Headin’ South

February 21, 2010

Enough of this cold Minnesota winter now. It’s off to the dark bowels of Oaxaca. Sorry to leave off in our current discussion, but we’ll pick it back up again when I get back (in mid April). I’ll try to send at least one post from Mexico to update you on our caving expedition. In the meantime, as I understand it, James will entertain you with posts demonstrating how much cooler he is than I.

-Matt, the elder brother

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Answers to Christians’ Questions about Evolution: summary and response (Tim Keller)

February 9, 2010

In his paper, Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Tim Keller speaks about the science/religion and evolution issue with sensitivity and insight from the perspective of a church pastor.  Tim Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and popular Christian author.  Keller begins this paper with two opposite views about religion and science:

Many secular and many evangelical voices agree on one ‘truism’—that if you are an orthodox Christian with a high view of the authority of the Bible, you cannot believe in evolution in any form at all…However, there are many who question the premise that science and faith are irreconcilable. Many believe that a high view of the Bible does not demand belief in just one account of origins.

In other words: Is evolution compatible with the Bible?  View 1: no.  View 2: yes.  This effectively introduces the topic.  From here, Keller poses four main problems Christianity can raise against evolution.

  1. Biblical authority – Theistic Evolution requires a non-literal interpretation of Genesis.
  2. The confusion of biology and philosophy – Evolution as science and evolution as philosophy.
  3. The historicity of Adam and Eve – New Testament theology of sin presumes genetic inheritance of a sin nature.
  4. The problem of violence and evil – If God created through evolution, it seems to make God more culpable of introducing sin and death into the world.

Tim Keller notes that from his experience, it is problems 1-3 that challenge most Christian laypeople, although he personally views 3-4 as both related and more deeply troubling.  For this reason, he addresses issues 1-3 most closely.

Question #1: If God used evolution to create, then we can’t take Genesis 1 literally, and if we can’t do that, why take any other part of the Bible literally?
Answer: The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken. Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them.

Essentially, this argument allows for another legitimate way of interpreting Genesis, if not literally.  That is to say, perhaps it’s not meant to be understood literally, based on its genre.  In order to understand an author, one must honor how he wants to be understood.  If Matt wrote me an e-mail including the following sentence: “I’m not afraid that people will think your next post is plain stupid”, it would be unfair for me to tell my wife that Matt said “People will think your next post is plain stupid.”  The context of information is crucial for interpretation.

Apart from common arguments from the poetic elements of the Genesis creation narrative to support a non-literal interpretation, Keller uses an interesting argument that was new to me (he attributes it an article by Meredith Kline entitled “Because it had not rained”).  Instead of paraphrasing and risking losing something, I have simply quoted his entire argument below:

Genesis 1 shows us an order of creation that does not follow a ‘natural order’ at all. For example, there is light (Day 1) before there are any sources of light–the sun, moon, and stars (Day 4). There is vegetation (Day 3) before there was any atmosphere (Day 4 when the sun was made) and therefore there was vegetation before rain was possible. Of course, this is not a problem per se for an omnipotent God. But Genesis 2:5 says: “When the Lord God made the earth and heavens–and no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, because the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth, and there was no man to work the ground.” Although God did not have to follow what we would call a ‘natural order’ in creation, Genesis 2:5 teaches that he did. It is stated categorically: God did not put vegetation on the earth before there was an atmosphere and rain. But in Genesis 1 we do have vegetation before there is any rain possible or any man to till the earth. In Genesis 1 natural order means nothing–there are three ‘evenings and mornings’ before there is a sun to set! But in Genesis 2 natural order is the norm.

He concludes that this conflict between the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 means that Genesis 1 is not meant to be understood literally, and consequently, Genesis 1 does not teach a a literal six-day creation.

Now to the second problem:

Question#2: If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?
Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.

This issue seems more straightforward to me, although pertinent.  One can imagine God creating through evolution, and so one need not conclude that human life is arbitrary and simply the sum of all the traits that contribute to our survival.  Two comments.  One, there are definitely scientists out there who want to confuse these two things, and the church should be concerned about Godless philosophy.  At the same time, it does seem dangerous that so many Christians confuse these two things: evolution as science and evolution as atheistic philosophy, because they unfairly treat the two issues as synonymous.  Keller says it is possible to believe in EBP (Evolutionary Biological Processes) and not GTE (Grand Theory of Evolution).  I love the terminology.

Before discussing questions 3-4, Keller disclaims that while 1-2 are more or less trivial to him, issues 3-4 are much deeper and more difficult to deal with.

Question #3: If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?
Answer: Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.

Keller gives lots of Biblical evidence I can’t easily discuss here to support the historicity of Adam and Eve (Gen. 2-3 doesn’t have the same poetical markings as Gen. 1; NT theology refers to Adam as a real person; Near Eastern peoples didn’t tend to historicize myth, but rather mythologize history).  Questioning the historicity of Adam and Eve greatly affects how we read the rest of scripture, which has scary implications (scripture is imperfect).  Keller does cite a model, though, by Derek Kidner that allows for EBP and a real Adam and Eve (selected out of the evolutionary chain and endowed with the image of God).  Any such theory, though, has problems (presence of death before sin, lack of any real scriptural support) and no doubt requires us to alter some aspect of our the traditional understanding of the Genesis account.  To learn more about the details of this model, I recommend you just read the Keller article.

