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Sean McDowell | Finding Common Ground

Jim Stump is joined by Sean McDowell, their conversation centers around the science of evolution and the degree to which it should influence Christian belief.


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palm leaf: dried and brown on one end, but lush and green on the other

Jim Stump is joined by Sean McDowell, their conversation centers around the science of evolution and the degree to which it should influence Christian belief.

Description

In this episode, Jim Stump is joined by author, speaker, and professor Sean McDowell. They talk about how apologetics has changed from his father’s original work a generation ago and how to reach those leaving the church today. But their conversation centers around the science of evolution and whether Christians should accept it. They don’t necessarily see eye to eye on this topic, so what follows is a hearty discussion about where those disagreements come from.

Original music in this episode is from Carp.

  • Originally aired on March 26, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Sean McDowell:

One thing we have to have is a sense of humility in our theological interpretations. Not our core theological commitments, but in say our interpretation of Genesis. But also say we need to have some humility when it comes to our scientific understanding. I think both of these, both camps, have made mistakes in overreaching at times and had to experience some correction. So I think at times our science has informed the way we understand scripture, and I think scripture should inform properly certain scientific interpretations and limits. Now again, the devil is in the details for that, but I don’t have a problem sometimes simply saying, you know what? The science is not definitive here. Theologically, we are working this out. Let’s see how this issue plays out over time. Again, as long as it’s not undermining a historical Christian faith, I’m okay living in a little bit of that tension. 

My name is Sean McDowell. I’m a professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and also a part-time high school teacher and an author and a speaker.

Jim Stump:

I’m Jim Stump. This is Language of God. 

Sean McDowell teaches in the Christian Apologetics program at Talbot School of Theology. His work in apologetics comes naturally, as he is the son of Josh McDowell—one of the most prominent Christian apologists of the past generation. The two of them have teamed up to publish an updated version of the classic book from the 70s, Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

Sean is continuing the work of apologetics for a new generation. He has published a book with that exact title, and you can find him explaining apologetics concepts in media tailored to young people today.

You might guess that we don’t entirely agree about evolution… and you’d be right. For this podcast, we have prioritized some conversations with people who disagree with us either about the science or about our Christian faith. We think it is important to hear directly from such people, and we hope to model a kind of graciousness in how such conversations might go. I’ve met Sean several times, and we’ve developed an open and trusting relationship despite our differences. He has moderated an event that BioLogos participated in, and I’ve Skyped into his classroom so his students could interact with a real live Christian who accepts evolution. And when I pitched the idea to him of recording a conversation about some of those differences for this podcast, he warmly embraced it. 

So I sat down with Sean last fall at a conference we were both attending. In our conversation we talked about apologetics and what it was like growing up with a famous apologist for a father. Then we practice some humble dialogue, looking honestly at his criticisms of the BioLogos position and we try to find some common ground in how to think about evolution. 

It’s easy to get defensive when we allow conversations to drift toward these deeply held beliefs, but because of the trust we’ve built, we were able keep it fairly light-hearted, while not avoiding the differences. I think it is worth listening to.

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part 1

Stump:

We have to start by recognizing the fact that you grew up in a family with a famous father in evangelical Christianity, at least. What was that like?

McDowell:

So that’s a great question, I get asked pretty commonly, which makes sense. My dad’s had a pretty remarkable influence and I think people are intrigued to know, “Hey, what was the McDowell family like off the stage?” One of the things I admire most about my dad is what you see is what you get. The passion you see on stage, you see off the stage. Sometimes I’m like, “dad, it’s okay. Calm down, we’re good. You don’t have to get passionate about this.” It’s just his personality. So that consistency is one of the things that has drawn me, I think to the faith and just endeared me to him as a dad. 

Growing up though, I didn’t look at my dad through the lens of how most people would look at the name Josh McDowell. I was interviewed by this big student magazine years ago and they’re like, “What’s it like to have Josh McDowell as your dad?  When you have any question, you can go to him for counseling.” I’m like, well, you know, he’s, he’s my dad and that’s a secondary lens that I look at him. My big lenses are like, is my dad around? And he was. Does he love my mom? Does he care about me? Do we build a relationship? So fortunately my parents, we grew up in a small town in the mountains of San Diego called Julian didn’t have a stop light. My public school had 60 students. So it’s famous for apple pies and gold mines. And I don’t think a ton of people knew what my dad did, or cared. So it wasn’t like growing up in a mega church where everywhere you go people are expecting you to be like the PK and all that entails. So the older I get, the more I appreciate that kind of space that my parents gave me to just grow up and kind of be myself. And I tried to do that with my own kids in a different way as well. So I guess the older I get, the more I’m grateful for how my parents modeled grace and truth. They lived out what they believe. They tried to build a relationship with me and didn’t put pressure on me to go into any kind of ministry. I never once remember my dad saying, “Son, you should be a speaker. You’d be good. Hey, you should write books.” The narrative was whatever you do, just use it to build God’s kingdom. That was the encouragement. So I think it freed me up to pursue some things that I love.

