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Sunday, 30 March 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #9: Timid Theologians

I have previously commented on the dearth of evangelical theologians willing to tackle the implications of biological evolution. While evangelical scientists, and in particular evangelical biologists, are grappling with the theological implications for their Christian faith, evangelical theologians for the most part have remained silent. Some, no doubt, fear retribution from the constituents and institutions they serve; others may simply fear exploring new ideas.

Here is what Polkinghorne has to say on the latter:

As a scientist I am often struck by theologians’ persistent fear of getting it wrong. [In science] a willingness to explore ideas which might prove mistaken, or in need of revision, is a necessary price of scientific progress. One would have thought that the intrinsic difficulty in doing theology would encourage a similar intrepidity. At times (the patristic period, the Reformation) that has been so, but not always. I am not of course, denying the existence of many wild flights of contemporary theological fancy, but saying that within the sober core I detect a degree of disinclination to take intellectual risk, particularly where it involves interaction with another discipline. Hence the widespread neglect of natural science by theologians.

From Science and Christian Belief, page 44
In some ways, Polkinghorne’s admonishment is too gentle. If theology is “faith seeking understanding”, then it is imperative that theologians deal with current issues, issues that may have been irrelevant to Christians in the past, but issues that puzzle, bewilder, and confuse us today. It is not sufficient to understand historic approaches to theology that may have been appropriate for the church fathers and the reformers. For the good of our faith we also need approaches that make sense of our modern and post-modern world.

Polkinghorne later continues:
Theology without natural theology would be in a ghetto, cut off from knowledge of the physical creation; natural theology by itself would be vulnerable, apt to seem little more than a competing possibility alongside a thoroughgoing naturalism. Once again one sees how essential it is that theological inquiry is conducted as a fully integrated discipline.
Over the past half-century Evangelicals have (thankfully) realized that the fundamentalist cultural ghetto serves only to silence the gospel, and we have begun to (slowly) break down those walls. What I’m not so sure we understand is that our theological ghettos are just as dangerous. If we cannot speak to the issues of the day, how can we expect others to be interested in the gospel? If we aren’t answering the questions that are being asked, why are we surprised when people (including our youth) look elsewhere for answers?

Evangelical theologians: This is not so much a complaint as a request for help.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous]

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #8: Persistence and Humility - Necessary Qualities for both Science and Theology

Even the greatest of scientists admit that they “stand on the shoulders of giants”. No one’s theories are free from correction or extension. Good theories (like Darwin’s theory of biological evolution) are constantly corrected, refined, and extended. Polkinghorne states it well:

Almost all scientists believe the progress of science to be a convergence onto an increasingly verisimilitudinous understanding of the nature of the physical world. We are its mapmakers and sometimes we have radically to revise our views (that patch of apparent Newtonian terra firma turns out to be a quantum swamp). Yet overall, accuracy improves with each major discovery. Scientific progress is not made either by denying the existence of phenomena that we currently cannot understand or by exaggerating the scope of what we have currently achieved. Persistence and openness in investigation, and a degree of realistically humble assessment of present attainment, are indispensable virtues in the pursuit of science.

Faith , Science, and Understanding (page 119)
It is this combination of inquisitive openness, persistence, and realistic humility that has made modern science so successful.

I think there is a lesson here for Evangelicals and our theology. Polkinghorne continues:
This edifying conclusion is of wider application than just within science alone. It certainly bears extension to theology and to the interaction between theology and science. If we do not display a certain degree of intellectual daring, no progress will be made. If we do not display a certain degree of intellectual humility, misleading and untenable claims will be made. If we are not content to live with the acknowledgement that there are phenomena that are beyond our contemporary powers of explanation, we shall have a truncated and inadequate grasp of reality.
I am not saying that we should replace our theology. Far from it. We too stand on the shoulders of Giants, in our case the Old Testament prophets, the apostles, the church fathers, and the reformers. Jumping off these shoulders would be catastrophic. But we should not confuse our theology with God’s Truth. Theology is simply our current, limited understanding of God, his creation, and the relationship between them. When required, we should not be afraid to rearticulate this understanding. Nor should we be afraid to admit that some things are beyond our understanding.

