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.

“Inferior” design: a proof of evolution?

fly“Suboptimal” design in nature is supposed to be the result of, and evidence for, evolutionary trial and error

by Margaret Helder

Everybody loves to hear about wonderful living creatures with their amazing talents. It is certainly uplifting to learn about Monarch butterfly’s continent-spanning migration, and the toe pads of the gecko that allow it to walk upside down, and the amazing strength of spider silk. Christians enjoy discussing the wonderful designs that we see in nature. And among scientists, these creatures have their fans too. Indeed, there is an entire field in science called biomimicry where scientists try to learn from living creatures in order to produce practical designs for modern applications.

But not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the implications of these amazing talents. Prominent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) in 1978 wrote:

“…ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator.”

Dr. Gould thus said that everyone should ignore examples of wonderful design and concentrate on phenomena that are below par. He continued:

“Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution – paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce.”

Gould was telling us that he knew how God should act if, that is, God really existed. God, according to Gould, would make everything perfect. And since we know that everything is not perfect in nature then, said Gould, this proves there is no God. This kind of argument, based on assumptions of how God should act, continues to be common in science today. There is thus a lot of interest among scientists, in suboptimal (less than perfect) design. Let us look at some examples to see what the implications are.

THE PANDA’S THUMB

The example Gould discussed in 1978 was the thumb of the Giant Panda. These animals, native to China, eat almost nothing but bamboo shoots. They use their hands to strip off the leaves, leaving the nice tender shoots on which to munch. Their flexible hands are unusual – they have a thumb of sorts, an extra structure produced from an enlarged wrist bone, with associated muscles and nerves.

thumb-1024x560-2

Gould declares that this extra finger is a “somewhat clumsy, but quite workable solution…. A contraption, not a lovely contrivance.” Here he was declaring that the panda’s thumb was of suboptimal or inferior design, which thus constituted proof that the source of the thumb was evolutionary trial and error rather than from a “divine artificer” (supernatural designer).

A major argument employed by many evolutionists, even today, is to point to suboptimal (inferior) design and to declare that this proves that evolution was the source rather than God. However, what makes something “suboptimal” is an open question. Sometimes a phenomenon that appears less than ideal actually displays superior and unexpectedly sophisticated design. Gould might not like the panda’s thumb, but there is no denying how wonderfully this thumb gets the job done.

INFERIOR EARS?

Another example: the inner ear of humans includes a spirally coiled structure called the cochlea. Lining its interior are very fancy hair cells which, by their motion, amplify the sound. The whole cochlea functions as a remarkably sensitive and finely tuned sound detector. However, at the same time, it also distorts the sound. Might these distortions be considered inferior design?

A study in 2008 (Nature, Nov 13) demonstrated that the distortions actually contribute to clarity of sound. The distortions come from a particular structure connecting the top of the various hair cells. Mice without this connector in their cochlea became progressively deaf.

Who knew distortions were so useful?

STABLE vs. MANEUVERABLE

A recent article published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (November 4-8) discussed another counter-intuitive (contrary to our expectations) situation. The study was conducted by engineers trying to build efficient robots. This is a large field of research.

The designers want systems that are not only stable but maneuverable. The problem is that these are opposite objectives. In general, the more maneuverable a robot is, the less stable it is. If your robot tips over, clearly it is not going anywhere. Alternatively, the more stable a robot is, the less one can fine-tune what it does – the harder it is to make sudden changes of direction. Thus your robot may be able to proceed briskly straight ahead, but what if you need it to turn a corner or climb over an obstruction? Will it be able to turn, or will it instead tip over?

Animals obviously have no such problems. That’s why engineers have turned their attention to animal locomotion. They ask themselves, how do animals achieve the “impossible” combination of stability and maneuverability? How indeed do actual insects like cockroaches manage their excellent locomotion skills? Biologists may have already observed the solution without recognizing its significance. Why, many biologists have wondered, do animals move in directions that are different from their desired destination? Why, for example, do cockroaches and lizards tilt from side to side as they run forward? An engineer would most likely eliminate these motions, which seem to waste energy, as they do not obviously contribute to the forward motion. Lately, however, mechanical engineers have begun to research how unexpected, “inefficient” movements may benefit these animals.