Stump:

Was there ever a time growing up when you were suspicious or skeptical of the case for faith that your dad had made, for this Evidence that Demands a Verdict? Or were you always, nope, this has always been part of my life and it’s always seemed true to me.

McDowell:

So if you had asked me in say, high school, why didn’t somebody believe, I might not have articulated it this way, but probably in the back of my mind would have been, well they just haven’t read Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Like how hard is it? There’s the evidence. I get into college and this is the mid-90s, and you have people writing blogs and I’m all of a sudden exposed to all these new ideas. Even though I was at a Christian school, I just started…  you couldn’t Google yet, but I started searching around on the internet and found that much of the secular web was written, responding to Evidence that Demands a Verdict chapter by chapter. So they took each chapter—and it was a historian, it was a scientist, it was a philosopher and dissecting these arguments. And that was really unsettling to me. And it’s not that I stopped believing, but that’s when I really felt like, whoa, okay, timeout. Why do I believe this? Does this really make sense? Are there answers for these questions and am I just gonna live off what my parents believe, or am I willing to believe something else? 

And I know a lot of young people go through that, but that was, I remember feeling that pretty intensely. And actually we were in Breckenridge, Colorado. So I think I was about 19 years old, somewhere around my freshman, sophomore year, I went to my dad and I said, “Hey, can we just get some coffee and talk?” He goes, “Sure.” And as best I can remember it, I said, “Dad, I want to know it’s true, but I’m not sure I’m convinced Christianity is true.” Not knowing what my dad, whose tagline is, telling the world the truth, you know, at that time, probably the most recognizable apologist in the world, what he would say. And he didn’t miss a beat. He just said, “Son, I think that’s great.” And I remember my next thought was like, are you even listening to me? Thinking maybe… 

Stump:

Did you hear what I just said?

McDowell:

Yeah, I thought maybe writing a talk in his head or something, I don’t know. And he goes, he goes, “Son, look, I didn’t raise you to just believe things cause I tell you, I’ve raised you to seek after truth.” He goes, “Look, if you seek after what’s true, I’m confident you’ll be led to Jesus and keep believing in him because it is true and your mom and I will love you no matter what.” And I knew that in my head, but at that moment it was like, okay. It was just very freeing to really pursue truth and know that it wouldn’t affect our relationship at all.

Stump:

Good. Well I grew up in the 80s and was hugely influenced by his books. I saw him speak at Cornerstone Music Festival that my friends and I used to go to every year. And those books were really influential in my own development. Grew up in a Christian family, so, but it had helped me to see that this isn’t just, you know, the family that I grew up in. There are rational defenses for these things that we believe and that was a really important part. So you’ve said that your position now also as an apologist isn’t necessarily just one of an inherited thing because your dad was that, but you got into this work. How has apologetics changed from your dad’s generation to you?

McDowell:

Oh, that’s a great question. I love that you asked this because I recently helped him update his book Evidence that Demands a Verdict. And it came out, we co-wrote it together and I had, what is it, 36 grad students, 12 leading scholars, and I’m trying to take the formula of what has worked for Evidence, but also update it for a new generation. So there’s a few things that’ve changed. One is when my dad started speaking on universities in the 60s and 70s and he spoken at 1200 universities, which is more than anyone in history as far as they can tell. He would say the challenges were: give me evidence, give me proof back that up. The assumption was there is truth. We can know it. Now the challenges are, wait a minute, that’s intolerant, that’s bigoted, what right do you have to say that? So some of this tolerance kind of approach and this questioning of truth and even feelings over truth has shifted I think in that season. So we had a whole section on truth and we put it at the end for different reasons. But what is truth? How do we know truth? Why is it important? How do you discover truth, etc? That wasn’t even necessary in the first volume, but it was now because there’s so many people in a sense, questioning truth. We had to make an apologetic for truth before we could get to the resurrection, the scripture. So that’s one way. 

