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Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 2

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February 25, 2014 Tags: Christian Unity, Evolution & Christian Faith project, Science as Christian Calling
Lakatos and the Creation-Evolution “Discussion,” Part 2

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

This post is continued from yesterday.

I propose that research programs as described by Lakatos are much more broadly applicable and form the basis for how we take in new knowledge, regardless of whether the information is scientific. But, and equally as important, most of us aren’t aware that we view the world through the lenses of research programs. As a result, ideas are not properly investigated or considered independently of other knowledge that we have; instead, ideas that seemingly don’t agree with our core hypothesis are ruled out immediately and instinctively.

Perhaps the role of research programs and the general unawareness of them can be illustrated by asking the reader a few questions.

First, are you a Democrat, Republican, or Independent? What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear of a Republican congressman caught in a scandal?

Second, are the claims of Christianity true? What would be your response if an archaeologist said she had uncovered the bones of Jesus Christ?

Third, what are the potential interpretations of Genesis that are allowed? How would your interpretation of Genesis be affected if you were told that literary evidence was highly suggestive of a literal Adam and Eve?

Fourth, are people inherently good or evil? Did last year’s Boston Marathon bombings have any impact on your thoughts?

Fifth, Red Sox or Yankees? How did you feel when Johnny Damon changed his laundry from navy and red to pinstripes?

I’ve observed heated discussions between folks that represent each side of the above questions (especially the laundry one). Some of the time real idea exchange occurs and the conversation is worthwhile. In other instances, both parties end up raising their hands and shrugging their shoulders in disgust, proud at their own willingness to engage in others’ ideas and upset at the obvious close-mindedness of the opposition.

Viewing these types of discussions through Lakatos’ methodological philosophy shows that interpretative differences arise from both sides protecting different (and sometimes mutually exclusive) core hypotheses with the freedom to modify auxiliary hypotheses extensively.[1] In some instances, both sides will come to agreement on the data, but their interpretation of the data is different. What really needs examining and recognition for change to occur is the core hypothesis/theory that each side holds. Only then will the “discussion” move to a real conversation.

One example that illustrates the role that Lakatosian research programs may play in an area of interest to BioLogos readers is the position in Creationism to accept the age of fossils but to say that God “made the Earth with the appearance of age.” This is a necessary auxiliary hypothesis to mediate between geologic and fossil data, even though it makes God out to be a deceiver; the unquestioned core hypothesis is that the Bible must be read literally and thus Genesis says the earth is young. Note that in this circumstance there is no problem with the data! The data is accepted but accommodation of it into the existing core requires formulation of an ad hoc hypothesis that is highly strained at best. Similarly, if one is committed to a core hypothesis that biological evolution makes the existence of a “literal” Adam and Eve impossible, traditional Protestant systematic theologies will require reinterpretation as auxiliary hypotheses are formed that discount conservative interpretations of the Bible. Sure Paul “wrote that” but he didn’t really “mean it.”

As you can see, competing research programs due to different core hypotheses (that are often mutually exclusive) can lead to entrenchment of both sides in the argument, despite all of the time and effort made to explain new data and discoveries. In “sticking to their guns” (i.e. keeping their core hypotheses intact), opposing groups can continually form ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses to accommodate the data into their existing protected core. This back and forth process is antithetical to fruitful discussion, is usually ignored by those engaged in the “discussion,” and highlights a major challenge for Christianity.

As part of an Evolution and Christian Faith grant awarded to Craig Story and me,[2] I will be writing a book to explore the structural organization of Lakatosian research programs and their import in science and areas outside of science. The proposed book will explain Lakatosian philosophy and show why it provides a very apt description of how science works using case studies, including the development and progression of evolutionary theory. Next, it will turn to how an understanding of Lakatos’s ideas provides an explanation for the relative lack of conversational progress and idea exchange between creationists of various stripes and supporters of evolution, especially within Evangelical Christianity. With this understanding, the book will propose a practical solution to generate discourse, which will rely on both sides agreeing to a common core hypothesis that acknowledges God as Creator, but does not invoke a particular mechanism of Creation. Without agreement to this core, I fear that there is likely to be little progress in the discussion of creation and evolution, a continued lack of understanding and respect for the scientific enterprise, and discord within Christianity. The core hypothesis that God is Creator is one on which Christians from a variety of perspectives can agree, and will enable real conversation as discussion participants work together to understand the biological and theological “data” in light of God as Creator.

