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Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 3

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February 18, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Scripture, Evolution and the Problem of Science, Part 3

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

Part 3: The Church and Science: Learning Lessons from History

The theological debates surrounding the Copernican revolution are fascinating for anyone interested in the perennial problem of faith and science. When Copernicus (1473-1543) proffered his heliocentric theory in the 16th century, it met with sharp resistance both within the Catholic Church and among the Reformers.

The responses of Luther and Melanchthon are good examples. Luther (1483-1546) referred to Copernicus as an “upstart astrologer” and as a “fool [who] wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”1

Luther’s associate, Melanchthon (1497-1560), added these words of criticism:

The eyes are witnesses that the heavens revolve in the space of twenty-four hours. But certain men, either from the love of novelty, or to make a display of ingenuity, have concluded that the earth moves … Now, it is a want of honesty and decency to assert such notions publicly, and the example is pernicious. It is the part of a good mind to accept the truth as revealed by God and to acquiesce in it.8

Melanchthon believed that wise governments ought to “repress” the views of Copernicus because “public proclamation of absurd opinions is indecent and sets a harmful example.”3 In support of this opinion, he could cite biblical texts such as Ecclesiastes 1:4-5: “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and quickly moves to its place where it rises.” Luther and Melanchthon are merely representative of general trends in the sixteenth century, in which clergymen feverishly searched the Bible line by line for new passages that would confirm the traditional Ptolemaic view.

It is easy to see why the Catholic Church and Reformers took this hard-line position against the Copernicus. First, the Ptolemaic view was matched step for step by the long-standing traditions of the Church. Second, the Ptolemaic view corresponded rather precisely to the usual experiences of human life—that the Sun is moving and we are not. And third, as we have just seen, the geocentric view had Scripture on its side. Tradition, common sense, and the voice of Scripture joined together to create a coherent understanding of the world against which the Copernican viewpoint seemed senseless, even heretical.

Ultimately, however, the Copernican viewpoint would win the day. The reason, of course, was that the scientific evidence finally coalesced into a consensus against which tradition, Scripture, and common sense could no longer prevail. For once one understood the arguments of Copernicus, it was rather easy to “experience” the new cosmology with one’s own eyes.

The Copernicus situation (and the closely related issues surrounding Galileo’s work) was an embarrassment to the Church and created a kind of breach between faith and science that has not been totally mended since. As a result, regardless of the stripe of Christian, all Christians agree that we should work to avoid repeating the error and to repair the breach between faith and science.

Our present scientific problem is evolution, but the situation is somewhat different from the days of Copernicus for one very important reason: the evidence for evolution is not readily “visible.” Rather, evolutionists tell us that it is only through well-informed familiarity with the details of the evidence—the fossils, the distribution and variety of living species, the biochemistry, the ecological issues, the genetic evidence, etc.—that one can see how convincing the evidence for evolution actually is.

Because most of us will never be able to “see” this evidence for ourselves, we are forced to decide whose testimony to believe. On one side we have practically all scientists, and also many confessing Christians—including even many Evangelical Christians—who attest to the cogency of evolution as an explanation of the evidence. On the other side we have the testimony of fundamentalist science, which represents a very small minority of the scientific community.

How do we prudently weigh out this testimony? Shall we assume that Christian evolutionists have compromised the faith and celebrate the fundamentalists as prophetic heroes of faith, or shall we interpret the situation as “Copernicus revisited” … in which case, the Christian evolutionists are our scholarly heroes and the fundamentalists should be understood as insular, uninformed protectionists?

In my opinion, there are three reasons to side with the progressive viewpoint.

First, the general arguments that support evolution are clear enough and have been driven home relentlessly to the satisfaction of an overwhelming majority of trained scientists. Although I am not trained in the sciences, I can discern good arguments from bad ones. The persistent claim of fundamentalist scientists that modern science is filled with misinformation and falsehood is rhetoric rather than substance. The evidence in our hands is now quite sufficient to warrant the conclusion that the cosmos is very old and that life on our planet originated through a long and complex evolutionary process.

Secondly, Fundamentalism stands in unconscious complicity with atheistic naturalism. Though Scripture and tradition plainly tell us that the created order itself is evidence for God’s existence, Fundamentalism accepts the atheistic premise that such a naturalistic explanation as evolution would disprove God’s existence. Fundamentalism has unwittingly accepted the idea that, if we find a natural explanation for the emergence of life on earth, then this would demonstrate that we are studying a world without God. But if nature really is God’s creation, then there is no reason at all to deny that nature has the creative capacity to give rise to life. In fact, evolution might actually turn out to be impressive evidence for God’s creativity and existence.

Third, Fundamentalism’s resistance to evolutionary theory is largely the result of its faulty view of the Bible. It understands the early chapters of Genesis as essentially scientific in that they must be compatible with what we learn from modern science. I have already pointed out that some of the best minds of Christian antiquity, such as Augustine and Calvin, saw very quickly how precarious it was to accept this view of Scripture. Many modern Christians have made the same observations. If Genesis is not a science book, what is it? In our next discussion, I should like to look more closely at the genre of Genesis … at the kind of text that it is.

1. Luther, Tischreden, I.419. English quotation from A. D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (2 vols.; New York; London: Appleton and Co., 1920), 1.126.

2. Melanchthon, Initia Doctrinae Physicae. English quotation from White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1.126-7.

3. See Corpus reformatum, IV, 679; XIII, 217.

Kenton L. Sparks (Ph.D., University of North Carolina) is professor of biblical studies and vice president for enrollment management at Eastern University. He is the author of several books, including Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible, God’s Word in Human Words, and Sacred Word, Broken Word.

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Doug Hayworth - #5096

February 22nd 2010

“Fundamentalism’s resistance to evolutionary theory is largely the result of its faulty view of the Bible.”

I agree. Ultimately, the buck stops here for the evangelical church. Literal inerrancy is so engrained as THE definition of a high view of scripture (inspiration) that all evidence, no matter how elegant and persuasive intellectually (and spiritually), will be dismissed if it threatens this faulty view of the Bible.

This is why it’s futile to attempt to convince people by trying to explain the evidence for evolution. We have to convert people to a different view of scripture. I thank God for Pete Enns and others who are battling on that front, on its own terms separate from evolution.

At the same time, I’ve come to realize that evolution is a sort of litmus test for determining precisely where an individual or church stands on inerrancy. And strict inerrancy is highly correlated with a variety of other issues besides just evolution.


Pete Enns - #5223

February 23rd 2010

Thanks, Doug. I appreciate it. Yes, in my humble opinion, this entire issue is a hermeneutical one.

Dennis Venema - #5631

March 2nd 2010

I’ll echo the gratitude for theologians getting on board - it’s wonderful to have folks like Enns and Sparks address the issues from their area of expertise. I also agree that this issue is primarily a hermeneutical / exegetical one.

Of course, it’s also wonderful to have other Christian biologists who accept evolution (such as the folks of Biologos) take an increasingly public stand.

I suspect the next major shift will happen (and is already happening, I pray) once the average Jane/Joe in the pew who understands and accepts the evidence for evolution plucks up the courage to speak up in love at appropriate moments and let others in their congregation know that there is a way to be faithful to God’s Word in Scripture and God’s Word in Nature without conflict.

Pete Enns - #5645

March 2nd 2010

Thanks, Dennis. Without wanting to turn this into an impromptu meeting of the mutual admiration society, i respect and value your work in bringing clarity and vision to this entire endeavor.

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