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Sunday, 3 January 2010

Evangelical Pastors and the Creation, ID, Evolution Minefield

Being a pastor must be one of the more unenviable vocations. It is both highly stressful and spiritually demanding. Although responsible for the spiritual well-being of the members in their churches, many pastors have nowhere to turn for their own spiritual needs (or questions). This combination of factors is probably partly responsible for the high levels of burn-out and depression among the pastorate.

Pastors and the Science-Faith Dialogue
Dealing with the volatile science-faith dialogue is an area of added difficulty for the modern pastor. Ours is a rapidly changing world, and technological advances due to new scientific discoveries are responsible for most of these changes. However, even though science is such an important factor in our modern culture, few pastors seem to have adequate scientific training. And since most voices within evangelicalism (with the exception of our scientists) are so strongly anti-evolution or pro-IDM, it is no wonder that most pastors default to this anti-evolution position. In fact, given the personal and professional risks inherent in publicly defending the compatibility of science and the Christian faith, one could easily forgive those pastors who do understand this compatibility for not proclaiming it from the pulpit.

Tim Keller’s Pastoral Approach to the Dialogue on Evolution
Tim Keller should command all of our respect. I’m usually suspicious of “mega-church movements” (my odd mix of conservative anabaptist & Plymouth Brethren upbringing is probably responsible for this bias), but Keller’s approach at Redeemer in the heart of Manhattan (including his unflinching stance against consumerism) is both effective and laudable. In the past, Keller has been unafraid to enter the science-faith fray with a qualified support for theistic evolution (see our past discussion: "Would your church allow you to publicly support Evolution?"). More recently, he co-sponsored the first Biologos workshop that brought together evangelical scientists, theologians, and pastors to explore the relationship between science and faith. Many good papers were presented at this forum.

Keller’s contribution to the workshop included the paper "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople". As any good pastor, Keller’s priority in the discussion is its effect on the Christian laity (If only all pastors were more concerned with their parishioners than with their “ministry”!). What questions about evolution are at the forefront for ordinary Christians? What are the theological implications of evolution? How will these questions, answers, and implications affect the spiritual health of the individual and the church? These are the questions Keller sets out to address.

Keller’s Advice to other Pastors
But Keller also provides important advice to other pastors as well. In his paper he states that:

… if I as a pastor want to help both believers and inquirers to relate science and faith coherently, I must read the works of scientists, exegetes, philosophers, and theologians and then interpret them for my people. Someone might counter that this is too great a burden to put on pastors, that instead they should simply refer their laypeople to the works of scholars. But if pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it?
Now this type of response is indicative of a man that doesn’t shrink from his responsibilities. No parade of excuses (even entirely justified excuses). Keller knows the needs of “ordinary people learning to follow Jesus in our time” (part my own church’s motto) and also understands that pastors are probably in the best position to fulfill these needs.
This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.
I encourage everyone with an interest in the science / faith dialogue (especially pastors!) to read Keller’s paper. Although I’m not sure I agree with Keller’s response to the 3rd important question he articulates (the historicity of Adam and Eve), I really like the summarized answer he gives to the question:
Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.
This is what we need from our pastors: The courage and confidence to address difficult topics but tempered with Christian humility (we don’t have all the answers and must be prepared to admit we are sometimes wrong), and the desire to encourage Christian unity in the face of theological differences.

A Harbinger of Change?
I have often thought that my own pastor’s response to the evolution controversy was the best one could hope to hear in an evangelical church. In his message on creation a couple years ago he briefly noted that: “It doesn’t matter if God created through evolution or Intelligent Design”. Ok, not a great way to frame the choice, but at least he proclaimed a healthy view of creation that was not just about origins.

However, maybe I am being too pessimistic about the chances for positive discussions on science & faith in our churches. Maybe it is not just our scientists and theologians that are making progress here; if Keller is any indication, maybe this positive change is happening at the ground level of Evangelicalism as well.