  1. These questions may seem too specific to you to form the core hypothesis of a research program. Even if your stances on these questions fit more in the way of auxiliary hypotheses, they function to serve an underlying core hypothesis that is driving a research program “lens” that you use as you acquire, filter, and incorporate new knowledge. [return to body text]
  2. The book project is a one part of the larger program funded by BioLogos. This program also includes an all-expenses paid week-long retreat at Gordon College for pastors the next two summers. For more information, please see the program website. [return to body text]
Justin Topp is Assistant Dean of Science, Technology, and Mathematics and Associate Professor of Biology and Bioengineering at Endicott College. He previously taught at Gordon College and North Park University. His Ph.D. and post-doctoral training was in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and he has an active undergraduate research lab on tick-borne infectious agents. He also pursues research on the integration of philosophy, science, and theology, and maintains a blog on science and religion.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #84602

February 25th 2014

The problem with using God as Creator as the starting point is that it feeds directly into Gen 1 which is the source of the Evangelical problem.

Only if we can move around Gen 1 by moving to the NT Creation story in John 1 can we get proper perspective on Gen 1.

Eddie - #84604

February 25th 2014

But of course, none of the great theologians of the Christian tradition—Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Hooker, Wesley—wanted to “move around Gen. 1”—as if something about Genesis 1 was embarrassing or disreputable.  None of them thought that Genesis 1 had defects that John 1 had to be called in to fix.  This is a very modern, post-Enlightenment approach that already suggests the possibility that some books of the Bible contain falsehoods, or at least, are very imperfect in their teaching.  And when one of those books is a central one, such as Genesis, and when one of those passages is a central one, such as Genesis 1, such a suggestion is very problematic for any evangelical or Biblical faith.

I am not suggesting that Genesis 1 needs to be read as a strict historical account.  But it was the creation story accepted by Jesus.  It therefore must be in some important sense true, and in some important sense non-defective.  I therefore think that talk of “moving around” Genesis 1 to John 1, if that is a euphemism for correcting Genesis 1 in light of John 1, is not a traditional Biblical or evangelical position.

Of course, I’m using “evangelical” in the proper sense of the word, and therefore do not mean “fundamentalist” in the common sense, or “literalist-inerrantist” a la Chicago declaration.  An “evangelical” is not necessarily committed to fundamentalism or literalism-inerrantism, but if he or she is not committed to the truth of the whole Bible (Genesis as well as John), then he or she should not use the term “evangelical” to describe himself or herself.

As I understand it, BioLogos is committed to the truth of the whole Bible, from Genesis through Revelation.  So Genesis 1 is not something that BioLogos should wish to “move around”—though of course there is room for a variety of interpretations regarding what Genesis 1 means. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84605

February 26th 2014

John:17-18  For the Law was given through Moses; Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ. 18  No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, Who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.

Eddie - #84607

February 26th 2014

First of all, your Biblical reference is wrong.  It’s John 1:17.  Second, the fact that “the Law was given through Moses; Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ” has nothing at all to do with correctness of Genesis 1 as an account of the creation of the world.  John has ceased speaking about the Word’s role in creation by that point, and is now talking about the Word’s role in grace.  If John is “correcting” the view of creation given in Genesis 1, he certainly isn’t doing so in the verse you’ve cited.  For such a correction, the reasonable place to look would be the first few verses of the chapter.  Even there, however, I see no automatic incompatibility between John’s account and that of Genesis.  And certainly the great Christian interpreters saw no such incompatibility.

But then, the great Christian interpreters were not constantly trying to drive a wedge between the two Testaments, as you so frequently do.  (The distinction between Gospel and Law is not the same as the distinction between “New Testament” and “Old Testament,” as anyone would know who had read Calvin or any of the great Catholic or Protestant theologians and commentators.)

However, this discussion belongs elsewhere.  This column is about Lakatos’s philosophy of science and its relevance for origins questions.  Thus, both my objection to your point and your point itself are off-topic.  Therefore, my goal was not to divert the subject to the relationship of Genesis 1 and John 1, but merely to provide a balancing statement to your own diversion.  Now that I’ve done that, I’ll leave the discussion for those who want to engage Dr. Topp and Lakatos.  

melanogaster - #84606

February 26th 2014

Hi Justin,

I think you’re trying too hard to use Lakatos to justify a “both sides do it…” theme.