Scientists ultimately “trust” the rationality of God’s creation (as Einstein notes: “God does not play dice”), not the theories that approximate the truth about creation. As Christians the foundation of our trust must rest on our resurrected Lord, not the theologies we articulate about that Lord.

Happy Easter.

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

Sunday, 16 March 2008

An Incarnational Approach to Scripture

For many Christians the approach adopted in the science / faith relationship often hinges on their approach to the interpretation of scripture. This is certainly true for many modern Evangelicals; the conflict they see between science and faith is a direct result of their literal “face-value” approach to scriptural interpretation. But this method of interpretation has not fared well in the light of modern scholarship, and doctrines of scripture have tended to be expressed negatively rather than positively. Unfortunately, the negative qualifiers used to describe the bible often raise even more troublesome questions.

Where oh where did we go wrong? Why must we always be so defensive? Is it even possible to have a high view of the scriptures, one that acknowledges their divine source, without closing our eyes to the evidence from modern science, history, and biblical criticism? Is there a model that works?

I believe Peter Enns provides an excellent answer to this question. And, unlike many modern biblical scholars, he proposes a model that maintains Christian orthodoxy. In fact, it seems to me, Enns’ model for interpreting scripture is more orthodox, more in tune with the doctrines formulated by the early church, and more coherent with scripture itself. As Enns takes pains to point out, his ideas are not really that new.

The Incarnational Analogy

In his book Inspiration and Incarnation Enns lays out what he calls “The Incarnational Analogy”.

The starting point for our discussion is the following: as Christ is both God and human, so is the Bible. In other words, we are to think of the Bible in the same way that Christians think about Jesus. Christians confess that Jesus is both God and human at the same time. He is not half-God and half-human. He is not sometimes one and other times the other. He is not essentially one and only apparently the other. (Page 17)
Just as Jesus, the Word made flesh, is 100% human and 100% God, so too the written Word. The Bible is not simply a dictation of divine thoughts, nor is it simply human ideas about the divine. The source of scripture is 100% divine, from God, revealing God’s message to humanity. At the same time it is 100% human, displaying the idiosyncrasies, cultural assumptions and even biases of its human authors. It declares God’s timeless message, albeit from a very specific human cultural and temporal perspective.

Although the incarnational analogy Enns proposes has its limitations, I believe that a) it is helpful for Evangelicals grappling with faith & science / historical / biblical criticism issues and b) it offers to correct an Evangelical understanding of scripture that may have strayed somewhere beyond the bounds of orthodoxy.

Helpfulness of the Incarnational Analogy

I believe the incarnational analogy is very helpful. First, it is a positive statement about what scripture is (both divine and human) rather than a negative statement (eg. inerrant) about what it is not. It affirms that scripture is God’s special revelation and thus can be trusted. The analogy also affirms that scripture is very human. God has a keen interest in ensuring that his message of love and redemption is communicated clearly. To accomplish this, he accommodated his message in a way that was understandable to the specific culture to which it was written.

Second, the incarnational analogy helps us to see the Bible for what it is, rather than what we expect it to be.
What is so helpful about the incarnational analogy is that it reorients us to see that the Bible’s “situatedness” is not a lamentable or embarrassing situation, but a positive one.

That the bible, at every turn, shows how “connected” it is to its own world is a necessary consequence of God incarnating himself. (page20)
An incarnational approach to scripture allows us to be surprised, to have our expectations jolted without necessarily jolting our faith.

A Return to an Orthodox view of Scripture

The early church grappled with articulating a doctrine of Christ. Although there were those who minimized Christ’s divinity (eg. Arianism) and those that minimized Christ’s humanity (eg. Docestism), the Church firmly and unequiviocally declared that Jesus was “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed) and “Perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man”. (Chalcedonian_Creed).

