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and Detailed Conversation
A Review of
Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?
Kenneth Keathley, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre, Eds.
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2017
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Religious faith and scientific study haven’t always been at odds, but over the last few decades, few interdisciplinary conversations have been as publicly contentious. Between the rise of New Atheism and the speed of scientific discovery, the culture wars have persisted when it comes to issues like evolution/creation, the age of the earth, and more. These debates haven’t always been amicable, even within Christian circles, but two organizations committed to looking at these fields of study look for healthy ways to advance conversation. BioLogs and Reasons to Believe (RTB) have turned a decade’s worth of interaction into Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?, a work designed to present not only views of the two groups, but also the charitable attitude that informs their ongoing discussions.
The book, in bringing the two groups together, avoids a more expected structure in which two positions vie with each other. Instead, multiple voices from each side discuss a broad range of topics, with Southern Baptist moderators helping to redirect conversation and raise questions as needed. The format removes the possibility of reading the discussion as a debate with a potential winner, creating more of a platform for conversation with room for developing thought and clarification. The sincerity of all participants to hear as well as to be heard comes through, offering a sound model for fruitful dialogue on potentially divisive issues.
With an explicit goal of allowing BioLogos and RTB the chance to explain who they are and what they hope to achieve, the editors wisely begin the book (after introductions) with a chapter answering the question, “What views define your organization?” It takes the entire length of the book to formulate proper answers, but these essays by BioLogos’s Deborah Haarsma and RTB’s Hugh Ross and Kenneth Samples provide essential information on the two group, showing both their distinct thinking and objectives.
Haarsma explains that “the mission of BioLogos is to invite the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation” (9). This organization includes a wider range of viewpoints than does RTB, describing itself more as a community than a “membership organization” (10). The group does typically “affirm the process of science taking place in the larger scientific community” (13). There’s a sense of the value of and frequent agreement with mainstream scientific work (including that on evolution), followed by the thoughtful consideration of related metaphysical questions.
RTB describes itself an apologetics organization focused on evangelism, particularly in its effort “to spread the Christian gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research…consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible” (14). Although the doctrines held by members are more consistent with each other, the RTB approach requires a little more unpacking than does their colleagues’. RTB relies more on a specifically Christian approach to science, noting Scripture’s predictive power even in natural history and the importance of intelligent design work. They describe their model as a “constructive integration model” (23). That view could be labeled soft concordism (as opposed to the hard concordism strongly rejected by writers like Denis O. Lamoureux). Kenneth Samples clarifies this model well in a later chapter, explaining the work needed to connect Scripture with contemporary science by maintaining proper exegetical methods and avoiding strained interpretations.
After solid introductions for the two organizations, the conversation proper follows through a well planned progression, from a chapter on biblical authority through one on the uniqueness of human beings. The sections could be read in any order (after the introductions), but it helps that they flow naturally over the course of the book, particularly over the final three true chapters, which focus on hominid fossils, genetics, and anthropology.
In the process of reading, the distinctions between the two groups gain clarity. They do share much in common, although a hermeneutical gap stands between them, and it’s not just a question of Biblical interpretations. BioLogos and RTB find different ways to read the world. RTB essentially rejects even methodological naturalism; its scientific work comes more entangled with theology than does that of its peers (though BioLogos acknowledges an awareness of theological presuppositions). Jeff Zweerink writes that RTB “highlight how the Judeo-Christian worldview anchors the necessary conditions for a thriving scientific enterprise. Second, we try to determine what the Bible has to say that might provide a testable claim” (115).
That entanglement poses a few problems for RTB. Their testable claims make for a nice use of scientific methodology within a theological framework, but their predictive models stretch traditional exegesis. Scriptures that say that God “stretches out the heavens” don’t need to be read as insight into an expanding universe, and such strained readings seem to get RTB off track at times (112). The more immediate reading of such texts makes for a clearer understanding without harming the group’s evangelistic mission.
Amid these sorts of differentiations, a great pleasure in the book lies in seeing Christian scholars engage each other with openness and humility. Late in the book, particularly in the chapter on anthropology, we see this work taken to its best conclusion, in which authors show not only a familiarity with each other’s work, but a comfort in learning from these resources. While a dialectic never develops, the conversation visibly moves work in this area forward, and it’s a treat to watch it happen.
The book doesn’t provide answers, but it opens plenty of doors to further exploration. Most of these concepts are far too demanding to deal with in a single chapter, but the flow of the conversation as well as the consistent citations allow easy access for more in-depth work. The field of genetics – dealing here with ancestral population sizes and the Mitochondrial Eve/Y-Chromosome Adam issue – offers some of the most demanding material, not least because these are some of the least publicly discussed ideas. BioLogos rightly points to its own blog series as an excellent follow-up read, while RTB’s Fuz Rana and Hugh Ross’s Who Was Adam? becomes a natural next step. (In this section, Rana also offers succinct points about the limiting nature of scientific presuppositions.)
Those exchanges and introductions to the topics aptly fulfill the mission of the book’s creators. Haarsma writes, “Our primary goal was not to change each other’s core positions, but to remove misconceptions, discover areas of consensus, and learn to articulate each other’s positions with accuracy and generosity (222). Ross notes the desire “to bring a measure of resolution and peace to the creation/evolution issues” and recognizes the need for a “clear understanding of the positions, goals, priorities, strategies, and core values held by the two organizations” (223). The participants in this project successfully achieve these goals, and the work should serve as a model of passionate and detailed coversation held within a spiritual community, promoting reconciliation and resisting division.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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