on July 18, 2007
Perspectives on an Evolving Creation is an essential tool and good starting foundation for anyone exploring theistic evolution.
The book is a collection of essays by experts on a variety of topics concerning theistic evolution. This approach is wise, since most books with a single author cannot encompass such a broad range of issues without the author showing his ignorance in some areas.
The essays are divided into three sections: Providing a Context, Scientific Evidence and Theory, and Theological Implications and Insights.
"Providing a context" is a brilliant selection of works covering an introduction to the topics, a brief history of the conflict, and philosophy of science. A couple of essays show the movement of Concordialism (basically progressive creationism) that was replaced by early versions of theistic evolution held by people such as Asa Gray and James McCosh. Another essay discusses the various views and debates held by Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield - all of this harmony taking place before fundamentalism upset the peace and began the conflict in the 20th century. In the middle is a wonderful and insightful essay by Conrad Hyers that shows that Genesis 1-3 did not wait thousands of years for hidden scientific truths to be discovered, but rather had meaning to the original audience in expressing key theological truths and combating neighboring cosmogonies like the Babylonian Enuma Elish. The section is finished by an essay exploring the relationship between science, God, and interventionism and greatly establishes the necessity of God's continual sustaining of the universe.
The middle section, "Scientific Evidence and Theory," solidly tacks down the scientific case with a few theological insights thrown in. After a shaky start with "An Evolving Cosmos" (addressed later in my review), the antiquity of the earth is nailed down in verbosity and scholarly erudition by Jeffrey Greenberg. Further essays relentlessly demolish creationist objections based on the fossil recored and Cambrian explosion. A couple essays deal with human genetics and finding Adam, and the section is finished out nicely by Terry Gray's essay on Biochemistry and Evolution, which elucidates the confirmation that biochemistry gave evolutionary theory and combats creationist misinterpretations.
The final section is somewhat weaker, if not only because of the variety of views that can be held. One author is more Calvinistic than the others, and some of the rest differ on the adequacy of other theistic evolution views, with one author going so far as to briefly criticize the exposition of the arguments of another essay. This paints a portrait of the multi-facetedness and controversial nature of the theological realm of theistic evolution.
The section is held in place by by far the most brilliant essay in the book, "Special Providence and Genetic Mutation; A New Defense of Theistic Evolution" by Robert John Russell. He first establishes that he is doing constructive theology, not natural theology, and thus one can proceed in light of the fact that quantum physics is liable to change or be replaced. He then masterfully argues for a non-interventionist approach by which God acts at the quantum level in the gene. He finishes out by answering objections and acknowledging the problem of evil and theodicy. This, however, makes for the climax of the book, in which he exhorts: "It is time Christians refrained from attacking evolution or spending energy on useless alternatives and focused their faith and reason on this truly fundamental challenge: If God works through evolution, why does God not act to prevent so much of the suffering in nature; indeed, is there no other way that life and humanity could have "evolved" than through this 3.8 billion year history?" He is not afraid to admit a problem and acknowledges that he has turned all his efforts to resolving it and exhorts fellow Christians to do the same. Such, I think, is very admirable.
The rest of the section is adequate, with an essay studying Christ's work on the cross and what it means for evolution, followed by a couple of (unnecessary, IMHO) essays on environmentalism basically establishing the stewardship position, a mentally piquing essay on evolution and original sin (basically arguing that Romans 1 describes the fall, with an original group of hominids turning from God, resulting in corruption gradually being caked into the structures of society; this essay deals with all the major scriptures and competing views), and finished by a thought-provoking essay on cognitive neuroscience by Warren S. Brown that espouses non-reductive physicalism.
The book is not without its flaws. First are the small devotions scattered throughout the book. Even though they could have a purpose, I feel they are out of place in an otherwise scientifically rigorous book that will be peered over by diverse and scathingly critical minds. They seem weak and unscientific amidst the rest of the work. Perhaps they would have been better off in a separate book.
Some of the devotional attitude seems to have spilled over into one of the essays "An evolving cosmos." Scattered with bits of cosmology, it nevertheless reads like a devotion - "simple math tells us that our Sun is one of over 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe!" and "When our study of the universe is done in love for God and in service to to others, the excitement and blessing overflow!" It's probably no coincidence that the following devotion was written by the same author.
Then there is the essay by John C Mundane Jr on "Animal Pain; Beyond the Threshold?" This one seemed incredibly lame as the author spent most of his time stating the problem, then tried to dance around it (he throws out the possibility that the method of a predator going for the neck of the prey actually induces less pain, since the receptors in the neck are less sensitive) but then realizes that the previous is not enough to dismiss all animal pain and goes through some possibilities for resolution before throwing his hands up in the air and saying "We just need to accept God as good."
Nevertheless, this book has been a tremendous help in my explorations. It serves as a "home base" and grounding point for my quest; indeed, this is the best part of the book. Some of the essays have footnotes that say they are abridged versions of larger works, and most of the authors have written books that you can read if you want to go further into depth on certain issues. Indeed, I have gone on to read "Offense to Reason" by Bernard Ramm, "The Meaning of Creation" by Conrad Hyers, and "Whatever Happened to the Soul?" by Warren S. Browm and will likely read more, each time going back to "Perspectives" to find out where I should go next.
Indeed, this book is a mostly solid, intellectually rigorous overview of theistic evolution with plenty of opportunities for further study if one so desires. I wholeheartedly recommend it.