INTRO: Next in our occasional series of reviews is a book by Pepperdine professor Ron Highfield. There is much here that is relevant to the series on divine action we did a couple of months ago. I’m particularly interested in Highfield’s distinction of “material independence” between science and theology (which is not the same as Gould’s infamous non-overlapping magesteria). Thanks to Jeffrey Elliott for a nice review. If you’d like to get in on the reviewing fun, send me an email. -Jim
Ron Highfield, The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2015). 392 pages. $26.15.
In The Faithful Creator, Ron Highfield provides a theologically-robust treatise pointing to the confidence Christians can have in their Trinitarian Creator, offering a third way of thinking amidst anxiety produced by openness theology and fatalism driven by determinism. Admirably, Dr. Highfield strikes a pastoral tone throughout the book as he discusses dense philosophical ideas, by drawing out Scripture’s emphasis on the faithfulness of God for the purpose of bringing comfort to God’s people. He contends firmly that what people believe about God truly matters and affects the way they navigate life’s challenges, but also takes a gracious posture toward those who disagree with him—emphasizing that theological disagreements do not necessarily supersede a common faith.
The Faithful Creator is organized into three parts: Creation, Divine Providence, and The Challenge of Evil. Following a brief summary of each main section, we’ll camp out in chapter 8, Highfield’s discussion of divine creation and modern science, which will surely pique the interest of the BioLogos community.
In discussing creation, Highfield outlines two ways of approaching theology: “we can approach these questions as mysteries to be entered into at ever deeper levels or as problems to be solved and left behind” (75). Choosing the first path, he roots his theology of creation in God, who is the independent source of everything outside of himself. Highfield clarifies that a crucial job of clarifying a doctrine of creation is to discuss how God’s creating does and doesn’t resemble humans’ creating, which he accomplishes at length. On this subject, he covers the fascinating distinction between intention and motivation: God cannot be said to be motivated to create as humans are because God has no deficiency, yet his creation flows from an intention “which is the subjective side of the end for which God creates and need not arise from a lack” (79). God’s creation is real and good and is the completely dependent recipient of God’s generosity and love, culminating in the unique relationship between God and humans, whom God has created in his image and likeness. Jesus Christ is the means through which God creates, meaning that God needs nothing outside of himself to create. Needing nothing from his creatures, God’s only motivation in creation is his own divine love, flowing from God’s own Trinitarian life.
Highfield next moves to discuss the intimate connection between divine creation and divine providence, the latter of which he defines as “that aspect of the God-creation relationship in which God so orders and directs every event in the history of creation that God’s eternal purpose for creation is realized perfectly” (209-10). God’s providence means that God himself is intimately involved with his creation, a role he does not delegate to any impersonal force. It means that God accomplishes his goals for creation perfectly, through shepherding his creation to the fulfillment of his plan for it, which he does with the same approach he took in creating the world: “From the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit” (213). This personal, Trinitarian approach is what distinguishes a Christian understanding of providence from a more abstract notion of fate, and it is inextricably linked back to the notion of God as Creator, in that God created the order we are now living in just as he has created and ordered the world at every other moment in history.
In addressing the challenge of evil, Highfield carefully responds to what he calls a “rhetorical argument from evil” (332), which, rather than a rational argument, is a cry of despair protesting the claim that there is a greater end which somehow justifies suffering. In speaking to this argument, Highfield maintains the pastoral tone he has exhibited throughout the book—stating that any conversation pointing to hope or faith and all discussions of God’s purposes in suffering must be delivered in solidarity with sufferers and with corresponding conviction to fight evil in the here and now. While the Christian often must say “I don’t know” regarding the reason for a certain incidence of suffering, this is not the same as saying “there is no reason,” and “to hold to the goodness and strength of God in the face of unspeakable evil does not justify evil but affirms the value and meaning of life…the very basis of protest and rebellion” (356-7). Believing in the crucified and resurrected Christ, far from belittling suffering, is in fact a declaration that evil will not have the final word. Highfield refuses to offer trite explanation for God’s purposes in human suffering, but offers the pastoral charge that God is worthy of our trust in the most difficult of situations.
As promised, we’ll end by taking a closer look at Chapter 8, “Divine Creation and Modern Science.” Here, Highfield tackles the question of how the doctrine of creation interacts with the material world and argues that clear distinctions must be made between the theological, metaphysical, and scientific domains. Foundational is the insight that ancient people operated in ancient ways—it should come as no surprise that ancient cosmologies presuppose ancient science, and the fact that this is true does not make the Bible less so because modern science is not the thrust of the biblical text. Moving to modern science, Highfield addressed the necessary demarcation between the domains of science and faith, returning to the theological assertions developed in his doctrine of creation and showing that “these theses are consistent with any scientific law or cosmic history or history of life. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing that is discoverable by the empirical methods of natural science that could falsify or verify even one of these affirmations” (152). Highfield does not argue for total independence between theology and science, but rather material independence, and for many science-faith aficionados this may prove the greatest anxiety-relieving distinction in the book.
Science and theology interact at the metascientific level, that is, both engage the rational processes of the mind in working toward understanding, both involve presuppositions, and both involve truth-seeking—quite analogous in fact to the “Two Books” affirmation of BioLogos. Yet science and faith do not overlap materially, “There are no theories or facts that do double duty in both theology and natural science” (155). In fact, Highfield implies that to argue otherwise may amount to a form of reductionism—believing that important questions outside the domain of science should be answered through science. It is here that believers often make the same mistake as ardent atheists, assuming one can move seamlessly from scientific questions to metaphysical conclusions, and vice-versa. In practice, though, this is clearly not the case as two scientists can hold identical views of science and polar opposite metaphysical interpretations of that science, a result of differing philosophical presuppositions brought to their science rather than legitimate extrapolations of the science itself. Highfield’s major point here is that although science and theology do not overlap in the realms of fact or material, both disciplines exist under the lordship of Christ and are useful instruments in truth-seeking. There is no reason for Christians to feel threatened or anxious because of science, because it is impossible for science to negate a biblical theology of creation.
And this is a fitting end of our review of The Faithful Creator—seeing how Highfield affirms that we serve a God who is delighted with our truth-seeking in the context of faith, striving to better understand both him and his creation.