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Thursday, 3 December 2009

Speaking the Truth (about science) in Love - and Focus on the Family’s Truth Project

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:14-16)
Christian Unity
I really appreciate Ephesians chapter 4 where Paul admonishes believers to be unified in Christ, to be at peace with one another, and to treat each other with gentleness, love, and respect. We need to recognize both our individual gifts (eg. 1 Cor 12) and our individual frailties so that we can work to our common goal. This attitude will not only help us grow closer to Christ, but will also help us attract others to the family of God.

But being unified in love does not imply an anything-goes acceptance. Part of being family is helping each other mature in the faith, and this includes “speaking the truth in love”. Our faith is in Jesus Christ who is the “way, the truth, and the life”; articulating this truth and defending this truth (1 Pet 3:15-17) is part of our calling. Sometimes we need to discuss with, ask questions of, and even confront, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Truth is important.

Truth in Science
So what about truth in science? For many years the majority of evangelicals have loudly and vigorously opposed the theory of evolution, even though the evidence for common descent is now almost scientifically incontestable. So it is probably time for those of us that have travelled this journey of faith / science reconciliation to speak the truth in love. As Mark Noll notes, the methods of evangelical engagement with science have become “intellectually, biblically, theologically, apologetically, and spiritually” damaging.

Discussing the issues of Origins in the Church
As we discussed here almost two years ago, there are times to confront, times to dialogue, and times to remain silent on the topic of origins. However, as I admitted then (as still admit now) determining when to confront, when to dialogue and when to remain silent is notoriously difficult.

On a personal level, I think Bethany offers some good advice in this comment from her post last week. When discussing origins with other Christians, we should take into account whether the setting is appropriate, whether the science / faith issue has pastoral implications for the person involved (ie. We could do more harm than good), and maybe most importantly, whether we have the “relational currency” to challenge our Christian friend.

Focus on the Family’s “Truth” Project and Preaching Untruths in the Church
Focus on the Family is promoting their “Truth Project” to churches and small groups. A quick look at the lesson overview shows that, ironically, the Truth Project doesn’t seem to put much stock in truth when it comes to science (see lesson 5). For example, this lesson states that “Darwinian theory transforms science from the honest investigation of nature into a vehicle for propagating a godless philosophy”. Completely untrue.

Then later it is stated that:
A careful examination of molecular biology and the fossil record demonstrates that evolution is not a "proven fact."
This might be technically defensible depending how badly one defined “evolution” and “proven”, but at the very minimum this is (maybe unintentionally) deceptive; hardly a harbinger for expecting much truth from the actual lessons.

Confronting Anti-evolution in the Church
Given what has been said above, I would like to propose a guideline for when we as ECs should NOT remain silent. When either 1) a Christian organization in which we participate or 2) our local Church officially promote anti-evolutionary views, I believe that we must speak up. In this instance, we must “speak the truth in love” and provide the message that:

a) the scientific evidence for common descent is massive
b) the acceptance of biological evolution is compatible with an evangelical expression of the Christian faith

For us to remain silent in these circumstances would be a disservice to the gospel. It would be unloving to our brothers and sisters who are being told that their faith rests on a specific view of science that is demonstrably false.

Dennis Venema’s response to the Truth Project
Dennis Venema is currently in this exact situation – and is speaking up. As he outlined in this comment last week, the Truth Project is being taught at his church. As a geneticist, he is particularly qualified to point out where scientific falsehoods are being promoted. Dennis offered to provide an official response for his church but was turned down. In lieu of that, he gave a talk to some interested church members in a private home.

I encourage my readers to check out Dennis’s talk entitled "Can an evangelical Christian accept evolution?" (the video is broken into 12 parts). As he indicated, this talk for his fellow church members is based on his "Human Genomics: Vestiges of Eden or Skeletons in the Closet?" lecture (audio and slides) at the ASA conference this summer, but this more intimate discussion is targeted at a non-specialist audience.

I thought Dennis's presentation to his church friends was excellent; I believe it will be particularly helpful for someone new to this dialogue. And it was definitely provided in a spirit of speaking the truth in love. Hopefully this will encourage the rest of us to follow suit.


Ben said...

