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From Babel to Understanding

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August 18, 2014 Tags: Christian Unity, Evolution & Christian Faith project
From Babel to Understanding

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

The creation/evolution debate can resemble trench warfare, in which the different camps blindly launch their arguments like mortars. For several years, the Dutch organization ForumC (a Christian study centre for faith, science and society) has tried to get the combatants out of the trenches.

The approach used by ForumC is based on a BioLogos-sponsored conference in 2009, hosted by pastor Tim Keller, which brought together Christian leaders in a closed meeting outside the normal debating theatres. The goal was to encourage people to speak freely on the subject of creation and evolution.

In 2011, ForumC hosted a similar a conference with some 40 Dutch opinion leaders from different backgrounds (theologians, pastors, scientists and media) and with different views on creation, ranging from young earth creationism to evolutionary creation. The conference, part of a Templeton-funded project to stimulate the debate on creation and evolution, succeeded in getting the different factions looking over the edge of their trenches. In the following years, ForumC has been building trust and providing new information, mostly through their website on faith and science.

To take matters further, a second conference was organized last year (Oct. 3-5), as part of the BioLogos sponsored project “From Babel to Understanding.” The aim of the conference was to think about ways of communicating the creation/evolution debate to young people in (Christian) schools and churches. To that end, we also invited high school teachers and church youth workers.

The keynote speaker at the October 2013 conference was Dutch-born scientist Jitse van der Meer (Redeemer University College, Canada), a biologist who over the past decade specialized in the history and philosophy of science. Van der Meer, who is a team member in the ForumC BioLogos project, discussed his own transition from young earth creationist to a position accepting an evolving creation in the 1990s. The two main reasons for this transition were what he considered the abuse of Scripture as a source of information that satisfies the requirements of twentieth-century scientific scholarship, and the abuse of the natural sciences for the construction of an alternative to mainstream science by young earth creationists.

An important conclusion that Van der Meer reached during this period was that while presuppositions are important to science, in the end they never determine the outcome of science. He listed a number of scientists who ended up proving a point that went against their own presuppositions. Also, he showed that presuppositions may shape scientific research at all levels, from overarching models to observations. In the world of immunology, for example, war-like terms like ‘Natural Killer Cell’ or ‘pathogen invasion’ outnumber more peaceful terms like ‘T-helper cell.’ However, reality never surrenders to presuppositions. It is therefore unjustified to dismiss the theory of evolution by pointing to the presuppositions of evolutionary scientists.

Van der Meer’s final call to those present was to trust the Creator and the two books in which he reveals himself, even when we do not understand everything about the creative process. This trust in the author of the book of nature requires a living faith. And it should result in an open mind for new developments in science and a humility in our knowledge claims, whether they stem from mainstream science or creation science.

Other plenary sessions at the conference included a round table with a pastor, a scientist, and a religious education teacher and two lectures by theologians on Genesis. Both the young earth viewpoint and that of evolutionary creation were presented. Plenary sessions were followed by group discussion. The final sessions produced ideas for teaching materials meant for schools and churches.

We feel that the long-term efforts by ForumC to bring these different factions together are beginning to bear fruit. Where the atmosphere at the first conference was at times tense, this second conference was perceived by all those present as more relaxed and open. The willingness to concede past errors and the problems involved in the respective positions taken was one clear sign of this.

Another sign was the fact that most groups were able to define common ground, even in the face of huge differences in opinion. When debating the facts, interpretations, and extrapolations in origins science, or in the meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis, each group was able to produce a joint statement.

Although there were large differences of opinion on what could be deemed as ‘facts’ (like the Big Bang, or the evidence in favor of evolution), there was a consensus on the way these issues should be communicated at schools and in churches. Such communication should show honesty about the limits of what we do know and respect toward those holding a different viewpoint. Another issue on which everyone agreed was the fact that the use of evolution (or science in a broader sense) by some to support an ideological, atheistic position is unjustified. In view of the biblical creation account, participants found common ground in the pervading message that God is the Creator and that he is not the source of evil on this planet. On the historicity of Adam and the Fall, participants agreed to disagree. Furthermore, the fact that God can be found in both the Bible and the “Book of Nature” – as stated in the Belgic Confession – was acknowledged by all.

Participants also agreed that teaching young people an oversimplified version of creation and the scientific evidence concerning origins is dangerous. At some stage, kids will hear at high school, college, or university that things are vastly more complicated and this may be a challenge to their faith. That is why it’s important to stress in Sunday school or high school biology class that there are different viewpoints.

During the conference, it became clear that the science teachers who were present had all created additional materials to discuss evolution in the light of biblical creation in their classes. But as they lack a common platform, they were largely unaware of each others’ efforts. ForumC could act as intermediary, possibly by building a digital portal for Christian educators.

