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Sunday, 31 August 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #10: The Creator as Author, Producer, Director, and Actor in the Cosmic Drama

Explaining divine action in an evolutionary creation model (or any model for that matter) is notoriously difficult. Many analogies and explanations have been attempted; none are entirely successful. All of them are limited since there is no parallel to the transcendent God and thus no parallel to divine action. If pushed too far, many analogies lead to a view of God that is either deistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic. Some explanations portray God as little more than a powerful demiurge, an almost natural deity that is more similar to Zeus than Yahweh. That being said, I think Polkinghorne’s comparison of divine action to roles in a theatrical production is helpful:

[The Christian] Creator is as far as possible from any idea of a demiurge. The latter is a cause among causes, an agent among the many agencies at work in the world, even if he possesses power and intelligence greatly superior to the other actors on the cosmic stage. The Creator God, on the other hand, is the author and producer of the whole play.

From Science and Creation, page 68

This is good as far as it goes (and really Polkinghorne should have assigned the role of director to the Creator as well). It implies (correctly) that the Creator has planned the universe’s entire historical narrative for a purpose, and that every creature (from atoms to Adams) receives its part from him. The Creator provides guidance to the actors, but does not micromanage every action, posture, breath, and facial expression. Within the play, creatures are given genuine freedom to act within the limitations of the parts they are given.

However, to complete the analogy, one must also acknowledge that God is more than just the author, producer, and director, but is also an actor. He is the God who revealed himself to the patriarchs, spoke to the ancient Hebrews through the prophets, launched the Church at Pentecost, and leads us today by his Holy Spirit.

And then there is Jesus Christ, the character scripted to endure ultimate unfairness, ultimate suffering, ultimate death, ultimate judgment, and damnation. For this central character, God chose to play the part himself.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes in this Series: [Introduction] [Previous]

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

An Evangelical Palaeontology student reviews Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creation

This is a guest review of Denis Lamoureux’s new book "Evolutionary Creation" by Jordan Mallon. Jordan is a member of the CSCA and has just been accepted into a PhD program in the Dept. of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary. Congratulations Jordan!

Like Denis Lamoureux, the author of Evolutionary Creation, I'm an Evangelical Christian and a student of palaeontology and evolution. At one time, such an admission would have incited whispers and invited accusations of cognitive dissonance. Many see the act of trying to marry evolutionary science with Christian theology as futile, like trying fit a square peg in a round hole. And for many years I felt the same way. I felt as though there was some piece of the puzzle missing that would help me to make sense of the book God inspired and the world He created.

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle
Lamoureux's latest contribution is that missing puzzle piece. Having been born and raised in a conservative Lutheran church, I was taught to believe in young earth creationism and was told that evolution is a tool of the devil. Probably the most common objection to evolution was that it contradicted the sin-death connection presented in the Bible. After all, if there was death before Adam, how could Adam's sin have introduced death into the world, as Paul repeats in the New Testament? In his book, Lamoureux attempts to answer the "sin-death problem". His solution is simple: There is no sin-death problem.

Approaches to the Relationship of Scripture and Science
We reach this conclusion by first recognizing two important categories in the evolution/creation dialogue: concordism and accommodationism. Concordism is the belief that the Bible's statements about science and history are always accurate, and that any scientific theory that contradicts the Bible must be wrong. Accommodationism is the understanding that God accommodated His message of faith, love, and redemption to the first Hebrew people using language and motifs they were familiar with (e.g. solid firmament in the sky, preformatism, numerology, etc.), and that any attempt to milk scientific insight from the Bible is missing the forest for the trees. Citing the example of Jesus' incarnation, Lamoureux sees the latter position as most in-line with God's nature. He defends this view using an inductive Bible study method, pointing to one example after another of the primitive science and history found in the Scriptures. Lamoureux is careful to defend biblical inerrancy, however, stating

"... the Bible is the inerrant and infallible eternal Word of God transcending time and incarnated in the incidental imperfect words of humans within history"
(p. 174).
Once we accept that the Bible does not necessarily contain accurate science, we are free to accept the conclusions of evolutionary science, regardless of whether or not they accord with the Genesis creation account. Using the analogy of human development in the womb (Psalm 139:13-14), Lamoureux presents evolution as just another natural process, ordained and sustained by God, by which the Lord achieves His good will and creates human life. In fact, Lamoureux sees evolution as the perfect creative process by which God both reveals Himself to us in the design reflected in that process (Deus Revelatus), and by which He hides Himself from us in the non-miraculous nature of that process (Deus Absconditus), thereby allowing us as His children the opportunity to truly exemplify our faith in Him. This was a key point that really struck a chord with me. After all, we wouldn't need faith if we could use science to prove God's handiwork in the world.

