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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.


NickM said...

Wow, great post. In terms of the "hard challenges", I don't think #5 is so hard -- it is tied to #4. Basically as the human lineage developed memory and consciousness, only then did things like free will and therefore making the wrong/immoral choices (sin) become possible. So sin is basically an automatic effect of free will/consciousness (which can be the image of God IMHO) in fallible beings.

The real tough nut for evangelicals is #3. IMHO all the available evidence, interpreted objectively and not wishfully, is against any traditional notion of a historical Adam & Eve, and yet Jesus seems to treat them as historical (The molecular "Adam" and "Eve" have nothing to do with this, they are just an automatic result of genetic drift).

The rational thing to do would just be to say that the Adam & Eve story is allegory -- heck, "Adam" just means "man" anyway. But evangelicals more or less defined themselves in opposition to this kind of "modernist" theology interpretation back in the early 1900s and so now they are stuck with it apparently.

But thanks for the careful analysis, you should think seriously about publishing this somewhere, I have not seen any publication that goes into these issues in this sort of depth and they really are fundamental to evangelical problems with evolution -- but many on both sides don't have a detailed understanding of this and are going mostly on emotion and vague ideas about the other side's position, so that most of the arguments (e.g. flagella and almost everything else "scientific") are about peripheral issues rather than the real things behind the dispute.

Cheers, Nick

Anonymous said...

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.

This is an issue in the sense that many would argue that God is an unnecessary addition to what is otherwise a full and complete explanation. If everything can be explained through evolutionary processes then why add God to the mix?

This is a problem for the entire doctrine of God's providence. While scripture says that it is God who sends the rain, we of the 21st century can talk about wind patterns, high pressure systems, etc. (Well, maybe with the weather we'd lean toward something like voodoo). My point is that we are faced with this issue any time God uses secondary causes to accomplish his purposes.

2. The relationship between Sin and Death.

I don't see this as much of an issue. However it happened, the first man died because he had no access to the Tree of Life (be it literal or figurative). When the first man lost access to the tree, death followed.

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.

When I was in seminary I sat in on theology course which dealt only with image of God. One thing I took from that class is that there are significant problems equating image of God with any of humanity's capacities such as intelligence, moral capacity, etc.. One problem is that equating these kinds of things with image of God would mean that we become less in God's image when we lose these.

I left the class believing that human beings, in their totality of mind, will, emotions, and physical body are image of God. This definitely includes the spiritual dimension to what it means to be human.

With this sort of understanding of image of God, neuroscience doesn't really mater one way or the other.

5. The origin of Sin

Again, at some point God created man with the ability to relate to him and, in relating, to submit to God as God. Man chose to become god rather than to submit to the one true God.

Ralph Supernaw

Gordon J. Glover said...

Hey Steve, I'm sure you've already seen it, but I posted something about a month ago discussing the image of God "problem" of evolution. Your readers might be interested.


In this post, I take a look at a few simple observations that all Christians can agree upon:
1.) We all bear the image of God.
2.) Our physical bodies are assembled via a natural process, from a single zygote to a fully formed image-bearer using material that once belong to "lower" creatures.
3.) But in some mysterious way this new arrangement of recycled organic material contains a soul and is special in God's sight.

Now just extend this logic from the production of a single human (gestation) to the production of an single human species (evolution) and suddenly #3 doesn't seem like such a problem anymore.


Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure it has to be so hard to have a historical fall unless one accepts the evolutionary narrative as exclusive. At the right time, God could have chosen / created / selected a pair, or a group represented by the Biblical Adam. That pair / group could have had the opportunity to live in obedient fellowship with God, with the result of conveying blessing to all of humanity. The blessing could have included conditional immortality -- not a radically different body that would never age or die, but the possibility of living in perfect fellowship with God without interruption by death.

Conditional immortality could have reflected such close fellowship with God that, like Enoch, people would have "walked with God" rather than experiencing death as we now know it, and such that those still "living" would have been able to continue to fellowship with those who had walked with God. And / or, conditional immortality could have reflected the sorts of technological achievements humanity could have accomplished if acting as stewards of science and technology in perfect fellowship with God.

But the disobedience of our first representatives broke the possibility that humanity could experience such unbroken fellowship.

So for me, the problem isn't so much having a fall at all, it's more the transmission of the effects of the fall, or of the blessings of theoretically not falling, that creates difficulties.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Nick
As to publishing these ideas somewhere – I am! Right here on this blog. And that’s almost certainly the only place they will be published - for a whole lot of reasons. But it is nice to get a few compliments – so thanks.