I’d be interested in what others have to say on this. Maybe the shrill voices insisting that evolution & faith cannot be reconciled are just the loud ones and not necessarily a significant majority. Maybe having someone of Keller’s stature publicly defending the compatibility of evolution and faith will provide the impetus for other pastors to take a similar stand (or at least investigate the topic further). Is there reason to be optimistic? Are there other similar examples of agents of change? Maybe the most important question of all: How can we help our pastors start, continue, or publicize this discussion?


Jordan said...

I just finished Tim Keller's essay. Really good stuff there.

I think a huge hurdle can be removed by stating a commitment to Biblical authority first and foremost. Evangelical's really have it ingrained that evolution = not taking the Bible seriously. I think Tim Keller did a good job of dealing with that in his essay.

As far as your last question (a very very important one, IMO), I see a few things scientists can do in particular.

First, be available as a resource to your pastor/church staff. As you pointed out, it's amazingly difficult for pastors to "know it all". I think it's a big help to have somebody to bounce ideas off of or even come in and teach some science to adult ed and high school classes.

Second, I think it's helpful for scientists to try to pick up some theology so they can talk with their pastors not only about the science involved, but also the faith implications. I think pastors would really like to hear "Here's the science and here are some things that might help your parishioners with it." rather than "Here's the science, deal with it."

Thirdly, I think it could be crucial for scientists to step up in the "battle" against the new atheists. If science is going to be used by Dawkins, Dennett, et. al to attempt to destroy faith, then Christian scientists need to step up in defense of their faith. The Christian reaction to "science = atheism" being pushed on them daily is hardly surprising, we need to clearly show that there is clear, viable alternative.

D.L. Folken said...

You are asking pastors to support something that has not been observed or demonstrated. Wow!

How can you preach evolution when it is not even included in the field of science. It is merely speculation assuming naturalistism and narrwos the field even more by assuming uniformitarianism.

Why limit science speculation to such a narrow interpretation?

Pastors are suppose to preach the Word of God rather than scientific speculation. We just don't have a demonstration of evolution and obviously the Bible clearly does not teach that some blind process is responsible for the world we see.

God Bless...

Jordan said...

Jordan M, here.

Another great post, Steve, but, speaking from my own experience, I don't know whether much change is likely to happen at the pastoral level without change first occurring higher up at the level of the synod or council. The pastors at the WELS Lutheran churches I used to attend were not interested in considering much beyond the party line, perhaps due in part to the fact that they would no doubt be dismissed from their jobs were they not to tow it (similar to public school teachers teaching YECism instead of evolution in the science classroom). I have to wonder whether Tim Keller's case is the exception to the rule, here.

@ ZDENNY: I like to think this is one of the few places on the Internet where we can move beyond the creation-evolution debate and talk about the spiritual issues that really matter concerning science and faith. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, as the most educated YECs like Kurt Wise or Todd Wood will admit:


Please stop it with your hit-and-run posts where you simply deny evolution and then leave. It's tiring and childish.

Steve Martin said...

@Jordan #1,

On #3, my impression is that Christian scientists are defending the Christian faith in their places of work and in academia – partly because they must given the default “good science = atheism” mantra being propagated by the loud minority.

#1 and #2 are both good suggestions for science-literate evangelicals in their own congregations. On #1, maybe to extend the idea, it would also be good for evangelical scientists to have some common centralized resource to:

a) Document answers for specific scientific questions (something like talk.origins but managed specifically by evangelical scientists) and

b) An “evangelical scientist oncall consultant for evangelical clergy” resource similar to The Clergy Letter Project’s consultant list. And no, I don’t think this is a duplication of effort since it appears to me that a vast majority of the members of the CLP (at least of clergy – maybe the scientists as well) are certainly not evangelicals. (Note: there are at least some evangelicals on this list though – eg. I just saw that Dennis Venema is on the list)

I agree that our pastors should be preaching the Word of God; I am not suggesting that they “preach evolution” or any science for that matter. What we are asking is that they do not saddle the gospel with anti-evolutionism (bad science) but rather allow the gospel to stand on its own – God is also the author of scientific truth (including biological evolution). We shouldn’t force believers or seekers to choose between God’s work of creation (including evolution) and his Word.

