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Evolution and the Deep Resonances between Science and Theology, Part 1

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June 24, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Michael L. Peterson. 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.

Evolution and the Deep Resonances between Science and Theology, Part 1

This is the first in a six part series adapted from a chapter in the upcoming book The Continuing Relevance of Wesleyan Theology: Essays in Honor of Laurence W. Wood, edited by Nathan Crawford (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011).

Evolution is at the heart of the dramatic tension between science and religion in contemporary American culture. The lines of division are sharply drawn. The New Atheism—advanced by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, and others—maintains that science, particularly evolutionary science, answers all important human questions while invalidating religion. Creation Science—developed by Henry Morris and Duane Gish, and currently defended by Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization—insists on a literal interpretation of Genesis, an alternative science of origins, and the fallacies of evolution. Intelligent Design (or ID)—based on writings by Michael Behe and William Dembski, promoted by the Discovery Institute, and recommended to the faithful by Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, and James Dobson—argues that a transcendent intelligence, not evolution, is the explanation of certain complex biological structures.

The controversy over the scientific theory of evolution, of course, raises the more general issue of the relationship between science and religion—a controversy dating back to the dawn of the modern age when the Galileo affair foreshadowed the coming clashes between these two important human activities. The challenge then, as it is now, is that of relating the theories and findings of science to specifically Christian theological knowledge. In the Galileo affair, the new heliocentric astronomy did not conflict with Christian belief per se but with the ecclesiastical authority which insisted that both the biblical record and theological teaching support a geocentric view. Christian reflections on this event have concluded that there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science, and that indeed science is a means of discovering the empirical details of God’s creation. Then what about evolution as described by science? The Christian community generally has come to embrace the breath-taking sweep of cosmic evolution—the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the nuclear activity of giant stars which provided the early chemical complexification of the universe, the violent formation of galaxies (such as our own relatively modest galaxy, the Milky Way, and our local solar system), the great antiquity of the Earth, and the expanding universe.

What about biological evolution? Applying the lessons of the Galileo affair would suggest not only that there is no conflict between Christianity and biology but also that the biological facts, once again, must somehow reflect God’s purposes in creation. This general view—falling under the rubric of theistic evolution (also called evolutionary creation)—has long been accepted by many scientists in the believing community. For example, this view was expressed by Asa Gray and Charles Babbage, who were contemporaries of Darwin. Reflecting a full century of further scientific progress, in 1973, Theodosius Dobzhansky, a Russian Orthodox believer and acclaimed geneticist, published a famous article entitled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.”1 Theistic evolution is also endorsed by many members of the American Scientific Affiliation, an avowedly Christian organization. It is not difficult to find practicing scientists who are Christian and who embrace theistic evolution (e.g., Kenneth Miller, Simon Conway Morris, and Joan Roughgarden). Another high-profile scientist, Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and now director of the National Institute of Health, founded the BioLogos Foundation (and website) to promote understanding of theistic evolution. Faithfully participating in the cultural discussion, Collins debated Dawkins in a Time magazine joint interview, arguing that “God’s creative power . . . brought it all into being in the first place.”2 Various versions of this view are also supported by Christian philosophers and theologians (e.g., George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory, Ted Peters, Keith Ward, and Pope John Paul II). No doubt, theistic evolution will never satisfy Creation Science advocates or even proponents of ID who subject it to excessive qualification and selective rebuttal. Then again, both of these camps are in their own ways intellectual descendants of Protestant fundamentalism, a movement whose defects have been thoroughly catalogued in many other venues.3