On the origin of sin being connected to the acquiring of the image, check out John McIntyre’s article “The Real Adam and Original Sin” in the June 2006 PSCF (index at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2006/PSCF6-06dyn.html). Also check out some of the replies. I am uncomfortable tying original sin & the image of God together in a cause / effect relationship. (See particularly Yoder’s reply at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2006/PSCF6-06YoderP.pdf - note the link to this doc is broken in the index).

Ralph: Thanks for the thoughtful response.

Re: divine action being tied to doctrine of providence. Absolutely. I highly recommend (to no one’s surprise I’m sure) Polkinghorne’s “Science and Providence” on this topic.

Re: comments on the image of God. Yes. We need to be very, very careful in equating specific human characteristics to the image. I’m actually not sure that “the soul” is equivalent to “the image”. Even some Evangelicals are starting to question the concept dualism and of the existence of the soul. For example, Nancey Murphy (from Fuller) talks about non-reductive physicalism. See particularly her book “Bodies and Souls, Or Spirited Bodies”.

So Gordon. Some would disagree with your statement that “recycled organic material contains a soul”. Again my own thoughts on this are a work in progress.

David: re: not so hard to accept the historical fall unless one accepts the evolutionary narrative

This is a good point. This is Dembski’s approach in his paper “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science”. I have mentioned this before, but I really think this Dembski paper is quite interesting. Have you read it? If so, what do you think? I’m really surprised this paper hasn’t been mentioned more often. I’ve seen very little comment on it.

Re: the transmission of sin

Yes this is difficult. I know McIntyre’s article above tries to address this but his solution doesn’t work for me.

Gordon J. Glover said...


"recycled organic material" is just a euphamism for our physical bodies. And I think most theists believe that human beings have a soul.

I wasn't trying to imply that the material itself was somehow spiritual, but is only a vessel for the image of God. I think you would agree with this, even though it might be difficult to nail down exactly how this works.


Anonymous said...

Steve said: This is Dembski’s approach in his paper “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science”. I have mentioned this before, but I really think this Dembski paper is quite interesting. Have you read it? If so, what do you think?

Yes, I read it a while back, and really liked it. It was discussed on the ASA list -- most people trashed it, I think mostly because it had Dembski's name on it.

But I have long thought, well before I even knew the differences among "YEC,"OEC", "TE", and "ID," that some of the answers to these mysteries must lie in the very limited, linear understanding of "time" that we humans possess.

Here's an even wilder idea: the "garden" wasn't so much a place as a dimension outside of time. The seraph with the "flaming sword" is a metaphor for our present inability to access that dimension. The presence of the "tree of life" in the "New Jerusalem" in Revelation indicates renewed access to that dimension in the eschaton. Silly science fiction today, but who knows how it will sound a few hundred years from now.

Anonymous said...

A few more thoughts:

Sorry I'm coming to this late in the game. I'm not sure that the issue is so simple theologically.

North American evangelicalism and Westminster-reformed tradition I think historically have distinguished themselves from liberal theology in three key ways: (1) scripture; (2) atonement; and (3) justification.

Scripture of course is the inerrancy question. Atonement relates to an emphasis on substitutionary atonement. Justification relates to an emphasis on personal justification by grace alone through faith alone and implies individual conversion.

Inerrancy is a big deal and it is difficult for many evangelicals, including me, to swallow the idea that Paul got "Adam" wrong as an example of accommodation.

The issues of atonement and justification, though, I think are equally big deals, if not more so in some ways. To illustrate the stakes and scope of this, consider the current debate within evangelical and reformed circles about the "new perspective on Paul." The "new perspective's" take on Paul, works righteousness, and the Jewish law, and the nature of the gospel brought out some of the evangelical attack dogs, particularly in the reformed wing of evangelicalism. The battle still rages.

In short, compromising at all on substitutionary atonement and justification is grounds for excommunication from evangelicalism, at least among evangelicalism's old guard, and for some good reasons. And both substitutionary atonement and personal justification by grace alone through faith alone are tied directly to an Augustinian understanding of original sin, at least as I understand evangelical and reformed theology.

From what I have seen, most serious efforts at reconciling human evolution and original sin seem to move away from an Augustinian understanding of original righteousness and original sin and towards a view that has humanity moving towards some kind of telos.

