Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: Redeeming Science, by Vern Poythress

Vern Poythress is one of the most conservative graduate-level seminary professors of Biblical interpretation. However, he calls into doubt such fundamental Biblical doctrines such as death before the fall and the flood being a global event. It is troubling that he does not recognize the excellent work done by young earth creation scientists in these areas.

(Book Review. Redeeming Science, by Vern Poythress, Crossway Books, Wheaton, IL, 2006, 381 pages, $20.00.)

Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania, authored Redeeming Science, A God-Centered Approach, in 2006. Recently, a copy was sent to all the alumni of the seminary, of which I am one.

It is a long book of 381 pages (including appendices, bibliography and index). In it he gives a detailed theological and scientific interpretation of Genesis chapter 1, Creation, Science, and Intelligent Design. His academic background is evident in his handling of the material - besides a Th.D. in New Testament from the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa), Dr. Poythress also holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Harvard University.

The book is very readable and persuasive. Toward the end it even has a discussion of quantum equations and the wave operator. However, its erudition is marred by some very questionable assumptions of Biblical interpretation which strongly colors the thought of Poythress and many other seminary professsors of our time. For example, on p. 121, Poythress asks,

"What do we say about animal death? The later scriptural statements are talking about human death. God created man to have fellowship with him and to enjoy life in the presence of God forever.... The animals and plants, however, did not enjoy the same exalted status as man. In fact, later on God explicitly gives to man the authority to kill animals for food, but not to kill a fellow human being (Gen. 9:3, 6).... Psalm 104, a psalm that repeatedly alludes to the creation in Genesis 1, includes details that imply animal death: .... 'These all [all sea creatures, and probably all land creatures as well] look to you, to give them their food in due season [Ps. 104:27] ["food" here must include large fish eating small fish; this verse describes God's continuing providential control over the present order, not a vegetarian past]." (brackets are in the original)

"I conclude that we do not have any firm basis for saying that animal death started only after the fall of man." (p. 122)
This is his conclusion, despite the fact that just a couple of pages earlier, Poythress notes that:

"The presence of death seems in disharmony with the pronouncement that the creation was 'very good' (Gen. 1:31), and with the later scriptural statements that death came through one man, Adam (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:12; Gen. 3:19)."
Poythress goes on to immunize himself from criticism on this topic with this statement on p. 122:

"Again, we must beware of presuming to dictate to God what kind of world he had to create. It had to be 'very good' in his sight; but that is not the same as saying that it must match what some of us may think ideal". (italics in the original)
In his outwardly balanced approach, it is interesting that Poythress notices the clear meaning of these words from the Fourth Commandment "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day" (Ex. 20:11). He uses this verse to strike down the Day-Age Theory for creation (p. 112), and also the Analogical Day Theory (p. 131ff), however, he chooses to overlook the theological implications of this verse in his discussion of animal death above.

Yet again, Poythress is non-commital in his theological discussion of Noah's Flood (p.129):

"I conclude therefore that Genesis 6-9 by itself does not clearly indicate exactly how extensive the flood was. It covered an extensive area - the ordinary 'world' of the ordinary person in the ancient Near East. Possibly it covered the entire globe, but Genesis does not turn this possibility into a certainty. Consequently, we must go out and look at other parts of the world, alert to what further information may appear there."

One would think from this last sentence that Poythress would go on to the scientific work of young earth creationists who indeed are actively "going out and looking at other parts of the world". However, in his bibliography of over 200 sources, Poythress only includes the pioneering book The Genesis Flood (1961) by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, The Young Earth (1994) by John Morris, and Starlight and Time (1994) by Russell Humphreys (which Poythress dismisses as having a flaw in its physical reasoning). Unfortunately, these are the only young-earth creationist works listed. In fairness, there are a dozen or so books listed from the Intelligent Design movement, including those of William Dembski, Phillip Johnson, and Michael Behe.

Relatively speaking, Vern Poythress is one of the most conservative scholars today who are teaching Biblical interpretation at seminaries which offer graduate theological degrees. However, it is troublesome that this brand of "nuanced" interpretation is raising up yet another generation of pastors and teachers, without providing them the solid Biblical foundation with which they could help believers to strengthen their faith in the Creator God, and thus truly "redeem science".

Marko Malyj
M.S. Physics Drexel University
M.Div. Pastoral Ministry Westminster Theological Seminary

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