The most important aim of the additional material produced by these teachers is to inform students of the different positions available. This is especially important in schools where the young earth viewpoint is dominant amongst students and their parents.

To inform church youth groups, the youth leaders felt the production of new study material was not the best way, as most churches can choose from a wealth of existing materials. It was deemed wiser to work through the publishers of these study methods, or produce information leaflets to accompany such methods. Also, presence of ForumC at Christian youth festivals might be of value. At the university level, ForumC could follow the example of the ASA in North America and organize local chapters of Christian academics at Dutch universities as well as prepare them to act as mentors for students by means of continuing education. Also, ForumC could to try to include science and religion in the continuing education program for pastors. This advice is also useful as input for the next conference ForumC will organize in 2014, for pastors.

For the last few years, ForumC has become a platform where Christians with different views can meet. Our approach is to build trust and provide new information. We conclude that this approach is beginning to pay off. The second Genesis conference has seen the participants coming out of their trenches and start a real dialogue. The new viewpoints brought in by Jitse van der Meer, who was not previously involved in the debate on evolutionary creation, has helped to get our information across.

René Fransen combines work as science writer for Science LinX, the University of Groningen science centre with free lance science writing. Being an evangelical Christian, his interest in science and religion topics has grown over the last ten years, resulting in numerous newspaper- and magazine articles, a book explaining evolution and its consequences to a Christian public (2009) and participation in two projects (sponsored by the Templeton World Charity Foundation and BioLogos) to stimulate an open discussion on creation and evolution.

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g kc - #86216

August 18th 2014

“The two main reasons for this transition were what he considered the abuse of Scripture as a source of information that satisfies the requirements of twentieth-century scientific scholarship, and the abuse of the natural sciences for the construction of an alternative to mainstream science by young earth creationists.”

“Abuse” is a fairly strong word describing a violation. In common understanding, I think “abuse” is determined by a generally-acknowledged authority, such as courts or police departments.

But who specifically has the generally-acknowledged authority to judge “abuse” of Scripture?

If the answer includes a reliance on science, I could envision problems. Hypothetical examples: The science of fluid dynamics shows a human being can’t walk on water; the science of epidemiology shows no cure for leprosy; the science of forensic pathology states no one can raise others or himself from the dead. Would a science-informed/science-reliant hermeneutics describe such New Testament events as mythical, and that a literal understanding would be “abusive” of Scripture?

“The willingness to concede past errors and the problems involved in the respective positions taken was one clear sign of this.”

What would have been the top one or two errors admitted to by each side?

Eddie - #86217

August 18th 2014

I think that some good points are made by g kc here.

Certainly the word “abuse” is emotionally loaded and should be avoided unless very specific examples are given which justify the term.  If the goal of ForumC is to build bridges and to cool down the temperature of the culture war, “abuse” is not the best term to use to characterize the other guy’s use of Scripture.

The examples about New Testament miracles are quite pertinent.  It certainly would be much easier to win converts to Christianity, and Christianity would certainly seem less objectionable to scientifically-trained modern minds, if all the miracle stories in the New Testament were dropped.  If someone were to come along with a reading of the Gospel stories analogous to the reading of Genesis practiced by, say, Denis Lamoureux, that would remove a major barrier to faith among modern educated people.  Yet so far, theistic evolution/evolutionary creation has not been pressing for such a non-literal reading of the Gospels.  The objection to a “God of the gaps” who “tinkers” with nature, so prominent in TE/EC discussions of creation, is never found in TE/EC discussions of the career of Jesus.

As someone who grew up in a largely secular environment and who still has more connections with the secular than with the Christian world, I can confirm that for the average secular person of today, the miracles of Jesus generate at least as great an objection, and probably a greater objection, to Christian faith than a God who actively creates the first life or specially intervenes to turn a primitive hominid into a man.  So those TE/EC champions who think that they are helping Christian evangelical efforts along by arguing for wholly naturalistic (hence science-friendly) account of origins are fooling themselves.

As long as it is established Christian teaching that Jesus walked on the water, fed the five thousand, and was raised from the dead, the vast majority of the population in most of the advanced modern societies (Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, etc.) will not accept Christian faith, no matter how loudly Francis Collins and Denis Lamoureux shout, “but we accept evolution!”  To the secular mind, it is a scandal that God interacts with the universe at all, not merely that he interacted with it during the time of creation.

The secular mind might be brought to accept a Deist God, who sets the universe and life going by a few miracles and then retires; it won’t accept a God who sets the world running, then retires, then comes out of retirement for a while to perform miracles for Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and in New Testament times, then goes back into retirement so that science can operate unimpeded by fears of miracles.  To the modern secular person, the “miraculous interlude” from Abraham to Pentecost is not credible, and no avowal of neo-Darwinian evolution by ForumC or BioLogos or corresponding British organizations will make the secular world even a whit friendlier to Christian faith.    

