Gregg Davidson, Friend of Science, Friend of Faith: Listening to God in His Works and Word. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2019.
The year was 1988 when I brought my dog-eared copy of Paul Ackerman’s It’s a Young World After All to my high school science teacher: “Mr. Vogt, you need to read this! It will prove that the earth is young!”
Yes, back in those days, I was a strong young earth creationist. As a case in point, my many fierce debates with my buddies about the age of the earth and the “atheist philosophy” that I insisted drove belief in evolution. My favorite Christian singer, Larry Norman, captured my sentiments perfectly with his clarion call: “Ain’t gonna let no evolutionist make a monkey out of me!”
Had Gregg Davidson’s Friend of Science, Friend of Faith been available to my high school self, it would’ve rocked my world. Davidson’s book has two objectives. To begin with, he proposes a helpful method to resolve apparent conflicts between science and Scripture by using scientific advances and insights as critical prompts to reread the text: “new insights may simply serve to dust away never-intended meanings that cloud our view, allowing the true message, one that was there all along, to shine more brightly.” (18) Second, he seeks to apply that method to the debate over origins.
The Case Against Young Earth Creationism
The critical application is the primary focus of the book. While Davidson devotes a chapter to discuss the origin of the universe, the primary focus is on young earth creationism (henceforth YEC) and the related questions of geology and biological origins. This is in keeping with Davidson’s own specialty in earth science as the Chair of Geology and Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. But while Davidson is a scientist, what gives this book the real added value is that he also has intimate knowledge of the theological, hermeneutical, scientific, and rhetorical methods common within YEC and he is at his best when he is providing an even-handed deconstruction of them.
Consider, for example, how in chapter three Davidson takes on the YEC assumptions about reading the “plain sense” of Scripture (39 ff.). In fact, time and again the plain sense of the text supports an ancient understanding of a flat earth resting on pillars with an ocean held above the earth by a hard dome. The proper response, as Davidson proposes, is that God accommodated to the understanding of an Ancient-Near-Eastern (ANE) worldview as the incidental vessel for his revelation. Nothing too surprising here. But then Davidson gives a point-by-point rebuttal to YEC attempts to deny accommodation in the text (43 ff.). For example, YEC advocates sometimes claim that the language (e.g. of the sun rising) should be interpreted as a figure of speech. However, it is absurd to claim that the Israelites meant this language figuratively when their ANE neighbors clearly meant it literally (44). In this way, Davidson demonstrates the tortured ad hoc nature of YEC reasoning.
Davidson has a memorable way of unmasking problems with flat-footed literalistic readings of the biblical text. Consider, for example, how he explains the difficulties with a plain reading of the separation of light from darkness in Genesis 1:
“consider a jar of beans set before you. They are poured out onto the table and you are given a simple instruction: separate beans from the absence of beans. You object, ‘That has no meaning; the absence of something is not an independent “something”!’ Which is exactly the point. Something wonderful is expressed when God separates light from darkness, something much deeper than what a nonsensical ‘plain sense’ reading would imply.” (62)
I mentioned above that Davidson addresses not only the theology and science of YEC but also their rhetorical strategies. And that brings us to one of the most satisfying and eminently practical chapters: chapter 11, “Creation Science–Behind the Curtain.” One after another, Davidson knocks down YEC strawmen. For example, he points out that YEC falsely suggests that uniformitarianism dogmatically commits one to the gradual formation of geological features over eons. But that is false: uniformitarianism simply commits one to the same geological processes and forces operative today having operated in the past and that is consistent with catastrophic geological events also occurring in the past (210). And then there is the “Evolution is only a theory” canard (210-11) and the misbegotten notion that “the second law of thermodynamics makes evolution impossible” (212-14). One after another, Davidson shoots down these erroneous talking points like a trained marksman. The message comes through loud and clear: “Young-earth arguments far too often serve as a barrier rather than a gateway to faith in Christ.” (206)
Three Points of Critique
I’m on board one hundred percent when Davidson is critiquing YEC. However, I do have some points of criticism and here I will list the top three: concordism, intelligent design, and the unaddressed topic of divine action.
For the purposes of this review, I will define concordism as “A system of exegesis aimed at establishing a concordance between biblical texts and scientific data.” (source) YEC is classic concordism as it seeks to correlate various biblical assertions (e.g. “Let there be light”) with specific scientific claims (e.g. the Big Bang).
With that in mind, it is somewhat ironic to accuse Davidson of also falling under the concordist spell, but such as it is. This does seem to me to be the case, especially when he addresses various passages in Genesis 1-11. My first example pertains to that curious passage in Genesis 6 where we read that the “daughters of men” engaged in sexual relations with the “sons of God”, thereby producing hybrid creatures known as the Nephilim. A curious text fitting as a mythic narrative told around the campfire: but Davidson proposes that it could be, in fact, describing interbreeding that occurred between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and Denisovans (91).
I admit that Davidson’s proposal is an interesting one. But when I set aside the YEC hermeneutical baggage I see in Genesis 1-11 a collection of etiological myths that God appropriated into his divine text. (In this context, “myth” does not mean falsehood but rather a structuring story with universal import because it conveys something about the nature of the world in narrative form.) It seems to me just misguided to attempt to correlate these narratives with scientific data points in earth history.
While there may be a superficial plausibility to concordist theses like Davidson proposes, I think that plausibility disappears upon closer examination. While I’m no scientist, as I understand it, according to current estimates, the Neanderthals died out approximately 40,000 years ago, which would be more than 30,000 years before the first human writing system. From my view, it strains credulity to think the claim that the event of Homo sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals and/or Denisovians was either maintained in an oral tradition for tens of thousands of years or that it was supernaturally revealed under the aegis of the curious Genesis 6 narrative that we have.
