Saturday, April 13, 2013

Book Review: Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything by Gerald Rau

Most Christians have questions about Genesis in relation to science. As I’ve studied the first chapters hundreds if not thousands of times, my perspective has changed quite a bit. I grew up in churches that most likely accepted an old earth, but said little to nothing about evolution. Despite the claims of internet atheists to the contrary, I think this is probably the experience of the majority of evangelical churchgoers in America. These issues simply are not central in most sermons or Bible studies.

Yet, when I was seventeen years old and became more serious about my faith, I picked up a copy of Henry Morris’s The Genesis Record at a local bookstore. The book fascinated me because it intertwined scientific issues into its discussions of Genesis. Most Bible studies I had attended or read only focused on moral and theological issues. Young Earth Creationism (YEC) quickly became my perspective. In older message boards and chat rooms, I started using this information to argue against atheists who largely held to a naturalistic evolutionary (NE) perspective. For them, God never intervenes because they claim He doesn’t exist.

Attending a mainline Baptist university, I quickly received different perspectives from my professors. If Genesis had any historical value, it was largely irrelevant to scientific issues. After focusing my studies in Old Testament during this time, I found that this was the majority view of mainline scholars. I shifted yet again to this new position. The reasons for my change were not scientific, but largely literary and theological. Most of my professors held to either a Non-teleological (NTE) view of origins, where God created and then let things unfold, or planned evolution (PE), where God created things to work without his constant control, yet occasionally intervenes miraculously in redemptive history.

Following university, I attended an evangelical seminary where the professors gladly had us read mainline scholars, but also presented a more evangelical perspective. Almost all of my professors in seminary held to YEC or Old Earth Creationist (OEC) positions. They viewed the same evidence through different lenses and theological perspectives and came to differing conclusions. Guess what? As my presuppositions changed, I saw the evidence in a new light and my perspective became more nuanced.

After university, largely through the internet and reading about Intelligent Design, I became aware of a directed evolutionary perspective (DE), such as that held by Michael Behe, where God creates and sustains and occasionally directs natural laws to bring about certain, specifically complex ends. This view continues to interest me.

Why do I share my story? I do so, because it illustrates the diversity of views from those who call themselves Christian. In Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything, Gerald Rau, a former adjunct biology professor at Wheaton who now teaches at National Chung Cheng University in Jia Yi, Taiwan, presents a fascinating analysis of the major views showing how the differences in perspective largely arise from underlying theological and philosophical presuppositions.

The book masterfully serves as an introduction to both scientific explanation and worldview analysis to show how we make inferences from the same evidence based on our underlying non-scientific perspectives. Rau discusses four major origin events, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of species and the origin of humans in light of the six views I described briefly above; NE, NTE, DE, PE, OEC and YEC. He admits certain biases, but attempts to present the perspectives as accurately as possible and shows consistently how each view makes sense of the data from within its presuppositional framework. Each is shown to be largely internally consistent. The work also contains useful charts that summarize each position.

Of course, for the sake of brevity, the discussions are not comprehensive. Considering that he assesses philosophy, science, theology and literature all through these lenses, it would be hard to imagine a comprehensive discussion of each fitting within one book. This is not his intention though. His intention is to show the underlying perspectives that affect our inferences from the data and our overall worldview. He says this specifically at the onset, “This book presents the full range of possible models and demonstrates how our religious and philosophical presuppositions, rather than the evidence, dictate our preference.”1

One of the more interesting aspects of the book comes through assessing the models side by side. Usually, apologists think through their perspective in light of one specific alternative. So, YEC argues with OEC or PE argues against NE. Seeing the big picture helps you to see the similarities between the different perspectives and also to see why they diverge. Rau often notes these similarities. For instance, in regards to the origins of the universe, NTE, PE, DE and OEC are all in agreement. They all agree that the best inference from the evidence regarding the inflation of the universe is big bang cosmology, and that this originated in a divine intelligence. That’s a significant point of agreement. Both NE and YEC disagree on one aspect of that statement. NE denies the divine intelligence postulating an array of potential alternatives, whereas YEC denies that the evidence points toward big bang cosmology instead opting for apparent age models and white hole cosmology.