Insight into this mystery recently came from studies of a tiny fish from the Amazon basin. In order to avoid predators, this fish prefers to hide in various shelters such as tiny tubes. Scientists used slow-motion video to study fin movements of this fish as it finessed its way into its hiding places. At 100 frames per second, a strange situation became apparent. The fish was using one part of the lower body fin to push water forwards, and the other part to push it backwards. This was definitely against common sense since it was like two propellers fighting against each other.

When scientists built a fishy robot, they found that the opposing forces actually improved the stability and maneuverability of their model. The assumption of the engineers that it is wasteful or useless to employ forces in directions other than the desired forward motion had now been proven wrong.

Apparently, the same principle applies to the motion of many other creatures. The take-home lesson is that what, at first glance, appeared to be inferior design (opposing forces) actually turned out to be superior design!

PENGUIN ROCKETS

Another recent robotic study which shows promise is one inspired by the talents of emperor penguins. While these creatures look pretty inept on land, in the water they can accelerate from 0 to 7 meters/second in less than a second (a veritable rocket).

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One student at Caltech’s Aeronautics Department set out to create new propulsion technologies with high maneuverability and improved hydrodynamic efficiency. The new mechanical design is based on the penguin’s shoulder and wing system and features a spherical joint with various other technical features. Concerning the promise of the study, the student declared that the manner in which penguins swim is still poorly understood. Nevertheless, by accurately reproducing an actual penguin wing movement, he and his collaborators hope to shed light on the swimming mysteries of these underwater rockets (ScienceDaily.com November 14, 2013).

THE FLY EYE

There are many other examples of unrecognized excellence in design. For example, the compound eye of insects and other invertebrates is often considered to be less ideal than our own camera eyes. However, a recent study that modeled the compound eye found that it does offer some advantages over the camera style eye (Young Min Song et al. Nature. May 2, 2013).

Specifically the compound eye provides for an exceptionally wide field of view, and secondly such an eye has a nearly infinite depth of focus. As an object recedes away from the eye, the object becomes smaller, but it still remains in focus. It is apparent that in the case of eye design, there is no such thing as inferior design. There is instead good design that is more applicable to certain applications than to others.

GOD TELLS US TO EXPECT “INFERIOR” DESIGN

Obviously however there are many situations in nature that are less than ideal. This is a fallen world and there are many cases where we see distressing phenomena. The secular argument that a good God would never mandate inferior design is simply not valid. God cursed nature as a result of man’s sin, so we have no reason to expect wholesale perfection, and the former “very good” creation now displays many inferior design choices. For example in Job 39:13-17 we read:

The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
   but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
For she leaves her eggs to the earth
   and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them
   and that the wild beasts may trample them.
She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
   though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear,
because God has made her forget wisdom
   and given her no share in understanding.

Clearly, the breeding behavior of the ostrich is suboptimal but nevertheless designed by God. Yet “when she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider” (Job 39:18). The strong legs of this bird and her running prowess also come from God. These gifts are a strong contrast to the behavioral deficits of the ostrich.

The evolutionists think they have proven that God did not work in nature. However, since their argument depends upon a discussion (however faulty) of the nature of God, this is a religious argument. Since they claim to have ruled out all religious arguments, then how can they use arguments concerning what God would or would not do – arguments touching on the character of God – to prove evolution? They need to make up their minds. If they want to explore the character of God and why He’d allow brokenness in the world, then let’s open our Bibles.

As for Christians, despite the fallen condition of the world, we can still enjoy and benefit from, and give thanks for, the many wonders of creation as coming from God’s divine wisdom.

This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue under the title ” Upon further reflection…” Dr. Margaret Helder is the author of “No Christian Silence on Science.

 

Martin Luther on Creation (III)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527Continuing our journey through Volume One of Luther’s Works, we come to another point that we have addressed here previously, and that is the claim that “young earth six-day creationism” is a relative newcomer on the theological scene, and specifically the product of American “fundamentalism.” 

Once again, even a cursory study of historical theology disproves these claims, and a study of Martin Luther’s teaching makes it clear. 

“We know from Moses,” Luther writes already in the third paragraph of his first lecture, “that the world was not in existence before 6,000 years ago. Of this is it altogether impossible to convince a philosopher, because, according to Aristotle, no first man or last man can be conceded.” 

