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Monday, 29 March 2010

Using the "Test of Faith Course" to Explore the Compatibility Between Science and Faith

This is a guest post by Keith Suckling and is the eighth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Keith trained as an organic chemist and has published numerous scientific papers. He worked in biochemistry and pharmacology in universities, and for nearly 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry where he led research into drugs to treat heart disease, two of which are now in late stage clinical trials. He is also an ordained Anglican minister and a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists.

I am a minister in a church in the UK. Like most of Western Europe, ours is a predominantly secular society. Whereas the relationship between science and faith can be a hotly debated topic, one must often first address the question “Is faith and religion even relevant anymore?” As both a Christian minister and a scientist, I strongly support not only the relevance of the Christian faith, but the compatibility between science and this faith. The Test of Faith course offers a great opportunity to promote this perspective and I’ve had the opportunity to lead this course twice in my Church.

Digswell Village Church: Background
Digswell Village is a small community about 27 miles north of London, England. The village itself is very old, but most of the housing was built in phases since the 1930s and so the overall development has followed a timescale similar to much of North America.

Digswell Village Church, where I am the Church of England minister, is a little unusual in that we are an ecumenical partnership, primarily between the Methodist church and the Church of England, but we also have members with Baptist, Lutheran and other church backgrounds. I mention this at the start because I think it is particularly important in determining how we approach complex issues in the church, of which the relationship between science and religion is just one. The partnership approach means that we have to take a broad view and look for strong common themes that will, as St Paul says, build up the Church. In other words we have to identify what are the primary issues in which clarity is required and those which may have their importance but are not essential, perhaps coming from one or other of the traditions represented. (In fact, I think there are very few primary issues).

The Test of Faith Course
Test of Faith is a course developed by the Faraday Institute at Cambridge University. It discusses a range of important questions in science and religion and consists of a DVD documentary presentation with supporting background information and workbooks. Evolution, human genetics and environmental issues are covered in the second of the three presentations. The first deals with cosmology and origins while the third delves into recent aspects of neuroscience so as to raise questions of the origin of individual personal identity and many related themes. The programmes are illustrated with many beautiful and meaningful images which link the contributions from scientists who are Christians, and from Christian theologians who are also scientifically qualified. A good sense of what is provided can be gained from the website.

The course promotes the view that science and religion are compatible. It does specifically acknowledge other points of view, and many of these are outlined sensitively in the supporting booklets, but the basic position remains clear and is one that as a scientist and a priest I support strongly. I think it is interesting to note that only about a third of the second unit covers issues arising directly from the interpretation of Genesis. Whilst this is a make or break issue for many, especially in evangelical circles in North America, in the UK and Western Europe the wider question of justifying a religious worldview and pointing out the limitations of science require a much wider engagement. This is about as far as I think I can get when I do presentations in schools to 16 to 18 year olds. If the Christian faith can be shown to be intellectually respectable and appreciative of science the door is open for a fuller exploration.

Teaching the Test of Faith Course at Digswell: Personal Experience
We have now run two Test of Faith courses in Digswell and a third is being planned for April/May. We were delighted that over half those attending the second course came from outside our local church community. People are interested, but challenged by the topics in the course. Will it strengthen my faith? Will it challenge it? Will it be too complicated for me to understand? These are just some of the thoughts that arise at the start of the course.

Some group building is needed at the start so that participants are comfortable in sharing their views. We had one person leave because he did not have a deep enough scientific background, but everyone else, whatever their level of scientific experience was able to find their way through. One of the most common reactions was how beautiful the science itself is, and most people had no difficulty in connecting that to God in creation, expressed for example in Psalm 19. Many were struck by how strongly people who are clearly distinguished scientists can hold a conventional faith. I know from experience that it can be very challenging in the scientific community to be seen as religious. It can feel as if one’s scientific integrity is questionable. Perhaps scientists who are Christians have kept their heads down too much, although this may be changing. I believe that Test of Faith will help.

There are church communities in England where evolution would be a contentious topic, but this was not really the case for any of our participants, so this did not dominate discussion. There was intellectual understanding of the arguments, but some were challenged by the realisation that an evolutionary world view requires a non-literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden. Perhaps they were sad to see that there may have been no golden age in the development of life on earth. One important question which can arise in any of the sessions is that of understanding why suffering exists. This year it was particularly emphasised by the earthquake in Haiti, which occurred around the same time as the course. Many found John Polkinghorne’s ideas helpful here (See for eg. his answer to the question Was the Tsunami and act of God? and these reflections on divine action and evil).

