Little ado about pretty much nothing
A review of A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and how to study science by Josh A. Reeves and Steve Donaldson
Published: 22 November 2016 (GMT+10)
Both authors are associated with Samford University, a highly-ranked and well-respected Christian university located near Birmingham, Alabama. Both are also professing Christians, so one would expect that they could relate their personal experience in such a way as to encourage the faith development of young Christians in science. I believe they failed in this regard, for multiple reasons.
It should come as no surprise to our long-term readers that Intervarsity Press is supporting old-age views, for they have published other books in favor of theistic evolution, including Darrel Falk’s Coming to Peace with Science, Francis Collins’ bestseller The Language of God, and John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One that were reviewed in the Journal of Creation in 2006, 2007, and 2010, respectively. But even if the current book is not written by ‘biblical creationists’, this does not mean they cannot encourage others, or so I hoped.
Sadly, the book did not ‘speak’ to me. That may sound like a subjective judgment, but for someone like me, who has been a Christian for their entire scientific life and who struggled for years to come to grips with the intersection of science and faith, I found nothing inspirational in the 136 pages of text. There was one entire chapter (“Hope in the face of adversity”, chapter 4) in which I wrote no comments. I had to skim through it again to make sure that I was not daydreaming about other things as I read it. Apparently, I had not; the authors simply took eleven pages to say basically nothing. Throughout the entire text, they never discuss what Christian scientists truly have to struggle with (other than ‘getting along with others’). They never mention any of the schisms that separate us from each other or us from the secularists. And they never suggest that a Christian can hold a view different from evolution. Instead, they want young scientists to, “ … recognize the amount of time used to form creation and marvel at the infinite patience of God” (p. 23). Their one-sided approach is unhelpful.
Yet, this book is perhaps more pernicious than it is devoid of content.
Pretend your opponents don’t exist
An analysis of the citations used by the authors reveals that they in no way intended to address the salient issues that Christians in science face. Collins, Giberson, Polkinghorne, Kitcher, Walton, Numbers … these names are familiar to biblical creationists, as our antagonists. Perhaps the most friendly sources were Peter Harrison and Stephen Snobelen. These are no ‘young-earth’ creationists, but they have at least written about the positive influence of Protestant Christianity—including the grammatical-historical (‘literal’) interpretation of Scripture—on the development of modern science (see Lael Weinberger’s review of Harrison’s The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science). But since Harrison and Snobelen can be cited by both sides of the creation/evolution debate, the fact that they appear in this book in no way supports the idea that the authors are ‘reaching across the aisle’. With this list of referenced works, it comes as no surprise when they say, “Thus, while those steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition are encouraged by the likes of Francis Collins to relax their grip on a literal reading of Genesis” (p. 132) without ever really stating why this is important (to them). Instead, they slide the suggestion in sideways without even a hint that this is a debatable subject.
Can one have faith and science at the same time?
How do they address the big questions Christians face? First, they appeal to the “two books” fallacy. This is an old ploy that attempts to separate biblical revelation from observational science, as if the Bible OR science can be correct. Second, and this is really the only solution they suggest, they appeal to “accommodation” (pp. 26 and 102). That’s it. There is nothing else.
To be fair, they discuss the limits of the ‘two books’ concept, but fail to engage anything substantive about how it really works (i.e., that naturalism always eventually replaces revelation in practical experience). And as far as accommodation is concerned, can God not fix people’s misunderstandings? They say, “Some truths would be too overwhelming or complex for the ancient Israelites or first-century followers of Jesus to understand” (p. 102). But this is absolute poppycock! Was Jesus being born of a virgin too hard for them to understand? How about His resurrection? Or the fact that God can number the stars and call them by name? Was it too difficult to grasp the fact that God had the power to simply speak the entire universe into existence or that “even the wind and waves” obeyed Jesus?
All God had to do was say “a long time elapsed” in reference to the historical timeline just once in any number possible locations in the text. There are multiple places in Scripture where such phrases are used in a future sense, and multiple places that describe God existing in the deep or eternal past, but there is nothing to suggest that creation existed before a few thousand years ago. Yet it would have been trivial to turn some of these long-time-period phrases around and apply them to the chronology in a past sense. This is especially true since we know some ancient cultures (e.g., Mayans, Hindus) believed the earth was much older than the ancient Israelites did. The fact that all such phraseology is absent from Genesis and supporting passages is the strongest evidence one could wish for if they were trying to figure out if the world was young or old, and it just so happens that essentially nothing in the text supports the old-earth view.
They want young Christians simply to accept deep time and assume that ancient people were not smart enough to understand the concept. They appeal to “community” often, but I found myself not trusting their admonitions either to scientific or theological community. They spend a long time discussing pride and humility and how it affects both the work of a scientist and how that scientist relates to fellow believers and unbelievers in their field. Yet, while this could have been edifying, I cannot see how anything that was written would not be already known to just about anybody. People can be challenged in this regard from parents, teachers, numerous self-help guides and gurus, and even the most lukewarm sermon.
They also want us to interpret the Bible “with humility and charity” which should “motivate us to consider other positions with openness” (pp. 100–101). Yet they reveal their cards by not even once suggesting that there are alternate views out there beside their own. If they wanted to display humility and charity, they would at least have offered an olive branch of understanding to their young-earth brethren. Instead they say, “An inflexible approach can also create unnecessary road blocks for those considering the Christian faith” (p. 100). This is a typical line we often hear coming from old-earth supporters and/or theistic evolutionists. But for every person turned away by an “inflexible” approach, how many others are turned away by a wishy-washy approach that ignores the plain meaning of words? Unsubstantiated assertions do not establish the superiority of an argumentative approach.
In the end, there is nothing in the book to recommend. It might be nice for a young scientist to know that there are fellow travelers walking the hallowed halls of the ivory towers, but all they do is tell those young scientists to bend with the wind. Sadly, there are two other books in this series, A Little book for New Theologians by Kelly Kapic and A little Book for New Philosophers by Paul Copan. IVP’s track record thus far is dismal. Thus I do not hold out much hope for these volumes.