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Monday, 25 February 2008

Reconciling the Fall and Evolution

The origin of sin in a universe created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and all loving God is a perplexing theological challenge. Traditionally, the disobedience of Adam and Eve is seen as the event that inaugurated the Fall. The rest of humanity is thought to have inherited Original Sin either biologically (if the couple is seen as the ancestor to all of humanity) or through some mysterious process of representation (the federal view). However, this story of sin’s origin is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. Genetic evidence indicates that humanity cannot trace its ancestry to a single pair of recent humans, so our shared biological parentage to a couple of Neolithic farmers is impossible to reconcile with the scientific record. On the other hand, the federal view runs into difficult theological issues (eg. were humans that pre-existed or coexisted with Adam and Eve only sinful after the curious incident with the forbidden fruit?)

As I indicated earlier in my post on the Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation, the origin of sin, and the related issue of reconciling the scientific record with the theology of the Fall, particularly as articulated by the apostle Paul (eg. Romans 5), are two of the most difficult theological issues for me personally. Although I can’t say I’ve come to any definitive conclusions, I’d like to point to two helpful resources for others that are thinking through these same issues. The first is a lecture given by Denis Alexander at the joint CIS / ASA / CSCA annual meeting last year. The second is a series of posts by Stephen Douglas on his blog Undeception.

Darwinian Evolution: The Really Hard Questions

Denis Alexander is not as well known as other Evangelical scientists that support an evolutionary creation (eg. McGrath, Polkinghorne, Collins), but he has made some significant contributions to the science-faith dialogue. (My selected bibliography has 4 entries for Alexander). I suspect his lecture entitled “Darwinian Evolution: The Really Hard Questions” was one of the conference’s more thought provoking presentations (You can download the audio, his powerpoint, and his accompanying handout from the ASA website).

Reconciling the Fall is one of the “Really Hard Questions” that Alexander discusses in his presentation. Before dealing with this question, he makes some pertinent introductory remarks:

Some Christians have a habit of making up the science to fit their apologetics. That’s not good enough. Integrity demands an equally robust stance towards both the science and the theology. Second, in practice that means that we have to get used to not knowing the final answers to some issues, which is clearly the case here, and yet at the same time doing the best we can in building sensible models that integrate both the science and the theology. And we need to discuss those models tentatively, because there simply aren’t enough data to be too sure.
He provides a quick scientific, biblical, and theological background to the problem, and then asks the key question:

So how, then, do we understand the Fall and the Adam & Eve narratives in conversation with our current understanding of human evolution? Of course some would say that the conversation shouldn’t even be attempted – it’s like comparing anthropological apples with theological oranges. But the fact remains that at some stage over the past few hundred thousand years anatomically modern humans gradually emerged, and it’s also a fact that personal knowledge of God must have started sometime when it wasn’t there before.
Alexander then provides three models for defining the relationship between the biblical and the scientific accounts. (Actually, there were 5 models – but I’m going to ignore the 2 models that discount the scientific evidence for biological evolution).

1. Model A is the “Ahistorical View”. The Fall in this model is a theological narrative that is not related to historical events.

2. Model B is the “Gradualist Protohistorical View”. This view defines the Fall as a process happening over a long period of time.

3. Model C sees the Fall as a specific event at a specific time in history whereby a covenant couple (or perhaps a covenant community) is called by God, but then through disobedience brings spiritual death on humanity.

Each model has unique strengths, but also unique flaws. Alexander indicates that he personally leans toward Model C, but admits to some vacillation between all 3 and quips that he holds to “Model A on Mondays, Model B on Tuesdays and Model C the rest of the week”. It is a good discussion that I recommend to others grappling with this issue.

Interacting with Paul’s Theology of The Fall

Stephen Douglas has just finished an excellent 8-part series on biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics. Some of the themes he develops will be familiar to those who have followed my own blog, but he goes into much more depth. You aren’t going to be able work through his whole series in a brief 20-minute browse (I suggest he consider writing a book :-) ) but it is definitely worth the time invested.

