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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.

36 comments:

Frank said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gingoro said...

Very good post, Thanks Dennis. I was thinking of making a comment much along the lines of what you have written. One other strategy is to begin by openly affirming necessary precursors to an EC position like an old earth when the topic comes up. Maybe the next step would be common descent. I find that many Christians without the scientific background have a simple naive view on Genesis and by default fall into the YEC position, I tend to think of this as folk YEC as opposed to those with a strong conviction that all other interpretations and positions are wrong.

Venema sounds like it would fit in our CRC congregation better than a Wallace.

Dave Wallace

Steve Martin said...

Frank: Your comment has been deleted because it contravened comment guidelines. Please review these and email me directly if you have any questions.

Jimpithecus said...

Dennis, Thank you for your post. Just yesterday, I had a conversation with a very good friend of mine who was curious about the relationship between science and his understanding of scripture. He was very accepting and understanding of my EC take on science and said later that it was one of the most important conversations he had in the last couple of years. It reminded me that there are people out there who really are curious and will listen with an open mind.

rmwilliamsjr said...

thank you very much for this series. often i feel very alone and isolated in the church due to my scientific understanding. i too think the way to interact is "don't speak unless spoken too" on the issues. i feel compelled to defend what i understand to be true, but knowing that much i believe is wrong, adds a bit of modesty in it's defense.

Bethany said...

Thanks Dennis. Great post.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Dennis,
I would be interested in how the church leadership responded to your point that promoting anti-evolutionary ideas can actually shipwreck people’s faith. In my experience, this is a point that many mature Christians who have never heard the EC side of the story find very surprising – and does give them pause (as it should!).

Dennis Venema said...

Steve, do you mean my home congregation, the other church who invited me to present (or both)?

Steve Martin said...

Dennis:
I meant your home congregation. I believe that the vast majority of evangelical church leaders that oppose evolution have very good intentions - and in fact are making good decisions based on the (mis)information they have. eg. they do want to help build up the faith of other Christians.

If we (ECs) show them that we have the same concerns (eg. we want to help build the faith of others) AND we say "We believe anti-evolution can actually be harmful to the Christian faith", these leaders should seriously consider our position. This doesn't mean they need to agree with us (eg. accept evolution) but it should at least make them cautious about promoting an activity that can be detrimental to faith.

Dennis Venema said...

I don't know if that concern carries much weight with my church leadership, to be honest. If it does they haven't said so. That concern may be hard to imagine if you're not convinced that the evidence for evolution is strong, or if you're concerned that accepting evolution is a threat to Biblical authority (and thus more of a threat than any supposed dangers of evolution denial). They're welcome to comment if they wish (I've informed some of them of this post and invited them to participate if they would like to). I have had very little feedback on this issue from them. I have been told (a) that the church leadership supports continuing to use TTP, and that (b) there is not any interest in making creation/evolution a major topic of discussion, hence no permission for me to officially respond to the grievous errors within TTP.

Of course, I feel that (a) and (b) are not compatible - running TTP as an official church event is making creation/evolution a prominent topic, since TTP is very focused on it, even in many of the "non" science lectures. We even had guests in a recent church-run Alpha course asking evolution/faith questions, so this is a real issue that can be a barrier to faith for some.

Kirk said...

Dennis, for those of us who haven't actually seen TTP, what is the actual cause of your feelings towards it? What is it promoting, YECism along with Answers in Genesis cultural warfare? Or just more subtle knocking of mainstream science?

Brent said...

Just loving the series, guys. Please keep sharing your personal experiences. I find them not only educational, but...oddly comforting, maybe?

I have recently begun leading a reading group for Lent through Polkinghorney's 'Lenten Meditations on Science and Faith.' We meet once a week to discuss that week's readings. We are meeting at our local independent Christian Study Center (www.christianstudycenter.org) where I have engaged these issues before. For the first time, though, I put an effort into letting my church members know what I was up to and invited them. I also discussed this ahead of time with our associate pastor who actually suggested we do this at the church itself, but that didn't work out (maybe next year).