From a position of caution and possibly confusion at the start, the participants ended the course stimulated and much more confident in dealing with and attempting to integrate the insights of science into their Christian worldview. This, I think, is probably the most important thing the course can do. There are no final and complete answers to many of the questions the course raises, and this will also be true of the new problems that are bound to arise. But if we can approach scripture and nature as two aspects of God’s revelation, as the scientists and theologians in Test of Faith clearly do, we will be more integrated in our worship and prayer and in our lives as a whole.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Encouraging Critical Thinking in Evangelical Churches: The Scientist as a Bible Teacher

This is a guest post by Philip Wala and is the seventh installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Phil attended Assemblies of God churches for nearly 54 years, serving as elder, deacon, and Sunday School teacher for teens and adults. He earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Stanford University, holds 17 U.S. patents, and presently works as a research engineer for ADC Telecommunications. He and his wife (a licensed Christian therapist, and former Assemblies of God licensed minister) recently moved to the suburban Minneapolis area, where they now attend a “Spirit-filled” Lutheran church. He is the author of the blog Faith for Thinkers.

The Danger of Unchallenged Beliefs
As a third-generation evangelical, I treasure the faith heritage passed on to me, and the profound influence many wonderful pastors, teachers, and fellow believers have had on my spiritual growth. I am also intimately aware of the frustration of being a scientist in a subculture that treats serious scientific inquiry with suspicion.

This suspicion of science is only one aspect of an evangelical mindset that seems threatened by divergent opinion and comforted by conformity. There is a supposedly “evangelical Christian position” on political affiliation, gun control, taxes, global warming and, of course, evolution. And many evangelicals are incredulous that any sincere believer would ever think, act, or vote any other way.

Pressure to conform can be especially strong for evangelicals that recognize the Holy Spirit as an ever-present guide and illuminator of truth. After all, if everyone can hear from God, disagreement must imply that somebody isn’t listening properly. Those with strong opinions will naturally assume the other party is mistaken, and seek confirmation of their already arrived-upon conclusions by saturating themselves with like-minded teaching. And for those whose personal convictions aren’t as strong, an assumption that everyone else must have heard from God relieves them of the responsibility to independently think through these issues on their own.

The danger in this mindset is the ease with which a debatable opinion or interpretation of scripture can be elevated to the status of unquestioned doctrine, an error Jesus warned against (Matt 15:9). To avoid this trap, the evangelical church needs to foster an atmosphere of dialogue in which new information is welcomed, questions are allowed, and critical thinking is embraced. Such an atmosphere allows the opportunity for believers to continually subject their own beliefs to reexamination and challenge, so that legitimate doctrines can be strengthened, ambiguous ones debated, and erroneous ones corrected.

Teaching Evangelicals to Think Critically
The techniques of acquiring new information, testing hypotheses, challenging the results, and subjecting conclusions to peer review, are used by scientists to correct and advance our knowledge of the physical world. Similar techniques can be used to foster spiritual growth in the local church.

As a scientist who has had frequent opportunities to teach in a church setting, I enjoy finding opportunities to challenge my students to rethink positions they assumed were unquestionable. Of course, this teaching style must be approached with an abundance of patience and wisdom, especially when the subject is the science and theology of creation. Challenging dearly held beliefs must take place in measured steps, in keeping with the level of established trust.

Step 1: Inform
For those unaccustomed to hearing divergent viewpoints discussed in church, the first step is to simply provide objective information about those viewpoints. On the topic of origins, I find it helpful to use a two-dimensional model of creation viewpoints that decouples the assumed link between faith and young-earth creationism, and identifies respected evangelicals who hold widely divergent opinions on science. By presenting such information in a non-confrontational manner, the student is given permission to admit the potential ambiguity of issues they previously assumed were unquestionable.

It is also beneficial to bring up examples of recent scientific discoveries that they usually would not hear discussed in church. Many evangelicals blindly base their opposition to evolution on arguments from the 1960s that are no longer valid. By openly discussing recent observations of the Hubble telescope, or the sequencing of the human genome, the scientist/bible teacher can demonstrate that subjecting ones beliefs to the light of new information doesn’t have to be threatening, but can, in fact, be a very Godly pursuit.

Step 2: Challenge
The next step in the process involves a more direct challenge: leading students into states of “cognitive dissonance”, in which they are forced to deal with logical inconsistencies in their belief system. Comparing the cooperative lifestyle of the early church (Acts 4:32-35) to communism, or asking if God’s gift to humanity of free will makes him “pro-choice”, always leads to double-takes and dropped jaws. The goal here is not to change beliefs, but to help people realize that there may be subtle ambiguities in positions they assumed were black and white.

