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A Plea to My Shepherds

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February 27, 2013 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Stephen Ashley Blake. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

A Plea to My Shepherds

Note: Originally posted January 25, 2010.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m deeply troubled by my fellow conservative evangelicals’ skepticism – even hostility – towards much of modern science, and believe that barring change, this disposition will prove spiritually catastrophic to our children and grandchildren, who are today being taught that assertions of an ancient universe and macro-evolution are unequivocally incompatible with the Cross of Christ, and tomorrow will enroll in universities that powerfully demonstrate the integrity of these scientific claims, thereby setting the stage for devastating crises of faith for countless thousands of young believers.

That said, I genuinely empathize with those who are reluctant to abandon traditional theological concepts for newer, still- developing ones. Given spiritual leaders’ biblical mandate to protect their families and congregations against error, a responsibility for which God will hold them strictly accountable (James 3:1), I respect their refusal to expose their flock to ideologies they regard as conflicting with the Word of God.

I further understand pastors and theologians’ resistance to tethering theology—which is meant to provide a solid epistemological foundation—too closely to that intrinsically dynamic endeavor called science. All humans need ideological stability, perhaps especially so with respect to spiritual matters. Recognizing this, pastors rightly ask why they should abandon or substantially revise an internally-consistent systematic theology that has served the church with relative stability for many hundreds of years. Science, on the other hand, is a realm for adventurers, groundbreakers, and ideological athletes intent on not just polishing or expanding today’s body of knowledge, but shattering it when necessary. Resounding with the jousts and clashes of competing ideas and arguments, and the stunning reversals of ideas once widely held, science often appears to be a messy–even tumultuous–business. Spiritual shepherds are insistent that the epistemological dynamism that necessarily characterizes science never become the mainstay of the Christian experience, which must be fundamentally stable and dependable. They see wisdom in maintaining a safe distance between the Church and the choppy waters of science.

The question, then, is whether the waters of scientific thought, particularly with respect to the age of the earth and evolution, have sufficiently smoothed out to warrant conservative thinkers’ taking a deeper look. Of course, the catch-22 here is that this can’t be answered without actually embarking upon an expedition of exploration and investigation, much as I recently did. Once undertaken, however, the conservative explorer will likely be confronted by a formidable problem:

As I can personally attest, navigating the crowded forum of wildly-differing ideas as to how to resolve the faith-science divide can be terribly daunting. Making this especially disconcerting for the conservative is the sobering reality that amidst the chorus of conflicting theories, one finds very little substantive published input from respected conservative theologians. As a result, the conservative seeker is sure to find herself awash in an ocean of seemingly novel theological “solutions” that are fundamentally antithetical to her evangelical sensibilities. This is likely to result in the impression that there is in fact no way to reconcile the findings of modern science with the key doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and hence the termination of the endeavor. Not only was this dynamic a constant challenge to me, but has proved a stumbling block to many would-be seekers that I personally know.

Whence then change? I believe the breakthrough will begin with a particular subgroup of conservative evangelical pastors, elders, and theologians. I know firsthand that there are many who, truth be told, have not been entirely at peace with their fellow conservatives’ summary rejection of—and apologias against—the findings of mainstream science. They have a gnawing sense that devastation looms for the Church and her children unless detachment yields to engagement, and rhetoric to substance. These have likely admitted to themselves that despite stridently asserting anti-evolution/old-earth views, they actually don’t understand these views in depth (nearly every conservative pastor and elder I’ve spoken with has conceded this). To date, these shepherds and thinkers have remained silent about their misgivings, reluctant to be perceived by their congregations and peers as betraying true Christianity. Given the astonishing fruitfulness of modern science and the comparative barrenness of young-earth creationism, I believe these evangelical leaders may now finally regard themselves as justified in stepping forward and publicly questioning whether the latter is in fact the view that a truth-revealing God would have His people believe.

