Thursday, May 1, 2008

Book Review: Paradigms on Pilgrimage

I received my copy of Paradigms on Pilgrimage (Clements Publishing, 2005) this week, and finished it in a couple of sittings ... which is to say that I found it hard to put down. The authors, Stephen J. Godfrey and Christopher R. Smith write of their personal pilgrimages out of a YEC paradigm which they were taught earlier in life, and into an understanding of the evolutionary history of life on earth. The two men, brothers-in-law, have backgrounds in different disciplines. Godfrey is a trained paleontologist, and Smith is a student of the Biblical interpretation and literary science. Each describe the succession of understandings as they struggled to integrate what became for them undeniable — evolutionary science — with their Biblical faith. Any believer who struggles with this huge shift in paradigms would benefit from the personal accounts of their respective journeys.

Stephen Godfrey writes the opening five chapters. His style is engaging and, at times, entertaining (chapter one is entitled, “The Dog Skeleton and My Grandmother’s Toothbrush”). As Godfrey receives his training in descriptive paleontology, and as he becomes proficient in the science of fossils, his long-held assumptions of Young Earth Creationism and Flood Geology are rocked again and again. He entered the field, in part, hoping to find evidence in the fossil record to support his YEC views. But instead he finds that the fossil record renders Flood Geology wholly untenable, and that it strongly supports the evolutionary hypothesis. What I found interesting is that, even in the facing of this mounting evidence, Godfrey clings to a literalist view of early Genesis, and he continues to look for something,
anything, some shred of data that might be used to discount Darwin and/or substantiate a literal reading of Genesis. He describes the chronology of his personal discoveries and his ensuing struggle, and leads the open-minded reader to understand why his ultimate acceptance of evolution was the only reasonable conclusion.

These chapters are filled with illustrations and fossils that tell amazing stories of the history of life on earth; I found them fascinating. The chapters dealing with trace fossils should forever put to rest the idea that the Flood is responsible for laying down our fossil rich geological strata. At one time, I found the notion of so-called “polystrate fossils” (fossilized trees which are said to pass through multiple strata of sedimentary deposits suggesting that all these layers were the result of a single catastrophic event) quite convincing. Still looking for that shred of evidence for Flood Geology, Godfrey describes his disappointment when he personally observed this phenomenon: “Some young-earth creationists ... were claiming that places like Joggins, where fossilized trees were seen to pass upright though the surrounding sedimentary rocks, provided powerful evidence that the world had been overtaken suddenly by a global flood. I had once believed this to be true. However, after visiting Joggins, I knew first hand that this could not be. The tree stumps lined up along clearly visible, once horizontal, beds” (page 49).

Christopher Smith takes up his pilgrimage in the second half of the book. Trained in theology, Biblical languages and literary studies, his shifting paradigm travels along a slightly different course from Godfrey’s. Like his co-author and brother-in-law, Smith was taught a YEC perspective as a young person, and he tenaciously stuck to his views even during his years at Harvard University where he was among an extreme minority. Not until the time of his graduation did he begin to experience doubt about his literalist/creationist understandings. He describes the processes involved in the ultimate merging of his Biblical faith with what he was learning about his world from the various fields of scientific inquiry. In short, he develops a hermeneutic which not only accommodates good science, but is far more in keeping with the internal evidence of the Bible itself. Far from undermining his confidence in the Bible, this new paradigm has opened new vistas upon the Biblical truth, and given him fresh insight into what God is really communicating through the inspired scriptures.

Some believers may struggle with some of Smith’s methods of understanding and interpreting Scriptures. Paradigm shifts in theology and Biblical interpretation are never easy. Smith’s views do not entirely line up with my own. But I appreciate his honesty in dealing with Scriptures with intellectual honesty.

The final chapter of the book returns to the first chapter of the Bible, in light of the Ancient Near-eastern Cosmology context in which it was written. Genesis 1 can only be understood in light of its historical context. The authors help us to see that, read properly, Genesis is not in conflict with evolution.