A second way. When my dad started communicating in the 60s and 70s and the free speech platform you had to communicate to survive publicly with dogmatism, with confidence, you couldn’t show weakness. So he would get up on stage with people behind him and sometimes shout at these Marxist free speech rallies. And if he showed weakness, in a sense, they would eat you alive. Well that was just the way people communicated then. And I think one reason my dad shined in that, is he loves the conflict, he’s confident in who he is and just is like, bring it on, Christianity can hold its own. Well clearly now things have shifted in people’s sensitivity, I think in relationships, that if you overstate stuff, people become more suspicious of you because they can Google something and there’s a sense of like, wait a minute, it can’t be that clear. There’s somebody who’s smart who disagrees. So we also went through the book and I think encouraging my dad is there was very little where like, oops, got that wrong, but we paid very close attention to the tone and said, let’s make sure we state this confidently, but that we’re not overstating things ’cause I think that undermines the seriousness with which people would take it today. 

A third thing that has changed — when my dad wrote Evidence in 1972 the value of that book is that nobody had access to that kind of information. Some of the information he got, he actually went to libraries in London and around the world in the Middle East, gathered this stuff, brought it back and so Christians were amazed like, “Oh my goodness, there’s evidence for ancient manuscripts. There’s evidence for the resurrection, there’s fulfilled prophecy.” So its power and significance was just its availability. Well, when we’re updating this, I started thinking, well, that’s no longer the case. Now everybody has access to endless information. So why am I even going to update this book? 

And I came to two conclusions. Number one is that now if you have one resource that saves people time, they’ll pay for that in a way they didn’t in the past. But second is trust. My father’s been faithful in ministry for decades; the Evidence brand carries some weight. And now when everybody has a microphone, the question people are asking is who can I trust? Who can I listen to? And I think his voice gives that some credibility, hence the reason to update it. So those are a few of the changes and there’s probably many more.

Stump:

Let me ask you about one more ’cause I think it was about 10 years ago when I first became aware of some of your work and the book that you had done with some other people on apologetics for a new generation. And it seemed to me that one of the main themes in there was relationality. So not just what are the arguments themselves, but at least in terms of persuading people that the relational component seemed to be as important as the reason itself.

McDowell:

You know what’s interesting about that is my father has always approached apologetics through a relational lens. A lot of people don’t see this because he is typically written on issues of sexuality: the Why Wait campaign in the 80s, and marriage and family, and apologetics. Usually it’s Dobson Relationships, Geisler Apologetics. So he’s always emphasized to me son, it’s truth and it’s relationships. But that book, Apologetics for a New Generation, a part of it was just recognizing, wait a minute, we’re entering into a more broken culture, a more hurting culture, and things like relativism are not only brought on by bad ideas, but I think by broken relationships. And there’s a lot of people that don’t fuse the two of those together. So it’s always been truth and relationships. First Thessalonians 1, Paul says, we not only gave the gospel — truth, we gave you our very own lives —  relationships. But that often gets out of balance, and so part of that book was to call back, especially to the apologetics’ wider community, and say hey man, if we lose relationships, especially today, we’re going to lose the incarnational nature of the Christian faith.

Stump:

Just last month a new Pew survey came out that they do occasionally that showed that the trend of people disassociating with religion, the ‘nones’ has continued to rise. Do you have any commentary culturally of what is driving that sort of Exodus from the traditional faith values that at least during my lifetime have been more of the norm in the U.S.?

McDowell:

So overall, here’s how I interpret this. You go back in time, whatever decades this is, most Americans would define themselves as, I love baseball, apple pie, and I’m a Christian; it was kind of a cultural label to take. Now people are less likely, in that Pew research I think it dropped to the 60% who would take the label Christian and just a decade or so ago it was like 80%. The way I interpret that is not like 20% of people have left the Christian fold. I think there’s a movement towards individualism and there’s a movement away from adopting labels that somebody else puts on you to define yourself. So in the past when 80% of people said they’re Christians, of course 80% of Americans never were. I think we’re seeing a hollowing out of the middle where actually, if you define yourself as a Christian, it means something now more substantively than it did in the past. So we are seeing some young people leave the church and church attendance is lower, but I have to say, okay, how many of these people really were in the faith? And I think that’s more of an open question than a lot of people conclude this mass Exodus from the church. In fact, there’s a book by my friend Glenn Stanton at Focus on the Family called The Myth of the Dying Church and he says, Bible believing and teaching and practicing churches today, they are not bleeding numbers. It’s actually those who don’t teach the scripture and live it out that are.

Stump:

So let me ask this, then: are the apologetic strategies for the nones different than they were for people who were in the church but maybe weren’t fully on board with all of the doctrines that we would hold to?