Concordism also appears to be in the background of Davidson’s treatment of the Noahic flood. Once again, his proposal is interesting if not ingenious. Davidson proposes interpreting the Noahic flood by way of the Mediterranean flooding the Black Sea region, an actual event in earth history. This is how he describes it:
“Torrential rains begin to fall at the same time that water begins to pour into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. The ark, built on the shores of the sea, soon begins to rise. The ark drifts far into the sea during the rain. For months after the rain, land is too far beyond the horizon to be visible. No evidence of animal life can be found, and even fish have died from the rapid introduction of salt water from the Mediterranean. All flesh as far as the eye can see dies. As Noah relates the story to his children and grandchildren in the years following the flood, he describes what he observed, the whole of the land was covered with water.” (114)
While this is an interesting and innovative suggestion, a closer analysis immediately suggests multiple problems. For example, the primary mechanism for Davidson’s flood is not forty days of torrential rain pouring down from a reservoir held above by a hard dome. Rather, it is a large body of water inundating a low-lying region. In addition, the flooding of the Black Sea was most surely not sufficient to plunk the ark atop Mt. Ararat.
There are additional problems, of course, but at this point, one must ask: what motivates the need to ground the Genesis flood in a historical event? Granted, there may be a vestige of an event in natural history that corresponds with this narrative (one that is also retained in other narratives like the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh), but that doesn’t change the fact that the narrative itself is anything but sober history. Indeed, it turns out that the Noahic is a highly structured chiasm and the center is Genesis 8:1: “But God remembered Noah…” By focusing on a vindication of the text in natural history, we just might miss the point.
I worry that attempts to correlate narratives like the Nephilim and the Flood, texts which are so naturally interpreted as mythic etiological prehistory, with history and science belies the continued influence of the same concordist impulse that drives YEC. And there is also linked to this an apologetic impulse which I also see in Davidson’s work. For example, he cites how modern science is confirming that “the earth gave rise to life” in an echo of Genesis 1: “Let the earth bring forth.” And so he concludes, “The parallel here between the Bible and science is remarkable….” (83) To be sure, Davidson then goes on to argue that we can view that bringing forth as having occurred through divinely superintended natural evolutionary processes. But I worry that it is as misguided to find a “remarkable” evolutionary consonance between Genesis 1 and science as it is to find a “remarkable” special creation consonance.
Next, I’m going to offer a rejoinder to Davidson’s critique of intelligent design in the penultimate chapter. To begin with, he assumes that ID theorists believe the intelligence that is identified by their theory to be supernatural (i.e. God) (258). While this is true of most ID theorists, it is worth noting that a minority are not theists: David Berlinski is agnostic and Bradley Monton is an atheist, for example.
But the bigger issue is that Davidson repeatedly claims that ID theorists seek to identify God from within their theoretical proposals. For example, he writes, “The only logical explanation is that they were created supernaturally by an intelligent designer.” (261) But this is false. Indeed, ID theorists differ precisely from traditional arguments for design on this point, that they do not claim to identify the designer but only to be able to detect the presence of design. One may have additional reasons to identify a designer as God, but those additional reasons will be theological or philosophical rather than being a strict product of the ID argument itself.
Davidson also criticizes ID for assuming a God-of-the-Gaps theology. Technically, this cannot be the case because, as I noted above, ID does not address the identity of the designer. However, I will concede that some versions of ID are more vulnerable to that critique: Behe’s conception of irreducible complexity comes to mind. Bt that is not true of other versions (e.g. those of Meyer and Dembski). Ultimately, the question is not, as Davidson supposes, whether the phenomenon could have come about by natural causes (264). Rather, the question is whether intelligence is the best available explanation for this natural phenomenon. Moreover, the core idea that design is detectable in nature is consistent with nature being a closed continuum of natural causes. (I make that case in chapter 29 of my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver, and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails.) That fact in principle obliterates the charge that the core project of ID assumes a God-of-the-Gaps theology.
This leads us straight into my third and final point. Here my criticism is not focused so much on what Davidson does say as on what he fails to say. In short, he makes only passing reference to miracles and he never clearly lays out a framework for thinking about divine action and how it relates to nature and his own commitment to seeking natural causal explanations for all phenomena in nature. It seems to me that this is an unfortunate lacuna: the book would have benefited greatly from a chapter overview of models of divine action in nature such as the transcendent agent models of historic Thomism and Calvinism as well as the immanent agent models popular among many in the theology/science dialogue today (e.g. Philip Clayton; John Polkinghorne). This would provide the reader with a very helpful theological framework for thinking through issues like methodological naturalism and miracles.
You’ve read my critiques. You can judge for yourself whether they are of merit. But as I close this review I want to point out that even if they are of merit (as I presume they are!), they nonetheless strike at the periphery rather than the heart of Davidson’s project. And the heart of Davidson’s project is to liberate Christians from the baggage of YEC hermeneutics, theology, and rhetoric and for a wholehearted embrace of God’s revelation in the Book of Nature. If you are looking for a thorough, book-length refutation of YEC informed by rich scientific and theological reflections, then Friend of Science, Friend of Faith belongs on your shelf.
Thanks to Gregg Davidson for a review copy of this book.
After posting the review, Gregg Davidson wrote a reply which I am reprinting with his permission.