In the 19th century “Battle for the Bible”, many liberal Christians abandoned orthodoxy and declared the bible to be simply a human book. Evangelicals rightly reacted to this, defending its divine source. However, I believe we may have become so zealous in our declaration of the scriptures’ divine source, that we may have minimized its humanness. In short, this “Docetic” view of scripture may be heretical. Enns has this to say:
It is somewhat ironic, it seems to me, that both liberals and conservatives make the same error: they both assume that something worthy of the title “Word of God” would look different from what we actually have. The one accents the human marks and makes them absolute. The other wishes the human marks were not as pronounced as they were. They share a similar opinion that nothing worthy of being called God’s word would look so common, so human, so recognizable. But when God speaks, he speaks in ways we would understand. (page 21)
As I indicated in an earlier post on scriptural interpretation, we need not box ourselves into a literal hermeneutic (with an over emphasis on the divine source) or a liberal hermeneutic (with an over emphasis on the human source). We can choose an incarnational approach, one that celebrates both the divine and human sources of scripture.

Responding to the Incarnational Analogy

Enns views have not been received favourably by all Evangelicals. (For example, see this discussion between Paul Helm and Enns: Helm's review of I&I, Enns' Response to the review, and Helm’s response to Enns). Another writer has called I&I “The Most Controversial Book of the Year”. However, for myself, his thesis is both simple and fruitful since it helps makes sense of some difficult theological problems. More importantly, it lays out a positive view of scripture, one that is more appropriate for sharing the gospel.

So when someone asks incredulously “Do you really believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and that following him will make any difference?” and “Do you really trust a book that utilizes a cosmology refuted almost 2500 years ago?”, we can answer both questions in the same way. “Yes I do believe that. Want a coffee? This explanation might take a few minutes.”

Thursday, 13 March 2008

A Visit to the Darwin Exhibit

Yesterday my son and I had the opportunity to visit the Darwin exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. This exhibit was created by the American Museum of Natural History in conjunction with several other world class museums, including the ROM, but this is the first time it has been available in Canada.

Overall, the exhibit is extremely well done. It provides a brief sketch of Darwin’s life, from a young boy absolutely fascinated by the natural world around him, to a young man trying to fulfill this passion; from his famous 5-year voyage on the Beagle, to the long years putting together the pieces of his simple, yet revolutionary theory; from his initial hesitancy to publish the theory, to his feverish writing of “On The Origin” once he realized another naturalist had simultaneously worked out a similar evolutionary framework. Since his death, Darwin has been alternatively demonized and given the scientific equivalent of divine veneration. The exhibit effectively puts “flesh and bones” on the mythological Darwin.

The exhibit also provides a basic overview of the evidence supporting evolution, including recent evidence discovered after Darwin. There are enough fossils, models, maps, videos, setting recreations, and even live animals to keep everyone’s interest while those of us that absolutely HAVE to read EVERY word on EVERY panel slowly (some would say painfully slowly) make our way through the exhibition hall.

A few quick personal reactions from my Christian perspective:

  • The 10-minute introductory video on Darwin & the significance of his theory included some initial comments by four well-known promoters of evolutionary theory: Ken Miller, Francis Collins, Eugenie Scott, and Niles Eldredge. I suspect that few viewers (at least those unfamiliar with the creation / evolution debate) will realize that the first two commentators are Christians while the latter two are not. In general, I believe great care was taken to ensure the exhibit did not promote any religious or anti-religious viewpoint.
  • That being said, it is sad to see one aspect of our faith shown in such a bad light. “Creation” and “Creationism” are never presented positively. Frankly, given the history of the interaction between creation and evolution, one cannot fault the exhibit designers (these were not unintelligent designers). Personally, I would like to reclaim “creation” for all Christians, including those of us that are comfortable with biological evolution, and not have it commandeered by those who, for clarity and accuracy, should be called anti-evolutionists.
  • Even in ethnically & religiously cosmopolitan Toronto, not a single corporate sponsor was found to sponsor the Darwin exhibit. That I found a little surprising. In many ways the Christian Bully is still capable of intimidation. This (ongoing) legacy is not helpful for sharing the gospel.
  • In my post last month, I indicated that Tony Campolo was wrong to call Darwin a racist. Before visiting the exhibit I was aware that Darwin hated slavery, but did not realize he was almost kicked off the Beagle early in the voyage for steadfastly disagreeing with the captain’s assertion that the “Brazilian slaves were happy”. Darwin’s first face-to-face contact with slavery had horrified him.
The exhibit runs at the ROM until August 2008. I highly recommend it to all. In particular, for Christians who have avoided learning about Darwin and the theory of evolution, it can serve as an excellent crash course introduction in a non-threatening environment.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

