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Sunday, 27 July 2008

Evolution: Necessary for the Continuation of Life

One of the common objections to evolution put forward by Christians is that:

A) The evolutionary process is dependent on death and
B) God would never use a process dependent on evil to accomplish his purposes

Now B) is a theological statement that can be disputed on many levels (eg. equating death with evil, or implying that God can not utilize bad situations for his purposes – one of the major themes of the bible clearly contradicts this implication eg. enslavement of Joseph, death of Christ). However, it is statement A) that I’d like to address here.

The Problem is Limited Resources
Paradigms on Pilgrimage is a book written by paleontologist Stephen Godfrey and Baptist minister Christopher Smith. Both are former YEC advocates who now advocate an evolutionary creationist position. In his chapter on dealing with the theological implications of evolution, Smith directly addresses claim A) above. It is not primarily evolutionary mechanisms like genetic mutations, or even natural selection, which is the problem. It is in fact, the limited amount of resources available to God’s creatures.

It is true that new characteristics take root in a population, under circumstances where they confer some survival advantage, as organisms with those characteristics displace those without them. But the effective cause of the demise of the organisms without the new characteristics is not the emergence of these characteristics themselves, through genetic variation, but rather the availability of only limited resources for the population as a whole. When resources are abundant, a greater range of organisms will survive, even those with less of a survival advantage. And finite resources pose just as great a theological problem for the [old or young earth] creationist. (page 167)
Evolutionary Mechanisms: A Creative Tool
With respect to the Fall and death in God’s good creation, I am not going to deal with the many (theological & scientific) arguments against young earth creationism (A very interesting paper somewhat related is Randy Isaac’s The Chronology of the Fall). What should be noted is that an OEC position has the exact same theological challenges as an EC position with regards to physical death before the fall, and the fact that pain, death, and extinction have been going on for a very, very long time. In many ways an EC position is much easier to defend; the evolutionary mechanism of genetic variation is an excellent strategy for the continuation of life in a changing environment.

Far from being dependent on death, the evolutionary process as seen in the fossil record is actually the antidote to death. If new species were not formed by the process of genetic variation, there would be no survivors when environmental conditions did change and existing species proved so poorly adapted to the new conditions that they became extinct. So death is not necessary for evolution, but evolution has been necessary for the continuation of life. (pages 167 and 168 – emphasis mine)
Evolution is not dependent on death and extinction; rather, given the world we have, it is the antidote to death and extinction. In the world God has created, evolutionary mechanisms enable the continuation of life. They are one of the tools God uses to accomplish his purposes.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

A Re-evaluation by Evangelical Theologians?: The ETS, the ASA, and Hints of Change

There has been some discussion on the gap between evangelical theologians and evangelical scientists on the topic of biological evolution. This gap is illustrated by the current relationship between the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and the closest thing to an evangelical scientific society, the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA). As Ted Davis noted, it has been a long time since there was significant interaction between the ASA and the ETS.

ASA and ETS Background
Both the ASA and the ETS were formed in the mid-20th century, the ASA in 1941 and the ETS in 1949. Both groups share a commitment to the evangelical faith and sound academic scholarship. The ETS encourages biblical and theological research while maintaining a commitment to biblical inerrancy. The ASA describes itself as a “fellowship that shares a common fidelity to the Word of God and a commitment to integrity in the practice of science”. Although many members of the ASA affirm the inerrancy of scripture, the group’s statement of faith simply states, “We accept the divine inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the Bible in matters of faith and conduct”.

For many years (I think starting in the late 1950s), the ETS and the ASA held joint annual meetings. However, at some point this was discontinued. I am not sure if ASA fellow Richard Bube’s petition to the ETS to “either to define inerrant or substitute some other term such as authoritative in its statement” was a factor in the fallout, or if this was simply a symptom of larger already-existing differences. (Ten points to anyone who can provide further background). In the ensuing years it seems even those who wished to renew ETS / ASA cooperation did not consider joint meetings to be a realistic target. In 1992 ASA member John McIntyre, commenting on the possibility of resuming joint meetings, said that “I do not believe that such a joint meeting would lead to the cooperation that we desire; we would spend all of our time arguing about evolution”.