When the subject is faith and science, an appeal to historical precedent can be used to great advantage. Without any direct reference to the issue at hand, but using many of the common arguments used in the creation/evolution debate, I lay out my case, appealing to the inerrancy of scripture, the teachings of the church, and the scientific theories (that are, after all, just theories) that clearly contradict scripture. As expected, most evangelicals take a resolute stand on the side of the church. I then calmly add something I had “forgotten” to mention: that the year is 1615, and they have all just taken a stand against the heliocentric theories of Copernicus and Galileo.

Step 3: Confront
The third step, direct confrontation, must be handled with utmost sensitivity, and generally in a one-on-one setting with someone with whom you have developed a relationship of mutual trust. I was fortunate to have such a relationship with my pastor, so that when the church decided (in spite of my strong objections) to use the “Truth Project” videos, we were able to discuss my areas of disagreement in an atmosphere of respectful and mutually beneficial dialogue.

Once again, the motive of confrontation should not be to prove who is right. I have resorted to confrontation primarily to address specific behavior, statements, or teachings that, in my estimation, push away, or shut down healthy dialogue with, people holding diverse opinions on debatable issues. Because of their potentially wide distribution, it is especially important to confront politically biased or scientifically inaccurate comments in church sponsored newsletters or e-mails. Online blogs are another venue in which the scientist/bible teacher can offer respectful comments to help steer the conversation from pontification to dialogue (see this link for an example).

After 27 years in the same congregation, my wife and I recently moved to a new community where we have found a wonderfully dynamic “Spirit-filled” Lutheran church that is true to the doctrines and worship style I cherish, but at the same time refreshingly more tolerant of ambiguity and dialogue on the non-essentials.

The church I left behind is, I hope, better for having had a scientist/bible teacher in its congregation. I am blessed by the ongoing dialogue I have with the pastor; I am saddened by another church leader who broke off contact with me and encouraged others to do the same, so as to be protected from my supposedly heretical views; and I am touched by memories of a missions trip to Ukraine in which an eager young bible school student told me, in all seriousness, “I am so glad to learn that scientists aren’t evil!”

But for the most part, I am encouraged by the one reaction I heard over and over again in reaction to my teaching: “Thanks. You’ve made me think.”

To which I reply, “Mission accomplished.”

Monday, 15 March 2010

Growing up Science-Literate in the Japanese Church and encountering YEC in the American Church: A Paleontologist’s Personal Perspective.

This is a guest-post by Jim Kidder and is the sixth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Jim is a librarian, palaeoanthropologist, and evolutionary biologist with an all-consuming interest in apologetics and controversies in science and religion. He publishes the weblog Science and Religion: A View from an Evolutionary Creationist/Theistic Evolutionist.

I was born and raised in Japan and from my earliest memories there was always science. My father was an archaeologist who spent most of this time excavating the prehistoric sites that littered the area (including our back yard in the city of Mitaka) and teaching about them at International Christian University. Dates like 35,000 years, or older were part of the commonplace conversation around our dinner table. In fact, my parents rarely argued about anything other than when a particular event had taken place. It simply did not occur to any of us sitting around the table that there was another interpretation of the geological and archaeological record.

We attended church at the local university church, which was not the liveliest house of worship. The ceiling was a good seventy feet overhead to make room for the gigantic pipe organ in the front. Voices were, subsequently, quite amplified and the general tone was quite solemn. This was probably a contributing factor in the lack of spiritual growth during my preteens.

Early Scientific Education
My school experience at the American School in Japan (ASIJ) based in Tokyo was comparable to that of a very good college prep school, with a considerable number of offerings in literature, history and science. I took biology in the ninth grade from a man very passionate about science and I came to love it as well. Along with a generous amount of comparative anatomy, there was a smattering of evolution, taking the form of systematics rather than actual instruction in the basic tenets of the theory, itself. Eldredge and Gould had produced their seminal works on punctuated equilibrium a few years before so the science world was still abuzz with the possibility that evolution as espoused by George Gaylord Simpson and Sewall Wright, names I did not know at the time but later became quite familiar with, was not the be all and end all that it appeared to be. No, Punk-eek was in. Notably lacking in my science education and in the educational climate of the high school was recent earth creationism. I simply never encountered it. Not from any of the faculty nor from my peers. There simply was no controversy.

Personal Spiritual Growth
As my walk with Christ became more serious, I left the campus church and began to go to a Tokyo branch of the Union Theological Seminary (TUTS). It became clear, after a few more years of high school, however, that this church had a somewhat liberal bent and that elements of New Age thought were quite prevalent. When one is in high school, one does not initially challenge these things and I was no exception. Especially since TUTS was where most of the attractive girls went. Nevertheless, challenge them I did.

