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Monday, 12 April 2010

Teaching a Science and Faith Course in an Evangelical Mainline Church: Lessons Learned

This is a guest post by Allan Harvey and is the tenth installment in the series "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church". Allan is a Ph.D. chemical engineer who works at a US government science lab in Colorado. He is on the Board of the Rocky Mountain local section of the American Scientific Affiliation. Allan is an Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), has written several essays on the Science / Faith Dialogue, and has made available online materials based on a class he taught at his church on Science and Nature in Christian Perspective.

My church is a little schizophrenic. We are in the PCUSA, the large “mainline” Presbyterian body. Congregations in the PCUSA vary widely; my church is at the theologically (and politically) conservative end of the spectrum. We are like a hybrid between a moderate mainline Presbyterian body and a nondenominational Evangelical church. So our fairly large church (Sunday attendance about 1000) has a diversity of viewpoints, ranging from a sizable minority whom one might call fundamentalist to some who are moderately liberal.

This was the setting for a 7-week Adult Education class I taught in 2007 on “Science and Nature in Christian Perspective.” 20 to 25 participants attended the sessions, which is pretty typical for these offerings at my church. I had hoped to attract parents of high schoolers, college students, and lay leaders in youth ministries, but for the most part these were absent (this demographic does not tend to come to other classes, either).

Ten Lessons Learned from Teaching the Course
Following, in no particular order, are ten “lessons learned” and words of advice for those who might teach a similar class.

1) Pre-existing credibility helps. It helped that I had recently served a term as an Elder and otherwise had established that my orthodoxy and stature to teach was not in doubt. If this had been 10 years earlier, when I was just some unknown scientist fairly new to the church, it would have been easier for people to dismiss what I had to say. If you already have some stature in your church, you are ahead of the game. If not, you might first build that by serving the local church (which one should do anyway) in less controversial ways.

2) Don’t dive into the deep end. It was week 6 before I talked extensively about evolution. Discussions on difficult and controversial issues go better once one has laid a good foundation for thinking about them. I felt it was important to first talk about healthy ways of reading the Bible and what sort of questions we should and should not ask Scripture, and also about how we should view God’s action in and through nature. If you can make the case that Genesis shouldn’t be read as a science textbook, and that natural processes should not be seen as competing explanations in opposition to God, much of the basis for Christian anti-evolutionism is disarmed before you even bring up “the E-word”.

3) Establish common ground. It helped to begin the class with some things everybody could agree on, like God as author of nature and of scripture. And ground rules like the need to avoid false dichotomies and to be charitable when evaluating other positions.

4) A few points, clearly made. I tried to cover too much ground in my first session; Barbour's four ways of relating science and faith, nuances of the “two books” metaphor and a few other things. There wasn't time for all of it, and it detracted from the things I really needed to get across. In subsequent weeks, I tried to limit the scope a little more and focus on fewer key points.

5) Don't be "one-sided". I think it is important not to be just the guy pointing out how some things within the church (like "creationism") are wrong, but also to make clear your opposition to those attacking the faith from outside (like Richard Dawkins) who use science as a weapon.

6) Stick mostly to what you know. One Sunday I ventured into something I did not know enough about. I talked about the eye as something that didn't seem well "designed," and was corrected by a retired ophthalmologist. Whether his explanation was right or not, I shouldn't have tried to talk about something with which I wasn't familiar.

7) Be open to learning from people in the class. That should apply to any teaching. One man in the class came up with the metaphor "a tool that God uses" for natural processes, which I thought was so good that I used it in the rest of the class and in my write-up.

8) You never know what might cause trouble. I had a lot of trepidation prior to the week I focused on evolution, but the session was not contentious at all. However, the week I talked about the stewardship of God's creation, I was surprised that a few people were quite hostile -- I knew our church had some Rush Limbaugh disciples but I didn't expect to be a target.

9) Support helps. I am grateful for the prayer and encouragement provided by my wife and some other people with whom I was in fellowship. Leading a session on a controversial topic like this can be lonely and intimidating (especially for an introvert like me), and that support was essential.