Has anybody heard the evolution/ID debate from the other night, Shermer and Prothero vs Meyer and Sternberg?

I was particularly interested in Sternberg's 'debunking' of whale evolution with population genetics - it begins around 37 mins in that mp3. What do the biologists here reckon?

Adam said...

Interesting, there were some statements made towards the end by Meyer and Sternberg concerning fossil and genetic evidence for common ancestry between humans and chimps;
- population size makes it impossible for natural selection to act, so only available mechanism is random genetic drift
- chimp genome has not been completely sequenced
- genomes don't align properly, sequences have to be rearranged, "gymnastics has to be done to get them to map on"
- we don't know actual percentage of similarity between the humans and chimp genomes
- presumed junk DNA has functions
- non-coding regions of DNA in chimps and humans are "species specific"
- chromosome complement is different and there are "significant differences" in raw sequences

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for posting this.

I wonder, sometimes, if the same sort of situation doesn't exist with global warming? (I know, that isn't the subject of this blog.)

I volunteer with the Good News Club, an international organization that sponsors after-school Bible story teaching to those whose parents allow it, in public school systems that allow it. I was dismayed to discover that the curriculum, for the first few months of the year, was written by Answers in Genesis, on origins (what else?). I wondered if I should somehow stand up to someone about this, but did not -- it was only supposed to be 4 or 5 minutes a week, and some of it was uncontroversial. When I had an opportunity to teach, I altered the lesson a little, and I noticed that the other teacher who taught this material did so, too, independently of me. But maybe I should have complained to someone.

Thanks again.

Steve Martin said...

Ben, Adam: I'll let the biologists comment on this one ... but from my understanding, whale evolution is one of the best documented. Ryan who provided the first post in the student series last month focuses his studies on whale evolution - in fact, he's on a trip to Egypt now doing that (and doesn't have access to the internet) but I think he'll be home soon.

Martin: Thanks for sharing that. I'm not sure what I'd do in that situation - probably the same as you. If the material can be presented appropriately I'd go for it; if it was skewed so badly that it was irredeemable (eg. stating 6-day creationism is the only right Christian position), then maybe you'd have a tough choice to make. As Doug Hayworth said quite a while ago, we need to tell the story & explore the story.

Steve Martin said...

All: John Stackhouse has just put up a post called hate the Sin but Love the Sinner? We are not ready for that. He too talks about "speaking the truth in love" .. or rather how we as Christians fail in this task so miserably, particularly in the blogosphere. Stackhouse states:

"when we move out into public discourse, so many of those who can’t resist disliking their fellow Christians can be positively venomous toward those of more divergent views. But there is also the peculiar, but widespread, phenomenon of reserving the most vicious language for family members, for those who are seen to be disloyal and dangerous kin."

Yikes! So much for attracting people to the family of God.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Steve.

They didn't say that it was the only Christian position, but they wrote as if it were.

Jordan said...

What I would like to see more from Evolutionary Creationists is the theological framework from which an evangelical Christian can interpret the theological implications of biological evolution without throwing out core principles.

As a scientist and Christian myself I really appreciated this blog and the recent series of "testimonials". My only issue is that they all more or less said, "in my experience a Christian can also believe in evolution, there is no conflict", but there we wasn't really any justification for it.

The question, in my view, isn't so much whether it's possible to be a Christian and evolutionist, but rather the question that's often on the minds of young Christian scientists is, "what theology do I have to give up to eliminate the conflict?" I would be interested to here more on that end of the dialog.

Jordan said...

Hi Jordan (great name, btw): Have you read Robin Collins' chapter in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation? It discusses exactly what you're asking about.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Jordan (#1):
Welcome. Re: your desire to hear more about the theological implications, excellent, excellent question. Three quick points:

1) I think the short answer to your question is that we can’t talk about “the theological framework” (ie. Theological consensus) since there isn’t one. Reasons for this include:

a) evangelicalism is theologically broad, so to expect a single theological framework (especially on a contentious issue like evolution) is highly unlikely

but more importantly:

b) evangelical theologians are just starting to grapple with the issue (say in the last decade); evangelical scientists have been saying for some time that “hey guys, common descent is real” but the rest of us (including our theologians) are just waking up to the fact.

