Mapping the Debate (RJS)

A few months ago I received, compliments of the publisher, a book by Gerald Rau  Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. Scot posted a brief introduction to the book, Origins and Models, shortly after it came out, but the book is worth a more extended engagement. Several of the scholars at the workshop on Evolution and Christian Faith referred to this book and the usefulness of Rau’s discussion of models in framing the discussion.

The opening chapter of Rau’s book provides a brief philosophical introduction to the discussion. He starts by asking “what is eternal?” There are only two logical alternatives – natural or supernatural. The natural comprises material cause and effect determined by the laws of physics (known or unknown), while supernatural would include any alternative that transcends the natural.  He then considers two concepts (p. 21) – the first is worldview, which Rau limits to “elements … picked up wholesale or piecemeal from culture around us, often without conscious thought, because the ideas are deeply embedded in the language and fabric of the culture.”  He uses personal philosophy to refer to “the set of philosophical presuppositions that affect the way we individually see the world.”  This isn’t a unique division and it glosses over deep debates, but it provides a useful distinction to help to begin to map and analyze the debates over origins.

 Although a person may change his or her personal philosophy as a result of some experience, the worldview formed in childhood has a strong influence on a person throughout life and often remains largely unquestioned. (p. 21)

This is an interesting distinction to keep in mind when considering any part of the discussion of origins, including the appropriate interpretation of a biblical text. It is not one that I had separated quite so usefully before reading this chapter of Rau’s book. Any text will contain a message shaped by both the personal philosophy (and theology) of the author and by the entrenched worldview of the culture. It is not possible to use language to tell a story without being influenced by this worldview.  We read the same words (or a translation of the same words) in the 20th or 21st century and the interpretation is shaped by a different culturally embedded worldview. This  is seen quite clearly in the general interpretation of certain verses in scripture.  Consider, for example, pillars and storehouses:

He shakes the earth from its place
and makes its pillars tremble. (Job 9:6)

When the earth and all its people quake,
it is I who hold its pillars firm. (Psalm 75:3)


The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. (Deut. 28:12)

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail (Job 38:22)

He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth;
he sends lightning with the rain
and brings out the wind from his storehouses. (Psalm 135:7)

Because we know that the earth does not stand on pillars, and that snow, hail, and wind are not released from storehouses we “naturally” view this as a poetic expression rather than a literal statement. It is not clear, however, that the original audience viewed this as anything other than literal – embedded as they were in the ancient Near Eastern cultural worldview.

Or consider Genesis 1:6-8. The NIV 1984 translated this as:

 And God said, “Let there be an expanse between the waters to separate water from water.”So God made the expanse and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so. God called the expanse “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

The NIV 2011 provides a more literal translation changing only one word:

 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

This one word makes a big difference. Many modern Christians will read the first translation and envision clouds (waters above) is a sky that gradually gives way to space with planets and stars and galaxies. But this is not the view conveyed by the more literal translation, The vault in the ancient Near Eastern view is a solid object holding back the waters above. The sun, moon, and stars are set in this vault to give light (Gen. 1:14-19). They are not set in the vast expanse of space, a meaning one could take from the NIV 1984 translation.  Perhaps others had different experiences – but I know that I envisioned from the word “expanse” a modern view of the vast expanse of space. One aspect of my 21st century cultural worldview was read into the language I heard.

Worldview will also shape the way we view scientific evidence about the world.  While Rau does not take the detour I just did into the interpretation of Genesis, he does look specifically at this question.

A person operating from a naturalist, materialistic, atheist perspective will take an inherently different view of origins than a person operating from the theistic perspective.  The most important question is how and where this difference should play a major role.  In my opinion the biggest divide in our culture is over the issue of naturalism – not evolution or the age of Earth.  I wrote about my thoughts on this question most recently in a post Evolution Isn’t the Problem.

In the next post on this book I will consider Rau’s discussion surrounding the other foundational question “what is science?” and his presentation of the significant questions that need to be addressed in any serious discussion of origins.

What role does general cultural worldview play in the debate over origins?

To what extent does worldview shape the way we read the scripture?

Is the separation of “personal philosophy” from the more general cultural “worldview” a useful distinction?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

"Over at the website of First Things I have read comments by Catholics who say ..."

To Change The Church: Interview With ..."
"I completely agree with AHH that we need to rid ourselves of ‘false and un-Biblical’ ..."

Rich Mouw, Israel, The Palestinians, The ..."
"I agree that the Palestinians are ill served by their political leaders.I do not know ..."

Rich Mouw, Israel, The Palestinians, The ..."
"I think a lot of our problems on this issue arise from the simple but ..."

Rich Mouw, Israel, The Palestinians, The ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Phil M

    In my opinion the biggest divide in our culture is over the issue of naturalism – not evolution or the age of Earth

    While true for the wider culture as a whole, within the evangelical culture, perhaps a bigger divide is over the nature of inspiration of scripture. It seems that whenever I end up in discussion with someone about evolution/creation, that is the issue that everything ends up hinging on.

  • RJS4DQ

    Phil M,

    Within evangelical circles I think you are right. However, i also find that the root of the agressive defense of inerrancy is in this argument about naturalism. The modernist disavowal of miracles played a big role.