In reflecting on evolution from within the framework of classical ecumenical Christian orthodoxy--or what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”4 --I will not engage New Atheism, Creation Science, or Intelligent Design—all of which systematically misinterpret the evolutionary story emerging from the sciences as the embodiment of philosophical naturalism and atheism. It is actually very encouraging that many mainline denominations have official statements either endorsing or expressing openness to some version of theistic evolution. This includes the United Methodist Church, the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, Church of the Nazarene, and the Roman Catholic Church. My present aim is to accept the premise of theistic evolution (the simple conjunction of theism and evolution) and then explore how it may be developed into a much richer perspective that advances contemporary theological insight and articulation. In every age and for every generation, theology must maintain relevance and credibility by interacting with all that we come to know and experience in nature and history. What is more, theology seeks pure understanding, the ever deepening penetration into the enduring truths of the faith. Critical aspects of that understanding necessarily depend on sympathetically embracing the scientific position on evolution. Taking the integrative and interdisciplinary role of philosophy seriously, I identify here some of the intimate and important ties between theological truth and the scientific facts.

It is commonplace for discussions of philosophical problems in religion—the problem of evil, problems over the divine attributes, the problem of divine action, etc.—to revolve around the implications of standard theism without direct reliance upon Christian doctrines and beliefs. Likewise, in discussing the problem of relating science and Christian belief, theistic evolution per se carries no more theological content than that of standard theism (the claim that an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good deity underwrites the physical existence and lawful processes of the universe) and is therefore compatible with Judaism and Islam. Often, basic theistic evolution is supplemented by an appropriate nonliteral reading of disputed passages of scripture in order to construct an approach that Christians find intellectually helpful. In this regard, St. Augustine now seems almost prescient in his commentary on Genesis when he urges Christians to make biblical interpretation, not biblical authority, the proper focus in the encounter with extra-theological knowledge. He even counsels that believers must be ready to seek a different interpretation of a biblical text “if reason should prove that [some factual] opinion [which appears to conflict with the text] is unquestionably true.” It is worth quoting at length Augustine’s passionate argument regarding how scientific incompetence in believers can negatively affect the perception of the gospel:

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a [nonbeliever] to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these [scientific] topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?5

Logically, the union of appropriate nonliteral readings of certain biblical passages with theistic evolution is one way of securing the compatibility of Christianity and the science of evolution, but it does not provide a coherent and comprehensive account of why reality is the way it is. To develop such an account, we must take the advice of Marilyn Adams, who says that the full intellectual resources of distinctively Christian theism must be employed to address the most difficult philosophical challenges facing Christian belief. In the present context, this means that basic theism, even coupled with enlightened biblical interpretation, cannot speak for the total Christian theological vision.6 Instead, we must identify and explore some of the deepest elements of historic Christian theology in order to engage evolutionary science—but how, exactly, should this project proceed?

Notes

1. Theodosius Dobzhansky, American Biology Teacher 35 (1973): 125-129.
2. David Biem, et al., “God vs. Science,” Time (November 13, 2006): 48-55. See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1555132-3,00.html.
3. See Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006). See also “Religion and Science” in Michael Peterson, et al., Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 507-570.
4. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), particularly see the Preface.
5. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Ancient Christian Writers 41, trans. and annotation J. Taylor (New York: Newman Press, 1982), pp. 42-43.
6. Marilyn Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), e.g., p. 4.


Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil (Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God (Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.

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beaglelady - #62883

June 24th 2011

The Christian community generally has come to embrace the breath-taking
sweep of cosmic evolution—the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the
nuclear activity of giant stars which provided the early chemical
complexification of the universe, the violent formation of galaxies
(such as our own relatively modest galaxy, the Milky Way, and our local
solar system), the great antiquity of the Earth, and the expanding
universe.


Not exactly. There are a significant number of young earth creationists out there.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #62887

June 24th 2011

 Instead, we must identify and explore some of the deepest elements of historic Christian theology in order to engage evolutionary science—buthow, exactly, should this project proceed?

Michael,

I trust that this question is sincere and you are seriously seeking feedback from this article.  

As a fellow Wesleyan and someone who is deeply concerned about both the Church and the state of the world, I agree that this is a most important topic in this day and age.

IMHO we do not begin with a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, but with a very literal interpretaion of a very important passage which the literalists seem to ignore, which is John 1:1-14, which clearly states that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, not the Bible.

(John 1:1 NIV)  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (2)  He was with God in the beginning. (3)  Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.