I wish every evangelical and fundamental believer could read this book. Making the journey from a YEC perspective into an acceptance of evolutionary science can be a painful and difficult experience. But in light of the overwhelming evidence for evolution, it is a journey believers must be willing to make. This book can be very useful in smoothing that path. I recommend it to my readers.


Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
Thanks for the review. I do want to pick up this book.

Question: Is Smith a Baptist minister? Do the author's discuss their experiences in their churches after coming to an EC position? I'm trying to determine if this is the same book someone was trying to tell me about.

Gordon J. Glover said...

I read this one too, very good indeed! I highly recommend it to anyone, and Steve - at least one of the authros (I can't remember which) is from Canada.

Cliff Martin said...

Yes Gordon, Stephen Godfrey is Canadian. And yes Steve, Christopher Smith is a Baptist pastor. Neither author deals very much with out-fall from their church groups, as I recall.

Tom said...

I'll have to look for this book.

As far as reconciling Genesis with Evolution, I can see where casting Genesis as allegory lets you then have evolution. However, accepting evolution still opens up a lot more cans of worms regarding humanity and our role in God's plan. I'm waiting to hear the next phase in the journey from YEC to accepting evolution. Of course, I assume it ends in atheism, but maybe that's just seeing the glass half full! ;-)

reluctanttheist said...

As someone who is a Christian and has been for years, and who would describe their beliefs as orthodox, I would like to be a YEC. But even if YEC is out the window, and the book is correct in eliminating the Flood as the mechanism for today's geology, I don't think that negates Creationism. I personally don't see how Evolutionism has much hope to solve the intricacies of how such a complex universe came to be, but as a proponent of Intelligent Design I don't see a scientific connection between the creator of the universe and the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible. That's faith. Science hints at a creator, but the rest is on faith.

Psiloiordinary said...

Ah - the argument from personal incredulity.

I personally find the use of this fallacy as a serious argument incredible.

One, one.

Back to you.




Cliff Martin said...

So Psi, personally, you are incredulous that anyone would give any weight to personal incredulity as an argument? I share your personal incredulity to such incredulity, personally.

Welcome, Reulctanttheist. Thank you for your comment. There was a time when I was a YEC. But, as you are discovering, the evidence simply does not align with YEC or Flood Geology. Don’t fear or run from truth, wherever you encounter it. Embrace it. These truths do not, in themselves, run counter to faith.

I too find it hard to believe that evolution could result in the complexity, intricacy, and diversity of our cosmic reality and of life on earth. But all the evidence suggests that it did. We are learning more every day about the power of evolution to accomplish all of this. If indeed it is a tool ultimately designed by God, as I believe, it speaks of his wisdom and power. My friend Psiloiordinary may reject the notion of God, but he and I agree on many things. One of those is the amazing progress of evolution through natural mechanisms, unaided by supernatural intervention. It may be difficult to believe. But I find the alternative even more difficult to believe, for many reasons.

Isaac Gouy said...

cliff > These chapters are filled with illustrations and fossils that tell amazing stories of the history of life on earth; I found them fascinating.

Then you'd find this fascinating - Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

Cliff Martin said...

Looks like a great book! Have you read it?

Isaac Gouy said...

I've only skimmed through - it's worth getting from a library just to look at the pictures - hopefully I'll get to it in a month or two.

Isaac Gouy said...

Now I have read "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters".

It provides a very readable way to catch-up with the geology behind the fossil record, with how the fossil record relates to current ideas in evolution (evo/devo), with the cladistic revolution in taxonomy, and with the fossil record - "Most fossil rhinos did not have horns, most fossil camels did not have humps, and most fossil giraffes did not have long necks." p316

Unhappily the cost of having to examine and explain the distortions of ID and Creationism at length is obvious - "We do not have space to talk about the transitional forms for turtles, lizards and many other fascinating reptiles..." p244

Still, so much is packed into the book that I was very aware how out-of-date my knowledge had become, and how much I needed this book to help me catch-up.

Cliff Martin said...


Thanks! I'll look for it a the Library.