Gijsbert van den Brink is to be congratulated on a well-written, lucid volume on this important and controversial topic. His attention to the range of different views in Chapter three is notable and generous. In each generation systematic theology has to articulate Christian belief in relation to the major issues of the day and the author’s project is exemplary in this respect.
Like van den Brink, I am a Reformed (Evangelical) Christian but clearly his discussion and the issues involved have a wide resonance in contemporary Christianity. It is important to note that the author is concerned with evolution as a biological theory rather than Evolution as a comprehensive worldview. He identifies gradualism, common descent, and universal natural selection as the three major elements in this theory, and the aim of the book is to investigate the theological ramifications for Christians if one accepts evolution as true. It should be noted that he pursues this topic with considerable nuance throughout.
Van den Brink rightly attends to the relationship between Scripture and evolution early on in his work. God reveals himself in his Word (special revelation) and in his works (general revelation), but orthodox Christians have always given primacy to the Bible. Thus, the issue of what the Bible teaches about the world and how this relates to evolution is of cardinal importance in this debate. The author rightly observes that this brings us on to the terrain of biblical hermeneutics, since the Bible has to be read and interpreted.
In terms of the relationship between the Bible and science van den Brink explores two approaches: concordism and perspectivism. He defines concordism with Stanley Jaki as “the efforts whereby . . . numerous commentators of Genesis 1 [and 2-3] tried to establish its concordance with cosmogonies taken for the last word in science”In terms of the relationship between the Bible and science van den Brink explores two approaches: concordism and perspectivism. (p. 74, n. 6). For good reasons, the author rejects this approach. He defines perspectivism as “the hermeneutical view that when the Bible is interpreted, its theological content should be distinguished from the world picture within which this content is embedded” (p. 81; emphasis original). Van den Brink discusses the views of Francis Watson, a New Testament scholar, and the “evolutionary creationism” of the Canadian biologist Denis Lamoureux in this context. He is rightly wary of Lamoureux’s approach but opts for perspectivism as his default position which he argues fits well with Kuyper and Bavinck’s organic articulation of the inspiration of Scripture: “The main upshot of this chapter is that when it comes to truthful biblical interpretation, we have to carefully distinguish between the scope or focus of what the biblical authors wanted to convey and the traces of an outmoded model of the world in which they incidentally clothed their message” (p. 94). He does, however, flag history, by which I take him to mean something like his “constitutive story,” as a potential area of conflict between what he refers to as the admirable approach of keeping faith and theology distinct from science. Historically, van den Brink finds a fertile model in Cocceius and his followers who combined piety, a high view of Scripture and heliocentrism. He quotes Vermij on the “telling” point, apparently with approval, that this came about by their pious and good intentions rather than rigorous thought! (p. 97).
There is a great deal to explore in this chapter.
Van den Brink foregrounds the centrality of biblical hermeneutics but then his major attention is given to concordism and perspectivism. He rightly notes that “the particular genre of a biblical text is decisive, however, in determining its theological perspective” (p. 93). He raises the issue of history and the importance of certain events but the value of these can only be confirmed by historical research (pp. 93–94). It seems to me that more needs to be said about the Bible as a whole.
Within theology, sola Scriptura needs to be accompanied by tota Scriptura. It is in its totality that Scripture is the Word of God and in order to assess its teachings about creation we would need some sense of Scripture as a whole. Biblical Theology is the discipline in biblical studies that attends to the unity of Scripture according to its own categories, and in recent years several scholars have charted a fertile way forward in reading the Bible as a sprawling, capacious metanarrative which tells the true story of the whole world (N. T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, Eugene Peterson, Lesslie Newbigin, etc.). Richard Bauckham writes:
We can answer the question ‘Who is God?’ only by attending to who God has revealed himself to be. To this the whole biblical revelation is relevant. Asked what the Bible is about, I would say it is most centrally about the identity of God, while at the same time it tells the story of God and his creation, that all-encompassing story from creation in the beginning to new creation at the end. Intensively the Bible is about the identity of God; extensively it tells the story of God and the world.Richard Bauckham, Who is God? Key Moments of Biblical Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 1–2.
Similarly, to identify what the Bible teaches about creation we would need to attend to its role in the extensive story (pp. 269–70).
Genre is vital not only for individual passages but also for the Bible as a whole. Recent works on biblical hermeneutics have alerted us to the need to attend, in particular, to the historical, theological/kerygmatic, and literary/aesthetic dimensions of biblical texts and the interaction between these dimensions.In my view, close attention to the literary dimension is crucial in how the Bible works with world pictures current in its day. Such interaction means that it is no simple task to tease out the details of what the Bible teaches about creation but requires sustained work on the Bible as a whole. In my view, close attention to the literary dimension is crucial in how the Bible works with world pictures current in its day. I do not think, for example, that the Old Testament adopts one world picture.