Indeed, if I may, I would exhort these, my fellow conservative evangelical shepherds and thinkers, to set aside all reticence and fear, emerge from anonymity, and storm the forum of discourse, engaging this most pressing matter with vigor, equanimity, and humility. In doing so, know upfront that there will be few handrails to guide; you will not be building upon an extensive precedence of published conservative thought. Rather, you will be pioneers, with the open prairie of contemplation and consideration before you and the Word of God as a faithful, orienting star. The journey will be at times confounding, often scary, and never without challenge. Yet only through such robust, self-critical analysis will you find yourself in a posture where God can correct and refine all that He would, and only after which will you be able to pass on to your flocks a cogent, truly harmonious portrait of our Lord and His Creation that finds rich consistency between His written and natural revelations. I firmly believe that the fuller, more deeply informed portrait of the Lord and His universe that emerges from this investigation will fill your congregations with an unprecedented new sense of awe at our beloved God as Creator, and profoundly enhance their worship of Him. This has certainly been the result of my own journey.


Stephen Ashley Blake is a filmmaker and President of Realm Entertainment in Los Angeles. After making his mark as a music video Director and independent feature and television Director of Photography, he is now gearing up to produce a slate of motion pictures of a variety of genres that tell powerful stories from a distinctly Christian worldview.

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Martin Rizley - #3759

February 1st 2010

Steve,  Due to lack of time, let me answer one of the questions you raise, which may shed light on the others.  If someone in my congregation were having a crisis of faith for the reason you mention, here is what I would do.  First, I would discuss with them the nature of the scientific endeavor itself, trying to help them see that,  no matter how philosophically ‘neutral’ any interpretation of the data seems to be, all scientific theories are developed according to a methodology that reflects a particular philosophy of science.  The theories of mainstream science concerning human and cosmic origins have been developed according to the principle of strict methodological naturalism, which discounts as “unscientific” any proposed interpretation of the data which posits the working of supernatural, as opposed to materialistic, forces.  The fact that mainstream science rejects such explanations does not necessarily make those interpretations untrue, however.  Second, I would point out that, just because one interpretation of the data seems persuasive, that doesn’t make it the only possible interpretation of the data (Cont’).


Martin Rizley - #3760

February 1st 2010

(continued)  Even though mainstream science may give a convincing interpretation of the data based on the principle of strict methodological naturalism, that doesn’t mean it is the only interpretation possible.  If the same data is interpreted according to a different methodology that allows for supernatural causation, a different picture might emerge of “what took place” that accounts for the data just as well.  I would then invite the person in crisis to read different interpretations of particular geological features given by mainstream scientists on the one hand and creationist writers, on the other.  The third thing I would say is that, it is important to consider the radical reinterpretation of Christianity that is required if one accepts the claims of evolutionary science as true.  I am convinced that once you accept those claims, it is impossible to hold to the Bible’s own view of inspiration.  The Bible claims to be the fruit of a centuries long process of progressive revelation that came to a climactic conclusion in the ministry of Christ and His apostles two thousand years ago; it claims to be a revelation of truth that is inerrant, perspicuous, and complete.  (continued)


Martin Rizley - #3761

February 1st 2010

(cont.)  But acceptance of evolutionary science turns the “book of scientific consensus” into a sixty-seventh book of Scripture that is now absolutely necessary to avoid misinterpreting the first sixty-six books.  That is to elevate the fallible writings of men to a level with the infallible prophetic writings of Scripture.  The result is that biblical teaching formerly regarded as clear and authoritative has to be rejected.  Gregory Arago virtually admitted as such when he said that acceptance of evolutionary theory means that we can no longer believe that the man was created before the woman—which is the very basis on which the Bible bases the doctrine of male headship in the home and male leadership in the church.  Once you believe that the first human beings emerged from a pre-existing population of homindids that were already male and female, there is no longer any basis for the biblical doctrine of male headship—that belief must be jettisoned.  In the end, the revision of Christianity required by evolutionary theory is every bit as radical, in its own way, as the revision of Christianity proposed by Joseph Smith when he “discovered” the Book of Mormon.


