Review: Friend of Science, Friend of Faith

friend of science friend of faith

Friend of Science, Friend of FaithGregg Davidson. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2019.

Summary:  Shows how we can trust both the witness of scripture and the findings of science as we consider God’s works.

Gregg Davidson begins this account with a story I’ve sadly observed in too many college settings. A students has been raised with a particular interpretation of the Bible’s account of beginnings and all sorts of “answers” to the challenge of evolution. Then she discovers that the real evidence for evolution far more extensive, and that the supposed “objections” to evolution were groundless in light of the actual evidence. A well meaning youth minister brings by a book defending a literal, “plain sense” reading of Genesis, but the student finds it riddled with inconsistencies, misconceptions and false assertions. Forced to choose between science and the interpretation of scripture presented her as true and authoritative, she walked away from her faith, her Bible ending up in a landfill.

Davidson is saddened by this because he is convinced that most of the science versus faith conflicts are needless battles. He proposes three important questions where science and the Bible seem in conflict:

  1. Does the infallibility of Scripture rest on a literal interpretation of the verses in question?
  2. Does the science conflict with the intended message of scripture?
  3. Is the science credible? (p.23).

What Davidson does is illustrate, first with the historic case of heliocentrism, and then in much more depth in the accounts of origins how Genesis may give a true, but not literalistic account of origins that would have “rung true” for it original hearers and readers who would have been baffled by the concordist efforts to reconcile a literal reading with observed evidence. He then shows that in fact science does not clash with the intended meaning of scripture that affirms a universe that emerged ex nihilo, life that arose from the earth, and humans from the dust of the ground, and the evidence of a massive flood in the known world of the Bible.

Having contended for the trustworthiness of biblical accounts, and that read in terms of their intended message, they needn’t conflict with science, Davidson, a geologist by training, turns to the question of the credibility of the science of beginnings, summarizing in wonderful detail both cosmological origins, and the geology and origins of life on earth. He shows the problems the evidence poses for flood geology. He also addresses the objection raised by many of the lack of transitional forms, demonstrating that while this was true at one point, we now have great evidence for these forms in the fossil record showing transitions from dinosaurs to birds, reptiles to mammals, mammals to marine whales, and the origins of human life.

One of the most challenging portions of this book for those who advocate “creation science” is how Davidson exposes the rhetorical moves used to advance this cause: false dichotomies, the twisting of terms, the misapplication of scientific principles like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the misleading ways of telling half a story, the use of distractions, the cherry-picking of quotations, and outright wrong and often outdated information. Some do this from sincere conviction, and I appreciate Davidson’s graciousness with those who do not agree, and his commitment to Christian charity and fellowship with those who differ. But he also challenges others who uphold a particular mode of creation at the expense of truth. The cause of truth and righteousness is never advanced by falsehoods. Their efforts are also misdirected. They become creation evangelists, rather than what Davidson would hope for, people with particular beliefs of what is true who can acknowledge those who read Genesis differently and then say, “so what do you think about Jesus?”

He discusses the intelligent design movement, and the difficulty of arguing for the activity of God in the places evidencing design not yet explicable by science. He confirmed what I’ve long felt that the things we do understand argue as much for the Creator as what we do not, and that to put our emphasis on the inexplicables is to worship a shrinking God, rather than a God, the grandeur of whose work only grows as we understand more of it.

Gregg Davidson represents a growing number of Christians in science who are convinced both of the inspiration and authority of the Bible and the credibility of the results of scientific research. As his title suggests, he is an advocate for a better conversation, a better relationship between science and faith, a friendly rather than adversarial relationship. In this book he makes a strong case from both scripture and science that this is possible, and that adversarial approaches, whether by Christians, or by atheists like Richard Dawkins, are needless, wrong headed, and harmful.

There are people on both sides of the “battle” who have built personal followings and empires that are sustained by the perpetuation of this battle. I frankly hope that Davidson’s book contributes to the opening of the eyes of many to recognize that “the emperor(s) have no clothes,” that they should no longer be heeded, and that former enemies might become friends–friends both of science and faith.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering

Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering
Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Ronald E. Osborn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The problem of predation, animal suffering and death has always posed a theological challenge to those believing in a good God. Those who believe in a literal six day creation and young earth believe the problem is solved by attributing it to the curse following human sin. But this poses the question of why should animals be cursed for what humans did, and may not be supportable in the Genesis text. Likewise, for those who believe in some form of old earth creation or theistic evolution, the problem is that this assumes animal predation, suffering, and death prior to human sin and the question is how can it be argued that God and his creation are “good” if these things occur even before sin entered the picture?

This latter problem is the focus of Osburn’s book, or at least part of the focus. The surprise is that most of his treatment of this question is in the last third of the book. The prior two thirds are devoted to the problem of biblical literalism and our attempts to reconcile biblical accounts of beginnings with what scientific research has uncovered.

He begins by showing that a plain reading of Genesis in its ancient near east context does not require the young earth, scientific creationist reading. The next four chapters are devoted to why this reading is so problematic in terms of hermeneutics, science and reason. He basically contends that the “scientific creationism” movement unwittingly cedes too much to modernism and foundationalist assumptions in its attempt to prove Genesis with science.

