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Tuesday, 28 August 2007

“Beyond the Firmament”: A Good Starting Point

I’m frequently asked questions like the following: “What book should I read to gain a better understanding of evolution and its implications for the Christian faith?” Unfortunately, this is actually not an easy question to answer; at least I’ve found it very difficult. And I’m often dissatisfied with my answer. So it is probably safe to assume that others are dissatisfied with my answers as well.

Part of the challenge is that so many different academic subjects are relevant to the evolution and faith dialogue. Should one start with a good commentary on Genesis (eg. Gordon Wenham’s Genesis 1-15) or something that looks at OT interpretation in the Ancient Near Eastern context (eg. Peter Enn’s “Inspiration and Incarnation”)? How about examining reasons for Evangelical's historic opposition to evolution? Murphy’s “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism”, Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, or Numbers’ “The Creationists” all explore various aspects of this topic. Starting with the scientific evidence for evolution is also a possible strategy and one of the three books by Evangelical biologists that I reviewed here might be appropriate. For breadth of coverage, Keith Miller’s “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation” which I reviewed here is excellent and Polkinghorne’s “Science and Christian Belief” is the book I’d choose to take with me to a desert island, but neither is a book I’d recommend as a starter for someone new to the subject.

Gordon Glover highlights this problem as well:

If [someone] were to ask me to recommend a “good book” that was short, to-the-point and could help them work through these difficult issues, I would have to give them not one, but several books on a variety of subjects. For example, they would need to know a little about ancient Near-Eastern cultures as well as the history of scientific development. A basic understanding of scientific principles and some familiarity with modern theories including the Big Bang and evolution would also be essential. Finally, they would need to grasp some key theological and philosophical concepts that help tie all of these things together into a single consistent approach. But who has time for all of that?
So Glover decided to “fill that void”. His soon to be released “Beyond the Firmament” looks like it might fit the bill for a single volume, short introduction for Evangelicals grappling with the difficult issues raised by evolution. The paragraph quoted above is from his preface, which he has posted online here.

As an Evangelical interested in science, Glover initially embraced Young Earth Creationism, but over many years became “increasingly unsatisfied with some of the creative ways Christians reinterpret the Bible to agree with the latest findings of modern science.” His book is the culmination of much research and thinking. He states that it “affords me a brief moment to capture what I’ve learned thus far (before I forget what I went through to get here), so that anyone else who also finds themselves unsatisfied with how both sides have framed this [creation vs. evolution] debate might profit from my experience”.

I think one of reasons I’m attracted to “Beyond the Firmament” is that Glover’s experience seems to parallel my own. Both of us were raised in environments where evolution was tantamount to atheism. Both of us had an interest in science and became uncomfortable with the message & tactics “in our own camp”. Neither of us is an academic, meaning that we have had to make a significant personal investment looking at the options and evidence. And both of us have reached a point where biological evolution and our Christian faith form a coherent framework. I’m definitely looking forward to this book. I encourage you to check out his website at http://www.blog.beyondthefirmament.com/.

Faith and Freedom to ask the Big Questions #4: The Relationship Between Entropy and Evil?

As readers of this blog are aware, I’ve been posting a series of Faith/Science questions for discussion. See here for the introductory post and the comments in #1, #2, and #3 for some interesting dialogue on the first three questions.

For question #4, I’ve decided to take a different tact. Cliff Martin, the reader who originally presented these questions for discussion, has started his own blog Outside of the Box. His latest post “Entropy, the Concept” is the beginning of a series of posts that will (I think) provide an overview how he would start to answer question #4 below:

What is the relationship of evil to entropy? As entropy is essentially death, and the Enemy holds the power of death, how is the driving force of the entire cosmos related to evil, and to the “ruler of the cosmos” as Jesus calls him? If entropy is a temporary bondage from which the whole cosmos longs to be delivered, how might its undoing relate to the undoing of the evil one, the undoing of evil itself? Zoroastrians and Jewish Kabbalists have long seen some connection here. Isn’t it time Christians ask these questions?

