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Biblical Classification of Life: A Framework and Reference for Authentic
Book by Chad Berndt.
Filer (ID): Elihu Publishing, 2000. Also available in PDF format at http://www.creationbydesign.com.
Review by Andrew J Petto and Stephen C Meyers
Andrew J Petto is Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of the Arts and editor of RNCSE. Stephen C Meyers is Vice-President of the Institute for Biblical Studies and Sciences. Both are based in Philadelphia.
Ethnobiology is the study of how people understand nature and their place in it. It examines how they name and classify living things, and, although the subjects of these systems of classification are biological, the systems themselves are not. The fundamental tools and materials of ethnobiology are linguistic, because how and why organisms are classified as they are is more important than how well the categories match modern scientific taxonomy.
Biblical Classification of Life is a prime example of ethnobiology; it exhibits every aspect of the discipline: linguistic analysis, mythological roots, and organization of living things into categories consistent with a unique cultural perspectivewhat anthropologists call a world view. Throughout the book we are reminded that the driving force behind Berndt's classification system is to understand living things from a young-earth biblical perspective. Any correspondence between his system and modern biology is, as they say, purely coincidentaland irrelevant. In fact, throughout this book, we are reminded of Edward Sapir's seminal admonition to those comparing ideas and systems across cultures:
The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached (1929: 209).
Biblical Classification of Life is an insider's look at the question of biblical classification, and it represents a thorough review of how one might approach the classification of living things if the primary organizing principle of the system were the sequence of creative acts laid out in Genesis 1-2. Its proper assessment requires an expertise in both biblical studies and in biology, and this joint review will consider these in turn.
The biblical premises of this book reveal numerous problems. Berndt makes several assumptions about the Bible that can be challenged either theologically or on the basis of biblical scholarship. The primary problem is that he assumes that the Bible is infallible about biology (p 17), but the more widely accepted theological view is that the Bible is meant to instruct in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)not in biology or any other science.
A second assumption Berndt's makes is that Adam named the animals according to thematic associations (p 13). Thematic associations, of course, vary significantly among languages and translations, but he does not address the fundamental question on which his assumption must rest: What language did Adam speak when he named the animals? Surely Berndt must realize that Hebrew is not the oldest language in the world and that the narratives that make up the Bible existed in various linguistic forms long before they were codified into Hebrew.
Berndt's third assumption is an ex nihilo Creationa theological term that refers to Creation's not being made out of pre-existing matter and which did not enter biblical scholarship until the 2nd century BCE (May and Gerhard 1994). This concept is not found within the biblical text itself. Indeed, an alternative interpretation understands the statement, "the earth brought forth" plants and animals to contradict the ex nihilo interpretation. The Hebrew verb "bring forth" comes from the Hif'il stem which indicates that the earth produced the plants and animals (Seely 1997).
Berndt further assumes that Genesis 1 must be chronological, but this creates problems for the other creation narratives in the Bible if they are also to be considered "true". The story of the Creation is told in different ways in Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Psalm 104, and John 1:1-3. Each of these has a different form, a different focus, and different style to describe the Creation. Berndt provides no rationale for why Genesis 1 should take precedence, except, we suppose, that it appears first in the modern version of the Bible.
Berndt compounds this problem by asserting that the order of Creation in Genesis 1 represents a hierarchical scale of life: the life of any aquatic animal life is worth less than that of a land animal because land animals were created later. Animals on Day 6 take precedence over animals created on Day 5, and so on. This leads to very strange conservation strategies (Chapter 13), but more important, it plays havoc with the story of the Flood. Noah was commanded to bring birds and domesticated animals on the ark, but not wild ones. Berndt must presume that all the wild animals drowned, only to be replaced by what? And in only about 4000 years!
Perhaps most important, however, is that applying Berndt's biblical literalism is problematic because (according to his view) the qualities of living things before and after the Fall would make the original Creation categories irrelevant for understanding post-Fall characteristics. Since contemporary biology in Berndt's view is post-Fall biology, then the original classification categories and descriptions (such as they are) are not useful in telling us much about modern organisms. For example, why did some animals become carnivorous, but not others?
Berndt takes a courageous, but ultimately fruitless, step in trying to systematize the Bible into a biology book, but on close examination falls far short. The basic assumptions of his book are questionable, even among those who accept biblical authority in matters of faith. Modern scholarship understands the Bible both as a historical document and a text that needs interpretationa living text, rather than a closed case. Trying to force the Bible into a biology book is not really the spirit of the way the text was supposed to be used, and using it this way runs the risk of diminishing the use it was meant to servespiritual guidance, formation, and instruction.
