Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 48

Creation & Evolution - two book reviews

By Philip Joy.

[This article is an exploration of the current debate about creationism and Darwinian evolutionary theory. It takes the form of two book reviews in one:

Should Christians Embrace Evolution? by Norman C Nevin (Editor) IVP 2009; 220pp; £9.99; ISBN 978 1 84474 406 0

Theology After Darwinby Michael Northcott and R J Berry (Editors); Paternoster 2009; 222pp; £14.99; ISBN 978 1 84227 646 4]


It is a sign of the acrimony between evangelical groups over the Darwin-Creation debate that no single comparative volume is available for review in this journal. A mature symposium with views for and against, covering both theological and scientific questions, picking up on the counter-arguments and giving the reader a chance to come to their own mind is still awaited. The fact that I review these two books - both anthologies - alongside one another should not suggest to readers some balanced debate - rather they both came out during the year of Darwin’s anniversary. Also, simply, they take opposing views.

First, do not be fooled by the title “Should Christians...?” This apparent spirit of enquiry is a misnomer as the book’s foreword begins plainly: “ persuasively argues that Christians cannot accept modern evolutionary theory without compromising essential teachings of the Bible”. Responding to the Darwinian camp, the volume of essays lucidly points out the theological pitfalls and scientific inconsistencies of the Theory of Evolution. On the other hand, Theology after Darwin at least does what it says on the box. Starting from the assumption that the theory of Natural Selection is a sort of second Copernican revolution, it asks what Christian views on the fall, the goodness of the original creation, providence and the new creation and - not least - how to read the Bible, would look like would look if we really took Darwin at his word.

It would make a nice easy review to say that one book had the upper hand. Actually my impression is that the Nevin anthology is (oddly) weak on theology, but strong on science; whereas the Northcott and Berry is good on the historicity of the debate and nuanced on the theology, but rather weak on the actual science itself. This latter is doubtless explained by the Darwinian assumptions the book begins from, but it is nonetheless disappointing, as in a book of this vintage one would expect to find a thumbnail at least of the contemporary scientific evidence in favour. So, then, expect different things from these books.

As to details. Nevin includes some heavy-weights such as Grudem (foreword) and R T Kendal, but it is precisely the theologians who are so disappointing. Phrases that stick in the mind like “severe consequences” or “future is at stake” suggest less that Christian non-negotiables are under attack, and more that the writers inexplicably have their backs against the wall. The Adam-Fall-Christ-Redemption discussion in Romans 5 is turned into a shibboleth of Evangelicalism instead of being what it is, no more and no less, a piece of Pauline typology. Kendal himself insists on the (to my mind) baffling view that “every generation of Christianity has its own stigma by which the believer’s faith is severely tested” namely, in our day, holding to Creationism. Kendal is a preacher, and he takes as his text Hebrews 11.3 and his contribution reads like a sermon. But my New Testament tells me that faith for the Christian begins not chronologically with creation ex nihilo, but with Christ’s Resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15.14ff. It is surely on the Resurrection that our faith stands or falls, not our belief in a particular narrative of origins, be it biblical or scientific. I will stick my neck out as a reviewer and resist the attempt of this and any volume to make the Creation/Evolution debate into a primary issue. It is not to die for!

Nevin’s own contributions on the scientific evidence, by comparison, are more dispassionate and much more convincing. His examination of the supportive theories of homology, missing links and genetics raise worthwhile questions, as do Walton’s descriptions of the immense complexity of even the simplest life-forms. This book is worth buying just for the scientific chapters, since the scientific side of the debate is dominated by the atheistic Dawkinses of this world.

One word of warning though: nearly all the writers in “Should Christians Embrace...” refer to an author called Denis Alexander (who writes but one chapter in the other volume - on intelligent design), and they nearly all interact with quotations from his book, Creation or Evolution: Do we have to Choose? (Oxford, Monarch Books, 2008). It would be an advantage to have this book to hand since it is referred to so consistently, although I can’t help wondering at the narrowness of the Creationist’s reading list. “Should Christians Embrace...” lacks even a Scripture reference list, whereas Theology after Darwin has an 11-page index and 16-page bibliography. I am beginning to show my hand!

OK, what I like about Theology after Darwin is the way it takes the debate forward. Most Christians seem to be content to say that God used evolution as his means of creating. But that creates an awful lot of questions - such as the goodness of a God who has brought things into being through integral suffering; or the fact that death is essential to evolution whereas biblically it is ‘the final enemy’. Now whilst “Should Christians Embrace...” asks these questions too, when it comes to a clash it basically says - oh well the science must be wrong. Theology after Darwin, on the other hand, confronts these questions and offers ways through - sometimes several, and then argues which is the most satisfactory. This is the kind of thinking we need to be doing, and it does not read as though God is simply being made to fit into a scientific mould. Rather it attempts to bring together the horizons of science and theology without detriment to either.

Such a controversial subject! How do we judge books like these two? I take it as granted that both are ruled by a love of the Gospel and a desire for the pastoral welfare of God’s people and for evangelism. In the end the difference comes down to this. We have science, and we have theology: are we going to choose one over the other and then try to fit the other one in? Christians on both sides of the debate are doing this. Or are we prepared to see both science and theology as mutually enhancing and mutually conditional, and attempt to piece them both together? Psalm 19, it is said, presents two books of revelation - that of the Natural and that of the Scriptural. In the present age it is best to assume we understand neither fully. Bad science and bad theology both dishonour God. Neither discipline can afford dogmatism.

My problem, however, is with those who mistrust science, and blindly follow their own theology. The Natural Sciences - biological, genetic or evolutionary are surely worthy of trust as examinations of a Creation whose given-ness is established by the Incarnation (veiled in flesh). Whereas I want to tell the dogmatists that the Queen of Sciences is worthy of mistrust as an all-too-human examination of a Word whose conditionality is also established by the Incarnation (veiled in flesh). No-one today believes the world to be flat, or that God somehow loves the world any less because it revolves around the sun. One day the Darwinian revolution will be looked back upon in the same way. And isn’t God bigger and more wonderful now he’s not ‘up there’, and isn’t Christ infinitely more beautiful now we have begun to overthrow the Docetism in our churches?

It is for these reasons I like the science chapters of “Should Christians Embrace...” better than the theology chapters, because the scientists seem to have more open minds than the clerics. On the other hand I like most of the chapters in Theology after Darwin because it comes from a frankly less dogmatic and more nuanced theological school: but the book has the serious shortcoming of not really laying out the case for the science of evolution (though as I say, it has an extensive reference section).

Given these caveats I would certainly want both books in my armoury when I came to preach on the subject, if only so I knew what to warn against! Verdict: positive on both, but on a credit crunch budget, just for making you really think, I’d go for Theology after Darwin.

Philip Joy

Specialist in Old Testament narrative and typology

Ministry Today

You are reading Creation and Evolution - two book reviews by Philip Joy, part of Issue 48 of Ministry Today, published in March 2010.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2024