I think it’s both more appropriate and productive for Cliff to lay out some of his ideas on his own blog. So rather than comment here, I encourage readers interested in these questions to comment over on Cliff’s site (I have and will). For question #5, which deals directly with evolution, the current plan is to go back to the regular format on this blog.

The questions above are interesting for me because they tie in with some issues I’ve been thinking about:

  • What does entropy / evolution have to do with eschatology? I reread Polkinghorne’s chapter on Eschatology in “Science and Christian Belief” this past week. Excellent stuff.
  • The incarnation of God in Christ is central to Orthodox Christianity, and Jesus is the only way to God, but does that mean we should ignore what other religions have to say on certain issues? Can we learn from them? (I think John Stackhouse wrote a book on this – I’ve got to dig it up. If anyone has a good recommendation for an Evangelical treatment of this question, please let me know).

A quick personal note: Until 2 months ago Cliff and I had never met (actually, we still haven’t except over the internet – it’s a long way from Oregon to Toronto). However, through a bit of Internet research we were able to determine that we are 5th cousins. I’m wondering if anyone can beat that, ie. say they met their Xth cousin on an internet blog or forum where X > 5.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Four Evolution and Faith Posts of Interest

I will be spending the next week in the great outdoors and won’t have access to the Internet. So while I take a break from blogging, I’d like to recommend the following four posts on Evolution and the Christian Faith.

1. The Lesson of Ancient Seas by Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouws

I’m probably partial to Fuller for several reasons. One of my favorite authors is Nancey Murphy a professor at Fuller, while Authority and interpretation of the Bible, a book that had a significant impact on my thinking as I posted here, also came out of Fuller. If Evangelicals had looked more to Fuller for intellectual guidance, Mark Noll may not have had any reason to write The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Still, I guess I was pleasantly surprised to see the current president of Fuller publicly state that evolution is not theologically threatening, and may in fact be positive for the Christian faith.

In his post, Mouw recounts how he abandoned YEC ideas at a young age. He begins his post with the following:

I was 15 years old when I stopped believing in a “young earth.” And it happened, of all places, at a fundamentalist Bible camp. I worked there on the kitchen staff, and one of my fellow workers, a college student, was reading Bernard Ramm’s A Christian View of Science and the Scripture, which had only recently been published. When one of the speakers at the camp denounced Ramm’s book as heretical, my friend secretly showed me his copy - in that context it might as well have been an issue of Playboy! I got him to lend me the book and I read it, and the two of us discussed it at length. We were co-conspirators in a private act of theological rebellion.
I think many of us that grew up in the conservative wing of the Evangelical church can identify strongly with this. Unfortunately, very few of us had access to material like Ramm’s book that espoused both credible faith and credible science.

Mouw ends his post by stating that Evolution may actually be inspiring.

“When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.”

I find that to be an inspiring theme to add to our understanding of the Incarnation. That long process, beginning in “the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas,” was not
wasted time. It was preparation for the One who would come with healing in his wings, a healing that will only be complete when the Savior returns and announces, “Behold, I make all things new.” And what he will renew in that act of cosmic transformation is all the stuff that he had carried–in his own DNA!– to the Cross of Calvary.

Inspiring indeed.

2. Evolution Revisited by Larry Taylor

Larry touches on two themes that I’ve been thinking about recently. The first is the claim made by some Evangelicals that the theory of evolution is the result of a conspiracy. I hope to post on this in the near future. The second, is the fact that Christian anti-evolutionism in general, and Young Earth Creationism in particular, is dangerous. Taylor states of his scientist father:

As far as I can determine my father died an agnostic, in part because he was not able to reconcile what he knew to be true from chemistry and biology with what his fundamentalist upbringing insisted was dogma. I inadvertently helped drive a wedge between him and faith by pushing a very narrow gospel, complete with YEC propaganda, on him. My intentions were good – I wanted him to be in heaven – but my zeal was unfortunately not backed with knowledge.
An excellent post.

