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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

An Evangelical Statement on Evolution (ESE): Contents

This is the fourth post in a series on “An Evangelical Statement on Evolution (ESE)”. If you are new to the series, you may wish to read the Introduction, ESE Objectives, and ESE Approach first.

Crafting a statement on evolution may be difficult for Evangelical Evolutionary Creationists (ECs). On the one hand, this is a very contentious topic in the broader Evangelical community and we must be careful if we are to have a positive impact on that community. On the other hand, many salient aspects of the dialogue are contentious even within the very small EC community. In the last post we discussed “How” we should say what we need to say; in this one I’ll lay out my suggestions on “What” we should say.

Some Initial Notes
I) A qualification: This is a broad overview of the content, and not a suggestion for the final (or maybe even initial) wording. My hope is that others will take this content and create the final statement (more on that in the next post)

II) A note on style: I see three options for the ESE (other suggestions welcome)

  1. A style similar to the Clergy Letter Project
  2. A “We believe” statement – somewhat like a statement of faith
  3. An Open Letter to our Evangelical community
My initial vote would go with #3.

III) Sections: I have divided the content into 6 sections: Creation, New Creation, Scripture, Science, Biological Evolution, and Purpose. These do not need to form 6 sections in the final ESE but I believe all of this content should be included in some manner.

A) Creation
The ESE should begin with an emphatic affirmation that we believe in creation. We trust in a God to whom the universe owes its origin and being. We trust a loving Creator who continues to sustain his creation from moment to moment. Even though the term “creation” has been tarnished in our modern culture, we need to reclaim and proclaim creation. As Richard Bube outlined most eloquently back in 1971, “We Believe in Creation”.

B) A New Creation
We also look forward to a new creation, when “All things will be made new”. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is both our hope and our promise. But this New Creation is not something that is restricted to the future. It is in our hearts. The Kingdom of God has already come. This is the good news we want to share with others.

C) Scripture
As Christians, we are “People of the Book”; as Protestant Christians we maintain the authority of Scripture; as Evangelical Protestants we continue to affirm the inspiration and authority of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, even when many of our Protestant cousins no longer agree with this claim.

Three points for discussion here:

1. I believe the ESE should remain silent on inerrancy, even as umbrella organizations like the NAE and the EFC are silent. Some Evangelical EC’s may still strongly affirm inerrancy (although, maybe not the version articulated in the Chicago Statement). Other Evangelical EC’s (maybe most) have strong reservations on inerrancy or at least would wish to qualify the term.

2. I am not sure if the ESE should say anything about scientific concordism. Some (probably a very few) ECs still maintain this hermeneutic strategy. So I’m tempted to be silent on this as well since a) I think the ESE should be as “big a tent as possible” and b) I think we should minimize negative terminology. On the other hand, as Rob mentioned here, scientific concordism is very problematic. So maybe the statement needs to say something as simple as “God’s Word is not intended to teach us science”.

3. More fundamentally, what does the ESE state about specific interpretations of Genesis – particularly Gen 1-11 or maybe just Gen 1-3? I am at a loss on what to say here – I’m tempted again to remain silent. How does one produce a statement which is acceptable to both staunch concordists (eg. Glenn Morton and Dick Fischer) and to those who maintain that the early part of Genesis bears little relation to historical or scientific fact (eg. Denis Lamoureux and Paul Seely)?

D) Science
Two things we should mention:

1. Christians are called to be people of integrity. This includes the area of science. We need to go where the evidence leads us, not where we think the evidence should go.

2. Many Evangelicals fear science (see ESE objective 2b) . This is highly regrettable. Since science is the study of God’s handiwork, Christians should revel in the study of creation. As Stephen Matheson noted, opponents of faith stole the reverent study of science from the Church; it may be time to steal it back.

