Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide
Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science
Reviewed by Michael Buratovich, Biochemistry, Spring Arbor University
On July 7, 2016, Answers in Genesis’s Ark Encounter opened to the public. This attraction features an enormous wooden replica of Noah’s Ark, 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 51 feet high. The Ark Encounter and the exhibits housed within it argue that the Earth is “covered with billions of fossils in rock layers laid down by water—even on top of mountains.”1 Ken Ham, the president, CEO, and founder of Answers in Genesis, asserts that “Scripture teaches that God created everything—not just humans—6,000 years ago.”2 Evolution, under such time constraints, becomes flatly impossible. Why then do many people and the majority of scientists accept it? According to Ham:
Sadly, many people are blinded to the truth of the history recorded in God’s Word because they are actively suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, as Romans 1 makes clear. It’s not that they need more evidence—they have all the evidence they need, but they suppress it.3
Two recent books written by Christian scholars would take issue with such statements. The first, by biologist Gary Fugle, argues that scientists adhere to the modern theory of evolution because of the overwhelming evidence adduced in its favor and that Christian scientists can accept the theory of evolution and still be orthodox. The second, by Old Testament scholar Kyle Greenwood, argues that the interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis espoused by Ham and others reads our modern twentieth-century science into an ancient text. Both books make major contributions to the Creation/Evolution debate.
Fugle, Professor Emeritus of Biology at Butte College (Oroville, CA), has written an irenic book that avoids harsh words despite his disagreements with fellow Christians. His book serves as a model for future creation/evolution discussions. Brought up in a solid Christian home, and nurtured in a conservative, evangelical Christian church, Fugle nursed an inveterate interest in science. In college, however, he learned views of the origin of life that conflicted with what he thought the Bible taught. After intense professional and personal reflection on the matter, Fugle decided: “I have come to a very simple conclusion: both creation and evolution are true!” (7).
In the sections that follow, Fugle seeks to answer why he came to such a conclusion. After surveying the Scriptural data and the thinking of the early church Fathers and the Reformers on the subject of creation, Fugle concludes that although both the Old and New Testaments affirm repeatedly that God created all there is, the means of and time-scale involved in creation have never been a litmus test of orthodoxy. Rather, tolerance and uncertainty have characterized many views of Genesis. Later, Fugle also notes that the scientific enterprise must assume that natural forces are at work in order to work at all. Science “does not inherently provide theistic information, ethical direction, or value judgments” (70), and, therefore, has neither the tools nor the methods to study the supernatural. He next references the time-honored acknowledgement that God utilizes secondary causes. Evolutionary mechanisms such as natural selection, mutation, and genetic drift certainly qualify as secondary causes for making new species. The underlying message of this section is the inherent value of science and its complementary fit with the message of Scripture.
In the fourth section of Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide, Fugle examines a variety of scientific data that seem to provide evidence for evolution. For example, particular structures such as the small digits on either side of the feet of elk, the perfectly formed wings under the fused wing covers of flightless beetles, and the rudimentary pelvis embedded in the bodies of whales have lost their original functions. These vestigial structures are “remnants of fully developed structures that were present in an ancestral past” (142). Both spontaneous creation and evolution predict adaptation in nature, but only the evolutionary model can convincingly explain such non-adaptive structures. Other examples include temporary and often functionally useless developmental remnants that reflect primitive ancestral conditions. For example, terrestrial salamanders form gills early in development but resorb them before the animals hatch and never use them. Also, most adult snails and slugs have their anus near the back of their neck since the digestive system twists about in a process called “torsion.” Sea slugs (nudibranchs) have their anus at the back of the body, but they still undergo torsion during development and then undo it by means of “detorsion.” An evolutionary origin of the nudibranchs nicely explains torsion as an artifact from developmental pathways that were present in the nudibranch ancestors and were augmented in nudibranchs to change the position of the anus. However, this developmental phenomenon seems inexplicable to spontaneous creationism.
Fugle also discusses particular fossil organisms that seem to blur the boundaries between modern creatures. For example, the shallow-water-dwelling Tiktaalik had characteristics of fish and amphibians. The dinosaur Sinornithosaurus had feathers and elongated arms like a bird, but teeth, a long body tail, and unfused vertebrae like a reptile. Additionally, a sequence of fossil creatures (Pakicetus, Ambulocetus, Rodhocetus, and Basilosaurus) increasingly share anatomical features with modern whales, but had four legs with the peculiar ankle bones of certain types of hoofed animals (artiodactylates) and some even had hooves on the ends of their digits. Over time, descendants of these animals lost their hind legs, but modern whales have rudimentary pelvic bones, and toothless whales even form teeth during embryonic development that eventually resorb; both features are remnants of ancestral creatures that had hind limbs and teeth. These are but a few of the organisms with transitional features in the fossil record that are better explained by the evolutionary model.
In the final section, Fugle offers a reading of Genesis in light of evolutionary biology. He argues, as did John Calvin, that in Scripture God accommodated himself to the fallible understandings of human beings and therefore did not intend to provide detailed scientific knowledge. Therefore, the creation narratives teach timeless truths that are not tied to changeable scientific theories. While many will not find Fugle’s arguments convincing, we should commend the spirit in which he offers them.
