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God and the Biologist

A review of: God and the Biologist by R.J. Berry,
Apollos, Leicester, 1996.

This choice of title might lead the reader to expect that God has quite a bit to say to biologists. Biblically, one would expect this, because God has revealed himself as the Designer and Maker of all living things. It is not unreasonable to think that the One who has created the diversity of living forms has something important to say to those who study His handiwork. 

However, Professor Berry claims that science and faith are areas of knowledge which are mostly quite distinct. Thus, he writes: "the fact is that science meets faith at only three points: origins, miracles, and the nature of human beings (p.3)" and this creates a difficulty because "both science and faith have their own independent stories about origins, miracles and humans, and take a lot of persuading that their account is not complete and sufficient (p.3)". 

As a consequence, in this book some issues are left largely untouched that a Christian biologist might be expected to address. Examples would be how "design" in nature is to be studied, and what are the implications of God creating animals and plants so that each reproduces "after their kind". The broader question is: "Is there a Christian philosophy of biology?" However, Berry does not have chapters addressing these issues. Instead, after an introductory essay on "Reason", Berry considers how Christians should handle evolutionary explanations of origins, the nature of human beings and the relevance to the issues of abortion and embryo experimentation, and environmental ethics. 

According to Berry, when reviewing the lessons of history, "the most satisfactory solution ... to issues of science and faith generally, is to accept that they give complementary accounts of reality" (p.19). Thus, for Berry, integration of knowledge comes by treating science and faith as two separate domains of knowledge. both of which are true, and where there is no real prospect of any conflict arising. This is an analysis where Christians differ: there are, of course, many aspects of truth that are complementary - but it is necessary to enquire whether there are overlaps and whether harmonisation must also be a recognised as a necessary element. As we look at Berry's themes, we shall ask whether he has justified the confidence he places in the complementarity principle. 

Origins: creation and evolution

In a nutshell, Berry thinks that Christian biologists should recognise evolutionary explanations of origins to be complementary to the biblical account. "My thesis is that we do not have to choose between the conclusions of science (evolution) and the Bible record: both are true and complement each other (p.31)". 

For the Bible-believer, the main issue then becomes: what does the Bible have to say about origins? How do we come to a correct understanding of Genesis? Berry focuses on one specific issue: the `days' of Genesis 1. "Traditionally the `days of creation' were taken as literal twenty-four-hour periods, but there are other possible interpretations (p.42)". He goes on to summarise four other approaches: the day-age theory, the ruin-reconstruction theory, the days of revelation theory and the ancient hymn theory. "All these interpretations are possible ... What is important is that they are interpretations, and any of them is defensible. It is wrong to be dogmatic. Personally I favour the last of the possibilities ... (p.43)". It is necessary to add that however defensible they are, these interpretations cannot all be correct and it may be that none of them are! 

A more fundamental question for all interpreters of Genesis is: what is the link between the text and history? In the Scriptures, God acts in history and reveals the meaning of his actions. This is foundational to our understanding of Christ's ministry and also to our appreciation of Israel under the Mosaic Covenant. But how far back can we trace this link? To Abraham? To Babel? To the Flood in the life of Noah? To Adam and Eve? To Creation Week? Interpreters of Genesis need a consistent approach here - which must include seeking to determine the understanding of these passages shown by Christ and the Apostles. But it should be noted that wherever we see a link with history in Genesis 1-11, we run straight away into conflict with evolutionary accounts of origins. 

Berry has to face this when he considers whether Adam and Eve were real people. We are entitled to ask: "How can complementarity be applied here?" From the perspective of science, "Homo sapienshas a more complete fossil history than most species, and one where the fossil findings parallel the genetic ones, that is, an origin in Africa, followed by colonisation of most temperate parts of the world. There is dispute about the precise lineages, but general agreement among dispassionate observers of the pattern of spread (p.31)". Berry goes on to argue that the image of God in man is non-anatomical, and consequently, "if our humanness is the result of God's work in us, and not a matter of anatomy, physiology and genes, our fossil history is irrelevant (p.49)". This approach would appear to suggest that we will not learn anything historical about our origins from the Bible. Thus, man is "an ape inbreathed by God's Spirit, with an evolutionary history but with a unique relationship with the Creator" (p.54). 

However, there is a tension here, as Berry has to acknowledge that "our more recent history is relevant" (p.49). "How realistic is it to believe that there ever was a man called Adam? Genesis describes Adam as a farmer (p.49)." Berry associates himself with the position that the creation of Adam is linked to the initiation of farming in New Stone Age communities. "This would place him about 10,000 years ago, of the same order as Archbishop Ussher's dating from biblical chronology, of 6,000 years ago" (p.49). So, here is an alleged link with history - but it is a very tenuous one. It is not without substantial difficulties to maintain, as the last decade has seen an enormous advance in our understanding of earlier stone age men. They evidenced a great variety of manual skills, for example, making hand axes and spears. They had a variety of aesthetic attributes (painting, sculpting, and playing musical instruments). They cared for their sick and buried their dead. They are increasingly appearing to be like us! Nevertheless, Berry says that "It is fully consonant with Genesis that God created Adam in the body of a Near Eastern farmer comparatively recently in archaeological terms" (p.50). 

There are numerous ramifications of this view, many of which move away from traditional understandings of Genesis. We have to discard the idea that Adam was the father of the whole human race. We must reject the doctrine that the Fall of Adam brought physical death as well as spiritual death. We must recognise that many of the things we associate with being made in the image of God (such as our ability to think conceptually and to be creative, our use of speech, and our practice of mourning the death of loved ones) were to be found in generations of hominids prior to Adam. We must discard any idea of a global flood and be resigned to the thought that the Deluge of Genesis 6 cannot be clearly identified from its deposits. 

