I benefited from reading Cabal and Rasor’s book in a variety of ways. It is written in a clear and accessible style and covers a lot of ground in an admirably concise fashion.
Weaver Book Company (2017)
Its particular strengths in my view are: 1) its attention to the history of these discussions in the church, 2) its focus on how different groups draw lines, often in more subtle ways than their rhetoric and others’ stereotypes might suggest, 3) its pastoral concern for lay people caught in a crossfire of competing claims, appeals and posturing, 4) the way the authors provide readers with critiques of excesses and problems with each group, yet also make constructive recommendations as to how each group could, in their view, move forward in productive ways, and 5) the humility and grace with which the authors put forward their criticisms and evaluations with obvious overriding concern for the good of God’s church. So in my judgment, there is much of value here.
I will focus my brief reflections on three areas: epistemological issues, the role of hybrid theories, and issues related to the Church, churches, and parachurch organizations in these discussions.
Cabal and Rasor say (p. 42) that epistemological authority is the central methodological issue at stake and they present the conservative principle as a general descriptive pattern of the way disputes about authority have been (and ought to be?) mediated. However, Galileo’s formula, which relies on distinguishing unproven science (go with the traditional biblical interpretations) from proven science (requires biblical reinterpretation), was already somewhat problematic in his time and certainly has only gotten more complex in our post-Kuhnian era. If there is a weakness in the book, it is that it doesn’t do much to directly address the complexities and subtleties of this central epistemological issue. Considerable portions of the book are dedicated to comparing and contrasting controversies over geocentrism/heliocentrism, Darwinism and age of the earth/geology, and to examining the epistemological choices made in the development of YEC, OEC and TE/EC viewpoints; these portions are quite helpful. But nowhere is there a sustained discussion of the issue of how,But nowhere is there a sustained discussion of the issue of how, even assuming biblical inerrancy, traditional interpretations of scripture and historic doctrinal formulations derive their authority. even assuming biblical inerrancy, traditional interpretations of scripture and historic doctrinal formulations derive their authority. And likewise, there is no sustained treatment of how from a Christian perspective, consensus theories in science might derive their authority.
A number of formal procedures for scientific theory evaluation have been proposed in the modern science era: inductivism, hypothetico-deductivism, falsificationism, abduction/inference to the best explanation. All of these procedures offer some traction for theory evaluation, but each ultimately fails to break free from the inevitable interpretational layer that accompanies all human epistemological judgments.Del Ratszch, Battle of Beginnings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 103-135. Christians have often coveted the proposed standard of scientific proof of their own day, hoping in vain that a supposed objective impersonal procedure would validate once and for all some element of their “faith”. In this vein, one episode in the book regarding the rise of methodological naturalism in the mid to late 1800’s (83-88) seems to imply that adoption of methodological naturalism was imposed on believers by secularizing forces outside the faith. Rather though, it seems Christians in science at the time were so confident that the inductive methodology of the day would inevitably yield results that would bolster Christian faith, that they thought it best to leave what they knew specifically as believers (e.g., biblical knowledge) on the sidelines while they did their science. They believed that historic Christianity was true and that scientific methodology inevitably got at the truth, so there was no danger in secularizing the science. They further believed that the resulting scientifically-derived knowledge that supported the faith would be all the more convincing apologetically if religious convictions were kept out of the process (e.g., chapter 5 of George Marsden’s book Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, “The Evangelical Love Affair with Enlightenment Science”George Marsden, Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 122-152.). It seems to me there is some aspect of justice in that the idol that was appealed to for security has now turned on its worshippers.
I largely agree with the authors’ critiques of the evangelical advocacy groups they single out: some YEC groups for conflating interpretation and inerrancy, BioLogos for encouraging or at least going along with a jettisoning of inerrancy to embrace “proven” science, the OEC/RTB predisposition to encourage submitting to all the scientific “tests” which in the end they believe will fairly adjudicate the issues and corroborate what the bible teaches. While I also agree with the general sense of the conservative principle and revelatory propriety the authors put forward by which we are encouraged to prefer traditional interpretations at least initially and maybe for a long time, more exploration into the dynamics of human knowing in science and theology would have been helpful. In my own view the various players are often assuming a strongly modernist epistemology in both science and theology. They often think certain conclusions are just “obvious” and in my judgment aren’t nearly self-conscious enough about the variety of baggage they bring to their hermeneutical judgments and their scientific judgments. But then again if the book included all this, it would surely have been way too long.