Martin Rizley - #3762

February 1st 2010

Mormons believe the Bible to be the Word of God when it is interpreted correctly, but to interpret it correctly, they say, you must accept their latter day revelation as the “grid” through which to read everything in the Bible.  Is that not more or less what evolutionary theory requires one to do?  If one accepts that theory, one may still regard apostolic teaching as foundational to the Christian faith, but one can hardly regard it as final or sufficient in determining the content of faith, since revelation is then an ongoing process.  The 67th book of Scripture is still being written, calling for continual changes in the doctrinal content of Christianity.  That to me seems like a step in the direction away from apostolic Christianity into a realm that might be called “Christ mysticism,” in which Christ is regarded as the centerpoint of divine revelation, but hardly the endpoint, since the ministry of Christ and His apostles does not give final, definitive form to the content of the faith.  I am simply not willing to go there, since I feel called to contend for the faith “once for all delivered to the saints,” not to discover a faith still being delivered.  (cont’)


Martin Rizley - #3763

February 1st 2010

In short, I guess my outlook on these matters can be fairly summed up in these words of Spurgeon during the Downgrade Controversy:  “We are told that we ought to give up a part of our old-fashioned theology to save the rest. . .It shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or none at all.  We will never attempt to save half the truth by casting any part away.  The sage advice which has been given us involves treason to God, and disappointment to ourselves.  We will stand by all or none.  We will have a whole Bible or not Bible at all.”  You may find my attitude disappointing, but I must be true to what I believe is God’s truth; and I am sure you would agree with that statement.


Steve - #3768

February 1st 2010

Science does not involve the metaphysical, and this is the way it should be.  If I were to take my little nephew to the hospital, and after examining him for a while the doctor said something like, “I’m sorry, Mr. Blake, I’ve run some tests but can’t come up with the reason for the ailment.  God must be afflicting that child,” I would be not a little perturbed, and would politely ask that the doctor keep his nose out of theology and to continue searching for the physical causes of the affliction.  Mind you, he may well be right that God has sovereignly brought the affliction on, but that’s not the point.  The point is, he is a practitioner of the medical sciences, and I want him to deal with purely physical causation - and to keep pressing on until he has identified the physical problem.  I’ll ask my pastor for his theological insights, thank you very much.


Steve - #3769

February 1st 2010

Likewise, if I were to take my car to an auto mechanic due to some problem I was experiencing, and after running tests he said that because he couldn’t find anything, God was likely directly afflicting my car, I would ask him to leave theology to the Church, and to press on in his investigations into the physical cause of the problem.  Again, even in so doing, I would be mindful that in an ultimate sense, he may indeed be right about God’s actions.

A gardener might attribute the barrenness of a certain patch of soil to God’s sovereign action, but would you really accept this as an answer?  While it may indeed be true, I’m guessing you would insist that he continue testing the soil for the barrenness’ physical causation.


Steve - #3770

February 1st 2010

My point is that just as we expect doctors, mechanics, gardeners, and electricians practice their physical trades, so should we as Christians let scientists practice science - and to deal exclusively with physical causation - and to support them presenting their conclusions in those terms.  Of course, in so doing, we well understand that we will always need to interpret their findings through our biblical prisms.

When the totality of reality (i.e., the physical + the metaphysical) is regarded, it is clear that science only gives us a partial picture, despite its unshakable (and proper) exclusive fixation on the physical.  But it is our duty and responsibility to then take what scientists might present as a “totality” and to treat it as a jigsaw puzzle piece, recognizing it as merely a part (though indeed a sizable part) of a larger reality.


Steve - #3771

February 1st 2010

Now, even if one does agree with what I’ve just written, a Christian might be inclined to say: “Okay, I’ll leave science to be science, but I don’t have to accept its findings.”  I understand this, and might well find myself in agreement were it not for a few realities:

  1. God is clearly prospering modern science, and not just meagerly but absolutely astonishingly.  At the same time, He is clearly starving young earth creationism.  Let me rephrase: In His sovereignty, God has (apparently) decreed that the former be incalculably valuable and indispensable to the entire human race, while the latter be nothing more than a pulpit reality, with absolutely zero tangible benefits to mankind.

  2. History has shown that in fact God has, on many occasions, taken His people through uncomfortable epistemological transitions as He refines their understanding of Himself, His creative ways, and of Scripture.  So, such paradigms as the one we’re currently in has rich precedence in Church history.


Steve - #3772

February 1st 2010

3. Science has proven itself over the course of history to be extremely reliable.  (Of course, as my blog mentions, I readily acknowledge that the “unfoldings of new paradigms” that science regularly and dutifully presents to mankind indeed tend to be fraught with choppiness at first [i.e., subject to competing claims and often wholesale reversals of thought].  But these waters do subsequently smooth out, and in fact today, an ancient universe and evolution are near-consensus views within the communities of their respective scientific disciplines.)

Gregory, you write: Naming ‘things that don’t evolve’ opens a new door to help ‘put science in its place’ and thus to recover the importance of philosophy and theology as knowledge sources.


Steve - #3773

February 1st 2010

But the point is, how do we know that God hasn’t in fact created all that exists within our universe - including us and all that constitutes us - through evolutionary processes (I’m not saying He’s created absolutely everything this way, but I don’t know that He hasn’t either)?  And why should we rush to try to plug in ‘non-evolutionary items” into this list in the first place?  What do we gain by this and how can we be sure that we wouldn’t have egg our faces one day when mountains of further evidence comes in?  (Again, I’m not saying that this would necessarily happen, but how do we know it won’t?  We Christians have demonstrated an amazing gift for accruing eggs on our collective face over the years.  What can we learn from this sad reality now?)

Since, at least in my view and in the view of many others, the concept of evolution is not antithetical to Scripture (though, as my blog emphasizes, it unquestionably creates issues that urgently need to be sorted through - which, by the way, is nothing new to the Church), how does evolution in any way threaten the concept of our sovereign God and Christ?  He is the Creator of all - even apparent randomness and chance are tools in his sovereign tool box!


Steve - #3774

February 1st 2010

The real threat that I see is for us to continue to resist and war against mainstream science, and in the process AVOID dealing with the matter substantively and theologically (which we are today, in my view, guilty of).  By doing so, we will be sustaining the status quo, i.e., the dearth of conservative evangelical consideration.  And of course, in the meantime, as the young earth view to which so many of our children adhere continues to rot and decay and became even more obviously untenable (clearly its current trajectory), we will have assuredly paved the way for none other than our own young people to themselves become the skeptics of Christianity tomorrow.


Steve - #3775

February 1st 2010

I know that my language above is harsh, and in fact I considered toning it down, but as a fundamentalist myself - and one that is passionate in my love and care for the Church, I believe that it is imperative that we actually do become alarmed.  My wife and I visited a well-known mega-church for the first time yesterday, and when, after the service, I briefly engaged the internationally-renowned pastor (no, it wasn’t Grace Church or J. MacArthur) to feel him out in this area, he dismissed it outright, saying that there were far greater concerns within his congregation, and that this wasn’t of any interest.  As we departed, I thought, “How sad!  He is so fixed on the here-and-now that he is utterly blind to the tidal wave that is rapidly bearing down on his people.”

Steve


Steve - #3776

February 1st 2010

Martin,

Thank you for your post, and for sharing your sensibilities.  Take care!

Steve


Gregory Arago - #3777

February 1st 2010

Surely, Martin, you accept some meanings of ‘evolution’ as valid, just not *all* of them. Is this correct? Or would you actually wish to banish this word and *any* ‘theory’ signified by it from existence!?


Gregory Arago - #3779

February 1st 2010

Hi Steve, We’re coming from very different positions, it is now much clearer for me.