McDowell:

Some of the corrective apologetic strategies are probably a sign of how we should have done apologetics anyways. So when I do apologetics, a few things: we have to use stories. Of course Jesus used stories, that’s not new, but apologists haven’t always been good at doing that. I think we have to show with apologetics how does this actually relate to somebody’s life? So I was speaking on the resurrection and talk about if you really believe this, it transforms the way you approach and you face death. This isn’t a belief of some 2000 years ago. This is going to shape your life, if not now, very soon in the future and really make that come home for people. I found in this generation there’s so much emphasis on experiencing things, especially with not only smartphones, but with social media. Everybody wants to post an experience they have somewhere. So if we can take the gospel and whether it’s creation or whether it’s resurrection, whether it’s the existence of the soul and translate and say, this is how it practically shapes the way you live, it’s true and it affects your relationships. I think that’s where it really comes home for people. And I think we also need to be even more careful about truth claims that we make. As I said earlier, we can’t overstate things. We’ve got to get our facts right because I was speaking at Berkeley to a skeptical group a few years ago I was sitting there speaking to them and they were Googling what I said.

Stump:

Real time.

McDowell:

Real time. Right when I said it, and if I miss too many things and I’m not accurate, in this generation, you lose authority and you’re done. So Christians should have always cared about truth, but there’s that much more of an emphasis for pastors, youth pastors, teachers for you and for me to do our homework. And if we’re not sure about something, say you know, here’s my best understanding, here’s why I believe this and state our conclusions that match the evidence itself. One other change that I think is different. I think a lot of the apologetic questions have shifted from, is Christianity true to is Christianity good?

Stump:

Is that a good shift or a bad shift?

McDowell:

I don’t even know if I’m going to put a value statement on that. I think it’s a reality that some of the biggest objections I hear, and even some of the research on Gen Z backs this up. What about the bad things Christians have done in history; in the present? What about the LGBTQ issue and the way it’s perceived, at least, that Christians treat the gay community? And a lot of minds this generation, they’ll say, maybe not in these words, but they’ll imply, I don’t care if it’s true or not, if the theology is harmful then the church is bad. So it’s good in the sense that it’s going to drive us back to ask the question as apologists, not only is Christianity true, but how do we show that it’s good? How do we show that it’s beautiful? And I think when we approach our apologetics that way, it’s much more powerful.

Stump:

There’s a line from Pascal somewhere, if I’m remembering this correctly, who says we need to make people wish that Christianity was true and then show that it is true. That I think taps in to this, to this sentiment you’re saying, that the first part of that is the attractiveness, the beauty of this, and then the reason that comes in and shows that this really can be true,

McDowell:

Which shows that some of the issues we’re wrestling with are not really that new. There’s often more historical precedent than we think. In fact, I look at it this way, when I do apologetics, people always say, what issue should I cover? I said, well, you should cover timeless issues and you should cover timely issues. It’s both. Kids need both. If we just do apologetics on issues that were important in the early church, while we’re not showing it’s relevant today, if we just show of issues today, oh, you’re asking about A, B or C, we don’t show the history of the church and the timeless truths that we need to believe in and embrace. I think it’s both.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation. 

Interview Part 2

Stump:

So tell us a little bit about the work that you do. You teach at a number of different places and all other kinds of things. What’s the typical work week look like for Sean McDowell?

McDowell:

One of the things I love about my job, that’s not just a typical work week, but if I had to funnel it down, I probably travel 20, 25% of the time. And that’s seasonal. So I’ll speak at conferences, I’ll speak at universities, churches, schools, camps, et cetera. Probably half to high school/junior high students/college students, the other half to adults. But I have a heart really for the next generation. I teach at Biola full-time. So I teach grad classes and one undergrad class. Then three mornings a week at a private school, I live in South Orange County where my wife teaches and my three kids go, and this is the one you graciously Skyped into, three mornings a week just teach a high school class. So at this stage I have high school, college and graduate classes. So outside of the classroom, I’m probably at home researching, I’m writing, I’m a traveling or coaching my kids in the afternoon. In fact, right now I just feel like a professional Uber driver because I’m driving my kids everywhere at this stage, which I enjoy.

Stump:

So BioLogos is a science and faith organization. We know there’s a fair amount of controversy around that in conservative Christian circles and there are various positions that are taken and defended. Because of truth, we know those positions can’t all be correct, but do you think there can be multiple views on science and faith? And here I guess I’m particularly talking about origins to begin with at least. Can there be multiple views that are legitimate ones for Christians to take?

