God Did It, But How?

Author: Robert B. Fischer
Date: 1997
Publisher: ASA Press, Ipswich, MA
ISBN: 1881479021
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, steamdoc@aol.com


The Author

Robert B. Fischer, a chemist, was Provost and is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biola University.

Preliminary Comments

Many of us think that, at its root, the "creation vs. evolution" controversy has nothing to do with science. Instead, the problem is sloppy human thinking, as reflected by unwarranted generalizations and extrapolations, failure to make crucial distinctions between different types of questions and answers, and failure to see anything other than extreme positions. Robert Fischer puts it this way:
Much of the controversy, I think, arises from inadequate, inaccurate, and distorted understandings of the essence and content of scientific and intellectual activity and also of biblical study. The inevitable results of these distortions are in evidence, in that controversies remain unresolved with people needlessly polarized one from another, and with too much attention diverted by pseudo-issues from the real issues and problems that do exist [pp. 1-2].

In 1981, Fischer attempted to inject some clear thinking into the debate with the publication of the first edition of God Did It, But How? This second revised edition has been published by ASA Press, the publishing arm of the American Scientific Affiliation. The ASA is an organization for Christians in science; more information may be found on their web page.

Summary of the Book

Fischer begins by outlining the distinct questions one can ask with regard to origins or almost anything else: Who, What, How, and Why? He gives clear examples to illustrate how these questions can be interrelated, but are often independent. He then gives a concise and orthodox description of how we go about interpreting the Bible and nature, which are our sources of information for answering these questions. Some of the points made with regard to science, such as what is meant by a "theory," should shed light on current misunderstandings. Some interesting points are made about the similarities and differences in these two areas of study.

Chapter two is devoted to making the point that "God Uses Human and Natural Means in Doing What He Does." The examples are intentionally chosen to be noncontroversial for Christians, such as the writing of the Bible and the birth of a child. A final important section warns against the "God-of-the-Gaps" approach, where answers to How questions (or their absence) are mistaken for answers to Who questions.

In chapter three, the longest in the book, Fischer tackles "origins." He first looks at the information from the Bible, affirming that its answer is clear to the Who question. For the When and How questions, there is little if any Biblical information, as Fischer points out with some exegesis that shows there is no need to interpret the "days" of Genesis 1 as 24-hour periods, and that the verbs used to describe God's creative activity can describe things that are accomplished wholly or partly via natural processes. He then turns to the investigation of nature, starting with the point that science is inherently unable to answer the Who question. The scientific findings with regard to When and How are described. Several pages are devoted to the evolutionary explanations of How, including useful distinctions among the various usages of the word "evolution." Fischer seems cautiously favorable toward the standard theory of biological evolution (though he goes out of his way to point out its weaknesses), but he seems more skeptical of chemical evolution as an explanation for the beginning of life on Earth.

The final portion of chapter three makes the most important point of the book, which is that alternative explanations on the scientific level (answers to How and When questions) should not be conflated with alternative explanations on the philosophical level (answers to Who and Why questions). Many people operate under the assumption that a certain answer on one of the two levels entails a particular answer on the other level. That is simply false, and is the main source of needless confusion and controversy on these issues.

The fourth chapter deals with miracles. The characteristics of Biblical miracles are described, and again the point is made that God sometimes operates miraculously through natural processes. A final section of this chapter contains a nice discussion of the Christian view of the relationship between God and nature.

In the final chapter, Fischer puts some things into a broader context. He discusses world views, suggesting that Christians should avoid both "Scientism" and "Biblicism" and accept both the Bible and nature as valid sources of information. There is a nice section on presuppositions and paradigms, which are involved in the interpretation of both sources. Fischer recognizes that not all issues are easily resolved, and recommends that, in studying the Bible, or in science, or in intersections between the two, we should take three steps when conflicts appear: a) reexamine the evidence; b) seek additional evidence; and c) suspend judgment as appropriate. This is wise advice, and we all need to realize that the last step is valid and even to be expected, since God has not provided us with total knowledge. There is then a discussion of how faith and intellect are both essential to the Christian world view. A final eloquent section warns again against "God of the Gaps" and other ways in which humans put limits on how God can create and reveal himself to his creatures.

Evaluation

I liked this book, but not quite as much as I had hoped to. Perhaps the glowing endorsements from ASA members whose perspective on these issues is close to mine gave me expectations that were a little too high.

The book is well-written and has a good logical flow, but it becomes a bit dry to read (perhaps a few more figures might have helped). I think its most useful aspect is its focus on the difference between the different types of questions, and its insistence that we not make unwarranted linkages between answers to How questions and answers to Who questions. If both atheists and Christian anti-evolution crusaders would learn this lesson, most of the current senseless controversies would disappear.

I do have two medium-sized criticisms. The first is that Fischer seems to be somewhat tied to Biblical literalism. His exegesis of Genesis 1 argues for a day-age interpretation, with an apparent underlying assumption that some scientific information is being given with which the findings of modern science should concord. I wanted to see at least a mention of the option that Genesis 1 might have no science content, instead being a figurative portrait answering only the essential Who and Why questions. Second, I am concerned about the several pages devoted to the deficiencies in the existing theories of biological evolution. While the points are all valid, I worry about their effect on readers. He said he focused more on the weaknesses of the theory than its strengths because "in the teaching of science the concept of biological evolution frequently comes through as being much more definitive and final than it really is." While this is true, the readers of this book will not be the secular science teachers who need to hear that. Instead, many readers will be Christians who have been conditioned to desperately want evolution to be false. My fear is that some might see these weaknesses and miss the much more important point that, right or wrong, the scientific theory of evolution (as opposed to its philosophical extrapolations) is not a threat to Christianity. Perhaps this point could have been made immediately prior to the presentation of the weaknesses, and the strengths given a little more space alongside the weaknesses, in order to guard against this danger.

Overall, however, this book is a most welcome contribution to the science/faith area. As an introduction (suitable, for example, for college freshmen) that will help Christians think in a mature manner about these issues, I think my first recommendation would still be Charles Hummel's The Galileo Connection, in large part because it is more engagingly written. But God Did It, But How? comes in a close second, and is well worth reading for anybody interested in these issues. I intend to give a copy to my pastor.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are the opinion of the author of this review alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Review originally written May 1997.
Page last modified September 2, 2000