Science and the Bible: Theistic Evolution, Part 2

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Michelangelo Buonarroti, “The Creation of Adam,” Cappella Sistina, Vatican (ca. 1511)

In the first part of this column, I presented five core tenets or assumptions of Theistic Evolution. The discussion resumes today with some implications and conclusions that follow from those assumptions, with further implications and conclusions coming in about two weeks.

Some implications and conclusions of Theistic Evolution

(1) For TEs, both the verbal and the conceptual language of the Bible are “pre-scientific,” not just popular and phenomenological. In other words, God’s revelation is embedded in an ancient worldview that is simply assumed by the text, not challenged there. Thus, the Bible contains ancient science—science that would be factually erroneous if we took it at face value as part of what God intended to teach us.

Bernard Ramm argued for just such a position in The Christian View of Science and Scripture, even though he was an OEC, not a TE. Denis Lamoureux takes it further in his recent book, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution. A glance at the table of contents shows that he emphasizes the presence of “ancient science in the Bible” and teaches us how to interpret the Bible in light of this. Just as we don’t take biblical astronomy “literally,” with its 3-tiered universe, we shouldn’t take biblical biology “literally,” with its fixed species and separate creations a few thousand years ago.

(2) Even though TE advocates sometimes speak about God as the author of two “books” (nature and Scripture), TE is not usually seen as a Concordist position. At least among evangelical TEs, a position known as “Complementarity” is probably the most widely endorsed model for relating science and the Bible, though it is not the only one.

For a concise description of Complementarity, I borrow the words of Stanford physicist (now retired) Richard Bube, who wrote three books about science and Christianity, taught a course about it for decades, and edited the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (now called Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith) for many years. In his book, Putting It All Together, Bube presented seven “patterns” for relating science to faith (here and here), ending with his personal favorite, Complementarity, described as follows:

“Science and theology tell us different kinds of things about the same things. Each, when true to its own authentic capabilities, provides us with valid insights into the nature of reality from different perspectives. It is the task of individuals and communities of individuals to integrate these two types of insights to obtain an adequate and coherent view of reality.” (p. 166)

I’ll offer my own example to illustrate this model. Everyone reading this column originated in the union of two cells, one from each parent. Everyone reading this is also created in the image of God. Each of these two sentences is true, but the truths they proclaim are of a different order. The first neither implies nor negates the second. You can see where this is going: for TEs, the truth (in their view) that we are descended from other primates neither implies nor negates the truth that we are created in the image of God.

The Complementarity view, as I’ve briefly presented it, might seem quite shallow—nothing more than the simple, unsupported claim that science is about HOW and religion is about WHY. Readers who want a subtler account are invited to study Christopher Rios’ article about its development. Rios quite properly stresses the work of two important British scientists from the last century, quantum chemist Charles A. Coulson and his friend, brain theorist Donald M. MacKay, one of the most prolific and thoughtful Christian thinkers of his generation. If you don’t know MacKay, I unreservedly recommend that you get acquainted, but his work is so wide-ranging that I am hesitant to recommend a single starting place. Evolution was not one of his chief interests (I don’t offer him as a prime example of TE per se), but I can’t think of anyone who wrote more about the Complementarity model of science and Christian faith.

Physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne can also be understood as a proponent of Complementarity, though I would not characterize his position solely in those terms. His overall vision captures the essence of Complementarity: theology complements the limited picture of reality given to us by science; it goes beyond science, providing a larger metaphysical framework within which both nature and the science of nature are more intelligible (see below for more). Many of his books are conceptually deep, discouraging casual readers, but they are also eloquent and very creative, making the hard work of reading them time well spent. There simply is no good substitute for diving into them yourself. I’ve reviewed one of his recent books here.

(INVITATION: If you would like to take part in a full discussion of one of his books here at BioLogos, at some point down the road, please let me know, either in a comment below or privately (tdavisATmessiahDOTedu). Don’t make the commitment lightly—you would be expected to purchase and read the book—but please take the invitation seriously and respond accordingly.)

(3) Advocates of TE often emphasize theology of nature more than natural theology. They may still do natural theology, but they approach it more modestly—for them, theism cannot be “proved” from nature, but it still makes more sense of our whole experience of the world than atheism.

A theology of nature starts from the assumption that God exists and then seeks to understand the whole of nature in light of this. Polkinghorne does this in many of his books (see the review linked above for some specific examples). Natural theology, on the other hand, is the effort to demonstrate God’s existence (including some of God’s attributes, such as power, wisdom, and goodness) from reason or nature, without appealing to the Bible. Many Christian authors since the patristic period have done this, often citing the first chapter of Romans, though some of the most important have had doubts about the value of the whole enterprise; two prominent examples would be Blaise Pascal (see the article by George Murphy here) and John Henry Newman.

The golden age for natural theology lasted from the late 17th century (when Boyle and Newton were outspoken advocates of using science to argue for God’s existence) down through the mid-19th century, when Darwinian evolution provided a serious challenge to natural theological arguments based on “contrivances,” aspects of nature that appeared to be exquisitely crafted for a specific purpose by the Creator. Although it’s not true “That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology,” (see the chapter by Jon Roberts here), it is true that TE authors no longer appeal to intricate biological “contrivances” to make their case. Prior to Darwin, a leading natural theologian, the great scholar William Whewell, had already made the case for a different type of natural theology in his famous contribution to the Bridgewater Treatises, a series of eight books on natural theology from the 1830s: “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this;—we can perceive that events are brought about, not by insulated interpositions of divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws” (Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, p. 356 in the fifth London edition of 1836). Ironically, Darwin placed this very passage directly opposite the title page in On the Origin of Species (1859).

Just a few years later, a Unitarian chemist from Harvard, Josiah Parsons Cooke, Jr., replied to Darwin in a book called Religion and Chemistry; or, Proofs of God’s Plan in the Atmosphere and Its Elements (1864). Cooke got around Darwin by inquiring into the basic properties of matter itself—the features of the physical universe that make biology possible at all. “There is abundant evidence of design in the properties of the chemical elements alone,” he argued, especially as they combine to make the unique substance we call water. Natural theology had found a more solid foundation, “which no theories of organic development can shake.”

Contemporary TEs do pretty much the same thing. They look for evidence of “design” or “purpose” in the nature of nature itself, not in biological “contrivances.” Discussions of the “fine tuning” of the universe are common in TE literature, including Francis Collins’ book, The Language of God and Ken Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God. Philosopher Robin Collins (who is writing a superb book about the fine tuning of the laws of nature) provides a helpful introduction to the terms and the issues here. Polkinghorne raises fundamental questions about the very intelligibility of nature in the wonderful title chapter in Belief in God in an Age of Science. Let’s pay careful attention to what he says about his overall approach:

“This new natural theology differs from the old-style natural theology of Anselm and Aquinas by refraining from talking about ‘proofs’ of God’s existence and by being content with the more modest role of offering theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on. It differs from the old-style natural theology of William Paley and others by basing its arguments not upon particular occurrences (the coming-to-be of the eye or of life itself), but on the character of the physical fabric of the world, which is the necessary ground for the possibility of any occurrence (it appeals to cosmic rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of nature) ... [Consequently] the new-style natural theology in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is unable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight.” (pp. 10-11)

Looking Ahead

Sorry to stop mid-stream, but this is enough for now. This discussion resumes in the next post with more implications and conclusions of TE.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.


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