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Review: Faith, Form, and Time
Kurt Wise's Faith, Form, and Time is a significant contribution to the modern origins debate. This book is a defense of young-earth creationism that provides proof of the power of evolutionary theory. In brief, young-earth creation is the process of evolving under the selective pressures of the scientific evidence for evolution.
To be sure, this was never Wise's intention. Rather, armed with an impressive educational background (BA in geophysics at the University of Chicago, MA and PhD in paleontology at Harvard under the supervision of Stephen Jay Gould), he sets out to offer a Christian fundamentalist apologetic. Like many before him (including the present reviewer 20 years ago), Wise's agenda is evangelistic. Perhaps this is most clear in the closing chapter, where he writes, "All who look upon the cross and trust in the completed work Jesus has done to take care of their sin are brought back from the death of the curse and adopted into the family of God. If you have not done this, won't you do it today?" (p 241).
In order to understand Wise's creation science evangelism and apologetic, it is necessary to appreciate a deeply ingrained hermeneutical assumption of Christian fundamentalists. Concordism (or better, scientific concordism), which is foundational to their principles of biblical interpretation, is the belief that there exists an accord between science and Scripture. It is not an unreasonable presupposition. If God is both the Creator of the world and the author of the creation account in Scripture, then an accord between his works and his words could be expected. For that matter, the great majority of Christians throughout most of history have been scientific concordists (Jaki 1992 is an excellent review of the history of scientific concordism and its influence in professional exegesis up to the beginning of the 20th century), and Wise continues in this hermeneutical tradition as clearly reflected in the subtitle of his book: "What the Bible Teaches and Science Confirms."
This concordist hermeneutic fuels Wise's agenda. According to this approach, if the science in the early chapters of Bible aligns with modern scientific evidence, then this is powerful proof that God inspired the writers of Scripture, and no rational person can reject the Christian Creator. However, the apologetic and evangelistic purpose of Wise's book is thwarted should scientific concordism be an erroneous assumption.
The most important and influential book in the young-earth creation tradition is John C Whitcomb and Henry M Morris's The Genesis Flood (1961). Pivotal to their position is the belief that God created a canopy of water above the earth on the second day of creation (Genesis 1:6–7). The belief in the existence of a sea of water in the heavens was found throughout the ancient Near East. From a phenomenological perspective, this is exactly what it looks like — the sky is blue and rain falls from above. It is the collapse of these "waters above" that results in Noah's worldwide flood. However, Wise steps away from this classic young-earth creationist tenet, recognizing that the Bible undermines it. He notes correctly that "'the waters above the heavens' were still in existence during the time of David (Ps 148:4) … [t]herefore, the 'waters above' did not fall to the earth at the time of the Flood as many canopy theorists claim" (p 15; see also p 265 n 2).
However, instead of bringing into question the veracity of scientific concordism, as most professional exegetes have done in the last 100 years (Bailey 1993: 172–85), this hermeneutic unrelentingly grips Wise. He accepts the reality of the "waters above", but relegates them to the outer edges of the universe to serve as its boundary (p 90). In effect, this hermeneutical dynamic is like the God-of-the-gaps. In the light of evidence, it pushes traditional theological interpretations further and further outside the cosmos.
The powerful lure of scientific concordism is further seen in Wise's view of the origin of life. As one quite familiar with the fossil record, he certainly sees the evidence for evolution. For example, he is aware of transitory forms such as early amphibians (for example, Seymouria), mammal-like reptiles, and Archaeopteryx (p 199). In addition, he knows that vestigial structures, such as the underdeveloped hip and leg bones in whales, point to descent from earlier ancestors (p 219). And he even asserts that "abundant homology" exists and that it can be used to formulate "hierarchal trees" (p 123). But instead of accepting the obvious and parsimonious standard model of evolution, Wise recasts this scientific evidence within a 6000-year time period in order to defend the theory of Intrabaraminic Diversification.
The terminology for this model of origins comes from the first chapter of the Bible. The Hebrew word bara' means "to create" and min refers to species or kinds. In Genesis 1, God creates basic taxonomical groups. According to Wise, these taxa "were created with the capacity for substantial change" (p 123). More specifically, "In young-age creation theory, intrabaraminic diversification after the Flood produced many new species from pre-existing species ... these changes occurred both rapidly and recently (only thousands of years ago)" (p 222; emphasis added). In other words, Wise accepts evolutionary change at a rate that is orders of magnitude greater than that posited by the standard theory of evolution. Deliciously, he is an anti-evolutionist with a view of speciation many times faster than that of most evolutionists!
Of course, the stumbling block between Wise and the modern theory of evolution is his acceptance of scientific concordism. Because of this assumption, he has to repackage the evolutionary evidence within a 6000-year framework. But this is not to say that he does not feel the weight of the scientific evidence for an old universe. Wise asks, "So why does the world, in so many ways, look old?" (p 63). To his credit, he acknowledges that starlight, coral reefs, and ocean salinity could be indicative of age (p 63–6). Moreover, he confesses that chalks, trace fossils, and sand dunes in the sedimentary records have yet to be explained within a Noachian flood model (p 201–5). In other words, Wise is not an obscurantist; he sees the physical evidence. He is working within a fundamentalist category set, and in a way he cannot be faulted for that. However, the "evolved" model of young-earth creation in his book is proof of the power and persuasive nature of the evidence for evolution.
Wise's fundamentalist categories lead to the final point. The greatest difficulty with the origins debate today is the popular category set that tyrannically controls this controversy. Most individuals, both religious and non-religious, are trapped in a false dichotomy. Accordingly, one is either a creationist believing in God or an atheist accepting evolution. This black-and-white type of thinking and resultant deep ditch in the mind of people runs throughout Faith, Form, and Time.
For example, Wise asserts, "The most popular atheistic theory for the origin of the universe is the Big Bang theory" (p 89). Like most, he fails to recognize that scientific theories are metaphysically neutral and that many scientists are theists (Larson and Witham 1997; Easterbrooke 1997). Moving beyond the origins dichotomy is necessary for fruitful dialog regarding origins. An expanded category set is required, and the possibility that evolutionary theory can be interpreted within a theological framework must be entertained.
In closing, I must add a personal caveat. My soul shuddered while I was reading this book. Twenty years ago I began a similar apologetic and evangelistic crusade. I wanted to become a creation scientist to take on the evils of evolutionary biology. However, I sensed a calling to study the early chapters of the Bible before beginning a program at the Institute for Creation Research. It was at a leading evangelical graduate school that my fundamentalist hermeneutical foundations were shattered. It became abundantly clear to me that the Bible is not a book of science.
Today, scientific concordism is rejected by Old Testament scholars within the evangelical academy. It is a grassroots hermeneutic. I suspect that if I had not studied Genesis 1–11, I would still be clinging tenaciously to a view of origins similar to Kurt Wise's. Thankfully, I studied the words of God before examining His works. Being unhampered by scientific concordism, I am now able to see and enjoy the overwhelming scientific evidence for biological evolution, which for me is the Creator's method for creating life.
ReferencesBailey LR. 1993. Genesis, Creation, and Creationism. New York: Paulist Press.
Easterbrook G. 1997. Science and God: A warming trend? Science 277: 890–3.
Jaki SL. 1992. Genesis 1 Throughout the Ages. New York: Thomas Moore.
Larson EJ, Witham L. 1997. Scientists are still keeping the faith. Nature 386: 435–6.
Whitcomb JC Jr, Morris HM. The Genesis Flood. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed.