The Fourth Day:
What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling us about the Creation

Author: Howard J. Van Till
Date: 1986
Publisher: Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan
ISBN: 0-8028-0178-1
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, steamdoc@aol.com


The Author

Howard Van Till was, at the time the book was written, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College. He has since retired, but he continues to contribute to discussions of science/faith issues.

Preliminary Comments

I first read this book in 1995 or 1996 after borrowing it from a friend. I remember being disappointed when I tried to get a copy at my local Christian bookstore and discovered it was out of print. When I started writing book reviews, I didnít bother reviewing The Fourth Day because it wasn't readily available. In early 2002, I was pleasantly surprised to see two copies on the shelf of a bookstore in Denver; I snatched one up and have reread it. It has apparently gone back into print (I believe through "on-demand" publishing), and can be ordered online. Therefore, I thought it was worth reviewing now, since readers of this review would actually be able to buy it.

Summary of the Book

The Fourth Day takes its title from Genesis 1:14-19, the account of "the fourth day" of God's creative work, in which "he made the stars also." (v.17). The book explores what the Bible means when it talks about God creating the stars (and everything else), what science has to say about stars and the rest of the universe, and, most important, how the two perspectives can be combined into a coherent and satisfying worldview.

As is appropriate for a book from a Christian perspective, Van Till begins by laying a Biblical foundation in five chapters grouped under the heading of "The Biblical View." These chapters draw heavily on the work of Meredith Kline and other Evangelical scholars. The principles of interpretation advocated include trying to understand the context in which the Scripture was written, and distinguishing its message from the vehicle used to deliver the message and the way the message is packaged. These principles should be obvious to anyone who wants to understand what God is saying in Scripture, yet it seems like many of our problems come because Christians ignore these principles and treat the Bible as a "magic book" that will answer all questions put to it, not just the ones the inspired writers were trying to answer. It is refreshing to see a rejection of such foolish Biblicism coming not from some wooly liberal but from solid Evangelicals such as Kline.

Genesis is viewed as primarily a covenantal document, establishing Godís status as the Creator of all things (in contrast to idolatry of the cultures that surrounded the Hebrews, where things in nature were viewed as gods). The take-home point of these first five chapters seems to be:

The fundamental question addressed by Genesis 1 is "Who is the God who called Abraham, and how is he related to humanity and the natural world?" The answer, so beautifully and effectively illustrated in narrative form, is that God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth and all their inhabitants, both celestial and terrestrial. And beyond that fundamental revelation, Genesis 1 provides the basis for the full Biblical revelation concerning what kind of a Creator our God is and what it means to be a creature who is covenantally related to him. [p. 85]

The next four chapters discuss science. After a brief discussion of how science works and how it fits into a Christian worldview, Van Till tells us about stars. The reader gets an accessible overview of what scientists have discovered in their investigation of stars, with particular emphasis on the life cycle of stars and the observation we can make today of stars in various stages of their evolution.

There's that word: "evolution." It appears a lot in this section, mostly in the context of "stellar evolution." A strong case is made that, for stars, "evolution" has happened, and that the natural explanations of stellar evolution describe how God made the stars. While reading about how well-established stellar evolution is as a description of nature, and about how that does not affect God's status as Creator, it was easy to think I was reading a defense of the more controversial area of biological evolution. That bothered me a little at first, but in retrospect it shouldn't have. Why is it that many people consider biological evolution a threat to Christianity, but are not threatened by stellar evolution? The descriptions of God's creative activity in Genesis 1 are similar; if anything, the language for God's creation of life is more "evolutionary." If it is theologically OK for God to create stars by evolutionary means, why not starfish? The inconsistency of this selective anti-evolutionism mystifies me Ö but I digress.

It is probably good strategy on Van Till's part to concentrate on the case for stellar evolution. Not only is it his area of expertise, but, when compared to biological evolution, the scientific evidence is less open to question and (inconsistent though this may be) it is not seen as automatically anti-Christian by many anti-evolutionists. Once the reader is comfortable that stellar evolution is not a threat to the faith, one can extend the reasoning to biological evolution and challenge people with the idea that, logically, it should not be a threat either. Van Till does this in two paragraphs near the end of the section.

