Review: Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles?

Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? Ian Hutchinson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Veritas Books, 2018.

Summary: A collection of responses to questions about God and science asked by students at Veritas Forums on university campuses throughout the country.

There is a popular conception that science and religion are at war and that anyone who is engaged in scientific research rejects the idea of a God. If that is the case, Ian Hutchinson apparently didn’t get the memo. That’s all the more extraordinary because Hutchison is a plasma physicist doing research and teaching at MIT. He has published over two hundred peer-reviewed articles and at least two books in his field. And he didn’t grow up Christian, as he shares in this book. He came to faith in college after a careful search.

Hutchinson has been willing to go public with his faith, speaking at a number of university campuses through the Veritas Forum. One of the features of these speaking engagements are audience questions from students in attendance. Over the years, he has collected these questions, many of which concern how scientists can possibly embrace the Christian faith. In this work, after sharing his own journey to faith and subsequent life, he organizes these into thirteen chapters. In this case, listing the table of contents may be the best way to summarize the issues he covers:

Preface
1. A Spiritual Journey
2. Are There Realities Science Cannot Explain?
3. What Is Faith?
4. Do Scientists Have Faith?
5. Does Reason Support Christian Belief?
6. What Is Scientism?
7. Is There Really Spiritual Knowledge?
8. Creation and Cosmology
9. Do Miracles Happen?
10. The Bible and Science
11. Of All the World’s Religions, Why Christianity?
12. Why Does God Seem Hidden?
13. Is There Good and Evil?
14. Personal Consequences: So What?

As you can see, the title of the work is just one of these chapters. How he approaches this is a good reflection of the approach of the whole book. He starts with a definition of a miracle: a miracle is an extraordinary act of God. He observes that because of its extraordinary character, the existence of miracles cannot be proven or disproven because science requires reproducibility. This is actually modest because he admits that miracles involve interpretation. All science can do is speak to the likelihood of such an event. He also argues that the inviolability of nature’s laws is not a doctrine of science. Natural explanations of events needn’t be the only explanations. Quantum reality actually suggests a universe that is not a closed system of natural laws. He discounts many miracle legends and focuses on the miracles of the incarnation and resurrection as central to Christianity. Along the way, he addresses natural explanations as well as the possibility of miracles in other religions, arguing that these are most worth considering when consistent with the whole worldview of that religion.

Several things are striking: there is respect for the questions, the responses both explore the logic, as well as possible misconceptions, of the question and then offers reasoned responses with significant documentation. Throughout, there is high regard for the work of scientists and the results of science and the conviction that there is nothing in science that calls into question the existence of God or the truth of the central claims of Christianity. Actually, the question that is the most challenging for Hutchinson is not a scientific one but rather the existence of evil and the questions it raises of the goodness of God. He does offer thoughtful responses to this as well, and observes that evil is also a problem for the atheist.

Because of the question-based format, this does feel a bit like a question and answer session. That may be useful as a reference for someone who has similar questions or friends who do. It also reflects the tone I’ve witnessed when I’ve heard Hutchinson speak: articulate, forthright but not arrogant, gracious and yet well-reasoned. One interlocutor told me that he had checked out Hutchinson ahead of time and agreed to engage with him, convinced that they would have a real conversation, not a set up. And that’s what one finds here.

Review: Science and the Doctrine of Creation

Science and the Doctrine of Creation, Edited by Geoffrey H. Fulkerson and Joel Thomas Chopp, afterword by Alister E. McGrath. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of ten modern theologians and how each engaged science in light of the doctrine of creation.

Creation and science. These are often viewed in conflict and the discussion of how these relate is often a contentious space. This work takes a more constructive approach based on the idea that the doctrine of creation consists of far more than how humans came to exist. We fail to consider the God who has created, what is entailed in the act of creating, and what the nature and end of what is created.

Rather than seeking to articulate the doctrine of creation, this work considers ten theologians from the last two centuries, how they engaged the science of their day, and brought their particular grasp of the doctrine of creation to bear on this engagement. There are both recurring themes and divergences among these ten voices. Each chapter begins with a brief biography of the theologian, a discussion averaging about twenty pages, with resources for further reading at the conclusion of the chapter.

The theologians discussed and authors of the chapters are:

William Burt Pope (Fred Sanders). Pope distinguished between primary creation, in which God calls all things into existence, and secondary creation, the formation of an ordered universe, which both scripture and science may inform.

Abraham Kuyper (Craig Bartholomew). Kuyper both affirms creation, common grace and the image of God that grounds the scientific enterprise, and how nonregenerate thought in all dimensions of thought is flawed. For Kuyper, this meant neither unqualified endorsement of evolution nor uncritical opposition.

B. B. Warfield (Bradley J. Gundlach). Warfield hosted Kuyper’s Princeton Stone Lectures. Many have claimed Warfield for eolution. Gundlach offers a more nuanced picture, emphasizing both Warfield’s humble and open approach to the science of his day while focusing on creation (including the idea of mediate creation), providence and supernaturalism.

Rudolf Bultmann (Joshua W. Jipp). This chapter looks at how Bultmann’s demythologization project applied to creation, with the conclusion that scripture doesn’t give us an objective view of the world or ontology. It is rather “faith in man’s present determination by God.” Jipp prefers the concord Alvin Plantinga sees between science and faith to the bifurcated view of Bultmann.

Karl Barth (Katherine Sonderegger). Barth had little to say about theology and natural science. Sonderegger contrasts Barth and Schleiermacher, emphasizing Barth’s doctrine of creation as one that “lays claim to the whole of reality.”

T. F. Torrance (Kevin J. Vanhoozer). Torrance propounded a “kataphysical” theology that brought together ontology and epistemology, denying a divergence between the way things appear and the way they are. Central to all of this Christ, the God-man, who is homoousios, of the same substance with the Father and the Spirit.

Jürgen Moltmann (Stephen N. Williams). Williams explores Moltmann’s “open system” doctrine of God and his vision of a common environment of science and theology.

Wolfhart Pannenberg (Christoph Schwöbel). Drawing on Faraday’s “field of force,” Pannenberg developed a theology of nature that is neither mechanistic nor a “God of the gaps” but rooted in the unity of all reality.

Robert Jenson (Stephen John Wright). Drawing on narrative and history, ideas of time and eternity, and Christology, Jenson contended both science and theology focused on the same reality, the world of creation.

Colin E. Gunton (Murray A. Rae). Gunton’s theological career focused on a reinvigorated understanding of the Trinity. Rae focused on how Gunton’s understanding of the Triune creator affirms creation ex nihilo, a contingent creation, and science as an extension of the human cultural mandate.

One of the themes running through a number of these chapters was the importance of understanding the nature of God to understand the nature of creation. Also, a number of the chapters countered the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea with a unitive vision of theology and science grounded God’s being and activity. One consequence is the intelligibility of the world, both through revelation and science.

This is a valuable resource for the science-theology conversation that moves beyond evolution debates. Both the theologians featured and those who write of them model humble appreciation of both the creative work of God and scientific inquiry. Not only do these contributions underscore, as Alister McGrath notes in the afterword, the coherence of Christian faith, but they highlight the glory of the Creator in the creation.

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

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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