“Uniting the historic Christian faith with up-to-date geological science”—that’s how our friends at Novare Science and Math describe their new middle school Earth science text. I often hear from Christian teachers and homeschooling families who desire Christian curricula that more fully embrace the best science in that field along with a strong biblical worldview, and this new text is a great addition to the choices out there. I recently checked in with author Kevin Nelstead to learn how the textbook came to be, hear his thoughts on young-earth creationism, and listen to how he sees science as a way to love God and others.
Chris Stump: Could you tell us a bit about your professional journey that led to the writing of Earth Science: God’s World, Our Home?
Kevin Nelstead: The foundations for an interest in the Earth sciences were laid pretty early in my life. In my early elementary school years, my coat pockets would have holes in them from carrying rocks, and the rocks would fall through the holes and end up all around my back between the coat liner and outer part of my jacket.
My basic professional background is that I have a B.S. in geology from Montana State University (the Bozeman area is a geological wonderland) and an M.S. in geology from Washington State University. After completing my education, I worked for eleven years as a cartographer for the U.S. Department of Defense, mostly doing imagery interpretation and digital cartography for the production of topographic maps.
In the mid-1990s I returned to school to get a teaching certificate with the intention of teaching somewhere overseas in a school for missionary kids (MKs). I taught in two schools in the United States before heading overseas, including a small classical Christian school. It was at this school that I had my first chance to teach Earth science. The headmaster was a young-earth creationist. She knew I was an old-earth Christian, but I think the school was desperate for a science teacher, so they hired me. As an aside, I was told that science wasn’t part of the traditional classical school curriculum (the trivium), and that I needed to minimize the amount of homework I assigned so students could focus on their other subjects. The school had already adopted a young-earth creationist textbook, which was my first exposure to the great need for curricular materials for the Christian school movement that acknowledged the ancient age of the Earth.
My family and I then moved to Bucharest, Romania, where we served for five and a half years as missionaries with ReachGlobal (the international mission of the Evangelical Free Church of America), and where I served as the science teacher at Bucharest Christian Academy, teaching all of the science courses for grades 7–12. Instruction was in English, and I was able to choose an American public school textbook for Earth science. I had decided that it would be far better to take a secular textbook and add Christian content where applicable than to take a young-earth creationist Christian textbook and try to undo both the questionable Biblical interpretation and bad science that these books inevitably contain.
While teaching in Romania, I got the idea that perhaps I should write a Christian Earth science textbook. I shared the textbook idea with several friends and colleagues, all of whom encouraged me to move forward. But the dream sat on the shelf for the most part from 2008 until 2014. In 2014 I heard about Novare Science and Math, a new Christian publishing company, and I really liked their philosophy of science education. I contacted Novare about perhaps helping in some way with the development of an Earth science textbook, and after several conversations with Novare’s founder, John Mays, I was asked to write the textbook. Two years later, that textbook is complete and has been adopted by a number of Christian schools.
Now that the Earth science textbook is complete, I hope to get back into writing on my blog, The GeoChristian. I also hope to develop presentations on various topics that can be given in churches, schools, and even in non-Christian settings. My objective in all of this is to build up the body of Christ and to remove barriers to faith among non-Christians.
What are you most proud of with this new textbook?
Many secular Earth science textbooks seem to just cut and paste the “scientific method” from a chemistry or physics textbook, without helping students understand how investigations of the past (e.g. historical geology) differ from laboratory experiments. Young-earth textbooks, on the other hand, usually distort the distinctions between laboratory science and historical science, misleading students into thinking that historical science is not real science at all. I think I did a better job than what I have seen in other secondary-level textbooks in describing how historical science works, and I hope that students who use this book will gain a basic understanding of how scientists reconstruct events that occurred in the past.
I am also pleased with the environmental stewardship emphasis of the textbook. Earth care is not something we do just for pragmatic reasons or emotional reasons but because it is part of God’s mandate to humanity. The theocentric environmental stance of the textbook stands in contrast to the anthropocentric thinking that is common among American Evangelicals (e.g. “God created coal for humans to use and for no other purpose”) and the bio-centric perspective common among pantheists and many other non-theists.
Did you ever personally hold to a young-earth creationist view and if so, how did your perspective change?
I read my first young-earth creationist book when I was in tenth grade in high school, and was thoroughly convinced that young-earth creationism was the greatest evidence for the truthfulness of the Bible in existence. A few years later I went off to the university armed with copies of The Genesis Flood and Scientific Creationism, and ended up majoring in geology. For a couple years in this time period, I was even a student member of the young-earth creationist organization Creation Research Society. As I took more geology courses, I began to see serious flaws in some of the young-earth arguments, but initially figured that these problems would eventually be solved.
