Review of Howard Van Till’s “The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling Us About the Creation”
The following review was written by Joe Childers. Joe is a science educator and an evangelical Christian.
I’d like to recommend the book “The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling Us About the Creation” by Howard van Till and to discuss a concept that he describes better than any other author I’ve encountered thus far. The book also has a quite good explanation of basic astrophysics, if you’d like a peek into another discipline that is impacted by and impacts the creationism topic.
Van Till presents his method for as he put it “taking both the Bible and the Cosmos seriously.” He shares eight categories of questions that people can ask about the universe (if a multiverse or multiverses is your thing, then feel free to make that substitution). Here are the categories in alphabetical order:
1. Behavior: What does the universe do? Does the universe exhibit patterns of activity?
2. Governance: What agent if any causes the universe to act in a certain way?
3. History: What sequence of events occurred in the universe’s past? How do present conditions reflect these past events?
4. Origin: What is the cause of the existence of the universe?
5. Properties: What discernible physical characteristics does the universe display?
6. Purpose: Does the universe exist for a certain reason? Does it behave the way it does for a certain reason?
7. Status: Does any realm exist apart from the universe? If so, what is the universe’s status relative to it?
8. Value: Does the universe have value? If so, what criteria establish that value?
Van Till separates these eight into two categories: Internal Affairs (1,3,5) and External Relationships (2,4,6,7,8). His thesis is that natural science is the domain and authority for investigation of questions about internal affairs and the Bible (since when he wrote this he was a Calvinist*–generalize to theology/philosophy as needed) is the domain and authority for investigation of questions about external relationships. He argues that incorrect conclusions are drawn when answers are pursued with the wrong tool.
I believe van Till’s analysis can give us insight into the persistence of the controversy concerning Genesis, evolution, and Big Bang cosmology. No one expects to find the the half-life of a muon or an explanation of how organisms get energy from glucose in any religious text. Likewise no one expects to be able to devise an experiment to test the value or purpose of the universe. The crux of the matter, framed in the context of van Till’s categories, is whether the Bible is an appropriate authority to consult on questions about the History of the Cosmos. Young-earth creationists believe that it is, and I am one of many Christians who believe that it is not. When there is a conflict between a religious statement and a scientific one, the choice one makes about the History category determines which statement is taken at face value and which one is re-interpreted. As an example, what to do about Noah’s Flood. Geology says that a single global flood cannot account for the varied structures in the crust, while the straightforward reading of the Bible is that a global flood did indeed occur. Some people decide that the geologists make their case, and then need to decide what to do with the Biblical account (e.g. Davis Young). Others decide that the Bible account is true, and then need to decide what to do about the geologists’ account (Henry Morris).
Van Till doesn’t bring this up himself, but I’d like to add here that we already have a case study for the problems that arise when answers are pursued in the wrong place: the Copernicus-Bruno-Galileo revolution in celestial mechanics. These men got in trouble because the religious authorities of the day saw the Bible as an authoritative resource for van Till’s category 1, Behavior. Verses like, “the Earth is firmly established, it cannot be moved,” and, ‘The Sun rises and the Sun sets and hurries to the place of its rising,” were used to argue that the Earth cannot go around the Sun. We think that these are ridiculous arguments today (there are a few die-hards) but there is no functional difference between the opponents of Galileo 400 years ago and the opponents of geology, biology and astronomy today. The issue in both is not the content of the scientific theories, but whether the Bible is intended to be a comment on them.
I think that keeping van Till’s categories in mind can avoid a lot of unnecessary argument. In my experience (and I’ve done it myself) people doggedly defend positions that are implications of their choice on History’s authority and tools, treating that choice as an assumption. It’s no wonder that these don’t go anywhere, since the participants have different starting points. For instance, I think it’s mostly pointless for young-earth creationists to point out holes in evolution. If a literal interpretation of the Bible is correct, then there isn’t enough time for evolution and it’s dead right there. If evolution is not correct but science is still considered the authority on natural history, then a different scientific explanation for biodiversity will take evolution’s place and the young-earth creationist is no closer to his goal. Why do young-earth groups not instead spend their effort encouraging people to consider inerrancy? I myself have tried a lot recently to discover why inerrancy is so important to some Christians. I took a trip to the Creation Museum to try to gain some insight into their thinking. I found that the first room your enter does indeed bring up the contrast in authority structures, using two different interpretations of a dinosaur dig. So far so good, but the next room and the rest of the museum explore the implications of AiG’s choice, without ever presenting a reason why one should choose it! So ultimately, the museum didn’t help me understand why AiG believes what it does, though I did learn content about what it believes. I think that my discussions with young-earth Christians will be a more profitable for both parties the better I understand where they are coming from.
I’d encourage everyone who is interested in this topic to pause, before you get into another argument about consequent details of various positions, and to seek to know why you believe what you do at the most fundamental level–and also why those who disagree with you believe what they do at the most fundamental level. Hopefully van Till’s categories of questions can be of help.