Science, Faith, and Vern Poythress 2

This is part two of RJS’s review of Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science.
Vern Poythress in his book Redeeming Science begins with a thoroughly Christian worldview. God is the creator of the world. Everything came into being by Him and through Him (Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1-3). God revealed Himself and reveals Himself through special revelation (scripture) and general revelation (providence and nature, laws of physics …). We all know however, that the real sticking point is the apparent conflict between the interpretation of the data arising from exploration of God’s word in general revelation (science) and the interpret of God’s word contained in the special revelation of Scripture. So how is this apparent conflict to be reconciled?

In Chapters 5-10 of his book Poythress discusses the nature of Genesis, the role of science and the dating of the earth, and the relative merits and flaws of several possible interpretation of Genesis:
1. 24-Hour-Day view: “Literal” reading of Genesis 1 and following – often supplemented by Flood Geology to account for the geological/biological discrepancies.
2. Mature Creation Theory: World brought into being in a short period of time (6 days – probably 24-hour days) with an appearance of age. Reconciliation with science then does not deny the science but simply asserts that Genesis teaches that God created the world in a short period in the form that would have arisen through his created natural process.
3. Religious-Only Theory: Scripture is only intended to address matters of religious not scientific fact.
4. Local Creation Theory: Genesis 1:1, John 1:1-3 assert God as creator of all, but the specific descriptions following in Genesis only refer to a small region of the world around the Garden of Eden in modern day Iraq.
6. Gap Theory: There is a large time gap between Genesis 1:1 and the remainder of Genesis. Most of Genesis only refers to the restoration of creation after the fall of Satan.
7. Day-Age Theory: Each day in Genesis refers to a long period of time, an “age” of billions, millions or thousands of years. Each day-age is of a different length. As I understand it this is the view championed by Hugh Ross and his organization. Audio files of lectures describing his approach can be found on the Veritas Forum website.
8. Intermittent Day Theory: The suggestion here is that each day of creation described in Genesis is a “real” day, but the text is silent on vast periods of time between the specific days of creation.
9. Revelatory Day Theory: This theory holds that the days of creation in Genesis refer to the days over which God revealed his creative work to Moses. It recounts the vision through which Moses was inspired to write his account, not the actual days of creation.
10. Framework Theory: The days refer by analogy to God’s work and the account in Genesis is a literary framework describing God’s work in creation, not a literal account. Among others Lee Irons champions this approach and describes it in a lecture available here.
11. Analogical Day Theory: God created the world in six days of work followed by one day of rest – but these days of divine work are an analogy rather than an identity with days of human work.
Poythress considers only three of these alternatives as attractive: Mature Creation, Framework, and Analogical Day, although it should be noted that the distinctions between the Analogical Day and Framework theories are subtle.
The mature creation option raises several objections that Poythress considers less than convincing. Most notably: Mature creation implies God as deceiver and mature creation invalidates scientific investigation. Although Poythress doesn’t set much stock in the God as deceiver objection, I find this argument compelling – in part because of the willful appearance of age argument that Poythress discusses, but more importantly because of the intricate and unnecessary web of evidence contained in the fossil record, the geological make-up of the earth, and especially that embedded within the DNA of living creatures. If God did not create the world over billions of years using the laws of physics and the processes of evolution, he intentionally created the world to look as though he did, in exquisitely subtle and functionless ways. A more detailed discussion of the genomic evidence can be found in Francis Collins’ book “The Language of God” or in lectures he gave for the American Scientific Affiliation in 2002 and 2006 (,
Despite his unwillingness to rule out the Mature Creation view – Poythress does not feel that the evidence contained in the special revelation of scripture requires this view and instead prefers the Analogical Day interpretation. In coming to this conclusion Poythress borrows from the approach of John Calvin, who took the view that in the inspiration of scripture God is speaking to ordinary people in ordinary language appropriate for all times and all conditions. God accommodates Himself equally to the understanding of the ancient Israelite and the modern engineer and our understanding of scripture should reflect this fact. Our interpretation of scripture should not attempt to impart an unintended technical meaning. Two key citations from Calvin come from his commentary on Genesis – particularly the passages dealing with Genesis 1:6 and 1:16, although there are additional examples in his consideration of other issues and other passages of scripture. As an example consider the following excerpt from the commentary on 1:16:

16. The greater light I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, … Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. …Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God. (The complete passage is available here.)