Steve Martin said...

@the two Jordans:
You are going to have to find two more of you to top our "4 Steve's" conversation from about a year ago here - man, THAT was confusing :-) .

Jordan M: Actually, this brings up a good point about the difference between synodical / confessional churches (eg. reformed, lutheran) and Independent or community churches. In the former, a pastor has to worry not only about his own congregation's reaction, but also his denominational structure. (Note: Keller's PCA denominational "Creation Statement" specifically states that humans are "... not the products of evolution from lower forms of life" - so he is already taking some risk). Pastors of the latter don't have this problem.

Unknown said...

It's really great to see a conservative evangelical pastor of Dr. Keller's stature make such a bold, and at once such a well-balanced appeal for reasonable tolerance - a long time ago, and it's appropriate that he addressed his essay toward pastors who are dealing with Christian laypeople.
"Only Nixon can go to China" is a phrase that refers to Nixon's diplomatic outreach to Communist China and the beginnings of detente with that country, which came about only after a prolonged and passionate anti-communist campaign. Nixon was established as a bona fide opponent of communism and therefore trusted by the passionate public that feared and distrusted China. Only someone of his stature and established views could begin the process of detente and cultural engagement.
I think Keller is the right man at the right time from the right stream of evangelicalism to make a statement such as this: He is a pastor of the staunchly evangelical Presbyterian Church in America, which (as already mentioned by others) has an anti-evolution doctrinal position on record.
Dr. Keller is bound to take a lot of heat from evangelicals for publishing this essay because he doesn't make a strong anti-evolution statement, and even opens the door to evolution as a biological process. But who else in America has the intra-ecclesial political capital to make such a statement? Truly, "only Nixon can go to China," and only Keller can extend a laurel to Christian believers who are convinced that evolution is true.
Other suggestions are appropriate, but if I may make one - pray for Dr. Keller, that the criticism of him will not be too severe and will not result in any sort of ecclesiastical controversy at an official level...
Keller is a good man, and I think his approach to the issues and questions is ideally suited to the current time. I'll be forwarding his essay to some of my pastors.

Unknown said...

I've been reading the blog quite a bit, and have got a lot out of it. I couldn't find a way to email you, but I wanted to share this article by Melvin Tinker, a vicar in the Church of England (and one with impeccable calvinist/evangelical credentials).


It's the second hit you'll see if search for Melvin Tinker evolution. The first is an article from Answers in Genesis UK which critices him (and JI Packer) for endorsing Dennis Alexander's book.

I lived in Britain and Austria until 4 years ago. The situation there is different. It's the creationists who are making a stir in some of the evangelical churches, where we had previously not found it necessary to fight. OTOH, the stirrings at my old church forced my parents to theologically base their views on evolution and they benefited from it.

Bilbo said...

Hi Steve,

I'm arguing with David Anderson, who criticizes Christians for accepting Darwinism here:


I just want you to know that at least one ID proponent is willing defend TEs and CEs. In return, it would be nice if you would be willing to defend us, and perhaps criticize Francis Collins for offering a deistic argument against ID. It would show that you're not just out to promote your own particular view.

Jordan said...

I would criticize Christians for accepting Darwinism, too. I would rather they accept modern evolutionary theory. ;)

Bilbo said...

But, Jordan, would criticize them for theological reasons?

Anonymous said...

And do you agree with Francis Collins' deistic argument against ID? -- Bilbo

Jordan said...

To be honest, Bilbo, I'm not familiar with Collins' deistic argument against ID (I haven't read his book). Mind you, ID strikes me as being a deistic argument as well.

Anonymous said...

You haven't answered my first question. And I highly recommend Collins' book, even though I disagree with his assessment of ID.

As to ID being deistic, I think it's a misunderstanding. Let's use the analogy of Fred Astaire (God) and Ginger Rogers (nature) dancing together. Most of the time Ginger dances on her own two feet, while Fred guides. But every so often Fred picks her up and twirls her around. ID just says that we can often tell when God has piced nature up. The origin of life is the most obvious case. But there appear to be others, as well. -- Bilbo

Jordan said...