(4)  In Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of men. (5)  The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

(6)  There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. (7)  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through Him all men might believe. (8)  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.  (9)  The true Light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

(10)  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  (11)  He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.

(12)  Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God—(13)  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

(14)  The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, Who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

This is ther basis of Christian cosmology, not Genesis 1-2.

The problem is not just scientific, not just theological, it is also and maybe most importantly philosophical, which means that it affects the basic way we understand science and the Bible.  Thus we have to go back to basics, Who is Jesus the Chosen One of YHWH?  Who is YHWH?

I modestly refer you to two books, which can provide you with the fruit of my investigations, The GOD Who RELATES, and DARWIN’S MYTH: Malthus, Ecology, and the Meaning of Life.     

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Bilbo - #62938

June 26th 2011

Peterson:  “...both of these camps [Creation Science and ID] are in their own ways intellectual descendants of Protestant fundamentalism….”

This would come as a shock to the Roman Catholic Michael Behe or the late atheist Sir Fred Hoyle.  However, given Peterson’s rather inaccurate interpretation of C.S. Lewis, I’m not surprise to see him make such a statement.


Steven Curry - #62943

June 26th 2011

As a condition of his employment at Asbury University, Michael Peterson must agree to the following statement of faith. If you ask him about any of the following items, you may place his employment into jeopardy. So don’t mention them. It could spell trouble. Just leave it alone. To be clear: do not question any of the numbered paragraphs below. Don’t do it. Really, we shouldn’t be talking about them at all. We don’t want to get Mr. Peterson fired.

1. That the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments constitute the divinely inspired Word of God, that they are inerrant in the original writings, and that they are the final authority for truth and life.

2. That all truth is a unity since it originates in God, and that God imparts it to man through His revelation in Jesus Christ, in the Scriptures, and in nature.

3. That there is one God, eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

4. That Jesus Christ was begotten by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and is true God and true man.

5. That Jesus Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that His atonement is for the whole human race, and that whosoever repents and believes through faith in Him is justified and regenerated and saved from the dominion of sin.

6. That man was created in the image of God, that man fell into sin through disobedience and “so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12), that all human beings are born with a bent toward sinning, and in the case of those who reach moral responsibility, become sinners in need of conversion.

7. That entire sanctification is that act of divine grace, through the baptism with the Holy Spirit, by which the heart is cleansed from all sin and filled with the pure love of God. This is a definite cleansing work of grace in the heart of a believer subsequent to conversion, resulting from full consecration and faith in the cleansing merit of the blood of Jesus Christ.

8. That the Holy Spirit bears witness both to the new birth and to entire sanctification enables the Christian to live a godly life, to grow in the graces of the Spirit, and to walk blamelessly in His holy commandments.

9. That the church is the body of Christ, and that all who are united by faith to Him are its members and love one another out of pure hearts.

10.That the crucified body of the Lord was resurrected, that He ascended into heaven, and that His return will be personal and is imminent.

11.That there will be a bodily resurrection, of the just to everlasting blessedness, and of the unjust to everlasting punishment.


PNG - #62946

June 27th 2011

I seem to recall that Augustine was responding in the quoted text to Christians who were maintaining a flat earth view on the belief that the Bible seemed to assume this, and rejected the Ptolemaic cosmology. There is nothing in Augustine’s text to prove this. Anyone know if there is any relevant evidence?


Bilbo - #62966

June 27th 2011

Hi Steven,

I would guess that only

“1. That the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments constitute the
divinely inspired Word of God, that they are inerrant in the original
writings, and that they are the final authority for truth and life.”

would be a problem for Peterson.


beaglelady - #62967

June 27th 2011

1. That the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments constitute the
divinely inspired Word of God, that they are inerrant in the original
writings, and that they are the final authority for truth and life.


I’ve always wondered about this one. We don’t have any original manuscripts (“autographs”)  of any books of the Bible.


Steven Curry - #62969

June 27th 2011

Ssssh! You might entice Michael Peterson to respond, which may cause to him get fired from Asbury University!