According to the Analogical Day interpretation the description of creation represents an analogy between the work of God stretching over six divine days followed by a day of rest, and the work of humans in understandable terms, laying groundwork for both the Sabbath day and the Jubilee year commanded in Leviticus. God speaks and teaches through analogy and thus accommodates his revelation to human understanding. In the interpretation of Genesis Poythress also suggests that we should look to different cultural approaches to time – including our current obsession of keeping to the clock and the more interactive experience of time tied to the rhythms of human existence.
“If one goes to Genesis 1 with a clock orientation, one focuses primarily on how long it took, as measured by a clock. But if one goes to Genesis 1 with an interactive orientation, one asks what important events took place, and what was their human social meaning. (139)” The rhythm of work and rest speaks to the ordinary human experience.

In the context of his discussion of the three attractive alternatives, Poythress also deals with two other objections to an extended creation.
First the Mature Creation view falsely implies that plant and animal death came about before the fall and future death would come about with or without the fall and in the other two views death came about before the fall. Considering this, Poythress concludes that nothing in scripture necessitates the view that all death originated with the Fall — only the death of mankind created in the image of God. The second objection is that all of these views undermine the biblical teaching about Noah and the flood. But the objections raised here again presuppose a modern worldview of the earth and the extent of the earth and the nature of the earth as a globe hanging in space. Again, God is speaking in scripture to ordinary people in ordinary situations at the time scripture was recorded and we must not allow our presupposition and assumptions to determine how the scripture must be interpreted.
So – a couple of questions here: In interpreting scripture, especially Genesis and creation, but also other passages and other issues, is it appropriate to include the understanding that God was speaking to ordinary people in ordinary situations in terms and ideas and analogies that they would understand? Given this accommodation, is it reasonable to view the general revelation of the Word of God in nature, learned through science, as filling in the blanks so to speak and revealing more of the mind, nature, and language of God?

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  • bruce madeiros

    Having read more of Vern Poythress’s Redeeming Science I think RJS’s review of the book is a brilliant synopsis.

  • BeckyR

    We attended a lecture by Hugh Ross of which I understood perhaps 10% of what he presented. I consider myself intelligent with a mind able to understand new things. Not with him. Not because what he said was false, but contained many physics and scientific stuff on a college and graduate level, that I know nothing about. But it got my curiosity and I remember some of what he said. Quite interesting. More of what with his organization reasons to believe is at
    After his presentation there was a mic for questions or comments and I was surprised by those who went up with their Bible piously saying they believe their God and the 6 day creation. Hugh tried to explain he didn’t threaten that position.

  • ron

    This citation from Augustine suggests how he might view modern controversies between Christianity and science:
    “Many non-Christians happen to be well-versed in knowledge of the earth, the heaven, of all other elements of the world, of the motion, the revolutions, the size and distance of the stars, of eclipses of the sun and the moon, of such periodic events as the years and the tides, of the nature of animals, plants, stones and of other things which can all be understood by keen reasoning and experience. It is therefore deplorable that Christians, even though they ostensibly base their dicta on the Bible, should utter so much nonsense that they expose themselves to ridicule. While ridicule is all they deserve, they also give the impression that the Biblical authors are responsible for their mutterings, thus discrediting Christianity before the world, which is led to assume that the authors of the Scriptures were ignorant fools also. Whenever any Christian is confounded and shown to be an idle chatterer, his chatter is attributed to our Holy Books. No wonder that the critics refuse to believe what the Scripture has to say on the resurrection, on life eternal, and the kingdom of heaven, when they can point out that the Bible is ostensibly wrong about facts which they can see or determine for themselves. Hence these idle boasters cause untold grief to our more thoughtful brethren.”
    cited in The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, by Jack Rogers & Donald McKim, pp 26-27.

  • Matt Walsh

    Dicussion of these matters is greatly appreciated. I recently attended an “‘Answers’ in Genesis” presentation; the speaker was ignorant of biblical Hebrew and many other exegetical principles but spoke as an “authority,” giving certain people exactly what they wanted to hear. During the question and answer period and in personal conversation afterward I challenged him on some of his misinformation. In a nutshell, his conclusion was that if a Christian believed anything but a young earth/literal interpretation of Genesis they were (1) weak in their faith, (2) being influenced by demonic forces, and/or (3) succumbing to peer pressure.
    If all “‘Answers’ in Genesis” presentations are like this one, Christians will continue to be viewed as unintelligent, ignorant, and closed-minded.