If humans were not created in a state of original righteousness from which they "fell," but rather collectively moved onto the "wrong road," and if we are not compelled (or in Paul's words, "enslaved") to sin, what prevents us from adjusting ("justifying") ourselves to get back onto the "right" road? And if sin is not a radical break from God's perfect holiness, but is more like a wrong step in a continuum of development, what need is there for a brutal substitutionary atonement? Does taking this middle way suggest a move away from the traditional reformed understandings of atonement and justification and towards the eastern notion of theosis?

It seems to me that theosis is exactly where fully accepting human evolution seems to go -- this is some of what I sense in my (limited) reading of TE's such as Ted Peters, for example. For those of us with deep evangelical / reformed roots will balk because this seems like a path away from our core distinctives and towards the sort of fuzzy liberalism that (in our perception at least) damaged the mainline churches. And the very difficult thing about these particular questions is that they implicate questions of eternal destiny.

I wish some good reasonably conservative reformed and evangelical theologians and Biblical scholars would start to take this on, but I don't see that happening -- do you know of any? It seems that most of the theological speculation comes from scientists, which can be as bad as theologians doing science.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Hello dbecke, I totally empathasize with everything you say. I am a member of a PCA Church and my kids go to a Classical Christian School. My oldest daughter is named after Robert Lewis Dabney. But ironically, I can't hold a leadership position at my own church nor could I teach science or math at my kid's school - even though I am more than qualified.

Unfortunately I'm caught between two realities: one that looks to science simply as a tool to confirm the great theological truths of the Bible, and one that holds scientific conclusions as tentative explanations of the data irrespective of their impact on theology. But if all truth belongs to God, and anything "natural" is merely the unfolding of divine providence, then I say let the scientific chips fall where they may.

Peter Enns and Paul Seely, both of Westminster Philly, are tackling these issues. Dr. John Walton of Wheaton is another good one. The faculty of the science department at Calvin college are very sensitive to this. See Davis Young, Loren Haarsma or Howard Van Till.

You might find their work helpful. I think the answer to this "problem" will involve a significant paradigm shift (see my comment on Part I of this post regarding the Church's transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmology).

Consider something you said, "Inerrancy is a big deal and it is difficult for many evangelicals, including me, to swallow the idea that Paul got "Adam" wrong as an example of accommodation."

But think about how loaded with presuppositions this statement is. When you say, "...Paul got Adam wrong..." you are actually imposing extrabiblical hermaneutical requirements onto the scriptures. This statement has a built-in assumption that inerrancy has to do with the material details - a farily modern view of the world. But to assume that the theological truth concerning Adam and the sinful state of man hinges on the literal and historical truth of one physical person named Adam, a talking snake and a piece of fruit, is to approach the ancient Scriptures with our western post-enlightement baggage. But in the ancient world, inerrancy in the material details of a narrative had little bearing on the truth of the ideas conveyed by the narrative.

We don't doubt Jesus' teaching on the kingdom of heaven because he "got the smallest seed wrong" (its not the mustard seed), or we don't doubt Paul's soteriology because he "got the organ of thinking wrong" (its not the heart), we don't doubt the fact that God is the creator and sustainer of the cosmos just becasue Moses "got the firmament wrong" (its not a solid dome holding back an ocean above the heavenly bodies), and neither should the doctrines taught to us through the Garden of Eden be contingent on the literal accuracy of the material details. They are doctrines becasue God chose to reveal them to us by the common way that these sort of ultimate truths were revealed in the ancient world (using the medium of mythology).

I hope those reference are helpful to you. They helped me tremendously, specifically Enns and Walton.


Steve Martin said...

Hi David: Thanks for the feedback on Dembski’s paper. Yes I remember seeing some of the bashing but I didn’t think I saw any thoughtful critique (or very little details if there was one). But I haven’t seen any support for the paper either in the ID community, which I find kind-of strange since I think ID makes the theodicy issue much, much more difficult so I'd think they would be promoting this one quite a bit. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places for a good response.

Hey, I have no problems with wild ideas. Love science fiction. But I don’t think that another dimension outside of the one’s we have access to is even that wild. (Certainly no wilder than the stuff of string theory).

Re: inerrancy and accommodation. For me personally, I’d need to qualify inerrancy so much that I’m not sure it’s that useful. (Check out my literal or liberal post at http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/06/literal-or-liberal-our-only-choices-for.html. It will give you an idea where I’m coming from). But, yes, I too have much more of an issue with the NT references to Adam since it seems to be integral to the theology. (I would argue, that accommodation in Gen 1-11 is actually not that much of a switch in perspective since it doesn’t change the theology).

