Petty, Scott. Science and God. Little Black Books. Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2011. Paperback. 108 pages. ISBN 978-1-921896-19-4. Rating on 5-star scale: 2 stars.
Promoters identify Science and God as intended for Christian youth between the ages of 14 and 20. Its author, Scott Petty, is a youth minister in Sydney, which seems to support this identification. So, if you’re the parent or friend of a 14-20 year old, or if you’re a 14-20 year old yourself, the publisher, Matthias Media, hopes you’ll purchase this book. Should you?
As I see it, the most important thing for Christian youth is to get solidly grounded in a consistently Christian, thoroughly biblical, way of thinking. The typical pattern today is for Christian youth to be well entertained and fed a lot of fluff in high school and college “youth groups,” then to fall into either nominal Christianity or non-Christianity thereafter. If they fall into nominal Christianity, they will most likely end up in a church where they will, as in youth, be well entertained and fed a lot of fluff…for life. Thus, the contemporary situation is that large numbers of Christians of all ages have never received, and so need, the same thing Christian youth need: solid grounding in a consistently Christian and thoroughly biblical way of thinking. Books providing such a grounding are therefore of great value and deserve high recommendation from any reviewer.
Science and God, alas, is not such a book. If you’re looking for concise but consistently biblical booklets, Answers In Genesis (AIG)’s series of Pocket Guides would be a better choice. If Science and God is any indicator, Matthias Media’s Little Black Books should only be read if what you’re looking for is a concise presentation of contemporary compromise, that believing-unbelieving, Christian-secular, biblical-unbiblical hybrid way of thinking tragically dominant among today’s Christians, particularly among Christian academics. This particular manifestation of contemporary compromise comprises the following chapters: “Introduction” (5-7), “Chapter 1: Why you don’t need to pick a team [either God and Christianity or Science]” (9-33), “Chapter 2: Big Bang or big God?” (35-45), “Chapter 3: Dramatic design or a risky existence?” (47-63), “Chapter 4: Evolution or evil-ution?” (65-81), “Chapter 5: God and the evidence” (83-91), and “Chapter 6: Q&A” (93-100).
In the Introduction, Petty notes that, though he was no lover of science in high school or after, the anti-Christian work of the New Atheists, whom he calls “the celebrity scientists” (“scientists and authors like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others”) motivated him to write Science and God. “Truth be told,” he writes, “I find it annoying that anyone should argue [in the manner of the New Atheists]…that science should be pitted as an alternative to religion, as an enemy of God, or a substitute for belief. There is plenty of room for both, and both are necessary for balanced human existence. That’s what this Little Black Book is all about” (7). Astute readers may perceive in this statement a desire to make the Bible and science address wholly unconnected realms of inquiry, an effort requiring one to creatively reinterpret any scriptural statements relevant to science.
In Chapter 1, “in many ways…the most important chapter in the book,” Petty tries to show that “Christians can and should pick both God and science” (12). In this chapter, Petty rightly notes that Christians’ Bible-based “belief in an ordered universe, governed by a good and rational God, is very fruitful soil for science to grow in” (13), whereas such other systems of thought as ancient polytheism (14) and modern atheism (15) do not entirely fit with scientific work, since their underlying assumptions are in fact contrary to those science requires. Also in this chapter, Petty lists some of the Christian scientists he thinks nicely illustrate the compatibility of Christian faith with science (21-6). Among these scientists are Francis Collins, John Haught, (Sir) John Houghton, and Bill (William D.) Phillips. Notably, these men are all theistic evolutionists (I found confirming Web articles plentiful when Googling each name). Petty’s belief is that “Christians need to be into science and champions of science, even allowing scientific discoveries to challenge the way we understand passages in the Bible” (30-1).