I eventually left this church as well and began to attend house churches, based all over the city that ranged from Pentecostal to Lutheran to your good old fashioned non-denominational service. What is remarkable about these gatherings in hind sight is how little discussion there was on science. The focus was on the Lordship of Christ and even when apologetics was studied, it was only in the context of defending one’s faith in the larger sense. Science simply never entered the picture, almost as if it were a taboo subject. It may very well have been but I was none the wiser.

My senior year was spent with my academic interests neatly split between history and palaeontology but, at this stage, history won out and that is what I decided to pursue as an undergraduate once I left the confines of ASIJ. One of the papers I wrote in my senior year of high school, however, dealt heavily with paleontological material and early hominids. Although the human palaeontology bug did not bite me then, delving into that literature for the first time was exhilarating—especially since there was nobody to tell me that I shouldn’t. Even my friends at school who knew of my interests and were Christians did not seem to have any qualms about it. I am convinced that learning about this evidence at a comparatively early age deeply affected my ability to accept it in light of my Christianity.

Moving to America and Encountering YEC Ideas
I graduated from high school in 1980 and, in one of the more traumatic moments in my life, moved from the safe confines of Tokyo, Japan to the unknown wilderness that was the United States of America. Fortunately, I made friends with a growing group of Christians on campus and this mitigated the jarring experience somewhat. Two of these new friends invited me to go to church with them in the nearby town of Knoxville. A few weeks later, I walked into the sanctuary and peered at a bulletin board, on which local job adverts and news items were posted. One in particular caught my eye. It was for the East Tennessee Creation Science Association and they were advertising a meeting at a local church. The bulk of the flyer was, however, composed of several quotes from people that I have since become familiar with—Henry Morris, Duane Gish and Gary Bauer, about how bad the fossil record was, how good the evidence was for the world-wide flood of Noah, how the earth was only a few thousand years old and how evil evolution was.

I just stared…dumbfounded.

In my years of growing into my Christian faith in Japan, I had never encountered this mindset. I remember thinking “people really believe this??”

It had never occurred to me that what I came to know as the primeval history of Genesis was to be taken literally. I soon found that a great many people, including some of my newfound Christian friends, did read Genesis 1 as history and believed that God created the world in 7 literal 24-hour days. This began a lifelong interest in the different approaches to interpreting the early chapters of Genesis, the geological record, and evolution.

Reflecting on the Absence of YEC ideas in the Japanese Christian Community
In hindsight, I still find it puzzling that a movement that is so prevalent in evangelical circles in the United States, and has had such a profound political impact here, was virtually irrelevant in the Japanese Christian church. That Japan is a Christian mission field is probably a factor here. While Japan has a vast history of both Buddhist and Shinto thought, Christianity was a comparative newcomer to the stage and was not accepted in any way until after the early 1900s. Up until that point, Christians had been persecuted in the best Roman fashion. Nowadays the vast majority of Japanese are areligious. Consequently, there is so much focus on evangelizing Japanese with the basic sinner’s prayer that there is little time for other things. Even among the Christian foreign community, however, there is little emphasis on science and how it should be viewed. I have recently become aware that Creation Ministries International has a chapter in Japan but I never heard about it while I was there.

Today, I view myself as an evolutionary creationist (EC) / theistic evolutionist (TE). My experiences in Japan are largely responsible for this. To be sure, as with most people that take an EC perspective, I have many unanswered questions about the historicity of Adam, the place of the “pre-Adamites,” and how the fall can be reconciled with the scientific data. I trust that those questions will be answered in due time.

Sadly, I have had very little experience with Christians who grew up in other countries where these questions were asked. I know that, recently, there have been many groups that are “evangelizing” the Old World (Ken Ham just recently went to Japan) and that, as in the United States, the YEC perspective is more prevalent than it was even twenty years ago. I would love to hear some perspectives of those who grew up as Christians in other nations and how their churches addressed these origins questions. Was my experience in Japan unique?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Being an Evolutionary Creationist in a Confessionally Reformed Church: Part 2 - Reflections and Becoming an Agent for Change

This is a guest-post by Terry Gray and is the fifth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Terry is the webmaster for the ASA and has written several helpful articles on the creation / evolution dialogue including Complexity--Yes! Irreducible--Maybe! Unexplainable--No! A Creationist Criticism of Irreducible Complexity.

A) Reflections on the Church Disciplinary Process

As I recounted in part 1 of this article, I was put on trial by the OPC church in the mid-1990’s for my Evolutionary Creationist (EC) views. This resulted in my suspension from the office of church elder, and I was reinstated only after admitting that I did not know how to reconcile human evolution with the uniqueness of Adam. This process did not lead to any resentment on my part. In fact, I was fully sympathetic and supportive with the disciplinary process.

