Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective is a new contribution to BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity, a series published by InterVarsity Press. While many authors engage origins from a Christian perspective, this is the first work offering a full-fledged discussion of the scientific narrative of origins from the Big Bang through humankind, from biblical and theological perspectives, accessible to a lay audience. The book was enabled by an Evolution and Christian Faith grant from BioLogos to Wheaton College.
The book is authored by five Wheaton College professors who team-teach Theories of Origins, a general education science course first offered at the Christian college in 1995. Big Bang cosmology, origin of the solar system, Earth history, origin of life, origins of species and evolution, and human origins are introduced by faculty representing physics and philosophy of science, geology, chemistry, and biology. A Bible scholar provides background on principles and methods of biblical interpretation and accounts of creation and the Flood in Genesis.
Faculty enthusiasm and student interest in the course has remained strong despite the changing lineup of faculty with over 1,150 course alumni in its 23-year history. After all, the syllabus “evolves” with every new discovery: The course was introduced at the initiation of human genome sequencing and before the discovery of some 3,500 exoplanets and eleven additional hominin species!
This new book provides a suitable textbook for college or advanced high school courses, but it should be useful to anyone interested in the how the sciences contribute to our knowledge of creation history and the historical engagement of faith and science in the development of origins theories.
Our experience is that perceived tensions between scientific and biblical accounts of origins are defused when (1) the cultural-historical contexts of biblical texts are understood, (2) a comprehensive trinitarian doctrine of creation is explored and applied, and (3) the powers and limits of science and theology are properly defined and their historical engagement is discussed. This is part of what it means to take the inspiration and authority of the Bible seriously while also taking God’s creation seriously.
We do not cover all theories of origins out there. This is not a “four views” book where competing theories of origins are briefly sketched and some arguments for and against each reviewed. Instead, Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins focuses on detailed presentations of the best contemporary scientific theories for the creation of the universe, Earth, life, diversity of life, and humankind. Our aim is for the reader to explore the sophistication of modern scientific work on origins questions and to understand the evidence and inferences leading to scientific understanding and paradigm shifts. The book also includes historical material because this aids in comprehending how scientific ideas have developed and interacted with theology. Some alternative (i.e., recent creationist) claims are examined in the book, because they are probably known to many of our potential readers.
Let’s take a quick walk through the book’s contents with excerpts from the Introduction…
Part one develops some biblical principles for interpretation and a comprehensive trinitarian doctrine of creation for framing the pursuit of knowledge about the creation. We then turn to understanding the nature of knowledge and more specifically how the natural sciences and theology go about obtaining knowledge. We wrap up with a discussion of how to relate the sciences and theology.
In part two we examine contemporary Big Bang cosmology. Starting with a discussion of light and its properties, we come to understand how astronomers use light to infer distances to astronomical objects and the age of the universe. We continue by discussing Big Bang and Steady State cosmologies and the evidence that confirmed the former. This is followed by a discussion of how stars manufacture the elements necessary to build planets and for life and leads into the amazing phenomenon of how fine-tuned our universe is for life. We conclude with some discussion of cosmic inflation, the multiverse, and what cosmology and theology together can contribute to our understanding of the cosmos.
Part three focuses on the origin of the solar system and the Earth. We learn how elements created by cosmic events and processes described in part two were fashioned into our Sun, the planets, and their moons. We explore Earth history by reviewing the development of geology as a science over the past five hundred years, encountering timescales of geological processes in the rock cycle and methods for quantifying geologic time, along with understanding the global geologic model of plate tectonics. Understanding the historical engagement of scientific and biblical accounts of Earth’s history helps put modern debates about the age of the Earth and the Genesis flood into context.
Part four discusses the origin of life, one of the hardest problems in the sciences. The difficulty of the problem has led to wide-ranging speculation and multiple alternatives. We begin with a historical perspective and discussion of some of basic chemical principles of life science to set the stage for the discussion of the current theories. We then address key issues including the origin of the organic building blocks of life from inorganic starting materials and the origin and significance of biological informational molecules. Next come considerations of several currently popular scenarios for life’s origin. We conclude with a discussion of the question of the probability of life’s origin and the philosophical/theological implications of different responses to this question.
In part five we consider the origins of the abundant diversity of life. Starting with early endeavors to catalog the diversity of life, we follow the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution as an explanation of the origin of the diversity of life. Evolution is considered in regards to the evidence found in both living creatures and in fossils to better understand this theory. New findings in inheritance were incorporated in a new synthesis of evolution last century, and new understandings of genetic variation, development, and reuse of genes and processes is giving rise to a new extended synthesis that is in process. The implications of the current understanding of evolutionary theory are considered with respect to the functional integrity of creation and the ministerial action of creation as it adapts in a way that contributes to the continued flourishing of life.
In part six we turn to human origins, starting with an exploration of the biblical account of the creation of humans. We discuss the scientific evidence relating to human origins as observed in the fossil record, and in the biology of modern people, including evidence recorded in the genes of humans and some of the fossil forms. Conclusions based on these kinds of evidence are summarized, and the implications of the scientific conclusions are explored in the context of the biblical account, the doctrine of creation, and the image of God in humans.
In the concluding postscript we look at some implications of the book for thinking about new creation, creation care, science education, and fruitful discussions about the sciences and Christianity with fellow believers and with nonbelievers.
We have been blessed with wonderful students who have encouraged us as well. Over the past four years they read versions of the chapters and provided helpful suggestions. We hope that readers of this new book will feel the same way about it as students have about our Theories of Origins course. We part with two comments from recent anonymous student evaluations:
“I appreciated how the course integrated and engaged both science and Scripture. The open-mindedness and presentation of many positions on origins with charity was much appreciated.”
“The integrated nature of the course itself was magical and very life-giving to the Christian wishing to embrace academics/science.”