I found the authors’ discussion of what they referred to as hybrid theories of particular interest. They introduced hybrid theories under the rubric of the conservatism principle in chapter 2. Hybrid theories in this context were proposals in the middle or “courtship” stage of the conservative principle process. Theologians “began seriously contemplating alternative scientific theories that might not imperil traditional biblical understanding. Or they even considered creative ways to approach the new astronomy itself without imperiling traditional biblical interpretation” (pp. 40-41). And again: “Alternative theories can be useful for careful exploration of difficult but important challenges. Hybridized theories can be scientific or doctrinal or combinations of both, all usually serving to retain traditional biblical interpretations as long as they remain tenable” (p. 42). Hybrid theories provide ways to “search theory space” for paradigms or theory variants that might prove to be productive in time.However, in looking at their further discussion of hybrid theories it was not obvious that the authors were positively disposed to such efforts, and in some instances regarded them as unstable or unnecessarily raising concerns about orthodoxy, among other negative consequences. Maybe I have read them wrongly in this? In any case, part of seeing these issues worked out in history involves at least some people playing “what if?” games, exploring possible scenarios whether with realist or antirealist intentions. It seems to me that these efforts play essential roles in the historical process (which the authors believe is providentially guided, and I concur) for resolving these issues in history. Hybrid theories provide ways to “search theory space” for paradigms or theory variants that might prove to be productive in time. Exploring such hybrid alternatives seems to me a worthy task if it’s done tentatively and with humility. A good example of what I take to be essentially this approach can be found in C. John Collins’ helpful book, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?C. John Collins, Did Adam and Eve Really Exist, (Crossway, 2011), 105-131. In chapter 5, Collins essentially conducts several “what if” thought experiments and makes sound suggestions as to how a variety of hybrid scenarios regarding Adam and Eve might be “good scenarios” if they conform to some basic criteria he puts forward. Maybe the authors could suggest ways to develop “good” hybrid theories and avoid “bad” ones? Or do they think such work is best avoided and that we would best just wait for further developments?
Parachurch Impact on the Church
Finally, reading this book raised again in my mind questions regarding the overall impact of parachurch advocacy organizations on these issues in the churches. On the one hand, they do provide helpful resources to churches and they provide organizational structure and support for working out particular viewpoints in more specificity and detail. On the other hand, I am in sympathy with the authors’ concerns that these groups may also significantly contribute to the angst that lay people feel about origins issues in the way these groups sometimes raise the temperature and lower the tenor of these discussions in various ways. As the authors discuss, the person in the pew is often confused when trying to evaluate the urgent appeals made by these various groups, which is only exacerbated by the confidence that each group shows in its position, sure that the other groups are not living up to their theological or scientific obligations. The organizations are not the only ones to blame for the debate/prizefighter aura that many of these public and online discussions take on, Parachurch groups may sometimes run into trouble because they lack the accountability structures and longer term memories that can be found in broader and more settled Christian traditions.but they are certainly a contributing factor. The common combative debate format—whether head to head or simply scoring cheap points bashing an opponent that isn’t even present—seems to almost never be productive for the Church as a whole.
I also agree with the authors’ sense that parachurch groups may sometimes run into trouble because they lack the accountability structures and longer term memories that can be found in broader and more settled Christian traditions. A sense that contemporary origins issues are part of a long conversation thread embedded in a much broader theological stream might tend to dampen extremes of dogmatism or theological innovation. If these parachurch groups would see themselves as providing denominations and other church communions with a positive case for their alternative view rather than spending so much time critiquing one another, this might reduce the confusion as well as contribute to conversations within the flow of long existing traditions with their various theological anchors. In an ideal ecclesiastical world, each denomination could put forth its own theological parameters to create a safe space for vigorous “3rd level” discussions within the communion, while drawing on resources provided without rancor by the parachurch organizations.
I really like how C. S. Lewis emphasized unity in Christian belief, yet insisted on the necessity of distinctive Christian traditions for faithful Christian thinking and living, and I think his comments are apropos to a consideration of unity and diversity regarding origins issues. In the preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:
I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable . . . . And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: “Do I like that kind of service?” but “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?” When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Collier Books, 1952, 11-12.
In a similar vein I believe we would all do well to see ourselves contributing to a “mere creationism,” that goes hand in hand with a mere Christianity, while at the same time insisting on the legitimacy and the necessity of developing more specific approaches.
I found this book helpful in a variety of ways and I certainly resonate with the authors’ overall perspective that these matters are ultimately worked out according to the work of the God who rules all. As the authors imply, we each need to make sure that we are contributing to a productive process, humbly confident that He will bring about what He desires as we all do our work as faithfully as we can. In these matters, as the authors point out, no directed, linear explicitly human orchestrated approach has ever carried the day. It seems that the Lord works in His own way in and through a variety of people and historical events of His choosing. May God use even this present discussion of Cabal and Rasor’s book in this fashion.