Why I Support the Process that led to my Trial and Censure
In my ecclesiology the church has the right and responsibility to ensure that its leaders adhere to the church’s confessions. Also, church authority does not simply reside in the local church. Higher assemblies such as presbyteries, classes, synods, and General Assemblies have the right and responsibility to oversee decisions of churches and lower assemblies. As well, allegedly errant decisions made in lower assemblies may be appealed to higher assemblies. I believe that the church/denomination isn’t just a human institution. No doubt, it reflects the fallen, human condition, and hence is splintered into denominations, carries errant beliefs, has sinners among its membership, etc. However, none of this negates the fact that it is a divine institution.

The church faces new challenges and ideas in almost every generation. Part of what happens in the process of facing these new ideas is that the church wrestles with its own confession. This I believe is a good thing. We do not stand alone in our understanding of scripture. Confessions allow the church of past ages to speak. This is one of the ways to protect ourselves and our churches from being blown here and there by every wind of doctrine. The church represents a broad body of believers in which to test new ideas. There is an inherent conservatism to this process, however, and we must be patient with our fellow believers in working through these questions.

I hope that expressing my beliefs about the church’s role in articulating truth and enforcing church discipline explains some things that many people find difficult to understand about my experience. It explains why I would suffer through a heresy trial in the first place. Second, it explains why I think that the church should judge me rather than vice versa. And third, it explains why I’m willing to submit to decisions of the church with respect to my level of involvement in the church.

Personal Implications of the Trial
In general, I was pleased to see church discipline in action. I was happy with the treatment I received in the process. I was treated respectfully and my ideas and arguments were taken seriously. In the end my position was rejected, but hardly any of the “attacks” were personal. It turned out that while no one actually agreed with me, there were those who defended me and thought that my position should be allowed.

There was some pain in our local church. Two of my fellow elders were committed young earth creationists and before this time had been personal and family friends. During my trial they had difficulty keeping the disagreement from becoming personal. This was painful for me and for my wife and young children (at the time ages 12, 10, 7, 3, and 1). My two three-year terms as elder ran out at the end of 1992 and I was never re-elected. I did, however, continue to serve in various other leadership roles (pastoral search, new building committee, evangelism training, etc).

We moved from Michigan to Colorado about a year after the process was completed, so I never got to see the long term consequences of my views for involvement in the local church.

B) Becoming an Agent for Change in a Confessional Church

One advantage of being part of a confessional church is that there are specific processes for testing new ideas. On many issues there is also some denominational history (e.g. official church study reports, or the writings of church pastors, theologians, and other denominational leaders). So in the science / faith dialogue those of us that are conversant with science have mechanisms to change popular erroneous ideas about science which are neither scripturally nor confessionally warranted. Thus I am now taking the opportunity, with the support of my local elder board, to initiate a process to change what I believe to be an erroneous scientific conclusion contained in my Church’s position on Creation and Science.

Joining the Christian Reformed Church
We eventually joined the CRCNA church in Fort Collins, Colorado, and I became active in the life and ministry of that local church in the elder board, small group ministry, adult teaching and worship. Our switch to the CRCNA had little to do with my “problems” in the OPC, but rather figuring out which of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Fort Collins was the best fit for our family. The CRCNA is somewhat broader theologically than the OPC and PCA (for example, the denomination allows women pastors, elders, and deacons); however it remains evangelical and confessionally rooted.

Although in our particular local church faith/science issues are largely non-controversial, I did not seek to address these issues right away. I spent a few years teaching some courses on theology and the Bible and being involved in various ministries including church leadership. These activities allowed me to build credibility and trust within the local church community. Establishing yourself as a committed church member and a faithful lay Bible teacher and theologian is an important prerequisite to addressing more controversial topics (after all, the Christian faith and Christian discipleship is much broader than the faith/science debate). Only then did I take up the faith/science topic in our adult discipleship ministry. I have now taught a 15 week course covering many aspects of the faith/science area, ranging from origins to creation care to bioethics. Even establishing specific credibility in the faith/science area through that class was an important step in being able to proceed with the potentially more controversial proposal outlined next.

Initiating the Process to Change CRCNA Statements against Animal Ancestry of Humans
As a denomination the CRCNA issued a Creation and Science report in 1991 in the aftermath of controversies involving the teachings of some science professors at Calvin College. In general, this report, while cautious about the influence of secularism and atheism in modern science, was pro-science, recognizing the possibility of an old earth and universe and an evolutionary history for life on earth. Declarations B & C emphasize the freedom of exegesis and the freedom of science, respectively, although within the bounds of the teaching of Scripture and the confessions. These bounds were most clearly expressed in the emphasis on the “event character” (i.e. the historicity) of Adam and the Fall. Declaration F of this report (recommended by a minority of the study committee and adopted by Synod) made strong statements against animal ancestry of humans with some provisos allowing for further study.

