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Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Incarnation within an Evolutionary Process

The incarnation is an audacious claim. That God would become a man was considered either blasphemous or ludicrous in the 1st century. Not much has changed in that regard although it probably leans more to ludicrous than blasphemous today.

At Christmas time Christians talk a lot about “God coming as a baby” and accepting the vulnerability of an infant. But as Martin Labar points out, Christ did not come as a baby, he came as an embryo. At one point, the Creator of the universe (or the multiverse if it exists) limited himself to a single cell. How can we possibly talk about a single cell even being self-aware let alone omniscient? How does the unlimited author of life limit himself to a single building block of life? Given that Christians still have difficulty articulating this mystery after 2000 years, I’m not even going to make an attempt here.

So if we can accept that God at one point became part of the process of embryo development, one that began with a single cell, why do we have so much difficulty in accepting that God could also become part of the process of evolutionary development, one that traces its ancestry through primates, reptiles, fish, and yes, even single celled organisms. Gordon has a humorous little post that addresses just his point. In Evolution and Incarnation he states:

It should be known, and so it is my duty to tell you, that there are scientists who believe every person alive today can be traced back to a single-celled organism. And that all of us are actually the result of nature acting on this cell over time. And this first cell is believed to have gone through an explosive multi-cellular stage before taking on fish-like characteristics. Some have said that as time passed, the fish-like characteristics gave way to reptile-like characteristics. And after more time had passed, the reptile-like characteristics gave way to mammal-like characteristics. And these same folks also believe that we once had tails, and that we had smaller brains, and that we were naked and lacked the ability to effectively communicate. And to make things worse, this purely naturalistic view of humanity seems to leave no room for God to work wonderful creation miracles, or for Him to personally fashion mankind by His own hands. This so called, “scientific” view - even though science itself can’t fully explain it - simply asserts that we were fashioned by the impersonal laws of nature acting on the biological material of lower species. In short, we are a product of nature.
But Gordon is not referring to evolution; he is referring to the nine-month creation process we all experienced prior to our official birthday. The Psalmist describes this same process from a different perspective:

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

(Psalm 139: 13-16)

Merry Christmas.

End of Year Note:

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers, particularly those that have provided feedback through comments and emails. It has been an enjoyable and stimulating experience, and I appreciate the dialogue.

I will be taking a few weeks break from blogging. A “Subscribe via email” link has been added to the right column on the blog. This will allow you to receive any new posts by email the day they are published. This also means that I can see your email address, (and so does feedburner.com which is now owned by Google) so if this concerns you, don’t subscribe. Personally, I prefer an RSS or newsreader - I now use Google Reader to follow blogs that interest me.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Polkinghorne Quotes #5: Does the Math for Evolutionary Time even Work?

The fact that evolutionary mechanisms can physically account for the complexity of life on earth seems, well frankly, mind boggling if not preposterous. And there doesn’t seem to be any mathematical model that can explain how random mutations and natural selection results in, for starters, us. Here is how Polkinghorne put it:

"Three or four billion years may seem like a pretty long time for the coming to be of life and the formation of its evolved complexity, but incredibly intricate developments have to be fitted into that period. Someone like Richard Dawkins can present persuasive pictures of how the sifting and accumulation of small differences can produce large-scale developments, but, instinctively, a physical scientist would like to see an estimate, however rough, of how many small steps take us from a slightly light-sensitive cell to a fully formed insect eye, and of approximately the number of generations required for the necessary mutations to occur. One is only looking for an order of magnitude answer, comparable in crudity to the back-of-the-envelope calculations of early cosmologists, but our biological friends tell us, without any apparent anxiety, that it just can't be done. So much of evolutionary argument seems to be that 'it's happened and so it must have happened this way".

From Science and Christian Belief, page 16

So, is Polkinghorne just another mathematician type that doubts evolution? Should he just go take a biology class? Not so fast. Check out how Polkinghorne states the same idea with one important clarification.