E) Biological Evolution
I have already received several suggestions for what to include here. My view is that we include only those claims that are well supported by the evidence. This basically maps to E1, E2, and E3 from Allan’s definitions for evolution:
  • The earth is billions of years old and the geological record shows a progression in the development of life over many millions of years.
  • Common descent: The evidence strongly indicates links between all living organisms both in the present and in the past. Thus we can say with some confidence that any two living organisms on earth today share a common ancestor (maybe in the very ancient past).
  • Many different evolutionary mechanisms (eg. natural selection, genetic mutations, genetic drift) are important factors in the development of life on earth. It appears that God used these mechanisms in creating life, including the creation of humanity, the living organism he created in his own image.
My suggestion is that we leave out E4 (that evolutionary mechanisms completely account for common descent). Personally, I have no problem with E4 and believe it is theologically attractive and sound. However, I also believe the really important hurdle for the Evangelical church is common descent; let’s not make the bar higher than it needs to be (or possibly higher than it is warranted).

F) Purpose
Many people equate evolution with purposelessness. We must state categorically that this is incorrect. God has a definite purpose for creation; he has revealed much of that purpose through his written Word and the Word made flesh. God has both the ability and the will to accomplish that purpose, no matter what the cost (and thus his ultimate sacrifice). That his purpose will be accomplished is ultimately assured – even though he has given much freedom to his creation (including rebellious humanity).

I suggest that the ESE remain silent on design. I am sure that some ECs will be passionate in their desire to include some positive affirmation of design in the ESE; I am equally sure that many others (maybe most) would just as strongly wish to articulate a rejection of Intelligent Design (at least the ID movement). I think neither strategy would be helpful in accomplishing the goals articulated earlier. Design is a slippery concept, and I doubt we will achieve consensus on how we should articulate our position on it. More pertinent however, even though all of us believe that an intelligent designer (our God) was responsible for creation, design is not nearly as strong as purpose, is not as scripturally relevant as purpose, and is not as theologically important as purpose. Thus purpose must, in my opinion, be included the ESE while design should be neither affirmed nor rejected.

G) Conclusion
In our conclusion, I think we should affirm that we believe that harmony between faith and science can be achieved. However, we should also acknowledge that there are differences of opinion on how that harmony is reached. There is no point in pretending there is consensus when there may be significant differences of opinion between us on matters like biblical interpretation and models for divine action. What we share however, is a faith in the Creator God, and a desire demonstrate integrity in the study of his creation.

Finally, I believe we should directly address objective #2 defined earlier, ie. Helping those struggling with issues of faith and science. We might articulate it as follows:
  • To those Evangelicals considering abandoning their faith because of the evidence for evolution we say, “The conflict between science and an Evangelical expression of the Christian faith is completely unnecessary. We can trust the Creator God even if our understanding of how he created has changed over the centuries.
  • To those Evangelicals that fear science we say, “Do not be afraid. Science is simply the study of God’s creation. A deeper understanding of creation can lead to a deeper appreciation of the Creator.”
  • To those who are considering a commitment to Christ we say, “You CAN have the best of both worlds; both the one that leads to forgiveness, love, and spiritual fulfillment and the one that is intellectually satisfying and coherent with a scientific worldview.
Ok, in my last post I said the ESE should be short. However, in describing the contents I wrote possibly my longest post ever. Maybe this is going to be even more difficult than anticipated.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

An Evangelical Statement on Evolution (ESE): Approach

In the last post we discussed the objectives for the ESE. Before moving on to the content of the statement (that will be the next post in the series), I’d like to first share my view on the ESE’s approach. What should be its character? If someone read the ESE for the first time, how would they describe it?

Characteristic #1: Positive in Tone and Content

Sadly, many Christian position statements seem very negative, both in their tone (aggressively attacking whatever is perceived to be the problem) and in content (defining itself by what it is not, rather than what it is). Given the polarization of positions in the faith / science dialogue, a negative statement by Evolutionary Creationists (ECs) would only exacerbate this polarization. Special creationists are not our enemies; they are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Atheists are not our enemies; they too are created in the image of God (even if this is not acknowledged). If we want our message to be heard, we need to state our position with grace and compassion. If our objective is to win hearts and minds (or at least convince others that there is no need for warfare), we need to articulate positive aspects of an EC position (see HornSpiel's comment).