3. Wrestling with Evolution by Tim Challies

Sometimes it is tough to keep the blood pressure down when faced with the latest YEC rhetoric denouncing all Evolutionary Creationists as compromising heretics. I must admit that at times it sparks in me the most uncharitable and un-Christian of thoughts. As such, it is refreshing to come across someone committed to YEC ideas that is open to understanding other points of view, and more importantly, admitting that one can “treasure the Bible” and “affirm the truths of the historic Christian Faith” even while accepting the evidence for biological evolution. Tim does this in his post where he reviews Francis Collins The Language of God, a book I briefly reviewed here. I don’t agree with Tim’s answers, or even how he asks some of the questions, but I certainly appreciate the tone of his conversation, and his willingness to seriously consider other points of view. Thanks Tim.

4. Creationism or Evolution Rant by Chris Tilling

I’ve always enjoyed good rants, and this is a particularly good one. Actually, calling it a rant may be a disservice. Most rants are little more than empty rhetoric; biting, funny rhetoric but not usually insightful. This post probably has too much good content to be considered a rant.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Is Genesis 1-11 Historical? Many Evolutionary Creationists say Yes

Creationists of all stripes (young earth, old earth, gap theory, progressive, and evolutionary) agree that the first part of Genesis (chapters 1-11) contains profound theological ideas. There is unanimous agreement that they teach essential truths about God, humanity, and the relationship between them. However, there is disagreement on whether these chapters are historical in nature, ie. that the events they report correspond to “real” history. Some evangelicals believe that these chapters are no more historical than Jesus’ parables and that the actual historicity of the events is inessential to the Christian message. Other evangelicals feel very strongly that these chapters are historical, and that denying their historical nature is tantamount to denying the Word of God.

It is often thought that all Evolutionary Creationists (EC) reject the historicity of Genesis and thus faith in God’s Word. This is not really a fair assessment for two reasons: First, many evangelicals believe there are sound biblical reasons why Genesis 1-11 should not be read historically. See for example, Denis Lamoureux’s essay Evolutionary Creationism or the last part of Paul Seely’s critique of Hugh Ross's concordism where he briefly outlines the “divine accommodation” interpretation of scripture. Secondly, many ECs agree that the record of events in Genesis 1-11 corresponds to real historical events. Some would continue to describe these accounts as “literal history” and strongly defend “the inerrancy of all scripture” including the Genesis narratives.

A single post could not do justice to all the diverse interpretative positions of ECs, but I think it is worthwhile pointing to some resources that identify how various ECs reconcile biological evolution and the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis.

Some ECs accept that all of Genesis is historical, including Genesis 1. Glenn Morton, a former YEC apologist for ICR, takes this view. See his articles Why I believe Genesis is Historically Accurate, The Plain Reading of Genesis 1, The Days of Proclamation: A New Way to Interpret Genesis 1, and Why I believe the Bible Teaches Evolution. Morton is a maverick (for example, to have Adam be the father of all humanity, he places him in the very, very ancient past) , but a maverick that is passionate about the truth of scripture. Anyone who is seriously investigating origins from an Evangelical point of view should at least be aware of Morton’s arguments.

A second example is Dick Fischer and his Genesis Proclaimed organization. Fischer contends that a literal interpretation of scripture will lead to the conclusion that the earth is old not young (See: "Young Earth Creationism: A Literal Mistake"). Unlike Morton, he takes great pains to identify Adam in the Neolithic time period of Ancient Near East history (see “In Search of the Historical Adam: Part1 and Part2).

Unlike Morton and Fischer, many ECs view Genesis 1 as figurative. The framework theory of Genesis is one example of how the opening chapter is interpreted. However, (unlike Lamoureux and others) these ECs still insist on interpreting Gen 2-11 historically. They argue that while it is easy to read Genesis 1 as a type of poetry, the following chapters read more "naturally" as history.

On the theological issues surrounding Adam, John McIntyre provides an interesting perspective in The Historical Adam and The Real Adam. He maintains that the historical Adam of scripture and the historical Adam of science can be reconciled, if one but corrects misinterpretations of scripture by various theologians (eg. Augustine, and some of the reformers).