10) Don’t assume enemies. Before the class started, I was warned by an Associate Pastor that a member I didn’t know personally (but whom I knew was very interested in apologetics and involved with Reasons to Believe) had expressed concern about what I would be teaching. I was afraid I was going to have hostile opposition. But we exchanged email and eventually spoke in person, and he ended up making constructive contributions in class. Today I consider this man a friend, even if we still see some things differently.

Writing this made me reflect on whether my class was a “success,” and I realize I have no clue. If nothing else, it helped clarify my own thoughts, and at least a few people have found the material I put on the web useful. My church has never been a hotbed of “creationist” activity, but there are a number of ID fans and “Truth Project” advocates and that is still the case. I think at least a few people had their eyes opened to a healthier perspective on science/faith issues, and more people at church are aware that I can be a resource when such issues come up. But maybe I shouldn’t worry about trying to measure the “fruit” and just be faithful to what I think God calls me to do.


Ron said...


Very nice! I like those 10 lessons. But in many churches, this might not work. Lesson #2 "Don't Dive into the Deep End":

If you can make the case that Genesis shouldn’t be read as a science textbook,

well, in most evangelical (non-mainline) churches, this IS the deep end. To take the metaphor further, if we can't even get people to stick their toes in the water, how are we going to get them to swim?

Allan Harvey said...


You're right that in churches with a more fundamentalist approach to Scripture, the "don't read Genesis as a science textbook" part would be more difficult. Even in many of those places, I think one could make headway with a slightly weaker statement like "The main purpose of Genesis 1 is to teach us about God, not to teach us about science."

But in places where hardline versions of the "inerrancy" doctrine are central, I fear there is not much hope for progress (and not only on the science/faith front). How to wean people away from that harmful and unbiblical (IMHO) position is a different discussion (perhaps at least as important) where I don't have much insight.
Pete Enns tried to offer a constructive way forward on that front and lost his job for it.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Allan,
I too like those 10 lessons. On #6, Stick mostly to what you know, I’m not sure how far you can go with that – it is probably great for people like yourself and most of the authors in this series who have some pretty good deep expertise in one or more of the relevant faith / science areas. But what about the rest of us that are really amateurs (even if relatively well read amateurs) in all of the dozen plus relevant areas? Many of us, myself included, would have difficulty responding on the spot to a biblical studies expert, a biology expert, a philosophy of science expert, or a theology expert were they to challenge our ideas. At some point, don’t we just have to be prepared to say “That’s a good question; let me get back to you” or something of the sort? Maybe that’s part of what you meant with your point #7.

Jimpithecus said...

I think that if you can convince people that reading Genesis as a science text is reductionistic and robs the scriptures of their symbolic beauty, you are half-way there.

Most people that read Genesis read it with a 21st century mindset, reasoning that the scriptures are "timeless." This leads to all kind of fuzzy thinking. If we were to take a science textbook back to the time of Moses, it would not only make no sense to them scientifically, it would be irrelevant to them. God deals with each of us at a particular space and time, just as He did with the children of Israel. While it is true that God's truth is timeless, there are often circumstances in which it is revealed, even in the New Testament. Allan, I especially like your statement "The main purpose of Genesis 1 is to teach us about God, not to teach us about science." Good post.

Jordan said...

I like your post, Allan. Those are all good things to keep in mind. I also find Denis Lamoureux's categorical way of thinking to be helpful as a way of breaking down the false dichotomies that people often bring to these discussions. It helps people to realize that they have more options than just science or faith.
Here's an example of his categorization:

Evan said...

Interesting Post. I am a 3rd year engineering student at Dordt College, and I stumbled upon this blog while researching for a paper I am writing concerning Entropy and Evolution. Our professor had us read your paper "The Second Law of Thermodynamics in the Context of the Christian Faith."

While I have not read, nor have the time to read, the entire blog I do not believe we can reconcile evolution and the fall.

Scripture teaches my very point in Romans 5:12-21 (NIV) : "12Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned— 13for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
15But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. 19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

20The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

It seems clear to me from this passage that if you deny creationism and thus the fall you also deny Christ.

Of course there seems to be plenty of evidence supporting evolution but I ask how much evidence is their to support the virgin birth or resurrection of Christ.