Another interesting aspect of the book comes through its hermeneutical discussions. Whereas most would assume that OEC and YEC would remain closest hermeneutically, it is largely hermeneutic questions (such as the meaning of “day” in Genesis 1) that lead to their differences. This can also be seen in the differences between NTE and PE. In the former, as espoused by theologians such as John Haught, God is radically immanent in his creation and the outworking of creation through evolutionary processes is in a sense the outworking and revelation of God’s being. PE does not take such a strong stance in regards to God’s immanence and instead sees God as creating a largely mechanical universe capable of functioning on its own. Thus, when God acts it is an intervention as opposed to an outworking of God’s being. Each model will present evidence that supports their perspective, but their grand perspective largely arises from making inferences from that evidence based on deeper theological and philosophical underpinnings.

After presenting the four views in regards to each of these major origin events, Rau considers more basic questions. First, he discusses what we can learn from each of these views. He discusses how each has contributed to the discussions and how each must address the same data. He then asks important questions for each perspective, such as how NE and NTE need to explain the incredibly low probabilities for purely naturalistic explanations of the origin of life. Is it reasonable to believe that such perfect conditions came about purely through chance and time? He also discusses the need for both OEC and YEC to present mechanisms through which God specially created. Is there evidence of these creative acts apart from the existence of species today?

Rau suggests seeing the big picture in the discussion between two macro poles. One pole, NE, minimizes (if not eliminates) special revelation, and the other pole, YEC, minimizes (if not eliminates) natural revelation. He wisely suggests that instead of looking for weak arguments to ridicule our opponents that we “examine the best evidence, examples and arguments used by the opposition.”2 As a wise word for apologists, he writes, “this requires actually reading what they write rather than looking for points to attack.”3 He suggests concerted, serious dialogue in order to make advances through cross-disciplinary studies.

The most interesting chapter is the final one. He states boldly, “every scientific debate is carried out in a social context...the definition of science, like any definition, is a social construct, which changes over time.”4 The problem at the root of the discussion is that our analysis of these definitions falls privy to bias from underlying presuppositions. Thus, in the final chapter, Rau attempts to demonstrate the logic, and internal coherence, of each major definition of science. He demonstrates the flaws of empiricism, which reigned in the early 20th century, as leading to the diversity of scientific definitions in the latter 20th and 21st. He briefly mentions how those that followed have been praised at one time, but largely abandoned; falsificationism, postempiricism, postinductivism, etc. He shows how various models highlight and defend those definitions that best align with their perspective. He also demonstrates the perspectives may argue against outdated definitions in regards to their opponents worldview.

One major question is on the search for explanation as well as data. Those holding to methodological naturalism have rejected the search for explanation in their scientific endeavors, whereas those who fall in the DE, OEC and YEC camps often appeal to explanations to support their analysis of the evidence. NE, NTE and PE often say that this perspective is a “science stopper,” because it fills gaps with supernatural events, whereas DE, OEC and YEC appeal to the fact that excluding the supernatural a priori means that if there were supernatural events, you would not be able to get to the truth of the events brought about supernaturally apart from appeals to supernaturalism. What differentiates these two perspectives? The answer is non-scientific presuppositions underlying their analysis of the data.

Are we simply at an impasse in regards to our presuppositions? How can we proceed? Rau suggests analyzing the degree to which our presuppositions are appropriate and influence our perspective and starting our discussion at this point. For instance, all six models agree that the natural world exists, and five of the six agree that the supernatural exists as well. Rau then continues that if the majority are in agreement that both the natural and supernatural exist, then the possibility exists that they interact and such interaction would be investigable by science since it involves a natural component. Therefore, it is an improper use and appeal to presuppositions to exclude the supernatural a priori as NTE and PE do in regards to science despite their agreement that the supernatural exists.5 Rau uses the example of Biologos to show this discrepancy in thinking. Those at Biologos are in agreement that the Son of God took on human flesh, lived, died and bodily rose from the dead. This was a supernatural interaction in the natural world that left natural effects. Most would argue that we can argue from these natural effects that something supernatural happened. The question then arises as to why this is restricted to only those events specifically outlined in redemptive history, and not to events such as the origin of life.