Of particular interest for me were the final two posts: Case Study: The Fall and The Fallout. In these two posts he applies the principles of biblical interpretation discussed earlier in the series to the issue of The Fall. What is noteworthy is that he focuses particularly on the New Testament (NT) discussion of the Fall, rather than concentrating on the creation narratives in Genesis.

This focus on the NT discussion is noteworthy for two reasons: First, Evangelical Old Testament (OT) scholars with a high view of the scriptures (eg. Enns, Walton, Wenham) have already laid the groundwork for the science / theology discussion with respect to the Genesis creation accounts, including the Fall narrative (eg. highlighting their place in ANE literature even while acknowledging their divine source). From a NT perspective, I don’t believe the groundwork for this discussion has been as prevalent. Secondly, it is unclear whether the ancient Hebrews believed the early part of Genesis was historical (it most likely was not an important question for them), but it is clear that the Apostle Paul, like his 1st century Jewish contemporaries, believed that Adam was a historical figure, and that the Fall corresponded to a single event in the Garden of Eden. Thus it is the relavent NT passages, and not the Genesis creation accounts, that provide the most significant challenge to the reconciliation of the Fall and modern science.

Douglas addresses this issue head on. He shows how Paul, following the traditions of his time, used typology and parallelisms as part of his interpretive framework. On the pertinent discussion in Romans 5 Douglas states:

Here (as well as in 1 Corinthians 15) Paul draws the parallel between the first Adam and the last Adam, Jesus, because he saw symmetry between the two. Notice, though, that the validity of Christ’s work for all is not stated to be dependent on sin coming through one man, as is often construed. Paul’s intention was to relate this brand new theological doctrine to something that was familiar to them: if they could see sin coming into the world through one man, they should be able to accept that one man could bring life to all. The symmetry he saw between the two was no less valid for one of the characters being non-historical.
Later Douglas sums it up with this:

In short, it doesn’t matter whether Paul believed an historical figure named Adam literally fell and passed death down to all his descendants in some genetic or federal fashion through resultant “original sin”. Christ’s work was not dependent on the sin of one man alone: every man’s sin necessitates Christ’s work.
I can’t possibly do justice to Douglas’s arguments in this post. If you want a more detailed account, I encourage you to visit his blog. I can’t say I’m completely convinced by his argument, but it has given me much food for thought.

Concluding Thoughts

Understanding the Fall is difficult, and it is likely that there will be much disagreement within the Evangelical community on how the theology can be reconciled with modern science. What we can agree on is the following:

A) The Fall, whatever it is, and whenever it happened, occurred in the distant past. No amount of theological teeth gnashing will change what has happened.

B) the "sting of death" that resulted from the Fall has been vanquished by Christ's death on the cross. So theological teeth gnashing seems somewhat inappropriate. (Why worry about losing the shutout, we won the game!).

C) Our hope that sin and death will not only be vanquished, but will also be destroyed, is assured. The Fall happened but we need no longer worry about "falling". We can say with Jude:

To him who is able to keep you from falling
and to present you before his glorious presence
without fault and with great joy—
to the only God our Savior
be glory, majesty, power and authority,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
before all ages, now and forevermore!

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Lighter Side of the Integration of Evolution and Faith

You have to admire Francis Collins. As Director of the Human Genome Project, he led a team that accomplished one of mankind’s greatest scientific achievements to date. By giving us a complete genetic map for the human body, his team allowed us to glimpse at, in Collins words, the Language of God. He certainly deserves the public credit he continues to receive for this feat.

The reaction to his Christian witness has not always been as positive. As an Evangelical Christian, his promotion of the integration of biological evolution and the Christian Faith has met with open hostility and personal attacks from within some areas of the Christian community (for being an evolutionist) and within some areas of the scientific community (for believing in God despite being an evolutionist). Still, Collins has responded with both humility and grace, keeping himself above the rough-and-tumble fray. Time and again I have been impressed with how he has responded to his critics, whether anti-evolutionist Christians or atheist Scientists.

