The Gospel Coalition


Mapping the Origins Debate

Gerald Rau | Review by: Aaron Armstrong

Gerald Rau. Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013. 237 pp. $18.00.

“How did we get here?”

It seems like a fairly straightforward question, yet it’s pregnant with meaning because it requires us to consider some other questions:

  • How did the universe start?
  • How did the various kinds of life—most significantly humanity—come into being?

It’s no wonder, then, that such a seemingly simple question can get even the most laidback person hot under the collar. Indeed, this is too often what we see whenever the subject arises. But is it possible that, to some degree, each side is talking past the other? Is our rhetoric getting in the way of honest debate and discussion?

Gerald Rau argues that this may indeed be the case—and his new book, Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything, attempts to correct this error by explaining the evidence for how life came to be, showing how each viewpoint interprets that evidence, and demonstrating what difference our interpretation of the data makes.

Presuppositions and Interacting with Evidence

The starting point for Rau, former professor of biology at Wheaton College and at Trinity Christian College, is presuppositions. “Our worldview and philosophy shape the way we view [the] evidence from the first time we hear it,” he writes. “Each scientist is working from the perspective of one particular theory, which affects both data collection and interpretation” (189, 202).

This is the first significant point Rau addresses: no one is capable of coming to the evidence entirely objectively. Our worldview and its underlying philosophy—in short, our presuppositions—necessarily affect how we view the evidence surrounding the origins of everything. If our worldview leaves no possibility of the supernatural (naturalism), then we’ll reject any notion that the universe could begin through any but naturalistic means. The young-earth creationist, likewise, is apt to view the evidence as proof of God’s direct involvement in the creation of all things. But the difficulty is that we wind up talking past one another almost all the time. We talk and talk, but we don’t understand because we’re not speaking the same language.

This is important for us to acknowledge, and Rau handles this point with great care. Indeed, it’s clear he has carefully engaged the scholarly work of each model, so an attitude of congeniality comes through. He’s generally careful to avoid easy criticisms of either model, which is a breath of fresh air—after all, deconstructing each model isn’t his purpose, but rather explaining them (but more on that in a bit).

Theological Awareness and Scientific Consistency

As Rau explains how each model in the origins debate interprets the available evidence, he’s aware of the theological concerns accompanying each position. Each view espouses a different relationship between religion and science; some see the two as entirely distinct or complementary domains of knowledge, and others as interacting or overlapping domains. 

Do science and theology interact? Absolutely. A tragic error of the last 200 years has been divorcing the two. And yet it was never intended to be so. Theology was once considered the queen of the sciences; today it’s rarely recognized as a legitimate pursuit.

This leads to additional challenges for the Christian. Since “at least four different models believe that the Bible and the world are equally important revelations of God, and that the two, properly interpreted, will not conflict with each other” (440), we need to consider carefully how God’s revelation of himself in the Scriptures and in creation interact—and whether one or the other should be held in higher regard.

On this point, Mapping the Origins Debate is arguably at its weakest. Rau’s expertise is in the empirical sciences, and so his focus throughout is naturally anchored there. Nevertheless, readers would be right to be concerned with the notion that the Bible and the world are “equally important revelations of God.” While both are important, they serve different purposes. Creation shows us what God is like; Scripture tells us who he is and what he has done. Romans is instructive on this point. There the apostle Paul explains that God’s wrath is upon all humanity because of what the world reveals about God:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20)

God makes much of himself apparent in creation—yet where it ought to bring us to our knees in adoration, we choose to worship the creation instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:21-23). What is revealed in nature, then, is only enough to condemn us in our unrighteousness. This point is worth stressing in the origins debate—if the Bible is true on this point, then we have to consider the implications of our understandings of origins. Do they properly ascribe God the glory due his name or do they implicitly suggest some deficiency on his part?

Building Bridges for Honest Debate

What you won’t find explicitly laid out in Mapping the Origins Debate is Rau’s own position. This frustrated me initially. I wanted to know where he stands (though if you dig deeply enough, you’ll probably figure it out) and to see him defend his position.

But Mapping the Origins Debate isn’t that kind of book. In fact, had Rau not done his best to be objective (as well as any of us is capable of), this book would have been significantly less useful to readers. Indeed, his restraint allows each position to more or less stand on its own merits. Rau’s goal isn’t to deconstruct any particular viewpoint, but to show how each is logically consistent within its own worldview and philosophy.

That, perhaps, is the strongest element of the book and something many involved in these debates miss. When we understand opposing viewpoints well and have a sense of the presuppositions guiding them, we’re better prepared to explain our own views—especially on an issue as contested as our origins.

Rau’s Mapping the Origins Debate is helpful starting point in understanding the different models of how all things began. Read it and use it to build bridges for honest discussion and thoughtful debate.

Aaron Armstrong is the author of Contend: Defending the Faith in a Fallen World and Awaiting a Savior: The Gospel, the New Creation, and the End of Poverty. He is a writer for an international Christian ministry, serves as an itinerant preacher throughout southern Ontario, and blogs daily at Blogging Theologically.

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