"One of the serious questions that many physical scientists wish to ask about a purely Darwinian account of the evolution of life is whether there has been adequate time available to accommodate the amazing variety and complexity of change involved. Three to four billion years may seem a long period, but astonishing things have to have happened, not least in the rapid development of the hominid brain in the space of only a few million years. Is the patient accumulation and sifting of small genetic differences sufficient to accomplish this? Those who ask the question are not querying the idea that natural selection has a role to play, but they simply ask whether it is by itself totally adequate as an explanation. The questioners are not looking for a gap into which to insert the finger of divine intervention, but they may just be seeking a more comprehensive and persuasive scientific account. People like Paul Davies (The Cosmic Blueprint) are very impressed with the remarkable drive to complexity present in cosmic history. Dennett occasionally refers to this time-scale problem, but it seems that neither he nor any other evolutionary reductionist is able to offer a convincing answer to it."

From Polkinghorne's 1995 review of Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea"

So come on biologists, show us the equations!! You do get marks for the right answer, but unfortunately, to pass this exam you need to write your solution out in full.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Gene Duplication and the GENE project’s … Duplicity?

As funny as this cartoon is, it is also somewhat depressing, at least depressing for those of us that wish to defend the integrity of scripture (including Genesis) and the integrity of creation (one that is evidently evolving). It highlights once again that those who claim to defend the cause of Christ often show precious little evidence of the integrity Christ displayed. No point in surveying all the evidence; just find some evidence, any evidence, that will back up foregone conclusions. (Or better yet, just ignore the evidence and shout louder!).

Two Anti-Evolutionist Claims

Two claims often made by anti-evolutionists are as follows:
1. Biological evolution should not be referred to as science since it cannot be experimentally demonstrated.
2. Evolutionary mechanisms can only degrade the functionality of organisms and “result in a permanent loss of information”. (eg. See this article at AIG)

Stephen Matheson in his post on Gene Duplication shows that both of these claims are false. Reviewing a recent article in Nature, he recounts how gene duplication can result in new functionality. Commenting on the fact that this is demonstrated by real experimentation he states:

First, take note that this article is another example of a sophisticated, hypothesis-driven experimental analysis of a central evolutionary concept. Research like this is reported almost daily.
Not a very Christian Response

What is more pertinent however, is the way some Christian organizations respond to these issues. Matheson continues:
[You would] never learn this by reading the work of Reasons To Believe or the fellows of the Discovery Institute. The mis-characterization of evolutionary biology by the creationists of those organizations is a scandal, and as you might already know, my blog's main purpose is to give evangelical Christians an opportunity to explore the science that is being so carefully avoided by those critics.
As Christians we claim “Our God is Lord of all truth”. Why then are we avoiding data that doesn’t match our expectations? Are we afraid of the data or its implications? Why must Christian apologetic ministries be operated like corporate marketing departments, emphasizing data that coheres with the product they are selling, avoiding the data that demonstrates flaws in their product, and spreading FUD about competitors?

In regards to claim #2 above, Matheson remarks:

You don't need to understand sign epistasis or the structure of transcription factors to get this take-home message: evolutionary biologists are hard at work solving the problems that some prominent Christian apologists can't or won't even acknowledge. How does gene duplication lead to the formation of genes with new functions? The folks at the Discovery Institute can't even admit that it happens. Over at Reasons To Believe, they don't mention gene duplication at all, despite their fascination with "junk DNA." That's from a ministry that claims to have developed a "testable model" to explain scores of questions regarding origins.
And then the punchline (was Matheson reading the cartoon?):

This makes me mad. No matter what you think of the age of the earth or the need for creation miracles, you should be upset by Christians who mangle science to serve apologetic ends. (emphasis mine).
With friends like these, why should we even worry about what Dawkins et al are saying? How are we going to get to the point of “preaching Christ crucified” when the truth itself has been bludgeoned, bloodied, and crucified? Do we actually think the Good News of the resurrection will be considered credible when the credibility of the messenger is demonstratively unreliable?