McDowell:

To me, there’s no question about that. I don’t know any Christian who would say there can’t be a range of views that a Christian could take. The question is, how far are we going to push that range?

Stump:

So what are those bounds? What are those parameters of legitimate views Christians can take on science and origins?

McDowell:

Well, obviously people are going to give you different answers to that. To me…

Stump:

I’m asking you.

McDowell:

Well, I agree. I’m going to say I think any position that a Christian takes needs to not sacrifice core theological commitments of the historic Christian faith. Whether that’s the Trinity, salvation by faith, that God is the creator, that Jesus became man. So it’s those core historical faiths. Theologically, since we’re talking from a Christian perspective, and of course that’s commitment to the scripture as authority, as accurate, reliable, et cetera. To me, anything that’s within that fold is fair game. Now, the devil’s in the details because when we begin to unpack certain things, it raises additional questions. But as a whole, I would say Christians should be willing to seriously consider the range of scientific and biblical views that are faithful to essential core Christian doctrines. And I would not put the age of the earth in one of those as being essential.

Stump:

One of the metaphors a lot of science and faith organizations like to use is the two books that God has the book of his word and also the book of his world or his works where we learn things through the study of nature. How do you compare these two books and particularly again with an eye toward these controversies that we find ourselves embroiled in sometimes when they don’t always seem, at least to the layperson and even to competing experts, they don’t always seem to say the same thing? I might read scripture and think it clearly says that the earth was created in six 24 hour days, 10,000 years ago. And I look at the book of God’s works out in the world and it says it sure looks like it’s 4 billion years old. How do we, how do we evaluate controversies like that when there are two sources of knowledge that don’t always seem to agree?

McDowell:

Well, I think one thing we have to have is a sense of humility in our theological interpretations, not our core theological commitments, but in say our interpretation of Genesis. But also say we need to have some humility when it comes to our scientific understanding. I think both of these, both camps have made mistakes in overreaching at times and had to experience some correction. So I think at times our science has informed the way we understand scripture, and I think scripture should inform properly certain scientific interpretations and limits. Now again, the devil is in the details for that, but I don’t have a problem sometimes simply saying, “You know what? The science is not definitive here. Theologically, we are working this out. Let’s see how this issue plays out over time.” Again, as long as it’s not undermining a historical Christian faith, I’m okay living in a little bit of that tension. That might be my personality, might be that I’m a professor, a philosopher, I’m okay living in that, as long as it’s tied to these historic Christian faiths. 

I get nervous when I see mistakes on both sides. I think there can be a dogmatism to a certain interpretation of say, Genesis that does damage to certain scientific findings that seem really, really strong and firm and they’re ruled out not purely on scientific grounds, but just this is the interpretation, it’s gotta be that way. On the flip side, I also see mistakes where people say, well, the science dogmatically says this, therefore you need to change the theology. And I think honestly, some people are going, okay, do we have theological room for this or not? Let’s talk about it. Do we have scientific room for this or not? And I’m okay with a little bit of that tension. As long as people are committed to the essentials of the faith together, then we can live in a little bit of that. So let’s have some humility. Let’s be committed to truth. Even in myself, there’s times I’ve looked back and thought, you know what? I was pretty dogmatic about that. I probably was wrong. And owning that when you make mistakes moving forward, as hard as it can be, I think that’s what we’re called to do.

Stump:

I really appreciate you having this conversation with me here and won’t try to paint you as one of BioLogos’ biggest supporters or anything like that. But you’ve been a friend to the organization. You’ve hosted some events and emceed where there were different perspectives and we’ve always felt that you have given us a fair shake, in that regard.

McDowell:

I appreciate that.

Stump:

And given that the wide circles that you run in and the number of people you hear, I’d love to hear what you hear among evangelicals that are, these are the concerns that we have with the BioLogos position or these are the points where it seems to us like maybe they’ve been pushing a little too far.

McDowell:

I would say the concerns that I hear are a few. One, and this isn’t distinctly BioLogos. This would be evolutionary creation, creationism, theistic evolution position. One would be that there could be a certain attitude towards those who don’t embrace a certain scientific view labeled well, you’re nonscientific. You’re almost implying somebody’s a Neanderthal who needs to get with the business and be enlightened like we are. I’ve seen many examples historically that I could point towards and I won’t, but I think that attitude doesn’t help. I don’t think it’s Christ-like when it comes through and it’s not endearing to the rest of the community whom you want to persuade, Hey, this is at least a legitimate position you should take seriously. Now there’s attitudes that I see from the ID camp, attitudes from young-earth creationism, this is not unique to that position, but I think there can be an elitism that can be unhealthy towards the rest of the body of Christ and others. In other words, well, we’re scientific, you’re not. And the answer is like, well, okay, it’s not that simple. So that’s one concern that I hear and I’ve seen. 

