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The Fossil Record of the Cambrian “Explosion”: Resolving the Tree of Life

Geologist Keith Miller examines the "Cambrian Explosion", a period of rapid evolutionary diversification approximately 575 million years ago, and whether it poses a challenge to evolutionary theory. From the June 2014 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith from the American Scientific Affiliation.

 

Same Universe, Different Lenses: Science, Ethics, and Religion in Dialogue

This is a transcript of an interview given by Dr. Jennifer Wiseman at The Faith Angle Forum Conference on Religion, Politics, & Public Life on November 5, 2013.

 

What evidence do we have for evolution besides fossils and genes?

Scientists have found multiple lines of evidence for evolution, not just one or two. These types of evidence are independent of each other, coming from sources as different as ancient fossils and modern genetics labs. Evidence also comes from comparing the anatomy of creatures living today. All creatures with four limbs (whether mammals, birds, or reptiles) have the same bone structure in each limb, pointing to their descent from a common ancestor. More evidence comes from biogeography. Isolated islands are missing common species found on the mainland, but are filled with many unique species that can be related by a common ancestor. Finally, evidence comes from embryonic development. As an embryo of a mammal grows, its heart develops through stages similar to fish, amphibians, and reptiles. God’s creation declares the history of life in many different ways. All these ways are pointing to a consistent picture of God creating through evolution.

 

What scientific evidence do we have about the first humans?

In recent decades, scientists have discovered more about the beginnings of humanity. The fossil record shows a gradual transition over 5 million years ago from chimpanzee-size creatures to hominids with larger brains who walked on two legs. Later hominids used fire and stone tools and had brains as large as modern humans. Fossils of homo sapiens in east Africa date back nearly 200,000 years. Humans developed hearths for fire, stone points for spears and arrows, and cave paintings by 30,000 years ago. By 10,000 years ago, humans had spread throughout the globe. Genetic studies support the same picture. Humans share more DNA with chimpanzees than with any other animal, suggesting that humans and chimps share a relatively recent common ancestor. Also, the same defective genes appear in both humans and chimps, at the same locations in the genome—an observation difficult to explain except by common ancestry. Genetics also tells us that the human population today descended from more than two people. Evolution happens not to individuals but to populations, and the amount of genetic diversity in the gene pool today suggests that the human population was never smaller than several thousand individuals. Yet all humans, of all races, are descended from this group. Humanity is one family.

 

How does original sin fit with evolutionary history?

Original sin often refers simply to the current state of humanity, in that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Evolution does not raise questions about our current state of sinfulness. It does, however, raise questions about how and when the first sin occurred, and how this fallen state was transmitted to all people. The sciences of evolution and archaeology can provide some insight into these questions but are not equipped to answer them. These questions are theological, and over the centuries the church has considered many possible answers. Some of these options are consistent with the scientific evidence currently available.

 

What do Biblical scholars today say about Genesis 1-2?

In recent decades, evangelical Biblical scholars have reconsidered non-literal interpretations of Genesis. The Accommodation view of St. Augustine and John Calvin is supported by recent discoveries about ancient cultures. Literature from these cultures shows interesting parallels and differences with Genesis accounts. The differences are striking, such as stories where creation is a battle among many gods rather than the acts of one sovereign Creator. The similarities, however, show how God accommodated his message so that the Israelites could understand it. For example, the Egyptians and Babylonians thought the sky was a solid dome. This solid dome appears in Genesis 1 as the firmament created on day 2. God did not try to correct the “science” of the Israelites by explaining that the sky was a gaseous atmosphere. Instead, God accommodated his message to their cultural context. Many evangelical Biblical scholars have concluded that Genesis is not meant to teach scientific information.

 

Did God create everything recently but make it appear old?

One way to resolve the apparent conflict between the Bible and science is to say that the world merely looks old. Perhaps God created it 6,000 years ago, but made it look millions and billions of years old. While God certainly has it in his power to do this, this view raises a theological challenge for the Christian: it makes God out to be a deceiver. It would have God revealing things in the universe that are contrary to what he reveals in the Bible. The lie would be not just in a few places, but embedded in galaxies, in stars, in rocks and fossils, and in our very DNA. If we trust that “The heavens declare the glory of God”, we have to trust that they truthfully declare the history by which God made them.

 

What is the genetic evidence for evolution?