From his choice of evolutionists as exemplifying the proper Christian approach, one would assume he considers evolutionary theory one of the “discoveries” in terms of which we should “challenge” existing understandings of Scripture—that is, in terms of which Scripture should be reinterpreted. However, another statement he makes in the chapter suggests he may not have thoroughly thought through the issues involved. He writes: “Can science tell me anything about the Fall of Rome, or World War II, or your summer holidays?….the answer is ‘No’. Can I put the events of 11 September 2001 in a lab to examine them scientifically? No” (28). What Petty seems to say here is that non-repeatable past occurrences cannot be addressed by science, that “scientific discoveries” are limited to the sorts of present-day, repeatable phenomena that can be studied in a laboratory. Petty does realize that evolutionary theory attempts, on the basis of present-day evidence, to describe what probably happened in an unrepeatable and not-directly-observable past, doesn’t he? While study of whether evolution of one kind of life into another, or of non-life into life, can occur today might constitute science on the present-day-repeatable-phenomena definition, theoretical reconstructions of what happened in the past to produce the lifeforms we observe today does not. Petty’s desire to see the evolutionary story of origins as science does not comport with his own intuition about what forms of investigation science includes.
In any case, Petty’s way of bringing Scripture and “scientific discoveries” into agreement is something called “layered explanation,” a concept he attributes to John Haught (31). The basic idea, which is hardly limited to the thinking of Haught, builds upon the truism that any given phenomenon may be explained or described from various perspectives or on various levels. For instance, a book’s origin may be explained in terms of the publisher’s initiation of the project (comparable to God’s decision to create the universe) or in terms of the printing process that brings the desired book into existence (comparable to evolution, perhaps) (32-3). That phenomena may be described or explained on multiple levels is certainly not controversial; multilevel descriptions and explanations are pervasive in human thought. Petty notes that “How and why we have a universe at all, how it works, and how we work are all questions with layers of explanation,” which is no doubt true. It is also likely true, as Petty states, that “Some layers are open to scientific examination” while others “require an answer from outside science—from God himself” (33). This raises a question: what should faithful Christians do when God has addressed in Scripture layers of explanation that “scientific discoveries” now claim to explain differently?
Petty answers this question in chapter 4. After noting some reasons one might legitimately doubt evolutionary theory (65-73), Petty explains why he does not think it would be a problem for “Bible-believing, Jesus-loyal, God-fearing Christians” if it were proven conclusively that “all the species of life that have ever existed and that ever will exist” are correctly explained by evolutionary theory (74-5). Put simply, Petty favors an interpretation of Scripture that sees the Genesis creation account as just a vivid and memorable way of saying that God created everything out of nothing, relating nothing “historical or scientific” beyond that bare fact of theism, so that anything that scientists care to theorize about origins is perfectly okay for Christians to embrace. (This interpretation is more widely known as the “literary framework” hypothesis.) The Genesis creation account, in Petty’s view, is one layer of explanation—a pretty thin layer, if you ask me. Since this layer contains no information about what actually happened, beyond the bare reality that God is the one who made it happen, and perhaps some idea of why he made it happen, the job of telling us “what actually happened” in the material world is left entirely to the layer of explanation modern science lays down. Clever and creative people like Meredith Kline have promoted this “make Genesis mean nothing (so far as events in the material world are concerned) so science can claim anything” (my wording) approach, and maybe one can be forgiven for finding it a tempting way to avoid the need to argue about origins at all. But can one rightly claim to be a Bible believer, can one truly honor Scripture as infallible and authoritative revelation, while adopting this approach to its very first words?
The way Petty frames the scientific issue shows that he is not conversant with (or does not wish to portray in the most favorable and persuasive light) contemporary Biblical Creationism (BC). For instance, he describes the creation-evolution debate as one concerning whether evidence of microevolution, “adaptive change within a species,” favors belief in macroevolution, “all life has evolved from the first one-celled creature” (66-7). Contemporary BC, however, increasingly eschews the term “microevolution” as misleading. While BC advocates accept that “adaptive change” occurs within created kinds, they note that these changes involve loss of useful information and so do not constitute upward movement (addition of such information) as the term “evolution” implies (in popular understanding, at least). One could say that lifeforms become more “fit” for specific environmental niches by losing broader “fitness” for a range of environments. For example, a bacterium has a protein altered and becomes less fit broadly speaking (it now reproduces more slowly, say), but more fit when it comes to surviving in the niche where antibiotics are present (since the action of some antibiotics only affects bacteria with the unaltered protein). (See Georgia Purdom’s 07 July 2007 article, “Antibiotic Resistance of Bacteria: An Example of Evolution in Action?,” on the AIG Web site, upon which my example is loosely based.) (Some adaptive change might involve variant expression of an unchanged body of information, a created kind possessing potential to express its capacities in different ways in different environments. While this would not involved any loss of information, it also wouldn’t involve an evolutionary increase in information.) The point BCers increasingly emphasize is that observed adaptive changes within created kinds are not just quantitatively but qualitatively different from the “goo to you” evolution commonly labeled “macroevolution.” These changes, they therefore assert, should not be called “evolution” at all, not even “microevolution.”