Van den Brink refers to the famous Preface of Barth’s Church Dogmatics III/1, according to which Barth initially thought he would need to address scientific issues but “later saw that there can be no scientific problems, objections or aids in relation to what Holy Scripture and the Christian Church understand by the divine work of creation.”Karl Barth, CD III/1, ix. Barth overstates the case here, but he produced such a rich multi-volume doctrine of creation precisely because he first attended to Scripture and the tradition in admirable detail.
Not least because of the fragmentation of the Bible brought about by historical criticism, this is a daunting task for anyone. If I can share a personal example, in our Doctrine of Creation, Bruce Ashford and I sought to follow Barth in engaging deeply with the Bible. Genesis 2 is a key text but what is one to do when some of our best scholars simply state that this chapter is never referred to again in the Bible and therefore of marginal significance? This is not the case, but it can take days of research to work through such an issue.Van den Brink, 94, asserts that we have nothing to fear from historical critique and historical research, but whose history, which critique? For all its many contributions, historical criticism(s) has fragmented Scripture so that it is extremely challenging to attend to the unity of the Bible. Nevertheless, if we are to assess the teaching of the Bible on creation, it has to be done through an examination of the Bible as a whole with close attention to the integral role creation plays throughout the biblical drama.
Comparing Apples and Oranges
In the second footnote of this chapter, van den Brink distinguishes between “worldview” and “world picture,” because worldview often has religious or metaphysical overtones whereas world picture does not. In the context of the ancient Near East I do not think such a distinction holds, but, in my view, it remains a useful distinction. If, as I think, a worldview is not the crowning achievement of philosophy but a pre-theoretical orientation towards the world, then worldview is close to what the biblical story provides us with. The story may have—does have—implications for science, but it is not a science textbook in the ANE or modern sense.
Evolution, by comparison, is a modern biological theory operating within a modern scientific paradigm. Clearly, therefore, we need to be very careful when comparing the two. If we are not, then we easily end up comparing apples with oranges. To begin to do a proper comparison we would need to know what worldview(s) underlie evolution, and what metanarrative(s) proponents of evolution are working from.Of course, a myth of modernity has been that Christian faith operates with a worldview and a metanarrative but not neutral, objective science. Apples could then be compared to apples! Of course, a myth of modernity has been that Christian faith operates with a worldview and a metanarrative but not neutral, objective science. Postmodernism and developments in philosophy of science have raised penetrating objections to this latter position but naturalism remains far too dominant in science.It is approved in science, for example, by the biblical scholar John Walton.
And this not only among scientists. This chapter begins with a quote from Charles Hodge, I assume approvingly, although Hodge is not returned to in this chapter. According to Hodge we interpret the Bible by science and by the facts of science. However, Hodge, and Warfield—who thought Abraham Kuyper’s doctrine of two sciences was nonsense—and other Princetonians defended the neutrality of science, a view that turned out to be devastating for the secularism of American universities.See George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 122–52. If it is this view of science as neutral and historical critique as neutral that we are to use to interpret the Bible, then I think we are on a false and potentially dangerous trail.
Van den Brink approvingly notes that Kuyper and Bavinck refer to the facts of science. Indeed, Kuyper does this often in his discussion of evolution. However, in the light of recent developments in philosophy of science I think we do well to distinguish between evidence and facts. We should never try to avoid evidence but, like the Bible, it too has to be interpreted. Just as we need a biblical hermeneutics so too we need a hermeneutics of science. Chalmers, for example, concludes that “we have seen that facts adequate for science are by no means straightforwardly given but have to be practically constructed, are in some important senses dependent on the knowledge that they presuppose . . . and are subject to improvement and replacement.”A. F. Chalmers, What is This Thing Called Science? 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Hackett, 1999), 58. Allied to this is the modern view that theory is underdetermined by facts (cf. p. 70). In my language, evidence is generally capable of being read in different ways, and this needs to be thoroughly explored in relation to the evidence for evolution.
I am grateful to van den Brink for his stimulating work. My own hunch is that there is more potential conflict between evolution and the biblical metanarrative than the author thinks. I am not a creationist but am reluctant to diminish the primary authority of Scripture as the lens through which we read and interpret the world, including science. I side with Bavinck and Kuyper in thinking that Christian faith needs to be fully engaged in the practice of science, rather than being kept separate from science, as van den Brink suggests. I take comfort from the fact that Christians need not put all their eggs in one basket but have various possibilities open to them on the question of origins. My sense is that the above issues need to be attended to in detail as part of our quest for the truth of evolution.