Science, Faith, and Vern Poythress 2

redeeming scienceVern Poythress in his book Redeeming Science begins with a thoroughly Christian worldview. God is the creator of the world. Everything came into being by Him and through Him (Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1-3). God revealed Himself and reveals Himself through special revelation (scripture) and general revelation (providence and nature, laws of physics …). We all know however, that the real sticking point is the apparent conflict between the interpretation of the data arising from exploration of God’s word in general revelation (science) and the interpret of God’s word contained in the special revelation of Scripture. So how is this apparent conflict to be reconciled?

In Chapters 5-10 of his book Poythress discusses the nature of Genesis, the role of science and the dating of the earth, and the relative merits and flaws of several possible interpretation of Genesis:

1. 24-Hour-Day view: “Literal” reading of Genesis 1 and following – often supplemented by Flood Geology to account for the geological/biological discrepancies.

2. Mature Creation Theory: World brought into being in a short period of time (6 days – probably 24-hour days) with an appearance of age. Reconciliation with science then does not deny the science but simply asserts that Genesis teaches that God created the world in a short period in the form that would have arisen through his created natural process.

3. Religious-Only Theory: Scripture is only intended to address matters of religious not scientific fact.

4. Local Creation Theory: Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-3 assert God as creator of all, but the specific descriptions following in Genesis only refer to a small region of the world around the Garden of Eden in modern day Iraq.

6. Gap Theory: There is a large time gap between Genesis 1:1 and the remainder of Genesis. Most of Genesis only refers to the restoration of creation after the fall of Satan.

7. Day-Age Theory: Each day in Genesis refers to a long period of time, an “age” of billions, millions or thousands of years. Each day-age is of a different length. As I understand it this is the view championed by Hugh Ross and his organization. Audio files of lectures describing his approach can be found on the Veritas Forum website.

8. Intermittent Day Theory: The suggestion here is that each day of creation described in Genesis is a “real” day, but the text is silent on vast periods of time between the specific days of creation.

9. Revelatory Day Theory: This theory holds that the days of creation in Genesis refer to the days over which God revealed his creative work to Moses. It recounts the vision through which Moses was inspired to write his account, not the actual days of creation.

10. Framework Theory: The days refer by analogy to God’s work and the account in Genesis is a literary framework describing God’s work in creation, not a literal account. Among others Lee Irons champions this approach and describes it in a lecture available here.

11. Analogical Day Theory: God created the world in six days of work followed by one day of rest – but these days of divine work are an analogy rather than an identity with days of human work.

Poythress considers only three of these alternatives as attractive: Mature Creation, Framework, and Analogical Day, although it should be noted that the distinctions between the Analogical Day and Framework theories are subtle.

The mature creation option raises several objections that Poythress considers less than convincing. Most notably: Mature creation implies God as deceiver and mature creation invalidates scientific investigation. Although Poythress doesn’t set much stock in the God as deceiver objection, I find this argument compelling – in part because of the willful appearance of age argument that Poythress discusses, but more importantly because of the intricate and unnecessary web of evidence contained in the fossil record, the geological make-up of the earth, and especially that embedded within the DNA of living creatures. If God did not create the world over billions of years using the laws of physics and the processes of evolution, he intentionally created the world to look as though he did, in exquisitely subtle and functionless ways. A more detailed discussion of the genomic evidence can be found in Francis Collins’ book “The Language of God” or in lectures he gave for the American Scientific Affiliation in 2002 and 2006.

Despite his unwillingness to rule out the Mature Creation view – Poythress does not feel that the evidence contained in the special revelation of scripture requires this view and instead prefers the Analogical Day interpretation. In coming to this conclusion Poythress borrows from the approach of John Calvin, who took the view that in the inspiration of scripture God is speaking to ordinary people in ordinary language appropriate for all times and all conditions. God accommodates Himself equally to the understanding of the ancient Israelite and the modern engineer and our understanding of scripture should reflect this fact. Our interpretation of scripture should not attempt to impart an unintended technical meaning. Two key citations from Calvin come from his commentary on Genesis – particularly the passages dealing with Genesis 1:6 and 1:16, although there are additional examples in his consideration of other issues and other passages of scripture. As an example consider the following excerpt from the commentary on 1:16:

16. The greater light I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, … Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. …Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God. (The complete passage is available here.)

According to the Analogical Day interpretation the description of creation represents an analogy between the work of God stretching over six divine days followed by a day of rest, and the work of humans in understandable terms, laying groundwork for both the Sabbath day and the Jubilee year commanded in Leviticus. God speaks and teaches through analogy and thus accommodates his revelation to human understanding. In the interpretation of Genesis Poythress also suggests that we should look to different cultural approaches to time – including our current obsession of keeping to the clock and the more interactive experience of time tied to the rhythms of human existence.

“If one goes to Genesis 1 with a clock orientation, one focuses primarily on how long it took, as measured by a clock. But if one goes to Genesis 1 with an interactive orientation, one asks what important events took place, and what was their human social meaning. (139)” The rhythm of work and rest speaks to the ordinary human experience.

In the context of his discussion of the three attractive alternatives, Poythress also deals with two other objections to an extended creation.

First the Mature Creation view falsely implies that plant and animal death came about before the fall and future death would come about with or without the fall and in the other two views death came about before the fall. Considering this, Poythress concludes that nothing in scripture necessitates the view that all death originated with the Fall — only the death of mankind created in the image of God. The second objection is that all of these views undermine the biblical teaching about Noah and the flood. But the objections raised here again presuppose a modern worldview of the earth and the extent of the earth and the nature of the earth as a globe hanging in space. Again, God is speaking in scripture to ordinary people in ordinary situations at the time scripture was recorded and we must not allow our presupposition and assumptions to determine how the scripture must be interpreted.

So – a couple of questions here: In interpreting scripture, especially Genesis and creation, but also other passages and other issues, is it appropriate to include the understanding that God was speaking to ordinary people in ordinary situations in terms and ideas and analogies that they would understand? Given this accommodation, is it reasonable to view the general revelation of the Word of God in nature, learned through science, as filling in the blanks so to speak and revealing more of the mind, nature, and language of God?

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