You wrote:
“One example…is the position in Creationism to accept the age of fossils but to say that God “made the Earth with the appearance of age.” This is a necessary auxiliary hypothesis to mediate between geologic and fossil data, even though it makes God out to be a deceiver…”

But what empirical predictions does that hypothesis make?

“Note that in this circumstance there is no problem with the data!”

The common theme of both creationism and ID is the false pretense that they are looking at the same data. That’s never true.

“As you can see, competing research programs due to different core hypotheses…”

I don’t see that at all, because neither of the things you mentioned were research programs. If you’re not empirically testing your hypotheses, be they core or auxiliary, you’re not doing research.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84610

February 26th 2014


The Genesis 1 account centers around God the Father.  John 1 centers around God the Son/Logos.  Thus John does add an important dimension to the understanding of Creation that is not evident in Gen 1.

Now great interpreters of the Bible and theology might not have put much emphasis on this difference. 

I have not done an indepth study on this and I question as to whether you have either.  If you have give us a reference of an example of how they indicate there is no difference in these two Creation accounts.

All I know is that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, does not provide us new information about Creation unless it is important.  For me the whole New Testament based on the Christ event is very important, because Jesus is the Truth based on the New Covenant.

You are hung up on the imagined claim that the NT is incompatible with the OT.  This of course is false, but this does not mean that the NT is not “truer” than the OT. 

I am sorry that you do not seem to understand this basic fact of the NT.  Old Testament truth and covenant is good, but New Testament Truth and Covenant are better.  One is incomplete because the Messiah had not come, while the other is made complete and perfect by the Messiah. 

The question raised is: What should be the basis of a new core hypothesis?  I am saying that best Christian core hypothesis is: Jesus Christ is the Logos of the universe.

If you disagree feel free to make your own suggestion.      

Eddie - #84611

February 26th 2014

I did not deny that the New Testament added something to the Old Testament.  That is not the same as saying that the New Testament corrects the Old Testament, as if the Old Testament teaches something that is false.  Your language of “moving around” Genesis to get to John suggests more than addition of a supplemental truth; it suggests the jettisoning of an old untruth and the substitution of a new truth.  That’s not the traditional or orthodox Christian way of conceiving of the difference between the two Testaments.

Yes, the way the Law is regarded changes under the Gospel, but the “Old Testament” per se is never challenged by Jesus, or by the New Testament writers.  It is simply read in a new light.  And particularly on the doctrine of creation, there is no justification for suggesting that the New Testament doctrine is in conflict with the Old—which is what you imply when you advise Christians to work “around” the Genesis account and go straight to John.  Jesus made some modifications to the interpretation of the Law, but we don’t hear any modifications to the doctrine of creation from his lips, and such references as he makes to individual passages of Genesis indicate that he regards them as authoritative.  If Jesus himself accepted the Genesis account of creation, it is absurd to suggest that John 1 teaches something in conflict with Genesis 1.  How could the teaching of John 1 disagree with the teaching of Jesus?

It follows that you are misreading John 1 when you pit it against Genesis 1, and try to treat Genesis 1 as something of an embarrassment.  And the fact that none of the great Christian interpreters made this opposition should be a strong indicator to you that you are somehow misreading both Genesis and John.

There is no inherent conflict between saying that God made the universe, and that the Logos made the universe.  If God made the universe entirely through the Logos, the two accounts harmonize.  I already explained to you elsewhere the connection between the Logos and the divine speech of Genesis 1.

We do not have to go “around” Genesis 1 to John 1.  We can read Genesis 1 in light of John 1; that’s fine.  Your oppositional language, however, is inappropriate.  You do the same thing regarding the Commandments.  The teaching of love is not incompatible with the Commandments, and they remain in force.  One does not have to deny the binding character of the Commandments in order to accept the additional teachings of Jesus.

Your Old/New oppositions are seriously misleading.  They are, however, very common oppositions in Christian theological writing since the Enlightenment.  And as you should know by now, my whole point in being here is to protest the modification of Christian theology in order to conform with the principles of the Enlightenment.  Theistic evolution by itself is not necessarily unorthodox, but the way in which it is formulated by TEs often is, with the Enlightenment tail wagging the Christian dog.  The moment one hears an overly strong contrast between the two Testaments, one can be sure that Enlightenment commitments are at the bottom of it—whether the person making the contrast is aware of the Enlightenment influence or not.  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84612

February 26th 2014


Please you make your theological biases very clear.  You are against the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment took place a long time ago, so get over it.