Characteristic #2: Displaying a Spirit of Humility

All of us have been wrong at times. Many of us were once very wrong on the evidence for evolution (and maybe, to our shame, made aggressive claims that we now regret). Since we are called to clothe ourselves with humility (Col 3:12), the ESE should echo that humility. ECs are not necessarily smarter, more honest, or more Christ-like; we have simply discovered (often through painful experience) that the science-faith war is completely unnecessary. The ESE should be written to share this good news, and not as an opening salvo for renewed debate.

Characteristic #3: Modest in its claims

I like Allan’s point in an earlier comment that the ESE should be modest in its claims. Scientific theories are continually being corrected and modified (see Irenicums comment) and we should not tie the ESE to specific (and possibly debatable) aspects of the theory. Allan’s proposed affirmation that:

science suggests that God may have used evolutionary processes to create, and from a Biblical and theological standpoint it is OK if that's how it happened
may be too modest for some of us, but I think it is good place to start the discussion. I suspect the extent of the modesty will be one of the more difficult decisions to make when crafting the ESE.

Characteristic#4: Broad appeal

One of the most attractive aspects of Evangelicalism is its ability to see beyond denominational boundaries. Most Evangelicals are very willing to work with others in advancing the Kingdom of God, even when theological differences abound. The ESE should take this approach as well, and appeal to the entire Evangelical spectrum. This means that the ESE should avoid specific theological claims that would be unacceptable to Reformed, Arminian, Lutheran, Anglican, Anabaptist, or any other Evangelical theological tradition.

Characteristic #5: Short

If the ESE is to raise awareness of the faith-science dialogue within the Evangelical community, it will have to be relatively short. A long, detailed document will not be broadly read, and will mean that certain interpretations of the ESE (probably unfriendly) will be read more than the ESE itself. If the ESE is longer than this blog post, it is probably too long.

Characteristic #6: “An” Evangelical statement; not “The” statement

No one can claim to speak for all Evangelicals, and this is especially true in the polarized science-faith dialogue. On the one hand, the ESE should clearly state that the position it espouses on scripture, creation, and evolution is consistent with the Evangelical tradition and that it is accepted by a wide variety of Evangelicals. However, it should also acknowledge that this position will not be acceptable to all Evangelicals, at least in the short term.

Is this an approach you think would work? Are there other characteristics that should be considered?

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

An Evangelical Statement on Evolution (ESE): Objectives

In the last post we discussed the possibility & value of building an Evangelical Statement on Evolution (ESE for short). Personally, I think the time is right for Evolutionary Creationists (ECs) to produce such a statement. However, I also think we need to be very careful; there are some risks in a project like this. If not done right, the results could be very counterproductive.

A New Series
In the next several posts I’d like to take a preliminary stab at:

a) the objectives we should define for the ESE
b) the approach and character of the statement
c) the contents of the statement
d) the process by which we should build it (hint: the answer isn’t the internet let alone this blog).

I should stress that these are merely preliminary ideas. I’m hoping that they can serve as a catalyst for other ECs to come up with something even better. Actually, most of these ideas are not my own, but merely a synthesis of ideas that others have contributed here and elsewhere. At the end of this series I’m mulling over conducting a survey to get further feedback. Let me know if you would like to participate (or better yet, if you have a good idea on how such a survey should be conducted).

A) ESE Objectives

First we need to define objectives. Why do we really need a statement like the ESE? What are we trying to accomplish? Just as importantly, what is beyond the scope of the ESE? We need to set practical objectives; setting unachievable objectives is simply a recipe for failure. Since (I believe) we want to achieve a broad consensus on what the statement contains, we better have agreement among ourselves on what we are trying to accomplish.

