Review of Origins: God, Evolution, and the Question of the Cosmos by Philip Rolnick

May 23, 2016

Origins book coverRolnick, Philip. Origins: God, Evolution, and the Question of the Cosmos. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015, pp.vii + 252, $39.95, hardback.

Philip Rolnick serves as Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota as well as Chair of the Science and Theology Network in the Twin Cities. In addition to Origins, Rolnick has authored and edited several books, such as Person, Grace, and God (Eerdmans, 2007), Analogical Possibilities: How Words Refer to God (Oxford, 1993), Reflections on Grace (Cascade Books, 2007), and Explorations in Ethics: Readings from Across the Curriculum (Greensboro College Press, 1998). Rolnick has also written numerous chapters in books, articles, and book reviews whose topics range from evolution and theology to anthropology. Origins is a helpful book for any student of the Bible who seeks to understand the current debate between evolution and theology.

Rolnick approaches Origins with the view that “science and religious faith are not only compatible, but even mutually illuminating” (p. 4); they are “partners in the search for truth” (p. 5). When it comes to the origin of the universe, “divine creativity and reason are unquestionably present and scientifically discoverable” (p. 6). Thus, for the believer today, learning from scientific discover can strengthen one’s faith (p. 6). Rolnick sets forth the thesis that evolution—contrary to common belief—is not antithetical to Scripture; rather, evolution is in harmony with Scripture. Part II of Origins deals with the so-called challenges of evolution to Christianity and shows how they are actually theological advantages. In Part III, Rolnick provides evidence from scientific discoveries of the universe’s beginning and its fine-tuning. Using the Gospel of John as a case study, Rolnick also shows how Christians have the tools to unite faith and science. Finally, Part IV seeks to set the previous chapters into the perspective of the believer’s daily life – how the Christian understands oneself and his interaction with nature and God, as well as how “the parallels between science and faith . . . can energize the faith of our time” (p. 9).

There are two features about Origins that I would like to highlight. First, Rolnick’s work is easy to follow considering the amount of scientific jargon and data discussed. While most readers are familiar with the basics of Darwinian evolution, Rolnick is able to express more technical issues in a way that non-specialists can easily comprehend. Further, the sheer amount of scientific discoveries discussed—and the varied sub-disciplines of science they cover—illustrate the fact that Rolnick is well-versed in modern science. For instance, Rolnick’s chapters on the origin of an inhabitable universe and the finely-tuned nature of the universe present complex ideas from astronomy and astrophysics. The depth at which Rolnick interacts with current scientific discoveries serves to demonstrate that science can support key Christian beliefs regarding the origin of the universe.

The second feature worth commending is Rolnick’s attempt to demonstrate that evolution is not a challenge to theism, particularly the theistic belief in the existence of God. Reminiscent of Alvin Plantinga’s approach in Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford, 2011), Rolnick provides a more narrowly focused line of attack by addressing four traditional challenges of evolution against theism: “evolution and divine design” (p. 15); “natural selection and a God of love” (p. 25); “struggle, pain, and death and the goodness of creation” (p. 28); and “common ancestry and human uniqueness” (p. 31). Rolnick admirably exhibits how each of the four “challenges” actually fit within a theistic view of the world. After exposing evolutionary challenges as theistic advantages, Rolnick can then render scientific discoveries not as anti-theistic fodder, but as key components of a larger theistic picture of the world.

The strength of Rolnick’s book—demonstrating the compatibility of evolution and theism—is perhaps its greatest weakness as well. Driving the entire work is Rolnick’s belief in Darwinian evolution in its entirety. For Rolinck, “the evidence discovered so well fits the theory of evolution, the theory has become predominant among biologists—and many religious leaders” (p. 14-15). Further, because of the shear amount of evidence supporting evolution, “denying the evidence is a poor and counterproductive way of defending the faith” (p. 15). Darwinian evolution, for Rolnick, is a brute fact—a basic belief that undergirds his argumentation and even his interpretation of Scripture. As such, Rolnick allows science to speak for itself regarding evolution in toto instead of demonstrating how the current picture of evolution is correct.

Such a critique may be lost on some, but it is the opinion of this reviewer that the question of whether evolution in toto is accurate or not is a fundamental question. That is, one must first argue how Darwinian evolution as a system is accurate before demonstrating the compatibility between evolution and theism. As is, Rolnick’s book begs the question that scientific evidence 1) does support the complete package of evolution, and 2) is itself accurate. Accepting evolution in toto involves, in part, the epistemological task of interpreting scientific data and determining how one knows whether the data accurately portrays reality. Failing to address the epistemological underpinnings of his argument reduces the force of Rolnick’s Origins to a catalogue of compatible tenets of evolution and theism.

Finally, presenting Darwinian evolution as brute fact leads Rolnick to interpret Scripture through evolutionary lenses, leading to seemingly forced interpretations of particular passages. For instance, for Rolnick, the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:14-30 “parallels and evolutionary setting” where “progress is applauded and rewarded, and standing still is forbidden” (p. 63-64). The servants who were praised “took intelligent risks and responsibly developed their initial endowments…Just as evolution is dynamic, so too is Jesus’ kingdom” (64). The servant who buried his talent illustrates, “in biological terms…that [he] is selected against; thrown into the outer darkness, his one talent is taken from him and given to the one who has ten” (p. 64). There is a sense in which even non-scientific passages in Scripture are reinterpreted in light of evolution—a method that is problematic and dangerous.

Philip Rolnick’s Origins is a book that deserves attention from any Christian confronted with the relationship between evolution and Christian belief. Despite the weaknesses mentioned above, Rolnick’s work has apologetical value for the believer as it transforms key challenges against Christianity into theological advantages. For the believer who does not hold to evolution or only accepts it in part, Origins serves to demonstrate the probability of evolution in light of theism. Evolution need not be a defeater for theism. For the believer who does hold to evolution, Origins serves as a resource that tears down the wall between evolution and theism. Regardless of where one stands regarding evolution, Rolnick’s book is a good starting point into the discussion on evolution and theism. A comparable book is Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperCollins, 2008). Similarly, William Dembski’s Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (InterVarsity, 1999), like Rolnick, seeks to demonstrate the compatibility between science and theology, but it does so from the perspective of Intelligent Design. Finally, Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (Touchstone, 1996) challenges evolution from the argument of fine-tuning. These helpful books provide the scope of the debate within Christian circles regarding the relationship (if any) between evolution and theism.

J. Daniel McDonald

Boyce College

Liberty University Online

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