During my undergraduate years, I transitioned in a fairly gradual and smooth process from a young-earth to old-earth view on Creation. I know that many young-earth creationist students who major in geology and other historical sciences eventually have their faith severely challenged and sometimes shipwrecked because of young-earth indoctrination. I am convinced that materials that teach “if the Earth is millions of years old, then the Bible isn’t true” are directly responsible for the exodus of many scientifically-minded young people from the church. By the grace of God, I had no such crisis of faith, and my “conversion” from young-earth creationism to being an old-earth Christian occurred with no large bumps in the road. While I increasingly saw scientific problems with young-earth “flood geology,” I was willing to live with a little bit of cognitive dissonance for a while. I credit my relatively gentle transition to reading books that promoted or allowed for an ancient Earth. Two books in particular stand out in my memory, Evolution: Nature and Scripture in Conflict? by Pattle Pun of Wheaton, and Genesis in Space and Time by Francis Schaeffer. If I had had no such exposure to old-earth perspectives by theologically conservative Christians, I eventually could have had a crisis of faith like many others due to the discrepancies between young-earth teachings and the realities of how Earth works.
Have you found that your deep understanding of the Earth’s natural processes has enhanced your worship of God and enriched your faith?
I think that many of us as Christians have had those Psalm 19 moments when we have been moved to worship our Creator as we observe God’s revelation of himself in the world; those times when we’ve wanted to sing “How Great Thou Art!” as loud as we can. I’ve also had Hebrews 12:9 “Our God is a consuming fire” moments when contemplating what I call the deadly beauty of God’s creation. I remember one time vividly when I was flying on a commercial flight over the Wasatch Mountains of Utah as the sun was rising in the winter. The valleys were filled with fog, but the glaciated peaks with their cirques, horns, and arêtes were jutting into the sky. As I praised God for the beauty of his creation I realized that the countryside passing quickly beneath me was a dangerous place. At any time, an avalanche could be triggered—perhaps by wind, by the settling of snow caused by temperature changes, or by a cross-country skier traversing the slopes. This led me to meditate on Psalm 77:16–18:
When the waters saw you, O God,
when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water;
the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook. (ESV)
It is not a contradiction to say that the creation can be a dangerous place, and to say that it is good at the same time. In the Scriptures, God is not just glorified by gentle creations, such as daffodils and cute puppies. Certainly these things are good, but they are not used in biblical imagery describing the majesty and power of the Almighty. Instead, as in Psalm 77, God’s glory is displayed in things that are frightening—even deadly—such as thunder, lightning, wind storms, and earthquakes. Some assume that God’s original creation, being described as “very good,” did not contain thunderstorms, earthquakes, or gamma ray bursts. I see absolutely no Biblical reason for believing this, and plenty of Biblical passages which use the dangerous parts of creation to point us to the even more awesome powers of the Creator.
I could say many more things about how studying the Earth has led me to worship the Creator and enriched my faith, but I’ll just say something about love. In Earth Science: God’s World, Our Home, I wrote a short section about how science is a way for Christians to love God and love their neighbors:
In all types of work, Christians are called to obey the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matthew 22:37, 39 ESV). The vocations of meteorologist, oceanographer, and geologist are all ways to love God and love people. We love God in our work by doing it with integrity and diligence, walking faithfully with Christ wherever God places us. Our work is also one of the primary ways in which we love and serve people, and Earth scientists serve people by making weather forecasts, finding energy and mineral deposits, conserving fishing resources in the oceans, finding and protecting drinking water resources, and in many other ways.
If we don’t love, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13, then we are nothing, and this applies to the work of learning, teaching, or doing science.
What message would you have for teachers and schools who are trying to think carefully about how they integrate science and a strong biblical faith?
I think one of the most important things for Christian educators and parents, when it comes to science education, is to be a student of the Scriptures. 2 Peter 3:15 states “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (ESV). This verse is usually applied to our apologetics outreach to non-Christians, but I think it has an important application in science education as well, especially in regards to the controversial issues that are inevitably raised. Christian educators usually have students coming from various churches. Their pastors, youth-group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and parents will have a wide range of beliefs regarding the age of the Earth, biological evolution, and the environment. In teaching in a diverse classroom like this, it is important to remember the final part of 1 Peter 3:15, “but do it with gentleness and respect.” The goal in Christian education is truth, but it is also love. A Christian biochemist friend of mine likes to say, “Be bold, be gentle.” Teach the truth boldly, but always do it gently.
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