This is the 3d and final part of RJS’s review of Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science. [SMcK adds later: Take advantage of this; you are reading a world-class scientist and Christian as you read this post today and interact with RJS.]
Over the course of the last few weeks we have been discussing “Redeeming Science” by Vern Poythress. In chapters 11-17 Poythress deals with the philosophical and biblical interrelationship of science and faith, while in chapters 18-22 he concentrates on Christian approaches to specific scientific disciplines. In this last post I would like to pull a couple of ideas out of the third section of the book for discussion. I encourage anyone interested to read the entire book, as there is neither time nor space to wrestle with all of his ideas here.
In chapters 18-19 Poythress deals with the mystery of life, and the origin of new life – intelligent design. These are the longest chapters in the book and the topics are much in the news. Although the furor has died down somewhat of late, I doubt that the controversy is going to disappear anytime soon.
So as you read on, a couple of questions to consider: (1) Do you find any of these positions on method incompatible with the Bible as you understand it? Why or why not? (2) Does the introduction of the concepts of irreducible complexity and “Intelligent Design” bring anything useful to the discussion?
Poythress considers three options for the method of God in creation: (1) Fiat Creationism, God created all forms of life as discrete species or kinds – generally held in conjunction with the 24-hour day view of creation or the Mature creation view. (2) Progressive creationism – acts of creation spread over millions of years, but different kinds still required distinct acts of special creation. (3) God used normal processes to bring about gradual changes leading to the evolution of species – or theistic evolution. Acceptance of the ideas of evolution does not necessarily exclude the possibility of a limited number of exceptions (Some consider Adam and Eve exceptions, some don’t). To quote Poythress (p 253): “‘Theistic evolution’ is simply a convenient label for the position that thinks that God consistently used ordinary means during the past.”
Does this formula imply that God is primary cause acting without secondary cause? Poythress asserts that “such reasoning is fallacious. Absence of mention does not imply absence of existence (253).” As one example illustrating his point he considers the comparison between three passages describing the exodus of Israel through the red sea. In Exodus 15 and Psalm 106:9 there is no mention of a secondary cause, while Exodus 14:21 states “and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land so the waters were divided.” Clearly the lack of mention of a secondary cause in a text, especially a poetic text, must not be taken to require God as primary cause without secondary cause – otherwise these passages are contradictory.
Poythress holds that all three of these positions – Fiat Creationism, Progressive Creationism, and Theistic Evolution are tenable on Biblical grounds.
Chapter 19 brings the discussion around to “Intelligent Design.” If one takes a point of view akin to theistic evolution, is there still room for special acts of creation in the production of biological components which are or at least appear to be irreducibly complex? Are there biological systems – such as the bacterial flagellum suggested by Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box) – which are useless until fully assembled? Poythress describes the positions of ID and works through the issues, coming to the conclusion that the question must remain open – future work may demonstrate a plausible mechanism for formation of biological machines which appear at present to be irreducibly complex. It is neither necessary nor wise to base theology on the presence of gaps in creation requiring the special action of God to bridge.