Petty’s framing of the hermeneutical issue also shows ignorance of (or desire to misrepresent) BC. He writes: “Bible-believing [sic] Christians have discussed at least a dozen different ways of reading Genesis 1….And only one of those views, which sees Genesis 1 as an historical, chronological and scientifically viable account of the creation of the world in six 24-hour days, contradicts the scientific evidence that is emerging today. In other words,” he continues, “if you read Genesis 1 as something other than a scientific and historical account of the creation of the world, you may not have a clash with the scientific evidence that is presenting itself” (76-7). He additionally characterizes BC as “the scientific reading of Genesis 1” (77). In addition to making clear that Petty really does consider evolutionary theory among the “scientific discoveries” he believes should guide scriptural interpretation (in spite of his own suggestion earlier in the chapter that one might legitimately doubt “macroevolution”), this characterization of the issue misrepresents BC. BCers do not hold that Genesis is written in scientific language; they merely recognize that Genesis constitutes a continuous historical narrative, one that extends on into Exodus. (There is no claim that Genesis and Exodus are “historical” in the sense of adhering to conventions of history writing invented more recently; rather, the books are “historical” in the sense of telling a story about things believed to have actually happened.) That one can discern (or perhaps impose) literary structure and styling on such passages as the creation account no more detracts from the “this actually happened” nature of the book than does the styling and structure of modern writers of history or other nonfiction. Given that Genesis recounts what “actually happened,” it seems evident that modern claims about what happened in the past can be tested to see if they agree or disagree with what Genesis, and the entire Pentateuch, has to say. Petty’s assertion in the closing Q&A (Chapter 6) that “Genesis 1 is much more concerned with teaching us about God than about answering the particular scientific questions [better, questions about what actually happened] of any generation of people” (94) does nothing to change this; it merely expresses an increasingly popular fallacy I call “the main concern fallacy” (I would be surprised if no one else has identified this fallacy, though I’ve not yet run across the identification in my reading—not that I recall, anyway). This fallacy holds that any irksome hermeneutical debate may be quickly dismissed if it does not address what one identifies as “the main concern” of a passage. If “the main concern” of Genesis 1 is “God as creator” then, this fallacy holds, what Genesis 1 has to say about what actually happened in physical reality (how God created) can be ignored. Obviously, this is not a valid way to approach Holy Writ.
At one point, Petty suggests that placing ourselves in the “thought-world and culture” of the original recipients of Genesis will make us more open to the interpretation he favors (79). Let’s see if that’s true. Imagine we are Genesis’ original recipients. As original recipients, having the account read to us by Moses or a priest, we are unencumbered by modern science and evolutionary theory. We appreciate craft in sacred stories, since it makes those stories easier for us to remember, but we see such craft as no reason to assume the stories didn’t really happen as they’re said to have happened. Further, the same Torah that tells us how God created in six days tells us that this creation week, with its concluding day of rest, is the basis for our own divinely-ordained practice of working six days each week then resting on the seventh (Exodus 20:8-11). Further, we recognize that the creation story flows smoothly into historical (“this is what happened”) narrative that includes genealogies traceable from Adam to Abraham and thence to ourselves. Within this thought world, would it occur to any of us to interpret the creation account in any of the ways Petty and other modern accommodators do?