Hi Bilbo,

I'm confused about your first question. Would I criticize fellow evolutionary creationists on theological grounds for accepting evolution? No.

Also, your apologetic for ID implies that all of nature is designed. Framed this way, ID is unfalsifiable and not science.

Anonymous said...

And I assume, Jordan
, that you would not criticize the theology of Christians who accepted Darwinism instead of the Modern Synthesis. Neither would I. But David Anderson, at Uncommondescent.com, would criticize the theology of anyone who accepted either. I have been arguing with him, defending TEs and ECs, even though I disagree with them.

Back to Fred and Ginger: Let's take the analogy a little further. Let's say that Fred is invisible, so that all we see is Ginger. An EC might say, "Even though we can't see Fred (God), I believe he is there guiding Ginger."
An atheist might say, "There is no Fred! Only Ginger."
An IDist might say, "Wow! Did you see Ginger suddenly go up in the air and do a 360?! And she did it without a running start! Fred must be there, picking her up and twirling her around!"

Is that falsifiable? Sure. Just show how Ginger could do it by herself. -- Bilbo

Bilbo said...

Of course, the problem comes when someone challenges us and says, "How do you know it's Fred? It could be Sam or George or even Walter?" And the truth is, there isn't enough evidence to prove it's Fred. So we just say, "The evidence indicates that somebody did it."

But this is beside the point. I may disagree with you on what the evidence indicates, but that doesn't mean I should question your orthodoxy. Christians have differed over enough unimportant things. We shouldn't be adding another brick to the wall.

Steve Martin said...

All: Sorry for delayed responses.

Rob: That is a good analogy with “Nixon in China”. And for the most part that is exactly true for our generation of Evangelicals. But, there have been others in the past that have at least “opened the door” (eg. Billy Graham).

Re: suggestion to pray for Keller and that we avoid official ecclesiastical wars (like the infamous “liberal / fundamentalist” split in the 20’s), a heartfelt amen to that.

David: Welcome. Always good to hear from other EC's from outside North America. For the most part, the anti-evolution problem in the church was birthed and fostered here, and then exported elsewhere (eg. Emiliano’s post). From my reading, I understand that this is a very recent problem for evangelicals in Europe – which corroborates with what you are saying. I think a big difference is that in Europe, because the anti-evolution movement is relatively new, TE’s / EC’s often have choices when seeking a safe place to have fellowship (ie. they will not be rejected because of their stance on science). Over here, there are lots of TE / EC that just don’t have that opportunity for fellowship and it leads to much heartache, loneliness, and maybe even despair.

Bilbo: I appreciate that you (and a few other IDers) are challenging the often thoughtless, slanderous, and possibly hateful comments made against other Christians at UcD. I simply refuse to read the bile on that site anymore (just like I refuse to read pharyngula because of its constant juvenile anti-theist ranting). Re: countering misleading information against ID, I have already mentioned Haarsma’s paper on my site a few times (and a couple times over at Biologos as well); I appreciate his approach. And on the topic of deistic ideas being discussed above, as Haarsma notes, criticisms of the EC / TE position as inherently deistic and criticisms of the ID position as inherently semi-deistic are unwarranted. Sure, there may be many EC proponents that sloppily express their ideas in deistic terms and many ID proponents that sloppily express their ideas in semi-deistic terms, but these ideas are NOT inherent in the positions themselves. As orthodox Christians, we (both EC and ID Christians) believe our God is involved in all of creation and all “natural” activity.

Re: Collin’s argument, do you have reference? Like Jordan, I’m unfamiliar with this (I have read Language of God and may have missed or forgotten it). Is Collins criticizing a) specific examples of ID ideas as deistic or b) ID as inherently deistic?

If a), I'd have to take a look at the example (but have seen enough to say this happens), but would agree that b) is not warranted.

Jordan said...