He then looks at the sub-culture behind these readings describing them in the next two chapters as a gnostic enclave. He observes the “circle the wagons” and “purge ourselves of those who disagree” tendencies along with a tendency to assume a “knowledge for the pure few” stance that regards others as inferior–a kind of gnosticism. While I’ve observed some examples of this, I felt this section “over the top” and not helpful to his argument. He concludes the first section by citing Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and Maimonides as non-literalist interpreters and argued for a post-foundationalist reading of Genesis with the rest of scripture seeing a “web” of truth.

The second part of the book first critiques the position of animal suffering only being post-fall under the categories of “stasis”, “curse”, and “deception.” He then considers the cosmic conflict position of C.S. Lewis but thinks this gives Satan too much credit. He argues for a position based on Job 38-42 that somehow in a way that is unanswered, this suffering is part of God’s good creation. He cites Kathryn Schifferdecker in concluding this chapter: “But submission to God…means learning to “learning to live in the untamed, dangerous, but stunningly beautiful world that is God’s creation'” (p. 156).

He also argues that it is Christ’s kenotic suffering that closes the circle of the six days of creation as he suffers and dies on sabbath eve bringing true sabbath rest to creation. As an Adventist, Osburn argues for the continuing relevance of sabbath in the church’s practice and that this includes concern for needless animal suffering.

This interesting proposal was marred, in my view, by raising at points the question of whether there was a literal Adam, and calling into question the idea of substitutionary atonement, something that seems a trend among “progressive evangelicals.” He also launches at the end of the penultimate chapter on the evils of “late capitalism” and the question of whether our existence as a species is justified in light of our destructiveness.

Osburn writes with eloquence and elegance about all these matters, but I believe also out of the pain of his own church roots. I felt he distracted at points from good argument with tendentious statements. In the hotly contended area of origins, if one is to write irenically, it seems necessary to choose battles very carefully. My sense is that this book took on too many battles that rendered it less helpful than it could be. I wish the author would have focused more on the title theme and gone into greater depth on these issues.

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Review: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything

Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything
Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything by Gerald Rau
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps I’m stating the obvious but most discussions of origins seem to generate far more heat than light. They preach to the choir of those who agree, fail to engage those with whom they disagree on their own terms and perpetuate the unfortunate notion that Christianity and science are at war with each other. This book is a notable exception to that trend in that it is intended to promote understanding and conversation rather than more controversy.

Gerald Rau takes a novel approach in this book. Rather than taking a side, he lays out six different models that may be found in the current discussions. This itself is important because most of the coverage of this issue assumes two very diametrically opposed options: naturalistic evolution, that there is no god and the universe and all life arose simply through physical causation, and young earth creationism, which treats Genesis 1 as a literal account of how God created the world in six literal days, a world that is approximately 10,000 years old.

Rau identifies four other models and their proponents:

Non-Teleological Evolution: There is a deity but once the universe was created, it developed and evolved apart from any intention of God. This would be Ian Barbour’s position.

Planned Evolution: This assumes a deity who created the universe so perfectly that it evolved according to God’s plan without further intervention. Francis Collins and the Biologos folk would hold this.

Directed Evolution: This assumes a deity who creates the universe and intervenes to direct natural processes. Michael Behe and Loren Haarsma would hold to this model.

Old Earth Creationism: This would take a day-age approach to reading Genesis that assumes God’s creative work in each of these “long days” in which at least the major body plans of living creatures were created separately and did not evolve. Hugh Ross would be a representative of this group.

What Rau then does is shows how each of these models treats four major aspects of origins. His observation is that throughout, all six models are dealing with the same evidence but their interpretation of this evidence is shaped by differing fundamental presuppositions that account for the differences in the models. The four major areas Rau surveys are the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of species, and the origins of humans.

Rau observes that there are difficulties every model has with the evidence as well as varying explanations of both the evidence and the difficulties. For example, the anthropic principle, that observes the existence of 26 constants that allow for the existence of organic life, including human beings poses difficulties for the idea of a randomly arising universe of naturalistic evolution, although proponents would argue that in a multiverse with infinite universes, at least one would satisfy these requirements. Similarly, the commonalities of genetic material across species and the relatively small genetic difference between humans and apes pose questions for those who would argue against some form of evolution, explained by the use of “common design”.

Rau contends that rather than the currently polarized camps around these models, what might be more helpful is recognizing that it might be possible for each to learn from the others, that each has insights that may be useful in explaining some evidence and that this could be more fruitful than our present debates.

His conclusion however goes to the heart of the differences that exist, which are differing definitions of science, and fundamental disagreements about the existence of a God and whether such a God is involved with the physical world and how. My question as I consider this is whether these deepest differences can either be over come or held in abeyance to realize the kind of interchange between proponents of the different models that Rau hopes for.

If that kind of engagement is ever to occur, the work Gerald Rau has done lays excellent groundwork for such interchange. And for those trying to understand the different positions in the origins debate, Rau gives us an excellent “map” of the landscape.

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