Another one would be as I think sometimes in practice, although not in principle, I think science can be held to a higher level of authority than scripture and theology can be. And if there’s conflict, we need to bring theology under the reign of science. And I think that I disagree with that and I think it’s dangerous, especially when we see that the scientific conclusions were not accurate and the way we’re told to bend theology to certain scientific conclusions such as the historical Adam, etc. I think that attitude or that approach, not so much an attitude is not healthy. And I don’t think it’s, I would differ over that view between science and between faith. So some of my colleagues I’ve heard say, gosh, they are much more willing to bend theology to science than science to theology. So that’s another concern that I’ve heard.

Stump:

That’s helpful to hear on both of those. And will on behalf of my organization, repent for the times that we’ve been guilty of that because I know there have been. I know there have been, and I think BioLogos in recent years has attempted to be a little more sensitive on both of those counts. I think early on there was a kind of attitude that well, we just need to help these poor benighted evangelicals come to terms with science and let them, you know, let them see the way things really are. And sometimes an attitude of yes, we have done the science and we’re just going to plop all the evidence down in front of you and if you don’t read it and come to the same conclusion, there must be something wrong with you. It’s obviously much more complex than that. When we get into these issues that are really at the interface of where scripture and science both speak to them. 

I have tried my best to combat the view that science gets to trump theology. I also, every time I say that, want to be sure that theology doesn’t trump science either and that instead, there have to be legitimate conversations between these and some back and forth and… So I like very much what you said about there needs to be some time to play out these conversations. So I think that’s really, I think that’s really important. How, from your perspective, can science be used most effectively for evangelism apologetics in the culture that we are today?

McDowell:

Oh gosh. I think our culture is deeply shaped by science. Even though we’re at a point, ironically, where I would say with certain issues, we’re now seeing feeling trump science. As a whole, our culture still looks to justify something through the means of science. So for example, when I speak to students on the issue of pornography, Christians and non-Christians. One of the most powerful ways to resonate with them is just to say, look, do you see what viewing pornography does to your brain? You see how it affects the neuronal connections in your brain and your relationships. That just pointing out that science, I think is less threatening to people. It doesn’t feel as value-laden, but it kind of speaks their language. Like, “Wow, I’m actually affecting myself and the structure of my brain.” And so some of the communicators I know that speak on this issue will really point towards science. That’s not all we should do. But I think that’s one powerful way on issues like sexuality. It can be objectively shown to be true. 

The other thing is just scientists speaking up and being willing to confess their faith even if it costs them something. Now, I realize that’s easier to say today than to do. I mean we’ve seen, I might make some people upset on this, but for example, on the recent issue of China, we saw a whole lot of NBA people caving to money and unwilling to speak truth to power because it affected the bottom line. All of us are susceptible to this, and I look at scientists and I go, gosh, people hold you up with such authority. Confess your faith, speak truth, and if you’re willing to share your testimony and beliefs about Jesus in the right time at the right way, just being a scientist carries some authority. So I’m not asking you to put yourself in a position to jeopardize a career that God has given you, but I would ask any scientist listening, saying, there does come a point where I can’t compromise my faith and I have to be willing to speak truth even if it costs me something. I mean, look at the apostles in Acts chapter five. They’re told, they’re threatened, they’re beaten, they’re thrown in prison. Just stop talking about Jesus. In Acts 5:29, Peter says, we can’t, we must obey God rather than men. So the scientists listening, as important as evolution is, and we can talk about that, what we do share in common is this belief that Jesus is the risen savior and salvation is by faith and he’s alive today and he’s changing lives. The more scientists just willing to speak that unashamedly, I think God honors that and uses that. So that’d be my encouragement to those listening.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part 3

Stump:

The short video series that you do, you did one recently on can a Christian believe in evolution? Can you summarize what the main points were from that for us? For this audience?

McDowell:

Yeah. People ask me all the time, so if I’m a Christian, can I believe in evolution? And of course that depends on how we define what evolution is. Most people haven’t thought through the range of definitions. So part of that quick video is just saying, “Hey, we’ve got to unpack what we mean by this before we can even answer that question.” Second, there’s a big difference between can somebody believe in evolution, depending on how we understand it, and can the historic Christian faith be consistently wed with a particular understanding of evolution? Those are different things. So oftentimes I’ll ask Christian audiences, can a Christian believe in evolution? And the vast majority will say yes, but they got to kind of think about it a little bit and process it. I’ll say, okay. Now the interesting question is, if we mean this gradual unguided blind process, can you consistently wed that understanding of evolution with historic Christian faith? 