The group is going well and even has a YECer who is truly open to learning more about this perspective and is perhaps even being convinced (fingers crossed!).

I have yet to actually talk with my head pastor about these issues, but over all I've been very encouraged by the openness at least some members and staff of our small evangelical church has shown to at least engaging the discussion.

Dennis Venema said...

Hi Kirk,

If you see the link to Mike Beidler's blog in the original post you can see his summary of TTP to date - that should make things abundantly clear why TTP is such a poor resource.

In a nutshell, TTP equates evolution with atheism, labels it a "pernicious lie", claims to evaluate the evidence for it but does nothing of the kind, spreading rather misinformation, and on and on. It's pretty much a constant barrage in the "science" lectures.

The majority response in the room after the video was over was people shaking their heads and wondering how scientists could be so atheistic, biased and closed to the wonders of God's Creation that they would so easily accept the lie of evolution without any evidence for it.

Kirk said...

One wonders how long the 'it's an atheist conspiracy' line can last. Surely even amongst the most credulous who desperately want evolution to be wrong there must be enough reasons to doubt the truth of it. One being; why do so many Christian scientists accept it? Another; how has such a 'hoax', built on such flawed foundations, survived so long?

Middle St. said...

"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." - Dr. Dennis Venema

Why is biology capitalised as Biology, while church is not capitalised as Church? Was this intentional?

Isn't Evolutionary Creationism an ideology, i.e. the -ism? In other words, is EC a position that attempts to make 'creationism' presentable (once again) to Christians? Or is it rather attempting to make evolutionary biology compatible with Christian faith? To me this is not clear.

Dennis wrote: "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."

Is Christian Scripture a purely 'natural' thing? If not, I don't understand why Venema speaks of its 'nature'. Wouldn't it be accurate just to speak of 'the heart of Scripture' instead?

Thanks for your article!

Steve Martin said...

Middle St. – welcome. That is a lot of questions in a single comment :-) So most of my own feedback will be brief (Dennis may have additional, different, or better feedback).

Re: capitalization – chalk that up to editorial mishap or weakness.

Re: nature of Scripture. Discussing the many nuances and different definitions of nature, natural, and naturalism is beyond the scope of this post, but since we can talk about the “nature of God” (who is definitely not natural!), I don’t see a problem with the term “nature of Scripture”

Re: EC as making “creationism” presentable to Christians. I wouldn’t put it that way. I personally like the term because of its emphasis on Creation, which is more important than the mechanism of creation (evolution). (See the post Reclaiming and Proclaiming Creation which shares my thoughts on this. You will notice that this was at a time where I was still hesitant to wear the label Creationist). If others want to use the terms TE or biologos, that is fine too.

Re: EC as an attempt to make evolutionary biology compatible with Christian Faith. I wouldn’t put it that way either. I’d say it is a way to express the compatibility that already exists.

BTW, what do you think of Dennis’s approach to promoting a positive relationship between an Evangelical faith and biological evolution in the local church (the main point of the OP)?

Steve Martin said...

Dennis: re: not wanting to make evolution a major topic of discussion & running TTP, yes, that is ironic. Maybe there should be an admission that there is no desire to have a positive discussion around evolution. Again, I’d be interested in what the leaders think of our position (which you mentioned in your letter) that we believe TTP and anti-evolution can be potentially damaging to the faith of others. But I realize that pushing this question could probably be counterproductive for your relationship with your church.

Brent: Thanks for that. Again, I think it is encouraging that even though there are stories like Doug’s and Dennis’s (congregation #1), there are also many stories like yours and Dennis’s (congregation #2).

Laura said...

I've just started reading up on evolution and seeing what various scientists think is the best evidence. Dennis cites pseudogenes. What about responses - www.detectingdesign.com/pseudogenes.html ?

Francis Collins talks about repetitive DNA. Darrel Falk talks about Alu. Richard Colling explains retrotransposons. Others mention endogenous retrovirus. Are these all the same things or different? How should I try to make sense of all this and what to make of anti-evolution responses? The standard argument seems to be that these all have functions.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Laura,
Welcome. You may want to check out section 4 of 29+ evidences for macroevolution - this addresses some of your questions I think.