At my request our elder board has requested that the Synod rescind Declaration F from the 1991 report. This request is currently making its way through the denominational procedures and may be taken up in the 2010 Synod. We think that Declaration F expresses a discordant note from the rest of the report, which generally is quite pro-science. It also turns out that Declaration F is lifted up as a significant part of the view of the CRCNA on the topic of Creation and Science in some denominational publications. We think this is most unfortunate. We think that the rest of the report adequately expresses a Biblical and confessional perspective on the issues involved without virtually forbidding someone from holding a view that there is some kind of evolutionary relationship between human beings and other living creatures (which is what Declaration F currently does).

An Opportunity to Work Together as the Body of Christ
While re-opening this discussion may be uncomfortable and controversial, it allows us to again ask the relevant Biblical and theological questions in community. In my opinion there are not any confessional issues at stake here. Questions about the historicity of Adam and the Fall would bring up confession issues, but our request is somewhat limited and does not ask the church to address those questions. We believe that the church mistakenly adopted a Declaration on this subject that was narrower than Scripture or the confessions and we are asking the church to correct that mistake.

What the outcome will be remains to be seen, but this current situation illustrates ways in which ECs can work within the church to effect change. This involves studying together, discussing together, and sometimes participating in formal decision-making processes where denominational positions are forged. In short, it is an opportunity to work together as the Body of Christ.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Being an Evolutionary Creationist in a Confessionally Reformed Church: Part 1

This is a guest-post by Terry Gray and is the fourth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Terry is the webmaster for the ASA and has written several helpful articles on the creation / evolution dialogue including Complexity--Yes! Irreducible--Maybe! Unexplainable--No! A Creationist Criticism of Irreducible Complexity.

Evangelicalism and the Confessional Tradition
Evangelicalism is a big tent. It covers many denominations and traditions, including the more conservative end of most mainline denominations. One component of Evangelicalism is the confessional tradition, where the teachings of a church are reflected in a creed or confession. Examples include Presbyterian and Reformed churches (Westminster Standards, Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort), Lutheran churches (Augsburg Confession and the Formula of Concord), and Anglican/Episcopal churches (Thirty-Nine Articles).

Historically these confessional traditions take their confessions very seriously. They believe that the confessions are accurate summaries of the teaching of Scripture. They are not just historically relative documents that “guide” the church, but represent the living confession of the church and are believed to be time-tested guides to the church’s teaching and ministry. As time-tested guides, these confessions stand as “tests of orthodoxy” for pastors, elders, deacons, and other church leaders.

This is different than for many evangelical churches, which sometimes claim to have “no creed but Christ” or to say that the Bible is their creed. In many evangelical churches and denominations there may be a statement of faith but it will often focus on the basic elements of the Christian faith.

The stories I recount are almost all in the context of Reformed confessional churches or denominations and are from the perspective of one who is fully supportive of the confessional viewpoint.

My Personal Background in the Science / Faith Dialogue within the Reformed Confessional Tradition
I grew up in the mainline Presbyterian denomination, but moved toward conservative Reformed denominations in my adult years. This has meant membership and/or involvement in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA). I was a also a faculty member at Calvin College, owned and operated by the CRCNA, from 1986-1997. For most of my life I have been at ease with evolution as an evangelical Christian. In fact I wrote a “tract” in 7th grade for my fellow public school students explaining how to reconcile the Biblical account of Adam and Eve with modern evolutionary biology.

While doing my undergraduate studies at Purdue University, I attended an RPCNA church whose “Testimony”, a contemporary commentary on the Westminster Confession, is strongly anti-evolutionary. The pastor at this church was staunchly YEC, and, knowing that I was studying biology, tried to convince me of the young earth position. Although I neither became a member at this church, nor active in church leadership, I appreciated the preaching, teaching, and fellowship. The challenge to thinking Christianly about my specific discipline was beneficial even though the pastor and I disagreed on some of the particulars.

In graduate school in the 1980’s at the University of Oregon and during my years at Calvin College I was a member, and eventually an elder, in the OPC. I was comfortable there with my old earth views and my evolutionary science. After all, the OPC had been the home of Davis Young (Christianity and the Age of the Earth) and Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) and was the spiritual heir of B.B. Warfield who was able to see his way to reconcile evolutionary biology with the theology of the Westminster Standards. Meredith G. Kline was an Old Testament Biblical scholar in the OPC who advocated a more literary view of Genesis 1 and in the process removed some of the Biblical foundation for the young earth position. I also knew of one prominent pastor and denominational leader who would carry a small fossil in his pocket and ask prospective pastors during the theology examination for ordination how they explained such things, pressing for an old earth view of creation if they responded with a young earth creationist perspective.