Darwin developed his theory of evolution by looking at scientific evidence available in the mid-1800s. Since then, the whole field of genetics has developed, adding a powerful independent line of evidence in support of evolution. Genes show how the physical traits of living things are handed down and modified from one generation to the next. By comparing the DNA of many organisms, scientists can map the relationships between species. This map is in remarkable agreement with Darwin’s predictions. The structure of chromosomes and particular genetic sequences point to the conclusion not just of common design, but common descent as well.

 

Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation?

Because evolution is a challenging subject, many Christians are tempted to simply ignore or reject it. Yet considering evolutionary creation has important benefits for Christians both in our relationship with the Creator, and with our relationships with other people—believers and non-Christians alike. First, Christians should study evolution because (like all the natural sciences) it is the study of God’s creation. Creation itself is a complementary revelation to what is communicated in the Scriptures, and through it God shows how and when he brought about life, to his honor and glory. Studying the creation is also an invitation into a deeper understanding of the attributes and character of Father, Son and Spirit. Second, considering evolutionary creation aids the Church in its gospel mission, supporting young Christians in their faith, helping answer critics, and equipping us to engage effectively in the wider culture. An anti-evolution attitude can harm Christian young people by presenting them with a false choice between pursuing science OR holding to faith. Similarly, a hostile attitude towards evolution can hinder evangelism when seekers hear that they must reject science to follow Christ. On the other hand, studying evolution as a God-ordained process helps Christians refute arguments that science encourages an atheistic worldview. Furthermore, as the church engages front-page issues raised by the rapid growth in science, medicine, and technology, a Christ-centered voice in such areas as bioethics will be stronger if based on a thorough understanding of the natural sciences, including evolution.

(Updated on September 9, 2012)

 

"Come and See": A Christological Invitation for Science

This chapter from Mark Noll's book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind seeks to understand science through a Christ-centered lens. Overall, if one accepts that nature is created and sustained by Jesus Christ, the author explains, then one must conclude that looking at nature is, in fact, the best way to learn about nature.

 

The Collapsing Universe in the Bible

In this essay, Godawa argues that the decreation language of a collapsing universe with falling stars and signs in the heavens was actually symbolic discourse about world-changing events and powers related to the end of the old covenant and the coming of the new covenant as God’s “new world order.” In this interpretation, predictions of the collapsing universe were figuratively fulfilled in the historic past of the first century.

 

From Intelligent Design to BioLogos

In this paper, Venema tells the story of his transition from support of Intelligent Design to the view that God uses evolution as a creative mechanism.

 

Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible

Brian Godawa looks at several aspects of ancient cosmography (descriptions of the universe) that also appear in the Bible, and what these aspects of the text mean for our understanding of Scripture.

 

Ephesians 4:7-16: Moving the Science/Faith Discussion Forward

In this essay, Hastings looks at “front edge” areas for promoting healthy dialogue in the field of science and Christian theology, areas which are specifically theological in nature.

 

C.S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design

This article is a comprehensive study of the views of Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis on the theory of evolution and the argument from intelligent design. It explains how he would distinguish expressly philosophical arguments for a Transcendent Mind from the current claims of the intelligent design (ID) movement to provide scientific evidence for such a reality.

 

Design in Nature

In this paper, adapted from an article from Science & Christian Belief, Dr. Oliver R. Barclay compares and contrasts the biblical view of design in nature with modern design arguments.

 

Evolution and the Origin of Biological Information

In this paper, Venema explores several examples in biology where random mutation and natural selection have indeed led to substantial increases in biological information. The question of how new specified information arises in DNA, far from being an “enigma”, is one of great interest to biologists.

 

Engaging Today's Militant Atheist Arguments

In this paper, MIT professor Ian Hutchinson addresses the question of how to engage arguments put forward by the New Atheists. In doing so, he offers a critique of scientism, the assumption that scientific knowledge is all the real knowledge there is.

 

Recovering the Doctrine of Creation: A Theological View of Science

Philosopher Robert Bishop explores the Biblical doctrine of creation, which he describes as "perhaps one of the most helpful pieces of theology for thinking about science", and describes why the doctrine needs to be recovered from narrower, contemporary interpretations of creation.

 

The How of Creation: Parameters for Gracious and Fruitful Dialogue

Hastings provides a biblical and theological basis for healthy and fruitful dialogue on the theology and science of origins.

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