Still, Collins is not shy about entering risky situations. Here is a video of Collins on Comedy Central answering questions like “Are you going to be the only Christian in Hell?”.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Beware of Paradigms that begin with "E"

This morning our pastor’s message was entitled “The Story we Live By”. He told us that the Christian worldview was radically different from the worldview of modern culture. Those of us that profess to follow Christ will find ourselves fundamentally at odds with prevailing wisdom, or find ourselves fundamentally at odds with Christ’s radical teaching. He challenged us to rethink how and why we live the way we do: The meta-physical narrative of the “E” paradigm was simply not a story that Christians could subscribe too or live by.

For me, this was a sermon that spoke close to home. What exactly do I put first in my life? What paradigm drives my intellectual and spiritual growth? Am I blinded by the spirit of my own time? More importantly: How do I make choices in life – where exactly do I put my faith? Am I, like so many of those around me, a thrall to the “E” Paradigm?

This has been a big month for Evangelical leaders speaking out against an Evolutionary Paradigm. Last week I critiqued Tony Campolo’s warning. This week Chuck Colson added his voice against “Evolutionary Foolishness” (HT: Cliff) and Albert Mohler argued (yet again) that Christianity and evolution are irreconcilable. But my Pastor was not joining this chorus. Instead he was identifying a way of thinking much, much more pertinent to our culture, a disease that has affected nearly all of us: The Economic Paradigm.

For those of us that are rich (and, if you are reading this on the internet, you almost certainly qualify as a rich), how do we reconcile the fact that so much of our energy is expended appeasing the “God of Economics”? How do we reconcile Christ’s teachings with our own preoccupation with material things? How do we (in the West) live with the fact that much of the injustice in the world is due to economic systems that prop up our own lifestyle? It makes you think, or at least it should. It makes me think.

An economic paradigm has two chief (not necessarily bad) concerns: generating prosperity and distributing this prosperity. The two most notorious economic paradigms are of course capitalism and communism. Capitalism is pretty good at addressing the first concern (generating prosperity) at the expense of intolerable disparity in the distribution of this prosperity. Communism is very good at the equitable distribution of prosperity (at least theoretically) but generates no prosperity to distribute (ie. you end up with an equitable distribution of poverty). But both of these paradigms share the same assumption: that money is “a good way to keep score”. And, as my pastor noted, “Jesus thought money was a very bad way of keeping score”.

So for those that are concerned that Evolutionary Creationists like myself have been duped by the “Spirit of the Age”, and are bowing to the “God of Evolution”, I will say this. You are correct in warning us of the dangers in serving any God but the God revealed in scripture. You are correct that we need to carefully and critically consider scientific concepts that are often bundled with philosophical ideas alien to the gospel. You are correct that we do not always have good answers to tough theological problems raised by biological evolution.

But you are absolutely wrong to accuse us of abandoning the gospel. We haven’t. We don’t. We won’t. We too see the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as central to the good news. However, we also believe (unlike the vast majority of our Evangelical brothers and sisters) that God’s creation was accomplished through the gradual process of evolution. And before you offer to extract the “evolutionary paradigm” mite from my eye, maybe you should consider the “economic paradigm” log in your own.

And while you are at it, maybe you can help me with the same log in mine.

I’ll conclude this post with the conclusion of my post on Evolution and Morality:

Making an Evolutionary Paradigm (however it is defined) foundational for defining truth, making choices, and finding purpose is unacceptable for Christians. Our primary paradigm must be Christ-centered and biblically guided. If this approach is trumped by any other paradigm, whether a Democratic Paradigm, a Capitalist Paradigm, or an Evolutionary Paradigm, we have committed idolatry. Christians can of course hold democratic political ideas, capitalistic economic ideas, and evolutionary scientific ideas, but these ideas need to be secondary to, informed by, and measured against our primary paradigm, which is faith in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Et Tu Tony? A Critique of Tony Campolo’s attack on "Darwinism"

Tony Campolo is a prophetic voice in the Evangelical community, prophetic in the sense of the ancient Hebrew prophets who challenged the Israelites to care for the poor and to "act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God" – not prophetic in the modern sense like, for example, the quackery of Pat Robertson or the wacky “prophecies” of Oral Roberts. And like the Hebrew prophets, Campolo’s voice is often unwelcome in large parts of the religious community in which he participates. I don’t always agree with what Campolo says (for example his “red-letter Christians” initiative - see a good critique here on John Stackhouse’s blog) but he is inspiring and a man of integrity.