The whole Index of Creationist Claims is a good place to start when hearing an anti-evolution claim. Now, this list doesn't seem to have been updated recently so some of the links no longer work but it will give you a good start.

Jordan said...

Hi Laura,

YEC Todd Wood has a blog post today about transposable elements. Anti-evolutionists often don't understand how these elements relate to evolution, but Todd sets the record straight here:
http://toddcwood.blogspot.com/2010/03/primer-on-transposable-elements.html
(Yes, this is a YEC admitting evidence FOR evolution. He's one of the few YECs who "gets it".)

Laura said...

Mr Wood's article is certainly interesting. I wonder why he writes that if he does not accept it. If what he says is true then why do so many scientists not accept it - www.dissentfromdarwin.org/ ?

Are they not seeing the same evidence Dennis Venema and Todd Wood are? They must have scientific reasons for why they believe what they do, surely?

Sorry if I am asking silly questions, but as I see it there is a lot at stake and I want to be sure about what is accurate and whether there are alternatives.

On that topic, what should I make of Intelligent Design? The latest book seems to have had a lot of good reviews.

Jordan said...

Hi again, Laura.

1) Todd Wood doesn't accept evolution because, although he thinks it's a good way to explain the data, he rejects accommodationist hermeneutics a priori. He's discussed this on his blog, too.
2) The "Dissent from Darwin" list is problematic because there are very few actual scientists on there (they're mostly engineers, etc.), and because some of the people mentioned on the list are listed against their will. Watch this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ty1Bo6GmPqM
Be sure to also read about "Project Steve", which gives a better idea about just how universal the acceptance of evolution is among scientists.
3) Meyer's book has gotten lots of great reviews on Amazon because the think-tank he works for has solicited positive reviews from its mailing list. Check out Steve Matheson's blog for an alternative view of the book:
http://sfmatheson.blogspot.com/

Laura said...

What resources would people recommend on the fossil record? Just recently I saw Darwin's Dilemma on the Cambrian. How did random mutations produce all the body plans in such a short time? Hugh Ross says its the fifth day of creation.

Jimpithecus said...

A post on the Discovery Institute's blog Nota Bene by John West trotted out the "Dissent from Darwin" list yet again. I have posted about the list here and here. Jordan is correct that it is problematic. That doesn't stop the DI from making it sound like the last word in dissent. I find it somewhat disconcerting that the organization would, somewhat dishonestly, tout the list so heavily, knowing that there are very few biologists and only one palaeontologist on it, since those are the people that are prepared to actually evaluate the evidence.

Dennis Venema said...

Todd Wood is a great resource to point folks towards. Laura, the reason he writes like that is because he is qualified to evaluate the evidence (he's a biologist / geneticist) and, more importantly, he's honest. He thinks the evidence will eventually bear him out in his theology (I disagree, of course), but I fully support him in his honest efforts to wrestle with the data.

Folks like Meyer and Rana should be capable of understanding the evidence. Either they don't (which merely makes them unreliable sources) or they do which is a whole other issue.

Jordan said...

Laura,

If you're interested in learning about the fossil record, then the best resources are written by those who study the fossil record: palaeontologists. Notably, there are few (if any) anti-evolutionary books written by palaeontologists. There are many great books written on the subject of palaeontology, but if you're interested in those written from the perspective of the creation/evolution dialogue, I suggest Prothero's "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters" and Young's "The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth".

Laura said...

Dennis, the implication of your comment on Todd Wood would seem to be that you don't think most scientists who are creationists are honest. Why do you say that? Have you interacted with many? Are they not entitled to a different view? It is surely a good thing to be critical of current theories and let people know there are alternatives.

Dennis Venema said...

Hi Laura,

Most scientists who are creationists practice "folk science" - not real science. Folk science takes a predetermined conclusion and tries to "force" the data to fit in order to serve an apologetic. You are right that this is an "alternative" of sorts - but not a credible one. It's sort of like saying voodoo is an alternative to chemotherapy - yes it's technically an "alternative" but not one I'd recommend or one supported by evidence .