You wrote: “how do we know that God hasn’t in fact created all that exists within our universe - including us and all that constitutes us - through evolutionary processes?”

We know that ‘some things don’t evolve’ because they are human-made things, which are *not* a product of ‘natural selection’ or ‘random mutation.’ Isn’t this obvious?

“why should we rush to try to plug in ‘non-evolutionary items” into this list…?” - Steve

Because it makes sense!

You have completely failed in this thread to place *any* kind of limit on ‘evolution.’ This is the opposite extreme to Martin.

Yes, it is good to embrace good science & bad to embrace bad science. Amen! But Steve, I am *not* in any way at war with science! Your fellow evangelicals may be, but this has as much to do with literalist American culture as it does with science education.

There are more scientists in America than in almost any other country in the world!

I believe in & support your story, but not your naive over-faith in ‘science’! It is messier than you imagine.

Sincerely, Gregory


Steve - #3783

February 1st 2010

Gregory,

Again, thanks for your input.

One note.  You wrote: We know that ‘some things don’t evolve’ because they are human-made things, which are *not* a product of ‘natural selection’ or ‘random mutation.’ Isn’t this obvious?

True, there are many things which we humans produce, but this is no inconsistency at all: Just as with micro-evolution (which everyone accepts), changes “randomly” occur within a species in order to allow later generations of progeny to act in purposeful, efficacious ways that were not possible for its progenitors (who lacked those new, enabling traits), so would God have employed evolution to create creatures (us) who could then purposefully create on our own.


Steve - #3784

February 1st 2010

Again, in my view, this perspective is most faithful to the character of God that is revealed in Scripture: He is the absolute Sovereign over all who has created wondrous things, invites His beloved people to explore what he has done, and in turn prospers that which is correct.  If the thrust of science today weren’t so incredibly prosperous, I myself might find reason remain a skeptic.  But who can argue that God is not undermining - but in fact, by all evidence, endorsing - prospering what is today occurring within mainstream science, at least in its broad strokes?

Steve


Martin Rizley - #3791

February 1st 2010

Gregory,
In response to your question, Gregory, I obviously have no problem with the concept of micro-evolution or biological change within certain limits, nor does any creationist writer that I have read.  Jonathan Sarfati, for example, affirms that polar bears undoubtedly developed from an earlier form of bear as the result of two losses of genetic information.  Their whiteness probably developed from a genetic mutation causing a loss of fur pigment.  In an arctic environment, this loss of pigment would have given them a survivability advantage by camouflaging them against the snow.  Their webbed feet developed, most likely, from a mutation that prevented the toes of some polar bears ancestors from dividing properly during embryonic development.  This defect would have given them an advantage in swimming, which would make it easier to survive as a hunter of seals among ice floes.  So biological change within limits does occur, and if you want to call that evolution, fine; but that in itself does not prove common ancestry, nor does it prove that human beings evolved from primates, a concept that I believe contradicts the Scriptural record.


Martin Rizley - #3824

February 2nd 2010

Steve,  Just a word in response to your statement to Gregory about God “prospering” mainstream science.  It seems to me that it is more accurate to say that God has been prospering since its inception the pursuit of what is commonly called “operational” science—that is the study of the natural world in its normal operation.  Operational science seeks to determine the secondary causes of repeated natural events (God Himself being the first cause of all events) .  By secondary causes, I means the natural causes found within nature itself that produce natural effects—such things as viruses infecting a body that cause illness or mineral deficiencies in soil that prevent plant growth.  God has operational science by allowing it to lead to the production of new technologies and medical breakthroughs.  Those who pursue the study of operational science obviously have no need to invoke metaphysics, since their studies are limited to focusing on the secondary causes of natural events.  When you turn to the study of origins, however, you are entering a realm in which science and philosophy/religion overlap, because the study of origins takes you beyond secondary causes to the First Cause of all things—God.  (cont’)


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