So it is sad to see Campolo miss the mark so badly in his recent op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In an article entitled The Real Danger in Darwin is not Evolution, but Racism (HT: Ed Darrell) he lashes out at … well, possibly the science of biological evolution, possibly an ill-defined metaphysic of “Darwinism”, or maybe even Charles Darwin himself – the focus of his attack is unclear. I suspect that Campolo wanted to highlight that all of humanity enjoys a special place in God’s creation, and that ideas that deny this can be dangerous. It is commendable that Campolo strongly defends this important truth about human dignity. However, in my opinion, his argument is presented so badly that it probably does more damage than good.

A) Positive Aspects of Campolo’s Argument

First the positive: In the past (for example here) (HT: Stephen Matheson), Campolo has parroted standard anti-evolutionist claims that “Evolution is just a theory”. However, in the current op-ed he does not question the scientific evidence for biological evolution, and even states that “in terms of science, Darwin’s account may be solid indeed”. Secondly, he states, in opposition to YEC claims, that “the development of biological organisms over eons of time really does not pose the great threat to the dignity of our humanity”. Thus he is not insisting on a rigorously literal interpretation of scripture, an interpretation that itself can be damaging to the Christian faith. Finally, he concludes that there is an “infinite qualitative difference” between humans and that rest of creation. These are all great points, and could have been constructed into a useful argument against some of the unwarranted philosophical extrapolations to evolutionary theory being passed off as science (for example, the insistence that the biological connectness of humanity to other forms of life implies that we are nothing more than “gene machines”).

B) An Argument Gone Astray

Campolo, however, does not build a useful argument. Instead he repeats some of the most ill-informed and inaccurate anti-evolutionist claims. These include:

1. Darwin was a racist: Campolo claims that Darwin’s ideas are dangerous because they promote and support racism. This is simply not true. Campolo shows he grossly misunderstands Darwin by claiming that they do. At a minimum, Darwin was no more racist than most Christian Victorians, and as several commentators have shown, (see here, here, here, and here) he personally opposed racism and slavery.

2. Let only the strong survive: Campolo claims that Darwin wanted to abandon society’s weak. He states:

Darwin even argued that advanced societies should not waste time and money on caring for the mentally ill, or those with birth defects. To him, these unfit members of our species ought not to survive.
This is also false. These are the ideas of Herbert Spencer, not Darwin. Spencer took Darwin’s descriptive biological theory and created a prescriptive theory for human societies called Social Darwinism. (For a good overview from a Christian perspective on Social Darwinism and other extrapolations of Darwin’s ideas, see Evolution: From Creation to New Creation pages 51-64)

3. Darwin’s theories were complicit in the rise of Nazism: As Ted Davis has noted (HT: David), the relationship between Darwinism and Nazism is complex, and there is indeed some connection. However, the responsibility for this connection should not be laid on Darwin, nor should biological evolution be rejected because of Hitler’s madness. To paint Darwin and biological evolution with this brush is ludicrous. In fact, it may be just as accurate to say that Christian ideas were complicit in the rise of slavery and racism in the American south. Depending on your definition of Christian, and what facts you cherry-pick from history, this could well be true. However, slavery and racism should never be blamed on Christ or the Christian gospel. This too is ludicrous.

C) A Failure to Define this “Darwinism” that is so dangerous

I believe the central flaw in Campolo’s article is that he attempts to define “the real dangers of Darwinism” without in fact defining what he means by Darwinism – a word that can convey such a broad range of ideas that it has become almost useless except as a pejorative. Does Campolo mean Darwin’s writings? Does he mean the main scientific theories Darwin proposed (descent with modification through natural selection), or possibly the modern evolutionary synthesis that includes Mendelian genetics as well as other modifications to Darwin’s theories? Does he mean the extrapolations, and sometimes dramatic distortions, of Darwin’s theories outside of the field of biology (eg. Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and Evolutionary Psychology)? Or is he focusing his criticism on the (often atheistic) ideologies that claim all knowledge should be viewed through an evolutionary paradigm?