Berndt's principal goal is to set up classification criteria that allow "Christian teachers and biologists who believe in the biblical Creation to fully integrate their study within this biblical framework" (p 11) and in contrast to "Modern Taxonomy". Derived from the 6 days of Creation in Genesis 1, Berndt's classification is based on "Life Mode" (vegetation, creatures, humans), "Habitat" (terrestrial, aquatic, avian), "Distinction" (herbaceous and woody plants, insects and birds, and creeping, hoofed, and unhoofed beasts), and "Kind" (plants of the field and of the forest, aquatic beasts with lungs, scales and fins, and no fins, and so on). Humans, of course, are a unique "kind". The relationships among organisms that Berndt wishes to illustrate in his classification is God's creative plan (p 123-31).
First, Berndt tells us that "Taxonomy" is in "opposition to biblical classification" (p 11), a point he later expands by pointing out biology's "atheistic, naturalistic, and thus evolutionary belief system and agenda" (p 14). This, of course, sets up the contrast between Berndt's position that one accepts the Creation event "first by faith (revelation), and only then by naturalistic science" (p 15). This contrast pits one "belief system" against another, and the primary distinction between them, of course, is accepting the True faith. Berndt's main objection to scientific classification is that is contradicts biblical priorities, some of which, he says, are not about physical form at all (p 23).
Second, Berndt misconstrues the practice of "Modern Taxonomy" as grouping "life on the basis of physical similarity from the general to the specific" (p 23). Contemporary taxonomy is not just "naming" and "grouping", but rather a discipline devoted to extracting underlying relationships among organismseven some organisms that appear quite dissimilar physically.
The main problem with this book as a biological resource, however, is that it contains so many errors of fact. This may be due to the author's practice of using secondary and tertiary sources. Berndt commonly cites textbooks, encyclopedias, popular science magazines, and other general references to support his conclusionswhich are often quite different from those in the sources he cites.
Berndt greatest error in this book is to overlook the fact that, in contemporary biological studies, the taxon in which an organism is placed tells us a lot about that organism, and that is why organisms are sometimes reassigned to new groups. We know a lot about the physiology, reproduction, immunology, neurobiology, cardiovascular anatomy, and so on of a whale because it is in the Class Mammaliaknowledge that is obscured by Berndt's classification of whales as "aquatic" creaturesa group containing fishes, cyanobacteria, mollusks, crustaceans, sponges, tubeworms, corals, and others. This practice makes Berndt's classification biologically uselessno more about biological relationships than stamp collecting is about zip codes (Mayr quoted in Lewin 1982).
Readers will find no more comprehensive volume that maps living things onto the 6 days of Creation and how an alternative, though nonbiological, biblical view might organize them. However, the subtitle of this book, Authentic Biblical Biology, is a misnomer. What biology there is in this book is secondary to Berndt's questionable interpretation of the Bible. He typically dismisses scientific data and conclusions by asserting merely that they contradict the Bible and therefore could not be true (for example, p 84). A good deal of the biological material is incorrectly or inaccurately presented, including the main foil of the book"The Taxonomy"and much of the biblical material ignores contemporary scholarship on the Scripture.
We can only recommend this book for readers wishing to see how this literal biblical world view perceives the natural world. But readers interested in biology or in modern biblical scholarship would be best advised to look elsewhere.
Lewin R. Biology is not postage-stamp collecting. Science 1982 May 14; 216: 718-20.
May G. Creatio Ex Nihilo. Translated by AS Worrall. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994.
Padian K. Dinosaurs and birds: An update. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 2000 Sep/Oct; 20(5): 28-31.
Padian K. More on birds and dinosaurs. Reports of the National Center for Science Education 2001 Sep/Dec; 21(5-6): 33-7.
Sapir E. The status of linguistics as a science. Language 1929; 5(4): 207-14.
Seely P. The Meaning of Min, 'Kind'. Science & Christian Belief, 9:1 (1997), 47-56.
Andrew J Petto
Division of Liberal Arts
University of the Arts
320 S Broad St
Philadelphia PA 19102-4994
This article is scheduled to be published in the National Center For Science Education's journal Reports sometime in 2004. Their web site is www.ncseweb.org.