2) I strongly believe that we do NOT need to “throw out” any core principles of our faith (and maybe some of those things we thought were core, really weren’t – like early Christianity short battle over “meat offered to idols” - see: 1 Cor 8); I also believe that the “conflict thesis” has been exacerbated and exaggerated by those who have a vested interest in seeing the conflict continue (eg. YEC organizations & anti-Christian advocates – starting way back in the late 19th century with White’s publication of “History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom”)

3) This discussion has actually started – but has not been widely publicized yet (eg. Jordan #2’s reference to Miller’s Perspectives on an Evolving Creation is excellent). For a some past brief discussions on this blog re: the more difficult theological implications of evolution, see:

a) Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation: Part 2 – Five Common Faithstoppers


Reconciling the Fall and Evolution

Anonymous said...

The series puts forth a standard model of conservative politics and theology, including the idea that the Bible contains 'absolute truth' (defined as they wish it to be). It even contains a pitch for the flat tax and invokes the supposedly ‘Christian’ origin of the United States. I don't know that you can separate the science from that whole mentality. If you are convinced that Christianity means this whole set of views, then you are not likely to accept a discussion about the shortcomings of their science. As I have observed and this blog has commented before, the ID ‘science’ is enough to give a sense of comfort to those who want to hold the views, and the followers are really not all that interested in evidence.

Anonymous said...

The series puts forth a standard model of conservative politics and theology, including the idea that the Bible contains 'absolute truth' (defined as they wish it to be). It even contains a pitch for the flat tax and invokes the supposedly ‘Christian’ origin of the United States. I don't know that you can separate the science from that whole mentality. If you are convinced that Christianity means this whole set of views, then you are not likely to accept a discussion about the shortcomings of their science. As I have observed and this blog has commented before, the ID ‘science’ is enough to give a sense of comfort to those who want to hold the views, and the followers are really not all that interested in evidence.

Steve Martin said...

Steve R:
I guess what you tell me about the FotF Truth Project makes me even more concerned: when the gospel is tied to specific political, economic, or scientific positions, THAT is a huge problem. (Doesn't mean that we as Christians shouldn't have specific positions on politics, economics, or science BUT we should be very clear that this is not the gospel or the Truth with a capital T.)

I also wonder if the materials are adaptable (eg. given that Dennis's church is in Canada, do they really discuss the American specific politics etc.).

Anonymous said...

Kind of like the situation mentioned where global warming debate position was worked into the lesson plan. At least in my experience, looking at evolution cracked that whole nut open. People have a whole set of views, that they tend to roll into what they think is 'Bible.' I wasn't like that, but I did have to figure out what to do with the creation accounts.

T'sinadree said...

Jordan and anyone else who's interested, the following book from Stephen H. Webb (who takes both evolutionary biology and theology seriously) has just been published.

Webb, S. H. (2009). The Dome of Eden: A New Solution to the Problem of Creation and Evolution. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Publishers Description:
What would biology look like if it took the problem of natural evil seriously? This book argues that biological descriptions of evolution are inherently moral, just as the biblical story of creation has biological implications. A complete account of evolution will therefore require theological input. The Dome of Eden does not try to harmonize evolution and creation. Harmonizers typically begin with Darwinism and then try to add just enough religion to make evolution more palatable, or they begin with Genesis and pry open the creation account just wide enough to let in a little bit of evolution.

By contrast, Stephen Webb provides a theory of how evolution and theology fit together, and he argues that this kind of theory is required by the internal demands of both theology and biology. The Dome of Eden also develops a theological account of evolution that is distinct from the intelligent design movement. Webb shows how intelligent design properly discerns the inescapable dimension of purpose in nature but, like Darwinism itself, fails to make sense of the problem of natural evil. Finally, this book draws on the work of Karl Barth to advance a new reading of the Genesis narrative and the theology of Duns Scotus to provide the necessary metaphysical foundation for evolutionary thought.

Brent said...


Only in the past 30 years or so has theology finally started engaging these issues. But there is a lot of great stuff out there today. There are many different takes on things, though I'm often surprised at the level of convergence. I'd recommend starting off with some of Polkinghorne's more popular works if you're totally new to thinking through the theological implications. Also, Catholic thinking is definitely worth exploring. John Haught has some great stuff. I also recently finished a fantastic book by Terrence Nichols called 'The Sacred Cosmos' that I highly recommend.

