Review: Progressive Creation becomes aggressive

More than Myth? Seeking the Full Truth about Genesis, Creation, and Evolution, P.D. Brown and R. Stackpole, editors (Chartwell Press, 2014).

Bruce Gordon, “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: A Biblical and Scientific Critique of Young-Earth Creationism,” Science, Religion, and Culture 1, 144 (2014).

Anyone who has followed the creation-evolution debate knows there are two views that get all the press: young-earth creationism (YEC) and naturalistic evolution, which in Christian circles becomes theistic evolution (TE), also sometimes labeled “evolutionary creationism” by its proponents. Theistic evolutionists argue that God acted once, at the very beginning, perhaps with exquisite fine tuning, and then ever since, natural processes have brought about all the diversity of life and people that we see, presumably through the processes identified by mainstream evolutionary science.

A third view, known as progressive creationism, also called old-earth creationism (OEC), day-age creationism, or concordantism, almost never gets any attention. This view says that the earth is as old as standard science says it is, about 4 billion years, but that Genesis 1-11 are not merely symbolic myth; we do learn chronology and history from these Scriptures, albeit with some symbolic elements. In particular, it embraces the story line of miraculous intervention by God at various times in prehistory.

Two new publications, the edited volume More Than Myth? and a review article by Bruce Gordon in the new journal Science, Religion, and Culture, go on the offensive to promote this third way. Part of what makes them notable is who is doing the talking. More Than Myth? is led by Catholic writers and is aimed at Catholics. The Catholic church has long allowed and even promoted the TE view, and the recent remarks by the Pope (“God is not a magician waving a wand”) will put even more pressure on those who don’t accept the TE view. Against this, More Than Myth? argues that Catholic doctrine and tradition particularly favor the progressive creation view. Bruce Gordon is a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute and credits this affiliation in his article. The Discovery Institute has no official position on young-earth creationism, and has long been accused of being a front for YEC subversion. In my experience, however, almost all of the senior scholars associated with the Discovery Institute are progressive creationists and are increasingly exasperated with young-earth creationists. Gordon’s article explicitly challenges the YEC view and promoting the progressive creation view.

There two main critiques of progressive creationism, which have made it difficult for the view to get any traction. 1) On the science side, it seems to many to be a patchwork quilt; it is somehow more aesthetically appealing to people to have God do all the creating at once at the beginning of time, either in the TE version at the Big Bang or in the YEC version in the first week. 2) On the Bible interpretation side, the events of Genesis 1 clearly do show a sequence of increasing diversity, but lining these events up with the standard story of earth’s history has always been tantalizingly difficult.

On the first challenge, Paul Brown’s article is especially valuable. Instead of seeing miracles in prehistory as a patch-up job, he sees the hand of an artist who chooses to do the unusual, rather than turn the cranks of a machine:

How does such a personal God create? Should not the creation reflect something that is consistent with the triune person-ness of God? …it is hard to imagine God “creating” in a completely uninvolved, ambiguous sort of way that can be reduced to a mere process fully explainable in physical terms quite apart from agency.

He also sees echoes of the personal command word of the Logos, Jesus Christ, in Genesis 1. In discussing the command of Jesus to calm the sea, he says,

At the beginning of this story we see the imagery of “the sea” which reminds us of the Genesis accounts of “the waters” and “the deep”…Would it be consistent to think that his commands to creation here, the outworking of God’s will, would have no point of correlation with the time when he brought things into existence?…The Jesus who calms the storm is the same Jesus through whom all things were created (Hebrews 1:1-3).

In other words, creation is progressive, or “messy,” because God is a person who does things freely and artistically, not with clockwork, industrial-revolution-style machinery. He may not be a magician waving his wand randomly, but he may be a jazz musician who departs from the score from time to time.

On the second question, while the book does not present a fully satisfying concord between Genesis 1 and modern science, it goes pretty far in suggesting it may not be so crazy as it first sounds to many. The Catholic authors of More Than Myth? team up with members of Reasons to Believe, namely Hugh Ross, Greg Moore, and Fazala Rana, and Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, who present the scientific arguments. Many of these arguments are new, as science has progressed in recent years. The arguments for historical miracles, or discontinuities in the story of life, are presented by Luskin; some readers may be surprised to learn in Luskin’s article that the number of conundrums for standard evolutionary theory has increased in recent years, not decreased. Fuz Rana makes a good argument that standard science allows for a single Adam and Eve around 80,000 years ago. Oddly, the first two chapters by Ross and Moore have almost exactly the same material on the timing of the day-age model, and should have been combined.

The book does well at referencing the literature, and though it is always an easy criticism to say an academic book should have more references, one could wish that the book interacted a little more with other arguments. The book does not mention the work of Jewish author Gerald Schroeder, who presents another version of concordantism, and has only a little interaction with the works of C. John Collins, Meredith Kline, and my own book, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, which also presents an OEC view. It may be a little self-serving to wish that their book interacted more with my book, but there are some arguments they make that seem weaker for not doing so; for example, the book states that the “great sea creatures” of Genesis 1 are whales, but I presented an extensive word study in my book that shows that these creatures, the tannim, are always reptilian; a chapter in More Than Myth? is spent on the question of animal death before the Fall of mankind, but there is no discussion of the idea of nature showing forth the “wrath” of God, an argument I developed at length.

Overall, though, the book is a useful introduction to the main currents of progressive creationism for those who have never considered it. Though many of the arguments are abbreviated and could be developed much more, they present a positive view of this third way which challenges both young-earth creationism and theistic evolution. For Catholics in particular, some of the arguments will be challenging; for example, Michael Chabarek shows that theistic evolution is particularly problematic for classical metaphysics, which the Catholic church embraces.

Gordon’s article fights only a one-front war, against young-earth creationism. Many of his arguments overlap with the arguments of More Than Myth?, but on the fewer topics he addresses, he does a more in-depth presentation. Of particular note is his interaction with William Dembski’s view of “retroactive” effects of the Fall leading to animal death. Gordon says that instead of using the word “retroactive,” which implies the problematic concept of reverse causality, we might better use the word “anticipatory.” This might not be too far from my own view, that animal death before the Fall represented the wrath of God, part of his intrinsic nature, which could potentially be unleashed on Adam and Eve.

Science is pressing Christians increasingly toward two conclusions: the earth is very old and has a long history of life forms, and there appear to be discontinuous jumps in the history of life that look as discontinuous as any miracle of Jesus. Those who are not familiar with the strong arguments for progressive creationism would do well to take a look.


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