Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Creationist Debate

The Creationist Debate: The Encounter Between the Bible and the Historical Mind
Arthur McCalla
London: T&T Clark International, 2006. 288 pages
Reviewed by
J David Pleins
It is a curious war story.

Where other authors might see in the centuries from Galileo to Phillip Johnson a war between religion and science, McCalla carefully recounts the real battle: the struggle between reactionary religion and a belief that seeks understanding.

The first volleys were thrown in the Renaissance and the Reformation. McCalla identifies the challenge of Galileo's day as not simply the telescope, but the shift in consciousness away from seeing nature and the Bible as realms of symbol toward the Reformation's "plain sense" view of Scripture and the world. This is McCalla's thesis in a nutshell: Mechanical-mindedness about nature, when coupled with historical-mindedness about the Bible, necessitates a new view of both God and Nature.

Despite the hankering to unlock nature's mechanics, creationists have not been able to give up their addiction to "purposiveness". John Ray saw purposes in the wind and male nipples. It was jarring to move away from such purposiveness to a world view dominated by extinction, imperfection, and lack of providential planning. Major steps were taken when Hooke and Steno unlocked the fossils: "Mother Nature had become a woman with a past," McCalla writes. It would be a while before the earth's deep time would be comprehended. In the meantime, Thomas Burnet constructed a fiery engine for the earth's geology within the confines of a biblical chronology. Christian historical consciousness worked overtime on the biblical clock, even as global explorers encountered civilizations with calendars far more ancient than the Bible's.

The historical bug bit hard in the Age of Exploration as Erasmus, Valla, Cappel, Simon, La Peyrère, and a host of others began to look at the Bible as any other document, one marred by textual corruptions and betraying an ancient mentality. Removing Moses from the pantheon of biblical authors brought a new consciousness about the foundations of Christianity itself. As the Bible became a local map of the Jewish landscape, its usefulness for navigating history's broad waters was diminished forever. With Matthew Tindal, Thomas Paine, and the rise of Deism in the 18th century, it would not take much to treat the Bible as just one more fanciful collection of ancient anecdotes. As deep time came into view with the unwrapping of the primary and secondary rocks, biblical frames were put to further tests. Then, as Cuvier sequenced the animal strata, the biblical picture was undone completely. Entire worlds long forgotten were discovered in the Book of Nature that gleaned neither a jot nor a tittle in sacred scripture. The Bible had no frame for this new historical horizon. The cosmic shakeup wrenched hearts like Tennyson's (McCalla gives us ample extracts) and stirred John Ruskin to exclaim, "If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses."

Charles Darwin, of course, was a creature of his time, searching for design and worrying about the Bible's frame. He was also a creature of his time in following a new tributary, letting science and not the Bible dictate what he discovered. Neither male nipples,the misery of the world, nor the basis of human morality was designed by God, as far as Darwin could tell.

The conservative Christian reaction to all this was predictable, if not instructive. They were bothered by the science but perhaps more so by the moral wilderness created by evolutionary secularism. Liberal Christians, for their part, went so far as to re-invent the Fall of Man and the concept of the eternal soul, weathering the theological storm for a time. But by the end of the 19th century, as even the human mind was seen by many to be a product of evolution, theology of the liberal sort could not constrain science's profound shift in human historical consciousness.

The 20th century became one long century of conservative Christian "special pleading". To be sure, fundamentalists were not entirely literalistic about Genesis 1, at least at the start. Key figures like Bernard Ramm insisted that while Darwin's mechanism was wrong, still the Bible and a kind of evolution could be blended. Yet louder voices like those of Billy Sunday, Dwight Moody, William Bell Riley, and Gresham Machen prevailed against any belief in evolution. The Scopes trial was one skirmish on this anti-evolutionary revivalist battlefield. For a time, conservative Christians continued to accept an old fossil earth alongside their anti-evolutionism, but the plain reading of Genesis 1 encouraged Whit-comb and Morris in the 1960s to champion literalism with a vengeance. The rise of "intelligent design" has reinforced this anti-Darwinian tendency, as in the name of microbiology and information theory, its proponents seek to revive Paley's design view while clashing swords with secular scientists and liberal religionists.

McCalla's is a well-told tale. Invariably, however, even in such a comprehensive book there will be chapters left to tell. As biblical "higher criticism" developed in the 19th century, archaeological adventurers discovered Assyrian and Babylonian creation myths that paralleled the Bible, underscoring the mythic character of Genesis. Liberal Christians have found something powerful in religion's mythic side and this story deserves telling. Also, given the press coverage of William Ryan and Walter Pitman's book Noah's Flood, I am surprised that McCalla overlooks more recent attempts to put Genesis on a secularized historical basis. The Bible's legends may have compelling historical origins worth considering. Lastly, the world of modern Christian evolutionists goes untouched, omitting discussion of such figures as Teilhard de Chardin, John Polkinghorne, John Haught, Arthur Peacocke, and Kenneth Miller. There are religionists who remain committed to combining Darwin and religious belief in a non-rejectionist fashion. Their story deserves to be heard alongside "intelligent design" reactionism.

These are really minor criticisms. McCalla's book is well worth adding to your collection. No one has brought all the key players under one roof and done so this crisply.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.