If by Darwinism Campolo means the latter of these options, then I would agree with his assertion that Darwinism can be dangerous. However, I’m sure that many (probably most) of his readers will interpret his use of Darwinism to be the scientific theory of biological evolution. And for this definition, Campolo’s claim is wrong. As I’ve discussed previously, there are no ethical implications to the scientific theory of biological evolution. It is a very good model for explaining the development of life on earth, but it provides no moral guidance (good or bad) for future human decisions.

It is important for Christians, as Ted Davis notes, to “Do one's best to separate science as science from science as grand metaphysical program”. (Allan Harvey’s proposal, that includes six different definitions for evolution and which I discussed here, makes the same point). We do not need to fear science. We should however, be leery when scientific theories are woven into grand meta-narratives that claim to explain the really big questions. These are questions that science is just not able to answer.

D) Conclusion

I have the utmost respect for Tony Campolo. His challenge to Evangelicals to take seriously our responsibility to the poor is sorely needed. We should all emulate his passion for defending the dignity of humanity, whether from racism or a denial of human spiritual uniqueness. But I believe his attack on Darwinism will be counterproductive. The easily refutable pieces of his argument may allow many to feel justified in also rejecting his implied conclusion: That humanity is created in the Image of God. More importantly, choosing between the “how” of human creation (biological evolution) and the “why” of human creation (to be the Image of God) is a false dichotomy. We are the Image because God declared it to be so, not because of how we were created. That is why each and every human being is important.


Another addendum. I guess I have a defective blogging gene. I had seen Campolo’s original piece a couple days after it came out but didn’t find the time to put my thoughts together. Actually, that probably turned out for the better. Stephen Matheson provided his own reaction, and a very interesting discussion ensued between him and David Opderbeck. Reading this (unfortunately after the discussion was over) helped clarify my own thinking. So thanks guys for the provocative (and spirited) discussion.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

A Reasonable Faith

In his current post on choosing between brains and belief, John Stackhouse emphasizes that faith is a gift from God – it is not something that can be accessed by reason alone. So Dawkins and other “new atheists” are correct in stating Christianity is not reasonable if “reasonable” includes only data inferred from “empirical data or self-evident propositions”.

There simply are no chains of inference that can get you from the idea of God-in-general to God-as-Trinity. There are no demonstrative proofs for the contention that Jesus of Nazareth is God Incarnate and that his life, death, and resurrection are the basis for global salvation. There is no way to lead someone step by step from consideration of the Bible’s various qualities (archaeological vindication, literary power, moral persuasiveness, etc.) to the conviction that it is the very Word of God.

The earliest and most fundamental Christian confession was this: “Jesus is Lord.” And one of the Apostle Paul’s earliest and most influential letters makes the following bold epistemological claim: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
But this doesn’t imply that Christianity is “unreasonable” simply because it cannot be logically deduced from 1st principles or demonstrated in a science lab. On the contrary, I believe the Christian faith is a coherent framework for the historical, scientific, and philosophical data when viewed through the lenses of God's revelation through his written Word and the Word made flesh. Faith in Christ is not the house of cards that Dawkins seems to think, and cannot be compared to faith in The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or leprechauns, or fairies. It is not, as he claims in The Selfish Gene (page 212), “Blind trust in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence”. Faith in the Living God starts with adequate evidence and is completed with consent of the will. As Stackhouse states:
Faith is always the exercise of trust beyond what we think we know, beyond what we think we’re sure of. Does that mean we have to choose between our brains and our beliefs? No, but it means we must not let our brains circumscribe our beliefs. We don’t understand electricity, but we use it. We don’t understand light (wave? particle? both? how does that work?), but we are glad for it. We don’t know everything about our business partners or surgeons or spouses, but we trust them with our livelihoods and lives.