Re: atonement. Excellent points. Can’t say I’ve read much on the “New perspective on Paul”. I have started thinking about the whole atonement discussion though – I know there was quite a big conflict in the Evangelical community in the UK over Penal Substitution.

Gordon: Just to clarify, the dbecke comment is actually David Opderbeck (he kind of tricked me too :-) ) . I think this comment was captured from another discussion he was having offline somewhere else. And his last paragraph is in reference to a point that came up on the ASA listserv. See my comment post at http://www.calvin.edu/archive/asa/200712/0336.html and David’s post (in reply to someone else) at http://www.calvin.edu/archive/asa/200712/0340.html . In regards to the names you listed, the Calvin staff are all scientists, and Enns & Walton are biblical scholars. None are really Theologians. (I’m not sure about Seely however. What exactly does he do?). Anyways, the point I’m making (and I think David agrees) is that Evangelical scientists have started tackling the evolution issue (and I guess I should add so have Evangelical biblical scholars – Wenham as well). But I don’t think Evangelical theologians have really tackled evolution. Maybe that’s a topic for another post.

Anonymous said...

Gordon -- a "significant paradigm shift?" What do you mean by that? Frankly, I don't think a "significant paradigm shift" concerning sin and the atonement is warranted or appropriate. That could really get into the territory of something other than historic Christianity.

No, I think what is required is an ongoing dialogue in which the theologians make some incremental adjustments and the scientists start to display some epistemic humility. Theology is not the handmaiden of science. Theories in theology and theories in science are dialogue partners, which implies a real give and take.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Ok - who are you and what have you done with David Opderbeck?

Old Paradigm: we look to natural history to confirm our theology (our view of sin and attonement).

New Paradigm: we learn to live with the tension caused by apparent contradiction between the scientific way of knowing and our theology.

And why shouldn't this include how we look at sin and atonement? How can there be honest dialogue if certain thing are not even allowed on the table? Although it's easy for us to claim that the stakes are higher this time around, the gradual acceptance of the heliocentric cosmology included a paradigm shift analogous to what I imagine will get us through the evolution controversy.

At first, there was absolutely no way that one could elevate the earth (the realm of sin and death) up into the heavens (home to God and His angels) without perverting the entire created order. This was thought to "upset the entire plan of salvation" and be contrary to everything we know about God, man, heaven, hell - even the incarnation (why would Christ visit anywhere but the center of the universe?).

But as the evidence mounted against geocentricism, Christians changed the way they began to look at cosmology. Perhaps the physical structure of the universe did not exist solely to reinforce traditional views of heaven and hell. Perhaps our special relation to our creator was in any way dependant on our physical place in the vast cosmos? Perhaps the realm of heaven and hell do not even exist in the spacetime that we study while exploring the world around us? In other words, perhaps scientific truth does not exist to reinforce theological truth? That's the kind of paradigm shift I'm talking about.

It seems like a no brainer to us today. But back then these were serious issues that threatened to tear the Church apart. My point is that we made it through heliocentricsm with our orthodxy in tact, and we'll make it through evolution with our orthodoxy in tact as well.


Steve Martin said...

David, Gordon:

This is getting at a very crucial point for me. That is, what is the relationship between theology and science? As I mentioned in the first post in this series, I’m looking forward to George Murphy’s article that talks about theology being a goad to science. This seems to be a great description – I’m waiting until I have time to review the article to respond further. However, I’m not sure exactly how to describe the relationship the other way – in my post I used “provide a context for” but I think we need something better. (I didn’t really get the response I was looking for when I posed this question to George on the list).

In some ways my own view is positively medieval: Calling theology the “queen of sciences” captures my own view – IF we use a somewhat elastic definition for science. So, in many ways I agree with David that theology & science (modern view) need to be dialogue partners. On the other hand, they are not necessary equivalent dialogue partners. (Kind of like Einstein & a high school student aren’t equivalent dialogue partners … and yes, the student might correct Einstein on a technical detail some of the time - hmm, not sure that’s the right analogy either … I need to think of this some more).