This is no joke. There are some things that we should not be talking about. Just don’t question them. Really. Someone’s livelihood is at stake. Just don’t go there. We are not to discuss ANY of the above issues numbered 1 to 11. Off limits. Behave yourselves.


beaglelady - #62970

June 27th 2011

Well, I’m a Christian, but I know darned well that there are no extant original manuscripts of the Bible floating around! 


Steven Curry - #62974

June 27th 2011

Only with a crude evidentialist epistemology could one say that there are no original manuscripts. That naive epistemology leads to liberal individualism, which erodes our devotion to the admirable modern ideals of freedom, justice and respect.
 
When you free yourself from the evidence and open yourself to God’s guidance, you will see that there are indeed original, inerrant manuscripts. God would not provide his children with anything less.

There are different ways of knowing. Use them.


beaglelady - #62978

June 28th 2011

Sure there were originals; we just can find them!


Papalinton - #62980

June 28th 2011

Yes

Remember Bruce Waltke, fired from the Reformed Theological Seminary [RTS] because he believed in ‘thesitic evolution’ or ‘evolutionary creation’.
Reference:
http://baptistplanet.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/fired-for-acknowledging-evolutionary-science-bruce-waltke/

gtreeves - #63060

July 1st 2011

I would like to point out two mistakes in this article.  The first mistake is that the author uses the age-old misunderstanding about the “Galileo affair,” holding it up as a clash between science and faith.  This is now known to be untrue.  The clash between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church was in fact political, and not a matter of whether or not science could inform our knowledge of scripture.  It definitely was not about whether or not the Catholic Church would accept a heliocentric view.  Instead, it was about (1) whether a layman (i.e., a non-clergy) would be allowed to put forth an interpretation of the bible (recall back then the bible could only be interpreted by the priests), and (2) the insulting book that Galileo wrote, describing the pope as a dim-wit.  This mistake is perpetuated by atheists who would like to describe Christianity as nonsensical, but as Christians (especially Christians who are also scientists), we should work to dispel this myth.  Please do not continue referring to the Galileo affair as one that pitted science against religion.

The second mistake I would like to point out is the false trichotomy, making it sound like it is either theistic evolution, young earth (144-hour) creationism, or intelligent design.  Reasons to Believe, although owning only a small portion of the market of evangelical think-tanks, takes both science and scripture very seriously.  It would be nice if they were also taken seriously by others (and not ignored).  In fact, I am looking forward to the day that Biologos and Reasons to Believe shake hands (and combine forces so-to-speak) on what kind of creation model best fits with the science.  I believe both organizations are striving to do that.


beaglelady - #63064

July 2nd 2011

BioLogos has addressed the RTB creation model. For example see <a href=“http://biologos.org/blog/an-evangelical-geneticists-critique-of-reasons-to-believe-pt-2”>here</a>

or do a search.


beaglelady - #63065

July 2nd 2011

I hate this lousy editor with a passion! I know HTML very well and now I can’t use it!

So I’ll just paste in the link:

http://biologos.org/blog/an-evangelical-geneticists-critique-of-reasons-to-believe-pt-2 


beaglelady - #63066

July 2nd 2011

And I hate not having a preview button. We had one for a short period of time. What happened?


mmccants - #63097

July 4th 2011

“theology must maintain relevance and credibility by interacting with
all that we come to know and experience in nature and history”

Yes, theology adapts to science.  Science doesn’t care.

“but it does not provide a coherent and comprehensive account of why reality is the way it is”

And why is that “why” question important to science?

“we must identify and explore some of the deepest elements of historic Christian theology in order to engage evolutionary science”

Or else choose to ignore theology as irrelevant to science.

“Theistic evolution” might as well be “naturalistic evolution” if you cannot tell the difference using science.


beaglelady - #63099

July 4th 2011

And why is that “why” question important to science?

The “why” question is important to humans not to science. Science uses methodological naturalism, avoiding the “why” question.


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