people, that they were the first human beings, created in the image of God.  It sounds orthodox on the surface.  But we need to dig deeper:  what do you mean by human being?  Was Adam ever a baby nestled at his mother’s breast?  Was Eve a toddler at some point in her life?  Did she have grandparents?  What do you mean “created in the image of God”?  What does “created” mean in that sentence?  You say that you believe God created man from the dust of the earth.  Great!  But what do you mean when you say that?  Asking these sorts of questions will usually reveal whether things really are what they seem.  In theology, we need to be precise — and transparent — with our definitions.  It’s not enough just to use the right words, you also have to be holding to the correct understanding of those words.  Without that, the true gospel itself is soon lost.