Many other Evangelicals would consider Gen 1-11 to be history as defined by the people of the time, but not necessarily history as we define it in the 21st century. Carol Hill has a very good article describing what she calls “The Worldview Approach” (Unfortunately the article, which appeared in the June 2007 edition of PSCF, is not yet online). She states that:

The basic premise of the worldview approach is that the Bible in its original text accurately records historical events if considered from the worldview of the biblical authors.
And later:
Thus to really understand the Bible (specifically in this discussion, Genesis), one must try and understand the mindset of the people that wrote it.

The theological position of the worldview approach is that God has interacted with humans throughout real history, allowing them to write down his revelation according to their own literary style and from their own cultural and worldview perspective. That is, it considers that the pre-scientific knowledge base of the biblical authors is a prime factor to be considered when literally interpreting the bible.
The point is that there is much diversity in how Evolutionary Creationists interpret the Genesis creation accounts. Certainly the acceptance of the science of biological evolution does not necessitate a non-historical interpretation of Genesis.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Faith and Freedom to ask the Big Questions #3: So much death and extinction. For what Purpose?

This third in a series of Faith/Science questions Cliff Martin presented for discussion. Please read this introduction first. For previous discussions, see the comments in questions #1 and #2.

As a result of the processes of entropy, millions of species of animal and plant life have become extinct upon our planet. What strange purpose of God would create so much life only to see it die out? Why would there be many times more extinct species than surviving species? Does this suggest anything about life, and God’s purposes?

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Creation: It’s not just about Origins

Last week I stated that it is important for us to reclaim the word creation from Young Earth Creationists so that we can proclaim the message of creation to a fallen world. It is not simply that the scientific evidence conflicts with a YEC view of origins; it’s the exclusive focus on origins that is the problem. The ideas of Karl Barth may be helpful here. Although I have not yet read much of Barth, quotes like the following (which I stumbled across at http://theologyandsnack.blogspot.com/search/label/creation) provide added incentive for me to do so:

[M]ost of the laity believe the doctrine of creation deals with the beginning of the world and its details. As such, the creation-doctrine is a matter for preaching, but also one to which “the latest news from the science front” is also relevant. The average theologian, on the contrary, insists on quite a different understanding of the doctrine, one to which scientific discoveries are simply irrelevant, because the doctrine intends to affirm something that science is not competent to assess.…

The doctrine of creation is thoroughly and completely a religious-theological affirmation.… The affirmation of creation is the form in which the community of faith sets forth its understanding of the world. As it does so, its goal is to permit its understanding of the world to be fully congruous with its belief in God.… “Creation” is a word that refers to the whole of the world when viewed as belonging to God, and the doctrine of creation is an elaboration of how we understand the world when we permit our understanding of God to permeate and dominate our thinking.

I can’t agree with Barth’s (as it seems to me) dismissal of science, but I wholeheartedly agree that God’s creation is more than a discovery or affirmation of how God acted in the past. It is also about the present since God continues to sustain and nurture creation. God’s present and ongoing activity, his continuous interaction with the world, his care and sustenance for all his creatures, these are also creation. And that should permeate all our thoughts and actions.

Although God’s original action to bring the universe into being is an important aspect of creation, creation is not exclusively, or even primarily, about origins. Confining God’s “creation work” to a distant time in the past (whether that be assigned to billions of years ago, or to a single 6-day work week several thousand years ago) is little more than deism. As ASA’s “Statement on Creation” affirms:
1. God is the creator of all things.
a. All things were created through the Word. (Jn1:1-3; Col 1:15-20)
b. God is both transcendent over creation and immanent in creation. (1 Kg 8:27)
c. God continually upholds all of creation. (Col 1:17; Heb 1:3)
d. God is continually creating. (Ps 104:29-30)
and later:

3. God actively cares for His creation.
a. God declares all that He has made very good. (Gen 1:31)
b. The earth is the Lord’s possession. (Ps 95:1-5)
c. All creation praises God. (Ps 148)
d. God sustains and provides for His creation. (Job 38-41, Ps 104)
There is very strong scientific evidence to support biological evolution. For a Christian, there are also strong theological reasons to accept the concept of God’s evolving creation. (See for example, George Murphy’s essay: “A Theological Argument For Evolution”). Certainly speaking about God’s evolving creation seems much more biblical than speaking about creation as a single event that occurred in the distant past. For God is actively involved in the present, he is active in a creation that is not yet finished.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Faith and Freedom to ask the Big Questions #2: Why is Death & Decay part of Creation?