Ecclesiastical Charges Resulting from my Evolutionary Creationist Views
But the harmony between my position in the OPC and my views on science and faith would not last. In 1992, while serving as an elder in the church, my EC views were challenged. That spring I wrote a review of Philip Johnson’s book Darwin on Trial for the Banner, the denominational magazine of the CRCNA. In this article I applauded Johnson’s critique of atheistic naturalism but at the same time critiqued his critique of biological evolution. As an aside, I suggested that the arguments for evolution might extend to human beings. A letter from the Presbytery of Northern California soon followed urging the Presbytery of the Midwest (our church was in Grand Rapids, Michigan) to investigate my views. This began a four year long process involving our local church elders, pastors and elders from the Presbytery of the Midwest, and eventually, pastors and elders from the whole denomination. Many of the details of this process are recounted on the web.

It should be noted that my views would not have been scrutinized if I were not an officer in the church (i.e. had I been “just” as member). Like all elders in the OPC I had expressed adherence to the Westminster Standards – and it was charged that my views could not be reconciled with these standards. I was accused “of stating that Adam had primate ancestors–contrary to the Word of God…and the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church” and “with regard to the process and method by which God created Adam, Dr. Gray subordinates Scripture to alleged empirical evidence.”

The Trial, My Censure, and Recantation
The process ended up being fairly complicated. Because I was an elder and not a pastor, the “court of original jurisdiction” was the local elder board. A preliminary hearing was held to determine whether or not the charges warranted a trial. Our local church elders determined that a trial was not warranted. However, this was appealed to the Presbytery and they overruled that decision and a trial was conducted. In the meantime, the membership of the elder board had changed, so that at the trial, I was found guilty of the first charge (stating that Adam had primate ancestors)—I admitted stating so, but denied that it was contrary to the Confessions or to the Word of God. (I was found not guilty of the second charge concerning “subordinating Scripture to alleged empirical evidence.”) I appealed the guilty verdict to Presbytery, lost there, then appealed to General Assembly and lost there as well.

The censure was to suspend me indefinitely from the office of ruling elder. I remained in that state until January 1998 when I was restored after recanting of my views. My recantation was not a denial of primate ancestry, but rather an admission that I did not know how to hold my views about human evolution together with the uniqueness of Adam as taught in the Confessions and in Scripture. This small step back from my previous assertion was satisfactory to the church elders. I did not violate my conscience in this and continue to this day to have no firm idea about how to put all the pieces together.

To Be Continued
In part two of this article to be published later this week, I will reflect back on the events of my trial. I was fully sympathetic with the process, and believe I was treated fairly. This may be surprising for others (particularly those not from a confessional church background) and probably deserves some explanation. I will also outline a proposal I recently initiated to modify one section of the CRCNA Creation and Science report that was adopted in 1991.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Promoting a Positive Relationship between an Evangelical Faith and Biological Evolution in the Local Church

This is a guest-post by Dennis Venema and is the third installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Dennis is the Chair of the Biology department at Trinity Western University. His article “Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human – Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes” will be published in the September 2010 edition of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, alongside his essay-length review of Stephen Meyer’s recent ID book, Signature in the Cell.

A Time to Keep One’s Own Counsel
The creation / evolution topic can be very divisive within a church community. Because of this, the approach I’ve generally taken at my church is to discuss the issue only when asked, and only with those who ask. Raising this topic can be unhelpful at times, and cause problems for those not adequately prepared to deal with the implications. As Steve has ably discussed here before, the choice on whether to engage in this discussion needs to be approached carefully and with wisdom. Until recently, given that the Creation/evolution discussion was not a major focus of my local congregation, I felt no pressing need to voice my views on the matter. Rather, I discussed it privately and informally with those who expressed an interest in the subject.

A Time to Speak Up

This situation changed for me last year when my local church announced it would be running The Truth Project (hereafter “TTP”), a DVD series from Focus on the Family. TTP covers a lot of ground, but my primary concern was how the series handled evolution. TTP very clearly presents evolution as a demonic lie that is in direct conflict with the Christian perspective that humans are created in the image of God. Moreover, TTP spends a significant amount of time discussing evolution, identifying it as an example of godless philosophy in several of the videos, including the “science” lectures (where of course it is the prime focus). For those not familiar with TTP, Mike Beidler is currently blogging his way through the series.

