Greg Davidson is chair of geology and geological engineering in at the University of Mississippi. He is a co-author of The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth, which I reviewed here. (He has also authored a science fiction trilogy). He has just come out with a new book, Friend of Science, Friend of Faith, which does a thorough job addressing diverse issues concerning the Bible and creation science. It is a meaty book, with some 270 pages of text, plus a lengthy bibliography and two indices.
In discussing the scientific issues, the author focuses heavily on geology, which is his area of professional expertise. There are also sections of the book which deal with cosmology and evolutionary genetics. As he notes in the Acknowledgments, he sought input from experts in these other disciplines, to ensure accuracy in those areas.
Interpreting the Bible
The first third of the book deals mainly with interpreting the Bible, which is a key area in this controversy. A basic premise of the book (which is supported with theological arguments) is that God is not a massive deceiver, and so we can trust that the physical evidence we find for the great age of the universe, and the evidence for biological evolution, give valid information on what really happened. However, for sincere believers who value God’s opinion over man’s opinion on matters, it makes perfect sense to reject any scientific conclusion if it truly conflicts with the teaching of the Bible. What Professor Davidson does, clearly and thoroughly, is to help readers distinguish between the actual words of the Bible, and our interpretation of those words.
He notes that we have the “tendency to conflate God’s word with our own interpretation of his word.” He goes on to say, “God‘s word is immutable and true; our interpretation is not always so. Failure to recognize this has the potential to cause tremendous personal upheaval. If the weight of evidence begins to accumulate that my interpretation is an error, but I am unable to differentiate my interpretation from scripture itself, I will begin to retreat into a world of contradictions where some truths must be ignored in order to cling to others. “
As an opening illustration, Professor Davidson uses the controversy in the 16th and 17th centuries over whether the earth moves or not. There are a number of Bible passages, which, taken literally, state unequivocally that the earth is stationary, fixed on its foundations, while it is the sun that moves past the earth. A few centuries ago, both Catholic and Protestant theologians asserted that the literal interpretation here was correct. He goes on to list a number of other passages which, taken literally, make physical statements that we know to be untrue. Nearly all modern believers, no matter how conservative, accept that these passages were not intended to teach truth about the physical universe, and thus do not interpret these verses literally.
From there, Professor Davidson argues that we should take what we have learned from these issues, and apply it to more recent scientific findings, including the age of the earth and evolution. Opponents of evolution and of an old earth naturally mount a variety of objections against a nonliteral interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative. Here is where Professor Davidson shows he has really done his homework. He acknowledges a number of these objections fairly, without caricaturing them, and answers them clearly. The overall tone of the book is patient, and sympathetic toward those who are influenced by the young earth creationist point of view.
The book notes that even within the first three chapters of Genesis, there are numerous outright contradictions, if you take each verse literally. Thus, “a great deal of interpretation underlies a superficial, literalist reading of the creation story. In fact, few if any at all truly believe the supposed ‘plain sense’ meaning of the words, for a host of non-literal explanations are required to buttress the purported literal view.”
A Wealth of Illustrations
The book sets forth a number of examples to clarify the underlying issues. For instance, it notes that arguing over whether identification of mechanisms for evolution (e.g. mutations and natural selection) excludes God is as nonsensical as arguing whether gravity excludes God:
Consider a hypothetical God-versus-gravity debate. A ball is released at the top of an incline rolls down the slope. Scientists studying the phenomenon discover that the behavior of the rolling ball is predictable, and develop a theory that the behavior is controlled by something they call gravity. Some of the scientist go so far as to say that God is not necessary to account for the behavior of the ball because they have a good naturalistic explanation for the observed phenomenon. In reaction, some Christians insist that God is the driving force behind all of creation, therefore gravity cannot be true. [pp. 83-84]
Another line of discussion points out some of the flaws of the “baramin-kinds” approach that is currently popular within young earth creationism:
As each group of organisms is created in Genesis 1, a repeated phrase is used that organisms were made and then reproduced, each “after their own kind”.… Israel’s neighbors believed nature to be the chaotic, unpredictable outgrowth of the actions of the precious gods.… But the God of Genesis is not capricious. There is an order to the creation. In human experience, sparrows will give rise to sparrows and sheep will give rise to sheep.
This is not a statement against evolution. Quite to the contrary, evolutionary theory affirms that nature is not controlled by mercurial gods, but acts in an orderly and logical fashion. That orderliness is what allows us to selectively breed to enhance desirable traits in crops or livestock, and even to manipulate the genetic code with reasonable foreknowledge of what it will produce.
Ironically, young-earth creationist have turned the traditional interpretation of this text upside down. Realizing that representative species from the entire earth could not fit on the ark, leading young earth advocates now claim that creatures we would not recognize today entered the ark, with offspring evolving at hyperspeed after exiting to a dramatically changed environment. As an example, a single cat-kind pair leaving the ark gave rise, in a matter of a few generations, to all of today’s lions, tigers, cougars, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, bobcats, panthers, lynx, ocelots, and house cats, as well as the many extinct varieties of saber-tooth cats. With a biblical kind defined closer to a biological family, not even sheep, goats, and cows would have been on the ark in forms recognized today, for they are all part of the bovind family.… Noah presumably brought on pairs of a bovind kind, which soon gave rise to goats, sheep, and cows…All this departs radically from a literal/traditional understanding of Genesis. [pp. 84-85]
I will not to try to summarize it here, but I appreciated the discussion on animal suffering and the possible role of human sin in the corruption of the physical universe, relative to the sovereignty of God.