New Creationist Research

If evolutionary biologists continue to make fruitful progress with their research, how does the research of anti-evolutionist organizations compare? The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) will soon be launching its GENE project on genomics. (This is the same organization that completed the RATE project on radiometric dating which I reviewed here). As an introduction to their new venture ICR states:

[Recently some] scientists gathered at ICR; those strategizing for the upcoming research initiative in genomics. Worldwide discoveries have produced a wealth of raw genomic data just crying for a creationist interpretation. The human genome was decoded a couple of years ago, and now the chimp genome is available along with others. Already dozens of creationist genomists have joined up.
Even though the research will take many years to complete, there is no mystery as to ICR's conclusion. Here is how ICR describes their plan:

The plan is to focus on analyzing the human genome, demonstrating the certainty that man and the animals have no common ancestor.
Even though the research has not started, ICR has already stated the conclusion of their research. I guess they can now begin the process of finding the right facts.


I completed the draft for this post last night, but didn’t have time to publish it. Today I noticed Matheson had posted another blog entry entitled On Folk Science and Lies. I recommend reading this post in conjunction with my own.

A pertinent question is this: If someone passionately preaches falsehoods, but they just as passionately believe they are preaching the truth, are they lying? Personally, I would answer no to this question. Since I suspect almost all anti-evolutionary creationists honestly believe they are right, I don’t think they should be accused of lying. (Thus I also strongly object to anti-evolutionary Creationists being called “Liars for Jesus”, something I have seen with some frequency). However, the anti-evolutionary Creationist “ends justifies the means” methodology is definitely a problem. Should it be called deception, duplicity, or something else? Whatever the name, it is this lack of integrity, combined with erroneous conclusions, and a dogmatic insistence that these conclusions are necessary for the gospel, that are proving lethal to the advancement of the gospel.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation: Part 2: Five common Faithstoppers

Evangelicals generally reject biological evolution because the theological implications are perceived to be incompatible with the Christian faith. And it is not simply one or two tough theological nuts to crack – at times the list of irreconcilable differences seems endless. So it is understandable when Evangelicals struggle to reconcile the scientific evidence with their theology. In this post, I will briefly survey five of the most common theological challenges to evolution. Anti-evolutionists repeat all five of these challenges frequently; all five are considered “Faithstoppers” ie. Christians can (and have) used these to categorically state that “Choose this day whom you will serve” applies to the evolution / Christian faith dialogue. However, I believe that none of these five challenges demonstrate an incompatibility between evolution and Christian theology.

1) The theory of biological evolution contradicts the Genesis creation accounts. Therefore anyone who takes seriously the integrity of scripture must reject evolution.

Although this challenge is the one most frequently raised, it is also the one that is most easily reconciled. The theory of biological evolution does contradict one specific (fallible human) interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts (ie. that the days of Genesis are 7 literal 24 hour days). But this interpretation is becoming increasingly discredited. For a background on why I believe biological evolution can be completely compatible with the Genesis creation accounts, see my posts Literal or Liberal: Our only Choices for Interpreting the Bible, and Genesis 1-11: Background, Context, and Theology, as well as Gordon Glover’s post Interpreting the Genesis creation accounts in the light of ANE history.

2) The theory of evolution implies that a) there was no historical Adam and Eve, b) there is no single pair of recent ancestors from which all humanity is exclusively descended, c) therefore there was no historic instantaneous Fall or specific moment in time that corresponds to the origin of sin, d) therefore sin does not exist, and e) therefore Christ’s death is meaningless. This is incompatible with the Christian faith.