The devil’s in the details because what does that mean for being made in God’s image? What does that mean for historic fall? What does that mean for Adam and Eve being historical? How does God guide an unguided blind process? So the question is not can a Christian believe in evolution? I don’t know anybody who would say you lose your faith if you believe in evolution. I think that’s silly. Of course we haven’t even defined evolution. The question is can the two be held together without doing damage to what’s understood as evolution and doing damage to the historic Christian faith? And I don’t answer whether it’s yes or no in that video. I’m trying to help people understand that’s the heart of the question we should be wrestling with.

Stump:

Good. So one of the ways I try to frame this for people is that I affirm these two propositions. I affirm that evolution is the best scientific explanation we have for the rise of homo sapiens. Number two, God intentionally created human beings in his image. So here are these two claims that I make. And then for the devil in the details part, it’s how do you show the consistency between these two things, right? And there could be some fudging on homo sapiens versus humans. What does it mean to be human? Is it more than just this biological stuff? Does God do something else in the process there somewhere? And there are a number of proposals that people try to bring these two together to show as you just said, that the one doesn’t preclude you from a holding to Orthodox truths and the other one. 

Another thing that I try to resist is the language of “believing in evolution”. That doesn’t feel quite, I believe in Jesus. It doesn’t feel quite the same to me to say I believe in evolution. I accept evolution as a scientific explanation. I resist the characterization when it becomes evolutionism – a bigger worldview and the kind of things you were talking about there when it gets described as this undirected process, you know that starts to import bigger metaphysical ideas than just the science itself. So I want to hold that a little more loosely as a scientific theory should be that subject to revision and to new data that might come in, in that regard. So I want to say I accept as the best explanation we have right now, but I believe in Jesus, I’m committed to Jesus, I put my trust in Jesus. Those are very different attitudes toward that, than toward what I would take toward evolution. Other concerns though that you have with evolution?

McDowell:

Yeah. One question I would have, it’s not so much a concern, is you look at different positions people hold, say might be intelligent design but embraces common descent, and a more BioLogos position that says common descent, but a natural mechanism, some natural mechanism is responsible for it. Part of my question would just be what is the reason for being against any identification of design and being committed to a natural mechanism?

Stump:

Yeah, that’s a totally fair question. And I was at a session here yesterday for three hours that was addressing this very thing. And what I would want to emphasize that BioLogos tries to do is to say the natural mechanisms that we recognize are not somehow replacement of divine guidance and superintendence of the process as though as soon as you have a scientific explanation for something, that means God had nothing to do with it. So I want to resist that and the way to resist that is to recognize the limitations of scientific explanations themselves. Too often, and you mentioned this earlier, too often, science and scientists let their view of things start to encompass all of reality such that if you don’t have a scientific explanation for something, you don’t have anything, there is no knowledge there. So I want to limit science to those natural mechanisms so that in the same way we recognize that we now have pretty good scientific explanations of the weather, but I think that there’s still the sense in which God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. We have good explanations of tectonic plates and where the Hawaiian islands came from, but I still believe that God is the creator of those. We understand where human beings come from when a mommy and a daddy love each other very much. We know how that works, but we still believe that God knit us together in our mother’s womb. 

Of what I say about individuals there, that I fully affirm that God created me and you individually in his image, and that we have our own stories to tell, our spiritual journeys, I wonder if we can talk about God creating our species, through a scientific way, but still understand that as God intentionally created human beings in his image. So I fully recognize that there’s work to be done still in showing how those two claims are consistent with each other. But we’re fully open to saying God must have done something special at this moment, at this moment. I think that’s absolutely legitimate to say we’re going to critique science and say that the science has not yet shown these things. What I’m going to resist a little bit is to say while we’re trying to do the science, if I can’t find a scientific explanation to that one transition, say, that it must’ve been just God stepping in and doing something differently. That to me seems to limit God to just those little bits that I can’t figure out scientifically. And I want to be able to affirm and to show theologically how God is involved in the whole thing and the whole process from beginning to end.