I’d like to briefly discuss Keller’s conclusion, in which he states:

My conclusion is that Christians who are seeking to correlate Scripture and science must be a ‘bigger tent’ than either the anti-scientific religionists or the anti-religious scientists.

I feel like this nails the issue.  We can’t throw Christians out of the church (at least in our minds) because they’re evolutionists.  Believing in EBP is not the same as denying the virgin birth or resurrection.  EBP is not heresy, and it is sin to treat Christians who have a high view of God and the Bible and worship Him with all their heart as if they are heretics. God desires unity in his church, not infighting, although this doesn’t mean that we all have to share the same opinion about everything (1 Cor. 1:10).  For Keller, it’s not possible to deny the historicity of Adam, and I feel the same, but there are definitely plausible models for theistic evolution.  I’d really love for the church to stop attacking itself and focus on more important issues, such GTE instead of EBP.  Go team!

-James, the younger


In response: The 19th Century Liberal Theology that sparked 20th Century Fundamentalism

February 7, 2010

Matt brought up what was to me one of the most striking facts in Noll’s paper, that the exclusion of evolution from conservative Christianity is a rather recent development, and that there was a time when to be a fundamentalist did not exclude being an evolutionist.  Matt writes:

…Ideas such as evolution, and the growing academic conviction that science and history, done properly, excluded supernatural explanations, resulted in growing friction between American universities and evangelicals.  The evangelical community responded by publishing a set of booklets entitled The Fundamentals, after which Fundamentalists get their name.  These booklets defended conservative Protestant doctrine and laid out what were thought to be the basic foundational truths of Christianity.  However, in The Fundamentals one finds argumentation that evolution and Christianity are not at odds.  One of the authors, B. B. Warfield, spent much of his later career exploring how evolutionary theory could be accepted along side his conservative view of the Bible.

I would like to elaborate some on the causes of the publication of this series of booklets, The Fundamentals, because these run deep into the previous century.  Whereas America was born amidst religious fervor and conviction, at the same time Christianity in continental Europe was experiencing a number of threatening changes.  I by no means am an expert on the history of Christianity, but I am roughly familiar with the subject.  I consider myself a learner, so feel free to comment on my thoughts or correct me.  I have tried to do some research to corroborate my thoughts.  Here we go.

The 19th century saw the birth of liberal theology.  Theologians began to doubt the historicity of the Bible (the virgin birth, Jesus’ deity, the crucifixion and resurrection, miracles, and the veracity, inspiration and historicity of the Bible, among other fundamental Christian beliefs).  One line of thought emphasized not the details of the text, but the experiential elements of the faith.  One of these theologians, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1763-1834)

developed a “theology of feeling” and thereby could be considered the father of neo-orthodoxy (he is also known as the father of modern religious liberalism). Schleiermacher emphasized that religion was not to be found in philosophical reasoning or in doctrinal affirmations (he rejected the historic doctrines of Christianity), rather, religion was to be found in feeling in which the person could experience God.
Enns, P. P. (1997, c1989). The Moody handbook of theology (549). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.

Others, such as Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and Adolph Von Harnack (1851-1930) focused on the practical elements of Christianity, rejected the theoretical ones, and instituted a “social gospel”, which focused on the benefits Christianity could bring to man and society (Enns 550).  Others, led by F. C. Baur (1792-1860) rejected the veracity of the text itself.  Baur

rejected the historic Christian doctrines and developed a historical-critical method by applying Hegel’s philosophy of thesis-antithesis-synthesis to the Scriptures. He looked for contradictory elements in the New Testament to support his theory.
Enns, P. P. (1997, c1989). The Moody handbook of theology (551). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.

This historical-critical method that was developing in the 19th century also allowed for the textual corruption of the Bible over the centuries.  One of the goals of Biblical scholarship, then, became to reconstruct the “original” text and determine what was added later.  This kind of consideration is necessary, one the one hand, because Biblical manuscripts disagree, but it is a very dangerous inquiry.  If you want evidence of this kind of work, open your Bible to John 5.4.  It’s probably not there, since it is certain that monks added this verse (5): “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had” (ESV footnote).   Similarly, most Bibles put John 7.53-8.11 in brackets (the oldest manuscripts don’t have this passage).  Again, Mark has two endings (the longer one includes Mark 16.9-20).  These disputed places, however, are few and far between, and their removal, or wariness about them, is warranted; whereas 19th century liberalism sought to question the Biblical text at its core, turning the Bible into a flawed work of man, instead of a perfect work of God.  This smacks of the modern movement in the Jesus Seminar, which tried to pinpoint, among other things, which words Jesus actually said.

