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The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder

William P. Brown
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010

When I arrived at Cornell University for graduate school, I sensed rather quickly thatscience and religion had a strained relationship on campus. The university’s founding president, Andrew Dickson White, had framed the relationship in 1896 with a two-volume work entitled A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, and the university’s luminaries included Carl Sagan, who made such assertions as “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”1 Clearly, Cornell University was an institution of science, and religion had little place at the table.

As William P. Brown, Professor of Philosophy in Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, explains in The Seven Pillars of Creation, the perception of a standoff between science and religion is commonplace, particularly around the topics of creation theology and evolutionary theory: “In their fight against ‘soulless science,’ creationists champion a view of creation so narrow that it is decidedly unbiblical. At the other extreme, certain scientists construe faith in God as the enemy of scientific progress and human well-being” (4). Part of the tragedy in this conflict, Brown observes, is that “misunderstandings and distortions abound as each side reduces the other to laughable caricatures” (4-5), but the greatest tragedy, particularly in the creation-evolution debate, is that it has all but dissolved the shared sense of wonder that both science and faith should cultivate.

To date, Brown argues, biblical scholars have been reticent to engage the debate, leaving it to natural scientists and theologians. The absence of biblical scholarship is unfortunate,since “the Bible has been either the point of contention or the unnamed elephant” (6) at thecenter of controversy. Biblical scholarship may not bring a final truce in the war between evolutionary theory and creation theology, but, Brown argues, it can enrich the conversation considerably and help to move it beyond simplistic caricature and ad homonym attack.

Brown certainly enriches the debate, for those willing to listen, by insisting that the biblical testimony of God’s work of creation points to far more than a story of origins. With theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, and T. F. Torrence, Brown argues that areductive approach provides an anemic doctrine of creation:

The full scope of human life cannot be reduced to blind chance and selfish genes anymore than the Bible’sperspective on creation can be whittled down to seven days and an apple (which is nowhere mentioned inGenesis). Such reductionism is made to the impoverishment of all participants. (6)

In contrast to a simple story of origins, Brown highlights what he calls “seven ways of creation featured in the Bible” (6), focusing less on how God went about creating the world and more on the meaning and identity of the creation. Some readers may find Brown’s list ofcreation narratives surprising. It begins with Genesis 1 and 2, but it also includes Job 38-41, Psalm 104, Proverbs 8:22-31, Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 and 12:1-7, and excerpts from Isaiah 40-55. He takes up each text in turn, working to engage “science in the theological interpretation of Scripture” (9) by interpreting the biblical text within its own context; associating the biblical text with contemporary science; and appropriating, or reinterpreting, the biblical text in light of science and science in light of the Bible (14). He offers no grand unifying theory to reconcile biblical interpretation with scientific interpretation, choosing instead to highlight “virtual parallels” between science and the Bible, “analogous points of contact or imaginative associations” (10).

What follows in the body of the text should be required reading in every undergraduateand graduate course on the theological doctrine of creation. Brown’s three-step approach gives him space to provide the rich and careful exegesis that readers would expect from an Old Testament scholar, as well as cogent summaries of key scientific theories, leading finally to virtual parallels between the two. At times the connections seem strained and speculative,but Brown’s suggestive style also serves as a compelling invitation for further discussion.

With that said, those who read and discuss the book may finish with two critical ques-tions in mind. The first and more minor question is that of audience. Brown writes in hope of“reducing casualties” in the warfare between science and religion, but it seems improbablethat the combatants would read such a book. Many conservative Christians will not read Brown because of his views on evolution and biblical hermeneutics, and many scientific materialists are too dismissive of religious metaphysics to read a book about the Bible. As Brown explains early on, he is writing for those who have already moved beyond a culture-wars mentality in the creation evolution debate, and the book certainly will deepen their conviction that science and religion both have something important to say about the nature and meaning of the cosmos. Their challenge, then, is to bring Brown’s insights to those who still view religion and science as combatants.

The second and far more serious question readers may ask is why Brown does not engage science more critically. As an expert in biblical hermeneutics, Brown recognizes the challenges involved in interpreting biblical texts: “Shaped as we are by our various contexts, we carry with us our filters, values, perceptions, and prejudices, our cultural and familial contexts, as well as our religious and political convictions. They all play a formative role in our interpretation of the text” (223). It is unfortunate that Brown does not extend this hermeneutical and epistemological insight to the work of natural science in any significant way, choosing instead to treat science as a gift that challenges and enriches biblical interpretation in asomewhat one-sided manner.

Brown need not have turned the conclusion into a mini treatise in philosophy of scienceto show that scientific cosmologists face many analogous challenges in explaining the originsof our world. For example, both biblical scholars and scientific cosmologists bring their own interpretive biases, work with ancient and limited data, and respect particular interpretive authorities and traditions. The point here is that scientific cosmologists have no more access to ultimate truth in their interpretative work than biblical scholars do in theirs, so both ought to cultivate the epistemic and hermeneutical humility that is often lacking in exchanges between science and religion.

Brown could have drawn greater attention to these very different tendencies over the last half century between physics and biology, since he engages both in the text. Physicists increasingly have cultivated an appreciation of irreducible mystery in the universe, and physics Christian Scholar’s Review has become more hospitable to dialogue with religion as a result. It is not surprising then, that the leading figures in constructive religion and science dialogue, such as John Polkinghorne, have come out of physics.

Evolutionary biology and the related field of socio-biology, by contrast, have remained more narrowly deterministic, making substantive dialogue between science and religion more difficult. Brown cites the biologist E. O. Wilson approvingly as someone who has reached out to people of faith, but it should be noted that Wilson invites a fairly limited dialogue. Indeed, Wilson remains convinced that all true knowledge can be unified under biology, which

provides the characterization of human nature with greater objectivity and precision, an exactitude that is the key to human self-understanding….To grasp human nature objectively, to explore its depths scientifically, and thence to connect in a common skein of cause-and-effect explanation its seemingly endless ramifications, would be to approach if not attain the holy grail of scholarship and fulfill the dreams of the Enlightenment.2

Religion, for Wilson, is an important source of meaning and motivation, but it does not provide knowledge on epistemological par with biology. The point here is not to carve out “gaps”for religion within a scientific cosmology; the point, which Wendell Berry makes at length in his critique of Wilson’s epistemic imperialism, is that the enlightenment dreams that Wilson clings to are ultimately a threat to the very things that Brown seeks to recover: mystery and wonder.3

The critical questions noted above should prompt further discussion, research, and writing that build on Brown’s significant contributions both to biblical scholarship and to conversations between religion and science. As a pioneering biblical scholar, Brown has broken important ground, and the missed opportunities to craft a two-way dialogue between science and religion do not undermine his contributions. The Seven Pillars of Creation should become a mainstay for those interested in creation, both theologically and scientifically.

Cite this article
James R. Skillen, “The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:3 , 326-328


  1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985), 1.
  2. E. O. Wilson, “How to Unify Knowledge,” in Unity of Knowledge: The Convergence of Natural and HumanScience, ed. Antonio R. Damasio, et al., 12-17 (New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 2001).
  3. Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington: Counterpoint, 2000).

James R. Skillen

Calvin University
Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies, Calvin University