Framing the Conversation
Note: Discussions about creation and evolution often revolve around where we disagree, whether it be the age of the earth or the development of life. While these differences are important, it’s helpfulto remember that, as Christians, we agree on the most important things . That’s the approach taken in Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design by BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma and her husband Loren Haarsma. Over the next several weeks, we will be featuring excerpts from their book, beginning today with an overview that frames some starting points for the discussion.
Debate the Weather?
To illustrate why the debate about origins isn’t simply a matter of science versus religion, imagine living in a culture where there is a similar debate about the weather. The Bible clearly teaches that God governs the weather. Many Bible passages proclaim that God causes rain and drought (see Deut. 11:14-17; 1 Kings 8:35-36; Job 5:10; 37:6; Jer. 14:22). Writers of Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Jeremiah refer specifically to storehouses of rain and snow (see Deut. 28:12, 24; Ps. 135:7; Jer. 10:13).
What causes the rain? Most of us were taught that water evaporates from the ground level, rises to where the air is cooler, and condenses into water droplets that form clouds. We learned how cold fronts and warm fronts and low pressure systems bring rain. When we watch meteorologists on television, we hear that scientists now use sophisticated computer models to help them understand and predict the weather a few days in advance. Their ability to understand meteorology is especially important for farmers, airline pilots, military personnel, and coastal residents. Every year scientists develop increasingly accurate computer models of the weather.
Now imagine that debates arise about what should be taught in schools about the weather. Imagine that prominent scientists write popular books about meteorology that state, “From our scientific understanding of the causes of wind and rain, it is clear that no divine being controls the weather.” Imagine that a professional organization of science teachers writes a set of guidelines that state, “Students must learn that all weather phenomena follow from natural causes; weather is unguided and no divine action is involved.” Meanwhile, other people insist that these scientific explanations of rain and wind must be wrong because the Bible clearly teaches that God governs the weather. These people write books and give public speeches saying, “Atheists have invented their godless theories about evaporation and condensation. But we can prove that their so-called scientific theories are false and that the Bible is true.” They go to churches and teach, “If you believe what these scientists are saying about the causes of wind and rain, then you’ve abandoned belief in the Bible.” They petition school boards and courts to require that science classrooms also teach their “storehouses” theory of the weather as an alternate explanation to evaporation and condensation.
If you lived in a world with that sort of debate going on, would you be content to see it simply as a conflict between science and religion? Would you be willing to agree wholly with one side or the other?
Fortunately, we don’t have such debates about what causes the weather. The majority of Christians say that when it comes to the weather, both science and the Bible are correct. God governs the weather, usually through the scientifically understandable processes of evaporation and condensation. And the majority of atheists today would also agree that having a scientific explanation for the weather, by itself, neither proves nor disproves the existence of God. So there are no court battles about what science classrooms should teach about the weather. Debates about creation, evolution, and design have some similarities to the above example, but in many ways they are more difficult. The questions about how to interpret Scripture are more challenging, and these debates raise more theological issues. Still, a good place to start in making sense of these debates is to remember that more than two options exist; it is not simply a choice of science or faith.
Christians in Agreement
When Christians discuss creation, evolution, and design, it is easy to focus immediately on areas of controversy and disagreement. We think it is important to start by pointing out certain areas on which nearly all Christians agree. Christians generally agree about the fundamentals of God, God’s Word, and God’s world in the five areas.
God created, sustains, and governs this universe.
This truth is confirmed in the first line of the Apostles’ Creed, one of the ecumenical creeds of the church which many Christians recite every week: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Christians believe that God created all things from nothing, bringing them into being through his Word, his Son (John 1:1-3). God continually sustains the whole universe, governing all creatures according to his providential care.
The God who created this world also reveals himself to humanity.
God has revealed himself at various times and in multiple ways throughout history, including the written Scriptures and the Incarnation. As it says in the first verses of the book of Hebrews,
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3, NIV)
The God who created this world is also our Redeemer.
We belong to God because he created us, but when humanity turned from God he bought us back. He redeemed us through the incarnation, life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Bible is authoritative and sufficient for salvation.
God inspired its human authors and ensured that the Bible truthfully teaches what he intends. The Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that the Bible’s message is from God, not merely human writing. Christians accept the sufficiency of the Bible for establishing our core beliefs and practices; all that we need to know for salvation is taught there. God certainly can use various means— including the natural world—to teach us new things. But these new things should be compatible with, not contradictory to, what God teaches in Scripture.
God is sovereign over all realms of human endeavor and has given human beings special abilities and responsibilities. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga puts it this way:
God’s creation extends beyond the biophysical sphere to include the vast array of cultural possibilities that God folded into human nature. . . . God’s good creation includes not only earth and its creatures, but also an array of cultural gifts, such as marriage, family, art, language, commerce, and (even in an ideal world) government. The fall into sin has corrupted these gifts but hasn’t unlicensed them. The same goes for the cultural initiatives we discover in Genesis 4, that is, urban development, tent-making, musicianship, and metal-working. All of these unfold the built-in potential of God’s creation. All reflect the ingenuity of God’s human creatures—itself a superb example of likeness to God. —Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World, 2002.
Applying this idea to the natural sciences, we conclude that God has graciously given humans the ability and responsibility to study the natural world systematically. As with all human endeavors, we do it imperfectly. We must seek to do it as God’s imagebearers, in gratitude for God’s gifts.
Christians in Disagreement
Christians have always agreed about who created everything, but in the last few decades they have often disagreed about how God created everything. These disagreements are over two basic questions:
- As we study God’s Word, what is the best way to understand passages that talk about God’s acts of creation?
- As we study God’s world, what can we reliably conclude that it tells us about its history?
Some Christians describe themselves as young-earth creationists. They believe that the best interpretation of the book of Genesis is that the earth is only a few thousand years old and was shaped by a global flood. Young-earth creationists hold a range of views about how to interpret Scripture, the extent to which scientific data indicates a young universe, and the extent to which it indicates at least an appearance of long history.
Other Christians describe themselves as old-earth creationists. Some believe that in the best interpretation of Genesis 1, the events on each day actually describe several long epochs of scientific history. Others believe that the best interpretation of the book of Genesis does not imply anything about the age of the earth one way or the other and that drawing conclusions about the age of the earth from Scripture is reading into it something it was never intended to teach.
Some old-earth creationists describe themselves as evolutionary creationists. They believe that the best understanding of the scientific data—in conjunction with the best interpretation of Scripture—implies that God governed and used evolutionary processes in the unfolding of creation. Other old-earth creationists describe themselves as progressive creationists. They believe that science and Scripture both indicate that God used not only natural processes but also some miracles along the way, particularly in the history of life. Arguments for Intelligent Design are usually, though not always, used to support versions of progressive creation.
In the remainder of the book Origins, the Haarsmas expand on these topics, investigating different Christian positions in detail. Stay tuned for more excerpts in future posts. Next week, we’ll feature an excerpt on the reliability of historical science.
Excerpt frompages 13-14 and 24-28 of Origins:Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources), 2011. Reprinted with permission. To purchase a copy of the book, call1-800-333-8300 or visit www.faithaliveresources.org.
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Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.
Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.