First, statement a) is clearly false and many (perhaps most) evolutionary creationists believe in a historical Adam and Eve. (See Is Genesis 1-11 Historical? Many Evolutionary Creationists say Yes.) I agree that statements b) and c) are very difficult to reconcile with traditional Christian theology. Statement c) is in fact the most difficult implication of biological evolution for me personally. However, I do not agree with the logical connection between statement c) and statements d) or e). The existence of sin has been called the “most empirically supported doctrine”. That you and I are sinners is without question. That Christ died to redeem us, and through his resurrection conquered death, is the foundation of our faith.

But Christ died because I sinned. His death was retroactively necessary because almost two millennia later I would turn away from God. This is true whether or not there ever was a historical Adam, or for that matter a historic fall. The good news is that “God will forgive you”, not that “God forgave Adam and Eve for eating the apple”. I am not making light of the problem of identifying a historic instantaneous Fall, nor of the New Testament references to Adam’s sin. I personally find this very challenging and will discuss this in future posts. I am merely saying that the good news of redemption does not necessarily hinge on positively identifying a historical instantaneous fall. That our entire faith rests on the notion of a historic instantaneous Fall is, for me anyways, categorically false.

3) The theory of evolution implies that a human is no more special than a chimp, a lizard, an ant, or bacteria. Therefore it is incompatible with humanity being created in the image of God.

I disagree with this implication. How we were created is irrelevant to the final product. That evolution implies a close connection to our animal forebears does not minimize our role in God’s eyes. We are his representatives on earth because he declared it to be the case, not because of who we are. Biological evolution does not challenge Christian views of human identity, our relationship to God, or our mandate within God’s creation. Evolution may have implications on how and when God bestowed his image on humanity so, for example, "How did humanity’s special relationship with God come about?", "How was this relationship damaged?", and "How do the spiritual & physical aspects of humanity interact, particularly in the light of modern neuroscience?" are all excellent (and difficult) questions. But our perplexity with respect to the historical narrative of the “ensoulment” of humanity should not in anyway minimize how we view ourselves in the eyes of God.

For more background on this topic, see my post: Created in God’s Image or Evolved from Apes?

4) Evolution is a process that includes an unfathomable amount of pain, death, and extinction. It is incompatible with a Loving Creator.

Theodicy is a very difficult problem for Christians. How can an all powerful, all loving God allow so much evil to exist? Why did he even allow the possibility of evil in his creation? Couldn’t an omniscient designer have done a better job? These are excellent questions but ones that, I believe, are unrelated to the process of evolution. Whether one explains the fossil record by many progressive creative acts, or the gradual creative process of evolution, the fact remains that much pain and death have occurred. Theodicy is a challenge for Christianity and theism in general, not just for evolutionary creationists.

(Note: I can very much understand the allure of YEC for Christians that struggle with the issue of theodicy. It seems to provide such a simple answer. Leaving aside the scientific evidence against YEC, and the poor scriptural interpretations used to support it, I think a closer examination of YEC’s version of theodicy provides no better solution. That too is a post for another day.)

5) Accepting the scientific evidence for evolution leads to moral relativism. It is thus a belief that is incompatible with a Christian worldview based on scriptural principles.

It is absolutely unnecessary to connect evolutionary explanations for the development of life on earth with human moral choices. Biological evolution through the process of natural selection is an explanation of how things have changed over time but provides no guidance on how humanity should act in the future. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. We can certainly gain an understanding of how God created through scientific discovery. However, for guidance on how we should relate to both our neighbour and to our God, we look to God’s revelation in the written Word and in the Word made flesh.

For more details on this, see Does Evolution lead to Moral relativism?


In summary, none of these 5 implications of biological evolution significantly add to the challenge of defending Evangelical theology. Each does seem somewhat problematic at first glance, but on closer examination provides no real reason to reject evolution.