    If we can pinpoint this central problem, perhaps we can develop a healthier view

  • RJS4DQ

    I still dislike Disqus. My last sentence was supposed to end with…

    a healthier view of scripture as authoritative and inspired.

  • AHH

    This post raises what I agree is a helpful distinction, between:
    1) Cultural background knowledge or assumptions that we all share as a result of being situated in a certain place and time. Like the ancient cultures who thought there was a solid dome over the Earth, or we who think/know there is no such thing.
    2) Personal philosophy, specific commitments that may not be shared by the surrounding culture.

    It is unfortunate if Rau uses the term “worldview” for #1. “Worldview” is a widely used term in conservative Evangelical circles to refer to approximately the combination of #1 and #2. For example it is common to contrast “the Christian worldview” (often the definite article there is presumptuous) with other “worldviews” such as materialism or New Age spirituality.
    I don’t have an immediate suggestion for a better term for Rau’s concept #1, but I fear the use of “worldview” will cause confusion for Evangelical readers.

  • RJS4DQ

    Don’t be too hard on Rau. The worldview term is used for these different aspects and he had to differentiate in some way. A situation guaranteed not to satisfy everyone.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I don’t agree entirely. The rise of Darwinism and the idea of humans “evolving from apes” was sneered at from the very beginning by the conservative churches from which fundamentalism and evangelicalism sprung forth.This was intertwined with other ‘modernist’ ideas that rocked the proverbial boat (women’s suffrage, for one) and much of the church served as a reactionary force.

    Also I wouldn’t equate a denial of many miracles in the Bible to a naturalistic worldview. The fundamentalists wern’t fighting with atheists but more liberal Christian congregations which embraced the conclusions of science and geology which were putting to rest, for example, the idea of a Great Flood. These were theists but whoquestioned the literal take of many miracles in the Bible . . .which is a completely rational viewpoint given the gains in science, including the theory of evolution, which were occurring in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

  • AHH

    The rise of Darwinism and the idea of humans “evolving from apes” was sneered at from the very beginning by the conservative churches from which fundamentalism and evangelicalism sprung forth.

    That’s not actually as true as people often assume. A good book called Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders documents how many Christian leaders in the late 1800s, including some pretty conservative ones, had no problem with Darwin’s science. Things didn’t really solidify until the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s, when the modernists drew on science (with Darwin as one of many strands) as they sought to strip the supernatural out of the faith. And fundamentalism reacted against all of that, including the science piece.

    But getting back to Phil’s and RJS’ comments, I think it is a “both/and”.
    Certainly within the church a lot of the conflict comes around the view of Scripture, between the Docetic Biblicism devoted to the “perfect book” that dominates evangelicalism and views that, while affirming the authority and inspiration of Scripture, recognize the situated human vessels through which that came. And I suppose the denial of meaningful inspiration by the modernists and their successors is a third option.
    But as RJS said, in the wider culture a big question is whether the world is a causally closed system (naturalism) or whether God can do miracles.
    And of course the Biblical reports of miracles are a place where both of those things intersect.

    In my experience, the root of the issue among Christian anti-science people varies. For YEC, it is mostly about defense of the perfect book that is the foundation of the faith. For the ID movement, it tends to be less about the Bible and more about opposing “naturalism” (and then they fail to distinguish methodological naturalism [a description of the way science operates] from the metaphysical naturalism that is worth opposing, but that’s another discussion).

  • Trent DeJong

    I like Rau’s use of the term worldview because he is using it in the right way. I agree that the blurring of these two categories by evangelical authors is a problem. There are too many that implying that to hold a Christian worldview goes no deeper that believing in traditional marriage or opposing abortion. The problem is that it is not possible to get rid of every word that evangelicals might get confused by. I think the right approach is to use language carefully and accurately and consistently. Let’s all agree to use Rau’s distinction in all our books and blogs!

  • Andrew Dowling

    Yes, there were theistic evolution supporters in the late 19th century, but I think I can comfortably say they were in the minority (esp. among the church leadership in the United States). Look at the reaction given to “Essays and Reviews” which was published in 1860. The calls for strict adherence to confessional language (and adherence to ‘fundamentals’) began in the first decade of the 20th century and not in the 1920s . . .

  • RJS4DQ


    Have you read The Creationists by Ronald Numbers, or some of the history books by George Marsden (e.g. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism and American Culture)? Other historians as well give a somewhat different picture than you paint. The authors of The Fundamentals are varied on their acceptance of old earth and historical evolution – with a real sticking point at Adam and Eve.

    But more to the point – while it was not raw naturalism vs theism, it was a development from early on (1700’s or perhaps earlier) where the church responded to rationalist challenges that debunked scripture (purely human etc.) and established science or historical criticism as over and against the doctrines of orthodox Christian belief. It was in the early 1800’s, to give one example, when Laplace (a deist or atheist) was arguing against the need to invoke God as a hypothesis for unexplained phenomena in planetary dynamics (I believe). He felt Newton was wrong to invoke divine intervention and showed it to be so in some ways. (If I’ve garbled this from memory I will correct it later). This was the root of a famous exchange he had with Napoleon.

    I think this has been a long developing transformation – and we have to focus on the root problem.