Kyle Greenwood’s Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science, though not as personal as Fugle’s book, reads briskly. Greenwood begins with a survey of the cosmological understanding and beliefs of the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Palestine), documented by copious extensive references to ancient texts and archeological finds. Comparisons of the cosmology of the Ancient Near East (ANE) to that of the Scriptures reveal striking similarities. Both the ANE and the authors of Scripture consistently viewed their world as consisting of three domains: the heavens, the earth, and the sea. In both Egypt and Mesopotamia, as in the Bible, the earth “was thought to be a flat disk” and the horizon “constituted the ends of the earth” (41). The Bible’s repeated use of “the ends of the earth” seems to underscore this. In both the ANE and the Scriptures, the earth was understood to be surrounded by water and was supported by foundational pillars. The sky was universally regarded as a solid structure that served as the “ceiling to which the celestial bodies were fixed.” The heavens also “provided a floor for the heavenly deities and their abodes,” and “served as a barrier for the upper waters” (55). Since the solid heavens held back the heavenly waters above it, “there must have been gates or windows through which these forms of precipitation fell” (65). The ANE and the Bible also tended to divide the heavens into the lower heavens (the observable skies, clouds, stars, and other visible heavenly bodies), and the upper heavens that “were reserved for the deities” (61). In the Scriptures and the ANE literature, “the depths,” served as the realm of the dead (although Greenwood’s rendering of Job 5:7 as referring to plague demons is altogether unconvincing). Furthermore, the “waters of the deep,” the source of all salt water and fresh water, resided underneath the surface of the earth. Greenwood also convincingly demonstrates that the ANE understanding of the cosmos is not limited to Genesis 1-11, but permeates the entire Bible. He argues that God used the cosmological understandings of the ANE to communicate his truths to his people without attempting to correct their “science.”
By the Hellenistic period, the ANE cosmology gave way to Aristotelian cosmology with its spherical earth and “concentric, solid spheres centered around the earth, whose predictable movements could be accounted for by an Unmoved Mover” (127). In A.D. 85, Claudius Ptolemais, better known as Ptolemy, integrated Aristotle’s cosmology into the available astronomical observations to generate the Ptolemaic cosmology that dominated astronomical research until the seventeenth century. Remarkably, as ably noted by Greenwood, although Aristotelian cosmology is not found in the Bible, interpreters of the Bible from Philo of Alexandria to John Calvin largely adopted it. The three-tiered model of the cosmos as heaven, earth, and seas remained, but the earth stayed at the center of that cosmos around which the heavenly spheres revolved. While interpreters accepted that the cosmos was larger than originally thought, they still considered it far smaller than is known today. Ptolemaic cosmology became so embedded in biblical interpretation that even Martin Luther, in the sixteenth century, casually asserted that the earth was made of four elements—earth, fire, air and water—in agreement with Greek philosophers (133).
Notably, Martin Luther and John Calvin, two giants of the Reformation, were willing to adjust their interpretation of Scripture to accommodate contemporary scientific understanding. In commenting on the creation of the moon (Genesis 1:16), which Scripture refers to as a “lesser light,” Luther notes that lunar eclipses show that the moon does not produce its own light, but reflects the light of the sun. Calvin, however, though familiar with lunar eclipses, still thought that the moon produced its own light, but was a lesser light because it generated less light than the sun despite its larger size in the night sky (146). Calvin might be the more “biblical” of the two interpreters, but Luther adjusted his interpretation in the light of scientific knowledge and turned out to be correct.
Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, work by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton displaced Ptolemaic cosmology and replaced it with a heliocentric Copernican cosmology. A mysterious force called gravity replaced Aristotle’s spheres and Ptolemy’s endless epicycles. Greenwood makes it clear that although Luther and Calvin rejected Copernican cosmology, they did so not because of an anti-science animus, but because they thought Scripture aligned with the Ptolemaic model (Luther) or because the physical evidence seemed unconvincing (Calvin). Both men “believed science complemented Scripture,” and even though they trusted the Bible on all matters, including science, they “consistently reminded their readers that they were not the original audience of the biblical text.” Both believed in “divine accommodation” in which “God has condescended in his language to the limitations of human knowledge and comprehension” (175).
Greenwood ends his book with some guidelines for addressing the creation/evolution controversy. He states that “the Bible never claims to be a scientific textbook,” and “it takes a certain degree of hubris to assume that even now we have a full grasp on the nature of the cosmos” (202). It is difficult to quibble with either one of these principles, but what does this do to our view of the authority or even inerrancy of Scripture? Greenwood is no Pollyanna about the seriousness of this issue. If God cannot speak to us authoritatively about nature, then why should He do so about issues of salvation and faith? Greenwood offers the following suggestion: the divine message in Scripture is communicated through human media like language, history, geography, and culture. The Bible can use these things without necessarily endorsing them. For example, the Bible honestly reports the detours of redemptive history that include murders, rapes, mass deportations, and enslavements, but it does not sanction them. Scripture, according to Greenwood, is authoritative because it testifies about its author and not because it “resolves the mysteries of science” (204).
Neither of these books qualifies as light reading, but each will reward those who wish to delve deeper into this controversial issue.