I am not arguing that Christians should oppose evolution.  I am saying that it makes no difference whether or not Christians accept evolution, from the point of view of the evangelization of non-Christians.  Francis Collins accepts evolution, and Ken Miller accepts evolution, and John Polkinghorne accepts evolution, and Michael Behe accepts evolution, and many other competent Christian scientists accept evolution, but Jerry Coyne and Michael Shermer and Michael Ruse and Robert Pennock and Eugenie Scott aren’t softened by that fact; they still don’t believe that Jesus fed the five thousand, rose from the dead, or is their Savior.  Nor does most of middle-class, suburban North America or Europe.  So if the hope of ForumC is to bring more secular people into the Christian fold by showing the secular world how open evangelical scientists are to evolution, ForumC is pursuing a false hope.

g kc - #86220

August 19th 2014

Eddie’s excellent expansion mentions Eugenie Scott and Michael Shermer. From what I’ve read, both Eugenie and Michael were raised as Christians. Eugenie came from a liberal protestant background, while Michael became a door-to-door evangelizing Fundamentalist. They could be bookends of the wide spectrum of christianities. Now, of course, both are more into science, and are decidedly non-Christian, if not full atheists.

One wonders how many other Eugenies and Michaels are out there. I suspect quite a few. I’ve known some. In fact, I used to be one myself.

Rene Fransen - #86228

August 20th 2014

g kc, you seem to be missing the point a bit so I’ll try to clarify.You refer to a quote by Jitse van der Meer. The ‘abuse’ he is talking about is that young earth creationists (YAC) read Scripture as if it were a textbook describing exactly how God created the Earth. The second instance of abuse is where these same YAC’s try to build a ‘creation science’ to prove scientifically that the Earth is as young as the Bible (in their view!) claims.This is the context, and I apologize if this was not totally clear.The subject of miracles is not what this blog was about. Of course, your questions are valid. But a full answer would probably require another full length blog. The best I can do now is refer you to the ‘questions’ section of BioLogos: http://biologos.org/questions/biologos-and-miraclesMy personal belief is that miracles can happen. But as far as the history of the Earth is concerned, there is no evidence that miracles played any part in it’s origin or development. As many other Christians do, I believe that God sustains this world, but not in competition with the laws of nature, rather by creating the laws of nature. And, having created them, he might feel free to break them if there is a good reason.As for the comments of Eddie (I thought I might answer the both of you in one go), again, the context of this blog is on how to communicate on evolutionary science with believers who are firmly rooted in a YAC culture. I am fully aware that saying that ‘God sustains the world’ has no scientific meaning, so you (or Eugenie Scott) won’t find it a very persuasive argument. But then, I don’t think the argument of a deist God who lights the fuse and then goes of (into the multiverse, I guess;) ) is a very attractive proposition for her, or for you.I believe in a Creator God and I am convinced evolution (a strictly naturalist process) is the best way to describe how life became what it is now. My reasons for believing in God are not directly linked to my knowledge of science. It is similar to the love I have for my wife: it is not a matter of science, even though physiology plays a role in love, and probably to some extent in religion as well. But you can’t reduce either to ‘mere physiology’.Bottom line, I do believe there is something beyond the physical nature we can observe and investigate. But I do love science, and it is the best way to tackle a great number of important issues. That’s why I try to explaing to my fellow believers they don’t have to fear science, which is what this blog is all about.

René Fransen

Eddie - #86231

August 20th 2014

Mr. Fransen:

I don’t think you understood the point I was making, since many of your comments to me don’t appear to address it.

I was not arguing against the proposition “God sustains the world.”  Nor was I trying to argue for supernaturalism in origins.  I was arguing that it is inconsistent for TEs to say:  “Supernatural explanations for origins are not what scientific Christians should accept, but people walking on water and rising from the dead are fine for scientific Christians to accept.”  What constituency would one be trying to placate by adopting such an ad hoc, inconsistent, and historically unprecedented position?

New points on your comments above:

When you say “the context of this blog is on how to communicate evolutionary science with believers who are firmly rooted in a YEC culture,” do you mean by “blog” your particular column above?  If so, then that clarifies your meaning.  But if by “blog” you mean the BioLogos site generally, that would be a contestable characterization, since BioLogos has also published columns aimed at secularist champions of scientism, and columns attacking many ID proponents—e.g., Meyer and Behe—who are not part of YEC culture.