Where I would agree with Gordon is that we can’t have areas of our theology that are “out of bounds” for re-examination / re-articulation (excepting maybe the incarnation/resurrection … that IS the ground on which Christianity stands or falls .. a different, longer discussion .. although I would argue that science might even be able to provide further insights / ways of thinking about these events as well). I’m not saying its open season for wholesale changes but theology cannot remain static. Theology is our (fallible, limited, human) view of God. God may not change, but our view of him will change as (corporately) the human race understands more about God’s creation & how it might be related to God. So I would include “original sin” in this discussion (or at least Augustine’s view on it). However, even ignoring Augustine’s commentary on it, the theme of sin & man’s need for redemption permeates the entire bible. So there is a pretty restricted framework we can work with (At least for me as an Evangelical with a high view of the scriptures).


Anonymous said...


How about this for an analogy.

Theology and science are like ice dance partners. Both interpret the same music (ie the truth). Much of the time, they dance together in complete harmony holding hands and following the same path on the ice. Sometimes they dance alone, each doing their own thing, competing for our attention. They are both dancing to the same music, both are in harmony with the music, yet their dance is different. As the audience, we aren’t sure who to watch, which one is right, and wonder why their dance is different. Sometimes, they help each other dance. One may be stronger at times and lift the other, or spin them in a new direction, or help them up when they fall down. Yes, both dancers are imperfect and they will fall down or get out of synch with the music. Their partner is there to help them get back on track. When it comes time to judge the dance, we all give different ratings. We favour one over the other. We may gloss over some imperfections and become irritated at others. We may even wish there was only one dancer. Yet, the dance is made for a couple. We need to watch both partners. We need to accept that each partner is interpreting the music in a way that is true to their nature. We need to rejoice that there are two partners, providing us with two perspectives on the same music. And while our attention is often on the dancers themselves, we need to remind ourselves that it is the music that is important. The dance partners are there to help us understand and appreciate the music. The dance partners are not the music.

That’s how I see the relationship between science and theology. I think they are “equivalent dialogue partners”. But each has their strengths and weaknesses. Some interpretations of the truth are best done by theology, while others by science. The challenge is knowing when to give the advantage to one or the other.


Anonymous said...

Gordon -- David Opderbeck was starting to get worried about all the things you can find online when you Google his name. :-) But then he realized that he's already sunk on that front, so what the hey.

I think we have some overlapping but analytically distinct questions here.

First is, how are we defining our epistemology? What is the proper ground for a knowledge claim?

Second is, how do theories in theology relate to theories in science?

In what I say below, I'm influenced by two strands of thought: (a) reformed and post-foundationalist Christian epistemology, especially as mediated by folks such as Roy Clouser, Leslie Newbiggin, and Stanley Grenz, who in turn draw on Michael Polanyi; and (b) critical realism, particularly as appropriated by theologians such as Alister McGrath (in his Scientific Theology).

As to the first question, for me it's non-negotiable that knowledge claims are ultimately grounded in God as the author of reality, that belief in God is properly basic (i.e., doesn't have to be "proven" with reference to more basic knowledge such as human reason), that we know only that which God reveals to us, and that God's revelation includes his written word; the Holy Spirit's witness in, to and through the Church; his world; and ultimately and preeminently his self-revelation in Christ.

As to the second question, "theology" is the construction of theories about God based primarily on his revelation in his word and in Christ. Theology is a second-order human construct and is therefore subject to testing and revision. However, theology that has long been central in the life of the Church should be revised only with great caution and trepidation.

"Science" is the construction of theories about creation based primarily on the empirical observation and study of creation. Scientific theories also are second-order human statements about the underlying reality they purport to represent. Scientific theories, therefore, are also subject to revision.

Ultimately, all theological and scientific theories seek to describe aspects of the same underlying reality. Where the aspects of reality theological and scientific theories seek to describe overlap, there ultimately should be congruence, even if science and theology are not describing exactly the same aspect of reality. Therefore, theological and scientific theories must be in dialogue with each other.

That dialogue, however, doesn't imply a correspondence or equality between theologial and scientific theories. Theological theories describe a level (or, in critical realist lingo, a strata) of reality that underlies the human capacity to generate scientific theories. We presuppose that there is a given, stable, ordered reality for us to perceive because we have more basic beliefs about the God who created that reality. But, we also presuppose, from a Christian perspective, that our noetic capabilities are not perfect, and are even in some sense corrupted by sin. This implies that the dialogue between theological and scientific theories ultimately has to be approached within a theological framework of faith in God as revealer.