Suffering and Death
But how can Jesus, the Prince of Peace, make use of evolution, which involves suffering and death, to achieve His good will? Lamoureux offers a robust theodicy in answer to this question, noting that Jesus himself declared that suffering and death exist to bring glory to God (e.g., John 11:4). Strangely, this contrasts with Paul's understanding of the origin of death through Adam, as revealed by Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. Returning to the concept of accommodationism, Lamoureux completes this puzzle by noting that the origin of human suffering and death in Genesis 3 is itself an accommodation of God to the ancient motifs of the first Hebrew people. Death isn't a result of sin, as Genesis 3 states and Paul repeats. Death exists to bring glory to God, as Jesus himself tells us.

Some of these claims will no doubt leave many Christians uncomfortable. Lamoureux's suggestions are well removed from traditional church thinking (though perhaps not as far removed as some might think). I am still not sure how to feel about some aspects of the book, but that is part of the beauty of works like this one: It forces us to engage our Evangelical minds and to actually THINK about what we believe and why we believe it. Lamoureux admits to not having all the answers, but this is something he has learned to live with. What remains clear is the author's undying commitment to Christ and to understanding the world and the Word He has given us. And for that reason alone, I think Lamoureux deserves to be heard.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Inerrancy: Ignore it, Redefine it, or Replace it?

Note: I changed the title of this post a couple hours after publication - substituting "Replace" for "Abandon".

Within Evangelicalism, biblical inerrancy may be the only theological topic more contentious than evolution. And, like evolution, a big part of the contention is with the definition of inerrancy. While almost all of us quickly affirm scripture’s authority and divine inspiration, many of us hesitate when asked to affirm biblical inerrancy, or at least carefully qualify what we mean by the term. Given the lack of consensus on the definition of inerrancy, many Evangelical organizations, including missions, colleges, affiliations, churches and umbrella organizations like the NAE and the EFC, refrain from mentioning it in their statements of faith.

Enns new definition
Peter Enns, in one of 5 essays defending his approach in Inspiration and Incarnation addresses the issue of inerrancy. After acknowledging that the last thing the world needs is another definition of inerrancy, he immediately provides one.

I affirm that I am committed to the Bible’s inerrancy as a function of its divine origin. If I may offer a thumbnail definition, the Bible as it is is without error because the Bible as it is is God’s Word.
For Enns, inerrancy starts with scriptures’ divine origin, and not with a historical, scientific, or logical analysis of the text. It is not something to test, but something to receive.
To put it another way, a belief in Scripture as God’s word is an article of faith, a gift of the Spirit, and is confirmed by faithful study and following Jesus within a community of believers. It is not where we end up after some rational proofs. It is where we begin so that we can end there.
And that for me succinctly and effectively captures the essential theological truth. If this is the definition of inerrancy then I am 100% on board. Scripture is the living Word of God, and as revelation from God, an infallible guide for those who actively put their faith in God.

Enns acknowledges in his article that this definition will not be acceptable to many Evangelicals, particularly those who hold a rather strict (and thoroughly modern) view of inerrancy; many will see it as an open-ended license to interpret scripture in any way they see fit. Enns elaborates on why this is not the case, and why strict inerrantists should look carefully in the mirror when making this accusation.

Is the term Inerrancy still useful?
I am wondering if the term inerrancy may have outgrown its usefulness within the Evangelical community. As Carlos Bovell astutely notes, our schizophrenic tendencies to both qualify and jettison the inerrancy dogma indicates a passing of an age. At best the term may be superfluous (An excellent article by David Congdon. Read it); at worst it may go too far in the wrong direction (conforming the Holy Scriptures to modern metrics) and not far enough in the right one (promoting a healthy attitude and approach to scripture).

Scripture is from God. The Scriptures as we have them, are exactly what God wanted us to have. They are trustworthy and will not lead us astray. However, inerrancy does not unambiguously address any of these affirmations. My reluctance to latch onto inerrancy is not so much about what it says, but about what it does not say. Inerrancy just isn’t strong enough.

A couple of Postscripts
1. Enns and WTS have officially parted. This will not, as earlier announced, drag into December. A joint statement by Enns and WTS has been released. It includes this acknowledgment by the WTS administration:
The administration wishes to acknowledge the valued role Prof. Enns has played in the life of the institution, and that his teaching and writings fall within the purview of Evangelical thought.
2. Within the small but growing community of Evangelicals who describe themselves as Evolutionary Creationists or Theistic Evolutionists, the wide array of attitudes towards inerrancy mirrors that of the broader Evangelical community. Many, as one would suspect, are uncomfortable affirming inerrancy. Many others strongly affirm inerrancy, even in its strictest forms (Eg. Glenn Morton and Dick Fischer). Others would support a more nuanced definition. For example, Denis Lamoureux strongly affirms inerrancy even though he bluntly states that there was no historical Adam.