The difference between an ID theorist and myself is that an ID theorist would argue that Ginger's 360 leap is "designed", whereas I would argue that the entire dance -- and indeed, the stage on which it is built -- is designed. If we accept the latter, then we have no baseline for non-design and cannot infer design scientifically (that is, we can never rule out design because we don't know what non-design looks like).
The ID theorist believes that not everything in the universe is designed (that is, that not all of creation declares the glory of God), and that much of the universe is purposeless and choatic (please correct me if I'm wrong, here). They therefore believe that we can distinguish between design and non-design in the universe, thereby making design inference scientific. Personally, I don't know that I would be comfortable accepting the theological implications of ID "science".
(And all this is to say nothing about whether the methodology of ID is valid, which most mathematicians and biologists appear to doubt.)

Bilbo said...

Hi Steve,
I don't have the page number, but this was one of the theological objections that Collins cited in his book, The Language of God:

"Furthermore, ID portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan for generating the complexity of life. For a believer who stands in awe of the almost unimaginable intelligence and creative genius of God, this is a very unsatisfactory image."

That's a deistic argument. I'm not saying that Collins is a deist. In fact, I'm sure he isn't. He's a Christian. So someone -- preferably you -- should criticize him for using a deistic argument against ID.

Bilbo said...

Jordan: The difference between an ID theorist and myself is that an ID theorist would argue that Ginger's 360 leap is "designed", whereas I would argue that the entire dance -- and indeed, the stage on which it is built -- is designed. If we accept the latter, then we have no baseline for non-design and cannot infer design scientifically (that is, we can never rule out design because we don't know what non-design looks like)."

Theistic IDists, such as myself, believe that the whole dance is designed. However, not all of it necessarily appears designed. So we argue that what appears designed is designed. We can't rule out the other parts as not designed. But we can rule in the parts that look designed.

"The ID theorist believes that not everything in the universe is designed (that is, that not all of creation declares the glory of God), and that much of the universe is purposeless and choatic (please correct me if I'm wrong, here)."

Is the exact configuration of leaves on the ground the result of design or randomness? I'm not sure, are you? I'm willing to believe either that God designed the configuration, or that He allowed nature the "freedom" to randomly design it herself.

Jordan said...

Hi Bilbo,
So... even though the science of ID might say something is not designed, you do not necessarily believe it? You're not really selling me!

Bilbo said...

Jordan: "So... even though the science of ID might say something is not designed, you do not necessarily believe it? You're not really selling me!"

I'm not sure how ID could say something was not designed. So about that configuration of leaves...?

Jordan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordan said...

ID must be able to rule out non-design because, if it is scientific, it must be able to falsify one of the following hypotheses:

H(null): No design
H(alternate): Design

By your own admission, H(null) can never be falsified because we don't know what non-design looks like. Even the simplest things, like leaf patterns, might be designed for all we know. Design inference is therefore not scientific. As ID advocate Paul Nelson has said, "Right now, we've got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions... but, as yet, no general theory of biological design."

Steve Martin said...

Hi Bilbo,

I guess I wouldn’t call Collins' allegation of ID a deistic argument; classic deism views God as having infinite power & infinite intelligence but also that he doesn’t care about his creation or is ever involved with his creation(at least after the initial creative act). Collins is saying that the ID portrayal of the Creator is a God that is less then omnipotent or omniscient and one that has to keep fixing his mistakes. But, that is a technicality – he is still saying the ID view of God is theologically deficient.

A few comments:
1) I’ve said similar things in the past (and have amended my ideas), so I’m not going to publicly criticize Collins for something he said a few years ago (hey, maybe he changed his mind too!).

2) I will say however, that his statement is unwarranted unless he qualifies ID – ie. Maybe saying the ID portrayal of the Almighty as expressed by Mr. X in book Y views God as a clumsy Creator etc. (Maybe Collins should read Haarsma's paper too :-) ).

3) It seems to me that many (but not all!) ID portrayals of God are exactly as Collins describes – so his brush may be too broad, but his criticism is valid.

Regarding your comment that:

I'm willing to believe either that God designed the configuration, or that He allowed nature the "freedom" to randomly design it herself.

Why must this be an either/or choice? Let’s use the theologically more important idea “purpose” rather than design. Why could God not accomplish his purposes & give his creation the freedom to make choices?