If we extend our exercise into the thought-world of those who wrote and received the New Testament, we find our Savior saying that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were created in “the beginning of the creation” rather than long after the beginning (Mark 10:6; all Scripture quotations are from the King James Version, which is in the public domain). We also find our leading first-generation thinker, Paul, telling us that not only humans (Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:21), but “the creature” or “the whole creation” suffers from the “bondage of corruption” resulting from the fall of those first parents into sin (Romans 8:19-22). Though clever and creative moderns may think they see ways to explain these statements in evolution-consistent and old-earth-consistent ways, can one honestly assert that someone immersed in the thought-world and culture of New Testament believers would have understood these passages as indicating anything but that the original creation occurred as described in a straightforwardly-read Genesis 1 and that animal conflict (competition for limited resources, predation) and death (indispensable to evolution) are aspects of the “corruption” originating with the human-death-originating fall of humanity into sin? That God’s concept of the ideal and uncorrupted does not include animal conflict and death would also seem evident to us from Isaiah’s portrayal of the consummation as free of these things (Isaiah 11:6-10, 65:17-25). As Sarfati cogently argues, “bringing ‘science’ to bear on hermeneutics,” as Petty wants to do, “is bringing a completely foreign context to the passages” (Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Compromise [Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2004], 41). Working from within the thought-world and culture of the original recipients of Scripture, would any but one of the alleged “at least a dozen” readings of Genesis 1 strike us as plausible?
Let’s face it. Arguments alone will never resolve the debate over interpretation of Genesis 1; no one on any side of the issue has said anything genuinely new in quite some time (so far as I’ve noticed). The question is really one of authority and obedience, of choice and commitment. Given sufficient cleverness and creativity, and a willingness to believe that your ability to imagine something makes it more likely to be true, disobedience can always be rationalized, whether disobedience in behavior or belief. This seems nowhere more true than in deciding whether you will (1) let the scientific implications of scriptural statements guide your understanding of science (that is, of the evidence interpreted by science) or (2) utilize your cleverness and creativity (or that of others) to persuade yourself that Scripture means something other than what it says. Will you choose to believe Scripture in its plain sense, or will you choose to make human cleverness and creativity, your own or that of others, your ultimate authority? If the latter, Petty’s book may be for you, or for a 14-20 year old you’d like to influence in that direction. If the former, you’ll prefer some other text—Tim Chaffey and Jason Lisle’s Old-Earth Creationism on Trial: The Verdict Is In (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), perhaps, or some of the AIG Pocket Guides already mentioned.
“But David,” you respond, “why don’t you tell us how you really feel? Seriously, though, I understand you disagree with Petty and think buying Science and God is a bad idea. What I don’t understand is why you gave the book two stars rather than one. What gives?” Well, as already noted, some Christians want to believe they can qualify as “Bible believers” while interpreting Scripture in ways no original recipient could possibly have interpreted it (at least, I’ve yet to see any persuasive arguments that Scripture’s original recipients could have understood what they received as teaching anything compatible with evolutionary theory, progressive creationism, or billions-of-years cosmology). For that constituency, this may be a worthwhile purchase. As the back cover blurb rightly states, the book is “a fun read” written in a “snappy style.” It is both concise and entertaining, a suitable introduction to the methods of compromise for would-be compromisers age 14-20 and beyond.
Additionally, the book does include some content even non-compromisers might find useful. Chapters 2 and 3, for example, include concise summaries of some general theistic arguments, borrowing from such thinkers as Norman Geisler and Richard Swinburne. Sadly, however, these chapters also emphasize Petty’s belief that “The Bible can tell us about the cause of…[such things as the cosmic background radiation and cosmic ripples] at a spiritual and philosophical level” only (42; see also 62), not on the “earthly” level of material “this is what happened” reality (cf. John 3:12). This compromised content does not “cancel out” the positive and useful content, but it does raise the question of whether one’s reading time might be better spent with other, less compromised, works.
In spite of some positive content meriting an upgrade to two stars, and in spite of an entertaining and concise style, in the final analysis I must recommend against purchasing Science and God. It is primarily and pervasively a popularization of a compromised hermeneutic that subtly (not so subtly?) undermines Scripture’s authority. As well, it makes no serious effort to grapple with the counterarguments of Biblical Creationists, displaying at multiple points a basic misunderstanding of their perspective. For Bible-believing readers age 14-20, and for older readers who want something concise and accessible, there are far better books available, a few of which I’ve mentioned above.