I have indicated (on several occasions) my disappointment that evangelical theologians seem oblivious to the evidence for biological evolution. However, maybe this disappointment (and sense of impatience) is not warranted. Although I have no reason to believe that the ETS and the ASA are planning any formal dialogue in the near future, two potentially significant events give me reason for hope. The first is the participation of two theologians at the CIS conference later this year; the second is the open acceptance of theistic evolution by a former president of the ETS.

Evangelical Theologians at Christians in Science (CIS) Conference
The CIS is the UK sister organization to the ASA. Its 2008 annual conference is entitled “Celebrating Darwin? Creation, Evolution, and Theological Challenges”. It is interesting to note that two impeccably evangelical theologians will be presenting at this conference (HT: David Opderbeck). The conference program includes lectures from both Henri Blocher (Wheaton), the author of the very important In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis, and Richard Hess (Denver Seminary). I’m not sure if either of them would describe themselves as EC or TE, but the very fact they are presenting at this conference indicates that an important & neglected dialogue may be occurring. (Note: While in the UK, Hess will also be leading a session at the Faraday institute on God and Origins: Interpreting Genesis).

Bruce Waltke’s Support for Theistic Evolution
Bruce Waltke is a former president of the ETS. He has taught at Dallas Theological Seminary, Regent College, WTS, and RTS. Last year Waltke released his massive An Old Testament Theology. In a chapter entitled “The Gift of the Cosmos” (the whole chapter is excellent) Waltke candidly states his acceptance of theistic evolution, noting that Francis Collins “The Language of God” was very helpful to him (HT: to Glen Davis in this comment). Here is Waltke’s summary of his own position (pages 202 and 203 – note, the capitalized ADAM below refers to humanity):

The best harmonious synthesis of the special revelation of the Bible, of the general revelation of human nature that distinguishes between right and wrong and consciously or unconsciously craves God, and of science is the theory of theistic evolution.

By “theistic evolution” I mean that the God of Israel, to bring glory to himself,

1. created all the things that are out of nothing and sustains them

2. incredibly, against the laws probability, finely tuned the essential properties of the universe to produce ADAM, who is capable of reflecting upon their origins

3. within his providence allowed the process of natural selection and of cataclysmic interventions – such as the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs, enabling mammals to dominate the earth – to produce awe-inspiring creatures, especially ADAM

4. by direct creation made ADAM a spiritual being, an image of divine beings, for fellowship with himself by faith

5. allowed ADAM to freely choose to follow their primitive animal nature and to usurp the rule of God instead of living by faith in God, losing fellowship with their physical and spiritual Creator

6. and in his mercy chose from fallen ADAM the Israel of God, whom he regenerated by the Holy Spirit, in connection with their faith in Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, for fellowship with himself.

Now, I could quibble with a few points in the description above, and I’d never personally use the term “theory of theistic evolution”, but on the whole this is pretty good. That someone of Waltke’s pedigree can change his mind in this matter is heartening. Maybe we should provide some of those ten books to more evangelical theologians. Maybe we just need to be patient and let them think this through for awhile.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Excellent New Science-Faith Curriculum Appropriate for Churches

Douglas Hayworth has flagged an excellent Science-Faith resource for Church groups. The Religion and Science: Pathways to Truth course is offered by the Wesley Ministry Network (WMN) and includes nine DVD-based lessons with submissions from Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, Darrel Falk, Ted Peters, Alister McGrath and many others. WMN states that the target audience is

For laypersons or clergy groups in churches of all denominations. Course materials will also be an invaluable addition to university classes in science and religion.
This looks very exciting.