In general, the reason the recent barrage of Christian scientists 'coming out' on this topic encourages me is that it may finally bring the theological discussion more into the public sphere. IMO, the few theologians who work on this topic have been largely ignored in wider theological academic circles and have therefore been even more ignored by the pastorate.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Brent,
No arguments on Polkinghorne from me. But when a guy has published about a zillion books, "some of his more popular works" might not be the most helpful advice :-).

I'd start with "Science and Christian Belief" (discussion of Science in the context of the Nicene Creed). Do you have a one-or-two favorites you would recommend as a starting point?

Irenicum said...

I just read this piece by Tim Stafford. I loved it and can't wait for the whole seires. Hope you like it too.

Allan Harvey said...

On Polkinghorne, I believe the "Science and Christian Belief" that Steve mentioned was titled "Faith of a Physicist" when published in the U.S.
My #1 Polkinghorne recommendation is "Belief in God in an Age of Science", but as Steve says there are many books, some with a lot of overlap, and I don't know the whole canon.

Another good book that deals with theology is "The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross" by George Murphy. I wrote a review of the book.

Steve Martin said...

Good tip! Stafford writes:

In my reading, two people have the kind of breadth of mind to bridge this gap and bring understanding—Michael Polanyi and John Polkinghorne. Unfortunately neither one is an easy read. Polanyi’s epic Personal Knowledge is as long as War and Peace, while Polkinghorne’s many books are very short, but it makes no difference. Most people won’t read them. They are the sorts of books that require concentration on each paragraph, and sometimes on each sentence.

Concentration? No kidding. I often need to concentrate hard as I reread a paragraph of Polkinghorne two or three times.

That's maybe why some people can't stomache his writing. I had a reader indicate in an email to me not long ago that:

[Polkinghorne] is lovely man [but] I simply can't stand his writing. ... some of the things he has written ... were simply terrible.

I very much respect this reader's views on just about everything else, but this is, well, not sacrilege, but pretty close!

Anyways, Stafford promises in a series to write a series of posts that:

intends to bring Polkinghorne’s insights down to a lower shelf, and possibly tempt some of you to actually read him.

Looking forward to it.

And I agree with Allan, that Murphy's book is very good (maybe a little easier read too).

D.L. Folken said...

You stated that the evidence for common descent is massive. I enjoyed a good laugh when you stated this.

The evidence for a common Creator is in fact massive, not common descent.

Darwinian evolution excludes God as the Creator and depends solely on naturalism. Of course, we could argue that Darwinian evolution is the design itself; however, the science doesn't allow us to say that even at this point.

Christians argue that Creation was a miracle, age is an appearance and commonality are evidence of a Common Designer.

When Darwinians actually demonstrate their theory, then we will have something to talk about. At this point, they just have speculative theories that fail to meet the threshold of science because it has not been demonstrated.

Lenski is still trying to turn E. Coli into worms, moths or birds; however, he still has E. Coli..

At least the Darwinians are actually trying now to demonstrate their theories rather than just promoting propaganda.

The fact is that no one was their and no one has observed Darwinian evolution. When they do, I will let you know; however, I suspect they never will be able to demonstrate it.

Jordan said...

ZDENNY: You state that the evidence for a common creator is "massive". I'm curious to know what evidence you feel points to a common creator as opposed to different ones.

(Also, you might want to read my recent essay on this blog about conflating agency and mechanism, and ontological and methodological naturalism.)

Greg said...


It is extremely disingenuous to claim that common design and common descent make the same predictions; they most definitely do not, so you can't just claim it is a matter of interpretations (as Ken Ham would say "same evidence, different interpretations"). It is not just a case of similarities, there is much, much more to it than that. Dennis has explained this quite clearly in at least 2 different sets of videos.


If you fail to understand why common descent provides a far superior explanation for the genomic data then that is due to your own inability to understand it, not because of a fault with the theory.

Anonymous said...

I will be interested to hear how Dennis fares trying to present to people at his church. A lot of church environments would consider him subversive even if he is doing it outside of the church building.

Even the ability to have civil arguments or discussions would be huge.