Other Challenges

Ok, In some ways I cheated. This post dealt not with “The 5 most common challenges” but with “The 5 most common challenges that are easily addressed”. There are other implications of evolution that are not so easily addressed. These include the following:

1. Divine Action: Describing how God acts in the world in the light of an evolutionary process that provides a full physical explanation for the development of life on earth.
2. The relationship between Sin and Death.
3. The incompatibility of evolution with the New Testament references to a historical Adam, and specifically his actions related to the Fall.
4. The origin of the “Image of God” or the “ensoulment” of humanity, particularly in the light of modern neuroscience.
5. The origin of Sin

These "5 common challenges not easily addressed" are listed in ascending order of difficulty for me personally. Number 1 is simply a difficulty in articulation; with #5 I have trouble even imagining a solution.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Polkinghorne Quotes #4: The Christian God: Not Limited to nor Restricted by Edges

Theology is concerned with ontological origin and not with temporal beginning. The idea of creation has no special stake in a datable start to the universe. If Hawking is right, and quantum effects mean that the cosmos as we know it is like a kind of fuzzy space-time egg, without a singular point at which it all began, that is scientifically very interesting, but theologically insignificant. When he poses the question, “But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary, or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”, it would be theologically naïve to give any answer other than: “Every place – as sustainer of the self-contained space-time egg and as the ordainer of its quantum laws”. God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in boundaries.

Creation is not something he did fifteen billion years ago, but it is something that he is doing now.

From Science and Christian Belief, page 73

Many Christians, I think, put too much stock in the implications of scientific discoveries. Thus for example, since biological evolution seems to threaten traditional ideas of a historical instantaneous Fall, many Christians dismiss biological evolution out of hand. Rarely is it asked: “Does evolution really change our ideas of a historical instantaneous Fall?” (some evolutionary creationists say no), or “Is a re-examination of a historical instantaneous Fall helpful for our theology” (possibly yes), or even “Do I really need to definitively resolve this particular tension right now?” (maybe the best question of all).

As Christians I think we can make a similar mistake with scientific discoveries that seem to cohere nicely with orthodox Christian theology. The Big Bang, a theory proposed by a Catholic priest, is the classic example. Christians have stated that it is “proof that God created the universe”. Now, I have absolutely no reason to doubt the Big Bang theory (Simon Singh’s book on the topic is one of my favourite works of popular science). As well, I must confess to some satisfaction in knowing that the theory continues to incite strong opposition from some atheistic materialists, and that it meshes neatly with the Christian concepts of creation ex nihilo and a non-eternal universe. However, my Christian faith does not rest on the theory of the Big Bang and I disagree with the statement that the theory “proves that Christianity is true". If the scientific consensus of the ultimate fate of the universe suddenly changed from "a universe accelerating towards The Big Freeze" to "a universe entering a cycle of Big Crunches & Big Bangs (of which our instantiation may not be the first)", I do not see how that is relevant to my faith.

God is neither restricted by nor limited to the edges. We should neither search for him there, nor fear that they constrain him.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation: Introduction

For the most part, Evangelical Christians are not anti-science Luddites attacking science and technology at every opportunity. Like everyone else we enjoy the benefits of the rapid changes in technology driven by modern science. However, when scientific theories seem to clash with our theology, we seem suspicious at best, and hostile at worst. Caution is actually a healthy approach towards any nascent scientific claim, but hostility is rarely helpful, particularly when a theory, like biological evolution, has demonstrated that it is well supported by the evidence over a long period of time.

The Relationship between Christian Theology and Science

So how should we approach science when it appears to challenge our theology? How should we view the relationship between science and theology? We do have some well-promoted options. There is Ken Ham’s approach (theology dictates science), Stephen Jay Gould’s approach (science and theology should be divorced), the “science is most true” approach (theology capitulates to science), and Richard Dawkin's approach (eliminate theology). None of these are appropriate for Evangelicals however. Scientific truth (a true description of creation) and theological truth (a true description of the Creator and his relationship to creation) cannot be in conflict.