  • RJS

    Augustine commented extensively on Genesis – the end of the Confession being another example. Your quote comes from “The Literal Meaning of Genesis.” There is another excellent quote a few paragraphs above in the same source:
    “In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture”

  • Glenn

    What about the “Gerald Schroeder” view which utilizes the theory of relativity – is that touched upon in this book?

  • RJS thanks for a very useful summary. Given the number and varieties of interpretations of the bible’s story one is little surprised by the confusion of the ordinary reader on these subjects. A tremendous amount of work needs to be done especially with our understanding of what the bible does and does not assert and also in trying to read ancient poetic and mythic stories from a demythologised, modern hermeneutic.

  • Jon

    The questions posed in Scott’s original blog seem to address both sides of the current problem.
    On the one side I would affirm that Genesis was written for ancient people. While its message is a timeless one that speaks to the nature of the God who reveals himself in scripture, it was never intended to address the issue of creation in contemporary scientific terms. When modern people try to use Genesis as a scientific textbook it seems to me they miss its theological import and, as the quotes from Augustine convey, do a disservice to the cause of the gospel.
    On the other side, while the use of six day creationism as an apologetic against scientific naturalism is misguided, It seems to me that many in the scientific community have their own agenda, which is to use science as an apologetic for a naturalistic worldview. Consequently, just as special revelation can be misused by hapless theologians, general revelation can be misused by hapless scientists. As long as science is dominated by those with this agenda (which may be a misperceprion on my part), it will only be partially helpful in filling in the blanks left out by special revelation.
    Incidently, I’d be interested in anyone’s thoughts on a theory Poythess does not seem to address. The “Divine Fiat” theory, which I ran across in a book entitled “Creation and Evolution” by Alan Hayward, focuses on the creative commands of God which, though uttered in the space time context of the six days of creation, are still being worked out. While the commands can be spoken of in the past tense in the Genesis narrative because anything God commands is as good as done, they present a dynamic view of creation rather than a static one. I see alot of interesting theological possibilities in this. One of which is the compatibility between this view and Irenaeus’ suggestion that God’s statement, “Let us make man in our image” was always intended as an ongoing project for which Christ, not Adam, is the arcehtype, and will not be complete until our transformation into the image of Christ is complete.

  • Jason Powell

    If we are to capture the essence of the narrative of any book/story in scripture I think literary criticism demands we at least consider what the human authors intent for the original readers/hearers was. To miss the potential nuggets of divine revelation in the type of story that is being told….the culture it is being told to,and it’s similarities or differences to other stories being told in other cultures at the time it was written…. is foolish.
    It was important for me to know that an aspect of the genesis narrative was to secure the concept for the people of God to understand that there is ONLY ONE GOD. This story opposes the pantheistic worldview prevelant in ancient times in the cultures surrounding the jews and sets the pace for their faith. I think that is important to know.

  • RJS

    Glenn – #6
    Poythress doesn’t really touch on Schroeder’s view directly, and his work isn’t referenced in the bibliography or the index.
    I have read one of Schroeder’s books – “The Science of God.” I think that his view is a variant on Day-age, but it is not the same as Ross’s approach. His overall approach, like Ross, is to reconcile our scientific understanding with the scripture text assuming that the text is in some sense literally true (not analogy or framework or “true myth”). His use of relativity in his discussion is interesting, but I have not read it carefully enough to decide whether his proposal is reasonable or not.
    For those who don’t know, relativity could be relevant because time is relative – and passage of time occurs more slowly from the point of view of an object approaching the speed of light than from the point of view of an object moving at “ordinary” speeds. The speed of light in a vacuum is the “absolute” measure. So when Genesis says “One Day” the reference frame matters.