McDowell:

So yeah, that’s fair. That helps. And this would open up a huge discussion or debate we could have at some point in the future. Obviously that’s not the point of what we’re unpacking here, but I do think it’s interesting when you look at like the Hawaiian islands or the wind, like there’s nothing that would point towards design in those. They can be explained naturally. I think ID would push back and go, but there are certain features, it’s not just that we don’t have a science explanation. There’s the positive evidence for intelligent design. Why rule out that and resist that with the assumption that science is going to explain to everything.  Now I realize this is going to go back and forth, but I think it kind of makes a point that at really the heart of the difference here are certain theological and philosophical assumptions about the nature of science and about how God acts rather than the details in the science itself and I think that needs to be drawn out for people. That’s really what shaped, I don’t know if you would disagree with that, but that would…

Stump:

So where I might disagree on a slight emphasis of that is Intelligent Design wants to position itself as a scientific theory. Right?

McDowell:

That’s true. That’s true.

Stump:

So then I don’t think Intelligent Design is in direct competition with what we call is evolutionary creation. Evolutionary creation isn’t a scientific theory. It’s a bridge theory that’s attempting to show how the science of evolution and Christian theology fit together. So it’s sort of what Intelligent Design is in direct competition with is mainstream scientific evolution theory. So I think the debate there has to be for them to show, we really have shown that science can’t explain this. And unfortunately there, there’s a series of, well here’s the thing that we don’t think can be explained, and not too much later the science catches up and says, well maybe it can be explained this way. There’s lots of unknowns in science for sure.

McDowell:

That does raise the bar at what does it mean to show science absolutely can’t explain something. Like even Darwin with the flagellum was like, if there’s absolutely no possible way… What puts the bar so high that it becomes impossible to prove definitively there’s no possible scientific explanation. 

Stump:

Yeah, science doesn’t deal in absolutes very well. It’s always probabilities and what’s the explanation and all that.

McDowell:

I think that’s what ID argues. Anyways. That was a question I was just curious how you would make sense of that. I had one more I was going to ask you. 

Stump:

Well maybe that will have to be part two of the episode… number two.

McDowell:

We’ll do it again. It’ll come to me as soon as I walk out. But anyways that’s…

Stump:

Wrapping up then. What are you excited about?

McDowell:

Well, I’m entering into basketball season and my son is in high school basketball and I absolutely love watching him play. My daughter’s in volleyball and my youngest son is in his little seven year old basketball league. So as a dad, I’m as excited about that as anything. I’m also excited. I’m working on updating the True Love Waits curriculum, which was huge in the 90s and early 2000s like a massive sexual purity campaign for students. And we’re totally updating the book, the curriculum to relaunch what I think is ultimately a more biblically based approach to sexuality that’s holistic, it’s scriptural and makes sense of where we are at, at this cultural moment. I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on that issue and am really thrilled to see it starting to come together.

Stump:

Hopeful, hopeful signs in our culture, concerns in our culture? What are your, what are your hopes and what are your concerns about the way our culture is headed, particularly with respect to Christianity and embracing of what we take to be that true faith?

McDowell:

I have a couple of concerns. One concern is I think we can consistently see Christianity demonized as bigoted, hateful, and intolerant, and there’s a select few people that really want to silence and punish Christianity, whether that’s educational organizations, whether that’s businesses. And I think that’s unfortunate given the nature of our country. So sometimes that concerns me, but I also step back and I go, you know, Jesus has risen from the grave and a little heat, actually draws people out that weren’t ever committed in the first place. And Christianity thrives in the margins. It’s always been a movement that is about the select few that find a way to love those around them, even if they have to sacrifice. I was just in Israel, and I heard from a Palestinian pastor in Bethlehem and he was talking about how his church had been bombed 14 times. His brother who converted to the faith was killed and butchered in a terrorist attack. And he goes, you know what? He goes, I have no fear in my life. I trust God. He’s sovereign and they are seeing people come to Christ regularly. And we said, what’s your concern for the American church? And he said the American church is way too comfortable. We bought into the American dream more than we have the gospel. And when he said that I thought, you know what? Maybe some of these pressures that are coming on the church are really forcing all of us to say, do we believe this? Are we willing to sacrifice for this? And are willing to love people the way that Jesus did? That gives me hope that more and more people are being called back to the gospel and saying, how do we love people today and find common ground across our differences for the sake of the gospel?

Stump:

Very good. Well, blessings to you and your work and your ministry and thanks so much for talking to me.

McDowell:

Thanks for having me on. Enjoyed it.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf with additional production assistance by TruthWorks Media. Original music in this episode was produced by Carp. More music available at the link in our show notes. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Sean McDowell's Headshot

Sean McDowell

Sean McDowell is an Associate Professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He speaks at churches, universities and conferences throughout the United States and abroad. He is the co-host for his own podcast, Think Biblically, and has authored numerous books.


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