What is the need to say these processes are to be believed by faith but not literal 6 day 24 hour creation? Thought of this way creationism is no longer reading the Bible as a scientific textbook but rather the Word of God in which is revealed Christ in whom I have complete faith.

(Note this was hastily written instead of writing my paper.. be nice :) )

To God be the Glory!

Evan said...

I noticed the link on the side of the blog for the E-Book #2: Evolution and Original Sin.

I would like to read it. Most certainly this E-Book addresses my question, but I cannot access it because Dordt's servers block it as it is on scribd.com. Apparently they do not trust us. :)

Is there another link to it?


David_Morris said...

Evan, if you are at Dordt, you are presumably CRC? Here is their position:
I guess evolution and the fall will continue to be "one of life's persistent questions". Solo Dei Gloria :)

Steve Martin said...

Hi Evan,
Welcome. First, those are great questions – but they can not be answered in a quick comment. I’ll point you to a few links that might be places to start.

Re: the e-book on original sin, you may be most interested in Terry Gray’s contribution in this - Terry is a CRC elder. If you can’t get the e-book any other way (eg. From a Non-Dordt server), send me an email to steven dot dale dot martin at gmail dot com & I will forward you the PDF directly.

Re: see also my post reconciling evolution and the Fall

Assuming you are CRC, you may want to check out the post Some thoughts on the CRC and Evolution which will point you to contributions from CRC Christians who are evolutionary creationists EC.

PS: Hope you don’t feel like you need to have this all figured out before you write that term paper – otherwise you will never finish :-)

Alan said...

How about Denis Lamoureux - The Sin-Death Problem: Toward an Evolutionary Creationist Solution

Evan said...

Thank you for the links. I'll have to read them better over summer break.

Now I had better get back to studying...

gingoro said...

Terry Gray who wrote one of the posts in this series and also one of the posts in an earlier series on this site is a member of a CRC church as am I.


Both of us take much the same position wrt the fall and a first person(s) made in the image of God but we also accept evolution.

Go to:


and search for gingoro - #5822
to see more or less my current thoughts.
Dave W

Allan Harvey said...


You have a point about the limits of "stick mostly to what you know." I recently taught a 4-week class at church on Postmodernism (and Modernism) in Christian Perspective which is something where my expertise is much less, but I think it was still worth doing even if I had to do more "I don't know" or "this book explores that more in depth."

Maybe I should have phrased that point as "don't overreach." The problem (which I fell into a handful of times) was not so much getting into topics I didn't know as much about; it was trying to sound authoritative about such topics. I should have presented these things with more humility, less "let me tell you how it is" and more "here are some half-formed thoughts" or "here's what some people have suggested." Sometimes (like if I talked about what Genesis said in Hebrew) I made my lack of personal expertise clear, but I should have done a bit more of that.

Allan Harvey said...


Thanks for stopping in. It is flattering and sobering that my old essay on the 2nd law is assigned reading. I should go back and see if I still agree with everything I wrote there 10 years ago.

Regarding evolution and the Fall, one key "ground rule" I tried to lift up in my class was "avoid false dichotomies." Your comment makes it sound like the only 2 options are ultra-literal 6-day creation and abandoning any notion of a "Fall". In fact, there are numerous positions, not only "old-earth creationists" but also many "evolutionary creationist" positions, that have the traditional Adam and Eve as real people whose act of disobedience made for the "fall". An example would be the position of John Stott where Adam is the "federal" head of the human race, singled out by God among his fellow hominids.

I personally am agnostic about a literal Adam. While I respect people who think it necessary to their theology, I don't find that position persuasive (I think the fact of our fallenness is what is important, not the details of how we got here). But if you are under the impression that accepting the scientific evidence for evolution requires abandoning a traditional doctrine of the Fall, I would submit that you have bought into a false dichotomy.

Moses said...

Been awfully quiet around here?

Some food for thought and possible discussion:

Much of the current discussion has been about how to share our ideas with other evangelicals. But what about how we can share our faith with non- believers, or people of other faiths within the context of accepting evolution, and with a "higher" critical view of the Bible?

Is there hope to convert the evangelical/fundamentalist church so it can be better poised to lead people to faith in Christ?