Rau ends with a discussion of how important these matters of definition and worldview are to society. He discusses the history of the debate in America, and how the minds and hearts of today’s children are at stake. Due to the loss of dialogue in the early 20th century, instead of finding middle ground, the NE position became law to the exclusion not only of YEC, but also those in the middle. He states that currently, only Intelligent Design, which includes proponents of DE, OEC and YEC without making a particular theological claim for the movement, provides a place for those within a spectrum of views to make arguments that stand outside of the underlying presuppositions. In the end he states, “we each believe things to be true that are neither contrary to the evidence, nor determined by it...this is the case for theists and nontheists alike...all of us believe something that we cannot see or evaluate scientifically.” He continues, “there is a war going on, but it is not a war between science and religion...rather it is a war about what science is ,a war that is philosophical more than religious.”6 This debate centers on whether there is a God, and how he interacts with His creation in regards to epistemology as well as intervention.

To Rau’s credit, he succeeded in standing outside of the arguments and presenting as a proponent of each. After reading the book, I’m still unsure which model he supports, outside of knowing that he rejects NE. He states at the end that he doesn’t fit completely in any model. For a book aimed at presenting various perspectives, in order to show both their benefits and weaknesses, he is to be commended.

Most apologists will have read a good bit, particularly within their model, about the interactions between science and philosophy and possibly between science and faith in general. Thus, the sections discussing the data may not be overly helpful. At the same time, what’s most important for the apologist who reads this book is that she comes away with a better understanding of how other models understand the same evidence.

I highly recommend this book. Along with many readers of Apologetics315, I’ve read literally hundreds of books and articles on this topic. Some of the books get old as they merely restate things we’ve read many times before. This book was refreshing in that it did something different from most books on offer. As someone who focuses on Old Testament studies, these topics arise often. In the future, whenever I teach on science/faith issues, this will be required reading.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary loves studying Scripture, and the Old Testament in particular. He and his family live in Southeast Asia where he strives to live for the One to whom the Old Testament points.

Gerald Rau,  Mapping the Origins Debate. Kindle ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), loc. 64.
Ibid., loc. 1800
Ibid., loc. 1825
Ibid., loc. 1882.
Ibid., loc. 1985.


John Moore said...

Whenever solid physical observation conflicts with your current interpretation of the Bible, you must adjust your interpretation of the Bible. It's not that the Bible is wrong - it's your interpretation that was wrong.

If you cling to your interpretation despite solid physical observations, then you're just plain crazy. That's what drives people away from religion - the crazy people who cling to their obsolete interpretations despite clear and overwhelming evidence. But you can bring people to the Bible by toning down the crazy.

MaryLou said...

On the other hand, John, I think it's wrong to interpret the Bible to fit what scientists say. Down through the years, we have seen scientists preach something as certainty only to have other scientists come along and say they're wrong and start preaching something altogether different.

Scientists are not infallible. God and his Word are. Therefore, I am leery about interpreting the Bible to make it fit science when science itself is limited in what it can tell us and is given to us by men and women who err from time to time.

John Moore said...

George Will just said, "Conservatism begins with facing facts." The same goes for Christianity.

God not only wrote the Bible, but He also created the world. You can't honor the Bible by denying the world.

MaryLou said...

But you can't honour the Bible by twisting what it says to fit what scientists say. It is the Bible that should shape our understanding of the world. The world shouldn't shape our understanding of the Bible.