My point here is not to argue that the world can be no more than 6,000 years old. That’s not a hill I’m willing to die on, although theologians that I respect do argue for a strict Biblical chronology, basing themselves on the genealogical record included in Scripture to estimate that about 6,000 years have passed since the creation week. My point is, first of all, that “young earth creationism” is no novel idea; far from being the product of an American fundamentalist response to evolutionism, this has been the default view throughout the history of the church. Luther knew nothing of the developments that would arise in the 19th Century, when evolutionary geology would open the doors to the development of evolutionary biology and the idea that the universe is billions, and not thousands, of years old. But his conclusions, developed in the context of debates with non-Christian philosophers, were that the earth is, in relative terms, “young.” 

As for a “literal” six days of creation, this understanding of Scripture’s teaching also has a lengthy pedigree – as do competing viewpoints which deny that creation occurred during one week of regular days. Luther turns his attention to this topic in his discussion of the creation of human beings on the sixth day, and declares his opposition to “Hilary and others, who maintained that God created everything at the same time”:

“Here our opinion is supported: that the six days were truly six natural days, because here Moses says that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day. One may not use sophistries with reference to this text. But concerning the order of creation of man he will state in the following chapter that Eve was made sometime after Adam, not like Adam, from a clod of earth, but from his rib, which God took out of the side of Adam as he slept. These are all works of time, that is, works that require time. They were not performed in one moment; neither were these acts: that God brings to Adam every animal and that there was not found one like him, etc. These are acts requiring time, and they were performed on the sixth day.”

Today, “six-day creationism” is opposed to the evolutionary idea that the world as we know it is the product of billions of years of development, whether guided by God, in the case of theistic evolution or progressive creationism, or not guided or directed by anything at all. In Luther’s day, and before, this understanding stood in opposition to instantaneous creation (which Augustine and Hilary held to), and the philosophical idea of the eternity of matter. But regardless of the nature of opposing viewpoints, the Biblical argument remains the same.

And that Biblical argument, far from being peripheral or a minor point on which we can simply “agree to disagree,” is in fact a foundational one. God has spoken. His Word is perfect, and is our ultimate authority. With Luther, we must strongly maintain that “one may not use sophistries with reference to this text.” What is sophistry? According to the definition I found, sophistry is “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.” We have received the Word of Truth, and we need to do our utmost to “rightly handle” that Word (2 Timothy 2:15). The issue of our origins is intimately linked to the issue of our fall, and that of our redemption. All must be rightly handled. May God help us to do just that.

Martin Luther on Creation (II)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527The ancient Hebrew cosmology, we’re told repeatedly, included an understanding that there is a hard shell over the earth, known as the “firmament.” We’ve addressed this misunderstanding here before, but once again, Martin Luther has something to teach us on this subject.

I’m returning to the first volume of Luther’s Works, and specifically what he had to say about the firmament in Genesis 1:6.  Why? Because Luther is correct here, when he explains the meaning of the Hebrew word “raqia” (“expanse,” or “firmament”). Luther writes:

“The Hebrew word “raqia” denotes ‘something spread out,’ from the verb ‘raqa,’ which means ‘to expand’ or ‘to fold out.’ The heaven was made in this manner, that the unformed mass extended itself outward as the bladder of a pig extends itself outward in circular form when it is inflated – if I may be permitted to make use of a coarse comparison in order to make the process clear.”

But what about Job 37:18? That verse says:

“Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?” 

Isn’t it clear from this verse, found in one of the earliest books of the Old Testament, that the ancient cosmology did in fact include a hard shell above the earth? So goes the argument; the creation account reflects the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, and as such does not describe in “literal” terms the makeup of the universe.

Luther responds:

“This pertains not to the material but to the Word, which makes very strong even that which is very soft by nature. What is softer than water, what is thinner and finer than air? Yet because these very fine and soft substances were created by the Word, they preserve their form and motion most perfectly and firmly. But even if the heaven had been constructed of steel or of an infinitely harder material, it would break and melt because of its swift, long, and continuous motion. The sun, too, would melt one day as a result of its swift motion, even if it consisted of the hardest material. For motion produces great heat; in fact, Aristotle declares that the lead on an arrow melts on account of its swift motion.” 