  • RJS, on your second question, God’s working in human history to redeem man in Christ is the essential message of the bible. Just as we have our own limitations in understanding how nature works, so too have all the peoples of the past and this will be an ongoing journey of discovery.
    Scientific ‘knowledge’ is whatever is the state of the art today, so given its tentative and hypothetical nature, it is not the best foundation for deciding who God is. The knowledge that science can help us with is to start pointing us towards how God has created and how He sustains this universe.
    In any case, the question of what the extent of the fall was and whether it had other effects on the physical processes of this universe seems to me to still be an open question. If there has been a major discontinuity then is there scientific evidence for this (perhaps being ignored as it doesn’t fit the current paradigm)? Or does this leave science in a bit of a hiatus as far as studying the past effectively goes?

  • RJS

    Sam (and anyone else)
    Stepping back from the second question to the first – Do you think that it is reasonable to consider the fact that God accomodates himself to the understanding of man – ordinary people across the centuries – when interpreting scripture?
    If so, Genesis poses no special problem. If not …
    The most common argument I’ve heard against the idea of “accomodation” is that old standby – the slippery slope: If accomodation can be used anywhere it can be used everywhere to rationalize away anything.

  • ron

    RJS, My answer to both your final questions is an emphatic yes. The Bible makes the most sense (to me anyway) if it is understood it as the record of the evolving understanding of God by a particular people. Much of what may be special revelation to us is their response to what was general revelation to them. If God is speaking to us through the scripture, he is speaking through them, and that which is communicated is necessarily limited by the means of transmission. This is the drift of your Calvin quote, I think (and it is a major theme of the book by Rogers & McKim).
    Some ancient person (I can’t find the reference … Augustine again?) is supposed to have opined that the seven days creation was figurative or allegorical because humans were unable to conceive of God having created all there is in a single instant of time. If one ancient gives this kind of interpretation of an even more ancient text, who are we, in our profoundly different culture, to suppose that what we perceive as the “literal” meaning of the words is to be preferred?

  • Brian

    The main difficulty I have with accomodation is explaining why God would communicate in such a manner rather than providing more advanced knowledge. Insight from anyone on this question would be most welcome.

  • RJS #12, Sorry, I jumped to the second Q as the more pressing one as it seems to me that if God is going to communicate to us in history, through human authors and in human language then we should take the plain sense (as understood by the original author-audience/culture-context) as a given.
    Insurmountable cliffs seems to be the alternative to the slippery slope. God’s grace is sufficient for me.

  • Simon Fowler

    Thanks for the excellent review and probing questions RJS.
    First question – yes, absolutely, there is no actual ‘communication’ otherwise. The big key, however, is appreciating that all the Bible books had an original audience, who weren’t us.
    But I’m not sure I would come to the second conclusion because of the first. Given how little we know, relatively speaking, isn’t science a tentative work-in-progress? So how or at what point we can say, or conclude, “so, that’s the mind, nature and language” of God? (I realise I maybe taking your statement further than you might mean it). It’s almost the opposite trap to the ‘God of the gaps’: we summize, because of, say, Newtonian physics, “this is what God is like”. Then quantum physics comes along and, well, that’s a little embarrassing, “no actually this is what God is like”.
    Perhaps what I mean is: I’m not sure science in its method can tell us what “general revelation” tells us. Creation does communicate something about God but I don’t think the scientific method necessarily gives it to us. Heck, perhaps I don’t know what I mean!
    [I am starting to think that science can perhaps tell us the ‘language’ of God; if, as seems to be the case, “information” is at the heart of reality – creation brought into existence by the spoken Word.]

  • I would respond yes to both questions. Genesis is revealed to certain people at a certain time and in a certain way that would have been somewhat understandable to them and subsequently to us. General revelation through nature and discovered by science seems capable of filling in some of the blanks. Both Scripture and Science are informers that need to be in dialogue – neither qualifies as a metanarrative that explains everything.

  • Douglass M.Allen

    Brian asked, to paraphrase him, why God didn’t communicate with “more advanced language.” This reminds me of Carl Sagan’s comment (in COSMOS, I think) about Biblical relevations. According to Sagan, everything revealed shows only the knowledge of those times. Why didn’t God say something like “the sun is a star” or “the earth is a sphere.” Also I was stunned at how contemporary Augustine sounds! Thank you ron. I must read Augustine.

  • Brian

    Augustine does indeed sound contemporary. What I find most interesting about his words is that he is saying such things well before the modern scientific era. The amount of accomodation that we perceive in the language of the Bible is likely greater than what Augustine did. So the problem of grappling with Biblical language seems to be increasing with time.