Book Write-Up: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins

Robert C. Bishop, Larry L. Funck, Raymond J. Lewis, Stephen O. Moshier, John H. Walton. Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

This textbook runs over 600 pages and covers various topics concerning origins. These topics include the origin of the universe, the geological history of earth, the origin of life on earth, how species originated and became diverse, and the origins of humanity. These issues have been controversial within Christianity because scientists’ conclusions conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3. According to a number of Christians, a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 suggests that the universe is less than 10,000 years old, that God created each kind of animal separately, that the creation of humans occurred separately from that of animals, that all of humanity descended from one man and one woman, and that death originated through the sin of Adam and Eve. Many Christians believe that the order of the universe can only be explained as the product of deliberate creation and design at the hands of a creator, not by chance. The prominent scientific narrative, by contrast, holds that the cosmos and earth are millions of years old, that all of life (animal and human) descended from a common ancestor, that death and disorder long preexisted humanity, and that life and natural order can be explained by appeal to natural causes, not necessarily a Creator.

This textbook is written from an evangelical Christian perspective, yet it largely embraces the prominent scientific narrative. It goes through the topics, demonstrating how and why scientists have arrived at the conclusions that they have. It also engages the topics theologically, as it contends that the scientific consensus is consistent with themes in Scripture, while also treating nature and Scripture as two books about God. Its perspective is a Biologos perspective, which many might label as “theistic evolution.” Among its theological conclusions are:

—-that God made nature to minister to nature, so natural order does not need to be from God’s direct hand but can have natural causes;

—-that science and the Bible both, in their own way, depict humanity and animals as having a common origin;

—-that Adam and Eve were not necessarily the first humans from whom all descended but were priestly representatives of humanity;

—-that the Holy Spirit is continually at work in creation; the implication seems to be that God did not create the universe in a state of pristine perfection, after which it fell due to the sin of Adam and Eve; rather, the Holy Spirit is continually active;

—-that the image of God is not so much a characteristic of humanity that God gave to humans that distinguishes them from the animals, as a divine mission that God gave to humans.

Here are some thoughts:

A. The book went over my head in a number of places. Those interested in a very basic, lucid introduction to scientific issues may be disappointed with this book. At the same time, this book is rich in information, and it has important insights. For instance, in addressing William Dembski’s argument that bacterial flagella needed a designer, the book offers an additional consideration: “Dembski’s estimate showing the improbability of the origin of bacterial flagella seems to be based on the assumption that the assemblage of proteins is completely random. It does not recognize the evidence of use, reuse, and co-option of components that is emerging from recent studies of genomes and the development that is resulting in an emerging extended synthesis of evolutionary theory” (page 541). I cannot say that I understand that, but it sounds like a relevant consideration!

B. There were plenty of cases in which the book actually engages the arguments of young earth creationists. It has charts laying out the different views on geological history, for example. In some cases, though, greater engagement with young earth creationist arguments may have been helpful. The book simply assumes that humans and chimpanzees have over ninety percent similary in their DNA, but young earth creationist Dr. Georgia Purdom argues that this figure is exaggerated, that evolutionists are only comparing a small amount of the DNA. Maybe she is wrong, but her argument does deserve to be addressed.

C. Later in the book, the book got rather dismissive of certain perspectives, calling them “concordist.” It practically became a buzz-word!

D. The book argues that a functional view of the image of God better accounts for how disabled people can still be in God’s image, even if they lack some or many of the characteristics that theologians may consider the “image of God.” Is the functional view any better, however? It seems to define the divine image according to people’s ability to serve and rule creation. The functional view is arguably as ableist as the view that the book criticizes. The functional view may have insights, but it can use development, showing that all people can contribute to the order and beauty of life.

E. The book acknowledges that the history of biblical interpretation has treated Adam and Eve as two historical individuals who are the ancestors of all of humanity. If I were to reconcile Genesis 1-3 with the prominent scientific narrative, I would probably accept John Walton’s scenario: that Adam and Eve were priestly representatives of humanity rather than the ancestors of all humanity. It has some things going for it: Cain in Genesis 4:14-16 seems to acknowledge the existence of people outside of the little circle of Adam, Eve, and Cain and Abel. But the history of biblical interpretation is a formidable challenge to Walton’s view.

F. The book contained some interesting details, such as details about Darwin’s religious journey, and the statement that evolution challenged Aristotle’s treatment of the species as fixed. The different scientific views on the origins of life from the primordial soup are also noteworthy.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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