The third and final part of the book is devoted to "Integrating the Two Views:"

Now we should reflect on the results of these two investigations and compare the perspectives we get by viewing the cosmos alternately through the spectacles of Scripture and the lens of science. Ultimately we want to know whether these two views are contradictory or consistent. Are we faced with two disparate views that we have to choose between, or are we presented with two complementary views that together comprise the complete picture of the cosmos in its totality? [pp. 193-4]

Van Till integrates the two perspectives by advocating categorical complementarity. This is the concept that there are certain categories of questions (those concerning the status, ultimate origin, governance, value, and purpose of the cosmos) that should be addressed to religious authorities (the Bible for Christians), and other categories (those concerning the "internal affairs" of created things like their properties, behavior, and history) that should be addressed by scientific investigation. He is not the first person to suggest such ideas, but he explains them well. It seems to me that such a concept must be key for Christians addressing questions of science and faith. Many of the problems we face in this area seem to result from failure to direct questions to the appropriate sources. This applies not only to Christians who attempt to interpret Genesis as a scientific text, but also to secular popularizers of science like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins who attempt to buttress their own metaphysical views by extrapolating the results of science to draw conclusions about matters on which science properly has no say.

This section also considers the creation/evolution "debate," pointing out how much of it has resulted from the failure to carefully define and use terms and the failure to distinguish among logically different questions. There is a critique of "naturalistic evolutionism," followed by a critique of "special creationism." It is instructive to consider how both of these extremes share many of the same problems, particularly the "God of the Gaps" fallacy (though Van Till does not use that term) that denies God's sovereignty over nature by assuming that a "natural" explanation of something entails the absence of God.

A final chapter summarizes Van Till's "creationomic perspective," a term that has not caught on. This perspective consists of placing natural science in the framework of the Biblical teaching about Godís relationship to the creation, and has implications for the way Christians should view the creation and scientific investigation. Based on this perspective, suggestions are made as to appropriate approaches to teaching in both public and Christian schools about "evolution" (as a natural process, without advocacy of naturalism) and "creation" (as a Christian doctrine that does not depend on scientific models for how things happen).

Evaluation

I remember liking this book when I first read it, but this time around, six years later and with more consideration of these issues under my belt, I was even more impressed. Van Till gets to the two main underlying problems Christians have in this area: addressing questions to the Bible that it is not trying to answer and a deficient understanding of God's governance over the processes we call "natural." This is done in a persuasive and Biblically sound manner.

One might ask whether this book, published in 1986, is now dated. For the most part, the answer is "no." While there have been advances in astronomy, I don't think the material on stellar evolution on which this book focuses has been significantly affected. The explosion of DNA technology has provided more evidence for biological evolution, but that is not a topic of the book.

One thing that has changed since 1986 is the new inroad of antievolutionism in Evangelical churches in the form of "Intelligent Design." Van Till illustrates the fallacies of "special creationism" primarily with quotes from Henry Morris and others in the "creation science" movement. The "Intelligent Design" movement tends to avoid the fundamentalist approaches to Scripture and ludicrous scientific statements that make Morris et al. such easy targets. Yet, one can note how many of the fallacies noted for "creation science" are shared by the Intelligent Design movement, notably the idea that natural explanations for events remove God from the picture. One might wish for an Epilogue in a new printing of the book to extend its analysis to the ID movement, but Van Till has provided such analysis elsewhere.

Finally, there is the question of where The Fourth Day fits in among other books that, in my opinion, offer a healthy perspective on these issues. A useful distinction is between beginning books, accessible to the college freshman or the bright high school student, and more advanced treatments. The Fourth Day is not a beginner's book. While the writing and logic are clear, the intellectual level is such that it would not be the place to start for somebody (especially somebody without any science or theology background) who had never given these matters significant thought. For the beginner, I would recommend Charles Hummel's The Galileo Connection, Robert Fischer's God Did It, But How?, or George Murphy's Toward a Christian View of a Scientific World.

For a working scientist, or a pastor (at least one who did not flunk his science classes), or for the beginner who has learned from one of the more introductory books, The Fourth Day would be an excellent way to dive into these issues. A book at a similar level is Richard Bube's Putting It All Together, which I also recommend highly. Bube's book is more general, discussing the various ways (some healthy, some not) in which people relate science and Christianity; while it deals with "creation" issues, is not as focused on those matters as Van Till's book. A choice between the two books could be based on whether or not the reader wanted to focus on those issues. Better yet, one could read both. They have little overlap, except for their shared view that complementarity (letting the Bible do its job of answering questions about God and ultimate reality, while letting science do its job of answering questions about the "internal affairs" of the creation) is key to a healthy resolution of the science/faith controversies that are harming both the church and its witness to the world.

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 March 2002.
Page last modified March 29, 2002