Have you ever read Hebrews?  This letter was written to Jewish Christians who found themselves persecuted by Gentile pagans because they were Christians and also rejected by Jewish families because they converted.

The question was:  Why not go back to Judaism?  The answer is: Because Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the basis of the New Covenant. 

What is the difference between the good and the perfect?  Of course Paul was very distressed when the Galatians were converted to Jewish Christianity. 

The problem is not the Enlightenment, although the Enlightenment brought into prominence Western dualism of which I am not a fan as you know.  The question is how to construct a good theology that speaks to the needs of today’s people.

I see Jesus Christ the Logos as the basis for this task, a Johannine theology if you please.  You clearly do not, which is fine. 

However I fail to understand why you think that it is necessary to take ad hominem cheap shots at me because I do not do theology the way you do it.       

Eddie - #84614

February 26th 2014


The Enlightenment “happened” a long time ago only in the sense of a historical period.  The ideas of the Enlightenment are now, so to speak, encoded in the genome of the Western soul.  There is no Western human being, myself included, who is not heavily influenced in both thought and feeling by the ideas of the thinkers of 200-250 years ago.  So for you to say that I should “get over it” shows complete lack of understanding of the history of our beliefs.  You can’t “get over” what is part of you.

You, for example, read the Old Testament through the eyes of the German thinker Lessing—whether you know it or not, and whether you have ever read a line of Lessing or not.  Your slant on the difference between the Testaments comes ultimately from him (and from kindred thinkers of his day and later).  But you mistakenly think that you are giving a straight Pauline reading of the Old Testament, because you cannot see the invisible influence which causes you to read Paul through the eyes of Lessing.  

I never objected to a “Johannine theology.”  My point was that you do not have to reject, or “work around” Genesis 1 in order to uphold a Johannine theology.  Why are you incapable of comprehending this point, when I have made it repeatedly, in very precise English sentences?  How could I make myself more clear?  By repeating myself yet again?

I have tried, throughout this entire page, to avoid ad hominem remarks.  I believe I have focused here not on your person, but on the issue.  I have said that you make an unnecessary opposition between Genesis 1 and John 1.  I have given copious reasons, lucidly explained.  You have not demonstrated that you even understand my point.

Hebrews, Galatians, dualism, the needs of today’s people—all these other things you wander into discussing—are not relevant to this debate.  You asserted something about the relationship between Genesis 1 and John 1.  I asserted something very different.  The way to settle it is to discuss Genesis 1 and John 1.  You have to show that Genesis 1 is incompatible with John 1.  The burden of proof is on you to show the incompatibility, because the Christian tradition acknowledges no such incompatibility.  You haven’t shown the incompatibility.  You’ve bluntly asserted it.  And assertion is not proof.  You should give the proof, or retract your original assertion.

If you don’t do one or the other, in your next post, I shall not reply again.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84616

February 27th 2014


I have never denied the power of a world view of any sort and this is part of what a core hypothesis is all about.  However the Spirit of God is more powerful than the spirit of humanity. 

God the Father through the Word and the Spirit can break through the power, the ideas, and the spirit of this world to allow people to be born again in God’s Spirit and God’s Word, if we allow God to do so. 

You appear to deny this and think that humans must always be prisoners of this world, but the NT says NO.  However that does not mean that when people are born again they go back to before the Fall. 

God is reconciling the world, which means the Enlightenment and many other worldviews, with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Now you still claim that I say that the OT and the NT are incompatible, which is not true.  But they are very different, so I must explain to you how the NT is different from the OT. 

My immediate reaction is that if you as a Christian really don’t know how being a Christian is different from being a Jew, something a seriously wrong, especially since I have given you many of the NT reasons already which you have rejected.

The difference between Gen 1 and John 1 is the Incarnation, it is God the Savior, it is God With Us- Emanuel, it is God, the Logos.  

Are God and humanity compatible?  Paul says through the Law they are not, but through Jesus Christ they are.  That is why we and all others who are saved are saved and bound by the Covenant of grace and faith and not by the Mosaic Covenant.

The Old Covenant yields to the New Covenant and once one has entered into this new fuller better relationship with God, one cannot go back to the old without serious consequences.         

One cannot serve two Masters.  They must decide between God’s Love as demonstrated in the birth, life, teaching, death, and Resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and human selfseeking.   