What makes Todd different is that he is also fed up with this approach - even though he is a YEC. He feels the only way to advance the YEC view is to deal with the science scientifically , not apologetically or with folk science, which is what I meant by "honest." This is why Todd routinely responds to other creationist arguments and shows how they are erroneous or misleading.

Why is Todd's approach so rare? Because it has zero value from an apologetics point of view - and YEC/OEC/ID movements are not about science - they are anti-evolutionary apologetics movements. They are willing to take short-term apologetics gain
at the expense of long-term scientific validity. Todd is taking a longer view (not one I think will succeed, alas) - but I can fully support his methods.

Best,

Dennis

Allan Harvey said...

Laura, I agree with the characterization of "folk science", but in response to your question it is also important to say that for the most part these people are not dishonest in the common sense of that term.

There is a distinction between flat-out dishonesty (of which there are a few "creationist" examples as in any set of humans) and being blinded by one's presuppositions. It's sort of like a sports fanatic who thinks every call from the referee should go in his team's favor and will feel that way even if shown a replay indicating otherwise. If you start with the mistaken idea that evolution being true would destroy the faith you hold dear, there is strong psychological incentive to see the evidence through a distorted lens (not that any human sees 100% objectively) and subscribe to the folk science that allows you to maintain your belief.

Cornelius said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Steve Martin said...

HI Cornelius,

Per our comment guidelines, your comment has been deleted. Reasons include:

- the majority of your comment seems to be a cut-and-paste argument from other sites and it does not really interact with the OP or the comments. (Note to other readers: you can see most of the deleted comment in the elephant in the room article at the creationscience site and the Evolution is Religion – not Science article on ICR’s site.

- your comment seemed (again) to make no effort at dialogue but simply seemed to promote your black-and-white “Creationists vs. Materialists” straw-man. Ironically, most of the readers of this site are ECs and thus definitely are creationists and definitely not materialists.

Again, I am all for encouraging EC / ID dialogue. Other ID proponents that visit this site seem to be able to do this. Regarding my earlier question, have you read Haarsma’s Four Myths of TE and Four Myths of ID paper that he referenced during his co-presentation with Bruce Gordon from DI? What is your reaction specifically to his points on MN?

Laura said...

Dennis, as a geneticist have you read John Sanford's Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome? It's a book several of my YEC friends have recommended. Apparently, he's a former evolutionary geneticist at Cornell who made all sorts of discoveries and inventions in the field. He is now converted to YEC and wrote this book about the genome. He has also made a genetic model of evolution called Mendel's Accountant.

Dennis Venema said...

Hi Laura,

I'm not familiar with that book, sorry. It's claims, however, are common enough in YEc literature.

You might ask Todd Wood his thoughts on it (you can email him - he has an email address for his blog).

My first impression is that if there is anything credible to the book, that Todd would have picked up on it in his 2006 chimpanzee genome paper (well worth the read - have you read it?) Todd's conclusion in that paper is that no current arguments in YEC/OEC apologetics stand up to the genomic evidence for common ancestry (and his blog comments recently indicate that he still feels that way now).

Laura said...

I asked Todd Wood and his response was "No comment."

Dennis Venema said...

Hmm - too bad: I would have been interested in his response. I guess we'll have to read between the lines on that one.

Terry said...

Similar to Dennis, I was invited by a church in our town who found out about my views via a interview that was conducted with me in a class at Colorado
State University. The Vineyard Church of the Rockies ran a series entitled "Origins" last fall. They had some talkback sessions after the main Sunday evening service primarily directed to the 20-something crowd. I was "interviewed" and responded to questions from the audience as a representative of a theistic evolutionist / evolutionary creationist viewpoint. Another week they had young-earth creationist, Rob Carter, from Creation Ministries International. And then they showed the video Expelled. This church seemed willing to expose their congregation to a variety of points of view. Even though the leadership didn't necessary agree with my particular perspective, they recognized that these faith/science questions are sometimes barriers for people coming to faith in Christ and were eager to promote conversations and a process by which folks could think through these issues.