The concern I had then (and still have now) is that presenting evolution and Creation as a dichotomous choice is both false, and potentially dangerous for believers and non-believers. I decided that it was time to address the issue at the congregational level. One email (among several) I sent to my church leadership on this issue contained the following:
I would hold that the “either evolution or God” is a false dichotomy. I would also hold that it is a dangerous one. In TTP, evolution and God’s creation are held out as mutually exclusive options: in this mindset, then, evidence for evolution becomes evidence against God. I have seen students struggle with this issue as they study biology. This is a mindset we would do well not to saddle young people with (or anyone, for that matter).

Contrary to what you hear through many Christian channels, there is ample evidence for evolution, human evolution included. When students encounter this evidence with the either/or mindset, it can shipwreck their faith. When outsiders who know Biology come into the church, they write us off as ignorant and dismiss the claims of Christ along with our flawed Biology. In both cases, our poor handling of science raises unnecessary barriers to faith.

I would suggest, especially for the science section of TTP, that there be a willingness to engage a discussion in the church about the full range of Christian responses to evolution, and even explore some of the reasons why Christians in the biological sciences feel that evolution is a valid scientific theory. I’m not normally one for pushing these discussions, but we’ve never had the opposing views taught through an official venue before either.
Later I requested an opportunity to present an Evolutionary Creationist viewpoint on biology at the church, but that request was denied. As an alternative, a church member hosted a unofficial evening at his home where I gave this presentation. The evening was a pleasure – not because we were all in agreement (indeed, the material was very challenging for most attendees) but because of the charity that surrounded the discussion. If nothing else, the evening demonstrated that constructive dialogue within an Evangelical congregation is possible (and everyone still shakes my hand on Sunday; so, so far, so good).

On the down side, however, our congregation is currently running TTP again as an adult Sunday School class. C’est la vie.

A Tale of Two Congregations
In contrast to the situation at my own church, I recently received an invitation from the leadership of another local congregation to provide a presentation on evolution and Evolutionary Creationism. This congregation runs a “theology cafĂ©” every so often at a local coffee shop owned by some of their members. This allows them to engage in interesting and controversial issues from a Christian perspective in a public setting.

I’ll admit that I was a little wary when first approached (wondering if perhaps they were looking for an ID/anti-evolutionary view) but those fears were quickly laid to rest. Over coffee (at the venue, of course) it became clear that what they wanted was a discussion from an evangelical perspective that was accepting of evolution. Their motivation? Many in the congregation had read Brian McClaren’s trilogy (A New Kind of Christian; The Story We Find Ourselves In; The Last Word and the Word After That). The second book in the series showcases a positive relationship between Christianity and evolution as a major plot component, and this left the congregation wanting to explore things further. I presented essentially the same material as I had to my own congregants, and the evening generated very fruitful discussions on faith, science and approaching Genesis on its own terms.

The next day I received the following feedback from the church leadership:
Dennis, Thanks so much for an excellent evening. I have heard many express real appreciation not only for the content but also for your grace and the very interesting and understandable way in which you presented it. I think this will not only open up thinking in the science realm but will help get us all excited again about the early chapters of Genesis and what God is communicating there.

Dennis, I would echo those thanks. Our community is really growing in its ability to face these kinds of questions and you enriched that journey for us. Thanks for taking the time.
A Time of Transition
A belief in God as Creator is a bedrock, non-negotiable assumption of Christianity. Many believers, however, conflate this belief with a specific mechanism by which God created. Untangling those two ideas cuts to the heart of the nature of Scripture and how it should be approached. Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the evangelical church is not that we, on the whole, reject evolution: worse still, we have not prepared our congregants to deal with the exegetical and hermeneutical issues that evolution engenders, despite the many opportunities Scripture itself gives us for such preparation.

A second bedrock belief, however, is that God’s works are also a form of His revelation. Since Scripture and nature have the same Author, they cannot conflict with each other. Reading God’s words in nature clearly shows that evolution, including human evolution, was part of His creative strategy. Given the overwhelming evidence for human evolution, it is only a matter of time before the evangelical church comes around to this method of creation. The only question is how long this transition will take, and how much damage will ensue in the process.

While I don’t see this as a fast transition, I see good reasons for hope. More and more voices (e.g. Biologos) are chiming in to affirm that science and Christian faith are not at odds, and that one can rejoice in God’s Word in nature and God’s Word in Scripture without falsely pitting one against the other. Resources to address this issue at a congregational level are becoming available as well (e.g. Test of Faith). Already, there are rare evangelical congregations that affirm a positive relationship between the science of evolution and the Good News of Jesus Christ. This affirmation removes a potential stumbling block for believers, and tears down a barrier to faith for non-believers. At the end of the day, these are part and parcel of what being an Evangelical is all about.