Regarding “there is no evidence that miracles played any part in its origin or development”—are you suggesting that “no miracles” should be the *default* Christian position on origins, so that the onus of demonstration is on the person who believes that miracles were involved?  Why should the onus lie on that side?  There is nothing in the Bible or tradition—regarding origins anyway—that justifies such an onus.  And as a practical matter, as we can currently explain only about 1% of 1% of the putative historical transformations “from molecules to man” by purely naturalistic means, if there is any onus it should be on those who are sure that no miracles were involved.

I have no theological objection to the idea that God might work through laws of nature (e.g., I have no in-principle opposition to the manufacture of carbon atoms in stars rather than by direct creation out of nothing by God), but I do object to the *assumption* (which is theological or metaphysical, not scientific) that God worked *exclusively* through the laws of nature in the creation of the world.  No Christian is under any obligation to defer to that naturalistic preference merely because some other Christian has such a preference.  I don’t agree with the YECs but they are not ignoramuses merely because they don’t defer to the naturalistic preference of TEs.  My own view is that when it comes to origins, *everyone’s* assumptions should be on the table for negotiation—the YEC assumption of complete supernaturalism and the TE assumption of complete naturalism.

Rene Fransen - #86235

August 21st 2014

Hi Eddy,

thanks for clarifying.

I was referring to just my own blog post, which is a progress report on a BioLogos project to stimulate dialogue on evolutionary creation, mainly between Christians (YEC vs non YEC).

As I said in my previous comment, I do believe in miracles. But I also believe in an ordered creation. That is why we can do science in the first place! I cannot rule out mircacles in the history of life on Earth, but looking back, I do not see any evidence that the Earth was created miraculously some 10,000 years ago. Also, I cannot see evidence that life on Earth was created in different ‘baramin’ or originally created species. Nor do I see any evidence of ‘front loading’ of genetic information, as is suggested by Intelligent Design.

So I rule out non-naturalistic origins on the basis of the facts I see. If convincing evidence of a young Earth or front loading would be presented, I have no theological reasons to reject this.

The case for miracles is totally different. We have no record of what happened on the sea of Galilee other than Matthews account. Accepting that Jesus did walk on water is a matter of faith, not science. I have no problems accepting this. We don’t have any scientific proof and we are unable to get it (as long as there aren’t any time machines). As I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, the Creator, I can accept that he can bend the rules of physics.

I just want to end this by saying your final statement is important. I am convinced by the evidence for evolution and a very old Universe. But I realize I may be wrong. So in debates with YEC’s, I try to be modest. However, this does not mean I accept the blatent nonsense that is often distributed by YEC organizations. When they get the science wrong, I tell them in no uncertain terms. But you are right that *everyone’s* assumptions should be on the table.




g kc - #86239

August 21st 2014


Thanks for responding.

Would you be able to address the second question I asked? You wrote that “Where the atmosphere at the first conference was at times tense, this second conference was perceived by all those present as more relaxed and open. The willingness to concede past errors and the problems involved in the respective positions taken was one clear sign of this.”

What would have been the top one or two errors admitted to by each side?

Rene Fransen - #86242

August 22nd 2014

g kc,

the main error conceded was by the young earth creationists, that they have never said that, on hindsight, some of the positions they took in the 1970ies were wrong. Current young earth creationism no longer uses certain arguments, but they still linger in older books and pamphlets.

This is all from memory, the conference was some 10 months ago, and this blog was written a while back as well. My notes should be somewhere here on my desk…


g kc - #86245

August 22nd 2014


Hopefully you can find your notes, and they’ll provide answers. I would think the second conference’s highlights would include more than YECs disowning positions that they had essentially disowned forty years ago. Although I’d be interested in knowing what the disowned ideas were.

Also, perhaps your notes will indicate what errors the other side – the non-YECers – admitted to.

Rene Fransen - #86283

August 25th 2014

g kc, the point was they *hadn’t* ‘disowned’ their positions from 40 years ago. The literal wods (in translation) were: ‘our books were filled with rubbish arguments, and this has never been acknowledged’. That means YEC is still associated with these ‘rubbish arguments’ (and these arguments are still recycled in pamphlets and books).

Another error that was acknowledged is that in the past, YEC focussed on finding holes in e.g. evolutionary theory. These days, as they say, they try to come up with their own models.

As for the other side, evolutionary creation (as a movement inside the church) hasn’t been around that long, so they are still busy making their mistakes. But one thing that was mentioned was that there is a lack of self-criticism in science, and that EC (just like YEC) should clearly state what we know and what we don’t know (i.e. where we start to speculate).

Both sides acknowledged that our view of creation should not be used to judge each other as Christians.

Rene Fransen - #86229

August 20th 2014

Oops, I copied the text above into the comments box and all the paragraphs disappeared. Sorry about that!


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