Full Program (from the WMN website):
1. Introduction: by Francis S. Collins, Director, The Human Genome Project
2. Friends or Foes? The Story of a Complex Relationship: by David Wilkinson, St. John's College, Durham (England)
3. Truth in Science and Theology: by Philip Clayton, Claremont School of Theology
4. God and Nature: by Keith Ward, Oxford University
5. Creation and Evolution: by Darrel Falk, Point Loma Nazarene University
6. What Does It Mean to Be Human?: by Warren Brown, Fuller Theological Seminary
7. The God of Hope and the End of the World: by John Polkinghorne, Cambridge University
8. Genetic Science and the Frontiers of Ethics: by Ted Peters, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary
9. Concluding Bible Study on Creation Care: by Beth Norcross, Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, Bruce Birch, Susan Willhauck & Kendall Soulen, Wesley Theological Seminary

There is also a Bonus DVD that Includes:
1. A Conversation Between Nobel Laureate William Phillips (N.I.S.T.; University of Maryland)and Francis S. Collins
2. The Dawkins Delusion?: by Alister McGrath, Oxford University
3. Reflections on a Life of Faith and Science: by Nobel-Laureate Charles-Townes, Berkeley, University of California
4. Natural Selection and the Economy of Grace: by Amy Laura Hall, Duke University Divinity School

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Ten Books and what they mean for Evolutionary Creationism

Quick Quiz. How many books do you think possess all of the following characteristics?

  • Promotes the compatibility between biological evolution and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith
  • Is a non-academic work targeted at a popular reading level
  • Was published in North America prior to 2003
To the best of my knowledge, the right answer is none. A big fat zero. Zilch. As of 5 years ago, you could not find a single popular-level work by an North American Evangelical Christian which dissented from the evolution / Christian faith conflict thesis. (Note: There were some published in Europe). Fast-forward 5 years. As of June 2008, North American Evangelicals have at least 10 books that meet the above characteristics. They are as follows:

The Ten Books
1. Richard Colling, Random Designer (2004)
2. Darrel Falk, Coming to Peace with Science (2004)
3. David Wilcox, God and Evolution (2004)
4. Stephen Godfrey and Christopher Smith, Paradigms on Pilgrimage (2005)
5. Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe (2006)
6. Francis Collins, The Language of God (2007)
7. Gordon Glover, Beyond the Firmament (2007)
8. Deborah and Loren Haarsma, Origins (2007)
9. Karl Giberson, Saving Darwin (2008)
10. Denis Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation (2008)

Why did Evangelicals have to wait so long to receive this type of book? Why did this mini-explosion of books occur now? Why is the author profile for all these books nearly identical (they are almost all scientists)? Allow me to provide my own speculations.

What this Tells Me
1. Evolutionary Creationism (EC) is no longer a radical fringe position within the Evangelical community. We have a dozen well-educated Evangelicals who defend both Christian and scientific orthodoxy, and who have invested the time and energy to communicate science/faith compatibility to the typical Evangelical in the pew. The scholarly dialogue phase regarding the scientific merits of biological evolution within the mainstream evangelical scientific community may be practically complete; we are now in a phase where this community is communicating their (majority?) consensus to their Christian brothers and sisters who are less comfortable with scientific discussions.

2. This communication to the masses is however, very, very recent. Even 10 years ago, North American Evangelicals would have had a tough time finding any popular level discussion that was even sympathetic to an EC view, let alone one that actively promoted it. Now Evangelicals can pick and choose among several options. So, to those EC’s that are frustrated with the pace of the acceptance of EC ideas I say: “Please be patient, we have only started to get this message out.”

3. Notwithstanding this consensus among Evangelical scientists, there is a huge gap within the Evangelical academic community. (See also the historical perspective & future directions post by Ted Davis). Whereas the discussion among evangelical scientists is relatively mature, the discussion among biblical scholars is just beginning. As to Evangelical theologians, do they even realize that there is a discussion?