It is very interesting to me, then, that the theological heroes behind The Fundamentalists, were writing and fighting against these kind of liberal theologians, and not evolutionists.  Evolution has since been defeated in conservative evangelical circles, by association (or misassociation).  It is important for us to consider whether this association is valid, what the “fundamentals” really are, and whether evolution, like textual criticism, really threatens our beliefs about God and the person of Jesus Christ.

-James, the younger brother


Mystery, History, and America: factors behind the science/religion friction

February 3, 2010

Mark Noll’s essay, “Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture,” elucidates 15 separate factors that have contributed to the current perceived conflict between science and religion. Each of these is put within a historical context, to show us that many of these attitudes and assumptions arose because of particular cultural or political forces in the past. A number of these factors are peculiarly American, which in part explains why this debate is so much more prevalent among American evangelicals than European evangelicals. He does not pass judgement explicitly on any of these assumptions and attitudes, noting that while a few of them seem to be “damaging and mistaken in their entirety,” most of them are much more difficult to evaluate, and many have made significant contributions to the “spiritual health of churches…and the stability of society.” Below I discuss a selection of these factors, though Noll’s essay includes a lot of material that I don’t cover here. Read it yourself, if you’re interested.

The first factors that Noll notes originated in the 13th century, during which Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus posited two different systems of metaphysics (the study of the nature of ‘being’). Aquinas argued that God and the creation have different ‘essences.’ The essence of creation is only analogous to God, meaning that created things are like God in many ways, and God can reveal himself to us, but God’s essence remains inaccessible to all created things, a mystery. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” Isaiah 55:9. A corollary of this view is that while everything in creation has some divine purpose, that purpose may sometimes be inherently inaccessible to us. This calls to mind the closing pages of Annie Dillard’s theodicy, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,

The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet.

The opposing view, of Scotus, suggested that all things in existence have the same type of ‘being.’ God’s being and all other things share a common essence.  While human mental resources are limited and God is unlimited, Scotus’s metaphysics suggests that God’s actions can theoretically be understood by men, assuming that we have enough information.  This view of metaphysics has largely dominated western philosophy. When combined with Ockham’s razor, Scotus’s metaphysics suggests the first of Noll’s factors:  “(1) once something is explained clearly and completely as a natural occurrence, there is no other realm of being that can allow it to be described in any other way.”

While this conviction was not originally seen to be anti-Christian, one can certainly see how it could lead to trouble in understanding the relationship between scientific and religious explanations.  Ultimately, these views spurred the development of natural theology, most famously espoused by William Paley, which seeks to understand why God created things the way he did.  The assumption behind natural theology forms Noll’s third factor “(3) not only did God create and providentially order the natural world, but humans could figure out exactly how and why God ordered creation as he did.” One can see how such thinking naturally extends from (1) above, though (1) does not necessarily imply (3). In developing natural theology, Christian thinkers amassed explanations for why things were created just as they are.  The idea of slow evolutionary change over time posed a significant threat to such ideas, as they suggested that the current state of creation was simply a shapshot in an ever changing reality. Not only did evolution provide a mechanism for explaining why things are as they are, its constant flux through different forms challenged the previous explanations for why God created things ‘as they are now.’

After the Civil War, for a variety of reasons the church’s influence on American society began to decrease.  Simultaneously the US poured significant resources into developing and expanding higher education.  Ideas such as evolution, and the growing academic conviction that science and history, done properly, excluded supernatural explanations, resulted in growing friction between American universities and evangelicals.  The evangelical community responded by publishing a set of booklets entitled The Fundamentals, after which Fundamentalists get their name.  These booklets defended conservative Protestant doctrine and laid out what were thought to be the basic foundational truths of Christianity.  However, in The Fundamentals one finds argumentation that evolution and Christianity are not at odds.  One of the authors, B. B. Warfield, spent much of his later career exploring how evolutionary theory could be accepted along side his conservative view of the Bible.  However, in the end, such voices were overwhelmed by a growing attitude among evangelicals that “(9) the modern research university defines enemy territory that can be explored only with the greatest caution and only with defenses constantly on guard for intellectual battle.” This, in turn, has led to a conclusion that “(12) when scientists or the popularizers of science make use of new proposals about nature to undercut traditional belief in God, the problem is almost always with those who make the proposals and almost never with assumptions about the neutral character of science or assumptions about how science and Scripture should be aligned.”

Finally, Noll notes that within America, for complex reasons that I don’t have space to discuss here, the issue of evolution has become conflated with issues of morality, family roles, and political platforms.  This to me is one of the most dangerous ways in which the contemporary evangelical church in the US is interacting with society.  So many positions on faith, science, and politics are lumped together so that, for example, if one believes in the origin of species via evolution, then one is also assumed to be morally and theologically deviant.  A few simple conversations with evangelical scientists will show that this is not the case.  In closing, I will use Noll’s own words, because he expresses my thoughts well.

Progress on this front probably depends most on increasing the number and quality of believers Christians who are willing to enter the world of university level science with commitments to historical Christianity and the modern practice of science firmly in place. It may also be helped by Bible-believing evangelicals who are willing to ask how truly biblical are the convictions, assumptions, and attitudes they bring with them to the consideration of modern science.

-Matt, the elder brother