Eddie - #84617

February 27th 2014

The difference between being a Christian and being a Jew has absolutely nothing to do with what we are debating.  We are debating a single statement which you made, in the very first post above.  You said that we needed to “move around” Genesis 1 to John 1.

You again have utterly failed to demonstrate this need.

I maintain that the teaching of Genesis 1 is entirely compatible with the teaching of John 1, and that nothing in Genesis 1 needs to be dropped or evaded.  John 1 goes beyond Genesis 1 but does not negate it.

You were therefore wrong to say that we have to “move around” Genesis 1.  If you had said, much more carefully, that we could gain a fuller appreciation of the truth of Genesis 1 by meditation upon it in the light of John 1, I would not have objected.  But that is not what you said.  What you said is that we should try to “move around” Genesis 1, as though Genesis 1 were an obstacle to our religious understanding, an embarrassment of a sort for Christians to have to deal with.  And I continue to strenuously disagree with that; I think it is a false conclusion on both textual and history of doctrine grounds.

It is very clear what your motivation is for making your statement; you are preoccupied with the problem of fundamentalism in the USA.  You do not agree with the way the fundamentalists use Genesis.  Neither do I, as I have told you repeatedly.  But unlike you, I do not make the serious mistake of throwing out the baby the with bathwater.  I am embarrassed by the way that fundamentalists use Genesis 1; I am not embarrassed by Genesis 1.  Your statement about “moving around” Genesis 1 indicates embarrassment about Genesis 1 itself, not merely about the way fundamentalists use it.  And that is where I disagree with you—and where every great mind of the Christian tradition disagrees with you.  Genesis 1, properly interpreted, is no embarrassment, and there is no need to “move around” it.

It is clear that you are not going to retract your original statement, no matter how cogent the arguments adduced against it, so I’m calling it quits.

We have here a pattern.  Elswhere on this site, and very recently, you were unwilling to retract your original statement on the Ten Commandments, despite massive Biblical and traditional evidence—including the official position of the denomination of which you are a pastor—that refuted it.  There, too, you invoked a difference between “New Testament” and “Old Testament,” and there, too, you invoked Paul.  And there, too, you were misapplying the distinctions you were making, in order to eliminate a non-existent threat.  In that case it was “legalism” you were worried about.  You thought the obligation to obey the Commandments had to be nullified in order to avoid “legalism.”  You were incapable of distinguishing between the moral part of the Law, and ceremonial, dietary, etc. part, with the moral part still being binding and other parts no longer being so.

Here again, you are incapable of distinguishing between a completion or enriching of the creation teaching of Genesis 1, and an avoidance or abdication of the creation teaching of Genesis 1.

You seem to need to polarize things, to divide up positions “dualistically” to use your term, so that understanding must always proceed along the lines of extreme either/or choices: EITHER drop the Ten Commandments OR be a legalist; EITHER demean the creation doctrine of Genesis 1 OR be guilty of failure to know the difference between a Christian or a Jew.  You don’t seem to understand the need for distinctions, qualifications, nuances.  Yet without a knack for making such distinctions, qualifications, and nuances, one cannot be a competent Christian theologian.

I’m done, Roger.  You can have the last word on Genesis and John.  And you may end up with the last word on everything, since this may be the last time you hear from me on this site.  I am weary of running on this treadmill which never goes anywhere.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #84621

February 27th 2014

Eddie, Eddie, Eddie,

You are so determined to get your own way that you do not even try to understand the problem.  The problem is communication.  Too bad you are not a preacher because  preachers know that they need address to their hearers where they are, not where they would like them to be.

I really do not know why you are not concerned about fundamentalism.  Why aren’t you concerned about those who embarass the faith and themselves by their failure to understand the Bible, which they profess to love and respect?  It must be nice to live in an ivory tower.

The great theologians of the past did not have to address the problem of fundamentalism.  Nor did they have to address the changes in the way we understand how our universe works and was formed.  Therefore we cannot depend these great thinkers to show us the way and have to think for ourselves. 

I can see from long experience of observation that Evangelicals are not going to change their mind about how to interpret Gen 1.  The best way to discuss the issue is to look at it from a different Biblical perspective and John 1 is the obvious choice. 

If the NT says the same as the OT, then what is the problem?  Since the NT is different then you will have to adjust your thinking, which you are apparently unwilling to do.

I think that your problem is you can’t reconcile your philosophical absolutism with the covenantal faiths of Judaism and Christianity, which is sad because you miss the message of New Covenant of Jesus Christ.



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