Is there a place for yet another stream of Christianity? A movement that is in step with modern science and yet uses some of the positive aspects of Evangelical Christianity -such as a sense of spiritual community, caring for each other, organizing and fundraising for humanitarian causes, investing into the spiritual enrichment of children and youth through camps, youth groups, vacation Bible Schools. Then there are Mom's Time Out groups, seniors groups, and the various other small groups that meet for fellowship and spiritual formation, support groups etc. The non denominational and Neo-Pentecostal mega churches are booming because they are attractive to people who are spiritually hungry yet are uninterested in traditional liturgy. But it is a fad and McChurch - order by number, Simon Says "don't think..." is starting to taste bland.

So again, how do we get back to sharing/living the gospel rather than just trying to get the choir to sing the song the way we want it to be sung? Or is it too dangerous to try a third way that is not so liberal that it denies the divinity ( or even historicity) of Jesus - yet not so conservative that its bibliolatry trumps plain reason and an honest observance of nature. Is this discussion the beginnings of yet another denomination or flavor of Christianity?

Steve Martin said...

Hi Moses,

Well it has been awfully quiet because (ironically given the past series) what little extra time I’ve had has been eaten up with church duties. I began a three-year term on our church executive in March and almost immediately was given the job of chairing the transition team (our pastor of 23 years is retiring). I’m very excited with where our church is going right now (and REALLY excited about the new pastor we are bringing in) – but none of it (good nor bad) has to do with the interaction of science & faith. So frankly I haven’t thought much about this topic over the last month or so . I will pull this series together into an ebook (like the others) and I still want to help move the ESE forward – but that is not a priority for me right now.

Some quick personal viewpoints on your questions:

Re: the place of evolution in sharing the gospel? Not much at all in many circumstances - at least in the really-post-christian culture of metro Toronto where I live. Sometimes the perception that an anti-evolution stand is required for Faith in Christ is a barrier, but one that is easily removed I think. Frankly there are lots of other more important things on most people’s minds.

Re: evangelical / fundamentalist church & its ability to be an impact for Christ in our culture, that depends on your definition of evangelical & fundamentalist. I still passionately believe that the evangelical church can (in fact is) bring the good news of Christ to people searching for meaning. (I’m not so sure that there is hope for the fundamentalist wing of the evangelical church).

Daniel O said...

Hi all,
Been reading with a lot of interest this series and must agree with Moses that it has been quiet (and missed :( ) for a few weeks. Im writting really to ask a favour. I've been looking to start a PhD and would appreciate some of your insight into this. A little about me: I'm a christian born in Bolivia to an evangelical family (alhtough no longer would consider myself purely evangelical). I have a BTh and an Mth from Queen's University in belfast, and an MA In Sociology from Sheffield University in England. For my last degree I researched the secularization theory (specifically) and the socilogy of religion as a whole. Thus my strengths lie in those two fields. I am now putting together a research proposal for a PhD in a UK university. I'm thinking of doing it on the sociology of atheism and the new atheist movement. And this is where I would be interested in your opinions, looking at the topic I'll be covering, what would YOU like to read? does anybody know of any author or books worth reading that deals with this topic? what would you consider the usefullness of a research like this would be for the greater church?
looking forward to you opinions and thank you for your time.

Anonymous said...

This blog should be restarted. It's a shame to let such an excellent venue languish - it's understandable that maintaining and advancing a blog takes time, but the founder doesn't have to act alone.
Bring it back. It's valuable, perhaps even vital.

Eric A. Crawford said...

I have been doing similar research and appreciate your blog on the subject. I remain at a stalemate regarding the mixing of evolution and science into any rationally joint conclusion. I wrote a short article on that point recently here and would welcome your comments:


Shin Min said...

This is very nice to teach especially for those people didn't yet received God in their lives.


Anonymous said...

I can accept evolutionary creationism and also postmillennialism. I believe that Regent Divinity School is a very find institution. I feel that Genesis 1, the Priestly Account of creation, teaches evolutionary creation. It is the more advanced of the Genesis creation accounts. I am at heart a moderate Baptist.

Charles E. Miller, BA in German and MA in Religion

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