Luther’s explanation of the nature of the firmament is interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, he debunks the “solid dome” idea in a few words, and does so by doing the work of exegesis using the text of Scripture itself in the first place. He goes on to add:

“Among the Hebrews the firmament got its name from the expanding. Thus in Psalm 104 the comparison with skins and camp tents, taken from military life, cleverly alludes to the word. The expression is: ‘Stretching out the heaven like a tent curtain’ (Ps. 104:2). ‘For just as a folded-up tent is unfolded and pitched in a field,’ the psalm says,’ so Thou dost spread out and, as it were, unroll by Thy Word the unformed heaven, where Thou dost sit invisibly in the whole of creation, just as in a sphere, within all things and outside all things.’”

In the second place, Luther interacted with the scientific knowledge that he had available to him – in this case, the teaching of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and later the conclusions of contemporary philosophers. But he does so not in order to re-interpret Scripture to conform with the philosophers’ conclusions. Rather, this knowledge leads him to glorify God and the power of his creative and providential Word. This philosophical (or scientific, to use the modern term) knowledge is limited and provisional. It is always subject to revision. It’s useful, Luther says, but it’s useful within its limits:

“It would… be the height of stupidity to sneer at these ideas [those of the philosophers or scientists of the day], as some do, because they are not so definite that they could not be otherwise. They contribute toward teaching the arts, and this is sufficient.”

But in the end, writes Luther:

“We Christians must… be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of these things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them and admit our lack of knowledge rather than either wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding. We must pay attention to the expression of Holy Scripture and abide by the words of the Holy Spirit, whom it pleases to distribute His creatures in this way…”

These are words to live by! We must acknowledge our limitations, the creaturely limitations that are inherent to our very being (the fact that we are limited creatures, and not the Creator), and the additional limitations and distortions of our understanding which were caused by the fall into sin. 

Martin Luther on Creation (I)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527I recently acquired a copy of  Luther’s Works, Volume 1: Lectures on Genesis 1-5. It’s always enjoyable to read Luther, and his typically “earthy” style is in evidence in this volume, even though these are transcriptions of Luther’s original lectures, with the occasional addition made by a later writer. As the editor of this volume says, “The hands are sometimes the hands of the editors, but the voice is nevertheless the voice of Luther.”

These lectures were originally delivered nearly five hundred years ago. But despite their age, and despite the fact that Luther seeks to correct errors that were then common, but which have now been replaced by others, there is much here that is very applicable to current discussions on the Biblical account of creation. “Everything old is new again,” as the song says. Or even better, “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes.

The first aspect of Luther’s lectures that is worth noting is Luther’s humility before God’s Word. Luther often wrote and spoke brashly, but like John Calvin, he knew when to be silent, and he knew that the believer’s proper posture before God’s Word is one of absolute humility. And so, speaking of the eternity of God, he writes:

“He is within, without, and above all creatures; that is, He is still incomprehensible. Nothing else can be said, because our mind cannot grasp what lies outside of time.”

Writing of the creation of light on the first day, Luther reveals the same sort of humble acceptance of what God’s Word says:

“Although it is difficult to say what sort of light it was, nevertheless I do not agree that we should without reason depart from the rules of language or that we should by force read meanings into words. Moses says plainly that there was light, and he counts this day as the first of the creation. Therefore I am of the opinion that this was true light and that its motion carried it in a circle, just as sunlight moves in a circle.” 

One more example, from Luther’s comments on Genesis 1:6, shows Luther’s reverence for God’s self-revelation in his word. Regarding the separation of the “waters above” from the “waters below,” Luther explains:

“But Moses says in plain words that the waters were above and below the firmament. Here I, therefore, take my reason captive and subscribe to the Word even though I do not understand it.” 

In a subsequent post or two I’d like to get into some other important points that Luther makes about the creation week that remain very applicable in our context. But even before getting into details, it’s Luther’s approach to the Word that is very instructive, and vitally important. Interpretation of individual passages flows from this starting point: a posture of humble acceptance of God’s Word, even where we are unable to entirely explain it, even where our understanding of it isn’t where we would like it to be.

As the saying of Anselm of Canterbury puts it, “Credo ut intelligam” – “I believe so that I may understand.” 

In subsequent posts, we’ll look at Luther’s lectures on the first chapters of Genesis in some more detail, using the same starting point that Luther himself used.