There are many figures in the book, which were carefully chosen to illustrate particular points. These figures are all in black and white or grayscale. These include nice sketches of key fossil intermediates for the evolution of whales and for the reptile-to-mammal transition. Some of my favorite figures are those which compared the expected sequence of fossils for various flood geology scenarios compared to what we actually observe in the sedimentary rock layers.
For instance, young earth creationist sometimes claim that the reason that humans and other modern mammals are not found in the lower rock layers is that they were able to run to higher ground as the floodwaters rose. The figure below illustrates a representative fossil sequence if “fleeing to higher ground” was a dominant mechanism for fossil sorting. (I just snapped a photo of the figure with my cell phone, so it is a bit distorted here).
It depicts various slow moving animals like shrews, plus both ferns and flowering plants, appearing in the lower sedimentary rock layers. These plants and animals would not have been able to flee the lowlands, and thus would have been swept away early and buried in the lower sedimentary deposits. Meanwhile, more mobile animals like giraffes and predatory dinosaurs and elephants would be able to escape to higher ground. Of course, there would be both ferns and flowering plants in higher as well as lower elevations, and so these plants would be buried in the higher sedimentary layers along with the elephants and therapod dinosaurs. Flying creatures like birds and pterodactyls would take refuge in the tops of the highest trees on the highest hills and mountains, before they were finally swept away to be buried together in the very highest rock layers from the Flood.
The figure plainly shows that that is not what we actually observe. In reality, pterodactyls and dinosaurs of all kinds are found only in the lower, “Mesozoic” rock layers. There are little or no flowering plant remains there. In the “Cenozoic” rock layers which lie above the Mesozoic are found all kinds of modern-type mammals, including very sluggish ones, and only in those layers do we find a large variety of flowering plants.
The book includes similar figures showing an expected fossil sequence for hydrodynamic or vibrational sorting of animal remains of various shapes and sizes by the moving floodwaters and also an expected fossil sequence for sedimentary rock layers attributed to the global Flood versus post-Flood deposits; again it is shown that these “Flood geology” sequences do not match what we actually find in the sedimentary rock layers. Hydrodynamic sorting would tend to result in similar size/shape/density animals being grouped together in the same layers (e.g. elephants grouped with medium sized dinosaurs). But that is not observed in the rock layers.
Although most of the book’s arguments are aimed at young earth creationism and its Flood geology, there is a chapter on Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design proponents often accept an old earth, and the appearance of new plants and animals over time as indicated by the fossil record, but they claim that natural processes such as mutation and natural selection cannot produce significantly new forms. Intelligent Design proponents energetically point out the many instances where we do not yet have a complete natural explanation of this or that evolutionary step, and thus (they claim) the frequent intervention of some (supernatural) Intelligent Agent is required. The book notes that, despite its protestations to the contrary, Intelligent Design is for all practical purposes just a sophisticated god-of-the-gaps exercise, and cites a classic passage by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of our knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.
The Stakes Are High
The book opens with a fictitious but representative scenario of a college student named Riley who comes from a conservative Christian home. Her parents and youth minister had told her that the evidence for evolution and an old earth were flimsy, and easily overturned. In her studies, however, she found there is a wealth of transitional fossils which support evolution, as well as geological evidence that the earth is old. When she looked to the campus minister for guidance on this, he handed her a young earth creationist book, filled with scientific assertions which she could immediately see were false. Riley naturally concluded that if the veracity of the Bible depends on the validity of young earth creationism, then the Bible cannot be considered reliable, and that “her family and church had unwittingly indoctrinated her with fairy tales”.
The author’s reverence for God and his word come through in the concluding chapter, where he revisits the type of dilemma faced by “Riley” and he expresses the hope that believers in the future will realize “how much deeper Genesis 1 is than a mere sequence of days, how Scripture and science both speak of a beginning to the universe and of the earth bringing forth life, the incredible artistry of life adapted through time, that nature continues to proclaim the glory of its Author, and that God delights in giving us amazing tools to explore the wonders of his creation long before humans walked the earth.”
He further notes that as a professor, he has personally had the experience of talking with students who were on the verge of giving up their faith because of the impossibility of retaining the literal interpretation of Genesis which they had been taught, and has helped them to see “how much deeper Genesis 1 is than a mere sequence of days”.
Because young earth creationists are so energetic and creative in their objections to modern science and to nonliteral interpretations, this controversy has many arms and legs to it. Thus, any book which (like this one) tries to address the majority of the contested points will necessarily be long and involved. I would recommend it without hesitation to anyone who is deeply engaged in the Bible/science controversies or who has had depth exposure to geology or biology. Anyone who had read a number of young earth creationist articles or books has probably picked up many erroneous beliefs, which would be addressed in Friend of Science, Friend of Faith.
On the other hand, if someone is only casually interested in the topic, or if they have not been previously exposed to many young earth arguments and counter-arguments, the length and depth of this book may be off-putting. There is probably some 5-10 page tract which treats Bible interpretation and key physical evidences, which could serve as a standalone introduction to the subject for a nontechnical conservative Christian who is considering the claims of modern science for the first time. (I don’t have a favorite article or pamphlet here – if any readers have a recommendation, I’d be interested to hear about it.) Friend of Science, Friend of Faith would be a good back-up reference for such an introductory tract.