Preserving Orthodoxy & Honoring Scientific Reality
Richard Mouw introduces a well-researched and thorough book about the tenets of evolution and Christianity from a European voice, sharing an outside perspective while remaining highly relevant to other readers.
In 2015 Gijsbert van den Brink was appointed by Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit to the newly established University Research Chair for Theology and Science. I was pleased when I heard the news of this new assignment. I was an admirer of Professor Van den Brink’s scholarly achievements, and I had discussed faith-and-science topics with him on several occasions, so I knew that he clearly had a strong interest in those matters. Up to that point, however, I had associated him with his important work in traditional topics in systematic theology—pneumatology, imago dei, providence, and biblical authority—as evidenced in his 2012 Christelijke dogmatiek. Een inleidung, coauthored with Cornelis van der Kooi. That book quickly—and surprisingly, for a work in systematic theology in the Netherlands—went through several printings, and then was published in an English translation by Eerdmans five years later, as Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (2017). While that volume covered much fascinating theological territory, it understandably gave no sustained attention to evolutionary thought and other related scientific matters.
When I learned, then, of the release by Van den Brink of a new book on faith and science, I assumed that he would be offering helpful initial insights into an area of thought that he was only beginning to explore with sustained scholarly seriousness. Given that expectation, I was taken aback by the depth and range in this important book. He covers an amazing range of scientific topics in these pages, including suffering and death in the animal kingdom, common human descent, natural selection, the age of the earth, Middle East culture, and cognitive science. His grasp of details in these areas is impressive. And at key points he supplements his treatment of theological and scientific issues by drawing upon some of the technical discussions of scientific methods and theories in recent Anglo-American analytic philosophy.
One of the complaints often raised about discussions of faith and science is that the theologians who address these matters frequently have little more than a novice’s grasp of the sciences, while the scientists who weigh in on the issues often know very little theology. There have been, of course, some notable exceptions to this pattern, and now this book sets some new standards for evaluating these efforts. Van den Brink has clearly done his homework in both areas, and his past in-depth explorations of theological matters clearly serve him well in this book.
Those who know the author’s previous theological writings will not be surprised that he is explicit about his identity as a Reformed scholar. But the non-Reformed should not avoid reading the book for that reason. For one thing, he offers a compelling case for seeing the Reformed approach as a “stance” rather than as a closed system of doctrines. Nor does Van den Brink, in making use of Reformed themes, focus on the more soteriological teachings associated with classic Calvinism: this is not a book that argues for predestination, election, limited atonement, and the like. In detailing the theologically relevant themes for a dialogue between theologians and scientists, he highlights the doctrines of creation, original sin, the image of God, divine providence, human volitions, and the incarnation—all subjects that are surely important for exploring the relevance of a variety of confessional traditions for scientific inquiry.
It is sometimes said that the North American evangelical debates regarding faith and science have been shaped by public controversies that have not figured largely in British and continental European religious life. There is something to be said for that contention. The nineteenth-century Darwinian controversies in major American denominations, the Scopes trial of the early twentieth century, the often passionate anti-intellectualism of frontier revivalism, and recent local political debates about the teaching of scientific “theories” in public schools—these developments certainly have given expression to distinctly American moods and pieties.
However, Van den Brink’s book, while written originally for a Dutch readership, also has profound significance for our own North American context. His openness to key elements in evolutionary thought, for example, has been condemned by representatives of his own orthodox wing of the Dutch Reformed churches—folks who in the past have “owned” him as one of their most capable theological defenders—in language not unlike that of many North American “young earth” proponents. And it is precisely the familiarity of that kind of response that makes this book such a valuable resource for those of us who are committed to preserving the basics of theological orthodoxy while wanting to honor the careful scientific study of created reality.
For me personally, reading Gijsbert van den Brink’s profound—and, I would insist, groundbreaking—study of faith and science has been an illuminating intellectual adventure. And while it has stretched my thinking, it has also encouraged me in my journey of faith. This splendid book is a gift to all of us who want to be open in new ways to how, in Van den Brink’s words, “the unspeakable glory and majesty of God are underlined by the evolutionary history of the world.”
Taken from Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory (Eerdmans, 2020) by Gijsbert Van den Brink, ix-xi
Reproduced by permission of the publisher.
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