I don’t have a completely satisfactory answer for myself as of yet but I’ll make some brief points on my own view of the relationship between theology and science.

  1. The science/faith conflict is often a result of our own imperfect understanding. Creation truth and truth about the Creator are unified, but our distorted view of either or both leads to perceived conflicts. (See Loren Haarsma's presentation Christianity as a Foundation for Science, particularly the diagram in slide 12).
  2. Theology, even good theology, cannot remain stagnant. One of the most dangerous theological approaches from my point of view (heresy alert for those looking for one) is the drive to define and document a “complete systematic theology”. I do not believe that our finite understanding of the infinite can ever be complete. Our canon may be closed, but that does not prevent God from revealing additional truth through a changeless text. Scripture may be timely (speaking to its original hearers) but it is also living and timeless.
  3. Good science can work as a goad to good theology. (See the abstract for the essay Science as Goad and Guide for Theology by George Murphy in the theology journal Dialog). In other words, scientific discoveries can sometimes, depending on the circumstances, be used as an opportunity to expand on our existing theology, or even rectify poor theology.
  4. Good theology can provide a context for doing good science. It can work as a motivation for doing science in the first place (discovering more about God’s creation) and it can shed light on the limits of science (eg. science should not and can not answer ethical questions).
  5. Many scientists, however, seem completely oblivious to the limits of science, or how their own presuppositions can blind them. Thus “scientific” conclusions are often stated as fact even when the scientific data does not necessarily support the conclusion.

Scientific Challenges to Theological Assumptions: Expected but not to be Feared

We should not be surprised when science challenges some of our theological assumptions. In fact, maybe we should expect it. As we discover more about God’s creation, and particularly the part of creation that is created in God’s image, our understanding of how God relates to that creation will undoubtedly change as well. But we should never fear these challenges. There is no guarantee that we will be able to reconcile all these challenges (at least in this life), “for we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. But one day we “will see God face to face” at which time all our current theological wrestling and confusion will seem not only trivial, but irrelevant. This promised resolution can give us confidence to deal with our current challenges. And one of the biggest challenges of course, is reconciling biological evolution with our theology.

The theological implications of an Evolving Creation

In a series of several short posts I would like to discuss some of the theological implications of an evolving creation. The title of this series is taken from Keith Miller’s essay of the same name that can be found here on the ASA website. Miller states that:

In the debate over the proper understanding of the Genesis account, most attention has seemed to focus on the scientific merits of various creation scenarios. What has largely been lacking in these debates is a consideration of the theological implications of these various interpretations for our understanding of the character of God, the relationship of God to His creation, and the relationship of us to the rest of creation. After all, it is to these basic issues that the Genesis account is primarily, if not exclusively, addressed.

I like Miller’s approach for two reasons. First, the emphasis is on creation, a creation that is evolving. The science of evolution can certainly be studied on its own without reference to God or his creation, but to really understand it, to understand the entire truth, we must put it in the context of the theology of creation. A discussion on an evolving creation does just that. Second, Miller views the implications of an evolving creation as opportunities, opportunities to better appreciate who God is and how he acts, how God relates to us his children, how God relates to the rest of creation, and how God wants us to act given that we are his image bearers in creation. This, I believe, is a healthy approach and one I’d like to emulate in future posts.

Surveying the Difficult Challenges First

That being said, I do realize that for many Evangelicals the implications of an evolving creation are disconcerting. I myself find some of the implications troublesome. So rather than jump right into the theological opportunities, my next post on this topic will be a brief survey of the implications Evangelicals find most troublesome.

Maybe what I should do first is solicit feedback on what others believe are the most troublesome implications. So I invite you to leave a comment or send an email stating the top-3 implications of biological evolution that you find most difficult to reconcile with Christian theology. Actually, the invitation is open to non-Evangelicals and non-Christians as well since I realize that, for many of you, the perceived difficulties between evolution and Christian theology are actually barriers to to taking the Christian faith seriously.