Objective #1: Communicate the Harmony of Faith and Science to the Broader Evangelical Community

Most Evangelicals believe that modern science, and biological evolution in particular, is the enemy of orthodox Christian theology and faith. What is worse, most Evangelicals seem completely unaware that any other view is possible, and that many within their faith community, including some of their own leaders, have already reconciled biological evolution with their faith. A key objective of the ESE will be to raise awareness that coming to peace with evolution is a theologically acceptable perspective for Evangelical Christians.

Objective #2: Provide Encouragement for those Struggling with the Perceived Conflict between Science and Faith

For many, the perceived conflict between faith and science is irreconcilable and thus a choice must be made. This choice can be emotionally and spiritually destructive. The ESE should provide encouragement to those struggling with this conflict, and provide a catalyst for them to come to peace with both their Creator and his creation. This applies to at least three groups of people:

a) Evangelicals considering abandoning their faith because of the evidence for evolution

Evangelicals are often told that evolution is incompatible with Christianity and that it is unsupported by the scientific evidence. However, many Evangelicals that actually examine the evidence for biological evolution find the evidence quite persuasive, and, because of the conflict thesis, they incorrectly believe that their faith must be abandoned. The ESE should demonstrate that many other Evangelicals have accepted the evidence for evolution without abandoning the core elements of Evangelical theology, and while maintaining an authentic and vibrant faith in the risen Christ.

b) Evangelicals that are fearful of science

Evangelical students will often avoid science (I did) because they are afraid that it will be detrimental to their faith. The ESE should show that Christians have nothing to fear from studying science, and that a deeper understanding of creation can lead to a deeper appreciation of the Creator.

c) Those prevented from putting their faith in Christ because of the perceived science / faith conflict

It is my impression that many people who are science-literate have difficulty accepting the Gospel because they equate the evidence for biological evolution with evidence against Christianity. This conflict-thesis stumbling block must be removed if the good news is to be received. The ESE should make it clear that evolution should not prevent anyone from making a faith commitment.

Objective #3: Serve as both a Resource and Encouragement for ECs

Many EC’s are part of communities that are hostile to evolution. These ECs are often reluctant to discuss their ideas within this community for fear of being ostracized. The ESE should provide encouragement to ECs by demonstrating that many Evangelical leaders share their perspective. It should also be a simple and non-threatening resource that can be shared with friends and other members of their community. Hopefully, this in turn will lead to positive dialogue regarding faith and science.

B) Other Worthy Objectives that the ESE should not try to Accomplish

To be successful, the ESE should not try to accomplish too much. Below are a few objectives that, although desirable goals in their own right, should not be considered as objectives for the ESE.

1. Provide Counterarguments to those Raised by AIG, ICR and other Like-minded Organizations

“Anti-evolution Creationist” organizations are well-funded and relatively powerful within the Evangelical community; no doubt they will attack the ESE with vigour. However, it would be impossible to respond to every argument these organizations put forward if we want the ESE to be shorter than a book. We have a multitude of other methods and resources that provide persuasive counter arguments to the conflict-thesis mantra. The ESE should simply make a positive statement on the compatibility of biological evolution and the Christian faith without trying to provide a detailed defense of Evolutionary Creationism.

2. Provide Counterarguments to those that use Evolution to Attack Christianity

For a similar reason, Christian apologetics should not be the goal of the ESE. Again, there are other resources for this purpose.

3. Trigger a Wholesale Change of Attitude within the Broader Evangelical Community

We need to be realistic; a simple statement like the ESE will not result in an immediate and dramatic change of attitude among a majority of Evangelicals. If we can simply start a dialogue, and bring hope to those struggling with the issue, the ESE should be considered a great success.

4. Defend the Integrity of Science in Public Education

Christians should be particularly concerned about integrity. So, it is galling to see dishonest methods used by some Christians in attacking the teaching of evolution. But defending the teaching of evolution should not be the goal of the ESE. That should be left to organizations like, for example, the NCSE.

So, what do you think? Are these valuable objectives? Are they achievable within a reasonable amount of time? Has the bar been set to low? Too high? What other objectives would you like to see?