G. Kyle Essary said...

Hey John and MaryLou,
Thanks for commenting on my review of the book. I actually agree with both of you but not for the reasons you may expect:

1. Science is stranger than it seems. The more I study science, the less confidence I have in observation because the observer distorts what's being study. I think the concept of "objective facts" in regards to science, particularly at the quantum level has to be rejected.

2. Scripture on the other hand, gets more and more complex as I study it. The more I've poured through the Hebrew text of Genesis 1 (and other passages), more possibilities open up for interpretation, but at the same time critiques of each of the predominant perspectives become more clear.

Let me give one example. Genesis 1:1 says that the sky and the land was created (bara') before the first day. From our modern perspective, we read it as a summary of what follows, but such "summary statements" or "titles" are a modern creation and not typical of ANE literature. Furthermore, considering that "sky and land" is a merism, it's most likely referring to everything in between, such as the phrase "lock, stock and barrel," which refers to a whole gun. The phrase means "all that you see." Thus, it's not surprising that the first days don't use the term bara' (to create), but instead seem to refer to ordering and giving purpose. And these comments are just the tip of the iceberg. I could teach a whole semester in a Hebrew exegesis course just on chapter 1.

Who's making mention of these things though? Sailhamer did it before he was forced to retire, and Walton and Beale do it somewhat (but Walton errs on the other side of interpretation). Fortunately, this book by Rau works through the various possibilities and instead of arguing one view over others, he attempts to show the framework from which each group sees things. It's such a helpful book for understanding the various views, and as someone who has found myself in various camps at times, I found him accurate.

janitorialmusings said...


Many many people would call YOU crazy for the position you express in your first comment: you rule out the possibility that the Bible is just plain wrong. Instead, you must have interpreted the Bible wrong. Many people would look at that and say it's that sort of unfalisfiable fundy biblicism that is clinging to beliefs despite solid evidence to the contrary.

That's what drives people away from religion - the crazy people like you who cling to their obsolete faith despite clear and overwhelming evidence.

See, two can play at this game! :)

G. Kyle Essary said...

Can you give an example of why the Christian faith is "obsolete?" or where it is in conflict with "clear and overwhelming evidence?" If you're serious about having a discussion I'm more than willing.

G. Kyle Essary said...

I just took the time to click on your site and see that you're a Christian as well and are just making the point about John's reasoning.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Biblical claims which don't hold water with what science knows and can prove...

Where can I go (on this site or anywhere, really) to find an educated answer as to how 7 BILLION people came from TWO people in less than 6,000 years? Science doesn't support this claim. DNA samples don't support this. Mathematics doesn't support this. Non-Christians this we are complete idiots for believing this when it's so blatantly impossible. Please help me out here. I'm really struggling with this and it doesn't seem that any of the dozens upon dozens of apologetics pages I've tried wanna handle this one?

Irvine said...

Actually, from a mathematical perspective its very viable. If every couple had 2.3 reproducing children (so children who live to the point where they are able to join the next generation of couples) when they were 33 years old, then we would get 7 billion people after 5000 years (everyone came through Noah, who was more like 5000 years ago). Considering the size of Medieval families, its almost astonishing that there aren't more people.

The argument: (approximations I used on the right):

A = how long ago the original couple were ~= 5000
R = reproducing age (how old the couple were on average when they had their children) ~= 33
C = current population ~= 7 billion
X = ratio of reproducing children to members of the couple - in other terms, 2X = the number of reproducing children. This is the unknown we find.

So if every R years a new generation is born, then between the first couple and now there would be A/R generations. Each time this happens, the population is multiplied by X. Since this happens A/R times, the population = X^(A/r). The rest is algebra:

C = X^(A/R)
X=C^(R/A) ~= 1.16
2X~=2.32 children

Of course, this is a purely mathematical argument, so simplifications were made (especially when the population is low since you can't have half a child, but we'll assume that it was fairly quickly that the population went from 2 to ~100 or so, where the small errors don;t matter so much). It's simply to show that it's viable.

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