New Beginnings

It is the beginning of March, but here in Canada spring is definitely not in the air. Today the snowfall will be 30 cm in Toronto (about 1 foot for those of you using the archaic British Imperial system). It is so miserable outside that even the dogs have refused to venture out. No matter, the sled doesn’t have wireless internet anyways. Fortunately the Igloo does. So, it is a perfect time to highlight some new (or relatively new) blogs hosted in sunnier climes.

1. The Creation of an Evolutionist

Mike Beidler’s recently launched blog documents his “journey from Young-Earth Creationism (YEC) to Evolutionary Creationism (EC)”. He has some good posts on John Walton’s discussion of Genesis: see part 1, part 2 , and part 3.

2. The Heartwood Harold

Dustin is a biologist in the field of conservation genetics. On his blog he writes about the interplay of science and faith. Check out his excellent post on Ants mimicking Fruit which starts with:

It’s no joke, no slight of words on my part. This forthcoming study in the journal American Naturalist details how a group of scientists studying ants in Peru discovered that a parasitic nematode has the ability to modify its host (in this case an ant) to resemble ripe fruit. Apparently, these infected ants (whose rear ends eventually look like red berries) are attractive to and consumed by fruit-eating birds.
He has an interesting discussion on God’s “good” creation which he continues in part 2.

3. Wishing doesn’t make it so

Vera finds herself “in the unfortunate yet fascinating position of being a quasi-Seventh-day Adventist who believes that evolution is true”. On her blog, she tells “the tales of my struggle to make sense.” Being part of the SDA is particularly difficult for those trying to reconcile modern science with their faith since Young Earth Creationism is woven so tightly into much of SDA theology. Check out Vera’s post Virginia was a Sucker.

4. A Time to Tear Down, a Time to Build Up

Peter Enns book Inspiration and Incarnation is on my personal Top-10 list. I think the incarnational model of scripture he articulates is extremely helpful for Evangelicals, particularly those trying to reconcile the inspired Word of God and the findings from modern science, history, biblical studies, and archaeology. Although Enns does not post that frequently on his blog, he does provide some excellent resources including his paper Preliminary Observations on an Incarnational Model of Scripture.

5. Jesus Creed: Series on Science and Faith

Scott McNight’s blog Jesus Creed is doing a series on Science and Faith (HT: To both Dustin and Mike) by blogging about Francis Collins The Language of God. Check out the first post.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Would your Church allow you to Publicly Support Evolution?

Last September I commented on biologist Richard Colling’s plight at ONU instigated by his public support for biological evolution. I suspect this type of story will become more prevalent in the next several years since although Evangelical biologists largely support evolution, it is still very rare for Evangelical church or ministry leaders to publicly pronounce their acceptance of the scientific theory. These scientists represent the vanguard in attempting to persuade the broader Evangelical church that peace with evolution is possible and preferable, but, as in most theaters of war, being a peacemaker can be a very dangerous assignment.

Visiting a Baptist Monk

I really enjoy Michael Spencer’s Internet Monk blog. His “dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness” are always direct, engaging, thought provoking, and spiritually challenging. I have said in the past that I prefer to keep the moniker Evangelical rather than abandon it for “Post-Evangelical” as Spencer does. However, after reading his blog for a while, I believe his vision and hope for the Post-Evangelical church appears similar to my own for the Evangelical church, so maybe our disagreement is simply semantic.

