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Climbing out of a Swamp

Communicating Geology to the Church...

John Suppe1

Last year Professor Clark H. Pinnock of McMaster Divinity College, who is considered by some to be "the dean of evangelical theologians,"2 published an article entitled "Climbing out of a Swamp: The Evangelical Struggle to Understand the Creation Texts"3 in the widely-circulated journal Interpretation. This article is significant to us because it shows signs that some conservative Christians are beginning to take what geologists say seriously. As such, it offers encouragement that scientists who are Christians can make significant contributions toward resolving the unnecessary conflicts between science and Christianity.

Pinnock's title is in fact based on a quote from ACG President Davis A. Young.4 It comes from a major two-part paper Dave published in 1987 entitled "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists"5 in which he documents in detail the centuries-old unsuccessful attempt to harmonize science with the idea that the biblical creation texts are historical, scientifically accurate accounts of creation. Dave's paper is a good example of three of the stated purposes of the Affiliation of Christian Geologists: " investigate the ways in which Christian faith and geology bear upon one another, to educate the Christian public about geology, ...and to provide intellectual leadership at the interface between Christian and geologic thought." It was in this spirit that Dave wrote this paper specifically for the Church -- especially conservative biblical scholars -- publishing it in the Westminster Theological Journal. The fact that the work of Dave Young and other scientists who are Christians has received the favorable notice of scholars such as Pinnock indicates that they are having some success.

This sort of effective communication of science to the Church is an important service because it helps biblical scholars avoid moving in unfruitful directions of scholarship, interpretation, and apologetics. If biblical scholars can understand with confidence that the tested results of science -- especially geology and astronomy -- cannot be harmonized with the view that the creation texts are historically viable creation accounts, then they can be freed from this interpretive and apologetic dead end and move on towards discovering what the meaning of the texts in fact was in their original context and in turn what messages these texts hold for us today.

It is not sufficient to just show the Church that geology is a credible exploration of the creation rather than an atheistic delusion, because this leaves an unsatisfactory hole -- an interpretational, theological, and apologetic vacuum that must be filled. The vacuum is the lack of godly, intellectually credible biblical interpretation of the creation texts.

This argument has been made all the more persuasively in Portraits of Creation,6 just published by Dave Young and three colleagues -- an astronomer, a historian, and an Old Testament scholar -- at the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (see book reviews, this issue). This book makes very significant progress toward leading us out of the interpretational swamp by providing us with a historical perspective on how and why we got stuck and by providing us with reliable accounts of the contributions not only of geology, astronomy, and cosmology but also -- most refreshingly -- of what rigorous exegesis is starting to indicate the Bible means to say. We're not out of the swamp yet, but this book and Pinnock's paper encourages some optimism that indeed we can get out, to the glory and knowledge of God.

1. Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton NJ 08544

2. For example: Robert M. Price, 1988, Clark H. Pinnock: Conservative and contemporary: Evangelical Quarterly, vol. 88, p. 157-183.

3. Clark H. Pinnock, 1989, Climbing out of a swamp: the evangelical struggle to understand the creation texts: Interpretation, vol. 43, p. 143-155.

4. "The evangelical community is still mired in a swamp in its attempt to understand the proper relationship between biblical interpretation and the scientific endeavor."

5. Davis A. Young, 1987, Scripture in the hands of geologists: Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 49, p. 1-34, 257-304.

6. Howard J. Van Till, Robert E. Snow, John H. Stek, and Davis A. Young, 1990, Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World's Formation. W. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 285pp.

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