This is the second in a series of Faith/Science questions that Cliff Martin presented for discussion. Please read this introduction first. There was some excellent discussion in Question#1: So old, so vast. So Insignificant?

Why did God create the universe in such a way that it is driven by a principle of death and decay? Why would he intentionally subject the cosmos to decay in hope that it would someday be liberated? Now that we know that entropy dates back to the very creation moment, what does all of this suggest about God’s creative purposes? And what significant role does Romans 8 suggest for people of faith?.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Reclaiming and Proclaiming Creation

All Christians believe in creation – including those like myself who accept biological evolution as a mechanism employed by the creator. Thus you could argue that all Christians are creationists. Unfortunately, “creationist” has taken on connotations that make it an embarrassing label. In modern parlance it means not only “belief in a caring creator” as the historic creeds confirm, but also assent to specific methods and timings on how God realized his purposes, methods and timings that are little more than nonsense when viewed in the light of modern scientific evidence. I think I can appreciate the turmoil Egyptian Christians must have endured during the crusades when European “Christians” raped and pillaged their way through the Holy Land. I’m sure that many of these Egyptian Christians tried desperately to convince their Muslim neighbors that the title “Christian” should not be associated with the viscous, un-Christian acts of the crusaders. And I’m sure they had just as much trouble defending Christ because of Christians as we have in defending creation because of creationists.

Reclaiming creation will be difficult. But it is an essential part of the gospel. Even as Christians should never abandon Christ when other Christians bring the name of Christ into disrepute, neither should we be ashamed of creation simply because certain forms of creationism make untenable claims based on flawed interpretations of scripture. As I posted earlier, combating this type of creationism is important because it is dangerous. A more urgent task, however, is communicating God’s positive message of creation to a world that desperately needs to hear it. For there is purpose in creation, there is ultimate meaning.

For many of us, biological evolution is fascinating, but it is not the most important aspect of the origins discussion. Creation is the central truth. Genesis is very clear about who was responsible for bringing forth life on earth – it was God. Out of nothingness, a good creation was brought into being. The pinnacle of this good work was humanity, which was created in the image of God. And humanity was entrusted with the stewardship and care of creation.

Genesis also states that a central problem is human sin. Because of this sin, a gulf developed in humanity’s relationship with God. God could no longer enjoy communion with those he created in his own image, since the image was severely marred. The story of the destructiveness of this sin and the pain caused by this sin is developed throughout the rest of scripture. Genesis also states that the solution for this problem is God’s faithfulness, and this story too is developed throughout scripture. Out of loss and separation, through redemption, a new good creation is brought into being, redemption possible only because God entered into his creation, suffered with and for his creation.

The story of evolution may be interesting, even wondrous. I believe it provides even more reason to be awed by God’s handiwork. However, it is should not take center stage. Because evolution answers the “how” of the origin of life, it is therefore a dependent concept, dependent for purpose on creation which answers the “who”, “what” and “why”; it is peripheral to the questions of ultimate meaning in life. God could have brought life forth in many different ways, but it appears that biological evolution was the mechanism he chose. Through this process we obtain a better appreciation for the power and scope of his creativeness, for his patience, and for his insistence on cooperation rather than coercion. However, an understanding of this process is not essential to what we already know from the scriptures about his love, selfless sacrifice, forgiveness, and final redemptive plan.

Since creation is an essential part of the good news, maybe I shouldn’t be so hesitant to wear the label creationist. Maybe, like Denis Lamoureux, I should call myself an Evolutionary Creationist. It certainly is a more appropriate term than Theistic Evolutionist since it highlights the centrality of creation. But I’m hesitant to wear the creationist label since it would require constant qualification. I’d rather stick with the positive and simply answer “Creation? Yes!”