Now, what does all this mean for something like the atonement? I'm not totally sure, except that an apparently central and succesful theological theory such as the substitutionary atonement can't easily give way to a comparatively more recent scientific theory such as biological evolution. Dialogue with the scientific theory might require some adjustment of the theological theory, but perhaps not something so drastic as a "paradigm shift." I would see a "paradigm shift" as something like abandoning an notion of substitutionary atonement for, say, a process theology framework.

Gordon J. Glover said...


That was very well said. Perhaps I'm using the term "Paradigm shift" to flippantly. I'm not interesting in revisiting the fundamentals of these core doctrines, only in learning to live with the inevitable tension caused when scientific revelations fail to reinforce our theology. And I think we can look to previous conflicts as examples of how orthoxy can survive these types of conflicts.

In my theological tradition (Reformed Presbyterian), there is a tendency to create "systems of theology" that can take on lives of their own. The goal to seems reasonable: to explain away all tension and mystery, and wrap our finite minds around God, but IMHO we must learn to accept paradox and mystery as we will only ever hava a glimpse of God's glory in this life. And as for our emperical knowledge, even on our best day we are merely looking at the cosmos through a drinking straw. So I think we're on the same page here.


geocreationist said...

1) Personally, I think the Genesis creation accounts support evolution. Day 3, God commanded the earth to bring forth... Day 5, God ended the day by telling the birds to increase and multiply. I think 'according to their kind' implies something pre-existing.
2)I divorce Day 6 from God's creation of Adam, taking 'life' to mean soul. Before then, man only had a body. Glenn Morton's articles on genetic mutations were very helpful in clarifying my thinking on this. Also, as Paul writes, without a law there is no disobedience. The first sin was disobedience to the first "law", to not eat of the tree.
3)Chimps have no souls, or is it no spirit? I blur those sometimes.
4)Pain and death should not be considered inherently sinful, lest God be prescribing sin within the sacrificial laws.
5)Accepting that evolution is godless does lead to godless morals. However, it is ones application or definition of evolution that may or may not be godless.

As for the harder ones:
1. This is practically the topic of my blog. When you imagine the physical conditions required by each day, and consider the possibility that Jesus was both actor and witness at Creation, and it matches the science quite well.
2. The relationship between Sin and Death: Death does not equate to sin, lest sacrifice be God-sanctioned sin. Remember that the commandment is that thou shalt not murder.
3. The incompatibility of evolution with the New Testament: not a problem if Adam was the first man given a soul/spirit.
4. The origin of the “Image of God” or the “ensoulment” of humanity, particularly in the light of modern neuroscience: Our soul or spirit, the part of us that endures at death, is what makes us in the image of God. Adam was the first such man.
5. The origin of Sin: the first disobedient act, if you're talking about the sin that Christ redeems.

I just remembered: people tend to blur sin, as a substance that exists independently of man, with original sin and acts of disobedience. Christ died for the latter. Pain and death however are not sin per se, but good (non-universal) indicators of it.

Just my 2 cents.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Jac,
I do like the analogy of a dance. In can be a very fruitful description. But like all analogies, we have to watch how far we push it.

Thanks for your contributions on epistemology (here and elsewhere). This is an area where you are challenging me to think – probably because you’ve read & thought through this much more thoroughly then I have. (Of the writers you listed I’ve read a little Grenz, & some McGrath, but not much else). I also think you are hitting on a key point in the evangelical theology / evolutionary framework dialogue – one that hasn’t really been satisfactorily addressed by Evangelical theologians. I really appreciate the summary you gave in the last comment.

Great point on systems of theology that can take on lives of their own.

“Our soul or spirit, the part of us that endures at death, is what makes us in the image of God.”
This is one of the areas that may require rethinking by evangelicals. The whole “soul” idea is more dependent on Greek thought than Hebrew thought (which in no way implies it is necessarily wrong!). I’ve been doing some reading on non-reductive physicalism (eg. Nancey Murphy). Can’t possibly do justice to the ideas here but our ability to “relate to God” may be more of an emergent property than an instantaneous “soul-zap”. This does NOT imply that the emergent property isn’t from God. As to how this relates to the resurrection, Polkinghorne (among others I think) talk about “God remembered patterns”. Still have a lot of thinking to do on this one.

danielg said...

Therenare of course, many scientific reasons to doubt common descent, which I've addressed below in my post. Also, that article links to my list of theological objections most evangelicals have w evolution. One you missed was the introduction of death before Adam sinned. Also the fact that plants were created in the 'eon' before the sun, a pro lem solved if 24 h days are used.