What we need to do
1. The time is past for lamenting the lack of sound scientific resources on the topic of biological evolution from a distinctly Evangelical perspective. We probably have all that we really need. What we should be doing is promoting the resources that are already available.

2. Given that this reconciliation within the Evangelical community is so recent, and that the past conflict was so harsh, those of us that are comfortable with an EC perspective need to exhibit a spirit of understanding, patience and love when discussing these issues with other Evangelicals (see also particularly Richard Colling’s recent post on this topic).

3. Finally, we need to do something to wake up the Evangelical theological community. As I have said in the past, it is not sufficient for theologians to explain historic theological approaches that may have been appropriate for Christians in ages past. For the good of our faith we also need approaches that make sense of our modern and post-modern world. And the relationship between science and faith (and evolution & faith in particular) is one of the most salient issues causing angst among modern & post-modern Evangelicals.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Index for Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics Series

The "Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics" guest-post series was published from May 18, 2008 through July 2, 2008. It included thirteen posts by nine different authors. The following is the index for the entire series.

Setting the Stage

1. Introduction by Steve Martin

2. Creation, Evolution, and the Nature of Science by Keith Miller

Teaching Evolution in Higher Education

3. Is the Scientific Academic Community a Hostile Environment for Faith? by Keith Miller

4. Teaching Evolution in Christian Higher Education by Dennis Venema

5. Evolution and Faith: Communicating their Compatibility in Christian Higher Education by Richard Colling

6. The Evolution Controversy at Calvin College: Historical Perspective by Stephen Matheson

7. Teaching Evolution at Calvin College: A Personal Perspective by Stephen Matheson

Teaching Evolution to Children and High School Students

8. Evolution in Public Schools: A Threat or a Challenge? by Karl Giberson

9. Why Evolution Should be Taught in Christian Schools by Gordon Glover

10. The Challenge of Teaching Science in a Christian Homeschooling Setting by Douglas Hayworth

11. Teaching Creation in Sunday School by Douglas Hayworth


12. Historical Perspective and Future Directions by Ted Davis

13. Conclusion by Steve Martin

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics: Conclusion

This is the final installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” guest-post series.

After six weeks and thirteen posts we have come to the end of our series on Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics. As nearly every post indicated, the Evangelical engagement with evolution in academia is one characterized by considerable tension and conflict. It is a conflict that, to most observers, will not end anytime soon.

However, many Evangelicals, including all those who participated in this series, hope and pray that the continuation of this conflict will be short lived. We want our community to rediscover an authentic theology of creation, and to stop relegating the opening words of scripture to simple science and history. We want science classes in our homeschools, in our Christian schools, and in the public schools to be viewed as opportunities to explore the wonders of creation, all of God’s creation, even processes of creation that seem threatening to our faith. It is these sometimes threatening opportunities that can enable robust spiritual growth.

There is certainly hope. Many evangelical scientists, and evangelical biologists in particular, see no conflict between their orthodox Christian faith and the evidence for biological evolution. Even though anti-evolutionism often remains strong in their churches and college affiliations, these evangelical scientists have worked hard to present the truth contained in both of God’s books. This presentation of the truth frequently takes courage as well as healthy doses of all nine fruits-of-the-spirit (Gal 5:22,23).

Although the implications of biological evolution can seem faith shaking, they can also be faith affirming. This is certainly true in Christian universities where the support of Christian educators can help students work through the theological minefields. However, it can also be true in secular universities, institutions that are often ideal environments to challenge and deepen one’s faith.

This series has been a learning experience for me personally. I very much appreciated the perspectives and experiences shared by all contributors. Some presented ideas that were completely new to me; others helped me clarify thoughts that I was not able to articulate adequately. Some gave me encouragement; others challenged me. But all of them enriched my own spiritual and intellectual journey. So to Keith, Dennis, Richard, Stephen, Karl, Gordon, Douglas, and Ted – thanks. Thanks a lot.