Spencer certainly does not fit the stereotypical image of a Southern Baptist Bible teacher. I highly doubt his views on inerrancy are supported by many SBC members, and it seems to get him into trouble occasionally. And although even moderate SBC churches like Saddleback officially support Young Earth Creationism, Spencer emphatically states that he does not. He defends a high view of scripture, but also understands what the Bible is, and what it is not. He comments that:

Ever since I read Conrad Hyers’ The Meaning of Creation and realized that the Bible wasn’t a science book and its inspiration wasn’t involved in the views of science in ancient cultures, I’ve not lost much sleep over the relationship of religion and science.
An SBC Minister on Evolution: No Comment?

Although Spencer is comfortable with an old earth, it appears he does not take a strong public position on evolution (either for or against). Undoubtedly, one reason for this is that the science / faith dialogue is not a priority for him. However, it is unlikely that he will ever publicly support evolution – at least if he wants to continue with his current employment. In a post about Tim Keller’s support of Theistic Evolution (TE), Spencer comments on how significant Keller’s support of TE would be within the Evangelical community. (Note: the post was eventually pulled because of ambiguity over whether Keller actually supports TE). Spencer then asks some great questions (primarily to Christian leaders like himself):
For those of you who are theistic evolutionists (or might possibly be if you knew what you believed), could you openly announce your belief in theistic evolution in your setting? Especially in your church? your sermon? your college or seminary class (as student or teacher)? your ordination council? your session or church board? your ministry employment?
He then provides, with typical directness, what would happen if one day he announced his belief in TE:
I’d be fired from my job as Bible teacher, chapel preacher and campus minister. Immediately.
Not really good incentive to investigate evolution further – particularly since it is clearly not a central issue to his ministry. Frankly, I don’t blame him for not pursuing this matter any further.

A PCA Minister on Evolution: Risky Comments

The Keller situation that Spencer mentions above is also interesting in this context. In his new book “The Reason for God” Keller does provide qualified support for a Theistic Evolution position (at least asserting that it is within the bounds of orthodoxy). (See: Tim Challies book review here, this article in First Things, and this interview in Newsweek for details). Keller is a very influential pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), a conservative Presbyterian denomination whose Creation statement (HT: BTF) includes this paragraph on the initial chapters of Genesis:
“In these chapters we find the record of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth* ex nihilo*; of the special creation of Adam and Eve as actual human beings, the parents of all humanity (hence they are not the products of evolution from lower forms of life).”
Now, as Rich Blinne notes, the above report was submitted by a non-binding advisory group within the PCA, and so it cannot necessarily be used to censure Tim Keller. Still it is clear that Keller, with his qualified support of evolution, is offside with the majority within his own denomination and is likely taking some personal risk by doing so.

It is heartening to see Evangelical church leaders like Keller reject the Evangelical / Evolution conflict thesis. We need more leaders with his integrity and stature speaking out. It requires courage and wisdom, courage for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with Evangelical culture, wisdom since speaking out can potentially cause more damage than good. Not every church leader is in a situation where this type of public announcement is possible or advisable.

Evangelical Grass-roots and Evolution

The situation is similar for many grass-roots Evangelicals. Personally, I’m fortunate that our family is involved with an Evangelical Anglican Church (with a heavy emphasis on the Evangelical) in which God’s method of creation is a non-issue – you won’t see us participating in Evolution Sunday but neither will you hear a sermon condemning modern scientific theories of the development of life. So for me there is little personal risk in discussing my views in the church. However, most Evangelicals grappling with the implications of an evolving creation are not so fortunate. I suspect many would lose whatever position they held in their church, maybe even their membership, if they publicly stated their acceptance of evolution. Charges of heresy and abandonment of the gospel would inevitably strain friendships and family relationships. For many, the price would be very high.

What Personal Ramifications?

I’m interested in hearing other personal perspectives on this problem. What would the ramifications be in your church if you stated your support for evolution? Are these ramifications clearly spelled out in your church charter or membership requirements? Or is opposition to evolution an unwritten rule unanimously accepted by all? How would support for evolution impact your relationship with your family or other Christian friends? How would it affect your participation in parachurch Christian ministries or services? Could you continue working in these organizations?

An even more significant question: For those of you that have revealed your acceptance of evolution, was it really worth it? Would you do it again, or would you choose to remain silent if given the choice to start over?