Human life and foetal development

For many years, Professor Berry has chaired an Anglican working party set up to respond to Government proposals to regulate new reproductive technologies. He has also been a member of the Government appointed Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Berry has useful material in his chapter on this topic, but the reader's major interest is probably to discover what the Bible has to say. 

After discussing the widely-held evangelical view that human life begins at conception, Berry says: "So where does this leave us? My own belief is that the evidence is against the proposition that life begins at conception. ... Like Jerome and Augustine, I also want to be agnostic about the point at which God's image is impressed on the physical nature" (p.76-7). "The essential point I want to underline is that the assumption that life begins at conception is no more than an assumption. We need to read the books of nature and of Scripture together and critically examine all relevant traditions. Only then will we be faithful to our calling as `fully human' beings" (p.77). In other words, the Bible has not yet given us sufficient light on this matter on which to build a distinctively Christian perspective. 

The issue boils down to: when does human life begin? When should a fetus be regarded as sharing our humanity and worthy of the same protection and care we give to new-born infants? Many Christians have found it helpful to think about the incarnation of Christ: He became man when he was conceived. Berry writes: 

This appeal to uniqueness might be deemed surprising, when it is remembered that a key thought in the incarnation is that Christ became man - fully like us, yet without carrying the guilt of Adam. If Christ became man at conception, it is most reasonable to conclude that we are all truly human at conception. Far from this being a unique aspect of the incarnation, it is that part which emphasises Christ's humanity! 

All I would add to this is that every one of Berry's arguments has been addressed in the pro-life literature, yet Berry does not interact with this literature in any significant way. This is very disappointing - despite Berry's plea for continuing discussion, there is very little evidence here of meaningful dialogue. 

Environmental ethics and Christian concerns

Professor Berry has had a long involvement with environmental issues and he brings many useful ideas together in this chapter. The main message is one of stewardship: man is to tend and care for the world God has given us to live in. This emphasis will command wide acceptance from Christians. However, this approval will not be extended to Berry's interpretation of Romans 8:20- 22: the "frustration" and "groaning" of the creation. Berry does not accept that creation has been cursed as a result of Adam's sin. The Edenic curse and the "frustration" of Romans 8:20 is not a judgment of God on the sphere of man's dominion, but "a consequence of the lack of care which was ordained for it at creation, when God entrusted its dominion to us" (p.53). This has enormous practical implications as to the way we think about creation. Is what we see "normal" - as it came from God's hand? Those Christians who see pain, suffering and death as a consequence of the fall will not be comfortable with Berry's view that these characteristics have always been an integral part of God's creation and were present long before Adam's arrival to the scene of Earth history. "The problem of pain" has been long discussed by theologians and philosophers, and traditional understandings of the fall and the reality of the Edenic curse on creation have provided the basis of a Christian response. However, this approach is yet another element of traditional Christianity that has to be discarded if Berry's understanding of the Scriptures is adopted. 


Berry's concluding chapter seeks to bring the themes of his book together in a constructive way. He claims: "there is a credible scientific account of chemical, geological and biological evolution which complements the religious account. The Bible tells us something of the meaning of the world in which we live (that is, it deals with `Why?' questions); science deals with the mechanisms by which evolution occurred, which are not described in the Bible (that is, science answers `How?' questions) (pp.116-7). 

This review article has sought to point out that there are serious deficiencies in adopting Berry's vision of how the Bible and science relate to each other. Those who think that the "origins" issue is a secondary one would do well to read Berry's book and count the number of major doctrines that are affected. There is also an enormous cost for any who are seeking to develop the concept of a Christian worldview, where God's revelation of truth in Scripture provides the foundation for all scholarship. As mentioned earlier, Christian biologists might be expected to be in the forefront of scientists who recognise and study design in nature - yet this is consigned to the realm of "faith" by advocates of complementarity, and excluded from the realm of science. 

Towards biblically-based biological science

Emerging from this review article is the thought that there must be a better way of handling the theme "God and the biologist" than that presented by Professor Berry. But how do we translate this thought into something substantial? What does a Christian framework for biology look like? 

In what follows, material is drawn from the book Curriculum Unmaskedby Mark Roques (jointly published by Monarch and Christians in Education, 1989). This book is heartily recommended for all who are seeking to develop a Christian approach in education and the world of scholarship. 

This simple example highlights a fundamental problem for the complementarity approach. It is said that "science" allows us to answer "how?" questions - and we can approach the human body as a living machine. It is said that it is fallacious to say that the human body is "nothing but" a machine - there are other important aspects of our humanity (the "why?" questions), but they are not addressed by science. Complementarity effectively compartmentalises knowledge into discrete, distinct boxes, and the holistic, integrated perspective eludes scientist, teacher and student alike. 

Later in the book, a science teacher develops this line of thinking: 

This approach is quite contrary to much contemporary scientific thinking, which is inherently mechanistic and reductionistic: a direct consequence of compartmentalisation. Much contemporary science has lost its context! The orientation being referred to is not found within science: it must come from outside. Thus it is possible to develop "Darwinian science", "Marxist science" and so on. Science must have a context, and if one is not supplied, the result is scientism. The only adequate response from Christians is to provide a context for science which derives from God's revelation in the Scriptures. If the complementarity route is pursued, this foundational ingredient of a Christian worldview is necessarily missing. 

David J. Tyler (September 1997) 

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